By Elizabeth Motes
Every Sunday, Agatha went to the cemetery by her house and cleaned as many gravestones as she could manage in an hour.
It had all begun with a fight with her parents. They wanted her to spend her Sundays at church, lest she suffer the consequences in the afterlife, or suffer a bad soul in this one. She complained so much that eventually her mom sighed and said if she could find a good use of her time, she could skip church. Community service or the like, she said.
Agatha spent the week wondering what activity would adequately replace her time with God; and then one day as she walked home from school, her steps slowed as she passed the cemetery. The walk home had become so routine that she hardly noticed it, but she stopped and studied the gravestones through the thin metal gate. She couldn’t read any of the names on the stones, not even the ones closest to her. They were all covered in dirt accrued over many years.
Inspiration struck. That next Sunday when her parents asked how she intended to spend her day, Agatha went to the kitchen, dug out a rag and dish soap, and announced she would be going to the graveyard to do some cleaning.
Her parents weren’t very impressed.
But Agatha insisted that she would be paying respects to the dead and managing some community service. This was her contribution to the betterment of society, she said. They were already in a hurry, so they relented with warnings to leave the site if someone told her she wasn’t allowed to be there. Then as her parents went to the car dressed in their Sunday attire, Agatha ventured off to the cemetery dressed in old overalls and rain boots.
She learned quickly that gravestones required much more than an old rag to be properly cleaned. Her first attempts were ineffective and miserable on her part; the stones hardly looked better for her efforts, and it left her fingers raw and arms sore. When she told her parents, they exchanged a look, and she realized they expected her to quit right then.
So she resolved to return the next week and improve her craft. That Friday, she bought a hard brush that would serve her much better than the old rag. When she returned that week to clean, she could see actual improvement by the end of the hour. The gravestone of Mr. Roger Davis, born in 1931, had gone from a barely legible mess of dirt to a freshly cleaned slab of gray stone.
It wasn’t until her fourth visit that she got caught. Looking back, the incident wasn’t a big deal, except that she had been wearing her headphones for music at the time, so when Mr. Berry tapped on her shoulder, she shouted in alarm.
Mr. Berry merely frowned at her reaction and took a step back from her. In his green polo shirt, thin glasses, and sharp stare, she felt like he was definitely judging her dirt-ridden jeans and overall unprofessionalism.
“What are you doing?” he asked in a gruff voice.
She held up her brush. “Cleaning?”
“Who asked you to do that?”
“No one,” she said. “But the graves are dirty.”
He stared at her, then looked at the gravestone, and the others she hadn’t worked on. A noticeable contrast.
“Alright,” he finally said. Then he just turned and walked away.
She only saw him a few more times throughout the months, and she wasn’t quite sure what exactly he did at the cemetery; he was never one for small talk. But twice he’d come out when she was working and brought her lemonade, so she imagined it was a sign of approval.
She kept at it every week. One of her friends asked her if it was true she went to the cemetery every week — she had heard it from some guy — and Agatha told her that was right. She asked why she did it, and Agatha explained her situation. Her friend hesitantly told her that she’d earned the nickname Ghost Girl from some of their classmates, but Agatha didn’t care. It wasn’t even a clever nickname.
She only skipped cleaning one time, when her birthday fell on a Sunday and her parents took her to dinner. The next week, Mr. Berry stopped by and said he thought she’d been scared away. Agatha told him a cemetery was really nothing to be frightened over.
That was shortly before she saw her first ghost.
It was springtime again, nearing a year since she’d taken up the weekly task. She was practiced enough that she could go through the motions of cleaning a gravestone without a second thought, which was partially why she was engulfed in her music and unaware of her surroundings. It wasn’t until she heard a faint voice calling her name that she paused her music, not even bothering to take out her earbuds. She turned around, expecting Mr. Berry.
Instead, a man stood there looking like he had stepped right out of an old black-and-white TV show. He wore a nice gray suit (though it could have been a different color and she wouldn’t have been
able to tell) with slicked-back hair and hands casually tucked into his pockets. He could have passed for ordinary if he didn’t appear to her as a translucent gray.
Agatha stared at him with her mouth gaped open. It was a prank. It had to be. It wasn’t until the man cleared his throat in a very human manner that she snapped to her senses. “Can I help you?” she blurted. She glanced around for other ghosts — or humans — but the cemetery was empty, as usual.
The man pointed to the grave she just finished. “I’m William Lewis,” he introduced, his voice surprisingly clear given that he lacked a strong physical presence. “My biography is written there, though it’s quite brief.”
She whipped back around to the gravestone. William Lewis. 1904 — 1965.
“Oh, shit,” she muttered.
“This must be a shock,” William acknowledged. “Do you need more time to adjust?” She stared at him, then shook her head. “I’m good.” When she went home, she promised herself she would process it and freak out then.
“I appreciate you cleaning my grave,” he said, straightening his tie.
She waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah. No problem.” He wasn’t angry that she was tampering with his burial. That was good.
“You’ve done a favor for me,” he went on. “I would like to repay you.”
“What do you want?”
She made a face and shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “You’re—” She gestured at him. “A ghost. What could you give?”
He didn’t answer, so she considered it. If he was a ghost, then he might have some sort of magic, ghost-man abilities, which would mean she should aim high in what she asked for. Assuming she wasn’t imagining the whole thing.
“This is kind of basic,” she said. “But my parents are going through some financial troubles right now.” His stare didn’t change. “Could you help with that?”
He nodded. “I can help.”
Before she could ask him a hundred million more questions, he disappeared. Or not disappeared — he faded out of being, leaving behind a few wisps of smoke before that faded away, too. Agatha stared at where he had stood.
Then she forced out a loud laugh. Ghosts. Right, a ghost was going to give her a magical favor, like a genie. She could tell the story to her parents as a bizarre dream for a good laugh. She picked up her cleaning supplies — hands slightly trembling, she noticed, but that was unrelated to anything — and headed home.
The next night, she heard her parents talking with excitement in the kitchen, so she went to investigate. Her mom informed her that her dad received a sizable bonus at work. Agatha just stood there in shock. Her dad teased her for being so surprised. Little did they know that she had bargained with a ghost for that money.
A smart person might steer clear of the cemetery at all costs, but an even smarter person would assess the risks and benefits before determining that going back to the cemetery was the thing to do. Agatha returned that Sunday, reminding herself that this could have been a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
When she walked out into the cemetery, she hesitated briefly, wondering if William would make a reappearance at her arrival. Just go on with your job as normal. She found a grave in need of help and got to work scrubbing. Ruth Jane McCarthy, she read. Born in 1918.
As she scrubbed, she forced herself to forget the promises of ghosts. William’s appearance could have been a fluke, so there was no reason to get superstitious—
She whirled around, dropping her brush as she did. A new ghost — a woman in a dark hourglass dress with a small hat upon her head — stared back at her.
Agatha pointed a finger at her. “I have questions.”
Ruth nodded. “Go ahead.”
“What’s this all about?” she asked, gesturing around the yard. “How are you here?” “I don’t know.”
“Well, how long have you been here?”
Ruth looked around the cemetery with thoughtful eyes. “A while,” she decided. “Or not very long. I can’t tell anymore.”
She couldn’t tell if Ruth was being purposefully vague or if being a ghost meant all your words came across as ominous. “Why can I see you?”
“Anyone can see us if we let them.”
“But — why now?” she pushed, taking a step forward. She hoped to God that Mr. Berry didn’t overhear her. “Why do the favor thing now?”
Ruth shrugged her thin shoulders. “Your intentions play a role,” she said. “You care for this site. We notice those things.” She paused. “And I believe some ghosts have called to you before. But you didn’t hear.” She gestured at her ears. “You had the music on.”
Oh. The knowledge that a ghost tried to communicate with her but she didn’t hear was a bit troubling.
“So can I ask you for a favor?” Agatha asked.
“I’m answering your questions,” Ruth said plainly. “This is my favor.”
“Wait — that counts?” No wonder William had been so direct. Ghosts weren’t very chatty. “I can answer more questions if you like,” she offered.
Well, she wouldn’t make it a complete waste. “Do you know anything about the afterlife?” “No.”
“How do you become a ghost?”
“You have to die.”
New topic. “If I keep cleaning graves knowing that I can get favors, will ghosts stop approaching me?”
Ruth shook her head. “You’re well-liked already,” she said. “Sometimes you hum while you work. It’s endearing.”
That was the closest thing she got to an opinion. “What’s the scale of the favors? Like, can I solve world hunger?”
“No,” she said. “Specificity and realism will do you good.”
Those two words guided her throughout the next weeks as she adjusted to the new routine. Mostly everything stayed the same, except that at the end of her visit, a ghost would appear and offer her a favor. For the first five weeks, she dedicated her favors for good causes — donations to homeless shelters and the like. They should have been the most exciting weeks of her life, getting to converse with ghosts, except for the news she got one Tuesday night.
“Moving?” Agatha stared at her parents with wide eyes.
The three were eating dinner together when her dad broke the news. Apparently, work was going so well that they wanted him in a new location, and the benefits, he explained, would make the ordeal well worth it.
“You’re doing good at your job,” Agatha said, “so they’re making you move?” “It’ll give him more opportunities,” her mom said, reaching out to take her hand. “It’ll be good for all of us. You’ll see.”
Of course, Agatha had no real arguments against it. But she did have a cemetery full of ghosts who wanted to do her bidding.
That Sunday, Agatha returned to the cemetery with a personal favor, feeling that she’d done enough service to warrant it. When she finished her cleaning, the ghost of Ethel O’Gorman appeared behind her, wearing a light patterned dress with gloves. Agatha once told a ghost that they needed their own fashion show, but unfortunately, ghosts didn’t share her sense of humor.
Agatha always had her favor prepared in advance to ensure she didn’t misspeak and waste it, but she still hesitated before saying, “My family is moving. Without causing any harm, I was wondering if there was a way to prevent it. Or even just delay it awhile.”
Ethel’s curly hair stayed still in the wind. “Why would you want to do that?”
Now they’re in the mood to chat, she thought. “Because I have a life here.” Then she wondered if that was an offensive thing to say to a ghost. They never seemed to react to anything she said or requested. “I don’t want to throw all of that away.”
“You don’t have a life here,” Ethel said, and Agatha thought she was being insulted until she pointed at Agatha and explained, “Your life is your life. It doesn’t have a home.” She hoped the life advice wasn’t going to count as her favor. “But there are things that matter to me here.”
“If they matter, then they can’t really be left behind.”
“Can you prevent the move or not?”
“Not without consequences,” Ethel said. Agatha was going to inquire about those consequences when Ethel continued, “Moving onto new things makes us human. Do you know what any ghost would give to leave the cemetery?”
Agatha blinked. “I didn’t know you couldn’t leave.”
“Live a life so that people care enough to leave you a burial,” she said, with almost a harshness in her words. “You’re not in the ground yet, so don’t act like it.”
She sighed, filled with the same defeat from trying to argue against the move with her parents. “Does this conversation count as my favor?”
“Then could you do something nice for Mr. Berry?” she asked. “You know, like give him whatever he really needs or wants. Is that specific enough?”
Ethel nodded. And then she faded away into a wisp of smoke.
Agatha plopped down and sat leaning against the gravestone, the sun setting behind her. She supposed if she could win over the favor of ghosts, she could win over the inhabitants of a new city. She heard a sharp whistle, and for a moment, she thought, Can ghosts whistle? Then she spotted Mr. Berry making his way toward her, two glasses of lemonade in his hands.