I wrote this story for a competition in Scribophile. It didn't place but I have loved it ever since. I think it was the first short story that I ever finished and actually thought it was good. The prompt was to write a story in less than 3,000 words, inspired by the Wikipedia article on Hallowe'en and its traditions. One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays, the purchase) of a barmbrack (Irish: báirín breac), which is a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring will find their true love in the ensuing year. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween
The chill in the air nipped at Joy’s cheeks as she hurried home. It was cold this year, even for Scotland in October. Her breath puffing in front of her, she sped up as her house came into view. For a moment, the light reflecting against the dark glass of her front room flashed blue and red. Joy glanced around, expecting to see police car or maybe an ambulance but the street was quiet. When she looked back at the house the light reflected was the plain orange of the street lamps. She shook her head and went inside.
Joy hung her keys on the hook behind the door and walked through the house to the kitchen. She dumped the shopping bags on the table with a sigh before slipping her jacket off and heading for the kettle. On the counter in front of it was a china plate with a delicate blue pattern, holding a single slice of fruit cake. Joy read the note that lay beside it
A slice of barmbrack for you, my dear. Make sure to eat it tonight, it only works on Hallowe’en! I pray for a better fortune for the coming year. I love you.
Joy allowed herself a small smile and picked a crumb off the edge of the cake. Her grandmother still followed all the old traditions, foolish though they were. As if some charm in a cake could tell what would come the following year! Still, at least there was cake.
Joy moved around the kitchen, putting her shopping away and trying to ignore the date. Hallowe’en used to be her favourite time of year. She would decorate the house and make treats for the kids who came round guising. She and Adam would have friends over, everyone in costume.
But that was before. This was her second Hallowe’en without Adam and it could never be the same again. They should have been married by now. If he hadn’t gone to pick up extra treats …
Joy shook herself as she realised that she was standing motionless with a box of teabags in her hand. She put one teabag in her mug and the rest of the box went into the cupboard. A tear trickled down Joy’s cheek and she choked back a sob, moving to fill the kettle. She looked up and caught sight of her reflection on the kitchen window.
‘Oh, Adam. I miss you so much,’ she said under her breath.
‘I know you do, love. I miss you too.’
Joy turned around, slowly, dreading what she would see behind her. There he stood, as he had so many times since that horrible night. Adam was still wearing his costume – James Bond, of all things. He looked so suave in that suit, with his dark hair and eyes.
‘You’re not there,’ Joy said, her voice betraying her doubt in her own words.
‘Where else would I be?’ the apparition asked, the table showing through his translucent body.
‘I’m just imagining you because I miss you. Ghosts aren’t real.’ Why am I even talking to him?
‘Of course I’m real,’ he said, sounding exasperated.
Joy covered her face with her hands and wept. She had done all of the exercises that her therapist suggested. She had tried so hard to let go of him. So why was she still hallucinating? It wasn’t fair.
Joy felt a cold breeze and her hair lifted away from her face as Adam caressed her. Fake Adam. Hallucinatory Adam. So why did it feel so real? This is not real. I lost my fiancé, I lost my future and now I’m losing my mind.
‘No need for tears, love, I’m here now.’
Joy had read endlessly about bereavement and it was said that the sound of someone’s voice was one of the hardest memories to hang onto. So why did her hallucination sound so perfectly like Adam?
The doorbell rang, making Joy stiffen. She took her hands away from her face and Adam was gone. The bell rang again and this time the sound was accompanied by laughing children. Joy straightened up, feeling like a centenarian, joints creaking and stiff. She headed for the front door, grabbing a bag of apples as she passed the table. The kids outside must be new. The others all leave me alone now.
Joy opened the door to a witch, a goblin and a princess, their father standing behind them, looking bored. Joy’s eyes felt puffy. I must look a sight, she thought as she reached to shake the man’s outstretched hand.
‘Jim Brown and these are my children, we just moved in round the corner.’
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Joy Harper. I’m not very well stocked I’m afraid,’ she said, lifting the bag of apples.
‘Go on, do your party piece,’ Jim said, nudging the back of the witch.
‘Not last night but the night before,’ sang the children in unison, ‘three wee witches came to the door, one was black and one was green and one just shouted “Hallowe’en!”’ the children shouted the last word and collapsed into giggles.
‘My goodness,’ Joy said, ‘I didn’t realise that song was still doing the rounds. I used to sing that when I was about your age.’ As she spoke, she gave an apple to each of the children. The goblin and the princess exchanged glances. ‘If you come back next year, I might have something better,’ Joy said, with an embarrassed smile.
The children thanked her then ran off down the path, their dad trailing along behind. Joy closed the door, letting out a shaky breath. That was ok. She hadn’t collapsed in a sobbing heap on the floor and terrified the children. Maybe she could cope with Hallowe’en after all. The interruption had pulled her from her hallucination and she was thankful.
Exhausted and emotionally spent, she decided to go for a bath. Passing through the bedroom on her way to the ensuite, Joy glanced at the bedside cabinet, where her engagement ring sat, displayed in its box. After almost two years, her therapist had convinced her to take it off but her hand still felt naked without it. Averting her gaze, she hurried through to the bathroom.
As hot water poured into the bathtub, Joy slipped out of her clothes, catching sight of her flat belly, skin smooth and unmarred. I might have been pregnant by now, she thought, slipping into the water. We would have been trying, anyway. Fresh tears leaked from Joy’s eyelids as she tipped her head back, letting her thick, dark hair float in the water.
Try as she might, Joy could not avert her thoughts from that awful night when she had lost everything she thought the future would hold.
She had spent the afternoon baking cakes and cookies, making gummy sweets and Hallowe’en themed chocolates and decorating the house for the party that evening. Taking the last batch of cookies out of the oven, she had burned her hand and dropped the tray, knocking over two others in the process. She had asked Adam to run out to the shop and buy some more cookies while she tended to her burn and cleaned up the mess. He had kissed the burn, lovingly teased her for her clumsiness, and headed out.
The next time she saw him, Joy had been identifying his body. Just a few streets from their house, a drunk driver had run a red light, straight into the driver’s side of their car, breaking Adam’s neck. The coroner assured her that his death had been instantaneous; Adam had experienced no pain. One second he was there and the next he was gone, and with him went everything that Joy had ever wanted. If she hadn’t been so clumsy, if she hadn’t burned her hand, then none of this would have happened. It was her fault.
Joy’s parents had flown back from Australia for the funeral and had tried to convince her to go and stay with them for a while, take some time to recover, but she hadn’t wanted to leave the house that she and Adam had shared. She had clung desperately to his memory, holding as much of him inside of her as she had been able.
It was about six months after his death that she began to see Adam, hear his voice, as if he was there. The first time, she had woken up in the night to see him lying on his side of the bed, watching her. The next morning it had seemed like a dream and she thought no more of it. His visits increased in frequency, until he appeared during the day and held conversations with Joy. That was when she realised that she wasn’t just imagining him, she was fully hallucinating. So she sought out a therapist who specialised in grief counselling. She had done the exercises faithfully, following all of her therapist’s suggestions for letting go of her guilt over Adam’s death; for letting go of him. Still, he appeared to her. She was starting to think that she would have to see a doctor; maybe the solution lay in a prescription pad.
Joy closed her eyes and held her breath, ducking her head under rapidly cooling water, staying in that peaceful place for as long as she could. She didn’t see the figure standing at the side of the bathtub, watching her from eyes filled with longing.
Wrapping herself in a warm dressing gown, Joy made her way into the kitchen, planning on making the cup of tea that she had started earlier. Adam stood in front of the kettle. Joy stopped short, heart pounding in her chest.
‘Why are you here?’ she cried.
‘It’s our favourite night of the year, love. Of course I’m here with you,’ the apparition replied.
Joy slumped into a seat at the kitchen table, the strength running out of her legs like water down a drain. ‘I wish you were really here.’
‘I wish I could hold you,’ Adam replied, looking down at translucent arms.
Joy longed with such fierce intensity to feel his arms around her that for a moment, she almost could. Her nerves strained for the sensation but the moment was fleeting and in the end, she was left to wrap her arms around herself instead.
‘Why aren’t you wearing your ring anymore?’ he asked, taking Joy by surprise.
‘I need to move on,’ Joy answered, wondering if she carried guilt over taking her ring off. Her therapist believed that the hallucinations were caused by her feelings of guilt over his death.
‘It was never meant to come off,’ Adam replied. ‘I’m sorry I never got to put a wedding ring on beside it.’
The day before Adam died, Joy had bought his wedding ring. A week later, the jeweller called to say it had been resized and was ready. Joy never collected it.
‘Adam, I’m sorry,’ Joy said, her voice breaking. ‘I’m sorry that I burned my hand and you had to go out. I’m sorry that you died. I’m sorry that I didn’t. I love you so much.’ The tears flowed freely now and Joy had to force the words through a throat that ached with emotion. ‘I have to let you go now. I’m afraid I’m going crazy. If anyone finds out, I’ll lose my job. They don’t let crazy people teach. I have to move on.’
‘You’re not crazy, love. I’m here. I’m real.’ Adam reached towards her and a cool breeze stirred.
‘If only I could believe that.’
‘I can stay here with you. We can be together, after a fashion.’
‘I have to say goodbye, Adam.’
‘What if there was a way we could be together?’
‘But if there was? Would you do it?’
‘I would give anything to be able to change what happened. To be your wife.’
Adam nodded, then dissolved until he was no longer there. Joy stayed at the table, weeping, for a long time.
Eventually, tears spent for now, Joy pushed herself to her feet and switched the kettle on. This cup of tea has been a long time coming. Spotting the barmbrack that still lay on the counter, Joy decided to call her grandmother. The phone rang several times before the answering machine clicked on. Joy left a message thanking her for the cake and offering to take her out for dinner on Saturday.
Joy made her tea and settled down at the table with her slice of cake. The sugar was just exactly what she needed to clear her mental fog a little – she would enjoy her tea and cake then try calling Nana again. Maybe it’s time to take her advice and think about going to stay with mum and dad for a while. Nana could come too. A fresh start for both of us.
The cake was dense and moist and perfect. She took a second bite from the thicker end of the slice. Crumbs caught at the back of her throat and Joy began to cough. As she breathed in, the larger piece of cake got sucked back in her mouth and blocked her throat. I can’t breathe! Joy couldn’t even cough to clear her throat. Panicking, she thumped herself in the chest. Her hands wanted to go to her throat and she had to fight to stop them from clawing uselessly. Think! Stay calm! Joy punched herself, just below her diaphragm, trying to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on herself. Her vision was fading. She knew she didn’t have long. She pushed to her feet but did not have the strength to stand and fell to the floor.
Joy lay there, too weak to get up, vision fading. Just before she lost consciousness, Joy saw Adam’s worried face above her.
A few days later, Joy waited in the kitchen of her grandmother’s house, listening to the older woman speak to a police officer in the sitting room.
‘Yes, that’s Joy’s engagement ring,’ Nana was saying. ‘I have no idea how it got into the barmbrack, though. The last time I saw it, she was wearing it.’
‘But you did bake charms into the cake?’ the policeman asked, his voice gruff.
‘Of course. That’s how it works. All of the charms have been accounted for – there were none in Joy’s slice.’
‘Whatever happened, it’s looking like an accident. I’ll be in touch when we know more.’
Joy heard the door close and then her grandmother came into the kitchen, carrying cups to the sink.
‘I’m sorry about all of this, Nana,’ Joy said to the older woman’s back. ‘I love you.’
‘Oh Joy,’ Nana said, her voice choked with tears.
Joy felt the air move beside her and then Adam was there, holding out his hand.
‘Are you ready?’ he asked.
Joy leant over to her grandmother and kissed her wrinkled brow. ‘Goodbye, Nana.’
‘I’m ready,’ Joy took Adam’s hand, entwining her fingers in his. They faded away, the light glinting from the matching rings on their left hands.