Authors: Leah Cutter
Tags: #urban fantasy, #paranormal, #ghosts, #gothic, #kentucky, #magic, #magic realism, #contemporary fantasy
The Soul Thief
Copyright © 2015 Leah Cutter
All rights reserved
Published 2015 by Knotted Road Press
by arrangement with Book View Café
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Cover and interior design copyright © 2015 Knotted Road Press
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This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
FRANKLIN SAT OUTSIDE in his backyard, watching the knee-high cornstalks grow. A ghost sat beside him, on the other white-metal garden chair. Franklin didn’t know the ghost’s name—he’d never pushed one toward Franklin. The ghost’s
had been difficult to read as well.
But the ghost had joined Franklin every morning for the last week, the pair of them sitting on either side of the white metal garden table, listening to the morning birds and the quiet hum of the interstate as the dew evaporated and the day began. The Kentucky blue-grass Franklin grew back there was still so new, the spring color so bright, it was likely to hurt your eyes.
The ghost was a white man. He wore what he’d been buried in, like all ghosts—a light blue suit with a dark blue tie and a white shirt, probably his Sunday best.
A black man, like Franklin, probably would have worn something a little more somber. Plus, Franklin had always planned on being buried in a hat. It would just be more formal if he was wearing a hat. He’d bought a black Stetson for the occasion, though he’d never told no one about it, not even Mama, either when she’d been alive or when she’d come back to haunt Franklin as a ghost.
Not that Franklin planned on dying anytime soon. He was still a young man, not yet even thirty. He still had a lot of living to do yet.
But this ghost, this white man…Franklin had the impression that he hadn’t lived a lot while he’d been, well, with the living. Even if there was a Heaven beyond where they was sitting, Franklin guessed the ghost was afraid to take those final steps.
Franklin always reckoned that dying was hard on a body, not just ’cause they were passing out of this earth. Ghosts couldn’t make any noise, not generally, and they was rarely strong enough to lift even a single piece of paper.
So every morning, Franklin tried to encourage his guest. He didn’t want the ghost not to feel welcome. Mama had taught him better than that. However, the ghost needed to move on. It was part of the natural course of things.
“Now, I know it might be scary,” Franklin told the ghost as he sipped his sweet tea. He’d added a sprig of mint to it that morning, so it tasted cool and fresh. “But it’s still the next step. The right thing to do.”
Franklin always tried to do the right thing and to do his duty. Mama had insisted that meant helping the dead pass on, out of this life and into the next. Franklin weren’t perfect. No man was. Still, he tried.
The ghost just shook his head, looking down at his hands, tightly clenched.
Normally, when a ghost had trouble passing from this world to the next, it was because they still had some deed left undone. Like the older woman Franklin had helped the week before last. She’d been a black woman, ponderous and ample-bosomed, wearing the brightest red dress that Franklin had ever seen on a ghost. She couldn’t leave, not until she’d seen her boy one last time.
Though she’d been as big as Mama, she’d ridden as daintily as a little girl between the handlebars of Franklin’s bike as he drove her into Katherinesville, then beyond, to the graveyard. Then he’d waited with her until her son had arrived.
“Now, I know new things can be frightening,” Franklin consoled the ghost sitting beside him in his backyard. “Hell, I remember the first time I really kissed a girl. Felt like my heart was about to pound outa my chest.” He paused, relishing the memory of his first kisses with Julie, how shy he’d been, how wonderful it had all turned out. “I figure this is that same level of scared for you. But you gonna have to try.”
The man nodded.
Franklin knew the ghost needed something. He just weren’t sure what.
“I believe you didn’t try a lot of new things when you was living,” Franklin said delicately.
The ghost’s head dropped down, his hands clenched even tighter. If he weren’t already so pale, Franklin would bet they turned even whiter.
“But this here’s a
new thing. Something that you’re only going to get to try once. Not just have to try. But
to try. Most folks just go along into Heaven, lifted up and not making a choice or a decision about it all. You, on the other hand, get to walk there all on your lonesome.”
The man went from staring at his hands to looking pensively out at Franklin’s field.
Was there a gate to Heaven there, among the rows of corn? Franklin had always found it a calming place, with just blue sky above him and the smell of rich dirt and growing things surrounding him.
“You should try it,” Franklin urged.
The man glanced back at Franklin, then finally, decisively, stood up. He nodded once at Franklin, giving his thanks, then strode off purposefully into the cornfield. He faded as he walked, as if stepping into a mist Franklin couldn’t see.
Franklin took a deep breath, feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. That ghost had finally moved on.
Maybe he wasn’t going to Heaven. Maybe there was another, in-between place, that he’d visit first. Franklin didn’t rightly know.
However, he never felt fear from any ghost about passing on, so he always figured it were Heaven or some equivalent. That he weren’t encouraging folk to pass into Hell. He hoped so.
Franklin leaned back in his chair and took another sip of his sweet tea, mint fresh and cool. Even Mama might say he’d done good. That he done his duty, his job.
Helping ghosts pass wasn’t Franklin’s only job. It might take all his time if he’d let it, however, it sure didn’t pay the bills.
And he was gonna be late again.
Luckily, Karl would understand.
Franklin hurried back to the house, pausing and blinking when he stepped inside, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Though it was still spring, the sun was starting to find its heat, and he’d left the shades down to give the house a fighting chance against it.
The farm report still murmured in the background from the ancient TV sitting on an equally ancient bureau in the living room. Franklin hurriedly turned it off, noting that no rain was predicted, which wasn’t all that unusual.
It might mean a dry summer, though. That wouldn’t be great for his crops. He’d have to keep an eye on the forecast.
He passed through the living room into the dining room, the long table pressed up against the southern wall with all the windows. He was going to have to invite his cousins over for Sunday dinner again, sometime soon. They generally gathered every week at Aunt Jasmine’s place, after church, but Franklin had had them over once, and so had his cousin May, trading Sundays with Aunt Jasmine. He’d like to do that again.
Franklin hadn’t invited Julie to Sunday dinner over at Aunt Jasmine’s or at May’s, though he’d thought about it. But he would invite her the next time they had dinner at his house, regardless of how mercilessly his cousins teased him afterward about his white girlfriend.
In the kitchen, the light over the stove was still on. Franklin never turned it off. For a few years after her death, Mama had haunted Franklin, mostly sticking to the kitchen, sitting at the table there. As a ghost, she’d always cast enough light for him to see.
The light above the stove wasn’t the same. It was still better than nothing.
Franklin hurriedly rinsed out his glass and set it on the rack with the dishes from breakfast. He nearly called out that he’d be back later that night, but there was no one to tell his plans to.
Not since Mama had passed, no longer worried about her boy.
Franklin still checked the gears on his bike, along with the chain, before he hopped on. He’d never had a vengeful ghost, and most ghosts didn’t have the power to break stuff. Still, it didn’t hurt to check. Every time.
Finally, Franklin pedaled up his gravel driveway and onto the paved lane. Though Franklin could drive a car (and he renewed his driver’s license faithfully) he didn’t own one. He didn’t like to take chances like that. If a ghost suddenly popped up while he was riding, he could just fall off his bike. If he was driving a car, he might hurt someone.
Before Franklin reached the end of the lane, the phone in his pocket chirped. Though Franklin was already late, he still stopped and flipped it open.
It was Julie. A text with just the word “Morning!” followed by a smiley face.
Franklin stopped, smiling himself. He didn’t have a smart phone—as Mama had said, those things made you stupid—so it weren’t easy for him to text back. Julie understood that, though. He’d send her back a note sometime later, when he had time to carefully spell out all the words.
It was odd, being so connected to someone. His cousin Darryl had teased Franklin about being tied on an electronic leash, but it didn’t feel that way to Franklin. Instead, it was just a way to share his day with Julie.
Franklin started back down the lane. At the end of it, he turned onto Steven’s Road. It was a much busier street, with cars whizzing by. Franklin always drove along the gravel at the side of the road so he wouldn’t be hit.
It was about two miles along Steven’s Road to the big highway. It was actually safer for him to ride along the highway, as it was a four-lane road with wide, paved shoulders that Franklin could ride on.
He didn’t have to ride far along the highway anymore. He no longer worked at the grocery store in town. Instead, Franklin now worked with his greatest competitor, Karl, at Karl’s farm-fresh vegetable stand.
Franklin hadn’t been able to compete with Karl the previous year for the Kentucky State Fair blue ribbon for who grew the best popping corn—his field had been destroyed by an evil creature, with him and Karl fighting it.
This year, however, would be different. Franklin had his first crop in already, and was determined as ever to win.
“’Bout time you showed up,” Karl drawled as Franklin parked his bike behind the fruit and vegetable stand. The stand was about three car-lengths long, and about the width of Karl’s pickup. It was a solid building, not just a flimsy shack, with power for the two large fridges in the back and fans constantly blowing, along with a watering system for the vegetables.
The front had slanted wooden racks, where the produce was stacked. They were long enough that Franklin—who was close to six feet tall—had to stand on his tiptoes to reach the bottom of them from the inside.
There were four people waiting to be served. Franklin recognized a couple of them—like Jesse, the chef, who claimed they sold the best greens in all of Wesley County.
“Sorry,” Franklin told Karl.
Karl just frowned at him, his blue eyes glaring out from under his bushy brown eyebrows. He had a pointed nose and a sharp chin, made more pointed by his neatly trimmed goatee and mustache. He wore a tight black T-shirt and jeans that showed just how wiry and muscular he was. Franklin was just as muscular, but he had more flesh on him. They were matched in height and weight, though.
Franklin had teased Karl more than once that he looked the perfect image of a good ole boy, looking like one of those Civil War generals in the old-timey photographs.
Fortunately for Franklin, Karl was a lot more than just that.
Franklin helped the next customer in line, weighing his bag of lettuce before explaining to Karl. “Had a guest.”
It was the shorthand they’d come up with to talk about Franklin’s
“I figured,” Karl said sourly. “The guy in the suit? The one you was telling me about?”
Franklin nodded, giving Karl a wide grin. “Finally left.”
And that was the last Franklin thought about that ghost for the rest of the day.