Land of the Lonely
Updated: Sep 2
First Round Entry, 2020 NYCMIDNIGHT Short Story Contest
Genre: Ghost Story | Prompts: Birdfeeder, Handmade
When Fraser meets Millie, he thinks he found a grandmum to adopt.
He doesn’t realize that he also may have found something much more.
“Shoo, you wee bastard!” I charge at the squirrel and it darts away, quicker than lightning. “I didn’t spend a week making a bird feeder just to watch ya furry-tailed rodents steal my bird seed.” I groan, knowing good and well my victory’s hollow. The little thief’ll be back the minute I go inside. “Bird seed’s too spendy for a college bloke,” I blether on, as if the vermin understands. Not that they’d give a feck if they did.
As I turn to make my way inside, I stop dead.
That’s when I see her.
Her midnight hair flows like silk in the breeze and her skin looks like fresh cream...a bonnie lass, no doubt. She’s gliding through the old cemetery behind my yard, wearing a fancy plaid gown with ruffled sleeves and dorset buttons. The dress looks eighteenth century, although American history isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
It all seems a bit odd, but who am I to be passing judgement? I’m chasing squirrels like I’m off my head. I smile, but she continues on until she disappears into the trees.
Just as well. At semester’s end, I’ll be heading back to Scotland. I was supposed to stay in America all year, but I’m desperately lonely. My one roommate just sits on the blasted computer all day and the other one’s never around. In my computer science classes, no one talks to anyone, ever.
Before I came, I thought I might stay after graduation, living the American dream with a big fancy house. But I don’t want that now. Didn’t take me long to figure out that America is the land of the lonely. What’s the point of a big house if I’ll be sitting in it all day by myself?
At the thought, I go out and check my mailbox. I’m waiting for my acceptance letter to return to university in Scotland come January. But it’s not here yet.
As I flip through my mail, my next-door neighbor gives me a wave. She’s a wee old maw with hunched shoulders and raisin skin, working to pull the weeds from her flowerbed.
I wave back, trying to be neighborly.
She stands and approaches, a friendly smile spreading across her face. “I’m Millie.” She wipes the sweat from her brow. “I’ve been meaning to come by and say hello.”
I return the smile. “Fraser Reid.” A cool breeze kicks up, and I fold my arms. Fall is settling in.
“Scottish?” Her eyebrows raise.
“Aye.” My smile widens as I nod. “Edinburgh.”
“Well, then. Welcome to America.” Her eyes brighten. “So, what brings you to Georgia?”
“Graduate school. Computer science.”
“Computers.” She shrugs. “I don’t know a darned thing about them.”
I shake my head. “I’d prefer to talk other things anyway. Anythin’ else.”
She laughs. “Well then, Mr. Reid. We’ll get on just fine.” She sighs. “How do you like garden-fresh tomatoes?”
My smile grows. She reminds me of my grandmum. “They’re wonderful. The stuff in the supermarkets here is shite, if ya don’t mind me sayin’.”
Millie nods. “Nothing comes close to what you pick from the earth, does it?”
“Aye.” I look at her, expecting she’ll go inside and fetch the promised tomatoes. After a stretch of silence, I ask, “So, d’you have them, then?”
“Me? No.” She puts a hand on her hip. “The buds on my vines are refusing to ripen.” She points to her backyard. “They aren’t getting enough sun.” She flashes me a smile so wide I can see the dimples in her sunken cheeks. “It’s late in the season, I know, but maybe you’d replant them in your yard for me? You’ve got the sun there.”
I can’t help but smile back. “Oh, I see. You’re charmin’ me over for a favor.”
“That I am.” She nods. “At least with whatever charm I got left with a face in need of a good ironing. Let me tell you, if I was twenty-five, you’d already be digging the pot holes.”
I chuckle. “I’d say you’ve got me good and roped in as it is.”
“I have?” Her eyes widen. “Good boy.” She winks. “They say tending a garden’s a cure for loneliness.”
I nod. A wise old woman, she is. “Aye. I’ll give it a go.”
She waves before heading back to her flowerbed.
The smile stays on my face as I go inside. I’ve never felt so comfortable with someone I’ve just met. Maybe if Millie is my friend, the rest of the semester won’t be so bad.
* * *
I’m putting Millie’s budding tomato vines on new stakes when I see the lass in the plaid again. Same exact dress, same stunning face. This time I get a better look, and I’d think she was a ghost if I believed in them. I know it’s rubbish, but she has an otherworldly glow to her skin. And who wears the same medieval dress again and again? Not to mention that she’s always in a cemetery.
She looks at me, and our eyes meet. She’s just so damn lovely. When she flashes me a quick, closed-mouth smile, my breath stops in my chest. “Hello,” I manage to say, but she disappears into the trees again.
I never thought I’d be wishing I was born centuries ago, but I find myself hoping that right now. I shake it off. This loneliness is taking my sanity.
Within the week, the direct sunlight ripens the tomatoes. I’m plucking them off the vines when Millie pops her head over our shared fence, smiling. “Looking good, Mr. Reid. I expect to see a basket of those beauties on my porch.”
“You can be sure of it.” I nod, continuing my work. But the evening chill must be settling in. My teeth chatter. I hope my hard-earned tomatoes don’t die in the cold. When I put on my sweater, I can’t help but ask the question that’s been nagging me. “This may sound a wee bit mad...” I begin, trailing off.
“Hit me with it, Reid.” She nods. “What are neighbors for if not gossiping?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask, my voice low.
“Sure, why not?” She shrugs. “You see one in the cemetery?”
“I dunno.” My face twists. She’ll surely think I’m off my rocker if I tell her what I saw. I blow out a long breath. “Do you know about anything happenin’ around here say, eighteenth century?”
She looks up in thought. “Well, the famous Battle of Kettle Creek was fought near here during the revolutionary war. A bloody one. The British were defeated right quick.”
“Aye.” I nod. “That could be it.”
“Although if that’s the formula for ghosts, you should be well-versed.” She tilts her head. “Your people took quite a beating in wars as well.”
“That’s for sure.” I nod. “Those damn redcoats.”
She cracks up. “Those damn redcoats, indeed.”
I join her in laughter. “I guess I should be thankin’ you...for finally puttin’ them in their place.”
“Well, that’s painfully true, isn’t it?” When she’s done laughing, she says, “You’re a handsome young man. You shouldn’t be spending all your time alone.”
“On that, we agree.” I smile, quickly adding, “On the alone part, anyway.”
“All right, kiddo, we’ll have to do something about that,” she says. “Now I have a question for you.”
“Where’d you get that bird feeder? It’s lovely.”
“Oh, that, I made it myself.”
“You did not!” Her jaw hangs wide open. “It’s stunning.”
“Ah, Millie, you got me again.” I shake my head. “Would you like me to build you one?”
“Reid, I’d love that.”
* * *
I ring Millie’s doorbell, but she doesn’t answer. I leave the tomatoes and my handmade bird feeder on the step, disappointed that she isn’t around. Sad to say, she’s my only friend in America.
When evening rolls around, I head out and check the tomatoes. I see that my bird feeder has been hung in Millie’s backyard, and I smile. She got that up in no time flat.
I have a sit on my back patio, waiting to chase the rascally squirrels away.
That’s when I see her again. The lass.
The beauty, the angel, walking behind my yard again. The same plaid dress, the same porcelain skin. But this time, dusk is settling in, and a pearly glow surrounds her. She’s an exquisite phantom in the evening light. Our eyes meet, and she gives me a smile that could light up a starless night. I couldn’t have imagined such a sight in my wildest dreams. I wave at her, and I can hardly believe my eyes when she waves back before she disappears.
I’m running out of explanations of how she could be real, and my stomach clenches. She just might be a bloody ghost.
I should be good and creeped out, but all I can think about is my misfortune. If she was alive, I’d find a way to kiss those delicate lips, touch that skin of silk, run my fingers through that mane of hair, thick and lush.
My heart aches for her, and I wonder once more, if my mind is slipping.
I can’t be falling for a ghost.
* * *
The last tomatoes have ripened, and I can’t wait to share them with Millie. We ought to be celebrating my green thumb, but I haven’t seen her this past week. I must admit, I’m a wee bit concerned. She’s of that age where things happen.
I go to my mailbox and I can’t believe what’s there. My university acceptance papers. I rush inside and fill them out in no time flat. Then I put them in the return envelope and head out to put them in the mailbox straight away.
But a cold shiver stops me, and I find myself studying them, wondering why I’m not jumping to get them in a fast as I can. It means I’ll be returning home in January.
I decide that it must be because of my worries for Millie, so I start on my way to her doorstep, but I stop. I don’t know why, but my nerves are getting the best of me. Instead, I go back inside my house. Perhaps I should have a nip before leaving to check on her.
Warmed by the whiskey, I get ready to head back out. But to my pleasant surprise, there’s a knock on my door.
It has to be my sweet adopted grandmum. No one else comes to visit.
When I open the door, I freeze. I’m sure my heart stops beating in my chest, not that I’d feel it if it has. I can’t feel anything.
It’s the lass.
The ghost. The eighteenth-century woman. The stunning beauty who haunts my dreams. She’s just as beautiful close up, if not moreso, but she’s dressed in a faded t-shirt and jeans.
My lips quiver, but I can’t find my words. I want to reach out to touch her, just to make sure she’s real, but I stop myself.
She stuffs her hands in her back pockets when she says, “Hi, I’m Kinsley.” She smiles, and it’s that smile. The one that’s too magnificent to be true. But it must be, because here it is.
I finally find my voice. “Fraser. Fraser Reid.”
“Hey, Fraser…” she trails off, inhaling. “So, I just wanted to say thank you.” She bites her cherry lips, her ivory cheeks turning a lovely shade of pink. “Truly. For the bird feeder. And replanting my tomatoes so they didn’t die. I love them both. It was a bit odd, but I'm really happy.”
Confusion settles in like wintry fog. “You’re welcome,” I manage to say. “So, you live next door?”
“I do.” Her brows furrow. “I always see you on my way to work, so I thought you knew.”
Why hasn’t Millie ever mentioned Kinsley? More confused than ever, I reply, “You’re always in the cemetery. Wearing a dress.”
“Yeah, that.” She sighs, rolling her eyes. “I walk to work, which is just on the other side of the cemetery. I’m a bartender at The Cannon, at least for now until I finish college. They think they’re the Medieval Times of dive bars or something. They make us wear these stupid period-piece outfits. We make good tips though.”
“Oh, I see.” My mind is spinning so fast, I can barely keep up with it.
She smiles. “You’re Scottish?”
She laughs, and it’s every bit as wonderful as I’d imagined.
“Your accent. It’s cute,” she says, her shy voice sweet like honey. “Anyway, this is so weird, but bird feeders and garden tomatoes are seriously my two favorite things. She avoids my gaze, her face flushing again. “I figured we must have some things in common.”
“It would seem so.”
Kinsley nods as she stares at her fidgeting hands. “Sorry it’s taken me so long to introduce myself. I’ve kind of become a recluse, ever since...” her voice trails off.
Pain flashes through her gorgeous eyes. Whatever it is, I wish I could take it away. I brighten my grin and reply, “Well, you’re not being a recluse now.”
She smiles and shrugs. “Yeah, I guess not.” She closes her eyes tight before opening them and meeting my gaze.
I find my words. “The Cannon, the place you work...it’s a good place for a pint, is it?” I ask, rubbing my chin.
She smiles wide and her dimples appear. “Probably not as good as what you’re used to in Scotland, but I can take you there if you want.”
“That’d be lovely.” I nod. I’m acting casual, but my heart is bursting.
As I’m closing my front door, I catch a glimpse of my university papers, still sitting on the counter. Maybe I won’t be mailing them just yet.
After we leave my house, Kinsley guides me through her backyard into the cemetery. She stops before a headstone and once again, she glows in the dusk light.
I look down to see that one of the solar lights that line the pathway through the grounds sits right where she stands. That explains how she glowed the other evening. I shake my head, scolding myself for believing in ghosts.
There isn’t such a thing.
“Why are you stopping here?” I nod to the headstone.
A wistful smile tugs at the corners of her lips. “I always stop here to say hi to my grandma. She raised me. She brought me out of my shell after I lost my parents.” Kinsley clears her throat. “Well, until she passed away two years ago. I relapsed a bit.”
“I’m so sorry.” I approach the front of the headstone, shivering from a burst of cool air that hits my cheeks. A chill rattles my bones when I see what’s etched into the stone.
Emilia (Millie) Smith
* * *
A heartfelt thanks to Shelby Van Pelt, Katina Ferguson, Roland Royster, and Leslie Colley for being all around amazing help.