The UW-Rock County library hosted a short story contest in October, which I talked about in a previous post. I managed to finish it just in time for the due date and submitted it, hoping I would win, but satisfied with completing another good short story either way it turned out. Well, on Thursday, I received an e-mail that informed me that I had been the winner of the contest! Suffice it to say, I was pretty excited. I don't recall whether or not the library is going to be using the story for anything, but I do get to go in on Monday and claim a $25 prize. It's weird to say, but I have officially had my first paid writing gig. Granted, I've submitted stories twice in my whole life, but it's still an honor and I'm still pumped. So, to share with y'all, here is the story I wrote for the contest. Thanks for reading!
Everywhere I looked, I saw Abraham Lincoln.
At first, I just assumed it was a coincidence━I had just checked out a book on our beloved 16th president for my history class, and I had that scraggly beard of his on the brain. But then I started seeing his face everywhere--billboards, posters, memes, and every episode of every show I watched on Netflix for three days straight. It was really starting to creep me out. Big time.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him walking out of the bathroom as I sat at a table in the Williams basement, wiping his hands on the jacket of his old-time suit. I had just barely glanced up when I saw the bathroom door open, absently curious as to who had gone into the bathroom without me noticing━I’d been sitting at the same table studying for the past three hours━and then glanced immediately back down to my book before a chill ran across my body. What the… I looked up again, and sure enough, Abraham Lincoln, in his presidential best, had just come out of the bathroom at my community college in Janesville.
I swore and jumped out of my chair, holding the book in front of me like a crucifix. Yeah, I don’t know what I was expecting my history book to do against a man who was 6’4” and spent most of his time before being a politician as a logger...but cut me some slack. Have you ever seen a freaking dead President of the United States? Didn’t think so.
Abe seemed to notice me for the first time and raised an eyebrow as he sized me up. I was swearing at a hundred miles an hour now, and apparently our president didn’t like that, because he folded his arms like a disappointed parent as his eyebrow continued to climb higher and higher. Finally I stopped cursing and just stared.
“You’re…” I said, barely getting even that word out.
“I’m…” Abe said with a mocking little lilt of his voice.
“You’re…” I said again, stuttering. “How? Who? What is…?”
“You’re going to have to speak clearly, young man,” Abe said, putting his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “We’re never going to get anywhere with you stammering like a buffoon.”
I hesitated. “Is...is this some sort of joke? You can’t really be Abraham Lincoln, right?” I glanced around, expecting to see some of my friends watching from around a corner, trying not to laugh their heads off. “You know Halloween’s not for like two weeks, don’t you?”
Abe was shaking his head. “No, this isn’t a costume. It’s really me. Well, what’s left of me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m a ghost, of course.”
“You’re the ghost of Abraham Lincoln?”
“You are correct, Gregory.”
“How do you know my name?”
He gave me a look. “I just said I’m a ghost, and you’re questioning how I know your name?”
I noticed my arms were aching. Oh, I was still holding up the book in front of me, trying to ward off the president. I lowered it, glancing at the cover as I did so. Right. It was the book on Abraham Lincoln. “Okay, fine. So if you’re really our 16th president, then what are you doing hanging around a community college in Wisconsin?”
Abe shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t have a clue. I was hoping you could tell me that.”
It was right around that point that I figured this qualified as the weirdest day of my entire life.
“I don’t understand,” I was saying as I walked with Abe through the school. “You mean those legends about dead people sticking around because they have unfinished business or whatever are true?”
“I stand here as living━or unliving, I suppose━proof of that, do I not?” Abe said, hands still in his pockets. He was much more relaxed than I’d imagined him being. More casual. In all of the pictures I’d seen, he looked very much the stern statesman that everyone had made him out to be. Whether this had always been his personality, or it was a new development caused by his being a ghost, I couldn’t tell.
“So, you’re saying I’m supposed to help you find out whatever this unfinished business is?” I asked, my head still reeling from all of it.
“And help you finish it?”
“You’re very perceptive,” Abe mocked.
“Shut up,” I said absently, still distracted. I looked up at Abe and saw that his eyebrow has shot up again. “Uh, I mean… Shut up, please, Mr. President?”
For a moment, I flinched as Abe raised his hand, thinking he was going to smack me, but then he just burst out laughing. “You amuse me, Gregory,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “So, will you help me?”
I thought about that for a moment, pondering the absurdity of the whole situation. “Why not,” I said. “It’s better than studying.”
“Wonderful!” Abe said, slapping my shoulder again. “It’s nice to know that I can convince a hard-working university student to procrastinate on his homework to help a dead president in need.”
I couldn’t tell where the genuineness ended and the sarcasm began with this man. “Yeah, no problem,” I said. I looked down at the book in my hand. “Quick question, though: Why did you come to me? Does it have something to do with this book?” I held it out for him to see.
“Ah, yes,” he said, nodding solemnly. “The book. You see, that’s the only way I can communicate with the outside world. All ghosts have them━a sort of telephone, if you will. I can come and go throughout the world as I wish, trying to discover why I’m still stuck here instead of passing on, but this is the only way I can talk to anyone who’s not a ghost themselves.”
“And it just happened to come to me?”
Abe shrugged. “It seems that way, doesn’t it? I’ve been around the entire UW system multiple times now, following this book, hoping someone would eventually be able to help me. But I started thinking my copy was cursed or something, because everyone kept trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible. And someone has to have it in their possession for three full days before I can speak to them directly. Another ghost rule.”
“I have to be honest, I was just about to do the same thing,” I said. “I kept seeing your face everywhere I looked━even in places where I knew you shouldn’t have been, like when I was watching A New Hope the other night. I’ve seen that movie thirty times and I know for a fact that Abraham Lincoln does not guest star. But there you were, playing the aide to Darth Vader, and━”
Abe stopped walking and held up a hand. “Wait a second, are you saying that when someone picks up the book, they start seeing my face everywhere?”
I stopped beside the president and nodded, not knowing what to say.
“Well, darn it,” Abe said, looking stricken. “I suppose that would explain why that one fellow threw himself off of a bridge.”
“Wait, you didn’t know that’s what the book did?” I asked.
Abe shook his head. “I’m the President of the United States, Gregory, not a mind reader. I had no idea any of that was happening.”
We stared at each other for a moment. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, and then coughed.
“Well, this is awkward,” Abe said, clearing his throat. “All of this is besides the point, Gregory. The fact remains that I need your help. I’m almost positive now that my unfinished business has to do with this city. I’ve been told that ghosts can feel a sort of ‘hot or cold’ sort of sensation when getting closer or further away from their unfinished business, and right now I’m burning up. It’s very close.”
I was shaking my head. “Do you even know what this unfinished business is?”
Abe started nodding in tandem with my shaking. “Not exactly. But as I said, I know it’s close. And you have the book! It’s a perfect situation━you can help me figure out what I’m supposed to do and you can actually do it for me, as well. Because, obviously, I can’t really interact with the physical world.”
I started to protest. “But didn’t you open the door when━”
“━At least not enough to actually accomplish much. It takes a lot of effort to do anything more meaningful than opening a door. Something about changing the flow of nature, I can’t really remember.”
I held up a hand. "Uh, Mr. President? I'm still missing the point where I actually do anything that would help you. What are we looking for? Where are we going? What is freaking going on here?"
Abe gave me a little smile and then pointed at something. I followed his finger and saw that we were in front of the Gary J. Lenox Library. “It’s in there,” he said, obviously excited. "I knew it was close, but I didn't know it was this close until we were standing here. Whatever my unfinished business is, it's in that library." He seemed to become ethereal for a moment and then he walked straight through the two sets of doors barring the way into the library, leaving me outside. I had half a mind to follow him, but as I put my hand on the door, I realized that it was locked. It was late into the evening and the library had been closed for several hours now. The entire campus would be closed in not too much longer.
“Um, Mr. President?” I said, looking through the glass of the doors and frowning when I didn’t see Abe anywhere. “Hey, the library is closed. Abe?”
Suddenly the president was beside me, sighing. “Right, I forgot that you can’t walk through things. It’s been so long… Well, what do you propose we do now?”
“Well, campus is going to close soon anyway. Maybe we should just wait until tomorrow.”
But Abe was already shaking his head. “I want to get this finished, Gregory. I don’t want to have to wait any longer. Can’t you break in?”
“And get in huge trouble?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “No, thank you. I’d like to keep my reputation intact, if you don’t mind.”
Abe stared at me for a long moment, as if he was trying to decide on something. Finally, he sighed again. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to tell you this, Gregory, but… I have to find out what is in this library tonight and you have to help me. If you don’t, I will kill everyone in this entire school.”
I felt a shiver run down my spine as my breathing quickened. “Wait, what? What are you talking about? Why would you do that?”
“Something I didn’t mention about ghosts: They have a very specific time limit in which to ‘finish their business,’ so to speak. And my time limit runs out when the sun rises tomorrow. If a ghost doesn’t meet that deadline...they go irrevocably insane and kill everyone they see.”
My heart was a hammer in my chest now. “What is wrong with you?” I screamed, not caring if a custodian heard me. “How could it possibly have taken you this long to find your stupid...whatever it is you’re looking for?”
“Very bad luck, really,” Abe said, much calmer than he should have been. “And then extremely good luck. If you hadn’t picked up the book when you did, a lot of people would undoubtedly be dead now. So, good job.” He patted me on the back, an action which felt surprisingly solid for a ghost.
I stood there in shock for a moment longer before putting a hand to my forehead and sighing. I gave up. “Well...how do you propose I get inside the library? And no, I do not consider breaking the glass on the door an option. Or the glass of the window. Or any other breaking. There are still people in the building besides us.” I was speaking as quietly as I possibly could━luckily it seemed as if Abe could hear me just fine.
The president thought about it for a moment, pursing his lips. Just then, a custodian walked by━a middle-aged woman who whistled to herself as she walked, pulling her utility cart behind her. Her keys clinked where they were clipped to her belt. She scrunched her brow at me, obviously wondering what I was doing standing in the front of the library with a forlorn look on my face.
“Anything I can help you with?” she asked.
I stood there for a moment gaping before I really registered her question. Abe poked me in the side. “You should probably answer her,” he said.
“Um, I… I don’t know,” I stammered. With everything that had been happening today, I wasn’t sure how to deal with normal human interaction. “Well, I…” I glanced down at her keys. “Would there be any possible way you could let me into the library… I think I left a book in there that I really need.”
She gave me a look. “Sorry, I really can’t do that. The library’s closed. Campus is closing soon too, you should probably leave.” She turned to go, and her keys clinked again at her waist.
“Wait!” I said, probably louder than I should have. “Hold this book.” I shoved the book into her hands. “Can you see him?” I asked, pointing up at where… Oh, no. Abe was gone. I had given up the book.
“See who?” As she asked the question, her phone beeped and she dug it out of her pocket. “What the… I do not remember having Abraham Lincoln in my contacts.”
I almost laughed out loud. “See, that’s it. You can see him. For the next three days you’re going to keep seeing Abraham Lincoln everywhere, unless you open the library up for me!” I pointed extravagantly at the door. I probably sounded like a maniac.
Come on, Abe. Make her sweat.
The custodian was still giving me a look, but she must have seen something out of her peripheral vision, because she screamed and fell to the floor. She pointed at something that I couldn’t see. “It’s… Why is Abraham Lincoln here?”
“Open the door, please!” I was begging now. “He’s a ghost. He’s going to kill everyone unless you open the door.” I really wished I hadn’t had to say that.
The custodian, fortunately, was superstitious. She grabbed the keys from her belt and slammed them into the lock. The library door was open in a moment and she threw the book at me. “Take it, leave! Do whatever you want!”
And she ran away screaming.
“Nicely done,” Abe said, chuckling beside me.
“Wait, how can I see you again?”
“The link takes three days to complete, but it doesn’t get broken that easily━you’d have to not have it for a while before that━”
I shook my head, cutting him off. “The logistics don’t matter. Let’s go find your unfinished business.” Abe nodded and pointed down the stairs. I ran as fast as I could. I wasn’t taking any chances on anyone seeing me in here and getting me in trouble. Hopefully, I could just pass off this whole incident as some hallucination of the custodian’s. Maybe I should transfer early.
I reached the library basement and looked around at all of the sliding shelves. Abe pointed at two that were pressed up tight against each other, and I dove for it. I pressed the button that opened up the two and waited as it slid. And what do you know…
A pair of boots dropped out.
“What in the world?” I asked, glancing up at Abe, who looked just as confused as I felt.
“This is my unfinished business, alright,” he said, shaking his head as he stared at the old, dusty boots. “I guess I left my boots in Janesville and I needed to get them back to be truly satisfied.”
“That is the lamest ghost backstory ever,” I said. “You know that, right?”
“I won’t say anything if you don’t.”
“How were they in there so long without anyone noticing them?”
“I have no idea,” Abe said. “I don’t even remember leaving my boots anywhere.”
And that’s when it clicked. “No, wait,” I said. “I read about this. You visited Janesville in 1859 after giving a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. You stayed at the… Tallman house, I think it was, and you missed your train for Chicago because your boots went missing. You can totally look this up on Wikipedia.”
Abe stared at me for a moment. Then he laughed. “I remember that. I was embarrassed to leave my room in just my stockings, so I had to stay in Janesville another day.” He grabbed up the boots. “I guess we’re done here. My boots have been saved!”
“Wow,” I said, shaking my head again. “You’d think you’d come back as a ghost to get revenge on John Wilkes Booth’s descendants or fight racism or something.”
Abe perked up. “Oh, right. I had forgotten about those. I was so focused on getting my boots that…” He got serious. “Oh no.”
I felt my face flush. “Oh no, what?”
“I just felt more unfinished business appear in my mind’s eye,” Abe said. “There’s a new time limit and everything.” He put a hand on my shoulder and looked me solemnly in the eye. “You’ll help me, right?”