There was a little girl dancing in the graveyard.
Getting sent to the cemetery for misbehaving — haunting, thieving, possessing, that kind of thing — was pretty standard. They’re not supposed to make trouble, but the little ones have trouble remembering the rules.
Scholarly types say it’s because their spirit aren’t strong enough yet when they pass. As such, it’s harder for them to manage more than basic cognitive functions.
I say it’s because they’re kids and kids forget the rules when breaking them is more fun.
So there she was, skipping around the headstones and giggling just this side of cackling, as only a child can. I rubbed at my arms, pushing the goosebumps back under the skin, and trudged past like I couldn’t see her.
“Do you want to play?” Her voice spilled over me like cream going bad: sweet and light, but with a hint of something wrong around the edges.
“Can’t do that, honey,” I said and then grimaced. Dammit. It’s tough to convince a child that you can’t see her once you start making conversation.
She skipped up next to me, delighted. “Cause I was bad?”
In for a penny. “That’s right. And I got work to do.”
“What kind of work?” She stood up on her tiptoes, trying to get a better look at my bag.
I shrugged the backpack higher on my shoulder, blocking her curious little eyes. “Some of this, some of that. Just work stuff.” Kids didn’t really care about grown-up work, and some things were just better left explained by someone else anyway. “What did you do that was bad?” I asked, hoping to distract her.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
I nodded. Of course not. It never was. Some things not even death could change.
“I just wanted to play,” she went on. “Momma told me the best part of having a little sister was I’d always have someone to play with. But she couldn’t hear me.”
“Uh huh.” I reached the headstone I’d been sent here for. The paper tape on my new canister of salt whispered in protest as I ripped it off the spout. I started pouring, setting a circle around the grave. “So you started talking to her in the mirrors?”
It wouldn’t be the first time or the last. Ghosts get lonely like anyone else.
“Nope.” She popped her mouth around the p sound, and it grabbed the back of my neck with icy claws. “The mirrors are no fun. You have to sit really still. Jilly doesn’t like to sit still.” She nodded solemnly, about to impart some great wisdom. “Momma says babies always have somewhere to go.”
I squished tapers down at the cardinal points of my circle. We’d had one of those hard and fast summer storms a few hours ago and the dirt was still trying to recover. That was just fine with me; a little mud holds a candle up nice and steady. A lot of mud makes a big mess. Dry ground means digging little holes, and the groundskeepers gripe about that.
“What are you doing, anyway? Momma doesn’t like messes,” she said. “She won’t be happy if she comes here and sees you made a mess.”
I glanced at the headstone I’d just closed off and then at her. Her hair and the edges of her skirt swirled in a breeze I couldn’t feel, but I shivered anyway. “Your momma comes here?”
“Of course she does. Every Sunday after church. But she might not be able to come this weekend, what with Jilly being hurt.” She braced her hands on the headstone and scooted her butt up onto the top. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. But I think she’s getting better. Momma told her the doctors said she was gonna get to come and play with me soon.”
Dammit. “You’re Orla?”
“Duh. It says so right here on the sign.” She rolled her eyes and gestured down to the name engraved on the stone she was treating like a park bench.
I swallowed the lump of sick that forced its way up my throat. I hadn’t been expecting my spirit to be a child. Shoulda checked the damn dates. “Pretty name,” I croaked. “Old-fashioned.”
“I know.” She made a face. “Daddy gave it to me ‘cause I’m a special princess, but no one ever knows what it means.”
I chanted quick and quiet so she wouldn’t hear, still kicking myself. I didn’t like making friends with the spirits I came here to seal. It just made everything harder.
Harder for me anyway. It was hard on them no matter what.
“Hey, what are you doing?” she asked, twisting around.
“Sealing you in your grave.” I squeezed a drop of blood from my fingertip. As it hit the salt, her breeze ripped through me like broken glass.
She hopped off her headstone, but she couldn’t get out now. She crossed her little arms and glared. “But then how will Jilly and I play?”
“Jilly won’t come here. She’s gone on to someplace else now.” I concentrated on the bridge of her nose because I couldn’t bring myself to look into those pretty bright eyes. “You were a very bad girl, Orla.”
Her lower lip quivered. “Do I have to have a time out?”
“Yes you do.” I felt tears filling up my eyes. Some nights my job sucked.
“For how long? Three minutes?” she asked, her tone wheedling and sweet. She’d probably gotten out of trouble a thousand times with that little voice.
I didn’t answer her. Forever is too long, especially for the dead. “You killed someone, Orla,” I said instead. Her own sister — Jilly — from the sound of things. “That’s not allowed.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” she shouted, stomping her foot.
The power running through me drained into the ground, leaving me hollow. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“I just wanted to play with Jilly.” She curled up on the soggy grass and buried her face in her skirt. “Momma said we could always play.”