Submitted by Zilla Babbitt to Contest #17 in response to: Write a story about a family dinner that includes someone unexpected showing up.... view prompt

The chatter around the table was louder than a highway, I thought. Aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, cousins, siblings, even old Great-Uncle Denton, still with a story to tell and a laugh to tell it with.

The table creaked with the turkey and the elbows. The extensions had been put in and they’d still had to bring in the folding table that sat under the stairs year-round. Turkey, Mary Kate’s cranberries, Anders’s brownies, Gabe’s canned apples, the mashed potatoes Nana let no one make but herself, Mom’s rolls, Uncle Jacob’s stuffing, Tia’s sweet potato-marshmallow casserole.

Laid out on platters dating from 1941 and beyond—the one Mom bought Ian in Hawaii, the one Papa-T made Nana on their first anniversary. Forks clinked impatiently and already Nana had told the story about the glass bee plates.

Talk, talk, talk. It sounded like these people hadn’t seen each other in fifty years—though that might be true in some cases.

Uncle Jeff stood and shouted for silence. It fell reluctantly.

“Hi everyone. It’s been years since we’ve all been here, hasn’t it?”

Resounding agreement.

“Well, let’s pray and then I’ll carve the turkey.”

They bowed silently—a moment of rustling silence in the chaos of life—a whisper here, a word of thanks there, a giggle there.

Uncle Jeff handed around the plates.

“White meat? No? Okay.”

“Dark for me please.”

“I call the wishbone!”

Laughter. The lights shone in our faces and the silverware reflected the light. The kids at the table, my cousins’ kids, looking just like my cousins at that age, stomped their feet under the table and whined for dessert.

Emily had called the wishbone. She took it from her father’s outstretched fingers and turned to Deacon the second cousin on her left.

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”

He took it firmly and everyone watched as they yanked. Some cheered, some rooted for Emily, others for Deacon. Everyone laughed. Everyone watched earnestly. No one looked away.

There had always been a bit of family lore—Great-Uncle Denton’s myths—about the wishbone, that it was holy and magical and could bring back the dead. Whoever called it first after the turkey was carved had the first right to the stronger side. They chose with whom to pull.

Whoever got the longer end wished.

I watched. It took awhile. This bone was strong, the turkey bred on my aunt’s farm and killed on her block by her own hand. She killed it and plucked it, and my uncle baked it and laid it out and served it to us.

Deacon, I knew, would want it. It had been a decade since Cousin Mark—his father—had died of cancer. I never knew him, only Deacon and Anders, his sons. I’d wept for him, but felt pity only for his boys, growing up and going off to college without a dad as the rest of us had done.

Mark was buried a country away, in the moist dirt of a country he hated. A simple gravestone with only his name on it, a park named in his honor. The only acknowledgements of his existence on this earth.

I knew what Deacon would wish for if he got the lucky side.

Grunting and laughing and Emily was giggling so hard beads of sweat appeared on her face—and it was over.


A moment. Deacon held the lucky end to his chest and closed his eyes.

A second of stillness.

Then a knock at the door.

Aunt Rhonda gasped. Nana put her hand to her head. My cousin’s daughter squealed, and my brother’s son screamed and ran under the table and buried his head in his mother’s lap. I put down my glass and leaned back.

We looked at each other. No one spoke a word. Anders looked at his twin. Deacon could only raise his eyebrows back.

Deacon’s mother gripped his shoulder, “What did you wish for?”

He was a little paler, but he shrugged it off. “Not much. I wanted to see Dad. I’m sure it’s just the mailman. A little wishbone wouldn’t disturb a ghost.”

But I wondered why he wished for it if he didn’t believe anything would happen. I wondered if anyone else thought of the same thing.

Brett, Yale grad and know-it-all, nodded succinctly. “Of course. A wishbone isn’t stronger than a séance, and even a séance doesn’t work.”

But Great-Uncle Denton stood shakily and pointed a knobbly finger at the door.

“Go answer it,” he told Papa-T in a growl.

There was a pause. No one wanted to get the door. No one wanted Papa-T to get the door. No one wanted to know what creature—what mangled and half-decomposed creature—stood outside knocking to get in.

Obediently, my grandfather stood slowly from the table and scraped back his chair. He walked silently through the living room and stumbled a moment at the lock. It was rusty, and didn’t want to open.

I held my breath. I didn’t believe in ghosts—I was fresh out of college, living in Boston with a steady job, and I didn’t depend on ghosts. But it was always prudent to pray when confronted with such things—or so I had been told. I prayed, silently, just to be on the safe side.

Around the table I could see that most of my family was praying as well.

He opened the door.

He looked left, then right. We could feel the chill from the November night air seep into the house. I could see the trees across the road and the frost on the bushes outside. My grandfather stood there, shivering in his socks.

The empty street looked back at him, mocking.


That one word made us all slump in our chairs again, in relief and in disappointment. Papa-T sat back down heavily and let out the air in his lungs. His face was the most relieved face I have ever seen. He took a breath, smiled, and ate a slice of turkey.

Only the streetlamps outside—covered in frost, shining down on an empty street—smiled and laughed and understood the joke.

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