The Carcass of the Ghost
It was only a matter of time before Franny had to kill her brother. They sat in her car, in a parking lot off the Daniel Webster Highway, and while he stared at the door to the record store, her gaze was fixed on the glove compartment. That was where she'd hidden the gun she'd bought at a Salem pawn shop while he watched the dogs race at Rockingham Park. That was where her ticket to the future lay, the key to unshackle her from the chains of their past. She closed her eyes and prayed that they would leave soon, that they would get on with the third and final act of third-rate production they called their life.
"Maybe she isn't coming," she told her brother.
He said nothing, had nothing to say.
"Are you sure it was ten years?" she asked. "Not fifteen? Not twenty?"
He fiddled with the cracked CD case in his hands, opened and closed the lid of it. Under his breath, he mumbled something that sounded vaguely like, "She promised."
"Promised what?" said Franny. "Promised a fifteen year old boy that, in ten years, they'd see who chose the better bootleg?"
Franny's brother grunted.
"Don't you think you're taking the whole thing a tad too literally?"
He grunted again, then laid his head on the dash. His fingers played with the latch on the glove compartment.
"Let's go home," said Franny.
Her brother sat up straight and stared her down. His eyes were already dead. She wished she could have shot the poor wretch right there, put him out of his misery. "Don't you remember that night?" he said. "Don't you remember? You were right there. It wasn't... I'm not—"
She placed two fingers on his lips to quiet him. She remembered all too well, try as she had to forget. "She isn't coming," said Franny. But in the silence that followed her proclamation came the sign he'd been waiting for, the proof that she was wrong.
The car shook at the deafening pop of an exhaust system backfiring behind them. Franny's brother whipped his head around to see who had come, but he already knew. Franny could see in his eyes, in the split second before he turned, that he knew. And then, there it was, the specter of the past that should not have been: a purple Harley with a green flame job and a misfit couple sitting astride it. And, as if she needed to provide further proof, the woman on the bike pulled a CD case from her pocket.
"It's them," shouted Franny's brother, slapping his sister on the shoulder. "It's her."
The bike tore off out of the parking lot and through the next one over, the only way to head north.
Franny thought of protesting, thought of telling him that they didn't need to do this, but she knew that was a lie, and even as she thought this she was putting the car into gear.
Franny followed the bike up the D.W., the lights staying or turning green all along the route, as if the god of traffic, that usually spiteful sprite, was trying to speed them on their way. And, as she followed it, a small part of her brain could not help but drift backwards in time. Ten years ago, in this same car, Franny had sat in that same parking lot, waiting for her brother to emerge. The only difference then was the record store itself. Back in the day, it had been a hole-in-the-wall indie, known for its bootlegs above all else. Now, it was just another link in a failing regional chain.
Ten years ago, she had watched them emerge from the shop, her brother and a girl that Franny did not know. Franny had watched them argue—it was playful, but it was still an argument—and then she had watched that same bike whisk the girl away, the girl's arms wrapped around the waist of someone who was not Franny's crestfallen brother. "Ten years," her brother had told her, as he slipped back into the car. "Ten years," he said. "We'll see."
A hand on her shoulder brought her back to here and now. "The turnpike," said her brother. "They're getting onto the turnpike."
This had happened before, too. Franny remembered all too well the race up the Everett Turnpike, the way they sped through the New Hampshire night until lurching to a stop at the toll plaza in Merrimack, where there was no change to be found in their car. She remembered how her brother had cursed as the bike disappeared around the bend, how the booth attendant had chided him for doing so, and how they'd searched until dawn for that motorcycle and the pair that had fled on top of it.
Franny and her brother were driving down the same dirt road now, but the bike had not lost them this time. No. In fact, it now occurred to Franny that the bike had seemed to want them to follow it, that it had slowed down, however slightly, at every turn where they might have been separated. Franny shot a glance at her brother. His eyes were screwed up in concentration, his gaze fixed, as ever, on the bike.
"Why does it look like there's only one of them on the bike now?" he asked.
Now Franny squinted, too. And, sure enough, it seemed as if there was only one black rider upon the steel horse now.
"Wait," said her brother. "Now there's nobody. Now there's..."
But what he meant to say never came, for the bike had vanished from the road as if by the will or the wand of some wizard lurking in the pines around them. They drove on, her brother in stunned silence.
When they came to the driveway where they had come before, their headlights shone bright on the same decrepit colonial, heaps of rusted ornaments littering the lawn, a half-dozen for each season, for each holiday. And then Franny and her brother saw it. Set amidst that refuse, laid bare on its side, was what had to be facsimile of the motorcycle they had just chased. It could not be the same one, Franny's brother told her. There were no tires on it, for Christ's sake. The headlamp was broken. And there was gash across the seat, stuffing bleeding out of it.
Franny parked the car, but she kept it running. And, as her brother unbuckled himself to get out, she gave him his last chance. "Let's go home," she said.
But he ignored her, as she knew he would, as she knew he must.
Franny watched him pace through the light of her car's high beams, unable to even approach the carcass of the ghost they had just chased. He was crying out there as she opened the glove compartment, as she checked that the gun was still loaded.
She looked away from him, staring instead at the darkened windows of the house. Franny had not known for sure what happened in there on that night, as the rising sun was changing black sky to blue. She had not known exactly what her brother and the other man had done with the girl inside those walls. But years later, when Franny screamed like she'd heard that girl scream, she knew that it was not a trick of the ears, as her brother had claimed, that it was not a game, or that, if it was, it was rigged, as all games between boys and girls have been and always will be.
Her brother jumped at the sound of her door opening. "Christ," he said, "You scared me."
She made no secret of the gun in her hand as she rounded the car and stood before him. But he did not notice it. His head was still turned toward the corpse of the motorcycle. "What's up?" he said.
"Do you remember?" said Franny. "Or is it all a blur?"
"I remember that we came here," he said. "I remember that I went in when she curled a finger in my direction, when she beckoned me to follow. I remember a beer or two. But," he said. "After that... After that, it is a blur."
"I remember," said Franny, raising the gun. "I won't ever forget."
"Franny," he said, his head still turned from her, his eyes still not seeing. "I... I can't—"
She pulled the trigger and shut him up for the last time. And as his body collapsed to the ground, she fired four more times, punctuating each blast with a single word. "Die," she said. "Die! Die! Die!"
Up in the house, a single window now came aglow. Franny looked up at it as someone peeked through the curtains. The girl stood in the window, pushing her hair out of her eyes and nodding at Franny. Franny nodded back.
Just before she backed out of the driveway, Franny saw the girl descending the front steps with a shovel in hand.
Franny looked at her brother's body one last time, and then drove away, the words "Goodbye, John" ready on her tongue, but never making it past her lips.
Originally published in Commonthought 2011