The youngest girl is only four when her brother suggests they hold a séance to contact their father. He’d gone to the hospital three weeks before and never come out. The mother doesn’t explain. She just says their father’s with God now. Her brother is older by ten years. She trust he knows how to contact God if anyone does. And if they can reach God, they might reach their father. She touches her sister’s fingers, clasps her brother’s hand. She closes her eyes as instructed, the three of them forming a circle. Her heart races when her eldest brother, the one who’d called the séance to order, calls for their father. Nothing happens. She sits until she has to pee, then pees herself. She hides it from her siblings and hopes her father can’t see.

Her brother plays the organ, and the music is morbid, but the girl thinks it’s nice. She lays on the floor, head resting on the backs of her folded hands, listening, thinking the thoughts of a four year old. Will she see her father again? Will she get to talk to him? Her brother assures her she will, but he doesn’t say when. In the meantime, he rocks back and forth on the rickety wooden stool. Her sister, who’s six, sits in the backyard, pulling up grass, while their mother sips tea at the dining room table, reading the newspaper, plumes of smoke rising toward the yellowed ceiling. She doesn’t speak often, and when she does, it’s in short, terse sentences: “Dinner’s ready” or “Time for bed.” Her mother hasn’t washed her in days, but the girl doesn’t mind. She doesn’t like to take a bath anyway.

The girl has another brother who’s ten. He stays outside most of the day. When he’s home, he sometimes hits her and her sister, but he won’t hit the eldest because he’s scared of him. Not that the eldest is tough, but he’s strange and fixates on things. The eldest has started collecting dead insects, dipping their bodies in liquid and pinning them to boards. It doesn’t make sense to the younger boy, who plays basketball and runs until he’s out of breath and then runs some more. When he comes home at dusk, the younger boy is so tired he falls right asleep, but if his sisters bother him before this, he pushes them away. He doesn’t want to hurt them. He just wants them out of his way, wants to be left alone. He thinks it’s his right.

None of the children are taking it well, but the mother takes it the hardest of all. She’d never wanted children, though she’d wanted his. She always thought he’d make a good father. Now she’s stuck with four kids and no one to raise them with. There’s four children, four strangers, in her house, and she doesn’t know what to do with them. He’d always had a deft touch with strangers. He’d always made strangers into friends. He’d invite people over and mix drinks. He’d tell jokes and smile, and she’d smile at his smiling. He made life better, and now he’s gone, and she doesn’t know what to do. She resents the children, thinks they’re too young to suffer like she does. She resents him his death, and sometimes she wishes she was dead, too.

The eldest buys a Ouija board with money he’s saved from his paper route. Their father taught him to save, and the eldest plans to use his savings to get in touch with him. He thinks he might someday be an undertaker. It’s a good profession, always in need. He finds the rituals soothing, the methodical care of the dead, their bodies. He has his insects and cares for them. Some boys want to be ballplayers, but he’s found his calling and doesn’t mind that it’s unusual. He takes a shovel on his paper route and collects road kill. He goes to the store and steals, not shoes but their boxes. He buries rabbits and squirrels, and one time, he buries a fox, but he doesn’t involve his younger siblings, not yet. The ceremonies are sacred. He has to practice, perfect them. He has to get them right.

The youngest girl misses their father’s hugs and scratchy beard, but she doesn’t tell her siblings this. She doesn’t tell because she doesn’t realize it. She just knows it’s not there and she doesn’t like it. It’s not something she can put in words. There was warmth, now none; him and now gone. She likes the eldest, though he’s strange and keeps to himself. She likes her other brother, though he’s strange and she doesn’t like when he hits her. She likes her sister most and clings to her whenever she can. The rest go to school, but she stays home, and whenever she’s home, there’s no TV or games. Just her mother, and her mother clears her throat, and then it’s quiet and still, and the clocks keep ticking.

Her eldest brother plays the game, and he’s got the rest of them involved, even the hitter. Somehow, the hitter doesn’t mind sitting and moving the slanted piece. They all want to hear. They all move the piece. It spells things the youngest can’t spell. The others interpret. They read. They go to school. It’s all letters, but they interpret the letters. They make sounds, and the sounds make meaning. Yes and no, she gets. They’re spelled plain on the board. There’s repetition, back and forth. She interprets yes and no, but the words, the ones the board spells out, require assistance. “He’s here,” the eldest says. “He wants to speak…” Though as much as the young girl tries, she can’t hear her father’s voice.

The girl tries to contact her father on her own. She takes the Ouija board from under her brother’s bed while he’s at school, but the slanted piece just sits beneath her hands. It doesn’t move the way it moved when they moved it together. She looks at the ceiling. She knows the sky’s beyond and heaven’s beyond that. She moves the piece herself. She knows it’s cheating, but she’s good at make believe. Even though she can’t spell, she makes up things she wants her father to say. “I miss you,” he says. “I love you.” The girl smiles. She wants to tell someone that he’s okay, but she’s worried she’ll get in trouble for sneaking into her brother’s room and playing with magic.

The eldest invites his siblings to a viewing. He convinces the hitter to come by letting him dig the grave. The girls don the blouses and skirts they wore to their father’s service. They hold the ceremony on a Sunday afternoon when their mother’s out shopping. The shoebox is lined with tissue paper. The partial remains of a brown rabbit are laid lovingly inside, but the eldest keeps the casket closed, knowing the sight would upset the girls. The eldest says a blessing, spreads a handful of dirt on the lid. The hitter fills in the grave, and the girls bow their heads in prayer, place the roses they’ve picked from a neighbor’s bush on the plot. When they go inside, the eldest plays an organ, and it’s solemn. The youngest listens while the other two drift away. They don’t like the sound. It’s too much like the music at church, though that’s why the youngest enjoys it. She thinks their father’s in that music.

Their mother watches them come and go and doesn’t do much about it. She doesn’t reassure them or quell their fears. Mostly, she watches the youngest cut through the parlor, stocking feet padding upstairs to the boys’ room. She’s seen the Ouija board. She’s found her daughter’s pee-soaked pants hidden beneath her bed. She’s noticed the fresh patches of tilled dirt in their yard. She wonders if their grief is as deep as hers. She thinks she should intervene but isn’t sure what to say. She’s out of her depth. She’s never dealt with a dead husband or father. She’s never dealt with children dealing with it either. For all she knows, this is how everyone copes. She’s been tempted to try strange things herself. She can’t recall the last time she showered.

One afternoon, the girl’s sister comes home from school with her bag full and rushes to their room. “Look what I found,” her sister says, unzipping it. When she opens the flap, the girl can see bright fur, white and orange, sticking out from the opening. “It’s the Mortimer’s cat,” her sister says. They huddle, half-in/half-out of their closet, looking. The girl remembers the living cat, and it’s hard to match this inanimate animal with the pet who’d come bounding across their lawn whenever she’d gone out to play. She’s never seen death this close. During her father’s service, an aunt had kept her away from the casket. “It’s not something children should see,” she’d said. Though they’d let the boys see. She knows it’s not sleeping and feels a peculiar pinch in her heart on recognizing the difference. Her aunt had tried comparing death with sleep, but she’s knows there’s nothing of sleep in it. She knows the cat’s dead, and there’s nothing they can do to change it.

By the time they show the eldest, the girl has examined the cat from every angle. She’s touched it and the fur feels like fur, but the body’s gone rigid. “It won’t keep ‘til Sunday,” the hitter says. The eldest nods. It’s not often the boys agree. The girls nod along with them. The car hasn’t done much damage. The body’s intact. But there’s a pink foam of blood and saliva crusting around the mouth, and the girl thinks there’s something that’s not cat in this cat, and it won’t be a cat much longer. She reaches out to touch it again, but the boys block her. If the eldest hadn’t coaxed her from the room, she’d have held vigil beside his bed, guarding the cat beneath. The others leave it be, but their thoughts are drawn to the space where they’ve decided to store it overnight, decomposing.

Each child equates the cat with their father, though only the eldest, as he lay in bed, makes the connection consciously. Of all the animals he’s consecrated to earth, this is the first with which their family held some intimacy. Even the hitter, sleepless like the rest, feels it, though he’s least likely to put it in words. The youngest shares the eldest’s sensitivity, and that evening they’d prepared the casket together. Because the cat won’t fit the usual shoebox, the eldest decides to sacrifice the crate he keeps is records in, lining its lid with velvet he’s appropriated from a pair of pillows their grandmother gave the girls as presents. “We’ll make it nice,” the sister says, and the girls give consent as the eldest works without a word, tearing the stitching with a small pair of scissors he took from their mother.

When the eldest wakes the girl, it’s dark outside. They’d planned this the day before, but still, she’s surprised, and he has to shush her to keep her from calling out. He leaves the girl and her sister to dress, and they fumble about, but soon enough, they’re creeping downstairs, the eldest and hitter bearing the cat’s bier. They skip the organ music this morning, aware their mother is asleep upstairs. They tread to the spot where the hitter snuck out at dawn and dug the grave. The shadows of trees fall across the girl’s silhouette. In the distance, the sun starts to rise. She feels a sense of importance, feels their daddy is with them, feels their act has consequence. The boys set the casket down, and the eldest asks them to pray. The morning birds sing, and the girl likes the singing. She won’t tell the eldest, but it’s nicer than the organ.

As the rising sun illuminates her children on the lawn, the mother watches from her bedroom window. She hasn’t slept well since her bed became a half-size larger, and she woke to the girls’ stumbling. With her husband gone, she’s stopped attending church. She’s let the children to form their own congregation, gathered to cherish the dead. She’s recognized they need answers that aren’t there, solutions to questions they’ll ask all their lives: why God is indifferent, why those they love have to pass. She’s been searching herself these past months, and she’s no further along than she was at their age. The eldest with a practiced manner opens his book, hoping to find them there. The youngest hovers at the edge of the grave, staring into the sky, as if they’re there. And the mother mourns their youth, their innocence; their forms, a trick of the light she captures in silhouette before the image fades, as well she knows too that images always fade, as well she knows too that this will eventually fade.