5,000 Words

Listen to the Apex Magazine Podcast narration of “If a Bird Can Be a Ghost.”

Shelly’s grandma teaches her about ghosts, how to carry them in her hair. If you carry your ghosts in your hair, then you can cut them off when you don’t need them anymore. Otherwise, ghosts cling to your skin, dig their fingers in under your ribs and stay with you long, long after you want them gone.

Shelly’s mother doesn’t like ghosts. She doesn’t like Grandma telling Shelly about them. “You’ll scare her,” she says. “You’ll keep her up at night.”

“How is she going to take care of herself if she can’t take care of the dead?” Grandma asks, and Shelly’s mother never has much of an answer for that. So Grandma teaches Shelly about ghosts, how to keep them, and how to get rid of them too. Not just her own ghosts, but other people’s.

“My grandma is a Ghostbuster,” Shelly tells her friends at school. “I’m going to be one, too.”

It’s true, in a way. People are always coming by the house to see if Grandma will get rid of their ghosts—cats that wind around their ankles and trip them when they walk. Dogs that bark in the middle of the night, startling them out of sleep. Most ghosts Grandma exorcises were someone’s pet once.

“People are harder to notice,” Grandma says. “Nobody wants to see their mother-in-law clinging to their back everywhere they go.”

Grandma did a cleansing for a nice white family to get rid of a mother-in-law once. They paid her three hundred dollars and gave her a lasagna for the freezer. Three hundred is a lot for a ghost. Most of Grandma’s clients pay in knick-knacks and favours and food. Grandma doesn’t charge much because if people know they have a ghost they might pay anything to get rid of them—do anything.

“You’ve got to be responsible,” Grandma tells Shelly. “You can’t charge people through the nose to get rid of a ghost. We’ve got to undercut the frauds so people come to us.”

Mom looks over from putting her hair up to go to work, her uniform shirt all nicely pressed. She points a finger at Grandma. “You could charge a little more.”

“It’s a nice lasagna,” Grandma says.

Mom shrugs because Grandma’s right. It is a nice lasagna.

§

Grandma doesn’t get rid of every ghost she comes across. Sometimes ghosts deserve to do their haunting. Sometimes people deserve to be haunted.

“You don’t take ghosts from a graveyard,” Grandma says, braiding Shelly’s hair so she won’t catch any ghosts she doesn’t want. “Not unless they want to go, then you can let them out. Most of those ghosts, they’ll leave if they really want to. Same with churches and temples, sacred places. They deserve to stay.”

The graveyard Grandma takes Shelly to is a twenty-seven-minute bus ride away. It’s a nice one—big, with tidy rows of brass plaques and tasteful headstones set in the ground. Shelly keeps to the path so she doesn’t walk on anybody’s grave.

“This kind of graveyard, you aren’t going to find a lot of ghosts,” Grandma says, leading Shelly towards the outer limits of the graveyard, the cheaper graves. “Lots of old ladies like me with nothing left to haunt about.”

On the outskirts of the graveyard, there are small graves with tiny aluminum stakes and rusted old plaques instead of proper headstones. The graves are closer together and the undergrowth is creeping towards them. There’s a ghost there, a teenaged boy, sitting on a grave and playing with a Walkman.

He looks up at Grandma and Shelly with eyes like black holes.

“Hello, Joseph,” Grandma says, sticking a hand in her handbag and pulling out a stack of old tapes. She puts them on the grave in front of the boy and he smiles at her.

“Old Lady,” he says. His mouth moves, but his voice comes from the headphones around his neck. He pops open his ghostly Walkman and inserts the tapes, one by one, right after each other. They disappear as they slide into place, dissolving into the player. “You want to know who’s walking around the yard?”

“I want to introduce you to my granddaughter,” Grandma says. “Joseph, this is Shelly.”

Joseph turns his disconcerting eyes on Shelly. She does her best not to take a step back. After a moment, she gives Joseph a quick bow because she’s not sure what else to do with him staring like that.

Joseph laughs. “I like her,” he says. “Old Lady never introduced me to anyone before, Little Shell. You must be special. You ever heard of The Cure?”

Shelly shakes her head.

Joseph opens his Walkman and reaches inside. His hand slips down, down, all the way to his elbow, as he digs around inside, and he pulls out a cassette and holds it out to Shelly. “This is a good one,” he says. “Take care of it for me.”

Shelly takes the tape—Disintegration. It’s so icy cold that touching it feels like being burned, but Grandma taught her how to accept gifts from the dead. When they give you something, you must be grateful. You smile and you say thank you and you take good care of it.

“Thank you,” Shelly says. “Do you want me to bring it back?”

“Nah,” Joseph says. “You keep that one for you.”

§

The only cassette player Shelly knows about is the one in her mom’s car. The next time she goes with her mom to get groceries, she has the tape in her pocket.

“Where did you get a tape?” her mom asks, turning it over in her hands and then sliding it into the deck. “Why this tape?”

“Joseph gave it to me. He’s one of Grandma’s friends.”

Shelly’s mom fast forwards through the first song, straight through to the second. “A dead friend?”

“His name is Joseph.” The music Joseph gave her is all jangly guitar, electric piano, and echoing, sorrowful voices. It sounds like a sad dance party. Shelly likes it.

“Joseph has strong commitment to a theme.”

Shelly’s mom doesn’t approve of ghosts, but she turns the music up and she teaches Shelly the words to the song so they can sing it together.

§

Despite her mother’s fears, Shelly is never afraid of ghosts. Ghosts are nice to little girls who pay them close attention and don’t run away screaming. Most ghosts just want to be noticed because they go so long without talking to anyone, and when someone does notice them, they usually just try to get rid of them.

Grandma laughs a lot about people who try to get rid of ghosts on their own.

“We burned sage,” one of Grandma’s clients—a woman clad in expensive yoga pants with her hair in a high ponytail—says, touring Shelly and Grandma around her haunted apartment. “To cleanse it, you know?”

Grandma smiles, all bland and pointed. “To cleanse it?”

“From the … spirits. The demons. You know.” The woman gestures vaguely at Grandma, at her brown skin and warm brown eyes. At the little turtle earrings she wears every day. The things that make some people say Native and Grandma say Ililiw. “It’s cleansing. The smoke. We fanned it around the whole house and nothing. The spirits are still here.”

Grandma keeps smiling. “I don’t use sage to cleanse ghosts.”

“Oh. So it’s like … for other stuff? Bad juju?”

Grandma turns her back on the woman. “This is a tough case. I might have to charge a little more for the work. Do you mind?”

Grandma’s right about the money. People will pay more to get rid of a ghost once they’re sure it’s there.

§

Sometimes the police come. Not often, and always officers who know Grandma already, with their hats in hand. There are TV shows like that, but when Grandma finally takes Shelly with her it’s not like on TV.

“We can drive you to the river,” one of the officers says, looking uncomfortable as Shelly helps Grandma into her raincoat and finds their bus passes.

“In the back of your car?”

“Well, yes.”

“No thank you. We’ll meet you at the water,” Grandma says, voice so firm the officers have no choice but to leave and drive away as Grandma and Shelly begin their walk to the bus.

“Never get in the back of a car with doors you can’t open,” Grandma tells Shelly. “You be polite to them, but stay out of that car.”

Shelly and Grandma get to the river in less time than it takes to get to the cemetery. The officers have picked up tea for Grandma and hot chocolate for Shelly, which makes the long bus ride worth it.

(At this age, Shelly thinks riding in the back of a police car would be kind of cool. When she grows up, she’ll know Grandma was right.)

If Shelly’s mother had been home, she wouldn’t have let her go to the river. Grandma walks up and down the bank a few times, holding Shelly’s hand, the cops trailing after them, and Grandma lets her hair hang loose and long to pull up any ghosts.

She catches the ghost on the third pass. His clothes are plastered to his body and his shivering makes him shift in and out of focus. He doesn’t speak, but he keeps glancing over his shoulder, towards a little outcrop of rocks on the bank of the water.

“Ah,” Grandma says, nodding. She gestures the cops closer and points to the rocks. “He’s caught up in there. A nice young man with a red beard.”

The cops wait until Shelly and Grandma leave to pull the body from the water. The ghost comes home with them, wet and shivery, even after the bus ride back to the house.

“Do you want me to turn on the heater?” Shelly asks him.

The ghost jumps and looks down at her. “Where did you come from?”

“Leave him alone, Shelly. We’ll feed him and send him off,” Grandma says. “He doesn’t need us confusing him even more.”

“I don’t understand what happened,” the ghost says. “I was just on the bridge. I was just thinking.”

Grandma pours the ghost a mug of milk and warms it in the microwave as he drifts around their kitchen, flickering in and out of focus as Shelly watches, fascinated. A new ghost, a ghost who is still deciding if he wants to stick around or not, is new for her.

“What’s your name?” Shelly asks because the cops hadn’t said.

The ghost gives her a distressed look. “I don’t know,” he says. “Do you know who I am? Do you know my name?”

Grandma set the mug of warm milk down on the kitchen table. “Here you go,” she says. “This will warm you up and then we’ll make sure you get where you’re going. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Shelly, would you get the scissors from my sewing kit?”

Shelly goes and gets the pair of small, silver scissors. The ghost drains the milk on the table. His wet hair drips real water on the floor. He looks like he’ll never be fully dry, like if you tried to wring him out he’d twist and twist and the water would just keep coming. This, Shelly thinks, is probably why Grandma doesn’t want to keep him. Having a damp ghost haunting their house would be troublesome.

Grandma wraps a strand of hair around her ring finger and clips it off. By the time the milk is finished, the ghost is nearly gone, just a faint smudge in the air where once there was a man.

“Where do they go?” Shelly asks. “Where do we send them?”

Grandma picks up the mug and refills it with milk. She sticks it in the microwave to heat it up for herself. “We’ll find out, won’t we? One day, a long time from now.”

§

Shelly’s mother finds out before Grandma does.

§

Shelly goes looking for her. She lets her hair out and she circles round and round the neighbourhood, looking for any sign of her mother’s ghost. Not everyone who dies becomes a ghost. Sometimes they just go to whatever’s next all on their own. But those people don’t know about ghosts. Not like Shelly’s mom knew about ghosts. They don’t have Shelly waiting for them at home.

Shelly wears her hair loose to the funeral home and has to comb the ghosts from her hair on the way to the cemetery. She winds her hair into a loose bun when they bury the coffin, ready to pull loose if she sees her mother. Grandma wears her hair in braids, wrapped around her head like a crown. She cries and holds tight to Shelly’s hand and doesn’t even tell her off for catching so many ghosts in the funeral home. Grandma understands grief better than most people. Grandma makes her living with the dead.

After the funeral, Shelly slips away from all the hugging and touching and walks to the outskirts of the cemetery.

“Little Shell,” Joseph says, looking at her with his black, blank eyes and his mouth that moves while his headphones emit the tinny sound of his voice. “Did you bring me a tape?”

Shelly had never stolen anything before, but cassettes are hard to find. “Do you want to learn French?” she asks, pulling three tapes from her pockets. “The library had these language learning tapes.”

Joseph looks offended. “No music?”

“My mom died,” Shelly says. “I can’t find her.”

Joseph reaches for the tapes. He feeds them into his Walkman one by one. “Je suis désolé. That means ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m dead. It’s not so bad.”

“I miss her,” Shelly says. “I can’t find her. I can’t remember what her voice sounds like. Not exactly. What if I forget how she smells next?”

Joseph is a ghost so Joseph doesn’t really get how the impermanence of life affects the living. Shelly can see that on his face.

Shelly also doesn’t know who else to talk to.

“You’re a ghost,” she says. “You live here. If you see her—”

“I don’t live anywhere,” Joseph says. He pauses, nods. “If I see her, I’ll tell her Little Shell is looking for her mother. I’ll tell her you want to hear her voice again.”

Shelly doesn’t think to wonder how Joseph will know it’s her mother until after she finds Grandma and the rest of the funeral party, getting ready to head back home, where there’s lots of food and more people waiting to say how sorry they are. Shelly lays her head on Grandma’s lap in the back of the car and closes her eyes.

“Do ghosts know things?” she asks.

“They know lots of things,” Grandma says. “Most things they knew when they were alive. All the things they’ve learned since they died. Ghosts have lots of time on their hands.”

“About other ghosts,” Shelly says. “Would a ghost know who another ghost was, before they became a ghost?”

Grandma undoes Shelly’s bun and strokes her hair. She cradles Shelly close like she must have once cradled Shelly’s mother and whispers that she’ll take care of Shelly. She’ll make sure Shelly is safe and happy. When the car reaches their home, they don’t get out. Shelly falls asleep there, on Grandma’s lap.

§

Shelly collects ghosts. She stops cutting her hair and stops combing it most days. She walks around town by herself and snatches up ghosts from the streets she walks down and the buildings she goes into. Old and young, of all different races and genders and everything else. Some so faint they’re just smudges and some almost as solid as living people, ghosts you can only tell are dead because they have an uncanny quality that sets them apart—like Joseph and his eyes.

Shelly gathers ghosts and asks them if they’ve seen her mother. She asks them if they know anyone like her, if they’ve run across a woman looking for her daughter.

Grandma is charging more to get rid of ghosts. Sometimes they still get food and trinkets, but only when they’re chasing ghosts for one of Grandma’s friends. The next time the police come, Grandma tells them she needs to charge a fee for consultation. Shelly isn’t allowed to come along, this time, because it has to be official. A crime scene is no place for a child, and besides, there won’t be any hot chocolate waiting for her at the end of it this time.

Shelly doesn’t think she’s a child anymore. She’s aged, since her mother’s death. She can’t stop getting older and further away from her mom.

§

Shelly sits in an elevator of the oldest hotel downtown and winds a strand of hair around her finger. There’s a little boy in the hotel. He likes to ride the elevator up and down, to push all the buttons and watch the living get frustrated with how long it takes to get to their floor. The living are always concerned about time, about running late and running out of it. The little boy has nothing but time now.

“Have you seen my mom?” Shelly asks him, and takes out the photo she carries with her now, of her mom smiling and holding Shelly in her arms.

“I haven’t seen any moms,” the boy says, running his hands over the bank of buttons so they all light up. “I haven’t seen anyone interesting in forever. Why aren’t there any toys? Why won’t anyone play with me?”

“I’ll play with you,” Shelly says. “Will you look at my photo?”

The boy turns to frown at Shelly. He’s a solid ghost, well established in the hotel. They don’t want to get rid of him. Tourists come to ride the elevator and stay in the rooms he likes to walk through. They tell people that the ghost is a young woman who got so sad she jumped from the building’s top floor. It was a great tragedy, they say, that someone so pretty and young died. She’d had a young son.

(The first time Shelly and Grandma visited the hotel, Grandma told the hotel manager it was the son haunting the hotel and not his mother. The manager said it would be too morbid to tell people it was a little boy haunting them. The death of a young woman was better. It was more romantic, this way. Besides, think of all the books that had been published about the haunting. The hotel had a guide to the haunting in their lobby. They couldn’t change that.)

“I don’t want to play with you,” the boy says, but he looks at Shelly’s photo anyway. “I’ve never seen her before. Have you seen my mom? Where did she go? She left me here, didn’t she? She left me all on my own.”

Shelly gets off the elevator at the next floor and takes the stairs down.

§

Shelly does her best to hide the ghosts from Grandma. She buries them in her dresser drawers and tucks them into her hair when she walks into the house so she can carry them down the hall without being stopped. Her room fills up slowly.

Grandma makes them dinner every night and they eat together. Every night Grandma tries to talk to Shelly.

“I have a job tomorrow,” Grandma says. “A family keeps finding things knocked over in their apartment. They say they have a poltergeist so it’s probably a bird.”

Sometimes, birds crash into windows of tall buildings and their spirit passes through the glass without their bodies. Birds are always destructive because they flap around trying to get free and throw things about.

“Birds are boring,” Shelly says. “They just squawk until you catch them and put them outside. They give me a headache.”

“Birds are a good way to make a living,” Grandma says. “Birds will always crash into buildings.”

Shelly looks down at her dinner. “Do you think there are a lot of chicken ghosts on farms?”

§

The bird family is nice. They offer Grandma and Shelly lemonade when they arrive.

“I thought it was just Maria throwing her toys around at first,” one of the women says, as she shows off the cracked glass in picture frames that were knocked off the wall. “Hannah or I would put them away on the shelf and then they’d be scattered everywhere when we got in.”

Hannah nods. “When we found the pictures all knocked off the wall we knew Maria wasn’t just trying to get out of trouble. She’s only four. She can’t reach them.”

“Besides,” says Hannah’s wife, “two days ago we were watching TV and something knocked it over.”

The bird is sitting on the top of a bookshelf. Its feathers are ruffled up and it looks about as disgruntled as a bird can look. Grandma takes down her hair.

“Don’t you worry,” she says. “We’ll see to your poltergeist problem.”

Birds aren’t like people. They don’t stick to you the same way. Grandma, with her hair down, creeps towards the bookshelf, clucking her tongue at the bird like it’s a shy cat. It hops back, away from her, wary, and Grandma stills and coos at it again.

Shelly sometimes wonders what they look like, to the women who hired them to free their home of ghosts, and to all the other clients who’ve seen her and Grandma hop around chasing phantoms. Weird, probably, but they got stuff done. She and Grandma always earn their weirdness.

Shelly moves around the edges of the room and picks up a pillow. She waits until she’s sure the bird is entirely focused on Grandma, then whacks it with the pillow, off the shelf and into Grandma’s waiting grasp.

§

Shelly kind of wants to keep the bird. All the ghosts she has hidden in her room are human.

“We’ll let it out at the park,” Grandma says. The bird is still disgruntled, but is too wound up in her hair to escape. “Where it can fly around without hurting anything until it gets tired and decides to move on.”

“We could take it home and feed it,” Shelly says. “We have lots of milk.”

“It’s just a bird, Shelly,” Grandma says. “If it wasn’t for people sticking tall buildings everywhere, it wouldn’t be here at all. When I was a girl you never saw as many birds around as you do now. Everything was lower to the ground then. It wasn’t nearly as confusing for them.”

“Just because it’s a bird it doesn’t matter?”

“Because it’s a bird, we should take it to a park with lots of trees and other birds and let it go free,” Grandma says. “Ghosts like it aren’t meant to stay forever. Most of the time it’s better to let ghosts fade. You know that.”

“Sometimes ghosts deserve to do their haunting. Some things need haunting.”

“True,” Grandma agrees because she’s the one who taught Shelly that. “But those ghosts will let you know. You know that. Those ghosts know where they are. They know what they’re about. You know the dead, Shelly. Most ghosts don’t realize what’s happened to them. They just need a hand getting to where they’re going.”

Shelly thinks most ghosts are pretty stupid.

Shelly and Grandma walk to the park and Shelly watches Grandma let the bird out of her hair. She watches the bird take off, straight up into the sky, and keeps watching until she loses sight of it in the clouds.

§

Grandma finds Shelly’s ghosts while she’s putting laundry away in Shelly’s room. She opens a drawer and the dead tumble out. She goes through the dresser and Shelly’s closet and finds them both filled with ghosts. Shelly’s little bedroom is so full you could hardly move.

Grandma is waiting for Shelly when Shelly gets home from school, and she’s covered in ghosts.

“Those are mine,” Shelly says, since she can’t pretend they’re not.

“These are people,” Grandma says. “They belong to themselves. They don’t belong here.”

Shelly can’t tell if Grandma has let some of the ghosts go already or not. Shelly has a lot of ghosts.

“You can’t surround yourself with the dead all the time,” Grandma says. “You’re still alive, Shelly.”

Shelly scowls. “You’re always with the dead.”

“No, Shelly, I’m always with you.”

Shelly leaves.

§

Shelly goes to the cemetery. She goes, and she storms up to Joseph’s grave, where he’s sitting and murmuring to himself in French.

“Where is she?” Shelly demands. “Where’s my mom?”

Joseph looks up with his black eyes and frowns. “Your mom’s not here, Little Shell.”

“No,” Shelly says. “This is where she’s buried.”

“Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you’re a ghost.”

“Why not?” Shelly demands. “Why you and not her? If a bird can be a ghost, then why not her? Where did she go?”

Joseph looks terribly, terribly pitying for a dead teenager who talks through a Walkman. “I don’t know. I’ve been here. I’ve always been here. This place is all I know.”

“You have a tape player,” Shelly says. “You’re not that old.”

“This is all I remember,” Joseph says. “This place, which is mine, and watching over the graves for the Old Lady and now you, Little Shell. Did you bring me any tapes?”

“Why would I bring you any tapes when you’re no good to me?”

Shelly lashes out and kicks her foot through Joseph’s immaterial body and he topples over from the force of it, coming uprooted from his spot on the ground by his grave. Joseph looks startled—at moving, at being suddenly unmoored, suddenly ghostly in a way he wasn’t before. He flickers, like the man that Grandma once dredged up from the river.

“Little Shell, what did you do to me?” Joseph asks, mournful as he twists in place and tries to claw his way back towards his grave, his spot. “Where have you put me?”

Shelly does the only thing she can think to do and catches Joseph up in her hair. She turns and she runs from the cemetery and doesn’t take the bus. She runs all the way home, where Grandma is sweeping ghosts out the door and away.

Grandma takes one look at Shelly’s frightened face and Joseph in her hair, and sighs. “There’s nothing to do, Joseph,” she says. “We’ll give you some milk and help you get to where you’re going.”

Shelly carries Joseph into the kitchen and sits with him at the table, quiet and sorry, as Grandma puts a mug full of milk in the microwave and warms it up.

“I didn’t mean to,” she says, when Grandma sets the milk in front of Joseph.

Joseph prods the milk carefully. “I’d rather have music,” he says. “Little Shell, you’re a kid. You shouldn’t be caught up in death all the time anyway. Right, Old Lady?”

“We carry our dead with us everywhere we go,” Grandma says, touching Shelly’s hair. “The important people don’t leave us, even when their ghosts are gone. Even if they never come back.”

Grandma combs Shelly’s hair and Joseph gets blurrier and blurrier until he fades away completely and it’s just Grandma and Shelly sitting at the table, alone. Shelly blinks tears off her eyelashes and Grandma keeps combing her hair until the tears stop coming.

“Do you feel better?” Grandma asks, handing Shelly Joseph’s milk, now just lukewarm.

“No,” Shelly says. “Not really.” She takes a sip of milk and reaches up to touch her long hair. “I want to cut it.”

Grandma hesitates. Cutting your hair has meaning. Cutting your hair is a choice. “Are you sure?”

Once it’s out in the air, once Shelly says it out loud, it’s obvious it needs to be done. It’s time to cut it so it can grow out new and shiny, not tangled up with the dead, not dragging at her shoulders with the weight of the memories it carries. “I need to cut it.”

Grandma and Shelly go outside to sit on the steps with Grandma’s little silver scissors. The light is fading, but the sky is pink-purple-red as the sun goes down. It’s pretty, and Shelly watches the sun setting while Grandma combs her long hair one more time.

Grandma gathers Shelly’s hair into little ponytails and cuts them off carefully, her touch gentle, and hands Shelly each lock of hair as she goes, until they’re all gone.

Shelly shivers when the evening wind brushes her neck, and shakes out her newly shorn hair, feeling the crisp ends brush against her skin. It feels like sudden weightlessness. All the things she’s been carrying with her are still there, but they seem lighter now. Easier.

“We took a lot off,” Grandma says, touching Shelly’s hair, brushing her fingers through it.

Shelly winds the strands of her hair around and around her hand. There’s so much that isn’t attached to her the same way anymore, and now she can’t fish for ghosts as she walks the street. She can’t load her shoulders with the weight of their lives. She can’t kidnap anybody from a graveyard.

“What do you think?” Grandma asks. “How do you feel?”

Her hair is gone, and all the feelings from before remain, but it’s not bad.

“I like it,” she says. “It’ll grow back. I’ll be ready for it.”

§

One day, Shelly will have a baby of her own—a little being to care for like her mother and grandmother cared for her. She will teach her baby about ghosts and how they get caught in your hair and how you can choose to carry them with you or cut them away; about the burden of knowing the past when so many people can forget it so easily. She will teach her baby that not all ghosts need to be exorcised and that some people, some places, need to be haunted.

Shelly will take her baby with her when she exorcises a ghost and say to the ghost, “See? See this new being that has come into the world? Let the sight of them fill you with hope and good feeling as you go where you’re going. Say hello to my mom and Grandma when you get there.”

Allison Mills is a Cree and settler writer, archivist, librarian, and researcher with a thing about ghosts. Allison’s critical work has appeared in The Looking Glass and in Archivaria, where it won the 2016 Dodds Prize. She currently lives and works on unceded Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish land in Vancouver, BC.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this strong story.

  2. A charming pair of compassionate ghost… busters?
    Thanks!

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