First Place | Fiction Writing Contest

54th New Millennium Award for Fiction

Carrie Grinstead of Los Angeles, California for “Ghost Story”

Grinstead will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.


Ghost Story
Carrie Grinstead


Michael does not believe in ghosts, though he has seen many. Spend your life among faithful women, and it gets to you, gets in you. Alters your senses. He’s seen full-body apparitions on the stairs. A sketchy, smoky head watching him accusingly, just over his shoulder in the bathroom mirror. Even his mother, who is not dead, who by some curse or miracle stays alive year after year, sometimes shows up as a ghost, floating over him in bed in the middle of the night. Long hair blown by winds he cannot feel. Mouth open in a silent howl.

He thinks of ghosts as the Turkey Fire burns, ash falls like snow, branches crack like gunshots. Ignition was three days ago, Thanksgiving. Late November temperatures in Southern California had risen to a hundred thirteen, and high winds downed a power line near Thousand Oaks. No party, no pyrotechnics, no one person to blame. 

It is noon, dark as evening under red-black sky, and like some kind of sick joke the turkey farmer up the canyon has released his birds before evacuating. A crowd of them has gathered behind the house, gobbling louder than the roaring wind, than the thunder clapping in pyrocumulus clouds. 

What happens to them? he wonders. What happens to the ghosts? Where will they go, what will they do, when there is nothing and no one left to haunt?



He’d come to California with Tabitha, his college girlfriend. The plan was to visit for the holiday weekend, to see her house and meet her parents, to indulge her while she whined about Boston, where they were both in school. He’d lowered his suitcase and hers to the shining hardwood floor of her childhood bedroom, not knowing he’d end up living in that room for years. She, grinning, flipped a switch that lit a bank of recessed lights. The night wind in perfect rhythm sloughed against the walls, and dark trees swirled above the skylight. Tabbie threw herself facedown onto the bed, a thin cushion on a Japanese tatami mat. “Oh my God,” she groaned. “I’m so glad to be home.”

He was a sophomore, and she was a freshman. He had found himself talking to her at a party deep in the dorms, then woken up next to her, happy enough to have a girlfriend. A reasonably cute one, whose hallmates called her Tabbie Cat even though she was really more of a bat—petite and bony, with outsize eyes and pointy incisors.

Tabbie was an only child. It wasn’t clear what Mallory and Chris—her parents, whom she called by their first names—did for work, or how they’d acquired the piles of money they obviously had. Michael was the oldest of eight, had worked all through high school and was paying for college with loans and scholarships. His mother hadn’t left their tiny house in years, and every day she grew fatter, grayer, more afraid.

He felt cramped and bloated after six hours on a plane from Boston, nearly two in the car from LAX, but Tabbie rolled over, held out her arms, and whined, “Come here. I want you.”

He sat beside her. She clambered onto him, tipping him on his back, removing his glasses. Pecking his face.

The bedroom door opened. Chris said, “Oop. Carry on,” and the door closed again. Tabbie did carry on, fiddling with his belt and fly. He pushed her hand away and wriggled toward the wall. “Tab. Tabbie. I don’t feel like it.”

She straddled his stomach, flopped down over his chest, rested her head on his collarbone. His heart fluttered under her. Her hair, already reeking of incense, tickled his mouth.

“I’ve told you about the ghost, right?” she murmured. “When I was little my best friend was a ghost. She’s been gone for a long time, but she liked me a lot. She left good energy in my house and you can still feel it.”

He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. He’d been raised Catholic. K through 12 at an all-boys Jesuit school that his parents went into debt for. By the time he turned ten he knew it was all escapist bullshit. He abandoned his faith quietly, because by then he had four sisters and his mom, pregnant again, read the Book of Revelation every night and was increasingly obsessed with the end times. He’d long ago had his fill of fantasy creatures, saints and angels and demons, risen bodies.


Mallory appeared in the room, appeared far above him. He tried to scramble out from Tabbie, up off the mat.

“Tabitha, come downstairs,” Mallory said, and her voice was sweet and strange, like a distant radio station that for a moment came in clear. She was taller than Tabbie and not as thin, though she seemed somehow less substantial, in a loose-fitting dress of un-dyed cotton, shining red hair tumbling down past her waist.



Taryn, Michael and Tabitha’s daughter, stands near the door with her go bag. Energy bars and water, hand crank radio, anxiety meds. Cat snarling in a carrier. She is thirteen, born under smoke, and her life has been one fire after another, but no evacuation order until now. She hasn’t slept in two days. He can tell she’s too tired to cry. 

“Come on, Dad,” she begs.

He tries to project calm, make her think he’s okay. “I have to stay and take care of the house, sweetie. We’ll protect the house, and before you know it you’ll be on your way back home.”

He knows what Tabitha wants to say. Are you fucking kidding me? Are you really doing this, you asshole? Do you really think I believe for a second that you’re staying for the house? Are you really going to risk it, making our daughter grow up without her father? But she looks at him with uncomplicated fear. She says his name and nothing more.

“Go. Just go,” he tells them. They’ve already waited longer than they should have. They leave and close the door quickly, as if that matters, as if bad air has not already filled every corner of this house. He watches through the sidelight as they run out to the car. In the ash and smoke, they turn quickly from people to figures, to memories, to shadows.

He returns to the kitchen, where Mallory smokes a joint at the long granite bar and talks to Chris on the Ouija board. 

The money he’d wondered about when he first arrived: it is hers. Most of this canyon is hers, and tracts of land up and down the coast are hers, bought up over generations by a family that has been seeking fortune in California since the Gold Rush.

The house is hers. She was born and has spent nearly every night of her life in one of the seven bedrooms. A casual observer might say she is like Michael’s mother, the way she has stayed in her house and for years refused to leave, but she is not. She isn’t afraid of the world outside; she simply loves this house and the spirits in it.

She has a free-floating spirituality, practices a religion he can best describe as General Hippie Shit. Energy crystals, sage, tapping drums and communing with nature.

Unearned wealth, uncritical belief. She should represent everything he hates, everything he resents. Yet she captivates him. Her beauty, her ethereal presence, her quiet kindness. He is in love with her and has never fallen out, though her hair is short and gray, and her cheekbones have sharpened under ever-drier skin.

He loves her, though she is his wife’s mother. Though she has a boyfriend now, Andy, and Andy is outside with a few other holdouts, clearing brush and digging trenches and pumping water onto roofs. They are rich, so they have water, in three-thousand-gallon tanks trucked down from Humboldt County.

It may be enough. It may not. The fire has already chewed through Malibu, where people are even richer.



A fat loaf of bread rose in a clay oven built into one corner of the kitchen. The floor was heated. Plates sat face-forward behind glass-front cabinets. Tabbie and Michael sat at the bar, drinking honey wine that a neighbor had brewed, that Chris let them have even though they were both underage. Tabbie and Chris talked about Ellen, Tabbie’s childhood ghost. Chris leaned over the bar and brought his face right up near Michael’s, like they were best friends or brothers or lovers, and Michael was too confused to move away. 

Ellen hadn’t looked like a ghost. She wasn’t translucent, didn’t float around. She was about nine years old, and Tabbie, at the time, was five. 

“What’s interesting, Michael,” Chris said, fluttering his long-lashed eyes, “is she didn’t seem to know. As far as we could tell Ellen thought she was still alive. That’s the problem when someone isn’t prepared to pass on.”

“She wore Airwalks,” Mallory said, joining the conversation as if she’d been in the room the whole time, though in fact she’d been in some other part of the house, a steaming place where she grew marijuana. “Blue Airwalks. The first time she took Tabitha out to the woods in the middle of the night, I suppose I sensed it. I jerked awake and looked out the window and there was my little girl, scrambling through the trees after a bigger girl in a hooded sweatshirt.”

“I kept going out to play with her. That was why they brought in the priest.”

Michael snorted and rolled his eyes. They all looked at him, and he looked at Mallory’s feet. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I guess I have a hard time with priests and stuff because my mom—she kind of has problems. She has this thing where everything she reads in the newspaper is, like, portentous. She finds all these patterns and she thinks they mean something terrible is going to happen. And she’s diabetic and her heart is failing but she won’t go to the hospital. We have a nurse come to the house and I use student loan money to help pay for it.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Tabbie asked. “We weren’t even talking about your mom. Anyway our priests aren’t like your priests.”

But Mallory was listening. Mallory was watching him with blue eyes so pale they were nearly white, a wide-open sky. He told her he’d tried. All his childhood and youth he’d tried, with everything he had, to save his mother. Tried to get her to see reason and, failing that, tried to mitigate the risk and lessen the damage. He’d learned to check her glucose, program her insulin pump, clean and dress her bedsores. He’d taken basic and advanced life support classes at the YMCA. 

Then his dad had talked to the parish priest and even the monsignor about the possibility of demons. She didn’t need a priest, Michael had screamed, she needed a psychiatrist, she needed help—and his mom just kept crying: Why can’t you see it? Why can’t you see what the newspaper portends? Rivers and streams poisoned. Creatures of the sea dying in ever increasing numbers. Wars, and rumors of wars. 

“I didn’t even tell her I was coming here,” he mumbled. “I just let my family think I had a bunch of work and I was staying in the dorms. My mom would have a heart attack if she found out I’m in California. She’d tell me an angel came to her and foretold an earthquake or a riot.”

“You won’t get much rioting out here, unless the squirrels turn on us,” Chris said.

Mallory came up behind Michael, leaned in and put an arm around his shoulders. The first and one of the only times she ever touched him. “Your mother wants what’s best for you. I can promise she does.”

His breath caught, even stopped, but he didn’t need it. He didn’t need air or a beating heart, and he didn’t need college, and he didn’t need money, or a future. He needed only Mallory, and her cheek mere inches from his.



He stays, now, for her. For her, over the years, he’s lost layers of pudge and found lean muscles underneath. Grown a beard and kept it neatly trimmed, bought cooler glasses frames that somehow turn his eyes a deeper, sadder brown.

But when he stayed in 2006, came for Thanksgiving and never left, that wasn’t for Mallory only. It wasn’t that simple. Tabitha was whiny, thoughtless, annoying. He didn’t like her much and probably never had, but in the years since her father died he’d done his best to care for her, and love her at least a little.

Resulting in Taryn, the one person in the world he could, should love more than he loves Mallory. 

But he is too afraid of Taryn to love her. She does not look like him, and she doesn’t look like Tabitha. She doesn’t look like Mallory or like Chris or like Michael’s mother, or any of his sisters. She looks like Ellen the ghost, whom he has seen many times, though Tabitha and Mallory will claim she is long gone. Their priest burned incense, burned leaves from the path where Ellen had walked. Chanted, rubbed the foreheads of all the living with magical oil, and after that Ellen moved on. She does not wait for him on the stairs, or follow him down the hall, or pet the old white cats that linger in odd corners of the house.

Dark eyes and hair, pale skin, cute and round little nose. Lips often parted just a little, like she wants to ask a question but hasn’t figured out how to frame it.

The year that Taryn was nine and identical to Ellen, he didn’t sleep all the way through a single night. It wasn’t real, he reminded himself. Ghosts are not real, and the figures that watch him, the cold hands on his neck are merely his thoughts distorted, his mind playing tricks.

The fear is real enough. He feels at times like he’s become his mother, having constant premonitions of disaster. Taryn will meet a stranger on the canyon road. A twisted ankle will strand her somewhere on the mountain—she loves to wander, they cannot keep her in—and it will take days to find her, and by then it’ll be too late. Carbon monoxide will leak into her room. A bite of one of the snacks she’s endlessly, mindlessly eating will lodge in her throat.

But now she is okay. She is on her way to safety, as much safety as anyone can find. 

The last couple days, since the fire began, he’s suffered asthma attacks and panic attacks, but inhaled steroids have at last cleared his airways, and waves of adrenaline have receded and left him finally, strangely calm.

He is alone in the kitchen, with Mallory. She sits on one side of the bar, he on the other, and he inches his hand closer to hers. He’s felt the energy between them from the beginning, sometimes believed she felt it too, and why not now? Why not hold each other while the world burns?



He awoke in Tabbie’s room, sun hanging high above the skylight. He lay on top of the comforter, still in his pants and belt from yesterday, for a moment unsure where he was and why.

Alone, sweaty, and thirsty in Tabbie’s bedroom. He checked the time on his phone: 11:20. Christ. He changed his clothes and went to the bathroom, where he had a single fragile bar of cell service. He’d missed a call from the home care nurse. From Catie, his oldest sister, another missed call, and a text: michael answer your phone.

He brushed the plane, the night, the pot he and Tabbie had smoked out of his teeth. Frost shimmered on leaves, still green and bright out here in California. Only a few feet out the window, an abandoned nest clung to a branch. Far below, the driveway in mottled light twisted down to the road.

Cardiac arrest. Hypoglycemia. Every day of his life he waited. Every time his phone rang, he knew: a bed sore, burrowed deep, had admitted bacteria into her bloodstream. Or she was in the hospital with acute-on-chronic heart failure. Or one of the littlest sisters, finding her unconscious, had poked and sung to her until an older one finally wandered in and screamed. Or she had finally, completely, lost her hold, been committed against her will for seventy-two hours.

He dropped the phone back into his pocket and walked away from the signal. He was hungry. He didn’t know any longer how to panic. You do it, he thought. Sent his thoughts across the country to his sisters, his dad. I did it for years. I tried for years. Now you.

Down in the kitchen, Mallory poured sludge as orange as her hair out of a blender and into a piecrust. Just seeing her was enough to make him feel warm and energized and better about everything, but then Chris, rubbing a stick of butter over the back of a turkey, said, “Good morning, Sir Sleepsalot. May we offer you a nice chai? Or are you a coffee man?”

“I guess the time difference messed me up.”

Tabbie, wearing thick slippers and drinking tea at the bar, cried, “Michael! It’s later in Boston. Plus we came from the same time and I’ve been up for hours.”

He didn’t like Tabbie. He liked her dad even less. Those self-satisfied questions. That dickish goatee. The way you could just tell that no one in Chris’s entire life had ever told him he was anything other than charming. The way Mallory so sweetly wrapped a long, pale arm around his waist, and he barely seemed to notice. Each little annoyance set off a spark, a firecracker of hate.

A lot to feel, hate, for someone he’d only just met. His mom would tell him to be careful, feeling that way, thinking that way. Thoughts are energy. Energy is power, and power moves the universe and every being in it.



They all hate him, his sisters. In seventeen years, he’s barely been back. He sends money, from his wife’s mother’s deep pool. All the money there is, is sent by him. Still his sister Catie posts long Facebook updates about her asshole brother, sitting pretty out in California and leaving the rest of them to deal with Mom. 

Were they happy now, watching California burn? Smoke covers the whole country, but out in Massachusetts it’s at least high enough, thin enough that you can pretend it’s weather. Do his sisters think that Michael, at last, is getting what’s coming to him, what they’ve wished on him?

Could seventeen years of hate heat the world, power the wind, down an electric line?

Could you kill your girlfriend’s obnoxious dad, simply by wishing he wasn’t there, by sitting in his kitchen and idly, quietly hating him?

No, you could not. No, Chris’s ghost has not watched you, not peered into your soul and seen the way you ache for his wife. He does not press a hand to your neck, does not move Mallory’s Ouija board.

She used to talk to Chris on the Ouija board all the time; then, in the early days of covid, she started talking to Andy on the Internet instead. Michael would be sitting at the bar, drinking whiskey and cataloging seeds—because he did have a job, a few hours a week doing data entry for a garden supply company, because he felt better about himself if he worked at least a little—and Mallory’s bright laughter floated out from distant rooms. Hours later, deep in the night, he dodged ghosts and opened her computer and stared at the tabs she hadn’t closed. Andy was bulky, bearded, bald. He was a construction worker. He couldn’t spell. Michael did not see the appeal, still doesn’t.

“I thought we were supposed to be isolating,” he’d said pathetically, long before Andy had even come over to take Mallory on a socially distanced walk through the woods. Mallory had only smiled. Patient, indulgent, kind on the surface, but there were layers. She must know how Michael felt, what he wanted, and was committed to pretending forever that she did not know.

Tabitha certainly knew, never said so directly but made it clear through bursts of anger and abuse. Stupid useless why did I marry you why do I let you use my family why are you even here. When he’d whined about Andy, she’d glowered until he could feel the heat coming off her. 

Taryn, alone, did not know, did not get it. She couldn’t believe it, that her father could be so clueless. She laughed and laughed. “Dad! Dad. No. You can still talk online. You can talk as much as you want online.”



Thanksgiving, at home, had been everything at once. Deeply sad and also festive. The worst day of the year, and the best. In recent years, it had been Michael’s job to pick up dinner and cart it home. The money was thin, the portions small, and the sisters crept from their rooms like animals approaching baited traps. But the smells were right, or close enough. Mom left the sun parlor. Bit by bit the sisters ate, started little wars with green beans catapulted off forks. Soon everyone was laughing, and it was amazing how quickly you could believe it might all be okay.

“The nurse talks to me more than she talks to my dad,” he said. It was mid-afternoon. He cubed bread, and Tabbie arranged the cubes in a pan with broth and minced vegetables. The turkey browned and sizzled in the clay oven, Chris was chopping herbs, and it was turning out to be a good day. A relief, a dizzying thrill to be in Mallory’s kitchen and tell her everything. She alone stood still, leaning back against the bar, holding a white cat in her arms, listening. 

“When I was in high school I’d sometimes sleep out on the sun parlor to keep her company. I’d do my homework out there too, like just to try to get her interested in something.”

“And she said, no! No homework! Get it away!” Chris said, grinning and holding his arms up, palms out in defense.

“Yeah, why did you torture her with homework?” Tabbie asked. 

Mallory put the cat down. She folded her arms over her stomach and looked at Michael tight-lipped, an apologetic arch in one eyebrow. “Stop,” she said, softly but with force, and Tabbie and Chris did. Like a game, like a spell, they froze in place. “Stop teasing him. You aren’t funny, either of you.”

Michael’s throat caught. “Do you have a landline? I should call.”

He wandered down one hall, down another, into a room he never would have expected to find in this airy house. It was an office, the sort of cozy, undusted, thickly carpeted spot that would have made perfect sense in friends’ houses in Massachusetts in the nineties. A heavy desk under the window, a globe at one end of it, a phone and a purring white cat at the other. A set of Encyclopedia Britannica lined a shelf on the wall.

He sat at the desk, draped his hand over the phone. Years ago, they’d gotten a phone for the sun parlor, and it was just like this one. Incredible, then, to have a cordless phone with a little screen that displayed the caller’s number. Every time it rang, a crowd of sisters would run to it and fight to scream out the digits.

He dialed the house, imagined his mother gasping at the distant area code, sweating beside the space heater, stinking in unwashed clothes. He hung up.

He called Catie’s cell, again hung up before the first ring finished. Put his head down on the desk because, suddenly, sleeping to 11:20 had not been enough.

The phone rang. Without thinking, he picked it up. He didn’t even say hello, but it seemed Catie could see him through the receiver, feel him across the states. “Michael! Jesus, where are you?”

“I told you. I’m at school,” he mumbled. “I have a lot of work. I told you that.”

“You are not at school, you lying sack of shit! We’re calling your room and you’re not there.”

“Oh my God. I never answer my room phone. You have to call my cell.”

“You’re not answering that either! Mom’s freaking out, Michael. Just tell me where the fuck you are.”

“Is she okay? Is anything wrong?”

He heard shuffling, unintelligible words, and then a sound not unlike the canyon wind, not unlike tree branches swinging in the night against Tabbie’s walls. Softly, he said, “Momma, please don’t cry. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”

The crying rose, surrounded him, crested into screams. He thought it all came from home, from the mother he’d stopped trying to save. Fear and despair had taken form, taken flight, and followed him here. 


Chris had waited too long. Too long to flail, to clutch his throat, to let his wife and daughter know that he was choking. They were across the room, at the bar, Tabbie asking Mallory what she thought of Michael. Chris reached into the oven with a long serving spoon, nudged a strip of crisp skin off the bird and let it cool enough to eat. 

In his throat, it sprouted wings. There must have been a part of him that didn’t believe it. Just swallow. Or cough it up. He couldn’t be choking; he was a grown man, not a child, not a withered grandfather whose every part was failing. 

A matter of seconds, to everyone else in that house. A few gasps, a few tears in Massachusetts, a few twists of Michael’s hand in the air where the phone cord should be. To Chris it lasted a long time, long enough to think, long enough to know that it was real.

He must have been embarrassed. He must have heard Michael mention that he knew CPR. He must, in his way, have hated Michael too.


Michael didn’t think at all, when he ran into the kitchen and found Tabbie crying, Mallory screaming, Chris on the ground. He straddled Chris as if Chris were his mother, tilted his head and opened his bluing lips. He pumped Chris’s chest as if everything depended on it, many lives and many years, all he had ever wanted and all he had left to dream.

He assumed a heart attack. If Chris were his mother, then it was a heart attack, long building, long awaited. He did not check Chris’s throat for an obstruction, did not by any means do it all right. But Tabbie saw him in motion, giving everything he had to make her father breathe again. That was why she kept Michael, why she never managed to stop loving him, no matter how much she might have wanted to.



They are all choking now. Michael puffs his inhaler. Mallory coughs and watches him. He wishes he could share, although it hardly matters. She is asking him for something, but not that.

They drink and drink from grocery store jugs they’ve stockpiled, as if they should be able to breathe water, now that the air is gone.

The turkeys go silent, or their cries are swallowed by howling wind. The front door flies open, and Andy, eyes tearing, nose and teeth clogged with ash, doesn’t close it behind him.

The clay oven crashes, collapses, and a black mass, one last ghost, billows out. Michael gathers breath to cry, “Please, can we pray?” and holds his hands out.

Mallory, who has run toward the oven, as if there is anything now to save, does not take them.

Andy does. He grips Michael’s hands, draws Michael close, presses their foreheads together. Holds on. 



Carrie Grinstead lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Daniel, and their dogs. Her horse lives nearby. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, The Masters Review Anthology, Joyland, and elsewhere. Her first collection, I Have Her Memories Now, won the Howling Bird Press Fiction Prize and was published in October 2022. 
Ghost Story © 2023 Carrie Grinstead 
• • • Thanks for Reading • • •
Sharing your thoughts, expressing gratitude, offering a sincere congratulations, all within seconds of finishing a story? What an opportunity! We encourage you to share a few honest, heartfelt words in the comment section below. Thanks again, we’re glad you’re here.

2 thoughts on “”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top