This story is by Joanna Dunn Samson and won the Grand Prize in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joanna Dunn Samson is a graduate of the Bennington College MFA program in fiction writing and a veteran of the Yale Writers Workshops. She writes short stories and essays, as well as feature articles in the local paper about animal rescue programs and issues. She is currently working on her first novel, The Trouble with Crows. This is her first grand prize in a Short Fiction Break writing contest after two previous honorable mentions: “The Poo-Poo Man” and “The Holy Instant.”
At first I was delighted when Aunt June returned from the dead. I had adored her as a child and even more so as an adult. She was the most competent woman I knew. She had managed her sixty-two-acre farm alone after her husband Ed died in a tractor accident when she was twenty-six. She could repair heavy equipment and wield a chainsaw. She could tell the difference between the whistle of a Broad Winged Hawk and the raspy shriek of a Red Tail. As a kid, I followed her around the farm with the same devotion as the pack of stray dogs that never left her side.
But after a while, June’s miraculous return began to feel less like a cosmic gift and more like a haunting. Unlike the live June, who had been placable and easy-going, the ghostly June was usually in a foul mood and complained nonstop about something I did or didn’t do on her farm, which she’d left to me on her death. These days, June and I bickered—a lot. I hated that.
She’d also developed a baffling compulsion to give advice, and not the Plant-your-iris-bulbs-in-November kind. It was more personal, often embarrassingly intimate. Like the time she insisted I have sex with Crawford Hicks.
I’d been appalled. “Ford Hicks? Are you nuts? He’s a pig!”
“Did I say you have to marry him? Just fuck him. It’ll do you good. You spend too much time monitoring woodpecker nestlings and relocating black snakes,” June said with a wave of her hand, dismissive of my work as a wildlife biologist. “Plus, he’s not only charming, he’s got a very . . . big . . . dong.” She held her hands a foot apart and cast me a meaningful look. “God’s lips to my ears.”
See what I mean? Seriously, what dead person says that kind of thing?
I was rummaging around in the upstairs bedroom among my boxes of accumulated stuff and June’s cartons of belongings I hadn’t had the heart to take to Goodwill when the air turned cold and the smell of cigarette smoke permeated the room.
“Just look at all this shit.” June’s voice was coarse and raspy. She wasn’t quite visible, more like a lightly sketched drawing. “What a friggin’ mess.”
“Jesus!” I said, my heart pounding. “I wish you’d knock or something.” I ignored her gripe about the mess—she’d hardly been a paragon of household order when she was alive. “And that cigarette smoke!” I waved my hand in front of my face to disperse the cigarette smoke that was there and yet not there. “It’s disgusting.”
That was another crazy thing—the smell of cigarette smoke that accompanied her visitations. June had never touched a cigarette in her life. I missed the smell of live June; it had been like a warm, safe embrace of vanilla, cedar, and freshly turned earth.
“How many times do we have to go over this?!” June said irritably, her shape becoming more defined. She made a fist and punched at the box; it passed soundlessly through the cardboard. “No substance, remember? Plus, enough already about the smoke! I can’t explain it—do you think it was my dying wish to smell like cigarettes for time everlasting? Besides, when did you get so sanctimonious? You sound like Eunice.”
Wow. That hurt. Eunice, my mother and June’s sister-in-law, was a fussbudget and a scold. June never liked Eunice, and for good reason—she was uptight, prissy, an intolerable snob, and impossible to please.
“You take that back!” I hissed. “What’s gotten into you? Is it the green dress again?”
Eunice had been no fan of June’s, either, and tragically, the universe gifted Eunice with the final move in their long-standing match of emotional chess: she buried June in a frilly green silk dress instead of the much-loved overalls June had specified in her will. “Imagine,” June said for the umpteenth time as she made a futile attempt to pull off a satin bow, “spending eternity in this fucking dress!”
I sighed; the dress was an abomination. “I know. It sucks. But don’t take it out on me. That was all Eunice.”
June grunted and stared out the window, melancholy and out-of-sorts. Who could blame her? She died of a massive heart attack—yet here she was. Gone but not gone. Despite the nauseating smell of cigarette smoke and the barrage of criticism and unwanted advice, I hated to see her so miserable. It was making her smaller somehow, dimmer than she had in the early days of her return. I sat on the box next to her. “Auntie J,” I said softly, “what else is bothering you?”
June stared at her hands and snorted. “You mean, other than being dead?” She shook her head. “It sure ain’t what I thought it’d be. I figured it’d be lights out, finito—you know, the Big Sleep. No more worries about broken tractors or moldy hay; no more achy bones, constipation, or vaginal dryness. But this—” she looked around the room and waved her hand vaguely, “—this is nowhere, but I know it’s nowhere, and that’s the problem—the knowing. I wonder, did I do something wrong? Is this some temporary state, or forever?” She shivered. “It’s the forever part that’s terrifying.”
She began to rock back and forth. “At first, I thought maybe I came back because Ed was waiting for me, but he’s not here. I died in this house; that’s why I’m stuck here, inside. But Ed? He died in the north field fifty-nine years ago. What if he wandered out there, alone, for a long time, and he faded away because there was nothing concrete to hold him here?”
We’d had this conversation before. June only appeared inside the cottage, never outside in the garden, around the chicken coop, or in the pastures. She had a theory about that: she believed her spirit was tethered to the place of her death and to her belongings.
A thought flashed through my mind. “Wait. You just said Ed died in the field, but I thought he died of an aneurism on the tractor—that the farm hand who found him had to pull him off the tractor.”
June stopped rocking. “Yeah, so?”
“So maybe Ed’s spirit wasn’t consigned to the field. Maybe he’s tethered to the tractor,” I was getting excited, “and—”
“—the tractor’s in the barn!” June began to fade, fast. “Burn it!” Her voice grew faint. “Burn it to the ground!” Then she was gone.
I stared, puzzled, at the space where June had been just seconds before. Burn it to the ground? What? The barn? A breeze rustled the leaves of the old oak tree outside the open window. Suddenly, I understood. After Ed died, a grief-stricken June had entombed the tractor in the barn—the exterior wall with the sliding barn doors had been replaced with a solid wall with no opening. The only way to get the tractor out—and perhaps to release Ed’s spirit—was to demolish the wall. I’d been thinking about replacing the old barn anyway, so why not burn it to the ground? It wouldn’t be arson—June had left me a small fortune in railroad stock when she left me the farm, so I didn’t need to file an insurance claim for the money to rebuild.
It was a workable plan.
It took me two days to haul everything out of the barn and relocate the cats that lived in the rafters; for two nights, June wailed from sunset to sunrise, and the house reeked of cigarette smoke. It took me an hour to douse the barn with gasoline and twenty-four for the fire to reduce the barn to ashes. When the smoke cleared, the only thing left standing was the scorched hunk of metal that had been Ed’s tractor. While the cinders died, I carried all the boxes of June’s belongings stored in the house and as much of her furniture as I could manage outside and stacked them next to the tractor.
Later that night, I sat on the porch steps as the moon rose over the trees and admired my work. Maybe the plan had succeeded: June was not wailing, and the smell of cigarette smoke was gone. As I stood to go inside for some much-needed sleep, I heard the faint sound of laughter, almost like wind chimes, beyond the charred ruins. I squinted into the dark: two shadows danced in the moonlight that filtered through the trees, and for the briefest of moments, the acrid smell of smoke and charred wood gave way to the sweet smell of vanilla, cedar, and freshly turned earth.
I laughed and went inside. Tomorrow I’d call an architect about the new barn, and while I was at it, maybe I’d give Ford Hicks a call after all.
June was right—what could it hurt?