maureen hardegree

maureen hardegree's free short stories


By Maureen Hardegree


Correct me if I'm wrong, but today was Thanksgiving, not Thanksgivesmas.

As the TV commercial's Christmas music blare lowered to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade announcers' happy talk, I, Heather Tildy, overworked and underappreciated ghost handler, struggled to keep my heavy eyelids open. I'd stayed up way too late last night, watching The Nutcracker ballet on PBS with my sister Claire once we'd finished baking pies for today's McCormack-Tildy feast. Sort of.

I also had been texting my friend Tina. My latest dilemma? Drew's mom wouldn't let him come over today. Yeah, she hasn't forgiven me for his suspension. As only a BFF can, Tina had done her best to talk me off that my-boyfriend's-mom-hates-me ledge, but I was still teetering.

My life sucked. Nothing ever went my way for long, not with Christmas swallowing my favorite holiday, not with teachers, or boys, and especially not with ghosts. And that was problem fifty thousand and two. Before returning to the Pecan Hills High grind on Monday, I had to whittle down the list of applicants for my never-ending after school project. Would it be ghost-on-a-rope in the gym, gas station attendant, or the overachiever who wanted to reshape me in her image?

Yeah, I was thinking straight A ghost could wait until . . . um, forever. Maybe they could all wait.

While the Rockettes tapped and high-kicked to a jazzed up version of The Nutcracker Suite, which was so Christmas—not Thanksgiving—I caught myself nodding off. Yawning, I figured why not and burrowed into the sofa cushions for a much-needed nap.

The next thing I knew, a betwinkled tree reflected on the TV screen and expanded out to the walls and up the ceiling. My heart galloped at pop-quiz-I-will-most-likely-fail speed.

Clone rats with Audrey's evil friend Karen's face and fleshy tails chased me until I was breathless. One wearing a cheap, plastic crown chose that moment to part her overly-glossed lips and mocked, "Boo hoo, no Drew."

I blinked. How did she ...? Audrey. Yet another thing I wasn't thankful for, my older sister's big mouth.

Drums rat-a-tatted from the kitchen, and in marched Audrey, Claire and Tina in matching dark-wash jeans, riding boots, and cropped red sweaters. Instead of sabers and guns, each raised a curling iron, flat iron, or blow dryer. Not exactly weaponry that could defeat clone rats chanting, "Boo hoo, no Drew."

A wide-shouldered soldier an inch or so taller than my sisters appeared in a brass-buttoned uniform and a paper maché head, just like the Nutcracker in the ballet last night.

"Drew?" I hoped he was the guy leading the charge against the Karens, but then I felt guilty that I was letting him do all the work.

Removing one fuzzy pink slipper, I beaned it right between crowned Karen's shoulder blades. Her overly made-up eyes glinted as she faced me. Her whiskers twitched. She lunged at me, and I dodged. But she managed to back me into a corner anyway.

"Can I get a little help here?" I called out.

Sneaking up behind Queen Karen, Nutcracker snatched her dollar store crown and flung it. She screamed, and before she could reach the spinning plastic, it, Karen, the clones, everyone and everything but me and Nutcracker Drew imploded.

At least, I figured it was Drew. Or—I breathed in the scent of salty ocean, then peered more closely at my savior's paper maché head that suddenly morphed into ghost Jack, the board short-wearing haint most likely to win my heart if only he wasn't dead.

My voice shook. "What are you doing here?"

He flashed that mischievous grin I'd almost forgotten. I hadn't seen him since summer. "Some old guy told me I could come back on special occasions."

"But you're not staying." Somehow I knew.

"Can't. Just wanted to remind you that you're doing good."

"And I should be thankful that I can help," I finished for him, but I wasn't feeling it.

"If you hadn't accepted your gift, we never would have met."

"Not everyone can help the stuck. Yeah, I get it. "

He sighed heavily, and his breath stirred the air. "No, you don't."

I reached my hand toward his chest, but rather than go through him like it should with a haint who's been dead awhile, warm, solid muscle covered in a rash guard flexed beneath my fingers. Leaning in, he cradled my face in hands I shouldn't be able to feel, but did. The patchy stubble on his chin scratched as our lips met in a much too short kiss that left me wobbly-kneed.

"How'd you do that?" I asked.

"Maybe there are some ghost-handling rules you haven't figured out. Just like you haven't figured out that you're not the kind of girl who wallows in self-pity."

I crossed my arms over my pajama-covered chest. "I was not wallowing."

"Yes, you were."

Okay, so maybe I was. But had I really done much good? Sure, Jack was no longer roaming the beaches of Jekyll Island or haunting the rental. His anger at dying had fizzled. He seemed at peace.

"I don't have a lot of time," he said. "You did help. You also gave me my first legit kiss."

Somewhat like the one we'd just shared that felt more real than a dream should—because I was pretty certain that's what this was, a figment of my sleeping brain.

"You've helped more than us ghosts move on. You helped my mom and dad. Instead of filing for divorce this fall, they took a trip to New England to see the leaves. That wouldn't have happened if you hadn't helped me talk to her."


I'd discovered the truth about Weatherly's death and helped Xavier's family deal with their grief, too. I guess I'd made more of a difference than I'd thought. Not only had I assisted the dead out of limbo, I'd also aided the loved ones left behind who were not part of the job description.

"Don't go," I begged.

"I have to. You're waking up."

"Will I see you again?"

Jack turned to pure blinding light. "In your dreams," he said with a laugh.

"Heather," someone, not Jack, growled, and a bony elbow impacted my side.

"Get up," Audrey ordered, shifting into bossy gear. "You have to . . . blah, blah, blah. . . . pajamas."

I opened my eyes cautiously.

"Everything okay?" Claire asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine." I touched where I'd actually felt the pressure of Jack's lips against mine and breathed in Thanksgiving—sautéeing onions, browning butter, caramelizing sugar, and roasting turkey. "Actually, I'm more than fine."

I was grateful. I had Mom, Dad, Grandma, and an aunt who helped me navigate the crazy haint-filled world few people saw. I had two sisters and a dog who loved me, who I loved back (even though they sometimes irritated the crap out of me). I had good friends and a Facebook-validated living, breathing boyfriend. By late afternoon, I'd be stuffed as full as some people's Turduckens. And no school 'til Monday.

No, my ghost-filled life didn't suck one bit. Even if the rest of the world was determined to Christmasify Thanksgiving.