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One Less Ghost by Angie Fayre

It was the day before November.  Franklin stood alone, facing Plauson Hill Wood's oldest hiking trail as the sun climbed darkening clouds behind him.  People didn't use the path much anymore, but especially not this time of the year.  Too many ghosts, they say.  There was only one Franklin cared about, though.  He clutched its old, moss-grown sneaker protectively to his chest.

The trail before him shown through its autumnal canopy with a supernatural light that touched nothing else.  This was something Franklin had seen here dozens of times; that he'd faced and been defeated by.  But not this year.  He could feel it.  This year, he held the single ember of his dying hope in his hands.  He'd finally found it.  The problem now was that he didn't know how he would use it.  He tied the shoelaces securely to his belt and allowed the shoe to dangle at his hip.  Perhaps that would be enough.

A footfall later, he was crunching along the slightly overgrown path.  Oaks, aspens and birches shrank around him, like a time lapse video played in reverse.  Leaves greened, retreated and sprang again in a flutter of noise.  Years poured out of him as strength rushed in, and his hands gave away their worn, weathered qualities for the softness of past youth.  His mind fell into step soon after, slipping into the old role it hadn't played in a while.  And all other things, including the odd bounce at his hip, sorted to their place on the back-burners.

"Wait!  Slow down, Franklin," his brother Cooper said.  Franklin half turned.

"Come on, slowpoke, or we'll be late," he said.  Cooper laughed excitedly.  They walked for a while in their separate musings, with Cooper humming to himself and Franklin thinking gravely.  There was something he was supposed to do, or remember, but he couldn't fathom what.  Probably had something to do with Cooper's costume---it still needed finishing.  But that didn't seem right.  He swatted at a stray branch, then stumbled past another.  When did the path get so overgrown?

"Say, Franklin, you ever hear of the Dark-Eyed Witch?" Cooper asked suddenly.  A crow dropped onto a branch nearby and glared at Franklin's hip as he passed.  He slapped at another stray vine.

"Sure.  Story says she's some evil maiden who lost her kids to her fears.  She's now cursed to wander around finding other kids to fill her grief.  She uses the fear and anger in other people's hearts to manipulate them, I believe."  He brushed a branch aside, "Supposedly, she haunts these woods."

"Do you think she would ever steal me?" Cooper asked.

"She's not real," Franklin said, then added, "Which is good, because she especially loves little slowpokes who can't keep up with their brothers.  So, no dallying."  Cooper rubbed his chest.

"She'd love me, I think.  I'm like Peter Pan."

"Peter Pan?"  Cooper nodded.

"Yeah.  Because I won't ever grow up."

Franklin frowned, "That's not funny, kiddo.  You're how God made you.  Mind and all."

"I know, but aren't there times you wish I weren't like this?  I know I do."  Franklin rubbed the back of his neck.

"All the time, I guess."  He rubbed at his chest, "I worry about the future."  They rounded a tree and the crow followed.

"I'll be thirteen tomorrow, but only on the outside," Cooper continued, "I'll never grow up, and that means I'll have to be somebody's sponsibility forever.  I heard mom and dad say so.  Nobody wants that. . ."

Franklin shook his head, "No, we don't want that for you.  But it is what it is."  He shoved aside another branch, then rubbed again at his heart.  He was suddenly so tired and heavy, as if the conversation were a physical weight he'd been carrying---a world on his shoulders.  Cooper smiled grimly and nodded.

"I could go where you'll forget your burdens.  She says I'll be safe there.  Happy."

"Wait, who said---Ow!"  Something yanked at Franklin's hip, nearly jerking him off of his feet.  A vine had tangled around something on his belt, and had tried to pull it off.  Both boys stared dumbly.

"What's that?" Cooper asked as Franklin loosened the moss-grown sneaker.

"It's. . . it's your shoe, Coop," Franklin said, slowly remembering what he'd forgotten.  "You dropped it, and I'd lost it holding on to you."

The temperature dropped several degrees in an instant and the gilded morning that had filtered through the treetops died into sombre dreariness.  Franklin blinked.  He was no longer the teen walking his younger brother home, but the old man he'd been before attempting the old trail.  And Cooper had also changed.  His skin had paled to its true translucent white and his eyes were the dark hollows of the damned.  The witch's façades had lifted, and the real present had returned.

"Oh, Coop," Franklin said, wiping at tears.  He swept Cooper up in a hug and squeezed.  "You'd been afraid you were a burden, but you weren't.  And I never meant we wanted you gone.  We loved you, Coop, and I've been coming back again and again, for over fifty years, just to tell you that.  We never forgot, Coop.  None of us.  We missed you."

"You. . . missed me?"

"More than anything, kiddo."  The crow screamed and tore away into the darkness, taking her light with her.

Cooper squeezed more tightly, "Oh, Franklin, I missed you, too!"

An overcast sky poured and Franklin stood there, alone and trembling on his sopping-wet bones.  There was no time lapse back to reality.  No magic in the leaves or regrowth into future years.  No explosion of light or opening heavens.  There was just the quiet woods, Franklin's weathered hands and the shoe.  But Franklin smiled.  Thankfully, there was also one less ghost in Plauson Hill.  He could feel it.

 

Follow Angie on Twitter @Angie_Fayre

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Comment by Anne Coates on April 1, 2016 at 8:42

Beautifully written and moving story.

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