A couple of years after my sister, Marcy, was killed in a car accident I remembered the day when we were just kids and our family’s station wagon had been run off the road by a truck. I think it was a red truck, but that doesn’t really matter. My father had been driving and my mother was riding shotgun and Marcy and I had been sitting in the back. The truck had veered into our lane and my father had blasted the horn and swerved and we’d ended up skidding to a stop on the shoulder.
It had all happened really fast, and it had scared the hell out of Marcy.
My parents hadn’t noticed that Marcy had all but shit herself, but I sure noticed, and as we got back on the road I’d started teasing her, saying all kinds of stuff about how we’d almost died and how bad a collision would be, how our bodies would get all smashed up and our brains would come oozing out our skulls—you know, the kind of shit a little brother says to get his sister’s goat. Well, I got it, all right. I freaked her the fuck out. And I kept going on and on with it, and our parents were completely oblivious. I made her cry, but it was worse than just crying. The near collision had cracked something inside her, and seeing her vulnerability I’d worked that crack until it opened into something that would have a hell of a time healing. I felt like shit about it even as I was teasing her, but, hey, I was her little brother, after all, and that’s what little brothers do, right?
Knowing what I know now, I wish I’d never remembered that day I teased her. Her death years later had really jacked me up, so by the time I remembered teasing her I guess my brain had been primed for remorse and I had probably been searching those earlier years for something to hang the guilt on. And boy oh boy, that day I teased her sure fit the bill. I couldn’t let it go. I kept thinking about how awful I was and how I just kept pressing her and pressing her.
But I better back up a second.
Oh Christ, excuse the vehicle pun. I didn’t intend that at all.
So here it is. I’m thirty-seven years old, and when I was seventeen—Marcy would have been nineteen—my sister was killed in a car accident. For some reason that’s how I always put it, that she was killed. Not that she died in an accident, but that she was killed. I don’t know why I always put it that way. I’m probably trying to assign blame: Someone did that to her. It wasn’t just something that happened. The thing is, she wasn’t drinking. She wasn’t texting. She wasn’t putting on makeup. But my sister had nonetheless driven her car into the oncoming lane. If anything, she was the one who had killed the guy in the dump truck. Now, you would have thought the guy in the dump truck would have walked away from the accident because he was in, you know, a dump truck. But he’d veered off the road and been ejected from the truck and ended up breaking his neck when he hit a telephone pole.
It’s a fucked-up world, right?
After remembering the day I’d driven her to tears all those years ago, I guess I started to link my pushing her like that with the accident. I know it sounds crazy, the accident and that childhood incident being a good decade apart, but that’s how my brain works sometimes. So anyway, I began to think that maybe I’d planted something in her, some sick fascination with the life-and-death possibilities of oncoming traffic. I mean, it’s not that far-fetched. Think about it. When you’re driving, there’s just a sliver of space between you and the vehicles flashing by—and only, like, some gentleman’s agreement that you’ll stay in your lane. Death is right there, just a slight twist of the wheel away. How could that not call out to you?
Yeah, I get it. We all ignore those urges, or else everybody would be driving into traffic or sticking their fingers into light sockets or jumping off bridges or tall buildings. But maybe I’d really activated that urge in my sister and maybe in the end she’d literally (wait for it . . .) crossed that line. I guess she could have been screwing with the radio or reaching for something she dropped on the floor or any number of other things that could have ended with the same result. I don’t know. How could I? The truth is that no one knows why she veered out of her lane and my theory is as good an explanation as any.
Here’s something strange: I don’t think I ever really loved my sister until after she died. It’d be natural, wouldn’t it, to make a martyr of someone and place them on a pedestal as if they had been perfect? Sure it would, after a person died like that, so young—in the bloom of youth, as people say. Everybody in a similar situation must do that to some extent, but it makes me think, and I have to wonder: Is the person I claim to love so much really my sister at all?
For a while after the accident I’d started having everybody call me Will, when before I’d always been William. One of my buddies even started a “Fire at will!” bit, but the name never stuck, and I eventually went back to William. It might seem like a funny thing to bring up, and I guess it is, but I think there’s something in it, too, like I was trying to be somebody else but couldn’t escape who I was before. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your sister killed in a car accident (hardy har har), but let me tell you, when that happens, your life pretty much gets split up into the time before and the time after.
Anyway, this is going to contradict where I was going with the name thing—and, by the way, my wife now calls me Will (she’s the only one)—but I really am different from who I was before. Or at least the man I became is different from who I would have become if the accident hadn’t happened. I truly believe that. Losing your only sibling breaks you in a lot of ways. Maybe somebody stronger would have dealt with it better, but for me, after that, I could never shake the feeling that anything I had could be lost in an instant.
In some ways, I think whatever stuff has been going on inside me since Marcy died has given people the idea that I embody these almost admirable depths of emotion. My wife married me and we had a kid a couple years ago, so she must have seen something.
But I don’t know. I look in the mirror and it’s harder and harder to be much of a fan.
About a year ago, I started seeing my sister. The first time I saw her I’d been driving home from work and I’d looked into my rearview mirror and there she was in the back seat. She looked the same age as she had when she’d died, and I guess that made sense, even all those years later. It scared the hell out of me, but when I looked back at the road and then in the rearview again, she was gone.
For the time being, anyway.
I saw her again about a week later, and then it happened infrequently, but it got to a point that not more than a month would go by without my seeing her. I never told my wife, which is probably a sign of a troubled marriage, but, hey, I’m a troubled guy.
That was supposed to be funny, but you know what? I am a troubled guy.
I feel like I have to say this: When I teased my sister all those years ago, I couldn’t help myself. I really couldn’t, and it didn’t even feel like me. I know, I know, it sounds like I’m pushing away the responsibility, but it really didn’t feel like me. It was more like I was watching myself push her to tears, and I felt sick afterward. Later that night, I just lay in bed with a twisted-up stomach and was tortured by what I had done. At the time, in the car, I’d really wanted to break her, and I guess I did.
The fucked-up thing is that in the years after I could recognize that same impulse whenever it rose up in me. There’ve been times all through my life when I’ve sensed some vulnerability in another person and there it was, that vacuum, drawing out the worst part of me. I’ve sensed it with friends, I’ve sensed it with my wife, and I imagine I’ll even sense it with my kid when she gets older. I feel like I’ve been enough of a shit with my wife, but to feel that way with your kid, well, you’d think that would make you a monster.
My sister never says anything, which, if she’s just some figment of my imagination, might make me some lesser version of crazy. Having a conversation with your dead sister would definitely be more insane, wouldn’t it, than just seeing her? I guess we’re splitting hairs, but I’ve got to grasp on to something, right?
That isn’t to say, though, that I’ve never said anything to her. I’ve talked to her more and more, and, yeah, lately she’s pretty much been making nightly appearances on my way home from work. I kind of wish she would say something, because, you know, just sitting there like that is kind of creepy.
I meant that to be funny, too, but I guess it’s not, because, well, it is kind of creepy, isn’t it?
The thing is, with the way she just stares, it’s hard to tell if she’s there because she missed me or if she wants to tell me something—or if she’s royally pissed. I’m not crazy about that last option. The idea that she hates me is actually pretty terrifying. I think maybe my wife hates me, at least a little, and probably I hate myself, too. I mean, what’s to like, really? But it’d be better if Marcy didn’t feel that way. It’d actually be pretty damn swell if she had come back to say something like, “I love you, William. I just wanted you to know that.” Sometimes while I’m driving I close my eyes, thinking it might allow her the opportunity to put her hand on my shoulder, to sort of comfort me that way. I don’t know why that particular thing, her hand on my shoulder, has captured my thoughts, but it has, and I keep wanting it.
It hasn’t happened, though, and driving with your eyes closed isn’t necessarily the safest way to get home.
In the last week I’ve begun to feel my sister’s breath on my neck, and not just in the car, but at odd times, like when I wake up in the middle of the night and look at my wife sleeping. I felt it at work, too, when my boss was saying something and I was having this fantasy of springing from the chair and bolting out of the office and running away to nowhere in particular.
But I need to take responsibility—for everything. I guess that’s what this is about, my telling you all this. Maybe that’s what Marcy is trying to tell me, too.
I really don’t know.
These are some of the things I’ve said to Marcy while driving home.
“So how was your day?” (Sometimes I find that humor is the best conversation starter).
“Where’ve you been these last twenty years?”
“Yeah, to be honest, I’ve fucked things up pretty bad.”
“I guess I don’t like myself very much.”
“What do you want?”
“Fuck you, Sis. Fuck you!” (I actually screamed this at my dead sister. Admittedly, it wasn’t my finest moment).
“I’m sorry, Sis. I’m so sorry.”
“Really, what do you want?”
“Don’t go. Please, don’t go.”
One time Marcy and I had gotten in this fight and things had escalated—my parents weren’t home at the time (nothing shocking there)—and I’d hit her with a belt. I never hit her again, and for all my faults I’ve never actually hit anyone again, but I guess that doesn’t matter a whole lot now and it sure doesn’t erase the fact that I did hit her that day. I smacked her right on her leg with that belt, and I saw her face and I could almost feel how much it hurt. It kind of destroyed me and for a moment I hated her for making me feel that way, but then all I could feel was sorry. I remember making her a cup of tea afterward and bringing it to her. I made it the way she liked, with lots of milk and honey. It wasn’t much of an apology, really, but she was okay with it. I mean, she really loved me. She did. She loved me and I don’t think she ever had things very easy. She certainly wasn’t ever very popular, and she wasn’t given the chance that so many people have to eventually grow into their skins.
It’s hard not to feel like a piece of shit sometimes.
Maybe it’s why my sister started appearing, or maybe it isn’t, but I’ve become more and more obsessed with oncoming traffic. I mean, it’s right there, just a slight turn of the wheel away. I don’t want to think it’s what Marcy wants me to do, but, you know, that thought has crossed my mind. It’s not like it wouldn’t make a certain kind of sense.
I might even want it, too. But really, I’m not beyond saving, am I? Marcy could be an angel, right? I just need to know that she loves me, that she forgives me. Forgives me for what? Well, how about (1) for teasing her in the car that day, (2) for hitting her with a belt, (3) for possibly planting the seed that ended up making her drive into that dump truck, or (4) for having lived when she went to wherever it is that dead people go?
I told my wife I’d be home late, but I didn’t tell her how late it might be (hardy har har). You see, I figured it out. It kind of clicked while I was sitting at work, and I knew just what I had to do on my way home.
I’m driving now, cars and trucks flashing by in the other lane. It’s a good long stretch, the kind that’d give you plenty of opportunity.
I don’t see Sis in the back, but I can feel her. Hell, I can smell her, and I wouldn’t even have thought she had a smell that I’d remember. But then there it was, something like lavender, or maybe honeysuckle—something out of childhood, anyway.
People die on the highway every day. It’s one of those things that people are aware of but don’t think about, because you can’t go about your life if you let things like that bother you.
“I’m sorry, Marcy. I really am.”
And I am, too. I wish I’d been a better brother. I wish I could go back and hug her and not be such a terrible person. I wish I were different. I wish I had been a better brother, son, friend, husband, father, everything.
She’s all around me, but I still have no sense of what she wants. I close my eyes, and I feel Marcy lay her hand over mine. I might be drifting in the lane or I might be driving straight. I don’t know. But my sister is touching me, and love is pouring out of me, and tears are escaping my still-closed eyes and I love her so much and I really am so very, very sorry.
I know this is what she wants, and I’m giving her the opportunity to turn the wheel. She can steer us into traffic and that will be it. A fitting end, most would think.
But she doesn’t have to do that. If she doesn’t, I’ll know she forgives me. I’ll know she still loves me.
I feel her fingers tighten over mine. I want to believe she loves me. I want to believe she forgives me. I want to believe she’s not about to kill me.
Her hand grips mine with more urgency. It’s painful now, like the bones in my fingers might splinter.
There are things I want very badly to believe, and I say it one more time, “Sorry, Sis.”
This is it. One way or another, I’m about to get the answer to the only question I can ever remember wanting to ask.
BIO: James Gallagher is a horror writer and copy editor who has been honored with the Vivian Nellis Award for Creative Writing. James has been published in Horror Garage, The GW Review, Horrorfind, and Cabal Asylum.