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Ghost: A Short Story

I wrote the following story in 2011 for a writing project on a blog that has since been taken down. I made a few revisions and decided to share it with you all here, since this is the season for ghost stories. I hope you enjoy it.

A woman holds a baby while a ghost looks over their shoulder.
Illustration by Martha Steele. Used with permission.

She'd promised to follow her anywhere. She hadn't counted on a drunk driver on the interstate during rush hour. She hadn't expected to find herself alone at 25, with a mortgage and a baby and a chest full of lead.

Margaret had been the one who wanted a baby. Jenny had been indifferent, at first, but finally she'd told Margaret, "Okay, I can be a dad."

They'd laughed until Jenny spilled her coffee and Margaret nearly fell off the bed.

Jenny had been alone for months now. Pumpkins were appearing on front porches, and the maples were flinging their leaves all over the sidewalks. Her shoes slid on a shifting carpet of orange and red as she walked the baby to day care in the October rain, juggling stroller and purse and giant umbrella. Then to work, then home, where the sound of the hot water heater switching on made her drop the baby's spoon and leave a splatter of pureed squash on the bamboo flooring.

Last year, Jenny & Margaret had carved pumpkins and hung lights outside, had gone to a costume party at Margaret's mother's house. This year the porch light was burned out and an empty flower pot from summer still sat on the darkened porch. Tomorrow she should at least call Margaret's parents, put the baby in a costume and take her to see her grandparents. But Jenny’s legs and arms were too heavy for any task beyond the necessities of life for herself and the little girl with Margaret's eyes.

Jenny couldn't sleep, of course; that was nothing new. The parade of clowns and vampires and fairies had passed by her darkened porch while Jenny watched TV alone with the curtains drawn. Now the baby slept in the next room, and Jenny watched headlights play over the bedroom ceiling and listened to the bare limbs of the maple tree scrape against the bedroom window. Margaret had meant to have it cut down; it was too close to the house, she'd said, and the roots would eventually compromise the foundation. Jenny would have to do that now, and worrying about how to pay for it was one of the things that kept her awake.

She turned onto her side. Margaret's empty pillow was a luminescent rectangle of white on her side of the bed. The book she'd been reading before the accident still lay spread-eagled on the night stand.

You'll break the spine, Jenny had always told Margaret, and Margaret would laugh and tweak Jenny's ear or kiss the bridge of her nose and say It's a book, baby, it doesn't mind. And Jenny would say SACRILEGE, and they would laugh.

It had been a while since Jenny had laughed.

Jenny couldn't remember if she'd said "I love you" that morning, but she knew she'd complained about the book.

"I miss you," she said to Margaret's pillow.

"I miss you too."

Jenny cried out, sat up in bed, turned on the light. Her scream woke the baby in the next room, raising a wail.

Margaret sat on the bed by Jenny's right hip, her dark hair loose around her high-cheekboned face.

Margaret turned her head toward the sound of crying from the nursery. "Will you get her? Please?"

Jenny threw aside the covers and hurried to the crib. She might be going insane, but she still needed to take care of the baby. She returned to the bedroom with her arms full of chubby limbs and fuzzy pajamas and diminishing sobs, and sat on the bed next to Margaret. She wondered if she sat next to a ghost or a delusion. She wondered if there was a difference.

"She's grown so much," Margaret said, and reached a hand toward the baby, but did not touch.

Jenny's vision blurred, and she swiped at the tears with a free hand. The baby was unusually still, one hand in her mouth, the other clutching Jenny's t-shirt.

"Are you really here?" Jenny asked.

Margaret laughed. Jenny drank it in.

"Oh Jenny," Margaret said. "You're always so worried about reality."

"Can I touch you?"

"You can try."

Jenny's hand passed through cold air. Margaret's form didn't waver. Jenny clutched the baby closer for the warmth.

"Is it all right? Where you are?"

Margaret shook her head. "Un-uh. I can't tell you anything about what comes after. That's the rule. And that's not why I'm here."

"Then why are you here?"

Margaret smiled gently. "Jenny, you're more of a ghost than I am."

"I know. I can't help it."

Margaret shook her head. "I love you. And if it were only you alone, I would never try to make you do anything you don't want to do. But she needs one of her parents to live."

Jenny bowed her head over the little one's wispy hair. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. Be her mother."

Jenny looked up. "I don't want to do it without you."

Margaret's lips trembled. "I didn't want to leave. At least you have a choice."

Jenny nodded and sniffed. A hot tear traversed her cold cheek and landed on top of the baby's head. “I’ll try,” she said.

"Close your eyes," Margaret whispered.

Crying woke Jenny in the cold gray light of November first. She'd fallen asleep with the baby curled against her chest. Moving carefully so she wouldn't crush the little one, Jenny reached across the bed and closed Margaret's book. Then she looked down at the luminous dark eyes of her daughter.

"It's all right, Sophie," she said. "It's all right. Mommy's here.”

If this post inspired or informed you, or just made you happy, feel free to buy me a cup of ko-fi. Your support will help with the cost of web hosting and other expenses, allowing me to spend more time creating free content.

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Image by Annie Spratt

Michelle Simkins

polytheist . writer . maker . witch

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