Contest #239 shortlist ⭐️

19 comments

Urban Fantasy Contemporary

There’s a ghost in the backseat.

You catch glimpses of her as the car chases a line of streetlights. It’s hard to focus when your eyes are blurred with sleep. It’s harder still to recognize the beady squint set in a face so thin that you can see the car seat through it.

“Eyes on the road,” Grandma chides, like the time you crossed the road without looking and she grabbed your hand. Sweat glued your palms together then. Now, her voice sticks to your ears. An itch that wriggles deep. “How long until we get there?”

“Five minutes,” you say. “Maybe.”

The skittering of your heartbeat has settled, though you don’t know how long it’s been since that early morning call. You feel the weight of your phone in your pocket, but the wheel clings to your fingers as you take one turn after another.

The next time you glance at the backseat, Grandma’s in her cardigan.

Her eyes are laughing at you. “It’s the one you made for me,” she says, and her shoulders, her arms, her hands and torso materialize all at once. She lifts the hems to show off the mandarin pattern you stitched into soft cotton. You told her she was getting ripe in her old age, and she made you pay for lunch.

That was months ago.

You’ve left the streetlights behind now, the same way you’ve left behind bland dinners and wheelchairs and hospital visits. They disappear between blinks, swallowed by the rearview screen.

Up front, a familiar blue sign grows clearer by the meter. HOSPITAL is printed in solid white strokes.

It’s the first time you’re taking this road.

Blink.

It’s the seventeenth time you’re taking this road.

Blink.

It’s the thirtieth time you’re taking this road.

Blink.

It’s the last time you’re taking this road. A familiar blue sign grows clearer by the meter. There are no words on it.

Instead, there’s a shadow jutting out from beside it. A jujube bush, you think, like the one growing outside Mrs. Wang’s house.

When the headlights touch the outline of the bushes, you see that they are the exact ones you used to pick and pocket back as a child. Jujubes ring around the softer pops of trifoliate orange blossoms. Your hands prickle with the memory of thorns.

The car jolts over a pothole.

Grandma’s hand, papery under the moon, slides through the window and deftly twists a jujube off its branch. Its taut skin looks almost rusted in her hands, but she brings it to her mouth and juice stains her chin.

There are no scratches on her skin.

Her voice is thick with fruit when she asks, “How much longer until we get there?”

“Ten minutes, most likely.”

The road goes on with its many hidden shapes.

You see the same blue sign, the one that should say HOSPITAL. You take a left. You see the same blue sign. You take a left. You see the same blue sign and take a left. You see the same blue sign and take a left, and Grandma sighs and asks again, “How much longer until we get there?”

You see the same blue sign and you take a right.

“There’s no rush.”

Rushed was when you awakened to the ringtone you had set for the hospital. Rushed was when you almost ripped your sheets off the bed. Rushed was when you shoved your feet into socks, your arms into a jacket, and your phone into your pocket.

But rush stopped when you stepped out into your living room to find a ghost.

The hospital didn’t have to call at all.  

Now, the road turns smooth, and the dusty haze draped over the car has lightened to a pearly sheen. Cold touches your elbow and you look down to see a well-worn sock on the central glove compartment. Colored threads show where holes have been mended, mostly neat. The elastic around the ankle is loose and frilly.

It’s such a grandma sock.

“Weren’t you the one who said it’s rude to put your feet up like that?” You tease and are rewarded with a laugh.

When Grandma laughs, the world shakes. Just a little. She laughs like there’s nothing better to do. Once, when you were four or five, you wandered into the kitchen and solemnly volunteered your services. The wok was shiny with oil and Grandma’s apron carried the smells of every dish. That same apron pressed against your clothes when Grandma bent down to pinch your face, and you struggled to escape. Too late – she wrapped you up in her laughter until all you could do was laugh, laughing until you shake.

The car fills with the smell of those dishes; oil-smothered, loaded with garlic and chives. It’s warm and heavy, smudges on a common, unremarkable memory.

You crack the window open, just enough to feel how the sky bleeds into your body.

This too, reminds you of a woman with sweaty hands and a world-shaking laugh.

Sometimes, she was quiet. Before old age rimmed her eyes blue, the black of her pupils could make you listen to lesson after lesson. She didn’t call names. She didn’t grab rulers or punishment sticks. She would just look at you and you learned to look back. Then, those eyes would turn yours to the sky and say things that stick for years.

“When you breathe deep, the sky lives within you,” you recite.

“When the sky lives within you,” comes a wispy murmur, “so does the world.”

With the sky coiling through your veins and bones and marrow, you ascend onto a bridge. Cables of steel cut through drifts of clouds. Somewhere beyond, the sun is rising.

There’s a ghost in the backseat.

You know her without seeing every wrinkle. The flyaway curls that break off at the roots to get caught in wide collars. The spots on her arms that are splattered like oil. She sleeps with her chin tucked into her chest. Her hands, no longer fleshy with heat, curl like ripened mandarins.

“How much longer?”

“Soon.”

There’s a familiar blue sign coming up the road with the words HOSPITAL printed in solid white strokes.

You take the road ahead. 

March 01, 2024 15:37

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19 comments

Darvico Ulmeli
19:43 Mar 27, 2024

Very nice. Kind of sad but to me sounds calm. Like is saying: "It's ok." Well done.

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Jonathan Page
21:26 Mar 17, 2024

Wow, Maple! Congrats on the shortlist. What a fantastic story. Great craftsmanship. A suspenseful ride. Great metaphor with the road ahead. The focus on the ghost in the backseat is a great way of showing what the protagonist is going through rather than telling us--and I love the repeated questions of when will we get there. Fantastic job!

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Edwin Pietersma
02:56 Mar 13, 2024

Wow, this is an amazing story. I loved the little touches and bits of reminiscence that are infused within the story, like the smells of all the dishes of the grandmother. Despite the setting being very different than where I'm from, I think it speaks of something universal! No wonder it was shortlisted; I am excited to read more of your work in the future!

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Jim Gray
09:07 Mar 09, 2024

What is now and what has passed, pulse back and forth like the last tolls of a beating heart. The 2nd person style adds a mist... is this really happening at all? That dreaded last call to the hospital is beautifully coated in the sugar of memory. What a lovely story.

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Maple Ip
06:52 Mar 10, 2024

Sometimes we see or hear of loss, and lose ourselves to grief. Indeed, is the drive happening at all? Thank you for reading and commenting!

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Alexis Araneta
05:48 Mar 09, 2024

Stunning work ! Congrats on the shortlist. Great job !

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Maple Ip
06:50 Mar 10, 2024

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Uncle Spot
01:18 Mar 09, 2024

Very interesting story and so artfully written. Congratulations on being shortlisted on your first Reedsy story.

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Maple Ip
06:50 Mar 10, 2024

Thank you for reading! This prompt inspired so many ideas that I almost couldn't choose one.

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Ty Warmbrodt
17:53 Mar 08, 2024

congrats on the shortlist. well deserved!

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Maple Ip
06:48 Mar 10, 2024

Thank you! I'm excited to get back into writing.

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Linda Lambert
17:35 Mar 08, 2024

Congratulations!…. What a lovely story…well done!

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Maple Ip
06:46 Mar 10, 2024

Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

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Mary Bendickson
15:56 Mar 08, 2024

Congrats on the shortlist on first story. Welcome to Reedsy.

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Maple Ip
06:46 Mar 10, 2024

Hi Mary, thank you for the welcome!

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Antoine Polgar
19:45 Mar 07, 2024

Hi Maple, This story perfectly addresses the prompt. As I read it, the theme is mourning. My only question is why are you telling the reader there is a ghost in the backseat? Why not simply state that your grandmother is in the backseat always asking "how much longer?" Then there is the call from the hospital and you don't have to rush anymore or wonder whether you made a wrong turn and how much longer your grandmother is going to be talking to you from the backseat and whether she will be with you forever.

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Maple Ip
06:45 Mar 10, 2024

Hi Antoine, thanks for your comment! Yes, the story is about grief, mourning, and processing what is lost... and how there always seems to be a shortage of time. But with the theme of fabulism - who is to say that there isn't actually a ghost in the backseat?

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Ty Warmbrodt
04:33 Mar 07, 2024

Well done. Great story. very descriptive

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Maple Ip
06:40 Mar 10, 2024

Thank you for reading!

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