by Rachel E. Enright
“The Graveyard of Abandoned Dreams” placed first in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2021 Fall Fiction Contest.
The graveyard of abandoned dreams was starting to get crowded. As far as Walt the gravedigger could see, headstones jutted out of the ground like sentries on a forgotten battlefield, weather-worn and exhausted from bearing the weight of an unfulfilled life. It was getting harder to find an open plot. Even the smaller dreams, which usually arrived in a knapsack or a shoebox, took up precious space, and each night, Walt would find himself staying later and later as he wove between the gravestones, trying to find an untouched plot big enough for whatever dream had most recently been abandoned.
Of course, Walt had brought this up at the last city council meeting, trading his blue coveralls for dress pants and the tie his father had been married in, but there were budget cuts, the councilwoman had explained, rattling off terms like zoning and fiscal year and allocation of assets as though her fancy words made up for the fact that, just outside of town, the ghosts of abandoned dreams were rioting every time the gravedigger brought in a new tenant.
And so, on that cold, January night, Walt found himself taking his third trip around the graveyard, wondering just how mad the Ghost of Early Retirement would be if Walt simply buried this new dream on top of it. Walt sighed, dropping the bag (it was a small one tonight) down on the hard earth and resigning himself to the fact that he would have to bunk-bed two abandoned dreams. “Don’t even think about it, Son,” a voice hissed behind him, seconds before the Ghost of Early Retirement appeared, his ghostly briefcase floating ominously beside him. Walt, knowing he would be working well beyond the retirement age, shrugged, figuring being haunted by the Ghost of Early Retirement was the least of his concerns right now.
His mother had always said that April was the cruelest month, but as Walt tried and failed to force his shovel into the frozen ground, he had to disagree. January, with his sharp winds and merciless snow, was far, far crueler. Walt tried again, putting all of his weight into the handle of the shovel, and cursing a blue streak when all he managed to accomplish was sending a crack down the shaft of the shovel. Behind him, he could hear the Ghost of Early Retirement let out a harumph that seemed to say, “Serves you right.” Walt ignored him, going back to his truck (used trucks were cheaper than hearses—more damned budget cuts) and grabbed a new shovel.
“You know what they say about insanity,” the Ghost of Early Retirement crooned.
“Don’t you have anyone else to haunt?” Walt shot back, fitting the point of the shovel into a divot in the ground and taking a deep breath before pushing once again. A small patch of earth, no bigger than a baseball, came loose, and Walt felt his pride swell over such a small victory. It was going to be a long night.
The Ghost of Early Retirement shook his ghostly head. “And what do you plan on doing when you have to bury something bigger than a knapsack?” he asked, gesturing at the faded green bag at Walt’s feet just as the bag moved.
It moved again.
“Oh dear,” the Ghost of Early Retirement said as Walt dropped the shovel, sending a loud clatter echoing across the graveyard.
“Oh dear,” Walt agreed, crouching down and slowly unzipping the bag.
“Maybe it’s Captain Wafers?” the Ghost of Early Retirement asked, but Walt knew that, whatever was in the bag, it wasn’t the orange and white cat who sometimes haunted the graveyard.
Other ghosts had begun to stir now, and behind the Ghost of Early Retirement’s faded form, Walt could see the Ghost of a College Degree, the Ghost of Starting a Family, and the Ghost of an Acting Career approaching.
Walt took one more breath, stealing a final moment of peace before he unzipped the bag, revealing a small dream. It was glowing still, a dull, pulsing beat of light that seemed to become dimmer and dimmer with each passing second. “Poor thing,” the Ghost of Early Retirement murmured. “Someone’s still holding on.”
This happened, sometimes. Abandoned dreams would arrive at the graveyard not entirely abandoned, the tiniest spark of life still left in them. Walt would sit with them when it happened, waiting patiently until the person, wherever he or she was, gave up on the dream entirely.
“Someone ought to put it out of its misery,” said the Ghost of an Acting Career theatrically. Walt ignored him. The Ghost of an Acting Career was still upset over the fact that he had ended up here, and not on a Broadway stage.
“Absolutely not,” the Ghost of Starting a Family said, laying a wispy hand on the shoulder of the Ghost of an Acting Career. “Not until they’re ready.”
The ghosts and Walt stood in silence around the small dream, watching as it lay huddled on the knapsack. Dreams were usually abandoned in a flicker, there one minute and then gone the next. This one, however, seemed to be holding on. The Ghost of Starting a Family knelt down, reaching out to put a comforting hand on the dream, only for it to pass through. She turned, looking up at the gravedigger. “Walt?”
Walt hated this part, knowing what it meant for both the dream and the person who dreamt it. He knelt down, his solid form taking up the space where the Ghost of Starting a Family had just been. “Hey,” he said to the dream, his voice low and gruff and not at all the comforting type. Still, he tried to soften as he reached out, his fingers brushing light against the dream. It shivered, curling itself into an even tighter ball. “Hey,” Walt said again, and this time, the dream peeked up at him.
“It’s not over,” the dream said in a voice so low that it could barely even count as a whisper.
So that’s what this was, then. A dream who couldn’t accept the fact that it had been abandoned. “Look,” Walt started, not having any idea what to say next.
“Why, I declare,” the Ghost of an Acting Career bellowed, and Walt was about to snap that now was not the time for theatrics, when the Ghost of Early Retirement spoke up.
“Walt. Look.” Beyond the graveyard, on the path that led down to the sleepy village at the bottom of the hill, a man hobbled toward the graveyard. He leaned heavily on an old-fashioned walking stick, and Captain Wafers trotted alongside him, pausing every few moments to let the man catch up.
“Can I help you?” Walt asked when the man was within earshot, keeping one eye on the dream that was still huddled at his feet.
“I sure hope so,” the man wheezed, and Walt got the impression that the man had been walking for a very long time. “I need to get my dream back.” The man’s gaze slid past Walt and landed on the knapsack and the huddled-up dream atop it. “Good,” the man exhaled. “I’m not too late.”
Walt too glanced down, and he could have sworn the dream’s glow, which had just seconds before been fading fast, was now brighter. “This one?” Walt asked, pointing down. The man nodded, and Walt knelt back down, inspecting the knapsack. “Dream of Finding True Love,” the tag read.
“Her name was Essie,” the man offered before Walt could even ask. “And we were together for 40 years. But after she died…” he trailed off, looking at Walt and giving a small shrug. “Well, after she died, I thought that was it for me. But then I met Rose.” Walt watched as the man smiled and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small velvet box. “I know I’m old, and I thought my dream of finding true love died when Essie did, but with Rose, I think I might have that dream again.”
At his feet, Walt heard a chattering noise, and he looked down to see the dream moving, catlike, toward the man. It leapt after Captain Wafer, circling the graveyard’s cat playfully before jumping up and settling on the man’s shoulder. The man grinned, reaching up to give his dream an affectionate pat before he slipped the ring box back into his pocket and turned to pick his way back along the path, away from the graveyard. Walt and the ghosts watched him go in silence, both happy for the man and envious of the dream for getting a second chance.
Walt took one last glimpse of the man, who was little more than a speck in the distance now, before he picked up his shovel and the empty knapsack and put them in the truck. There would be no new ghosts entering the graveyard of abandoned dreams tonight.
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student