Michael Beeman is a reader and writer from New Hampshire. A graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program, he has published fiction in The Sewanee Review, Indiana Review, storySouth, Juked, The South Carolina Review, Volume 1. Brooklyn, New Plains Review, Necessary Fiction, Per Contra, and elsewhere. His book reviews have appeared in Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews, and Kirkus Reviews. He was awarded The Sewanee Review's Andrew Lytle Prize in 2013. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We can’t say who saw Chester McLaughlin’s ghost first. Seeing the ghost of the first soldier our town lost in Iraq is not the normal line of gossip in Vienna, New Hampshire. We discuss layoffs at the high school two towns away over drinks at McCleary's, our only bar. We spend our smoke breaks guessing at the reasons for Tom and Kate Anderson’s sudden divorce. At lunch, we debate the odds the restaurant that opened downtown, in a main street storefront that changes hands seasonally, will last a year. Lacking real news we often invent our own, and by February we were all stir crazy and desperate for new conversation. But Chester’s return far fell outside the scope of our usual gossip.
Comparing the witness accounts later, we learned all three met him on the same night, the first anniversary of his death.
Rebecca Miller saw Chester at Granite State Gas, a gas station and convenience store out by the highway. Chester worked the pumps in high school, back when the station was still full-service. He’d worn gray overalls then, with a white patch reading “Chaz” sewn over his heart. Pulling up to the pumps after a sixteen-hour day at the call center, Rebecca cranked the window down out of habit when she noticed someone approaching, and turned to ask the attendant to fill up the tank. The words froze in her throat.
Rebecca had not seen Chester since he enlisted, but she recognized him from the picture the newspaper ran when he died. The Marine’s dress blues looked too big in the photo, she thought then, as if borrowed from an older brother. Weak-chinned, with deep-set eyes and a wide forehead, he seemed an overgrown adolescent even at twenty, his final age. The caption told her he died a Lance Corporal.
Standing beside her car that night, Chester wore a camouflage uniform, a black bulletproof vest, a metal helmet covered in netting. He crouched to Rebecca’s window. Chester’s narrow face was gaunt, the skin pulled tight over his bones. Their eyes met; he smiled. Cold electricity ran up Rebecca’s spine.
Chester appeared to Sam Fielding on a chairlift at Gunstock Mountain. An avid skier, Sam made at least fifty trips to the slopes every winter. He kept skis, poles, and boots in the back of his station wagon to scrape post-work runs at the few resorts that stayed open after the sun went down. That night, Sam stopped at Gunstock on his way back from a business trip to Boston, bringing his yearly total up to thirty. Riding the lift for the last time, he was startled to discover someone suddenly beside him.
Sam taught Chester to ski while working as an instructor a decade earlier. Chester came to class in jeans, a Red Sox baseball cap, work gloves and an old Carhartt jacket. Sam had borrowed goggles, mittens, and a warm hat from the mountain’s lost-and-found, clothes Chester used the entire season, returning everything at the end of each day in case the owners came back looking for their gear, and then borrowing it all again the next weekend.
Seeing Chester on the chairlift that night, Sam nearly laughed: he was still ill-clothed for skiing. He wore a camouflage jacket, a black vest, a metal helmet. The fingertips of his gloves were cut short, exposing his flesh to the cold. Then Sam noticed Chester held no ski poles. Combat boots dangled over the moguls below. Chester’s skin was white as porcelain. No frozen breaths escaped him as they glided above the snow.
Marjorie Hill saw Chester in her fourth-grade classroom. Still single at fifty-four, she had stopped correcting students who called her “Mrs. Hill” long ago. Paperwork from a long round of parent-teacher conferences kept her in her classroom after dark that night, and she assumed the boots clomping the linoleum outside her room belonged to a father coming back to complain about a poor evaluation. She prepared herself to say she was done for the day, that he could either come back tomorrow or email her from home.
Looking up from her papers, Marjorie saw her visitor was too young to be a parent. He looked eighteen, at the oldest. Before she recognized Chester, she thought from his uniform that he was a recruiter who had mistaken the elementary school for Vienna High, half a mile away, where the military sent soldiers to speak with students nearing graduation. Then, she remembered.
Marjorie had gathered in the high school’s gym with the rest of us to send Chester’s unit off to war. She had taught hundreds of children, and recalled Chester only vaguely at the time. She called in sick the morning she heard the news of his death, though, and for weeks after had to force herself from bed. How could she face the children she taught if this was what she prepared them for, she wondered, a violent death so far from home? Seeing him standing in her classroom again, dressed as if he had just stepped off the battlefield, Marjorie was too startled to speak.
Chester McLaughlin did the talking for her.
Telling their stories later, the three witnesses agreed Chester started his conversation the same way.
“I shot someone!” he said, his way of introduction.
Rebecca Miller’s hand tightened around her steering wheel. Beside her, a small LCD screen on the gas pump flashed neon colors. Tinny country music warbled from a speaker overhead. Chester’s eyebrows disappeared under the brim of his helmet. His pupils had expanded so far no other colors remained. Above his left eyebrow, a hole the size of a dime drew Rebecca’s gaze. There was nothing behind it, only a black void.
“Me,” Chester scoffed. “Can you believe it?” Rebecca didn’t move. Hers was the only car at the gas station. Inside, a bored cashier would be staring at the TV bolted above the door, absorbing the latest reality show, basketball game, or Fox News special, looking up only when the glass doors sighed apart and breathed another customer in with the cold.
On the chairlift, Chester leaned toward Sam Fielding. “It happened in Fallujah,” he confided. Sam stared, open-mouthed. “That’s a city in Iraq. We were sweeping a neighborhood, like we’d done a million times, when he just raised up from under a window.” Chester lifted an imaginary gun, closed one eye, and tilted his head to sight a shot.
“Then, pow! One shot. After, it was like…” He sighed, a mournful sound, the passing of a distant train. Flat patches flashed below as spotlights hung from the chairlift’s metal pylons caught trails skied down to the ice. Chester dropped his head to scan the empty slopes beneath them. Sam shuddered: the exit wound, partially hidden by his helmet, gaped like a crater across the back of Chester’s head.
“He just raised up from under a window,” Chester told Marjorie Hill. She glanced to the open door behind him, her only way out. “Started shootin’ at our hummer.” Chester took a step towards the blackboard. He held his left hand out before him, fingers curled to steady the barrel of an imagined rifle. His right hand found an invisible trigger. He sighted the window at the far end of the room, held his breath, and squeezed, rocking with the recoil.
“Pow,” Chester said, turning back to his former teacher. He held up his index finger. “One shot. Caught him here.” He tapped his chest. Right hand to his heart, he might have been pledging allegiance to the flag in the corner of the room, same as her students did each morning.
“Dead. Just like that. I shot him.” Chester thumped his sternum, knocking a hollow sound. He laughed once in disbelief. Marjorie could not move. She was stuck as if between waking and sleep, her mind screaming but her body frozen. Chester shook his head in frustration. After a moment, he tried again.
Chester McLaughlin reenacted the shooting dozens of times that night. First, he replayed everything as he remembered it, with himself as the shooter. He traced the bullet from his fingertip to the imaginary victim only he saw. “See?” he asked the witnesses after. He thought a moment, then tried again.
Next, Chester made himself the victim. He followed the shot’s trajectory out of his gun, then reversed direction to turn the bullet back into his own heart. He seemed happier with this version, the witnesses agreed. He stared at his fingertip for a long time after before taking it away from his chest again. But it was not good enough. Chester sighed, shook his head, and started over.
Finally, Chester turned his imaginary gun on his witnesses. He fired at Rebecca, sitting helpless in her car. He leaned across the chairlift’s dividing bar to trace a path into Sam’s chest. In the empty classroom, he guided the shot to its conclusion just above Marjorie’s heart. But he was never satisfied. Chester grew more frustrated with each unsuccessful attempt. He tried again and again and again. He went on and on and on.
Rebecca watched without moving as Chester shot the man over and over beside the gas pumps. The warmth in her car seeped through her lowered window until her breath came in clouds.
Sam saw the killing dozens of times. Unfamiliar ski trails passed beneath them. The wind pulled loose snow from trees beside the chairlift, covering the chair. Powered in white, Chester began to glow.
The stacks of papers grew heavier in Marjorie’s hands, but she could not lower them to her desk. The clock hanging beside the classroom door ticked on and on, but never moved.
All three witnesses agreed their hauntings ended the same way.
“Oh, this?” Chester finally asked. He pushed the brim of his helmet back on his forehead. “This?” He pointed to the hole in his temple. He smiled sadly. “You want to know how I got it?”
Chester aimed the imaginary rifle at Rebecca Miller in her car, Sam Fielding shivering on the chairlift, Marjorie Hill squeezed into a child’s desk. He lowered his cheek to the stock. His hand cradled the barrel to steady the shot. His finger tensed around an invisible trigger. He squeezed.
Rebecca felt the cold Chester carried with him wrap around her as he as he ducked through her car’s window. Sam watched Chester lean over the bar dividing the chairlift, but could not move away. Marjorie shuddered as Chester crossed the distance and lifted his hand to her face. Each sat helpless as Chester’s finger drew close; each closed their eyes as the cold fingertip found their skin.
Rebecca Miller woke a stranger tapping her windshield. The cashier noticed her sitting outside: she had been there for over an hour. Her car would not start. The headlights she left on when she parked had drained her battery. The cashier hadn’t seen anything, but he let her use the store’s phone to call for a jump.
Sam Fielding found himself alone again, his chairlift nearing the mountaintop. He could not stand, so stayed seated, rounded the terminal’s large wheel, and rode to the bottom of the mountain. He walked to his car in a daze, packed away his equipment, and drove home.
The sound of the night janitor rattling his mop and bucket out from the storage closet next to her classroom opened Marjorie Hill’s eyes. Her room was empty. Parent-teacher evaluation forms were scattered like fallen leaves across the floor. She felt as if days had passed. The clock by the door told her the time was just after midnight.
The cold of Chester’s touch lingered on the witnesses’ skin for weeks after. Telling their stories, each raised a hand to their temple, as if to sooth a migraine. They repeated Chester’s last word, heard with their eyes closed tight: the awed “pow” he left behind.
We listened solemnly as the three witnesses told their stories. We assured them they were not crazy. Of course we believed them. Of course their stories were safe with us. We would not tell a soul.
Later, we laughed.
Even if we believed the stories, which many of us did but would never admit, why would Chester McLaughlin appear to these three? His parents did not see him. Neither did his older brother. His younger sister, who worshiped Chester, stayed up late for months after she heard the rumors, hoping to see him one last time. None of his fellow Marines saw Chester either, even those who had severed with him, even those who had been with him the day he died.
Obviously, they were lying.
Rebecca Miller was an English major in college, and had written volumes of unpublished poetry before settling for her position at the call center. Wasn’t someone so steeped in make-believe looking for a creative outlet, for another story to tell?
We all know Sam Fielding is prone to exaggeration, that he embellishes everything, from his importance at the office to those fifty full days on the slopes, which is likely closer to thirty (and many of those only a few token runs). No, we could not trust his word completely.
And Marjorie Hill. Even those of us still smarting for her grueling math lessons felt sorry for her. She was just lonely, and desperate for attention.
But as more of Vienna’s youth followed Chester overseas to take part in our country’s wars, and as more of our brothers, our sisters, our friends, and our colleagues were lost on distant battlefields, even those who do not believe began to wonder. Seeing news reports of a bombing in Afghanistan, noticing a yellow ribbon brightening the tailgate of a pickup truck as it passes us on the highway, watching another tribute to soldiers before a Sunday football game, we remember the witnesses’ stories. We think of Chester McLaughlin, and of others who served. We imagine Vienna’s soldiers fighting for us so from home, as we are caught up in our everyday dramas. How ridiculous we seem then, even to ourselves.
These thoughts are often interrupted after a few moments by concerned family and friends. What are we thinking about, they would like to know? Is everything ok? Do we have a headache? Why are we worrying a dime-sized spot on our temple during the country’s national anthem, when we should be standing at attention and placing a hand over our heart?