A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

by Kim Burnham (Nov 2012)

It was September 9th, 2001. A group of elderly women and one old man were attending a Sunday evening discussion at the Manhattan, Kansas Unitarian Universalist Church.

“Ghosts are real,” said the man.

The speaker standing before the old women wore a tan sweater vest. The man’s hair was totally gray and he was slender, but his complexion was healthy, almost ruddy by comparison to the pale complexions of most of the old women who were seated around him.

“Ghosts are real,” he repeated. “Some call them spirits. In death, the spirit leaves the body. If the spirit leaves the body, then it must have entered it in the first place. Some say that after death, the spirit joins another body in birth. Some say it goes home. Whether the spirit moves on or is reincarnated, either way the number of spirits might be finite.”

One old woman raised her hand and asked with a doubtful expression, “You mean there might be a limit to the number of spirits?”

“Exactly,” answered the old man. “There might come a day when all the spirits are all used up. If there is reincarnation, the limited number would only be a problem if people stopped dying. But from what I can see, people haven’t stopped dying.”

The last statement precipitated a number of audible chuckles and the old man smiled. The meeting would end shortly and the brownies and punch would be served. By Tuesday morning when the awful news came, everyone would have forgotten about the potential ramifications of a finite number of spirits.


 On the evening of the next day, Monday, September 10th, in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a man unlocked the front door of a small, white, two-story house and entered the living room.

“Hello,” he said, so as not to startle his wife.

“I’m in the kitchen,” she answered.

The man entered the room. He was of medium height with an athletic build. He looked to be around thirty years old, his hair, dishwater blonde, with a prominent chin and brown eyes. His name was Michael.

The kitchen was dark. It was dusk and his wife had not turned on the light. An appetizing smell was coming from the crock-pot on the counter. He approached her from behind, rested his forearms on her shoulders and began massaging the back of her neck, afraid to ask the question. He should have gone with her to the doctor, but his idiot boss scheduled a “critical” meeting that turned out to be only a meeting.

“How was your day?” asked the woman, turning part way toward him. Even in the dim light, and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she was beautiful. Her black hair was tied back in a ponytail and she wore a black apron with white writing that said, “Is something burning?” Her name was Hannah.

Hannah’s silence was not a good sign. If the news were good, she would probably just blurt it out. She managed a smile but it was obviously forced and she looked tired.

“My day was fine. Sorry I couldn’t go to the doctor with you. I could have missed that stupid meeting.”

“Don’t worry. No real news anyway. I’m still not pregnant. I’m beginning to think we are just wasting our money, our effort and everything.

“Some couples try for years before they have success.”

“I know but we can’t afford it.” She paused, and turned to look directly at him. “I think it’s time to talk about adoption.”

“You know how I feel about that. Even with a new baby it’s Russian Roulette.”

“Isn’t it always Russian Roulette? A baby is always a gamble. Who says our genes are any better than anyone else’s?”

“It’s not that. It’s just th-“

“It’s exactly that. Your attitude is nothing but arrogance. Besides, environment plays the biggest role in influencing a child anyway.”

“Not so. A lot of studies show that even personality is at least halfway determined by genetics.”

She turned silent. And he knew from long experience that they had reached an impasse.

“Something smells really good.”

“Just some chicken and potatoes. Go wash your hands. It’s ready.”

She turned away and tried to wipe away the tear without it showing, but Michael always knew when she was crying.

The next morning, the freeway was especially crowded and Michael stopped by the bank to make a deposit. Now he was late for his job in Newark. The music on his car radio stopped abruptly for a special report – “Tower One of the World Trade center has been struck by a jetliner. I repeat, Tower One has been hit.”

His mind racing with the news, Michael ran a red light. Tires on another car screeched and Michael slammed on his brakes. The two cars came to a stop, just inches apart.

Michael’s brother, Jason and Hannah’s sister, Sophie both worked in Tower Two. Michael and his brother Jason had married sisters, Hannah and Sophie. He punched the speed dial icon for Hannah on his iphone. She was already in tears.

“Surely Jason and Sophie will both get out,” Michael reassured her. “I heard that help was on the way. Anyway, it was the other tower that was hit.”

“I don’t know. They said a second pl-

“Are you still there?” asked Michael. But there was no answer. “Honey, are you there? Can you hear me?

She could hear him. But she couldn’t speak. It was on TV - Tower Two had just come down.

Michael did not make it to work. Instead, he made his way back to share in the awful silence with Hannah. There was nothing to be done just yet even though there would be much to do soon. The identification of bone fragments from Jason’s body through DNA would not happen for several months and no evidence of Sophie’s remains would ever be found. But, by that evening, they knew.

After several hours of stilted conversation, Michael went into the kitchen and warmed up leftovers. After picking at two bowls of spaghetti in the growing darkness, they remained at the kitchen table.

“I’m glad to know that the neighbors are taking care of Jason and Sophie’s kids,” said Michael. “I wonder if Jeremy and Katie know.”

“Even if they know in their mind, their heart won’t know for awhile.” Hannah paused and studied Michael’s face. “Did I tell you that Sophie and Jason made out a will?”

“N- no, I don’t think so.”

“It wasn’t because Sophie was worried about what would happen to their things. It was because of Jeremy and Katie. She wanted to make sure that if anything happened, they would be taken care of by someone else.”

“They listed us, didn’t they?”

There was a long pause before Hanna spoke again. Michael could hear the ticking of the clock over the stove.

“Yes, they listed us as guardians. It’s funny, but when we were just girls, we talked about adopting. Sophie was like you. She said she couldn’t do it. And I said I could. It’s strange how things work out.” Then she paused again before continuing.

“Is it still roulette, you know –other peoples’ kids?”

“It’s still roulette, but it’s not Russian. I know that raising a five year-old girl and a seven year-old boy with autism won’t be easy. But we already love them.”

“You’re right, it won’t be easy,” said Hannah. Emotion overcame her for a moment and she couldn’t speak. She wiped away the tears and blew her nose. She paced her hand upon his. Then the corners of her mouth turned up in a gentle smile as she whispered, “And yes, we do.”


 Michael and Hannah would be good parents to their four children. Hannah would deliver a healthy baby girl just over three years following that tragic day and five months after the adoption came through for a baby boy. On those rare occasions when school officials would notice that the birthdays of their two youngest were only five months apart, Michael would only smile at the perplexed official until Hannah’s persistent elbowing forced him to explain.


 The Sunday evening following the Twin Towers disaster, the old man again stood and addressed the weekly gathering of elderly women in the Manhattan, Kansas Unitarian Universalist Church. He had given up on his cockamamie theory of a finite number of spirits and had moved on to a new one just as moronic.

As usual, the old women in the group listened patiently to his ramblings. After all, it wasn’t his silly theories that held their attention. It was the way the corners of his mouth curved when he smiled.

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