In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its first-ever short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. After the jump, read the third of three honorable mentions: “The Ten Headless Dead” by Ian Bassingthwaighte.
“The Ten Headless Dead”
by Ian Bassingthwaighte
I’m standing inside a fortress called Popham. Imagine a coliseum with no seats, only stone arches and dark corridors overlooking choppy water, where the Kennebec river meets the sea. Rust runoff from iron-gated windows stains the stone walls the color of dried blood. Dried blood even though no soldier ever died here. The soldiers garrisoned at Fort Popham never saw battle, except briefly during the War of 1812, when the artillery crew fired a cannon at something they saw on the horizon. Probably sunrise. Those soldiers, and the ones who came after, never really fought, never died of blunt trauma or puncture wounds or infections resulting from war.
Phippsburg, Maine. The first English settlement in New England. Settled as the Popham Colony in 1607. Current population of 2,116 with town hall meetings held on intermittent Tuesdays. Common causes of death include old age and eating too much butter. Nobody minds if you walk your dog without a leash or if you drink beer outside so long as your cans leave when you do.
I’m not from here and the air isn’t fresh. The air smells like fish, diesel fuel, salt, and cigarettes.
Locals say the town is full of ghosts. Whose ghosts? is an important question with no correct answer. Some say the soldiers at Fort Popham saw action after all, one night in the year 1898, when a Spanish galleon fired a single cannonball so accurately it beheaded ten American soldiers sleeping in a row of bunks. Those ten ghosts wander now, searching for their heads on the town beach, or in the trees, or behind the general store. They’re not malicious, or loud, but they do move buoys and crab traps, which annoys people. Others say the ghosts come from dead fishermen who rode in on high tides and stayed for the good weather. Good weather for the dead. Lots of mist to hide in.
The pastor says there are no ghosts, that God handles the transportation of the soul from the body to the afterlife. He says no one is left wandering no matter how troubled or lost they were while living. When I spoke with the pastor, and asked about the ghosts, he asked if I was baptized, and I said no. He offered to do it right then for free, with no witnesses except the wind and the Holy Spirit. I took him up on the offer in order to try all things at least once. He threw water in my face and said I was saved. I felt saved until I started sinning again, which was immediately. I saw a beautiful woman out the church window and my heart filled with lust for her and envy for the person she fucked. When she walked closer, and I saw it was my wife, I felt strangely dissatisfied.
My wife is hunting ghosts with me, but she doesn’t believe in the afterlife in the same way I do. I think she thinks we’re either playing a game or I’m having a breakdown.
Once, when I was traveling in Egypt, I saw a minibus hit a motorcycle head-on. When the smoke cleared, bystanders dragged the rider’s body to the side of the road and covered it in newspaper.
If you did that in America the police would ticket you for littering, and I thought at the time: human bodies start as vessels but end as trash. That scared me, and for a month I dreamed about all the ways I might leave this world for the next one. Plane crash. Overdose. Arterial plaque buildup. Self-inflicted gunshot wound after a morose night of drinking and getting booed out of a karaoke bar for singing Hey Jude too many times.
Honestly I’d rather be a soldier ghost wandering around a village in the cold than a nothing not wandering at all and essentially not existing, except as energy. Einstein said you can’t destroy energy and therefore some part of us must linger. But energy never felt fear, or had a laugh, or touched something it loved.
I want to see a ghost so I can know in the future I’ll still be sentient. I told my wife that and she laughed. Her name is June but I call her Juniper, and we met in a corn maze. It was one week before Halloween ten years ago in Iowa. My flashlight ran out of batteries and she rescued me from a dead end.
She calls me Mr. Magnificent and says one day I will be. In truth it’s a terrible nickname. It makes me feel like I’m supposed to combust and emerge from my own ashes as a better version of myself.
So I told her this thing about ghosts, about why I wanted to see one, and she laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It just feels good.”
“Even at my expense?” “Was I laughing at your expense? Sorry. Wasn’t intentional. Here, kiss me.”
And we kiss.
“Are we going out tonight?” I ask.
“Out out? Like dancing? I don’t think there’s anywhere to go dancing. Probably not for twenty miles or more, and even then we’d have to dance in either a line or a square. I’m sure there’s a bar somewhere, though, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Or we could just get back in the rental car.”
“What would we do in the rental car?” I ask.
“Go find a bigger town and better hotel—because our inn is shit. Really. I’m thinking wine. We’ll lay in the room naked and fuck and I’ll rub your back afterward.”
“Are you taking this seriously?” I ask.
“Ghost watching,” I say. “We’re not shooting anything.”
“No, I’m not taking this seriously,” she says.
Her best virtue is also her most painful, that she tells the truth whenever there is one. That’s why I never ask her if I’m getting fatter, balder, slower, or less fun.
“People see ghosts all the time,” I say.
“Also yetis, lake monsters, and aliens. Probably even centaurs.”
“Centaurs? Are you making fun of me?” I ask.
She smiles and we kiss again.
“I want one photograph,” I say. “That’s it.”
“What good will that do you? Everyone will say you faked it.”
I don’t tell her the only person I’m trying to convince is myself, and the wind picks up. We head back to the car and drive down Popham road toward the first restaurant that sells lobster, which is the only restaurant, and it’s thirty seconds away. We spend more time walking to the car than driving it.
We drink Maine beer from a company called Maine Beer Company and it goes down smooth, and the beer is black. The oysters taste like the ocean would if the ocean didn’t taste like shit. Juniper eats the lemon slices. She cries afterward and also laughs. She orders neat whiskey. The server, a young boy, probably 15, says, “What’s neat whiskey?” and Juniper says, “Regular whiskey with no ice.” The boy shrugs and says, “Why don’t you call it warm whiskey if that’s what it is?”
We get a laugh out of that, and the whole world feels like home, and this boy feels like my son.
I had a son but he died before we ever decided what to call him. I wanted to call him either Amos or Cleveland and Juniper wanted to call him either Silas or Jake. He died from being choked by the umbilical cord, and when the doctor said that I immediately saw the boy hanging. In that scenario Juniper played the role of executioner and I played the role of witness to the deceased. I said that out loud once and Juniper said she’d leave me if I ever repeated it.
Einstein said my son became another kind of energy, so ever since I’ve been trying to discover what that energy is and whether it’s possible to harness it, or at least give it a hug.
After dinner the sun goes down and the sky looks the same as our beer. Fuzzy and impenetrable, and dangerous if you submerse yourself in it. We do submerse ourselves in it, but we bring flashlights and winter hats and walk back to Fort Popham. The gate is locked, of course, because the historical site closed at seven. I boost Juniper over the fence then she puts her hands through the bars and boosts me.
The blood red stone walls are black now and when I shine my flashlight they’re white.
“Are you afraid?” she asks.
My heart shouts yes and my brain shouts never and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back. I’d bet the farm we’re thinking the same thing: nobody ever got killed by a ghost.
We go to opposite ends of the fort and meet in the middle, patrolling for sudden changes in temperature.
“Found a cold spot!” she shouts, and I run over.
“It doesn’t feel any colder,” I say.
“I think it does.”
“Maybe it does,” I say, and I take my hat off. “I can’t tell.”
I snap a picture with high flash, and we’re both blinded.
We see stars. Juniper jokes that this would be the most beautiful night sky to dance under because the myriad stars are giant and multicolored, even though the night sky is actually a stone ceiling and the stars aren’t real.
The stars fade fast and the black returns. It feels like I can see less now than before, when I couldn’t see anything. We turn our flashlights on. She shines me and says, “You’re it.” Then she runs. I chase her but there are so many pillars. Thick pillars arranged in a semicircle around a small field of grass, and two spiral staircases leading to a second floor filled with more pillars of the same size.
“Where’d you go?” I yell, and I hear laughing. I think I hear footsteps so I shine the spot. It’s empty and I keep looking. I walk slowly. Slow is silent and the goal now is to find her with my ears.
I patrol the labyrinth for ten minutes before the loneliness approaches.
“Will you come out?” I ask.
“I’m over here,” she says, and I look toward the grass, which is a good hiding spot since it’s so open. Therefore why would I ever look there?
“Why do you miss me?” she asks.
“It feels like you’ve been gone for so long.”
“I’m glad you love me,” she says.
“I do so much it’s disgusting,” I say, and we laugh about it.
Then I feel a cold spot for sure.
“Do you feel that?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
“You must. It’s probably ten degrees colder now than it was a second ago.”
“The whiskey is keeping you warm,” I say.
“Maybe,” she says.
I spin in a slow circle and hold vigil for the ten headless dead, and wait for them.
“Boo!” she shouts.
First my heart arrests then it resuscitates. I yell, “Shit!” and my blood pumps. I also drop my camera. The flash hits first, then the lens. The glass cracks.
“Fuck!” she says. “Is it alright?”
I tell her it’s not broken so we don’t have to talk about it all night.
“This is a pointless exercise in failure,” she says after I calm down.
“What specifically?” I ask.
“Hunting something that isn’t real.”
“We’re not hunting.”
“Whatever you want to call it,” she says.
“Go back to the inn if you want,” I say.
“What I want is to go back to the inn and rip your clothes off once we get there,” she says. “But I can’t rip your clothes off if you don’t come with me. Get it?”
I can feel myself getting mad at her again.
“Is this a joke to you?” I ask.
“No,” she says, and I’m thinking god dammit why can’t I figure her out. I’ve had so much practice. Ten years and increasing every second.
“I don’t like games when I don’t know I’m playing them,” I say.
“This isn’t a game,” said Juniper. “I told you that.”
Photo Credit: Ian Bassingthwaighte
There’s one game I enjoy playing. It’s ours, and I don’t think there’s a name for it. We simply get drunk and talk about what dead people would’ve done with more time. Lincoln would’ve started another war because he was so good at winning the first one. Anne Frank would’ve been a movie star. And Hemingway would’ve written his first bad book.
“Want to play the game we like?” I ask.
“Sure. Who’s it this time? Benjamin Franklin? Joan of Arc? Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria?”
“Cleveland,” I say.
“You mean Silas?” she says.
I’ve picked him before and she never goes for it, and I think it hurts her. I don’t know why I keep doing it.
“Why are we here?” she asks, and I think she’s cold.
She asked the same question in the rental car, but then a good song came on so I cranked it.
We’d been driving along the northeastern seaboard for a few weeks, pausing at every lighthouse or old cinema or library where something bad happened. Phippsburg was one stop of many.
“It’s one stop of many,” I say.
“How many?” she asks.
I’d planned this trip and told her about it after the fact. But she still knows there are two weeks left.
“There are two weeks left,” I say.
“Of what, specifically?”
“This was supposed to be fun,” she says.
“You aren’t having fun?”
“Dinner was great,” she says like the greatness had nothing to do with the food, and I try to remember what was special about it. I was a little drunk and she was a little drunker. The boy server thought we were definitely old and probably crazy. We told boring stories and bad jokes, and laughed a lot.
“You made it sound like an adventure,” she says.
“And what has it turned out to be?” I ask.
“Let’s scout one more time,” I say. “Let’s go slower. We’ll do the ground floor first.”
“And after?” she asks.
“The top floor.”
“And after that?”
“Back to the inn,” I say.
“You mean it?” she asks.
I nod and we go searching. We start at opposite ends and walk slow.
“Let’s do this without flashlights,” I shout, and my voice echoes.
“Terrifying,” she echoes back from deep.
She turns her flashlight off before I do, leaving me to wonder where she puts her fears each time she has one. Does she nurse it quietly? Or does she choke it to death?
We go silent like radios during wartime and my eyes are a pair of soldier scouts. I take my jacket off to better feel a subtle drop in temperature. I chase shadows even though they’re the exact opposite of what I’m looking for.
Then I see a faint light in the far spiral staircase, like someone halfway up has struck a match. The stone arch doorway leading to the stairs is yellow black and I run toward it. Once inside I take the stairs two at a time. I trip on soaked stone and nail my face, and I swear a tooth comes out. I run my tongue along the top and bottom rows, but nothing is missing, and the phantom injury is my first true encounter with the paranormal.
I want to shout for Juniper, but I don’t want to scare away whatever world is next. Plus I was running. I fell. She must’ve heard me. She’ll come soon, and we can ascend the stairs together. We’ll arrive to the second floor at the same time and I won’t have to feel fear because she won’t.
I wait and she doesn’t come and I shout, “Juniper!”
But the echo spirals up.
I follow my voice like it’s a companion, and I arrive on the second floor. The second floor looks the same as the first floor except for two headless dead, not glowing like I thought they would, who are playing cards in the candlelight.
They stare at me with their necks.
I run my tongue along both rows of teeth again, double-checking for an empty spot, and say, “Sorry for interrupting your game.”
I think: Where’s Juniper?
And: I can’t believe she broke my camera.
“Do either of you know an infant named Cleveland?” I ask. “He might also go by Amos, or Silas, or Jake.”
In my head this is a reasonable question. If ghosts are people who’ve died traumatically, there can’t be that many of them. At least not compared to the total number of people who’ve died in their sleep.
“I’m not presuming you all know each other,” I say. “But maybe you’ve seen the boy around. He’s about this big.”
I make like I’m measuring a small fish with my hands.
“I don’t know if there’s any kind of general assembly,” I say, “or a committee that welcomes new ghosts, but he would’ve arrived here about a month ago. If that narrows it down.”
Their necks are still pointed at me.
“Not here here,” I say. “Not this fort. Or this state, even. We’re from Iowa. But here as in your world.”
I wave my arms around in the ether like I’m trying to swim in it. I think about explaining how there are no ghosts in Iowa — I know because I looked — and that’s why I came to Maine, which is world famous for ghosts that linger openly.
I walk over and sit next to the fat one. It’s not as cold as anticipated in the sense that it’s not any colder than the air was before I met them.
On closer inspection I realize that everything I know about ghosts is wrong. They’re not transparent and they definitely don’t glow in the dark, which is probably why I never saw one before. I wasn’t looking closely, and most ghosts don’t carry candles. At least I never read about one that did.
There are so many reasons I wanted to find a ghost and now that I’m sitting with two of them I have absolutely nothing to talk about.
“I was told there’d be ten of you,” I say.
Their necks bob up and down as if they’re laughing at me.
Quiet and silent are the same thing if you’re deaf enough, and I’m deaf enough. Too many rock concerts when I was young. Also loud verbal exchanges with my parents. Now I regret and repent in equal measure by never wearing headphones. Juniper says my good hearing is gone and that I should enjoy my thoughts more, but I usually don’t.
I’m not deaf deaf. Just half deaf. I can’t hear people talk when they whisper.
“Are you two whispering?” I ask. “I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything.”
I get up and go to the railing, which is meant to save me the hassle of falling back to the first floor. I yell, “Juniper! You need to see this.”
“What is it?” she echoes back. “And where are you?”
“Up the spiral staircase!” I shout so loud the words ring back four distinct times and five muffled ones.
I turn around to introduce who’s coming and the ghosts are gone. Instantly my heart is a woodpecker carving its way from my chest, pulsating so fast the beats blend together. I run to the spot I shared with them and do that thing where I spin in a circle and hold vigil for ten headless dead, beckoning them to visit me. None come, so I start running laps around the second floor in search of their next card game.
Juniper shines me with her light.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Why is it that I can remember every question I was supposed to ask only when I can’t anymore?”
“Who?” she asks. “And what questions?”
“Two of the ten headless dead!”
“Just two of them?”
“That’s what I said!”
“Why are you yelling?” she asks. “Calm down.”
“I didn’t even get their names. They were playing cards right there,” I say, and I point.
“What’d they talk about?”
“Out of their necks?” I ask as condescendingly as possible, and I have no idea why I said it like that. It’s a gut reaction, as if they left because I invited her. And somehow that’s her fault.
“I’m literally fed up with this,” she says. “I’ve had it up to here.”
She uses her flashlight as a measuring stick, holding it at the height of her collarbone. Now I’m thinking of Juniper as a glass statue filled with red wine, almost to the top, nearly spilling.
I start running because I can’t handle her or this cold weather or how fucking empty the second floor is. I start screaming and my screams echo back and it sounds like I’m yelling at myself.
“Come out!” I yell. “What are you, afraid? You’re dead already! What can I possibly do to you?” Then at lower volume, “I only want to know two things. Can I search for specific dead people once I’m one of them? And if I find Cleveland can I watch him grow up?”
This thought feels like a bright moon in a deep cave.
“Do people even grow up in the afterlife?” I ask, and I’m yelling again. “And will he even recognize me?”
I close my eyes and envision my son as something bigger than a football, but have no memory or photograph to base him on. The end result is a miniature version of his mother with a buzz cut, and I love this image more than any person I’ve met, or talked to, or kissed.
The last thing I yell is, “Will he also recognize Juniper?”
It’s the first unselfish thing I’ve thought since my son died, and it kills me, and I collapse because I yell all this shit without breathing. It’s Maine beer mixed with no oxygen. I turn back expecting Juniper to be long gone by now, but of course she’s still standing there, waiting for me to finish, holding her flashlight like a candlestick.
Ian Bassingthwaighte’s fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Guernica, and other literary journals. He was a Fulbright fellow in fiction to Egypt and will be a Colby fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program starting next year. You can find him online at www.igbass.com.