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.