Fiction: What a Headless Boy Would See by Cathy Ulrich


Somebody died at the carnival that night. We saw the lights go out on the rides, bit by bit. Mona’s brother had been there. He said some kid lost his arm on the Scrambler.

Or his head, I don’t know, said Mona’s brother.

Lost something, anyway, he said, made a slashing motion across his throat with one hand.

From Mona’s house, we could see the lights at the carnival were still out. She kicked her feet on the rocking swing on the front porch, chewed the side of her thumb.

We should go, she said.


Mona was that girl in school the other girls hated. Wore cheap eyeshadow and had a gap in her teeth, the curliest hair any of us had ever seen. I was always going over to her house. It didn’t matter. The other girls hated me too.


Mona had fingers like spiders, crawled them over my shoulders. She was braiding my hair when the lights at the carnival went out, left me with a half-finished French braid.

Huh, she said.

The lights, she said.

She liked my hair, how soft it was, how it always smelled nice. Her fingers went up and down my shoulders. I shivered and laughed.

Okay, she said. I’ll paint your toenails.


I was staying over at Mona’s that night. She kept putting me in her clothes that were too small but too nice for just getting rid of, spreading her bluest shadow across my eyelids. I held still, so still, while she ran the brush over my skin.

Her brother was in his bedroom, texting his friends about the kid that died.

We waited for the sound of her parents’ sleep breath. She put me into the prom dress she’d worn at her old school, where she’d been dating a senior — older man, she laughed, her words tickling the back of my neck. She spun me round to face the mirror on the back of her bedroom door.

She said: Pretty, gave me a kiss on the cheek, left a lipstick smudge.


She let me wear her best old jeans when we tiptoed out the back door, my oversized tee-shirt draped to my knees.

Letty, she said. Tuck that in. Always called me Letty, which I liked better than Leticia anyway.

I tucked my shirt into the waist of her old jeans.

You look like a cute balloon.


The carnival wasn’t that far from Mona’s house. She held my hand while we walked, called me clumsy in the voice like my mother used to call me sweetheart.

You’d trip over the curb or something without me, said Mona. Get run over.

She said: Squish. That would be it for you, squeezed my hand.


The gate at the carnival was locked. Mona said she would climb, liked to climb. Before our graduation, she would climb the water tower near the school, fall from the tallest rung, or jump. Would lie ragdoll in the field till she was found.

That hadn’t happened yet. It was the night somebody died at the carnival. We were at the carnival gate. Mona was real and dark and alive, held my hand, called me pretty, called me clumsy. In a voice like she really meant sweetheart, honey, love.

You stay here, she said. We’ll figure out some way to get you in.


What she wanted was to see the blood, the mess.

They can’t have cleaned it all up yet, right?

She wanted to lie down under the Scrambler, look up at the sky, pretend to see what the dying kid saw.

If it was his arm, anyway.

If it was his head?

He probably just saw the ground.


Mona climbed over the gate like nothing. She looked back at me from the top.

I don’t think there’s another way in, she said. You have to climb.

I said: No.

I said: No, no, no.

I know you’re afraid, said Mona. She reached for me. Her fingernail polish was a pink that wanted to be red.


I’ll go without you, she said finally, balanced atop the gate like a glorious raven.

I know, I said. I’ll wait for you, sat down in the gravel outside the gate, traced her name in it. Mona, Mona, Mona.

She was already gone. She was already on the ground under the Scrambler, lying wet on her back where they had hosed the blood away, water puddled in the uneven pavement. She was looking up at the sky, said to me when she came back: It was beautiful.

Said: You can’t imagine how beautiful it was.

Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has appeared in various journals, including Wigleaf, Hypertrophic Lit, and Riggwelter Press. Her story in Monkeybicycle, “The Magician’s Affair,” was a finalist for Best Small Fictions 2017, and her story in Jellyfish Review, “When the Children Return,” was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2017.

3 responses to “Fiction: What a Headless Boy Would See by Cathy Ulrich

  1. Pingback: Our 2018 Pushcart and Best Small Fictions Nominations! | JMWW·

  2. Pingback: 17 Favorites from 2017 – Hannah N. Gordon·

  3. Pingback: Wigleaf Top 50 and Longlist Honors | JMWW·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s