headless ghosts haunting me

☆ erik kirkland memorial prize winner ☆

headless ghosts haunting me

olive lambert

evie stiner  

“There once was a girl with a green ribbon tied around her neck,” begins my mother. This is her favorite story and telling it during the half hour drive from my grandparents’ home to the town where my mother lives is a ritual of our weekly visits. We’re in the backseat of my grandmother’s tiny red car, crossing through the forested backroad which connects my town to the highway. We lovingly call it the Tunnel of Trees as the long branches dangle overhead, letting only dappled sunlight touch our skin. 

“Why does she have a green ribbon around her neck?” I can recite this story in my sleep, but it makes my mother happy when I act as if I’ve never heard it before. 

“No one knows why, Angel,” my mother says, “but there’s a boy who is determined to find out.” 

Yeah, that’s how it always starts. 


I used to play a game with the boys in middle school. We called it Hit List. I kept all of their names on a list, and from the top to the bottom was the order in which I would kill them. When one pissed me off, his name got moved up the list, and when one was nice to me, his name moved down. During class breaks they’d surround my desk and ask for their ranks on the Hit List, begging me to describe how I would kill them should I be given the opportunity. 

“I’ll just stab you in the throat. You aren’t worth my time,” I said to Brandon. 

“Jaren, I think I’d spend time peeling the skin off your chest until I can see your heart straining through your rib cage.” 

“Dominic, you aren’t on my list yet. Keep knocking my pencil off the desk though and you will be.” 

The boys were good sports; they never told our teacher the things I said, although it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. My teachers and counselors had, by that point, stopped paying much mind to the violent tendencies I expressed in my words and writing. They figured either it was a healthy expression of my anger or an inevitable premonition of my future. Either way, it didn’t fall within their pay grade to interfere, and so they let me sit in the corner to write my Hit List and talk to the shadows. 


My mother continues, “The girl with the green ribbon starts dating the boy next door, and he asks her once again why she always wears the ribbon around her neck.” 

“Why doesn’t she just tell him?” I ask. That is the one part of this story I can never understand. “People don’t deserve to be lied to.” 

“Well she’s not technically lying,” says my mother. That’s her favorite word: technically. 

She uses it in all her excuses. “She’s just not telling, and that’s different than lying.” 

My grandmother slows the car so a deer can leap over the guardrail and run into the creek below. “Roxanne, is this really an appropriate message for a child?” she asks, glaring at my mother in the rear-view mirror. They’re always glaring at each other, and the reasons why grow constantly. 

“She’s fine,” my mother argues, snippier to my grandmother than to me. “This is information which will serve her well in life. Omission is different from lying, and it hurts people a lot less in the long run.” 

My grandmother makes one of her disapproving noises and keeps driving. 


I learned who my father was by going through old birthday cards. My family saves everything—receipts, boxes, old school projects, toys from the 80’s—and while purging junk from my room I came across an envelope and a hand drawn card. The paper was brown and thick like construction paper, and in colored pencil was a drawing of a cartoon elephant holding balloons in its trunk. My name and the number one were stenciled in big block letters right above it, and I was surprised I’d never seen this card before. My mother doodles all the time, and her drawings, especially ones for me, had been displayed on the walls of my room for as long as I could remember. 

The inside was very simple: Happy birthday, love Daddy. 

No one ever talked about my father. Not his name, not where he was, and especially not why he left me and my mother. They must have thought the answers would be too much for my middle school mind to handle, but they never considered how the questions alone gnawed at my brain and my heart, like worms making their home in every empty space. The return address on the envelope answered all of my questions: his name and the stamp of CUMBERLAND COUNTY PRISON. 

My grandmother walked in as I was looking at the card. She knew what it was the second she saw it clutched in my hands. “Did he love me?” I asked, still stroking the only tangible proof my father had ever thought about me. “Why did he go to prison?” 

“I’ll tell you another time.” 


“So, the boy and the girl get married,” continues my mother, “and he asks once again if she’ll take the green ribbon off from around her neck.” She stops, gazing blankly at the rays of sunlight streaking across the window. We are almost out of the Tunnel of Trees and the shadows are fighting with the light, creating patterns which have transfixed her. My mother has always been easily distracted, never fully part of this world. My grandmother glances back at us in the mirror. 

“But she won’t take the ribbon off? Right?” I ask. My mother’s silence continues; her eyes have slipped closed. Late at night, I overheard my grandparents whispering that something is wrong with my mother’s head. With the way she rolls it against the window now, it looks as if it will fall off at any second. 

“Roxanne,” my grandmother says, loud enough my heart skips a beat. 

My mother sits up, her eyes lazily blinking open. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Where was I?” 

I swallow and tuck my trembling hands into my sleeves. “The girl with the green ribbon just got married, but she won’t tell her husband why she wears it.” 

My mother nods, eyes closing again as she leans back into her seat, but she keeps talking this time. “That’s right, she won’t. Never show a man your secrets, Angel.” 


When I was ten years old, I was told the story of how my mother—eight months pregnant with me—spent the weekend in jail for cutting a man’s ear off with a brick. When I was fifteen years old, I learned this man had been trying to stab her—to stab me—and she had attacked in self-defense. When I was eighteen years old, I learned this man was my father. 

There are some secrets my mother plans to take to her grave, and I wish that had been one of them. Some souls need the added weight of secrets to keep them from spiraling off into space, but my soul is bogged down by its secrets, unable to stumble along in the meat suit it inhabits. I cannot alleviate myself of these secrets, for even when I speak them into the universe they still haunt me. They hover over my shoulder, picking at my soul like vultures tearing into carrion. Naming them only strengthens their power, leaving my soul nothing more than a shrine to my parents’ sins, a mausoleum of their mistakes. I am a house they built, and they are the ghosts who haunt it. 


For two years in middle school, I was part of a therapy group for children of drug addicts and alcoholics. That small handful of teenagers were my closest friends because we knew some of the darkest parts of one another. There were still quite a few secrets I never shared—and I’m sure the same can be said for them—but I didn’t believe there was anything I could say which would faze these people. 

“Let’s begin,” our therapist said one day, “with one thing you each struggled with this week. We’ll start here with Kathleen and go around the table.” 

I was last in the circle, listening to stories of an almost relapse, another beating, an excuse for cuts on a forearm, and all the while my embarrassment for the minuscule struggles I had in comparison deepened. “Uh, well I’ve been having a lot of bad thoughts recently,” I said when it was my turn. “Ones I can’t get out of my head, you know? But they’re nothing I’m not used to.” 

“What kind of thoughts?” our therapist asked. 

“You know, just ones where I get that burning urge to murder someone who’s pissing me off, like my mother, or my grandfather, or just a random stranger.” 

Kathleen blinked. “Uh, what?” The sentiment echoed around the table. 

“Well,” I said, “like, the other day my grandmother was yelling at me for how much I eat, and I felt this heat in my throat—you know, like before you throw up—but instead it was like my mind exploded because all I could think about was grabbing her by the hair and slamming her head over and over again into the wall until everything was red.” 

Kathleen’s mouth hung open, the soda bottle she’d been about to sip from frozen in her grip. “Bro, what the fuck is wrong with your head?” 


“And he asks again, as she’s on her deathbed, if he can remove the ribbon from around her neck,” says my mother. We reached her town, crossing potholes the size of railroad tracks and passing trucks too big for the cramped streets. 

“This time she agrees,” I say. “She unties the ribbon, right?” 

My mother shakes her head, and I worry that I have remembered wrong. “No, Angel,” she says, “he doesn’t let her untie it. He does it himself.” She strokes my hair, her rings and nails catching in the tangled strands. Her eyes, usually blue and shiny, are clouded and distant, blood vessels bolder than the irises. “Remember that sweetheart: they always do it themselves.” 


Sometimes at night I would stand naked before my mirror, picking and prodding at the parts of my body I wished were different: the dip between hip and waist, the pouch on the lower end of my stomach, the marks along my thighs and forearms that I promised my grandmother were from falling. 

No matter what someone does, they cannot change their body. Yes, there’s surgery and cosmetics and dyes and all sorts of other products that alter our current state of being, but you can never escape what you used to look like. Even celebrities, unrecognizable from their past forms, cannot escape the unedited photos of themselves that haunt the internet, circulated and searched for endlessly by people who also wish to change themselves. 

What we used to look like—how we used to be—haunt us through our lives. These ghosts tear into our present, the past dissecting us before a waiting audience who is ready to comfort or judge the answers produced from the depths of our intestines. My body, barely edited except for the whims of puberty, is foreign to me—like a Victorian mansion on a street full of grass huts. 

I’ve heard that the cells in our bodies are completely renewed every seven years, but I can never renew the chromosomes constructing the very essence of myself, so I will forever be part of her and him. Is that why my mother always looked at me like I’m a ghost? 


“Her head falls off,” my mother concludes as my grandmother parks the car. “Her black hair is splayed across the floor as her husband holds that green ribbon he was so determined to take off.” Her apartment building looms over us, a sickly yellow brick cube in a sea of sickly-colored brick cubes. I can see the door to her ground floor unit, pretty orange papers taped over the number. 

My grandmother sees the papers too and turns to my mother with her serious face on. Before the yelling can begin, I say, “It’s like the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’, except this time curiosity killed someone else.” 

My mother laughs and hugs me tight, way too tight. “Oh, you are so much my child,” she mumbles, but I don’t know if it’s a compliment or her worst nightmare. 


There once was a girl named Roxanne. There once was a boy named Logan. He set fire to buildings and to her head. She set fire to her family and to his life. Amidst their mindless burning, they left a child choking on their smoke and ash. 


I come home from school a few days later to learn my mother is back in prison. No one else is home, but the envelope on the counter bears the stamp of CUMBERLAND COUNTY PRISON, familiar as a signature on a birthday card. I know the first few lines of the letter inside already: another excuse, another apology, another year. 

A grand total of a week since her last release and the girl with the green ribbon had lost her head again. Sometimes it seemed as if she would never get to keep it. 

It had only been a damn week. 


My life has been based on the choices of people I will never truly know. Where some kids were taught, “Just do your best,” I heard, “Don’t become your mother.” Where some kids heard, “Enjoy your youth; have fun while you can,” I heard, “If you fuck up, we aren’t going to help. Your mother wasted both of your chances.” It never seemed fair that her mistakes got to haunt my life. 

Drug addiction can be inherited. There are genes and neurons and other scientific things which can predispose a child to it. I always wanted to know if the same was true for being an arsonist; I wanted to configure which parent I had a higher probability of becoming. Despite the numerous scientific musings telling me I don’t want to know the future, at night when I squeeze my eyes shut—so tight that my optic nerve transmits only the static of a vintage television—I ask God for this forbidden knowledge. 

I feel like Eve palming the apple as the serpent watches, but I ask anyway. 

olive lambert
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Olive Lambert is a sophomore creative writing major who writes primarily in fiction and poetry. Depending on the day, her work can be described as lyrical and thought-provoking or a blasphemy to the church. You can find her work in Rivercraft, The Squirrel, and various anthologies.