Contest #221 shortlist ⭐️

After the Fall

Submitted into Contest #221 in response to: Write a story from a ghost’s point of view.... view prompt

37 comments

Contemporary Sad

Smokey shapes hover over me in dark smudges I cannot erase. I try to push my way past the tangled grey, but icy claws grip my arms. The air, too hot, feels clotted. Between the pulsing shrieks that always accompany these dreams, an unfamiliar voice weaves its question over and over. “Remember?” I want to scream but fear locks my throat.


When I open my eyes, it is to the green relief of my back garden and the woods beyond. I must have fallen asleep in my rocker on the porch. It’s bathed in afternoon sun, warm and soothing, which is why it’s my favorite spot to rest.


I remember it is spring and time to plant. But oh, the condition of the garden! The peas vines hang like unwashed hair on the broken fence. Old squash and potato plants form skeletal hands gripping the earth where they were left to die. Crumpled leaves lay between the raised beds and heap in untidy piles in the corners of the fence like dirty laundry.


After the last harvest, I let the garden go. Everything is so much harder as you get older. Bending over is bad enough. Kneeling is nigh impossible. Now my garden looks as decrepit as I feel. Such neglect is not like me, but I have become forgetful of late.


I’d better get cracking. Nothing beats home grown tomatoes or my homemade dilly beans. I rise, surprised at how willingly my knees straighten for once. Clutching my cane, I navigate the back steps and make my way down the path to the garden gate.


Always, I must be so careful. If I fall, there is no one around to notice. I guess that’s what comes of having no children, no family, no neighbors. Over the long years of my life, my friends have all passed. No one visits except the postman who occasionally shoves Medicare reminders through my door and Amie who delivers groceries on the first Monday of the month. The world is slipping through my fingers.


I’m lost in these thoughts when I see the girl.


She’s squatting by the asparagus bed, her back to me. I’m so surprised I let out a gasp, but she doesn’t seem to hear.


She’s gently brushing the tips of a few stout stalks of asparagus poking through the mulch. She looks to be about fourteen, dressed in frayed jeans and a grimy sweatshirt, the sleeves pulled down over her knuckles. Her focus on the plants is so intense, it’s as if she’s speaking to them.


“Are you interested in gardening?” My voice is reedy from disuse.


At first, I don’t think she hears. But then she tilts her bony face up and stares at me. Huge brown eyes widen behind her shaggy bangs. Her mouth drops open, and her pale cheeks lose what little color they had. I must have scared the stuffing out of her, appearing like that. 


I repeat my question and this time she nods, but her eyes dart from side to side like someone looking for escape. I suspect she thinks I’ll call the police on her for trespassing. Then I wonder if I should.


But the way she studied those little fingers of green told me a lot. “It’s alright. I don’t mind you being in my garden,” I say.


She nods, revealing the deep purple imprint of fingers ringing her neck. The shock of it clutches my chest. She turns away, bringing a hand to her throat.


This girl needs my help. I settle down on an overturned bucket, clutching my cane for stability. I let silence sit between us for a few moments before asking, “Would you like to learn how to make things grow?”


She doesn’t answer for the longest time. I wonder if she has something wrong with her. Then she reaches out a hand as if to touch mine but draws back, her fingers trembling.


When she answers, it is a whisper of uncertainty. “I can help you with this garden, like the weeding and planting and stuff?” I want to tell her to speak up, but I pause, remembering. She speaks like someone who’s learned that being heard brings pain. I know something of that.


Further, she’s offered me something I badly need. My garden is in disrepair because I’m no longer strong enough to do so much work. The fact is, I need her help too.


By the end of the day, the girl has pulled up all the dead bracken and gently turned the beds. They look rich and moistly brown in the afternoon sun. It’s very satisfying.


She says her name is Sadie. An old-fashioned name it seems to me. I’ve told her to call me Charlotte. Generally, I don’t hold with children calling elders by their first names, but like a garden, you have to grow or you die.


As the shadows stretch cool blue fingers across the garden, her face pinches into a worried knot that tells me she doesn’t want to go home. When I ask where she lives, she toes the ground with a dirty sneaker and a bit of color stains her cheeks. She’s ashamed.


I remember that shame when the school bus would drop me off at my house. The rusted appliances scattered about our dooryard made it look like an abandoned museum of better times. The kids on the bus would point and snicker until I disappeared through the darkened doorway where I never knew if I would be welcomed with a fist or no one at all.


Some things aren’t worth remembering.


This girl and I have something in common, but I don’t think I can tell her that. When you’re young and your world is hard, it is harder still to believe that anyone else could share your pain.

Sometimes it’s just better to be there, so that’s what I offer when I ask her if she’d like to come back again tomorrow. For the first time, I see the fleeting lift of a smile. She nods and mumbles goodbye, slipping away into the forest that surrounds my house. She moves like a wraith, becoming shadow under the pines as I watch.


The exertion leaves me dizzy, and I drop myself into the rocker just as the strange cotton wool world of my dreams pulls over me. It’s like being under murky water, but then fragments will snap clearly into focus. A pile of gluey eggs glistening wetly on a plate. A face screaming soundlessly, spittle trailing down a wrinkled chin. The squeaking of wheels wobbling down a white tiled floor – scree scree scree – until I feel I am going mad. When I try to get away, invisible hands trap my arms. Sometimes the hands make the strangest demands. “Beads on the string,” they will insist, or “Another spoonful!” I don’t know what they want from me and awaken in a sweat, my heart thundering erratically.


It's a relief each day when Sadie materializes from the trees. We found the tin of seeds in the shed and now the garden begins to bloom beneath her fingers. Peas are curling up their fence. I see she’s repaired it with some old baling twine. Beets are poking hopefully from the mulch. I don’t remember telling her to mulch, but soil should never be left exposed, so I must have done.


She works incredibly hard and yet is so very thin, I fear she might disappear altogether. I can’t imagine her parents are feeding her at all. I head to the root cellar to fetch some jars of canned peaches and pickles for her. Oddly, the door is already open. The darkness from within flies up at me like so many bats flocking out of a cave. I stumble back, panic skittering around in my heart.


The gaping yawn of the doorway disturbs me as it never has before. I would very much like to share some of last fall’s harvest with Sadie – I put up more than enough last year – but I cannot seem to make myself go down those stairs.


I gesture for her to go down and help herself. She eyes the black patch of the cellar uneasily. When she speaks, it sounds like she says, “That’s where it happened, isn’t it?” Only that doesn’t make any sense.


“That’s where the preserves are,” I try to tell her, but the tinnitus has set up its noise in my head and doesn’t surrender. It’s less a ringing than the staccato chirps of a swarm of crickets on a summer evening. The things you endure as you age.


Under her care, the garden is transformed. She has gotten the pole beans in, squash plants are beginning to sprawl, and some volunteer potatoes I must have left in the ground last year are flowering. It reminds me of the gardens I planted throughout the years, each one a promise of abundance.


But I am concerned. No sooner have the purple prints around her neck faded to yellow than she shows up with a black eye. A real shiner. My heart aches to see it. If it wasn’t summer, I’m sure the school would notify the authorities. Then I realize I should notify the authorities and go inside to look in the yellow pages for the number. I’m not sure who to call if one suspects abuse, only that no one ever did that for me.


I can’t find the phone book. Much like the garden, the house seems to be in unusual disarray. Things are not where I left them. It is concerning, and a little corner of my mind wonders if perhaps the girl has been in the house and is taking things. I hate to think ill of others, particularly someone who has a green thumb. People who garden can’t really be bad people, can they?


Time seems to slide past me with a strange indifference. Perhaps it’s because I’m always so tired. The dreams sap the life from me. Every night, the frightening formlessness of shape and sound leaches the real world of its vibrancy. And always there is the incessant beeping in air like grey molasses. “Remember?” asks the unfamiliar voice.


At least I have Sadie’s visits to look forward to. She comes later in the afternoons now that school has started, and she is looking healthier. Her black eye finally faded and wasn’t replaced with another shiner. Her cheeks have a bit of rose in them, and where her bones jutted skeletally before, now a bit of plumpness softens her features. She’s eating better.


I’ll be eating better too, I think, as I scan the evidence of her labors. The pumpkin she planted is enormous! I couldn’t reach my arms around it even if I could bend over that far. I should have been paying her for so much work. I go inside to find my check book and it isn’t in the roll top where I always keep it. I get so worn out looking for it, I have to lie down.


Almost instantly, I’m trapped in the leaden sludge of my dreams. More voices than usual are weaving in and out of the beeping. Someone is trying to sound very bright and excited, chirping, “It’s just lovely that you’re here!” I imagine an apple cheeked woman exuding that sparkling enthusiasm. It’s the brittle sound of a shiny ornament.


There are other voices, indistinct and muffled. Parts of words surge through the muted static without their companions. They have no meaning. “How come— in the next corri— naturally, our residents—and pudding—would appreciate your— Alzheim—.”


It grows quiet after a lot of shuffling and then I hear one final voice, clear as day. “Charlotte?”


I open my eyes to the fuzzy world. A small shape stands in front of me. Slowly, it defines itself and I realize it is Sadie. Her eyes are huge beneath her unkempt bangs. Her face, which had gotten so rosy from all that gardening, is as starkly white as the walls behind her. She looks sick or very frightened.


She’s not standing in my garden. She’s in my dreams where she doesn’t belong. I look around. We are in a room with bare walls and grey furnishings.


“Charlotte?” she says again. In a hall behind her, people are crossing busily back and forth. Phones are ringing.


I wonder what on earth she is doing here, and more, what I am doing here. I look down to see gnarled and wrinkled hands on a crisp white bedsheet. The hands might belong to me.


Sadie reaches out and places her own hand lightly on mine. I can feel its warmth. Her fingernails are rimmed with dirt. “You’re real,” she says, which strikes me as an odd thing to say.


I search the confines of the little room for understanding. It is a room I have seen before but forgotten that I have seen. A room that is square and sterile and filled with the beeping from a machine beside my bed.


For one long moment, I remember it all. Going down into the root cellar last fall with the quart jars of canned carrots. Missing the step and falling into the dark. Amie finding me and calling the ambulance that brought me to this bleak room. Nurses in blue scrubs talking brightly and making me do exercises, and eat spoonfuls, and thread beads on a string. The life of my dreams.


But it’s not the life of Charlotte, who lives in a little house in the woods and met a girl named Sadie who sought safety in her garden.


A voice down the hall asks if all the students from the community service project are accounted for.


The color is returning slowly to Sadie’s cheeks. “All this time I thought you were a ghost,” she says finally.


“I am.” I close my eyes to my small white room. I have somewhere else to be.


October 25, 2023 12:35

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37 comments

RJ Holmquist
21:33 Oct 26, 2023

Interesting interweaving of ghosts. It seems Alzheimer's is making Charlotte a ghost of herself, but not in the typical way, while she also sees a sort of ghost of herself in Sadie. Fascinating and touching. Well done!

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Laurel Hanson
22:09 Oct 26, 2023

Thank-you. I love that you captured what I was trying to do there.

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Danie Holland
14:11 Oct 26, 2023

Hello Laurel! The voice for this character is really well done. It’s very beautifully written. I love the parallels between Sadie and Charlotte. I saw a quote once, "We become who we needed when we were younger." I feel time and time again this rings true. The way Charlotte starts to try to help Sadie, the Sadie she see's anyway, in relationship to herself and past experiences, is very moving. They say hurt people hurt people but sometimes hurt people are the only ones who know how to help other hurt people or have a heart to do so. I love...

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Laurel Hanson
16:33 Oct 26, 2023

I've never heard that: "We become who we needed when we were younger." Such an interesting idea. I do appreciate your thoughts on their characters as that is something I am working on my writing. Thank-you for the feedback.

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Michał Przywara
21:31 Oct 25, 2023

That's an interesting take on the prompt! I initially assumed Charlotte was a ghost in the traditional post-death sense, and that she had fallen down the stairs to the cellar and so died, but this is more of a memory ghost brought on by dementia. Except, that's not entirely right either, because it seems Sadie met both versions of Charlotte, given her surprise at finding out Charlotte was real at the end. So, it's like Charlotte's body is in one place, but her heart is tied to her garden and home, where her memories dwell. "Some things a...

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Laurel Hanson
12:24 Oct 26, 2023

As always, you capture the essence and intent of the story perfectly. I appreciate your feedback.

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Michał Przywara
20:51 Nov 03, 2023

Woo! Congrats on the shortlist :)

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Laurel Hanson
21:05 Nov 03, 2023

Appreciated. Not sure I'll submit on reedsy for awhile, but I am likely to check it out periodically to see what else the prodigious Michal has been producing.

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:11 Nov 05, 2023

Captivating. The language. Congrats.

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Laurel Hanson
18:21 Nov 05, 2023

Thank-you.

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Philip Ebuluofor
15:17 Nov 09, 2023

Pleasure.

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AnneMarie Miles
17:39 Nov 03, 2023

I knew when I read this this morning it would be here 😁 well deserved recognition..hope you are celebrating 🎉

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Laurel Hanson
20:46 Nov 03, 2023

Aww...thank-you. I wasn't expecting it since there are so many stories this week and so many good ones to boot. Cheers!

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AnneMarie Miles
01:12 Nov 04, 2023

Agreed! SOO many spooky and creative ghosty stories this week. :) The judges had their work cut out for them this week!

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AnneMarie Miles
16:08 Nov 03, 2023

Wow Laurel. What an incredible way to bring the readers along unknowingly. I find it most interesting when a ghost does not know they are one. And I really enjoyed the garden scene when Charlotte first meets Sadie. This was really really well done. Felt like a dream the whole way through.

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Laurel Hanson
20:27 Nov 03, 2023

Thank-you so much!

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Cher Zimmerer
08:50 Nov 03, 2023

I tremendously enjoyed the narrative, it really held up the suspense of Charlotte’s state of being. Also written in such a great tone. A wonderful story!

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Laurel Hanson
15:27 Nov 03, 2023

Thank-you so much!

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Ken Cartisano
18:00 Nov 02, 2023

Beautifully written story. She didn't have alzheimer's, she was in a coma, she fell down a flight of stairs. Hit her head, brain swells, induced coma. This is a really ingenious and (a little) frightening depiction of 'not there, but not dead.' I think most people assume you would just dream, or nothing, but you've created a whole 'nother plane of existence. You really thought you could just shoot that one past me and I wouldn't notice? Hah! A whole new plane of existence? It was hard to not notice. (I was pretty good at whale watching too...

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Laurel Hanson
21:52 Nov 02, 2023

Thank-you. I do have a question though. Did you submit to this contest? The last story I have of yours is the prior contest. By the way, I had read it and seem not to have left the note I thought I had, so apologies. Anyway, Cheers.

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Ken Cartisano
00:04 Nov 05, 2023

No, I didn't submit a story for this contest, Laurel. It can be a grueling exercise when a person writes as badly as I do. In fact, sometimes it seems as though I just open up the word processor and roll a basketball around on the keyboard for fifteen minutes. Save it, then I come back a couple of days later and start editing it into some readable form. I have a couple of ideas in my head for a story, but neither of them seemed like they could fit the prompts last week. I can tell I need to write a story, my comments get longer and longer. I...

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Helen A Smith
18:02 Oct 31, 2023

It’s the ghost of Alzheimer’s that is haunting the old lady. Complex, sad and touching. You depict the difficulties of ageing so well. Great imagery. Thanks for sharing.

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Laurel Hanson
18:43 Oct 31, 2023

Thank-you. I appreciate your kind words.

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07:23 Oct 31, 2023

Ooh, this is a very cool take on the prompt! I really love it, especially when she goes looking for things she can't find...I love knowing what the character doesn't. I can't even come up with a critique, which is rare for me! Nice job. I'd love your feedback on my latest!

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Shirley Medhurst
13:47 Oct 27, 2023

Great piece of writing, Laurel. Full of lovely little philosophical snippets like : “Sometimes it’s just better to be there…” The way you used it said so much. I also like the way you weave multiple layers into the story, making it much more than a classic « ghost story » Interesting that Sadie meets Charlotte on both a spiritual and physical level.

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Mary Bendickson
02:22 Oct 27, 2023

Rich and multi-layered. Led me though many thoughts and ideas throughout. So nicely done. Even the title had duel meaning. Congrats on well deserved shortlist!

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Laurel Hanson
09:20 Oct 27, 2023

Thank-you.

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Rebecca Miles
17:58 Oct 25, 2023

Laurel, how lovely to have you back on Reedsy, and back with an emotional bang you certainly are. Poor Charlotte, the ghost of her former self indeed...This was so subtle and multi layered; I enjoyed the imagery on a first reading and it was only when I went back that I realised what clever clues you left, particularly with the old plants like skeletal hands and leaves like dirty laundry. Given the reveal of the location at the end, I really appreciated these gentle nudges. And the word "remember" of course takes on a whole new set of conno...

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Laurel Hanson
18:04 Oct 25, 2023

Wow, I really appreciate your kind words. As you noted, I've been out for a long spell working on a very different project and thought maybe a palette cleanser might be good writing practice. I am not sure how I feel about this one just yet, but feedback from a writer of your caliber is certainly heartening. Thank-you so much.

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Rebecca Miles
16:56 Nov 03, 2023

Well done Laurel. I did enjoy this carefully constructed and moving story. Looks like a palette cleanser once in a while is a good thing!

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Laurel Hanson
20:47 Nov 03, 2023

Thanks!

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17:33 Oct 25, 2023

Wow Laurel. This is a heartbreaker. Really mysterious, lots of hints and red herrings before the explanation is given. I loved this. Thanks!

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Laurel Hanson
18:01 Oct 25, 2023

Much appreciated.

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Shahzad Ahmad
02:17 Apr 07, 2024

Laurel, what a finely woven story where every strand of information leads naturally to the next! We mistake Sadie to be the ghost whereas it is the other way round. The plot proceeds slowly and naturally with revelation coming at the end. Very intriguing story. The following sentence "The darkness from within flies up at me like so many bats flocking out of a cave." is not only an innovative simile and personification but also captures the vacuity within one's heart so accurately. It is a well constructed story. Well done!

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Laurel Hanson
18:24 Apr 07, 2024

Thank-you for your kind words. I truly appreciate the feedback!

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04:26 Nov 08, 2023

🤩😍 Amazing story. Congrats on the shortlist 🎉😄

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Laurel Hanson
20:37 Nov 08, 2023

Thank-you so much!

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