Above: "My home sat like a weed in the middle of pastureland, my front yard a mixture of tall grass and oak trees pausing at the pond’s edge."
We all enjoy a good ghost story, especially with Halloween approaching. But there’s nothing spooky about Sydney Bartlett’s ghost story, “Heads,” a finalist in our short story contest. Instead we’re presented with a melancholy story about friendship, regret, and the ways in which our decisions have consequences, often unpredictable, often—and devastatingly—final. Life can turn on a dime, Sydney reminds us: “Someone you love wakes up one morning and looks at you, their eyes flat and indifferent. Your neighbor shouts at her husband like she does every Saturday afternoon, but then she wheels out a suitcase and gets in a stranger’s car. To go home, you take a right until the night you take a left instead.” —David Duhr, fiction editor
I knew Charlie was dead because I saw her ghost.
Two weeks after she disappeared, I sat on the staircase with my head in my hands, an old stack of magazines shining beside me like unused silver. The wooden steps were slick and cool. As a kid, I would race around the house in socks, sliding into walls and slipping down the steps. There’s still a small scar on my back from one of those falls, a thin white line that points towards my spine.
I recognized her immediately, but Charlie passed the stairs without looking in my direction—as if I were the ghost and not her.
She moved with ease, drifting along an invisible current that navigated the space between furniture and walls. She tucked loose hair behind her ears in that familiar, mindless way, wearing the same black shirt and jeans I’d seen her in two weeks ago, that I’d seen her wear a thousand times before. Her wrists appeared so pale that they seemed to glow. Humming, she walked forward, her fingertips tracing the dusty edges of furniture.
Tradition depicts ghosts as fragile, entities as delicate as a matchstick’s short flame, disappearing with the slightest wave of your hand. But Charlie seemed sturdy, her presence solid and nonnegotiable.
Her steady course through the house paused just before the back door. As her hand moved towards the handle, a wave of dread washed over me at the thought of her departure. I felt desperation claw against my mind.
And she finally turned towards me. My knees buckled, and I felt my heart clamor towards her, a sharp intake of breath hitting my throat with a short gasp. Her face was the same. No evidence of violence or foul play, just her quizzical mouth and high cheekbones. That small scar leering over her left eyebrow.
She matched my gaze and tilted her head, eyes wide and confusion lining her brow.
Tripping over the syllables of a failed apology, I reached towards her hand.
I’m not going anywhere, anymore. I never—
She shook her head. I grew silent, searching her expression for any flinch or gesture of accusation and finding nothing but my own reflection within her uncertain gaze.
Relief and guilt washed over me at once, my pulse rising at the contradiction as I realized what the afterlife had withheld from her.
Charlie didn’t know.
Smiling, she turned away, opening the door as a rush of warm air flooded into the house.
And then she was gone, disappearing like breath on a cold morning, walking towards that narrow space between sunlight and its shadow.
Since birth, our lives had run parallel like the county roads lining our town. At eighteen, they began to diverge when I agreed to attend a university that was sorry to inform Charlie it could not extend her the same opportunity.
In many ways, I was more shocked than her because I’d lived my life filling even Charlie’s footprints with admiration. She was my best friend, and our shadows spent most waking moments side by side. When she looked at me, I felt understood with such totality that I would shiver, and I felt tempted to ask her what she saw—good or bad or both—because I could never be quite sure. Her hands were always cool and her mouth jumped three heartbeats ahead of her thoughts. She tended to walk a few steps ahead of me, and, catching herself, she would grab my hand and pull me beside her, laughing.
Sometimes I wanted to slip into Charlie’s shadow and tuck the cool edges of her hands around my own.
I pictured the motion often, how it would feel but mostly how I would not feel at all. In those moments, I found the act of disappearing more consuming than the thought of transformation, but at eighteen I was too young to realize that those things are frequently the same.
An ordinary magic resting under our fingernails.
On our last evening together in late July, I lay on my stomach just above the pond. I heard her soft footsteps and saw Charlie appear in my own reflection, lay down beside me without a word. For the entire week, I’d meant to tell her I was leaving, but I kept putting it off, letting the bitter taste of dread soak in my mouth instead. I think she knew, and she would have been happy for me. But my eventual departure felt more like a sin than a blessing because I thought she deserved the escape more than I did.
Blessings and sins have that in common: They both make you feel guilty.
The weather was not particularly foreboding, no claps of thunder or cold fronts to speak of. I could never have known that the last time I saw Charlie would be in my own reflection—which is, I think, how we see most people. The world kept that to itself, and I oscillate between finding its silence merciful or cruel.
I’m sure Charlie and I talked about something else that evening, but I don’t remember our last conversation. Memory sustains just a few senses at a time, and I can recall only what I felt and what I saw that shallow evening. Dread and heat. The sky and our reflections.
My home sat like a weed in the middle of pastureland, my front yard a mixture of tall grass and oak trees pausing at the pond’s edge. The driveway, a smooth ribbon of dirt, ran next to the water and twisted toward the main road. We spent countless hours by the murky water, the spot where I’d learned to swim and taught Charlie how to skip rocks the summer before high school.
The rocks needed to be the size of your palm—and smooth, I said. Not too light or heavy.
We spent hours in rolled-up jeans wading at the pond’s edge, and I remember how cold the water would feel after rain. Our arms moved slowly underwater, careful not to stir up obscene amounts of dirt.
I demonstrated the motion a thousand times, described that exacting flick of the wrist and light curve along the elbow. I aimed for tree trunks on the other side, smiling at the satisfying click of contact seconds after I released.
That’s the part I could never quite explain to Charlie. How, when I let go of the rock, I knew where it was headed.
At a certain point, I said, you don’t have that much control.
You flick your wrist and keep your eye on the trunk. You remember the splinter it gave you two years ago and how it felt to climb, the way its leaves begin falling earlier than you expect each year. You remember all of that, somewhere along your elbow and against your wrist.
And then you just let go, I said.
As sunset approached, I felt the temperature begin to drop, and the last bit of the day’s heat rose from my skin. Wind rippled across the pond’s surface, casting small wrinkles over our reflections. I looked through myself as if through a ghost, my face faded in the evening light with a quiet arrangement of weeds blooming across my cheeks.
I compared my mirror image to Charlie’s beside me, and I felt ripples of envy and wonder slide across my skin like teardrops.
Even now, years later, I have seldom found a betrayal more fundamental than the sort that rests in a mirror. And our own reflections betray us only because they insist on something as simple and stern as truth, something we rarely accept and can never forgive ourselves for.
In the story, Narcissus looks at himself for so long that he starves, and I’ve grown to believe that people’s mirror images continue to court punishment at arm’s length, a protracted and cold penance suited for modernity. We find it in a stranger’s bathroom and smudged rearview mirrors, in locker rooms and the farthest corner of a pond.
That evening, I could not articulate the discomfort I felt towards my own gaze. All I could do was edge closer to Charlie, who stared not at her reflection or mine, but towards the pond’s farthest corner, at something as captivating and indiscernible as the future.
Something you can’t touch, or else it disappears.
When I looked at her smooth, distracted image, I felt a sudden and violent urge to run my hands across the water and usher our two reflections into one. I pictured my hair lighter, my mouth softer and wider. I resisted only because I knew the movement would ruin her portrait for the sake of improving my own.
Still, I wanted to, just the same.
Just for a second.
It was just a few days later when two detectives sat across from me in my living room, both of them too tall for the stools they perched on. Charlie and her mother’s truck had been missing for three days.
They asked when I had seen her last and how she had acted.
I struggled to answer them, hemming all of my responses with uncertainties.
One of the detectives, David, a man who fished with my father and ate lunch with us on certain Sundays, paused and looked very hard at me.
Joan, you’re her best friend, he said, and I saw myself reflected in his desperate gaze.
Would she have done something like this?
But no one knows what somebody else might do. We are all unpredictable, as noble in reason as we are fearful of certainty. Day in and day out, our lives ask us to make choices, and the answers are often as simple as they are fragile. Our lives tremble on the flip side of a coin; its extremes twist and shine in midair, landing with a dull thud that tells us what we knew all along.
Someone you love wakes up one morning and looks at you, their eyes flat and indifferent. Your neighbor shouts at her husband like she does every Saturday afternoon, but then she wheels out a suitcase and gets in a stranger’s car. To go home, you take a right until the night you take a left instead.
One day, you see your reflection within the coin, still and accusatory, and you know you’ve flipped tails for the last time.
I don’t know, I answered. Wouldn’t anyone?
Charlie stayed missing for five years, and I lived with her ghost.
She never spoke to me, never looked spiteful or sad. Only confused and then content and then gone, the door wide open.
Charlie’s ghost stayed young, her life halted in the quiet splendor of youth, and most days, I felt like my life had expired next to Charlie’s. It came as a persistent shock when I leaned over the pond’s edge to find that my reflection was aging while hers, of course, was not.
I visited her family, and our mutual friends spent frequent, unhurried evenings on the porch talking about our lives and hers.
She’s missing, they would insist. Not dead.
I kept her ghost to myself, because she felt like mine, and who would believe I watched Charlie walk through my house on Tuesday mornings, anyway?
I would nod and look off in the distance, watching the oak trees grow taller against the pond.
We cultivated a rich array of lives Charlie might be living instead. A handful of sand on a coast where the waves crashed and dissipated against shore. Fresh flowers leaning in the crook of her arm beside skyscrapers. There was someone kind in the morning to hand her a cup of coffee.
When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she looked happy.
My own life felt so patterned and predictable that my movements resembled the automatic and loveless motion of sleepwalkers. While Charlie encountered an entire spectrum of lives in death, the days of my own life felt like muted shades of the same color. She fell in and out of love, dancing and crying at odd hours. Long, boring days upended by bursts of intense frustration and joy. I imagined her grabbing someone’s hand, pulling them beside her with a laugh, while I lived my life on the front porch, facing the pond.
I knew she was dead, but I still felt jealous. I missed my friend because her ghost never spoke to me.
A drought strolled across East Texas five years after Charlie went missing. Grass would fracture beneath my feet, and the entire world seemed faded. The sky a pair of over-washed blue jeans hanging on the line. Clouds thin and tattered, passing through like a rushed apology. A half-hearted gust of wind might have unraveled existence like a ball of twine.
Every day, the pond sank lower until the world told me a secret. A rusty bumper appeared along its farthest edge, and I screamed.
All this time, Charlie hovered beneath the pond’s surface, buckled into the front seat. My reflection grew older while her skin fell off the bone.
Since then, I have nightmares where I dive underwater to watch her bones separate in slow motion. Her skin has peeled into thin strips, swaying towards me like pale weeds. Her mouth stays closed until the very end, but then her teeth slide apart, and I see my own reflection at the back of her throat.
This morning, I woke up and packed a suitcase.
I sit on the stairs with my head in my hands. I feel the steps beneath me, slick and cool, and I don’t need the world to tell me it’s the last time.
Charlie does not look at me when she passes, does not turn around as I pick up my suitcase and walk behind her. When she reaches for the door, I take a coin from my pocket.
It rises within a steady beam of morning light. I hold my breath as it twists and shines in midair. Charlie watches as the coin falls at her feet and then looks back at me. Today, she does not seem confused.
I see our reflections wedged together on the metal surface.
Nodding, she reaches for the door, and when she leaves, I follow.
The pond shimmers against my rearview mirror, shrinking to the size of a small coin before it disappears.
Sydney Bartlett on writing “Heads”:
I wrote “Heads” across late spring and early summer, just as it started to get hot in Texas. It’s a story that I’ve held for a long time, one that changed with me as I grew up and will, I think, continue to change—within me if not on the page. “Heads” glances at topics I broached as the child who used to read on top of hay bales. I then returned to those same ideas as a student studying John Milton’s poetry years later. I grew up between drought seasons in East Texas, recognizing (nearly) every face in the grocery store and waving to my neighbors from their front porches. There is beauty in a small Texas town, and there are secrets. Many aspects of this story reflect the fact that most of my life has been spent in one.
Also included are references to Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. In Book IV, Eve takes a note from Narcissus and gains consciousness while staring at a reflection she doesn’t recognize as her own. Joan and Charlie’s names, respectively, nod to the poet and his best friend, Charles Diodati, whose death devastated a young Milton.
On the surface, “Heads” balances a few themes: identity and friendship; loss and uncertainty. It considers how we can feel the passage of time without quite noticing the months or years go by. At its heart, this story is about choices: how difficult it is to predict someone else’s, even if we love them, and how difficult it is to understand our own, even as we make them.
The Long Tail of Voter Suppression: As the growing number of Black and Latinx voters threaten the GOP’s stranglehold on power, attempts to limit safe voting options during the pandemic reveal a deeper sickness in Texas politics.
Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”