By Cecily Winter
Flash fiction published in 3 Moon Magazine April 2021
Fog Alley and its single brick house are visible only on a particular kind of foggy evening. This is that kind of evening.
Inside the cellar, Ivy longs for the misty hours that presage the arrival of Benjamin Franklin’s ghost. With his help, she can escape her prison and seize her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This right appears in the Declaration of Independence that she learned about in school when she was alive and still attended school.
To follow Mr. Franklin, Ivy must escape the Gaunt Housewife who once used a corn broom to sweep the house but now cleans with a giant vacuum powered by the energy of decay. The machine sucks up litter, broken bottles, and squatters who sheltered and died under the sagging roof. If the bodies are contagious, she sucks up their ghosts too, but she locks the ghosts of the uninfected in the cellar before dumping their leftover bones in the alley to feed the fog.
The Liberty Bell clanks and bats in the church-spires refuse to hunt when Ben Franklin’s ghost slips from his bronze statue in the National Constitutional Center and revisits his Old City haunts. He catalyzes this mix of smog, troubles, and bones into a toxic cloud that hungers for the warmth, moisture, and energy of any living thing. Even wisps of ghost matter.
The fog’s fronds plunge inside a victim to power its creeping malevolence. Perhaps it cleaved to Mr. Franklin in Britain when he participated in unholy rites, though science remains vague about the origin of such eldritch phenomena.
Mr. Franklin is otherwise a hero. He signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote wise almanacs long before the gravedigger tossed Ivy, who died of starvation, atop her parents felled by the Spanish Flu. Faded to a sepia tone, her ghost crawled out only to be folded into the apron pocket of the Gaunt Housewife who imprisoned her in the house on Fog Alley.
Tall enough to gaze through the cellar’s green bottle-glass window, Ivy spots Mr. Franklin’s life-sized ghost sculling through the fog. In his wake, he leaves narrow patches of clear ground. These are Ivy’s stepping stones to liberty. Didn’t Mr. Franklin once say that liberty was the most important thing of all?
The window won’t raise, but for once the cellar door is open while the Gaunt Housewife tackles a festoon of ceiling spiderwebs. Ivy seizes the chance to rush by and slam the cellar door behind her. Outside, she leaps over the hungry fog to land on a clear spot. Despite this, tendrils snake around her ankles clad in wool socks, but her pace is swift enough to break free.
As well as her putrid burial clothes, Ivy wears a fanny pack snatched from a dead squatter before the Gaunt Housewife sucked her up. Ivy thinks ghosts are immune from the afflictions of the living, and in this pack is stored her getaway money. Most of the coins tumbled from the pockets of squatters but Ivy grabbed some during last week’s test run with Mr. Franklin. She figures she’ll need money to reach the past, where she’ll have a chance to enjoy her unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness before death strikes her down again.
She paces behind the ghost. The dreary Liberty Bell blends with the blare of ships’ tocsins on the invisible river, and Independence Hall shudders under a shroud of gray coils, but, at last, Mr. Franklin turns North.
With Ivy on his heels, he shifts through the wrought-iron railings where Fifth Street meets Arch, and they pause on the flat marble gravestone that covers his long-moldered bones and which, in his presence, shines wet and clear. Ivy sets to work packing away coins that tourists toss onto it for luck.
Mr. Franklin’s ghost is infirm with age, so though he covets the coins they are beyond his reach. He once wrote that a penny saved is a penny earned, and he jigs his knees a little as he gloats over this small fortune. Despite his well-known remarks about the sleep of death, it turns out his own passing has not allowed him to sleep soundly and awaken refreshed.
To avoid the rising meringue of mist, tourists stay indoors. But a boy in a blue-paper mask and torn gray hoodie keeps his shoulder pressed to the fence along Arch Street. With one arm between the railings, he flips coins toward himself. He’s unaware that the mist already obscures his shoes, hoodie, and throat.
Ghost though he is, Mr. Franklin is incensed by the thievery. He cries, “‘Little strokes fell big oaks!’” With his walking stick, he beats the boy’s knuckles to demonstrate how small strokes can fell tree trunks and break human bones alike. Crouched low, Ivy scrambles for the remaining pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The stick whacks her knuckles, too. It doesn’t hurt but wrecks the rhythm of her counting.
It’s a good haul and worth the beating if she can escape the present day.
The Gaunt Housewife first appeared in colonial Philadelphia in times of plague and epidemic, her job to keep Old City clear of infected ghosts and rot, and here she comes with her giant vacuum on incorruptible casters. As if she speaks to Mr. Franklin—though Ivy hears nothing—he abruptly gives over his anger and proceeds through the railing to return to his seat at the signers’ table in the National Constitution Center.
On Ivy’s first collecting trip when she was marooned on the grave at his departure, the Gaunt Housewife carried her home, and Ivy was lucky not to be stripped of her afterlife in the fog or by vacuum. It’s a perilous time now in the cresting gauze, its long tongues lapping her neck and ears and crawling up her nose. Through the haze, she watches the Gaunt Housewife pocket the boy’s newborn ghost and vacuum up his discarded clothes and fog-riddled bones. Ivy huddles under her arms, praying for invisibility.
Apparently satisfied with the exchange of a brand-new ghost for Ivy the pick-pocket of a Founding Father’s grave, the Gaunt Housewife and her machine turn for Fog Alley. At dawn, the police will recruit volunteers to look for the lost boy, but Ivy knows he’ll be peering through the green bottle-glass window for all eternity unless he figures out how to follow Mr. Franklin’s ghost.
Alone on the gravestone, Ivy hears the trolley calving the fog as it screeches to a stop on its iron rails. Its wires hum.
She slips between the railings. Dread churns through her empty form, but she must harness her bravery for this final sprint to the trolley. It will deliver her to the time before her ghost emerged, a time when she can save her parents from the flu-infected city and live in happiness and freedom as every American child is promised.
Already, she’s befogged halfway up her legs. She must not slip or falter on the slick sidewalk or she’ll be consumed entirely.
A giant leap allows her to grab the trolley handrails and hoist herself inside. She shakes her coins onto the driver’s empty seat, and the trolley jerks into motion backwards.
Kneeling on the back seat to face the past, Ivy realizes that the fog ate through her socks and maybe her toes. If her toes are forever lost, it’s the price she’s willing to pay for liberty.
The important thing is to prove that Mr. Franklin got it wrong when he said “Lost time is never found.”
She will find her lost time, but the microbes crawling on her pack will accompany her. In her reclaimed life, she may discover that she’s the vector of a new epidemic.