Contest Entries, Short Stories

For Good Reason (Short Story)

A rookie poltergeist faces her toughest assignment yet—and this time, it’s personal.

Written for YeahWrite SuperChallenge 14, October 2019. Prompts were: Location, outside a family member’s home and Object (which must be plot pertinent), a “pretty rock.” I never thought I’d write a ghost story in an open-genre competition but here it is! 980 words.

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Yellow? They painted the barn yellow. It looks like a hunk of butter sitting at the edge of the pasture, as if a giant knife could spread it over the fields. Its doors are shut. No one’s done the morning chores.

I cross the wide lawn. The blades are brushed with frost and I can almost hear the way they should crunch under my feet, but of course I leave no footprints now.

Past the barn, a tender wisp of smoke seeps from the chimney of the farmhouse. Someone’s up. Maybe Papa, but probably Addie. She’s our early bird.

When we’re called back, it’s always for good reason. That’s what Miss Hay, my death-mentor, says. I’ve been dead for a year now and the assignments are getting mundane: I coax kittens from treetops, I send shivers up the spines of overtired truckers as their foreheads list toward steering wheels. If we spook someone, it’s always for their own good.

But this is different. Never have I been called back to my own home. 

I float over the cattle fence, my feet painlessly grazing its barbed crown. Lord, how that fence vexed us, Addie and Mari and me. How many trousers we mended, torn on its teeth. Papa didn’t want us running amok in the outside world. Said it wasn’t safe.

We never believed him, not back then. But today, I’m not sure. Why am I here? 

I stop short of the farmhouse. I know I won’t be able to go inside; that’s a hard rule. I kneel, dragging my fingers along the gravel path. The tiny pebbles tremble at my touch, but when I try to collect them they slip through my insubstantial fingers. My abilities aren’t quite there yet. Developing into a true poltergeist takes time. That’s what Miss Hay says, anyway. 

Squeak! Bang! The screen door that always needs its hinges oiled flings open and shut in an instant. A flash of white linen with a streak of flame-colored hair darts past me down the path, her breath lingering behind her in the cold morning air. She throws the barn doors open, belting out an off-key but rousing song to the cows inside. I can’t help but smile. Same old Mari. She hasn’t changed one bit. 

“You might want the pail,” a weak voice calls. The farmhouse door bangs again, this time behind Addie, who holds out our metal milk bucket. Her fingers are thin on the pail’s handle, skinny and wrinkled like old potato peelings. 

I close my eyes. No. The sickness. It can’t be happening to her, too.

“What are you, stupid?” Mari marches back up the path and points sternly at the door. “Get back inside!”

Addie drops the bucket on the porch with a clang. She plants her hands on her hips, which look so bony under her nightgown. “I can still help.” 

“Papa said to rest.”

“But Papa’s not here.”

“No. He’s not.”

Suddenly, an ice-cold wind slices through me. I gasp. I never feel temperature now. Something is wrong. Mari and Addie both hug themselves, bracing against the chill. 

Addie, for chrissake, listen! You need rest! I know I have no voice but I try to yell anyway. I want to tell her to give herself a break, to drink the chicken broth brought her bedside. But even if I could, would she listen? Addie’s too much like me and she’ll suffer the same fate.

A shadow materializes on the edge of the porch. Of course. I know why I’m here.

“No,” I command, willing the tremor out of my voice. “You can’t have her.”

The reaper comes closer, chuckling softly. “They sent you? A rookie? Against me?”

“I might be a rookie, but that’s my sister.”

“Oh, I see,” the reaper rolls his eyes toward the tops of their endless sockets. “It’s personal. That always ends well.” 

He raises his hands at Addie.

I swear I can hear my heart thumping, even though I no longer have one. My eyes dart, looking for anything that might help. They land on the boulder in the corner of our garden. 

The reaper sneers and takes a step forward.

That boulder is no ordinary rock. It’s a canvas that we decorated over the years. Now, Mari and Addie have painted it midnight blue with cheddar moons. October. Harvest season.

But it’s too big. I’ll never be able to move it. 

The reaper’s black robes ripple. He’s inches from Addie’s face and if I didn’t know better I would swear she could see him. She pales, her sickly hands trembling. 

The boulder rocks back and forth.

Focus. That’s what Miss Hay would say. My eyes are fire. I stare at the boulder harder than I’ve ever stared at anything in my life–or my death. 

Slowly, the boulder heaves up from its resting place and begins to roll, cutting a path across the frosted lawn.

I nudge its course, aiming it at the reaper. He glances over his shoulder, surprised. Then he turns to me with a bored glare. “Come on now, you didn’t think a rock could take me down, did you?”

Addie’s eyes widen, noticing the boulder. Her thin lips part in shock. Then she stands taller. 

For a moment before she slams the door in the reaper’s face, she looks right at me.

The reaper scowls, fuming, beaten by the simple ferocity of Addie’s will to live.

And then, as usual, I’m shrinking. I slip down into the grass, a husk, empty as the skin of a water balloon, the kind that we used to hurl at each other on summer days. Impossibly, hot tears sting my nonexistent eyes. 

I never got to say goodbye. I never did the first time, either.

I wake under Miss Hay’s smiling face. “You’ve done well,” she says.

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