First Sunday Short Fiction: Ghost

Welcome to October’s First Sunday Short Fiction. We’re so close to the end of the year! Two more stories after this, and I need to decide if I want to do it again next year, and how I want to proceed. If you enjoyed the story and want to participate, details can be found here.

Steph Kayne continues her calendar keepers series with October.

And A.M. Supinger of Inner Owlet joins us again with a steamy story of aquatic love.

And now, my contribution.

Ghost

She’d promised to follow her anywhere. She hadn’t counted on a late night drunk driver on the interstate. She hadn’t expected to find herself alone at 25 with a mortgage and a baby and a heart heavy as 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 diaper bag and giant umbrella. Then to work, then home, where the sound of the refrigerator turning on made her drop the baby’s spoon and leave a splatter of pureed squash on the bamboo flooring.

Last year, Jenny had gone to the Dia de los Muertos gathering at Margaret’s mother’s house. She’d placed pictures of her parents on an altar bright with marigolds and sugar skulls. Today she thought she might call Margaret’s parents, or visit the mercado on the corner by the gas station to look for tiny skeletons in vivid clothes. But her legs and arms were too heavy for a 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 witches and vampires and fairies had come and gone, and she had eaten the lone Snickers bar left in the plastic bowl. Now the baby slept in the next room, and Jenny watched headlights play over the bedroom ceiling and listened to thelimbs 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; worrying about how to pay for it was one of the things that kept her awake.

She turned onto her side. The empty pillow was a luminescent rectangle of white on what Jenny still thought of as Margaret’s side of the bed. The book Margaret had 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 screamed, sat up in bed, turned on the light. Her scream woke the baby in the next room, and wailing filled the house.

Margaret sat on the bed by Jenny’s right hip, her dark hair loose around her high cheekbones and full lips.

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 arms and legs, fuzzy pajamas, and diminishing sobs. She sat on the bed next to Margaret, and wondered if she was sitting 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 withherfree hand. The baby was unusually still, one hand in her mouth, the other clutching Jenny’s t-shirt. She stared at Margaret without blinking.

“Are you really here?” Jenny asked.

Margaret laughed; Jenny drank it in like water in the desert.

“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, her teeth white against her dark skin. “Jenny, you’re more of a ghost than I am.”

“I know.”

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–I didn’t have a choice. But you do.”

Jenny nodded. Margaret looked over her shoulder, as if someone had called for her. She looked back at Jenny.

“I won’t be back again. I stayed so I could come back tonight and say goodbye. And to tell you I love you. But I’m moving on now.”

Jenny sniffed. A hot tear traversed her cold cheek and landed on top of the baby’s head.

“Close your eyes,” Margaret whispered.

The baby’s cries 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 dark, shining eyes of her daughter.

“It’s all right, Sophie,” she said. “It’s all right. Mommy’s here.”

copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011

Artwork: “Sophie” by Martha Steele, copyright 2011. Used with permission.

Martha Steele is a graphic artist with a BFA in Printmaking. She lives in Portland, Oregon and spends her time planning her next great project, knitting feverishly, playing BioWare games, reading fantasy novels, petting her cat, and yes, drawing hearts. She can drink tea faster than a Cricket player and can wrangle chickens like a pro. You can learn more about Martha at her blog, Martha Mouse.

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