It is a living girl who is the queen of ghosts. The town knows this. The people might not, but the town itself knows. The doors all shut themselves a little tighter when she passes, and every step she’s ever trudged up squeaks, and she’s never had a good night’s sleep in a bed. Where the living dwell has never been a place for her. The town fears her. The town sees her and sees a thing that should not exist as it does. She should not exist as she does. The town tries to reveal her. Look at her and fear, it says. Cast her out. Send her back to the land.
The land itself is more hospitable. The animals keep a respectful distance, and all the trees stand at attention when she passes, and the wind goes quiet. Everything goes quiet. The wheels of her roller skates seem to glide about the gravel, and a leaf has never dared to crunch beneath her bare feet. The land is reverent. The land wants her. For all dead things must return to the earth, and a queen of ghosts with a heart still beating is fascinating indeed. She should be exalted.
The people of the town do not get this. They do not understand reverence, not like she deserves. They look at her with pity, or they simply look through her, not seeing her. But she is a living girl, not a ghost. It does not do to treat the living like they are dead.
The sheriff looks at her with pity. He was there when her house burned down. Her parents had been inside, poor thing. A neighbor said her father had carried her out and gone back in to retrieve the mother, but neither of them had come back, leaving the living girl all alone. She’d been shell-shocked, her little pigtails in disarray. The ashes from the family’s home covered her, dulled her, but her eyes had been bright and wide, and she’d just stared at the flames of her first home as the sheriff’s nice lady deputy had taken her little hand and led her to go sit in the car.
For a while, there’d been suspicion of foul play, but it turns out to be much simpler. Lightning storms are an act of God, a force of nature. When they strike, there’s little that can be done to avoid them.
Yes, the girl was alone, completely, not a living relative to her name. Her grandparents were all gone. Her parents had no siblings. She’d ended up staying with the sheriff and his wife for a time before a friend of the family took her in. They wanted to keep her in school with her friends.
Now, the girl, years older, skates by the sheriff as he gets out of his cop car, picking up trash from the side of the road. He’s just doing his civic duty.
“Evening, kiddo. You headed home for supper?” The sheriff gives her a smile.
The girl slows a bit, moving closer to the sheriff, and, even though he doesn’t think he presses he button, his car doors lock. She’s a real good skater, the sheriff thinks. Even on uneven gravel, she never seems to stumble. She says, “I’m going to see my parents.”
It was hard for him to keep smiling after that, especially since what was left of her parents was buried in the town’s little cemetery. “You go see them often?”
“I always go visit the dead.”
“Well, that’s awful nice of you. I’m sure the dead appreciate visitors just as much as the living, huh?”
“Not really, no.”
She still has those wide eyes. She has to be about fourteen, now, her limbs more gangly than they’d been all those years ago. Those eyes are the same, though, bright and wide. No real expression on her face. It’s similar to how she’d been all covered in ash, like she’s perpetually shocked. He wonders if that wide-eyed ability of hers to look through everything was just…who she was.
Poor thing. She never would get past her parents’ death, would she? A tragedy like that takes more than just a few years to get over.
“Aw, now, I’m sure they appreciate it. Here, hold on.” He reaches in his pocket and takes out a few dollars. “Go get some pretty flowers, huh? I bet they’ll really like that.”
She stares at his hand, at the money, like it’s a particularly interesting snake. No fear, just a hint of disdain, a splash of curiosity. She’d step on it with her boot if it ever tried to strike her. Still, she takes the cash out of his hand and pockets it. “I appreciate that, sheriff.”
“Oh, ain’t nothing to it, kid. You just be careful out there, you hear? Don’t be staying out too late.”
The girl doesn’t say anything, just starts to skate away. The sheriff shakes his head again, watching her go sadly. Poor thing.
The convenient store clerk doesn’t watch her enter his shop. The only thing that makes him look back up is the way the door slams shut too heavily, but he takes one look at her and rolls his eyes. She’s too young for him to pay any real attention to, to look at for more than a split second of time. His phone’s a hell of a lot more interesting, anyway.
He pays her no mind as she skates through the store, though she’s noisy. She bumps into shelves. She mutters curses under her breath. She struggles over trying to open a cooler. After a minute, she skids up to the counter, bumping into it.
“Watch it,” the clerk says, though his eyes are still glued to his phone.
“I’d like to buy this.” She puts a bottled soda on the counter, it’s color sickly red. Nothing natural about it, from its color to its fizz to the very material it’s made from.
The clerk thinks, at least, she’s got good taste. He rings her up. “Anything else?” “Just the drink.” She hands over a crumpled-up bill from her pocket.
The clerk takes it. He finally looks at her. Oh, it’s that girl, the one whose parents died a few years back. She’s quite a bit younger than him, but he remembers seeing her little middle schooler face popping up every now and then his senior year. He remembers staying with a friend one night and his friend’s mom bringing her up. The whole town always seems to be coddling her. He doesn’t get it. People die all the time. “Here’s your change,” the clerk says after way too long.
The girl doesn’t seem to notice the pause. Or, if she does, she simply doesn’t care. “I appreciate that.” She cracks open the bottle right there at the counter, the carbonation causing it to spew and splatter. Half the content of the bottle seems to spill over, coating her fingers with the red liquid. She licks it off them.
“Ah, hell.” The clerk leans back as the drink started to dribble towards his lap. “Couldn’t have waited to do that shit outside?” He didn’t care that she was some sort of sad town darling. Why’d she have to go and make a mess in his store?
“I didn’t realize it would spill.”
“Well, you wanna help me clean up? Go to the bathroom, get some paper towels. Jesus. And don’t take ten years to do it. I hate it when it gets all sticky.”
She skates away to the bathroom, one of the wheels on her skates sounding like it’s loose. She needs to get that fixed. The clerk stands up, sighing loudly. He didn’t care that she was some orphaned child that the whole town seems to think is some wounded bird. She’s a klutz, and she’s kind of rude. Who the hell doesn’t say thank you?
When she brings him some paper towels, one of them is soaking wet while the others are marginally dry. She says, “I thought the wet one could keep it from getting sticky.”
“Yeah, sure, thanks. Just make sure it doesn’t drip over my side of the counter.”
They clean up the mess together, her not saying a word even when he looks up and sees her watching him. She’s got some stare-y eyes, all wide and unblinking like they are. She’s kind of a weird little girl. But, after a bit, he starts to feel bad for her. He’d probably be weird, too, if he lost his parents that young.
When they’re done, the clerk throws the sticky, red splattered paper towels into the wastebasket behind the counter. He looks at the girl as she clutches her half empty bottle a bit tighter. “You, uh, want to get another one? Since you split most of that one on my stuff?”
The girl looks at the counter, at the fact that none of his stuff wasn’t even remotely touched by the soft drink, and she shakes her head. “I’m just going to finish this outside.”
“Shouldn’t have been opening it in here in the first place,” he says.
“Of course.” She pushes herself off the counter and leaves, the door slamming shut behind her. The clerk flinches at the sound. Of course. Clumsy and loud. Maybe, if people didn’t try to coddle her all the time, she wouldn’t be so rude.
The teacher at the high school hasn’t known the girl for long, but she worries about her. The teacher came to this town only a few months ago, and she’s still learning everything, but this tragic little girl really pulls at her heartstrings. Oh, how alone she must feel in the world! How cruel it is to have everything taken from her at such a young age! The teacher’s heart overflows with sympathies, and she often doesn’t know how to express them. Perhaps, at times, she comes off a bit sharp when the girl doesn’t pay attention in her class, but that’s only because she wants the girl to succeed! She wants the best for this child who has lost everything. She wants to show that, to get anything in life, one must work for it diligently.
When she sees the girl coming out of the convenient store, the teacher waves at her emphatically. “Oh! Hello, dear! How are you? Have you been working on your essay?”
“No, I haven’t thought about it since class ended.” It’s incredible, the way this girl doesn’t even try to lie.
“Oh! Well, maybe you should start working on in! After all, it’s due in just a few short weeks.”
“I have time.” The girl finishes her drink. Red liquid escapes the side of her mouth, dribbles down her chin.
“It’s just a very big part of your grade, dear! And you’re falling just a bit behind in class. I just don’t want you to get distracted, especially with that big dance tomorrow night.”
“I’m not going to the dance. I don’t like dances like that. I’m very busy right now. I need to go.”
“But it’s getting so late! Shouldn’t you be heading home now that you’ve got a snack?” The teacher gave the girl one of those smiles she reserves for her students when she’s scolding them. “Isn’t it a little close to supper to be getting the munchies, dear?”
“I’m going to see my parents.”
The smile is gone, just like that, and what replaces it is a look of true sadness. Why, the teacher can practically feel the tears welling up in her eyes. This poor child! Of course she can’t be focusing on an essay. Perhaps it’s close to the time of her parents’ passing, or maybe she’s just having a bad week. Whatever the case, the girl needs sympathy, and the teacher is very good at sympathy.
“I know this must be difficult for you, dear.”
“It’s actually quite easy to go see them. They aren’t that far away.”
The muscles in the teacher’s face twitch. She’s so good at sympathies. That doesn’t mean that this girl needs to try and make it hard. “Of course, dear. I just mean that it must be hard on you emotionally. Knowing they aren’t really there.”
The girl laughs, and the tree beside the convenient store rattles. How strange, the teacher thought. There hasn’t been a breeze all day. The girl says, “The dead are always there.”
“They’re always watching you, aren’t they?”
“Not when I go inside.” She hands what’s left of her drink to the teacher.
The teacher stares at the bottle of soda in confusion. “I’m sorry?”
The girl looks to where the sun is getting close to setting. “I need to be going. Before it gets dark.” She skates off, practically gliding on air. The teacher finds it hard to believe that this is the girl that always seems to trip in class because her shoes are untied.
The teacher calls out after her, “See you in class tomorrow!”
The girl keeps skating away. She goes throughout the town, past the house where she lays her head most nights when she goes to sleep. The house does its best to keep her awake at night.
As she passes her neighborhood, one of her neighbors, a classmate, is sitting out on the steps of her front porch, chatting on the phone. She leans back, resting on her elbows as the girl passes. The classmate thinks the girl is a little strange. Which, okay, she lost her family in a fire while she was there. That probably warrants a bit of being screwy in the head. Still. She’s kind of weird. It’s her eyes, the classmate thinks. She’s just got the weirdest eyes.
“You’ll never believe who just passed by,” she says into the phone. She’s listening for the sound of wheels on asphalt to fade but the sound doesn’t even seem to exist in the first place. The classmate decides to just be quieter. “I’ll give you one hint: Wednesday Addams on roller skates. Huh? That was a good one, right?”
The laughter on the other end of the line goes on for longer than is polite, but, hey, the classmate knows her joke was funny, okay? She’s hilarious. “Got it in one, babe. Yeah, yeah, she lives next door but is almost never home. One night I caught her sleeping out in the yard. Asked her about it the next day, and you know what she said?” Even though her friend can’t see her, the classmate widens her eyes and lets her facial muscles completely relax, no expression. “She goes, ‘I don’t sleep well inside.’ Okay, bitch, so the ground is better? It was damn near freezing.”
She listens for a bit before letting out a laugh of her own. She’s not the only funny one. “No way. That’s true? I heard that she had to go to his office, but I didn’t realize the principal was the one that found her. She was just hanging out on the branch beside his window? Jesus, he’s on the second story.”
The next words cause the classmate to gasp. “No! I had no idea she fell. She’s completely fine? What the hell!” With a bit of worry, she looked over at the house next door. “You don’t think… No, no, they’re good people. They don’t hurt her. She’s just weird. My momma says trauma like that does weird things to people. It does real weird things to people.”
The classmate doesn’t realize that the girl stopped to listen not too far down the street, her back pressed against a tree. The bark of it feels gentle, even through her clothes. It is a comforting presence. There’s a bruise forming on her knee from where she bumped against the counter in the convenient store. She never even felt it when she fell out of the tree. The land does not hurt her.
“You know, she really is nice if you talk to her for long enough. Really, it’s true, she is. You’ve just got to understand her oddities. That’s what Momma always says. So, what are you wearing to the dance tomorrow?”
The girl leaves. She still has one more stop to make.
The butcher looks up to see the girl entering his shop just before closing, and he gives her a smile. He likes her. She’s a nice enough girl, always polite and courteous, even after all that she’s been through. He’s got her order wrapped up on the counter beside him. “Just in time. Thought you might not be making it today.”
Smiling, the girl says, “Apologies. I kept getting distracted.” She tries to be careful about skating in the butcher’s shop. She doesn’t want to scuff up his floors. This building is the most comforting one she’s ever been in, besides a funeral home. Even still, every bump in the flooring catches the wheels to her skates. She has to move slowly.
“I gave you a bit extra of the ground beef today. Thought you might appreciate it.”
“I do.” She searches through her pockets and pulls out her money, along with what’s left of the sheriff’s. “I can pay you for it.”
“No need. Don’t want it going to waste, and I know you use it.” He didn’t know what she used it for, but he knew she did.
He slides her package over to her. Inside is the ground beef, as well as a pig’s heart and liver. Once a week like clockwork, it’s always the same. She’s been doing this for about a year now, and he knows her foster parents don’t know a thing about it. They kind of just let the kid run wild. They’re just scared of upsetting her, everyone says. Everyone’s scared of upsetting her, even if they don’t know why.
The butcher doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t need to know what she does with the meat. He’d asked, once, but she’d just looked at him with those eyes until he dropped it. Kids have got weird ways of coping with things, and if buying a bunch of meat is her way of doing that, then who’s he to stop her? Maybe she’s got a pet out there. Whatever the case, she’s polite, and her money’s good. That’s all that matters to him.
She picks the package up, cradling it to her chest. He hopes she doesn’t trip and fall.
The butcher asks, “Same time next week?”
“I’ll see you then. I appreciate the extra ground beef.”
He starts wiping down the counter as she leaves, hoping that she appreciates the heart and liver, too. They’re still fresh.
Every building seems to hold itself a bit tighter as she passes by, daring and fearing that she will try to open their doors next. The living girl is tainted with specters, and specters do not belong in places for the living. Therefore, she cannot belong. She passes them by, though, and stays on the edge of the road as she heads outside of town. She pauses at the gates of the town cemetery with its neat marble and granite headstones, but does not venture inside. Instead, she presses a kiss to her palm and holds it out in the direction of where her parents are buried.
She has to keep going, though. The cemetery is not where she makes her destination. She skates until she sees a dirt path, barely discernable from the brush. Getting off the blacktop, she bends down with grace and balance that none of her classmates would understand as she unties the laces and takes off her skates and her socks, tying the laces together and slinging the shoes over her shoulder. Her toes dig into the earth, and it is like a welcome home after being away for months, even though it has only been a week.
She begins walking, and the forest hushes, though it is alive, anticipatory. A queen is in their midst. Her scent is recognized, that smell of dirt and iron that clings to her, showing her that she is more home here than anywhere else. She brings gifts. She always brings gifts. A good monarch expects her subjects to be loyal, but she also knows that such loyalty does not come without a price. The queen of the ghosts knows that the best way to keep her subjects happy and loyal is to take care of the land that they inhabit.
Land is living, but land needs death to thrive. Ghosts give their bodies back to the land, and the land, in turn, gives them a place to stay. Even fire is giving back to the land. In the wake of ashes, eventually, there will be new growth.
The queen of ghosts feels welcome here, though she is living. She has never felt discomfort from the land. It has never tried to scare her away. It recognized her sacrifice years ago, even before she realized that she’d made it, and it recognizes her sacrifice still to this day.
She leaves her skates by the stump an old oak tree and reaches in its roots, protected from the elements, to retrieve her crown. Twigs and bones weave together with its mounted antlers on top, dead things once living, to fit snuggly upon her head.
From the stump, it is a short walk to a clearing that is waiting for her, where there are dilapidated headstones scattered throughout, so old their names are lost to time. Two lightning struck trees sit in the middle. A sacrifice. Life taken by nature. Life taken to provide for the land. In one of the trees rest a trio of vultures. Next to the base of the other sits a lone coyote, resting and watching. Scavengers. They share a bond; all of them are not welcome where the living dwell, though they try to benefit from what the living sow.
The girl stops a few feet from the trees. She places her package on the ground. For the coyote and the vultures, she takes out the ground beef, laying it out close to where the coyote sits. The coyote begins his feast, and the vultures join along with him.
She pulls out the liver, smiling as she notices how fresh it is. It isn’t warm by any means, but it has yet to be made lesser by waiting in a freezer for hours on end. She picks a gravestone and begins to dig at the base of it with her fingers. She buries the liver. Even dead things miss the taste of something fresh. The ghosts can savor its smell, and the land will appreciate the way it fertilizes the soil will the decomposition sets in.
The heart is last. She cradles it in her hands. She moves over to the tree once occupied by the coyote. It kept her spot warm for her, though it did not rule. A beetle crawls along the charred trunk of the tree, greeting her. She takes the coyote’s place sitting at the base of the tree, and she rules over her kingdom.
If she were a fearful creature, like those who dwelled in town, she might imagine that the heart was beating against her palm. She might have felt disturbed. As it is, the weight of it is a comforting presence. She’s grown used to the feel of a heart in her hand. When she leaves for the night, perhaps a fox will come and take it as an offering. Perhaps the coyote will fight to keep its claim. Maybe, just maybe, she will lean in and take a bite from it, let the taste of it fill her mouth, a sacrifice to herself. One day, she thinks she will be required to make greater sacrifices to keep her kingdom. She does not think she will mind. She knows a few people whose hearts she would not mind holding in her hands and taking a bite out of.
The queen of ghosts takes the heart in her hand and crushes it, feeling its juices between her fingers and onto her bare feet, onto the earth. She looks out over the tombstones and says, “Rise.”
Rising like steam when something hot and wet and sticky splashes on snow, the ghosts of the dead come out of the ground. They greet each other, filling the clearing with their whispers, and the wind rejoices in carrying their sounds back to the queen of ghosts. They relish in these meeting, this gathering. As they mingle, they look similar to how the queen imagines her classmates do at a party, at all the social gatherings that she is invited to but never attends. This is better. This is natural. This is where she is meant to be.
Smiling, the queen clears her throat. The noise dies. She lives. Her people stand at attention. Hands covered in blood, she commands them. “Dance.”
And so the ghosts, ever eager to please their queen, dance.
Taken from Kallye Smith’s “To Be Haunted: A Collection of Short Stories” (2021). https://egrove.olemiss.edu/hon_thesis/1812