The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.
“Why We Stay” by Stella Hergenreter, Sheldon High School
First Place, High School Level, 2023
Why We Stay
Sheldon High School
The ironic thing about graveyards is that they are never empty, yet the inhabitants are never the ones you want to see most.
The leaves that caked the path of the Gavalton Cemetery were slick against Rowan’s large hiking boots. The large trees that peppered the area had long since lost their leaves, leaving their branches gaunt and bare. Low fog hung in the air, solidifying the melancholic atmosphere that clung to the dead like a disease.
The dead were not an uncommon sight in a place like this.
Rowan shivered as they attempted to further hunch into their coat, clutching desperately into the wilted bouquet in their hands. The path felt natural to them, as they had previously walked it more times than they could count, but the turning change in the season was starting to wear on them.
Walking in silence for several minutes, Rowan stopped in front of a shiny headstone. It was new, lacking the wear and overgrowth commonly found on the other graves in the lot. A dirty teddy bear, soaked from the rain, was propped in the corner of the stone and a molded flower stood at the base. Kneeling down, Rowan replaced the flowers and perfected the placement of the bear.
Beloved sister, daughter, friend
Rowan stared at the headstone, arranging the items on the stone until they were perfectly propped, before rearranging it again a moment later. They heard a grunt from above them, and turned to see the face of the elderly groundskeeper, Amos.
“How long have you been here?” said Amos.
“Not long, I just got here.”
“You’ve hardly left your sister’s side since she passed,” pressured Amos. “You need rest. Your poor mother must be worried.”
“I miss her,” whispered Rowan, as if their grief was a secret known only by the two of them. “I can see every ghost in this graveyard. I can see you, but why can’t I ever see Maritza?”
Rowan had been able to see ghosts for as long as they could remember. It was a familial trait, passed down from their mother’s side. Most were haunting figures, with disfigured forms and undeveloped features. Others, such as Amos, who had been dead for three years, had managed to keep their humanity, and act almost human. Out of all spirits they encountered, Maritza was never one of them.
“Maybe you have seen her and just haven’t realized it?” questioned Amos. “There is no shortage of ghosts in this graveyard, maybe she is one of them?”
“She isn’t here,” argued Rowan. “I would have known if my sister was one of them.”
Rowan curled up into themself, face defiant and dejected. “I would know.”
Amos gave a small, pitying smile to the sitting child. “I’m sorry. If you say she is not here, I believe you.”
With minor difficulty, Amos moved towards the floor next to Rowan. He attempted to put a comforting hand on their shoulder, but Amos simply passed through Rowan’s body as they connected.
Rowan leaned against Amos, despite not giving any support, and sobbed into the older man’s shoulder. Their voice hitched and shoulders heaved against him.
“Why isn’t she here? Why did she have to go?” Rowan sobbed.
Amos ran an incorporeal hand through their hair. “Everyone has to go eventually. Maritza finished everything she needed to do in this world, and so she left.”
“Was I not enough to have her stay?”
“Of course not. You did everything right,” soothed Amos. “Let’s get you home. Your mother must be worried.”
Rowan nodded numbly into Amos’s chest, allowing him to lead them out of the cemetery.
Amos guided Rowan to the doorstep of their home, waiting for them to knock. When it opened, the two were met by a squat woman with curly dark hair that was pinned out of her eyes. Her kind face was contorted with permanent wrinkles from stress and worry.
“There you are,” said Ms. Moreno, exhaustion clear in her voice. She began to herd her child into the house. “Thank you for walking Rowan home, Amos. I know you cannot eat anything, but I just finished dinner and you are more than welcome to stay.”
Amos waved her off, declining the offer. A short exchange of pleasantries were passed between the two adults before Amos excused himself to return home, leaving Rowan and their mother alone.
“Go freshen up and meet me back here. You must be famished. Did you eat the snacks I packed you?”
Rowan made a dismissive response, kicking off their shoes and coat. Ms. Moreno watched them wash their hands and sit at the table as if they would disappear if she took her eyes off them for a single moment. Rowan pretended not to notice, ears red and burning as they sat across from their mother.
The two ate silently, and Rowan felt as if they were suffocating as they gathered the courage to ask her the question that had plagued them. “Hypothetically, is there a way for someone like me or you to raise the dead?”
“Like me or you?” repeated their mother.
“Like someone who can see ghosts,” elaborated Rowan.
Ms. Moreno was quiet, eyes drifting to the empty seat at the other side of the table. The plate had been set where Maritza had always sat, but neither of the remaining members had the heart to correct the mistake. “Maritza is gone, Rowan.”
“I know,” said Rowan. “Like I said, completely hypothetical.”
“Ghosts stay in this world because they have things left unfinished in this world,” said their mother, slow and precise. “If they aren’t here, then they are at peace. It is not our right to intervene.”
“But technically,” pressed Rowan. “It can happen.
Ms. Moreno set down her fork and smoothed her napkin. “Yes. Technically.”
“All right,” assured Rowan. “Right.”
Sleep refused to take them as it usually would, and Rowan found themself staring at the empty bed that stood across from them. Rowan and Maritza had shared a room, back when she was still alive, and most of her things had stayed in their place.
Her bed was made, her favorite perfume was propped on her bedside table, and posters of band members she liked when she was thirteen but never replaced still remained on her side of the room. They could pretend that she was simply sleeping in her bed, instead of buried; or that she was off on a trip for a few days.
Rowan could say with a fair amount of honesty that the thought of bringing someone back from the dead was, in fact, hypothetical. They could convince themselves that all they intended to do that night was fall asleep, spending the next day mourning, as they had for days.
They tossed in their bed for an hour, staring at their alarm clock every few minutes. It was well past the time they would generally go to sleep, but they had never felt more awake.
Eventually they gave up, accepting that there was no way they were going to get any sleep, and found themselves drifting to Maritza’s side of the room. Appearing neat, Maritza’s bed was decorated with personalized projects that she had left behind. A poetry book sat on her bedside table, bookmarked in the middle. She never did finish the puzzle that she had been working on.
There were so many things that Maritza would never be able to finish, so why wasn’t she still here?
It was an impulsive decision. One that Rowan would have unlikely made if they weren’t exhausted and possibly a bit delirious. Grabbing a disheveled backpack from their closet, Rowan filled the bag with books, puzzles, crafts, instruments, and everything they could think of that Maritza had started, but not finished before she died.
Opening the window of their room, Rowan threw the bag into the bushes outdoors, before climbing out the window themself. Their home was a short walk from the Gavalton cemetery, and it didn’t take long before they stood in front of a familiar shiny headstone.
Beloved sister, daughter, friend
Rowan knelt in front of the grave, muddying the pajama pants they wore, along with the socks they had soiled from walking without shoes. “Maritza?”
Expectedly, Rowan did not get a response.
Angry tears burned their eyes as they pushed away the decorations they had put there earlier that day. Replacing the flowers, cards, and bears, Rowan placed the items from their backpack in front of them.
“Maritza!” They picked up the poetry book first. “Remember this? You preordered it because you were so excited that your favorite author wrote another book. You were in the middle of reading it the night before you died.”
“And this!” cried Rowan, picking up the second item. “It was the only puzzle you had that you couldn’t solve.” The puzzle was large, consisting solely of red pieces. It was nearly impossible to distinguish the different pieces from one another, and even more difficult to put them together. “I told you that there was no way that anyone could finish it, but you tried anyway.”
Rowan didn’t know how long they held up the different items, or how much time had passed at all, but by the end, their protests sounded more similar to wet garbles than words. “You promised me you would be here. To my high school graduation, my wedding. We were finally going to go on that road trip we had always talked about.” Their voice was a whisper. “You promised.”
Their words weren’t comprehensible, and eventually turned to sobs more than real words. Their eyes were clenched shut, holding themself with their arms when a voice in front of them spoke. “Open your eyes, Rowe.”
At the first sign of the voice, Rowan’s head snapped in its direction. In front of them, leaning against the gravestone was their sister, Maritza Moreno-Escarra. Her body was luminescent against the stone, with long dark hair that looked perfectly styled, and smooth skin that lacked the stress and exhaustion of living.
“Why am I here, Rowe?” asked Maritza. “Why are you here? It’s late.”
Rowan stared at her intensely, as if she would disappear if they blinked. “I wanted to give you a reason to stay.”
Maritza breathed heavily, leaning her head back towards the stone. “I’m dead.”
“I know. You could’ve stayed.”
“I wish I could, but it doesn’t work like that.”
“Amos stayed,” argued Rowan indignantly. “This cemetery is filled with ghosts, so why aren’t you one of them?”
“Rowe,” started Maritza. “You know that—”
“I know,” bursted Rowan. “You can’t stay if you don’t have unfinished business. That wasn’t what I asked.”
“Then what did you ask?”
“Why wasn’t I enough for you to stay?” responded Rowan. “I’m still here, so how is anything finished?”
Maritza was silent, staring at them.
“Why did you go, Maritza?” cried Rowan
She pursed her lips. “Rowe, I was able to move on because you are still here.”
Rowan stared at her, dumbfounded. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“You were alive. Mom was alive,” responded Maritza, as if that explained everything. “That was all that mattered.”
Maritza continued once Rowan stayed silent. “Unfinished puzzles and books don’t mean anything in the long run,” said Maritza, glancing towards the items that lay haphazardly along her gravestone. “Leaving things like that unfinished is not impactful enough to keep me from moving on. But if anything happened to you or Mom?” Maritza pointed to Rowan. “I could have never left. I died knowing that you were safe and that was all that matters—that you are going to be all right.”
Rowan sniffled. “I don’t feel all right. Not without you.”
She smiled sadly. “You’re mourning and that’s perfectly normal. But I know that, one day, you’re going to be all right again. You’re going to be OK.”
“What if I don’t become all right again?” asked Rowan, voice wobbling. “What if I’m going to be like this forever?”
“Then you can come back here to visit me whenever you like. Just because you cannot see me anymore doesn’t mean I’m gone forever, ” said Maritza. “But, I think you’re stronger than you know.”
Rowan gave a weak, warbled laugh. Maritza began to fade against the scenery behind her, and it was clear that their time together was running short. “Can I hug you? Before you go?”
“Of course,” smiled Maritza, opening her arms.
Rowan ran to her, despite her intangibility.
Rowan couldn’t feel her, but they could pretend they did. They nuzzled into her shoulder, holding her like they could never do so again. Meanwhile, Maritza accepted the contact, running a ghostly hand through their matted hair.
“I miss you,” whispered Rowan.
“I know,” responded Maritza. “We should have had more time”
They stayed there until Maritza disappeared once more.
Eventually, Rowan stopped calling for their sister. As mud soaked their pajama pants, Rowan began to curl into themself where Maritza had once sat. They wrapped their arms around themself in an ineffective source of self-soothing as they began to wail from grief. Sobs wracked their chest until exhaustion overtook them, sending them into a fitful sleep against the headstone.
The ironic thing about graveyards is that despite visiting your loved ones whenever you wish, you can never do so in the way you want to.