“Don’t climb on the headstones in the cemetery,” Mandy’s grandmother warned her.

“Yes, Nana.” Mandy said but almost added that she had no choice except to play in the cemetery. There were no children in her grandparents’ rural neighborhood except for Linda, the caretaker’s daughter. Her family lived at the cemetery entrance.

Mandy rode her bike down the narrow country road. When she’d agreed to spend a month of her summer vacation at her grandparents’ new house, she didn’t realize they lived a considerable distance from the nearest town. After a week, she had played all her video games to the point of exhaustion and was bored beyond the point of tears. Although she didn’t particularly like Linda, she was the only girl Mandy’s age within a five-mile radius. Grumbling to herself, Mandy bumped and jostled down the rough gravel road to the small stucco house near the cemetery’s gates.

“Linda’s fishing at the reservoir,” her mother told Mandy. “It’s just at the top of the hill—behind that row of willows.”

Mandy climbed the slope to the broad reservoir that caught the spring rains and stored them to water the lawns during the dry summer months. She found Linda fishing on the embankment.

Although Linda had an extra fishing pole, Mandy soon got tired of dangling a line in the still water.

“What kind of fish are we trying to catch?” she asked Linda, who seemed content to lay on the grass and stare up at the clouds sailing above them.

“There’s sunfish and carp mostly,” Linda said. “But there’s also a huge monster bass named Big Jack who’s lived in the reservoir for ages.”

Mandy nudged her line out of the water. Linda made it sound like Big Jack was as the size of a whale. She didn’t think she wanted to catch a monster.

“Are sunfish and carp good to eat?” she asked.

“Not really,” Linda said as she flicked her line across the water. “They’re too boney. My cat doesn’t even like them. Mostly I catch them and let them go.” She propped her pole against a rock, then settled back on the grass and studied the clouds again.

“Why are we trying to catch fish that are too boney to eat?” Mandy asked in exasperation.

“It’s something to do,” Linda said. Mandy looked across the steep, grassy slope that curved downhill to the oldest sector of the cemetery. All the gravestones in this section were heavily weathered because they were carved from sandstone. Since it was softer than granite, the stones had been eroded by a century of wind and rain.

“Let’s see who can find the oldest grave,” Mandy said as she started down the slope.

“I already know which one that is,” Linda told her. She led the way to a small, dilapidated obelisk set on a cracked concrete base.

“That’s Baby McWhirter,” she said. “Born July 5, 1862. She died one day later.”

“The writing’s so worn, I can hardly make it out.” Mandy squinted at the chiseled surface.

“You have to look real close to read it,” Linda told her. Mandy climbed onto the concrete base and peered at the obelisk. She could barely trace the grainy outline of the letters.

“Baby… Me…” She started to read aloud as she stood on her toes and held onto a worn bird fashioned on the top of the obelisk. The brittle sandstone carving broke free of its perch and Mandy tumbled backwards, clutching it in her hand.

“Ouch!” she cried as she fell back on the dry, compacted ground. The hard earth bit into her shins and the stone bird sliced her fingers.

“Are you all right?” Linda asked anxiously.

“Yeah, I guess,” Mandy said but her hip hurt and her fingers were bleeding.

“Do you think we can glue this back on?” she asked as she looked at the broken statue. Her grandmother had warned her about playing on the tombstones. Now she was afraid she’d get in trouble for disobeying her.

“Maybe my dad can fix it,” Linda said, but she sounded dubious. “I should have told you the older stones are pretty crumbly.”

Mandy set the stone bird at the base of the obelisk. It was smeared with her blood,

“We ought to wash your hand,” Linda said. “Let’s go back to the reservoir.”

As the girls scrambled up the hill, they didn’t notice a small, gray shadow, awakened by the scent of blood, that slipped out of the obelisk and followed after them.

Mandy shivered as she sat on a rock and splashed cold water over the cut on her hand.

“I’m freezing!” she complained to Linda. Despite the heat of the day, she felt as if a mantle of ice had been thrown across her shoulders as a cloud scuttled across the face of the sun.

“I’ve got a clean bandana you can wrap around your hand,” Linda said. She always carried a back pack stocked with both useless and useful items: jacks and a jump rope, colored chalk and construction paper, a tin of sugar cookies and a ball of string.

After she bandaged Mandy’s hand, she opened the tin of cookies.

Mandy ate one cookie after another. They tasted delicious. She felt as if she were eating cookies for the first time. “These are awesome,” she said with her mouth full.

“Yesterday you said they were stale,” Linda told her.

“Did I say that?” Mandy was astonished.

“Hey, I got a bite!” Linda redirected their attention to her fishing pole. She jumped up and tried to reel in her catch. The huge fish fought back ferociously as Linda pulled it to the surface of the water. They caught a glimpse of the great bass just before it broke the line and dived back into the depths of the reservoir.

“Did you see that?” Linda’s voice was hushed with awe. “I bet it was Big Jack!”

“Too bad you lost him,” Mandy said.

“Oh, I would have turned him loose anyway,” Linda said. “You don’t catch a fish like that.”

She gathered up the fishing poles and her backpack. “C’mon,” she told Mandy. “I want to tell my Mom we saw him!”

Mandy guided her bike down the slope while Linda skipped along beside her. Despite the encumbrance of the fishing poles and her backpack, she easily kept up with Mandy, who felt so stiff with cold that she could barely push her bike.

“Mom, guess what? I almost caught Big Jack!” Linda exclaimed as they burst into her house. Her mother was in the kitchen, baking biscuits.

“I thought your dad made up the story about that old fish,” she told Linda.

“No, he’s real and I almost caught him! Mandy saw him too!” Linda turned to her friend for corroboration.

“It was a really big fish,” Mandy agreed.

“Why don’t you girls wait around,” Linda’s mom said as she resumed her baking. “When the biscuits are ready, you can have one with plum jelly.”

“Let’s play cards,” Linda suggested. Mandy usually found card games boring, but she was grateful to stay in the house because she felt strangely cold. She nestled against the coverlet on Linda’s bed while Linda shuffled a card deck.

“Why didn’t the McWhirters name their baby?” Mandy blurted the question that kept circling through her mind

“It was only a day old,” Linda told her.

“So? They could have named it anyway … I always wanted a little sister.” Mandy didn’t know why she was babbling. She put her hand over her mouth to stop herself.

“It’s not that much fun having an older brother and sister,” Linda said as she dealt the cards. “Mine never wanted me to play with them. They were always busy with their own friends.”

“I’m glad we’re friends.” Mandy was astonished by her own admission. “If it weren’t for you, I don’t know what I’d do with myself.”

Linda answered with a broad smile.

As Mandy rode her bike home late that afternoon, she saw another shadow scuttle across the sun. The blanket of cold that had lifted from her shoulders as she and Linda ate hot biscuits smeared with homemade jelly abruptly returned. Mandy felt her pedal jam as her bike lurched forward. She flew over the handlebars and landed in a patch of milkweed.

“What happened?” her grandmother looked alarmed when Mandy limped home, pushing the bike alongside her.

“The brakes locked up,” Mandy said. “I fell and I hurt all over.”

“I’ll drive you to the emergency room!” Nana said as she helped Mandy onto the porch.

“I didn’t break anything. I’m Okay,” Mandy insisted as she eased onto the porch swing. A small shadow slipped off her shoulders and scurried through the back door as Nana bustled into the house and came back, car keys in hand.

“Your mother will never forgive me if anything happens to you,” she said. “We’re going to the ER.”

“Really, Nana, I’m all right,” Mandy told her grandmother. “I landed in some weeds.” She didn’t say that the milkweed felt like a mat of spider’s webs. It was an eerie sensation that she shook off then scrambled to her feet and walked the bike the rest of the way home, afraid to ride again.

“Some sugar cookies would make me feel better,” Mandy realized.

“If you’re wanting a cookie, I guess you don’t need to see a doctor,” Nana acknowledged.

She poured a large glass of milk and set out a plate of cookies for Mandy then washed and bandaged her granddaughter’s scraped knee.

“I’ll have your grandfather take a look at that bike,” Nana said. “I don’t want you to ride it if it’s not safe.”

They both jumped when they heard a loud crash reverberate from the kitchen. Mandy limped as she followed Nana to the door. The cookie jar lay shattered on the floor.

“Will you look at that!” Nana sighed. “I must have set it too close to the edge of the counter. Oh, what a shame! Your parents gave me that cookie jar for my birthday.”

“I picked it out,” Mandy remembered as she stooped to gather the broken cookies.

“Leave those, honey,” Nana said as she got the broom and dustpan. “I’ll sweep everything up.”

“I hate to waste good cookies.” Mandy looked at them wistfully.

“Why Mandy, I don’t remember you having such a sweet tooth,” Nana laughed as she swept the cookies and broken china into the dustpan. “Tell you what—we’ll drive into town tomorrow and buy some more.”

“Can I get another video game?” Mandy asked.

“Another one? You have so many!” Nana chided.

“I’ve played them forever!” Mandy pouted. “Besides, Mom gave me a whole month’s allowance in advance. I’ve got enough money.”

“All right,” Nana conceded. Neither she nor Mandy noticed the small, dark shadow that slipped into the trashcan and rummaged through the broken macaroons.

Late that night, Mandy awoke with a start. She lay under the covers, listening intently. After a while, she thought she heard someone mumbling in her ear.

“Nana?” she asked anxiously. The whispering stopped, but a moment later something tugged at her blanket. A pool of cold settled around her legs as if she had plunged feet first into an icy lake. She jerked the covers up over her shoulders and huddled in the darkness.

“Who are you?” she asked in a burst of fright and anger.

The shadow hands pulled at the coverlet again.

“You know who I am,” the whisper was distinct now. “You named me!”

“I don’t know who you are,” Mandy was beside herself with terror.

“I’m Baby Me!” the voice echoed. “Baby Me! Baby Me!”

“I don’t know any baby -” Mandy started to say. Then she remembered the name etched on the sandstone obelisk. “I guess I did say Baby Me before the top of the stone broke off in my hand … I’m sorry about that.” It was her turn to mumble as the cold shadow wrapped tightly around her shoulders.

“Don’t be sorry,” the voice was soft but clear. “No one ever named me before.”

“If you don’t want me to be sorry, then why are you bothering me? What do you want?” Mandy asked crossly.

“I want cookies—lots of cookies. And I want to lie in the sun and catch the biggest fish in the pond then ride on the wind and roll in the milkweed.”

“The sun will be up tomorrow and Nana will go to town to buy more cookies,” Mandy promised. It occurred to her that Baby Me might have broken the cookie jar, the fishing line, and the pedal on her bike.

“It’s not nice to meddle with other people’s things,” she grumbled.

“I’m sorry,” Baby Me said with a laugh. “Now we’re both sorry.”

Mandy thought of the sandstone bird she had broken off the obelisk. “I’ll get your stone fixed,” she said. “But I don’t suppose you can fix my bike or the cookie jar.”

That perplexity apparently stymied Baby Me. The cold eased away from Mandy’s shoulders and she found herself in control of the covers again.

“Mandy?” Nana’s voice broke through the darkness as she tapped on the bedroom door. “Who are you talking to?”

“Baby Me,” Mandy said without thinking.

“I’m certainly not going to baby you!” Nana sounded irritated as she turned on the light. “You’re a big girl.”

Mandy realized how ridiculous she sounded, but she didn’t want to explain that a baby’s ghost had followed her home. She only knew that she didn’t want to be left alone.

“Please, Nana, stay with me!” she pleaded. “I had the most awful dream.”

“All right,” her grandmother agreed. “I’ll sit right here until you fall asleep.”

It was a long time before Mandy was able to sleep again. When she did, she dreamed she was climbing a hill that flattened into a wide reservoir. She threw a fishing line into the water and a fish jumped out as big as a whale. When she gasped, it morphed into a plate of cookies.

The next morning, Mandy announced that she had changed her mind about driving into town with her grandmother to buy a video game.

“I’d rather play with Linda,” she said. “I mean—I can play a video game any time, but I’ll be going home next week and I won’t see Linda again for a while.”

“That’s true,” her grandmother nodded. “Friends are hard to come by. I’m so glad you found one.” She paused and looked at Mandy thoughtfully. “Just two days ago you were complaining that Linda was boring.”

“I changed my mind,” Mandy said with a shrug.

“Are you going to ride your bike?”

“No, I think I’ll walk.”

“Mandy, it’s natural to be afraid to ride after you’ve had a bad spill,”

Nana said. “But the best way to overcome that fear is to get on that bike again. Don’t let fear get the better of you.”

“I know … ” Mandy said then hesitated. She felt she couldn’t safely ride her bike until she’d gotten rid of Baby Me.

“Tell you what—I’ll give you a ride to Linda’s and pick you up on my way back,” Nana suggested.

“That’d be great!” Mandy was relieved. She didn’t trust Baby Me not to lock the pedals on her bike again. But she felt the cold chill settle uncomfortably over her shoulders as they drove towards the cemetery. Squirming uneasily, she wondered if Baby Me would tamper with the car’s brakes.

“I’m going to fix your stupid bird,” she mumbled and dug in the pocket where she’d shoved her wad of spending money.

“Did you say something, Mandy?” Nana asked.

“Uhm … no,” Mandy said, embarrassed that Nana had overheard her.

Mandy found Linda’s father repairing a lawn mower in the tool shed next to their house.

“Well hello there, Mandy,” he greeted her in his laconic drawl. “Linda’s in the house helping her mom with some chores.”

“I wanted to give you this,” Mandy said and held out her handful of rumpled bills. “It’s to get the stone bird fixed on top of Baby McWhirter’s stone. It broke off when I was trying to read the inscription.”

“I’m glad you owned up to that,” Linda’s father said. “But don’t worry. I can probably drill a rebar peg into the stone and reattach it. You keep your money.”

“I want you to have it,” Mandy insisted. “Linda says the old section doesn’t have any endow … ” Mandy stumbled over the difficult world and said, “There isn’t any money to keep it up. Maybe this will help.” Did she imagine it, or did the shadow release its grip on her shoulders?

“That’s right nice of you,” Linda’s father seemed pleased with her offer.

I’m not really that nice, Mandy thought as she handed him her allowance. I

just want to get rid of Baby Me.

To her dismay, the shadow rippled after her, curling around her ankles like an icy snare as she hurried into the house.

She found Linda under the dining room table, polishing the carved legs. Normally Mandy would have made her excuses and gone home, but this time she asked for a dust rag and crawled under the table to help.

“Just use a dab of furniture polish,” Linda demonstrated as she tipped the bottle onto her cloth.

Mandy didn’t like dusting but she desperately needed to talk to someone who might know how to deal with spirits. She gritted her teeth and rubbed her rag over the oak table legs.

“Linda?” she asked after moment’s silence. “Do ghosts ever come into your house?”

“I wondered when you were going to ask me that,” Linda laughed. “Everyone does. The truth is, I’ve never seen a ghost even though I live in a cemetery.”

Mandy didn’t feel comforted.

“Have you ever heard one?” she remembered how Baby Me had whispered in her ear.

“Ghosts don’t talk,” Linda told her. “Once someone’s buried, they stay buried.”

“I don’t think they do … not always.” Mandy said as she sat back on her heels. Taking a deep breath, she explained the cold shadow that had followed her home. “It locked the brakes on my bike and broke the cookie jar and woke me up in the middle of the night,” she concluded.

“That sounds like your conscience. You’re feeling bad about that baby’s stone.” Linda didn’t sound as if she believed Mandy’s story.

“I’m not making this up!” Mandy insisted. Linda stopped polishing the table legs and looked at her thoughtfully.

“Maybe you should tell Baby Me to go away,” she said.

“Just like that?” Mandy asked.

“It wouldn’t hurt. My dad says honesty’s always the best policy. I bet that applies to ghosts too. Just tell her she’s getting in the way.”

“I guess I could do that,” Mandy said. She got up slowly and squared her shoulders but the shadow didn’t loosen its grip. “I ought to take her back to her grave,” she decided.

“You want me to come with you?” Linda asked.

“Thanks, but I think I need to do this alone.”

She walked briskly to the old section of the cemetery and went directly to Baby Me’s grave. As she stood in front of the sandstone obelisk, she could feel a coldness pooling around her ankles again.

“You’re home now, Baby Me,” she said aloud. “You need to stay here and stop following me around.”

A soft voice seemed to whisper on the wind. Did she imagine it or did the voice said thank you?

“For what?” she asked in astonishment.

An indistinct murmur swept over her with a sudden breeze. Mandy tried to shake the susurration away, but the mumbling formed audible words that strung into thoughts.

“Thank you,” the voice said, “for letting me see the jumping fish in the water … flying down the road on your bike … tasting sugar cookies … warm blankets … feeling the colors of the sun … all the things I didn’t see or feel or taste or smell on the one day I was alive. Now, when I sleep in my mother’s arms, I will have the most wonderful dreams.”

“You’re welcome…” Mandy’s voice dropped to a whisper. She was amazed that Baby Me marveled at all the little things she took for granted.

“There’s more to life than fish and cookies, though.” She no longer felt ridiculous, speaking to the wind. “I guess you can stick around a little longer, if you’d like.”

“It’s all right,” Baby Me whispered. “I don’t mind sleeping now.”

The wind brushed softly past her shoulders. “Think of me when you see fish swimming, when the wind is in your face, when you smell green leaves. Remember me and I will dream of the world of sunlight.”

“Goodbye, Baby Me,” Mandy murmured as the cool wind slipped away. A moment later, she felt the sun spread its warmth over her shoulders as it swept the shadows under the tombstones.

She marveled at the sun on her face and the wind in her hair and all the minute sensations she usually ignored. Even the simple act of walking across the grass felt exhilarating. Now, every time she did the most ordinary thing, she knew she would think of Baby Me.

“I’ll be grateful for each new day,” she said aloud although she was speaking to herself. “Each new day,” she repeated and realized the very act of breathing was a gratuitous gift to be to be cherished and appreciated.

Published in Stories