Time flies when you’re forging links in the chain of life. Almost a year ago I was approached by editors and fellow authors from FVP about contributing to a short story anthology for Christmas 2020. It had been forty YEARS since I wrote a short story, and I was drafting book 2 and up to my eyeballs in line edits for Dreamwalkers (now available in print on Amazon!), so my first reaction was hmmm…
My fabulous mentor and editor at the time, Carla Lewis, reminded me that a different genre of work would add to my publishing cred and be a lot of fun during the dark draggy days of winter. So I agreed to give it a shot. The anthology’s theme would be Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and the only parameters for the story were that it be set at Christmas, and have two things: a haunting and a lesson learned. I sat down to write, thinking since I love Christmas and Dickens’ theme of redemption, this couldn’t be too hard.
Wrong. I couldn’t think of anything. My brain was a complete blank. Scrambling for inspiration, I started thinking about ghost stories in general, and places I’d been to with a haunted reputation. The one and only “ghostly” experience I ever had was in Tombstone, where people wander the streets in period dress and famous events of the past are reenacted for tourists almost daily. Lots of haunts there, but the one I saw wasn’t part of any ghost tour. We were in a tiny house-turned-restaurant, in broad daylight, looking for lunch.
She was a little girl, maybe eight years old. She was absolutely solid, but silent. She looked directly at me and ducked into a hall, her high button shoes making no sound. My sense of it was oddly like a memory, like when you see an old, familiar picture or hear a song you haven’t heard in many years— Oh yes, I remember that— and the music takes you somewhere else for a moment in time. When I saw her, my matter-of-fact self had to make a serious adjustment: It turns out that you don’t have to believe in ghosts to see one.
I asked the owner about her, and she was surprised I’d seen her, as very few people ever have. Instead, they hear her. A laugh, some footsteps. Sometimes, the owner said, she likes to ring the bell on the hostess stand. They didn’t know her name.
But I did.
“She’s Emily,” I said. I don’t know where that even came from. I just knew. Meanwhile my husband and son were looking at me as if I’d grown another head. We had a terrific lunch, and I didn’t see or know anything else in that house or for the rest of the trip.
Now I had my ghost, a tiny seed of a story.
As I said, I love Christmas, but many years ago one of them was shadowed by tragedy. A student of mine had a father who was a police officer, and that officer was shot and killed in the pursuit of a shoplifter a week before Christmas. It devastated the family and the school. Our entire community was rocked by it, and I think of it with sorrow every year. At the time I wondered what could have happened, what small thing might have prevented this horrible event, if only there’d been a warning.
Meanwhile, I was editing Dreamwalkers, which takes place in the fictional New Mexico town of Zia. The oldest house in the historic square is the setting for much of the action. A house with a history—at one point the first public library in the county, and later home to an ice cream parlor, it seemed the perfect place for a ghost story of love, family and a way to rescue two families, a century apart, from the unthinkable.
The other eight authors have written unique, beautiful stories. I’m honored to be included with them. We had a few publication bumps along the way, but there was a Christmas miracle called Midnight Tide Publishing, who brought our book to life!
My story is called “Yesterday’s News,” and I hope it brings some joy and hope to the darkest days of winter.
Here’s a sneak preview:
“You don’t have to believe in ghosts to see one,” explains the Zia Ghost Tour guide, her name badge— “Heather”—glinting in the lamplight. “Is everyone ready? Show me your wrist bands.”
A dozen dutiful arms shoot up, and their luminescent bracelets wiggle like a conga line of glow worms. The last cold streaks of daylight are fading fast in the deep sapphire New Mexico sky.
“We’re standing on Zia’s most deadly corner,” Heather continues. “There are over twenty documented shoot-outs right here at the corner of 3rd and Orchard.”
“Now there’s some lovely holiday spirit,” I mutter, hitching my bag back up onto my shoulder. The camcorder inside smacks into my hip.
“Shh, we’re supposed to blend in. You wanna get busted?”
Matt’s right, of course. We can’t afford the $30 apiece to learn about historic Zia Square’s ten most famous ghosts. That’s $3 per ghost, each! Even worse, shit rolls downhill, and when a cop’s kids get caught breaking the law, it’s an avalanche. So we’re hanging back at the edge of the group, acting like we’re in the vicinity only by coincidence.
The tour group crosses the Street of Death to a wooden sidewalk that stretches the length of the square. At the far end sits the small Spanish church and the former territorial courthouse that’s now a restaurant/museum. A tumbled combination of original dilapidated buildings, original-but-restored buildings, and fake new-but-look-old buildings line the other three sides.
To keep our disguise intact, we stop and pore over the Ghost Tour flyer, which lists the buildings and their histories, waiting until the group gets ahead by a few yards. In a few minutes, it’ll be dark, and no one will notice if there are two extra glow-in-the-dark bracelets making their way towards the hangouts of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
We thought Black Friday would be the perfect day to hunt for ghosts, since there wouldn’t be much of a crowd. Everyone goes Christmas shopping, right? And the ones who didn’t are at home battling a turkey hangover. No one’s going to get haunted at the Z-Mart, so here we are. We figured it would be the perfect time to capture footage of a real live ghost and win the $20,000 prize offered by the Zia Sun.
We were wrong. The square has been packed all afternoon with people shopping for Authentic New Mexico Tourist Crap, only thinning out as the sun set and shops began to close. The sweet shop and the souvenir stand will stay open until after the tour is over, hoping to scrape a final few dollars out of the ghost-lovers’ wallets.
By then, we’ll be long gone.
As the group shuffles down the wooden sidewalk, Heather sets the stage with colorful local stories woven with historical details. When they stop at the Billy the Kid bookstore, Heather details how The Kid was jailed here in Zia. Based on statewide claims, this legendary juvenile delinquent appeared in every town in New Mexico during the two years he was at large, but at least here in Zia, there’s an actual record.
We duck into the doorway, put on our unauthorized fake bracelets, and then fall into step with everyone moving to the next stop.
“Besides the church and the courthouse, number 47 Orchard Street is the oldest building on the square, and one of the oldest surviving in Zia,” Heather announces as the long, sloped roof looms overhead, blocking the twilight stars. “It was built in 1902 by Alexander Frost, a wealthy rancher, for his young wife, Josephine Winters. It was a luxurious home for this area at the time, with oak floors and a stamped tin ceiling. The real luxury was a water pump in the kitchen and bath, and an actual flushing toilet.”
“Can we go in?” asks a middle-aged woman amid appreciative murmurs from the crowd.
“Sorry, it’s not open to the public right now. It’s undergoing renovations, and we’re working with the state to designate it as an historic landmark. This was Zia’s first public library in the 1930s.”
I wish we’d go inside somewhere. I’ve had a sore throat for a few days and this cold air isn’t helping.
A couple in their mid-twenties cup their faces and peer through a gap in the boarded-up window. The man flicks a flashlight across the inside, grumbling that he can’t see anything.
“There have been reports of paranormal activity here since the 1920s, when Josephine died,” Heather continues, paraphrasing the flyer’s paragraph about the house. “She experienced a great deal of tragedy in her life. She had four children and lost three of them in a scarlet fever outbreak during the spring of 1912. The oldest son, Alex Jr., survived, but he left home after a falling-out with his father, only to be killed in Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus in 1916.”
“A falling-out with his father,” I hiss. “See? That’s the kind of thing that gets you killed in a bandit raid.”
“Shut up, Abbie, it isn’t funny.” My brother’s face settles into the stone mask he wears whenever anyone mentions the feud between him and Dad.
It’s gotten so bad that when Dad left tonight, headed for his second job as security at the Z-Mart Supercenter, Matt didn’t respond to his goodbye. He continued to play Warcraft without even so much as a blink, poking his middle finger in Dad’s direction. Mom didn’t see it, and neither did the twins. No one saw it but me.
Most kids wouldn’t care, but when your dad’s a cop, there’s an unspoken rule: no leaving angry, no bitter words before doors get slammed, because sometimes cops leave for work and don’t come home.
I saw the finger. I see a lot of things no one else notices. Like the exasperation in Dad’s eyes, and the wary underlayer behind Matt’s curtain of scorn and indifference.
“What kind of activity?” I can’t resist asking, earning a sharp elbow in my ribs.
“People have heard someone weeping,” Heather says, holding the battery-powered lantern at shoulder-level and peering across the group—hopefully not noticing the two tag-alongs at the back. “For several years it was an ice cream parlor, and the employees reported hearing small children. They apparently liked playing with the swinging door.” Heather pauses for the group to buzz, and they happily oblige. “Okay, everyone, the sidewalk narrows for the next part of the block. Please walk in single file and watch your step.”
She steps into the street to let us shuffle by one at a time. As the group moves down the wooden walkway, she acknowledges each person with a slight nod, as if she’s counting.
“Shit, she’s going to notice us,” Matt mutters.
When we get to the window, he presses his face up to the hole in the boards covering the glass. I crouch in the recessed doorway to tie my shoe.
“Abbie.” Matt stiffens and whispers urgently, “There’s something—”
“Sir, let’s keep moving, please.” Heather’s crisp, pleasant tone cuts him off.
Matt signals me to stay in the recessed doorway, out of her line of sight. She said sir, not you two.
“Oops, I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I just wanted a peek.” He turns from the window, brandishing his video camera and conveniently blocking her view of my hiding place. I can practically hear him opening the drawer of charming tricks he’s gathered over the years. “This is such a great job you have. Have you ever seen any ghosts yourself?”
Footsteps walk away from me, and I peek around the wall in time to see Matt following Heather. He turns, points sharply toward the house, and mouths, “Go in there.”
How am I supposed to do that? I turn my palms up and dip my head to ask, and all I get back is the same gesture: Figure it out.