A Guide to Small Town Ghosts
“A Guide to Small Town Ghosts” is actually four linked micro-stories, each of which devises and fulfills its own narrative shape while overlapping with the others to create a macro-shape. Think of that carnival game that requires you to drop four metal disks so that they fill the area of a circle: that’s the visual analogy that comes to mind. As a formal device, it’s unusually demanding, but the story satisfies the challenge of it with both ease and precision. That in itself is an achievement. Watching the grace with which the narrative makes its shapes brings one kind of energy to the proceedings. I admire it even more, though, for the oddity of its vision and the dynamism with which it pursues it. In less than a thousand words, Regan Puckett creates a world with its own unique system of operations, its own wholly individual idea of what ghosts are and why they’re meaningful, then places the action in conversation with that idea, and finally overturns and reconfigures it. I’m envious. From Judge Kevin Brockmeier.
In this town, there are five thousand ghosts, and they all wear your face. For years, you’ve shed them like outgrown sweaters, some frayed, moth-eaten, others that never quite fit. Most ghosts fall away cleanly, fully composed, and roam the town. One lingers in the birthday card aisle of the pharmacy, pilfering through yellow envelopes. Another sits cross-legged in an elevator at the hotel where you used to work, steals plastic shampoo bottles and presses their coldness into its ghostly cheek. One ghost left this town entirely. It sends you postcards from cities you’ve never been to, each signed with your name in faint ink. You’ve never written back.
Other ghosts keep too close. Half-baked phantoms, they linger, tugging at your pockets, stepping on your ankles. They huddle, unsevered and heavy, weighing you down. Used to, you’d shed ghosts at a manageable rate: one every year, two if you were unlucky. Now, they tumble from you daily. Collect like lamps at an antique shop, some cracked, chipped, some that buzz as they illuminate.
You wonder if with every ghost, you’re closer to dying. Your own body feels lighter, capable of fleeing the floorboards, fleeing the town, if you stretch to your toes and try. When the ghosts pull at you, you cement yourself in place. Each day, it’s harder to settle.
After three sleepless weeks, you search Craigslist and find a local medium rated 3.7 stars. One reviewer swears the medium reunited him with his lost wife. Another thinks the medium might’ve been bullshit, but notes that the nighttime noises stopped bothering them. You fill in the online form, divulging as many details as possible. Do the ghosts keep you up at night? Do they weigh you down when they’re near? Do you ever think about dying? You click, click, click, type in your credit card number to pay for a session.
The medium scrutinizes every memento on your walls with a set of shrouded, disapproving eyes. Yes, she says, again and again, tracing her long, rotten eggplant nails along the smooth glass of a penguin snow globe, over the cracked spines of your books.
The ghosts are fallen pieces, she declares, readying to leave. Bits you’ve lost.
Can I get rid of them? You conjure ideas of sage, special candles.
You already have.
As your front door creaks shut, a fresh ghost creeps from your mouth and flutters clumsily to the ceiling, moaning in a ghastly, newborn fashion. You leave a 2-star review and gulp peppermint mouthwash to rid yourself of the taste.
The ghosts don’t bother anyone else. Everyone walks through them, unnoticing of their gathering and taunting, undisturbed by the sounds the ghosts make, like the inhalation of an iron train as it prepares to take its final trip, or the siphoning of terror through the teeth of a whale swallowing its prey. One ghost starts its broken song, and each join until the chorus fills every crevice of the town, inescapable. No one else minds. For a while, you pretend not to mind either. You avoid the glossy glass eyes of the spirits as you walk through the grocery store, or along the sidewalk, but each ghost you pass reaches out. Wraps their shadowy tendrils around your fingers and swings your arm as it joins you.
You decide that if you change, the ghosts can’t recognize you. You shear your dark hair over the bathroom sink, watch the broken waves fill the ceramic bowl, overflow. You paint what’s left on your head white and empty your wardrobe into the biggest trash bags you can find, leave it on the road for someone else to take. When your therapist asks about the drastic changes, you tell her about the ghosts, how they keep you up through the night, so large and heavy you’re pushed off the bed and onto the floor. She tells you everyone’s haunted by something and prescribes anxiety medication.
The ghosts are undeceived by your new look. They swarm you, each sighing the same metal sob as they push you into the house. They wrap your body in your old clothes until your limbs are paralyzed by layers of cotton and flannel. Strand by strand, the ghosts reattach your severed hair onto your scalp, sealing it into place with a phantom kiss.
You call an exorcist, but he’s overbooked for the holidays. You call your mother, but she dismisses you with a thin sigh and change of subject. Desperate, you call an exterminator.
I’m not in the business of ridding ghosts, he says, voice static through the phone line. But I’ve dealt with my own before.
How? You ask. A ghost traces circles along your spine.
Trapped ‘em in a jar like fireflies and waited for the little lights to fizzle.
So, you set the traps, perching wide-mouthed jars around each room. By night, the ghosts have squeezed themselves inside, too curious for their own good.
Now, you sit atop your quilted bed, sealed jars scattered before you. Your ghosts pound against the glass, wailing. You think you can understand their cries now, the metallic cacophony that tumbles between your ears and rattles your synapses, gripping every memory it can. Your father’s funeral, two weeks after his birthday, the one you never sent a card for. The sharp scent of your old boss’s cologne as he invited you into an empty hotel room, his hand warm against your cheek, lust you mistook for love. The postcards from your sister, the one who got away from this town and didn’t take you with her. You feel each death anew.
The ghosts quiet. Their lights dampen like blown-out bulbs. You fill your throat with the words you’ve never known how to say, and they all spill out at once, a silver shriek that echoes on. And as you wail, your body grows lighter, freer. Floating upwards, you escape.
Regan Puckett writes short and strange fiction from the Ozarks. Her favorite ghosts haunt her local bowling alley. Her work has been recognized by various competitions and awards, and her stories can be found in/forthcoming from Cleaver Magazine and the 2021 Best Microfiction anthology.
Submit Your Stories
Always free. Always open. Professional rates.