Bringing Back Beulah in the Bomb Shelter by Carly Berg

It was the summer of Ouija boards and spell-casting and levitations that almost worked. We half-dozen little girls passed the long hot days in the cool basement bomb shelter, scaring ourselves silly.

One Saturday, my dad came down and found us doing our thing, it was the Ouija board that time. He got really mad. He said to never, ever play with the supernatural because that was playing with fire. It was inviting the devil into your life. He said we were only allowed to do Christian things, not devil things.

My mom and dad got into a big fight about it. She said he was paranoid and repressed and we were just playing. Besides, The Church was part of The Establishment, who was invited to stick it. He said she needed to get off her neurotic campaigns and supervise the children appropriately while he worked all day.

Me and my sisters huddled together in the bomb shelter, sick over the fight, but honored to be taken so seriously. We believed our mom. Another girl had to bring her Ouija board over, because my dad threw ours in the trash. That was the summer Aunt Beulah died.

She was really Great-great aunt Beulah, and she scared the sass out of us. Her voice was somewhere between Kentucky bourbon and peacock screech. She’d watch the fights on TV and pound her fists all the way down to the floor, screaming at the black and white screen, “Why, you son of a bitch! You dirty bastard!” The other ladies- my grandma, and aunts, and great aunts, and great-great aunts- they were nice.

One of Aunt Beulah’s eyes was a mashed potato. It was a big white lump, all taped over. We had to go to her house once. It was the oldest house in the world and it smelled like Vick’s VapoRub. She drank skin milk, which was the grossest thing I had ever heard of.

There was a baby crib with some horrible dolls in it and she made me and my sisters play with them. They were so old, whoever had gotten them new was probably dead. The thought thrilled us deeply, but not in a way that made us want to hold them. More like the bubonic plague, to be studied and savored from afar.

Aunt Beulah never had children. When she was young, her husband had put his head in the oven and died. I pictured it like on the Shake ‘n’ Bake commercial, where the lady shakes the meat in the bag of breadcrumbs first. We thought Aunt Beulah played with the horrible dolls herself; why else would she have them?

She died. The nice ladies chittered about my mom bringing us to the wake, but my mom always did everything my grandma didn’t like. My mom took us up to see The Body, as she was then called. I’d say Aunt Beulah was the one in a crib then. She had on a long, dark dress and a rosary was twisted around her hands. Her hands and face didn’t look real, but she still had her mashed potato eye.

Getting to see a real dead person was groovy. My friends couldn’t wait to hear about it. I had a cold, icky feeling in my stomach at bedtime afterwards, though. My mom let me stay up late looking at Highlights and National Geographic.

Our supernatural summer progressed to séances. Aunt Beulah was the only dead person we knew, so she was our only choice for who to bring back from the dead. If we had a different choice, we would have taken it.

My older sister took my dad’s lighter and lit the smiley face candle she had been allowed to buy with her allowance, after she promised not to light it. My younger sister said she was going to tell. Everybody else said she couldn’t play then. And besides, we’d all say she was the one who lit it. So, she took it back.

We sat in a circle, me and my sisters and three other girls, ages five to ten. My older sister said the ceremony things and then we all had to go around in a circle and say some other things, and then we chanted. Bring Beulah Back. Up With Beulah. My mom had taken us to hold signs and chant something with a whole bunch of people once, so we were going with that. We had decided not to wave signs around because this was more solemn, like at church.

The smiley turned to liquid yellow with black swirls in its jar and we kept on chanting until I was lost in the rhythm of it and under a spell myself, watching the flame and chanting with the others. Bring Beulah Back. Up With Beulah. Bring Beulah Back. Up With Beulah.    

She came back.

She swirled up from the ground, like a genie out of a bottle, in the center of our circle. She wore her dark funeral dress, swinging the rosary down to the floor like the boxing was on. She was not solid though, more like waxed paper, but in her real colors. She waved like a curtain in a  breeze, suspended up in the air.

The chanting stopped. The girls fell all over each other, screaming. When I could catch my breath, I screamed too.

She was gone. We bolted up the steps, stumbling over each other, and kept running until we were out in the bright, hot sunlight.

We were so afraid to go back downstairs, we sent my little sister in to tell on us for lighting the candle. My mom would go downstairs and blow it out.

My older sister and I got grounded for playing with fire. We also weren’t allowed to play in the bomb shelter for the rest of the summer. Not that we wanted to. The bomb shelter was never the same secure space after that. In fact, every space was a bit less secure from then on, after coming to understand that people die. And come back.

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Carly Berg edits an e-zine and writes, often so minimalistically that nothing is there. Her stories have appeared in a couple dozen journals and anthologies, including PANK, First Stop Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail. Names in this story have been changed, to keep from annoying “Aunt Beulah.”

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