Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest Honorable Mention: “The Ten Headless Dead” by Ian Bassingthwaighte

popham1

“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.”

“No way.”

“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.”