The Unfortunate Death of Martin Stephanopoulos
This story was originally featured on the no extra words podcast.
Martin was walking across the lawn in front of city hall when a strong gust of wind dislodged the flagpole from the roof and caused it to impale him straight through the top of his head, skewering him to the ground like a grim lawn ornament. Nobody had bothered to put a flag up the pole in years, because it had become so rusted and weathered from a lack of maintenance. A couple times each year a concerned citizen would bring it up at a city council meeting, but the priority was deemed too low to deal with on their limited budget.
Now the discussion shifted to how to best handle his unfortunate demise. A lively debate ensued about whether to cut the pole off at the base (it was rammed several feet into the soft earth) or bring in a crane and pull the whole mess out at once. Mayor Barrington ended the parley by deciding to bring in the crane.
Unfortunately, it would take three days to get the crane in from out of town, so the sheriff organized his deputies into shifts to guard the grizzly scene from onlookers and vandals, and I had the poor luck of being assigned the first night protecting the deceased.
My time with Martin started at eleven, and I was not early. The deputy I relieved checked his watch and nodded at me as he left to climb in his truck and head home. It was a cool night, but not cold. Stars shone down on me from the clear, black, velvet sky. The tarp that encircled the body flapped gently in the frequent breeze; there was often a wind that blew down from the mountains into the valley that surrounded the town. It kept the air crisp and clean in your lungs. I always enjoyed being outside, especially at night. The stillness and quiet gave a man time to think about what he had.
Before I settled into the folding chair I brought with me I went to check on our unfortunate resident. He stood upright in the middle of the tarp circle, his weight supported by the makeshift javelin piercing the length of his body. I shivered once at the sight, then let the tarp drape closed. No need to dilly dally with the poor man.
Assured that he would not be going anywhere, I sat down in my chair and tried to let my mind wander to less things less ghastly than the skewered man.
Coyotes howled in the distance, and the thought crossed my mind that they would probably enjoy the shish kabob I was guarding. The idea of a kabob for a coyote made me chuckle in an uneasy way. It stuck in my mind like a bad joke, and caused a quiet, rolling laughter that I tried to contain.
As I sat, trying not to be overtly rude to Martin, a sharp voice called out to me,“hey, this isn’t funny!”
I was immediately sobered of the joke and began to look around, frantic for the source of the voice. At last check I was the only person in the area. Well, the only LIVING person. My eyes widened as an impossible thought crossed my mind. I stared at the flap of the tarp gently rustling in the wind for a moment before I gathered my nerve and edged closer, sure that the late night and too much coffee had affected me. Before I got to the enclosure the voice called out again.
“Don’t be rude, you’re supposed to be here to keep me company anyway. At least come in here and talk to me.”
This is some kinda sick joke. The rough texture of the tarp made an uncomfortably audible crinkling sound as I pulled it back far enough to allow me inside. Even though I had seen the body earlier it was still a shock to see it again. It was still in the same position as before, with the pole sticking straight through the poor man and continuing into the ground. There was a couple slight changes from before, though.
Martin’s head was twisted around so he could face the opening of the enclosure and his face was contorted by a wide grin.
I stopped short and fought the bile back down into my stomach, still furtively searching for some explainable source for the voice. My search ended when I saw Martin’s grin shift to allow his lips to form words.
“Now, that’s better. Wouldn’t you rather look a man in the face when you’re speaking to him?”
I attempted to compose myself, but the effort fell flat. “Yu..ye..yes. I suppose it’s more polite this way.”
His face pulled back into that gruesome grin again before it fell back and he continued, “I’m glad we agree. I have a last request, if you would be so kind.”
“Of course,” I said. My initial fear was fading as the conversation turned towards a twisted fun-house version of normal. Fantastic. The last request of an already dead man. Nothing weird or bowel-twistingly horrifying about that.
I watched as Martin’s arm slowly twisted around towards his pocket, every movement fighting the rictus state he was in. His muscles sounded like giant rubber bands that were being pulled too far, threatening to snap at any moment. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to pretend I was anywhere else in the world. At the beach, watching the palm trees sway rhythmically.
Sway rhythmically to a disgusting, unnatural sound. I shook my head to clear the thought and opened my eyes. Martin had finished searching his pockets and produced an old, worn writing pen. I stared at it with a blank expression for a few moments before I realized Martin wanted me to take it.
“I used that to write letters every week to my daughter that lives in New York. It was a gift she gave me when I finally finished college, and I think she will appreciate it,” he said.
“Sure, that’s really nice...umm..Martin.” I stumbled over his name, unsure what the etiquette is when addressing a man you have never met until after his death.
"Thanks for the approval, Deputy. Now if you don’t mind I would like to be left in peace.”
I started to mumble something about giving him some space, but he suddenly started to move again. His arms moved up over his head in the same jerky motion as before, complete with stretching rubber sound effects. As I stood before him he painstakingly pulled himself up the flagpole, one hand over the other like the reverse of some macabre parody of a fireman’s pole. When he reached the top he gave one final, mighty pull, cleared the top, and tumbled to the ground like a rag doll. Then he got to his feet, gave me one final sideways look, and shambled off into the night. The last I saw of him he was batting the tarp away from his face before he disappeared from my sight forever.
I stood there stunned for a few minutes, watching the tarp blow in the cool breeze of the night before I turned and noticed the bright crimson streaks his body had left on the dull white of the flagpole as he hove himself up it. My gaze fell to the worn, silver pen in my hands then I had one final thought: Oh god, how am I going to explain any of this to anyone? I am definitely getting blamed for losing poor Martin’s corpse.