Short story – “Driving Shades”

death taxi-driving shades

What I couldn’t tell him was that back then, most of my fares were dead folks...

It’s a creepy job I guess, driving a cab all night, but what else is there to do in this town at four in the morning? My TV’s busted. I used to read, but I can’t concentrate anymore and there’s nothing worth reading anyhow. So I drive.

I’ve been with Bay State Taxi a while now, long enough that when I call myself a cabbie, I don’t shrug it off. You are what you do, right? Whatever it was you thought you were, or hoped you’d be, one morning you wake up and you just are this thing, and there’s no backing up and doing it over.

Mom and Dad got it finally. I’ve stopped hearing about college or getting my own place. Not that they ever nagged me really—we’re not that kind of a family—still I had a good idea what passed between them late at night: when’s he going to move on and give us our life back, what’s left of it?

There was this particular Sunday afternoon I was watching the Red Sox with my dad and Mom drifted through like she sometimes does on her way to the backyard. This time she stopped and stood without moving, which meant she had something to say. I could tell she was looking at me but I kept my eyes on the TV. If it was something I’d done, I didn’t want to get into it with her. She snatched up the remote and muted the commercial. Then she snapped the TV off altogether, and silence took over the room. I heard a screen door whap shut up the street.

“Your dad and me,” she said, then stopped. A quick glance at Dad and she tried again. “We, your dad and me, we want you to know that, with all you been through—“

We been through,” Dad corrected her, in a whisper.

“That’s right, we…” Her mouth sagged at the corners and her eyes got big. A thin little river started down one side of her nose. “We. All of us…” She said the words again with her lips but no sound came out, so she turned toward Dad, who cleared his throat and took the cue.

“You got a home here, son, is what Mom’s trying to say. Always, okay. No questions asked. Drive a cab, work at the bake shop, car wash, whatever, it don’t matter. We understand.” Now they were both looking at me. “We know what’s going on.”

Only they didn’t. They didn’t have a clue.

People around here remember who I used to be—basketball dude, eagle scout, Catholic Youth. They like what they remember so they cut me a lot of slack. I get good tips. Some of my regulars have treats for me. A sandwich, doughnut, coffee. Beyond that, they know it’s best to just leave me alone. They remember what happened. Nobody forgets that.

Every now and then, Gabe, my night dispatcher, will get a request specifically for me. Always female, maybe a girl I used to know and it’s Friday night, she doesn’t have any place to go, just wants to sit in my backseat while I drive her around in the dark. Maybe she had a crush on me in high school or something, her husband’s God knows where, that kind of thing. She’s alone, wants a little tenderness, a little talk. I try to be nice, but it’s never what she hoped for. After a while I can hear the disappointment in her voice. She doesn’t say it, but I’ve let her down and I won’t see her again because she didn’t get whatever it was she wanted.

One time a woman said to me in a whisper, like she was embarrassed: “I’m not wearing anything. Underneath.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say back, so I just kept driving.

“Where was that you were going?” I said after a while.

She didn’t answer right away. “I guess home. Thanks.”

Yeah, I’m a disappointment. At Mom and Dad’s, on the job, all over town, so what? Maybe I should care, but I don’t. What’s to care about? My pride, my reputation? I don’t match up to somebody’s standards? Don’t make me laugh.

Honestly, there was a time when things mattered. If I reach back far enough I can remember feeling happy because I’d had a good day. Or I was in love, or I’d hit a clutch basket, or got a good grade. I also remember what it felt like to hurt inside so bad you want to kill yourself. Those are the last feelings I remember having.

There’s a guy I used to know on the basketball team who they said was treated for depression. He’s still around town and one day we were both at the Dunkin Donuts, sitting at the counter so I asked him:

“Supposing you were hurting inside so bad you wanted to…like, do something bad. To yourself. What does that mean?”

He bent over his coffee and took a long time to dunk and re-dunk his cruller–too long it seemed to me. Then his head rose up and his eyes looked at me all sad and hollow.

“It’s you we’re talking about?” he said.

“No. I mean, kind of yes, but.” I could have gone on playing dumb, but instead I let my head nod up and down a couple of times.

“You need somebody to talk to.”

“I don’t know anybody,” I said. “You maybe.”

“No. Not me.”

We sipped our coffee for a while, staring straight ahead.

“You’re Catholic,” he said all of a sudden, like I ought to be surprised.

I shrugged. “Yeah, but you know what kind.”

“I know what kind. But it means you got someone to talk to, right?”

I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea, but I did go to see Father Mackey, who had always seemed like one of those priests you can talk to. He’s a big, jokey kind of guy, a jock, used to play football at B.C., and he still carries that extra weight, mostly as fat. He had a heart attack a few years back, but I’m pretty sure he never did anything to change his lifestyle. I hadn’t gone to confession in I don’t know how long, but he must have thought that’s why I was there, so I went along, even though it made me feel like an idiot.

“BlessmefatherIhavesinned,” I mumbled, making one long word out of it.

It’s hard to remember what I hoped would happen. Maybe that he’d have a direction for me, a path, one of those things. I couldn’t give him the whole story, of course, not at first, but I thought if he got a piece of it, maybe he’d figure out the rest.

He listened, bobbing his head every now and then, and when I was done, he looked at me for a long time, almost like he hadn’t recognized me when I first came in and now he did. He didn’t move for a while. Then he broke into a big sunny grin, like all of a sudden he had the answer. Only I knew he didn’t. It was that grin coaches give you when they’re out of options, right before they tell you you’ve got to give a hundred percent of yourself two hundred percent of the time, or leave it all on the court, that kind of stuff.

He said I should pull myself together and try harder.

“We all know what you went through, you and your family,” he said. “And yet here you are sitting in my office today, lean and healthy. God put you on this earth for a reason. I’d say get busy, find something that helps others and just do it.”

In case he had something particular in mind, I let it hang there and waited for the rest, only there wasn’t any.

“Okay, Father,” I said finally, looking down.

He reached over and pinched my elbow. “‘D’you feel that?”


“You’re alive, son. Join the living. Commit yourself to being a human being. It’s a privilege, you know.” He sat back, grinning at me, and held the grin until the corner of his mouth twitched. “Show God you care.”


“About?” The grin faded. His eyes toughened. “About the living. This world is full of folks way worse off than you. They could use a little help.”

“Oh, yeah, I see.”

“You drive a cab. Start there.”

I just looked at him.

“Your fares. They tell you things, right?”


He nodded like I should put the rest together, so I nodded back at him.

He peeked at his watch and faked being surprised. “Holy cow, look at the time.” He rose up from his chair and thrust a hand out for me to shake. I took it, and he pulled me so close I could smell cigarettes on his breath.

“Show God you care,” he said again, the words beaming out of his big face. “Ten Hail Marys.” And we were done.

If we’d talked on, maybe I could have told him there were two things wrong with what he said. First, I did care. But that wasn’t the real problem. It was what I cared about. That was the problem.

Sure, I knew what he meant––we’re all alive on the planet, sharing this life, all these hordes of people running around being alive and sharing it. There was a time that might have meant something to me, but it doesn’t do squat for me nowadays. Does that mean I don’t care about the living? Well, maybe. Maybe it does.

I used to care about my fares, but the thing I could never have told him was that the fares I really cared about weren’t exactly “the living.” Not to be cute about it, they were dead folks. Stone dead. “Shades” I called them, and I cared a lot about them. I call them fares—they didn’t pay me but I treated them like fares anyway, with respect and kindness, and why not? Shades have places to go too, stuff to do, just like you and me. But things are a little harder for them. They don’t zip around through time and space like in the movies. They’re weak. They have very little spirit left, and it’s waning all the time. If a shade couldn’t get a ride, how would he ever get where he’s going? To his old haunts, his special places, the house where he got his first kiss, the little green yard where he had his birthday parties, the broke-down chapel where his hopes burned so hot. So yeah, I drove them. It was a way I could make a difference, something I could care about, and I’ll even say this: it was when I was driving shades that I felt almost alive.

Ex-popular boy, everything to live for, picks up dead folks at night to feel alive and show God he cares. That’s where Father Mackey would get off the bus. But it made perfect sense to me.

Driving for a living makes sense, too. It was my passion, always, and I don’t throw that word around. I was good at basketball, so everyone assumed basketball was my passion, but it was just a game. You put a ball in a hole. I never understood how a game could be a passion. But driving. To me driving was the best thing in life. The absolute best. Driving was life.

My first memory of my Dad, and one of the best, was when a tow truck arrived from the junkyard one morning with a prize Catalina he had picked up at some junk auction for practically nothing. All the years I was growing up, it sat in the backyard with grass growing up around it, through it, forgotten. Long after he’d lost interest in it he didn’t even bothered to have it removed. But I remember that first day, how happy he was, how sure he was of everything. How he tinkered on it for a few days and how, when he tried to crank it up, it wouldn’t catch. He opened the hood, adjusted something, and slid back behind the wheel. He paused for a minute, like a skier about to make the most important jump of his life. Then he turned the key again, and it rumbled to a start and held. Dad looked around at us wild-eyed. Almost tumbling out of the car, he whooped and raised a fist in the air.

“See there, see there? That’s how you do it. That’s how you beat the world.”

Then he did something I would never see him do again. He jumped up and down, circling the car in some kind of crazy Indian dance. I fell in behind him and little Sis brought up the rear, bouncing around like a cricket.

“Who wants ice cream?”

Sis and I squealed like piglets.

“Get in,” Dad said. “We’re driving down there.”

I saw Mom’s face looking down on us from my bedroom window. She had been so pissed at him that she refused to come down. Now it was bright with love and pride, and a light glistened in that little river where her tears flowed.

We never made it to ice cream. The Catalina died in half a block and we had to push it back to the house. The whole thing was confusing to Sis, who kept on jumping around, even though the happy had gone out of everything. I had to tell her to stop. “I’ll take you for ice cream,” I said.

As far as I know, Dad never even looked at the Catalina again. “Let’s fix it, Dad,” I had said, but he just shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it.

The Catalina sat there until I was old enough to do something with it myself, and I did. I got it running and it was the proudest day of my life, even if I was the only one celebrating. But even though Dad couldn’t have cared less, I didn’t mind. I was through worrying about him. The Catalina was mine now, and I loved it as much as he had, more even, because unlike Dad, I was driving it. I drove it everywhere and still do. And every time I get behind that wheel, or any steering wheel, for that matter, my mind clears.

I firmly believe driving makes me a better person. Put me behind that wheel and I’m back in school, top down, stereo up, ready to help. Hey, anybody want a ride? Living, dead, whatever. Even little sis used to get free rides from me after school or on weekends when I should’ve been studying. She was like—”take me here, take me there”—such a pain, but so cute about it. How could I possibly mind? We had a little game. She always sat in the back seat. She was “Eloise.” I was her chauffeur. I drove her to Rainbow soccer, Brownies. And when she started growing up, I’d drive her by certain boys’ houses where there were parties going on. I didn’t care. By then she was a teenager so where she went was her business. We were that kind of family—everybody left everybody else alone. A few times I helped her sneak her out to the late movies, even dropped her off places I knew she shouldn’t be, sketchy houses where she wouldn’t tell me who was inside. One house in particular gave me the creeps, and I told her so. She just laughed.

“Oh, it’s funny?” I said, “Well, guess what? Maybe I’ll just keep driving. If you really want to get off here—”

Before I could finish she’d jacked open the door and thrown herself into the road. We were doing about 25, but she couldn’t have cared less. I looked back just in time to see her disappear into the house. You couldn’t say no to that girl.

One thing my family is known for—the only thing, I guess—is above-average looks. Mom and Dad were “Best Looking” in their class yearbook and I’ve seen the old photos that vouch for it. If that’s so, Sis got them all this time around. Some girls thought I was halfway decent, but Sis was in a different league altogether. I’d watch her in the rear view mirror sometimes just for the sight of her, the lips she kept pressed tight to hide their fullness, the curls she jammed down inside her cap. God help you if you gave her a compliment! She didn’t want to hear it.

She’d been a sunny, bright little kid. Like most little girls, she couldn’t wait to grow up. But when the time came, becoming pretty, growing into her body, all those things she’d looked forward to, they just pissed her off. Anything cute about her, she’d long ago figured how to hide it inside some Goth freakiness. She’d dress up only if the occasion didn’t give her any choice, like for her confirmation, or a prom, but she’d put the dress on like she was bandaging a wound. Then she’d stalk down the stairs, cursing to herself, when in fact she looked so freakin’ good the sight of her would stop your heart.

Sis in the car

Dad took me aside and told me, “I think you ought to know this: your sister has an illness.” But I just thought it was a fad.

The Goth stuff—it wasn’t really her. I could tell she was going through something, but I figured she’d work it out and move on. Dad took me aside and told me, “I think you ought to know this: your sister has an illness.” But to me it was just a fad. I told Dad it wouldn’t be long before she was dating some guy and that would be the end of it. She just had to give herself a chance.

Sometimes I still feel that way, even after all that went down. I mean, all that time, something was leaching into her like poison. Whatever that was it changed her whole personality so she wasn’t herself anymore. She’d say hateful things to Mom for no reason. She had a special thing about Dad. She’d turn these looks on him like he was Hitler or something. One night she hissed something at him when they passed in the kitchen, and he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him.

“Okay, young lady—” he said. But she yanked her arm back before he could finish. She stood at the kitchen door and kept her eyes on him in a weirdly accusing way, as if she knew something terrible about him, and wanted him to know she knew it.

Dad, who never raises his voice, ever, made a noise in his throat like I’d never heard before.

Then he whispered, “Go on. Just get out. Whore.”

She kept looking at him, like she wasn’t going anywhere. Then something seemed to snatch her into the night. The door slammed and she was gone.

“She’ll be back, Dad,” I said, after a minute. “She doesn’t have any place to go.”

“I don’t care. I’m finished with her,” Dad said, in a tough whisper. He was breathing hard and his eyes were all bugged out like they get when something really scares him. Mom stared at him like she was demented, then turned and ran up the stairs and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

I had the feeling they were seeing something I couldn’t see, but whatever it was, I didn’t want to get into it with them. I’ve never been big on uncovering secrets. I usually just let them stand. I don’t know, maybe I could’ve tried to help her deal with it, whatever it was. Hindsight’s always perfect, but back then, all I saw was a little girl struggling to keep her innocence. Nothing darker than that. Kind of a Pollyanna view, yeah, but I was convinced that was the right way to see her. It had to be the way she saw herself, only for some reason, she didn’t want to let go.

That it might have been something else, something so powerful none of us could have stopped it…well, that was the farthest thing from my mind.

The only time I ever see Sis these days is in a dream I have almost every night. She’s talking to me, like out of a video screen, and her voice tells me it’s okay, but her eyes are too dark to see into. Sometimes she’s with me, walking beside me, and the wind is blowing around us. I’m trying to tell her it’s not over, it doesn’t have to be, if maybe we could just turn everything around and go back. She looks at me and the look says everything. Back? She doesn’t even know what that means. But I keep trying until I realize I’m talking to an image in my mind somewhere. She’s not here; I’m talking to a dead girl, and if you’re dead, there’s no “back,” in your world. Then I’m awake, and it was a dream. Just a dream.

One thing about shades: they look almost totally normal. Almost. You’ve probably seen one without knowing it. The first thing you notice is, they’re a little bit paler than they ought to be. I’ve never come across a shade in daylight, but if I did, my guess is that even on the beach at high noon they’d look like they were in moonlight. Another thing that gives them away is the eyes—black pools. You might think they’re staring at you, but it’s just for show. Those eyes aren’t seeing anything, at least not what you think they’d see. Shades never blink, never look down or glance around the room. When they move––slow or fast, it doesn’t matter––there’s a spooky kind of dignity that sets them apart. They’re focused. They’re on a mission.

If I’d thought there was a rat’s ass chance Father Mackey would’ve gotten it, I might have asked him, what’s the big deal about being alive anyway? After all, we’re only here for a blink, long enough to learn how little the world cares about us, then we’re dead. Sis had these things she would say, like “we live in a world that hates us.” I wouldn’t go that far. To me, the world doesn’t really care enough to hate us. And anyway Sis only started up like that the year she got sick, the year it all ended.

“What does it matter that we were ever here?” she’d say at dinner. “We’ll just get snuffed like you’d step on a roach.”

Sometimes Dad wasn’t in a mood to hear it. He’d tell her to shut up because life was sacred and if she was going to talk about her life that way to get the fuck out. Sometimes Mom would get up and leave the table. Weeks might go by when Sis wouldn’t be eating with the rest of us, but nobody would say a word about it.

Sick was never the right way to talk about Sis. It was just a word Mom came up with because she couldn’t tolerate Sis any other way. Then Dad picked it up, and I followed along. It became her label. Sick, like she had cancer or something.

But really there was no label for what she had become. She’d gone from bright to dark, evolving backwards, from a butterfly into a spider. She’d been hanging out with guys since she was 12, but the guys she was into now—I couldn’t figure it out. She could have had the coolest boyfriend in town but instead, God knows why, she hung with the Goth boys. Creeps. Black raincoat bottom slime with masks for faces. I didn’t even know their names, but she went with them, one asshole after another, and every one of them tore off a piece, a piece of my sister. And I couldn’t do a damned thing.

Mom and Dad were way over their heads. I remember hearing Dad once tell Mom they ought to ask Father Mackey about exorcism. I laughed out loud. There were a few things I had learned about building self-confidence from my coaches, and I thought I had some answers. I dropped something on her one day and it still makes me cringe to think about it.

“Sis, if you want to feel better about everything, try respecting yourself a little more.”

I have no idea where that clunker came from. Seriously, that one’s even too cheesy for a Catholic youth leader. And I remember how she laughed at me, like I was a silly little bug she was checking out from some great height. Yucking it up at the expense of her poor dumb retarded jackass of a big brother who didn’t know his ass from a tree stump.

It didn’t stop me. Every so often I’d try her again with a little spiel about dangerous boys, or STDs. I’d check the rear view mirror for a reaction, but as far as she was concerned, I was a talking dog. Then one of the guys she was hanging out with left some bruises on her arms, closed one of her eyes. I figured out who he was and went looking for him. I’ve never been a tough guy, but I’d learned how to be intimidating if I have to be, and when I found him—a pimply Goth with slicked back hair–I walked straight up to him without a word and punched him to the ground. He slumped like a sack of grain and I stood over him and told him very clearly who I was, in case he didn’t know, and what it was about.

But there was an odd look in his face. I’d noticed it before the first punch landed. Detached, a spectator. Mildly interested, no surprise, just a snotty little grin. Like he’d been expecting me, like he’d planned the whole thing. Even on his ass, in a pile of hurt, the kid held onto this look, this weird mocking air of contempt for me that came from some place I couldn’t imagine.

“Want to kill me?” he said. “Go ahead.”

What kind of creature was this? He knew I wanted to kill him but I wouldn’t. He thought it was funny. He knew my only move hadn’t worked. He knew he had me.

Sis didn’t speak to me for a month.

After that, she was on her own. She wanted to be treated like an adult, fine. I backed off. From then on, if she wanted to go somewhere, I’d drive her, but no more motivational speeches. I dropped her off where she needed to go, nothing more. That’s how it was the night she died.

Scary House had the look of a crack house. At night there was an unreal darkness behind its windows. You could tell nobody lived in it.

The house was a vacant wreck. I guess it had once been somebody’s rich-ass home, but in the light of day, it looked like a crack house. You could tell nobody lived there. The windows were always dark, but at night they were even darker.

I eased the cab to a stop and just as I turned the key, there was a  flicker in one of the upstairs windows–a flashlight, or a match–then it went dark again.

“Did you see that?” I said.

“See what?”

“Sis, I don’t know about this place. What’re you gonna do here, anyway?”

“None of your business.”

I looked hard at her face in the rear view mirror. A pale oval hanging in the dark, it showed me nothing.

“Okay,” I said. “But––how about letting me go in with you?”


“Just for a second–”


Something icy flickered up the ridge of my neck, and I was suddenly on full alert. I’ve never been a timid guy, but I know fear when I feel it, just like I know hot and cold. They say there’s fear and there’s terror. I don’t know the difference but this was more than fear. There was something hopeless in it, like a horror movie, when you know evil is about to happen, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. I wanted so bad just to floor the accelerator, get my sister the hell out of there, but I did nothing. As fucked up as it might seem, I knew there was no way I could change whatever course of action she was on, so I let her go.

They said she died in the kind of pain you could never imagine. I had to identify her. Burns, cuts, and her beautiful face so punched in you didn’t know where to find her eyes, her nose, her mouth. I wonder if Father Mackey ever had to look at a anything like that. Something happened to me that night. I don’t understand it, I’m a logical guy, but the fact is, that night something went out of me along with anything in the living world that had ever meant something to me.

The cops never had a suspect, not a prayer of a lead, and after a while she was one more cold case. Once I asked her: “Who did this to you? Who was it?” and of course I got nothing. It was like I’d never opened my mouth. But I went on: “I want you to know, Sis, whoever took your life, Sis, they got mine too.”

No answer. Nothing.

What the hell did I expect? A shade never responds to remarks like that, even if they understand. Why should Sis have been any different?


...Sometimes she’s with me, walking beside me, and the wind is blowing around us. I’m trying to tell her it’s not over, it doesn’t have to be, if maybe we could just turn everything around and go back.

The first time I ever picked her up, I had no idea who she was. All I saw was a girl in my headlights, marching down the Ridge Road toward town. A shade, I figured.

A shade will usually stop and swing around to wait, casually, like they called you and here you are. Not this one. She kept on walking, so I slowed the cab down to her speed and nosed it up beside her. We went a hundred yards or so like that till she swung her head sharply toward me and I saw her face. It was Sis, all fierce and gorgeous as always. Only her face wasn’t bright enough.

“Want a ride, Eloise?” I said, jerking my head toward the back seat.

She stood there, blank, until I had sense enough to pop open the rear door, then she stepped in without a sound.

We rode a few minutes in silence. That’s what they do at first: no greeting, no small talk, nothing. When she spoke, it was only to give me directions. “Start slowing down. Pull over here,” and so on, in a dry, faraway voice that sounded like somebody had installed it in her chest. She didn’t have to tell me. I knew where we were going.

Past the tracks and the grain elevator, we turned sharply and hugged the service road until I could see the house, dark, blacker than black against the night. Sis never once spoke. When I snuck a peek at her in the rear view mirror, her eyes were looking back at me like dark holes.

I stopped in front of the house and waited. She sat for a minute, like she was trying to make up her mind about something, then she was out of the cab and jogging up the walk. The front door shrieked open and she was gone, leaving me with a gush of memories, bad stuff, things crawling and oozing out of my memory. Like the look of her that night, battered and ruined, rolled out on that pallet, the bruises, the cuts, and how my stomach had erupted, throwing up a cascade of puke. I had seen my little sister destroyed and every part of her melded into this one pitiful mess and it all came rushing back now. I was sweating, trembling and I knew I was about to be sick. My Sis, my poor beautiful Sis…

The driver’s side window was open, thank God, because otherwise I would have made a mess of the cab. I don’t know how long I spent leaning, out into the night; all I remember is the puke exploding out of me until it felt like my internal organs had gone into my guts.

Then it was over. I slumped back in the seat and sat there, breathing hard, waiting, until it finally penetrated my thick skull – there was nothing to wait for. Sis had gone in, so it was over and done. My first thought was, I might as well just get back to work. But that didn’t take long to rethink. It was not going to happen. I was through for the night.

I drove straight out to the Turnpike Plaza, where nobody knows you and nothing is ever personal, and stared into a bowl of soup until I was ready to head back to the garage.

Shades, once you leave them off, you don’t see them again. Every shade I ever drove, I only saw that one time, and never again. You drop them off, they merge into the shadow of a tree, or drift off around the corner of a house, and they’re gone. But for some reason, one time didn’t do it for Sis. Whatever her need was, she needed it again and again. You can get used to anything, they say, and it’s true. Driving her to that house got to be almost routine. I would see her along the same stretch of the Ridge Road. “Hey, Eloise.” We’d drive down the hill into town without talking. I’d drop her in front. She’d march straight up the walk, disappear inside, and that was it until the next time I saw her. And the time after that, and the time after that…

There’s this dream I keep having. We pull up to the house and I’m looking up at the windows, at the flicker of light, feeling the same sick horror as I did that night, except I know exactly what’s coming. But in addition—and this is key—I’m fully aware it hasn’t happened yet. I could do something. I could drive past without stopping. Just drive on home. Feed Sis a hot meal. Take her out for an ice cream with Mom and Dad. I try to shout a warning, but of course, I can’t. I can’t form the words; I can’t make a noise. I feel the car pull over and stop. I can’t move a muscle to stop what’s going to happen. It’s just not going to play out that way. Not even in my dream.

How many times did I drive her to that place? No idea. It’s hard for me to think about it, even now. Maybe I should have found a way to stop it. I guess I could have, but the truth is, I didn’t want to. I was able to see her again, my dead sister, and for those few minutes, I was helping her live again. Weird as it was, I was starting to feel that thing I had once called happiness.

One night, when I checked in at the garage, something happened that should have set off all my alarm bells. I made small talk with Gabe for a few minutes like always, felt just fine. Then I went to get into my cab, and I couldn’t make my hand open the door. No matter how hard I squeezed, nothing happened, it didn’t work.

Gabe noticed me standing there like an idiot. “Having a problem?” he said.

“No, no problem. I just…can’t open the door is all.”

He stopped what he was doing and took a long look at me. “That’s a problem, buddy. You better go home, get some sleep, okay?”

I went home, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay in the dark in my room, in my clothes, hearing Mom and Dad’s voices through the wall. Things were happening inside my head. I got up and paced. Out my bedroom window, I had a good view of the only world I had ever really known, my back yard, gray in the moonlight. Everything was out there, the poplars, the maple that Dad had planted for Mom on their first anniversary, the jungle gym gone to rust that had belonged first to me, then Sis. Everything was the same as it had ever been, that green rectangle, our little world. Then something caught my eye. Behind the maple, she was looking up at me, not moving, just looking.

Sometimes I’m almost asleep, but I jerk awake suddenly, in a sweat. My room is huge and strange and it’s expanding, like the universe. I begin to realize it’s more than just a room. It’s something alive, and yet it’s also mechanical, a gigantic machine with millions of moving parts that keep multiplying as it grows. And somehow it all meshes together and I’m one of those parts, a tiny gear in this vast, cruel machine that I don’t understand, and my role, my function is simple: to do this one terrible thing, over and over and over.

That night I gave up on sleeping. Instead, I sat on the side of the bed, in the dark. There was no reason to do anything else, anything at all, except maybe get one of Dad’s rifles and blow my head all over the wall. All these years and all I had was this. This room, this yard, these few people. It all came down to nothing but this, and here I was, a small town loser, weary, delivering my sister up to be beaten to death, over and over forever. Couldn’t I have warned her? She was beyond warning. And anyway, how do you tell somebody they’re about to die when they’re dead already?

Well, I’m in great shape, I thought. Can’t make my hand open the car door, can’t sleep, don’t want to wake up. What now?

Here’s a fact: nothing lasts forever. Wind up a rubber band as tight as it will go, and keep winding——it will snap. Every time I left Sis at that house, a spring inside me tightened just a little bit, until one night, the last night I ever saw her, it went. I felt it go, like a footbridge snapping over a gorge. Imagine a world of black and white flaming up into the colors you imagine when someone says “hellfire”——that was me on that night. Something in me wanted to burn down the world.

That night, Sis did something I’d never seen a shade do. Walking toward the house through the weeds and the broken glass, she stumbled. She glanced back, over her shoulder—just a second’s hesitation——but I saw her eyes. They were the same eyes I had seen the night she looked up at me from the backyard. Eyes that could see. Not black holes but the eyes of a young girl suddenly knowing in full how hopelessly dead she was. I felt my throat start to swell and my lips puff up. Something had just triggered in me that I didn’t understand. There I was in my cab, in the dark, in the quiet of the night, in the mess of my pathetic life, snuffling and choking like a sick baby. I dropped my face into my hands and rocked back and forth, until my sleeves were wet with tears. Then someone threw a switch; I stopped blubbering. I got out of the car and stood rigid, waiting, like a prisoner waits in front of his cell for whatever’s coming next. I had no idea what I was about to do.

The House in Flames

...I got a full dose of it before I left. You wouldn’t think a rickety old Victorian could burn like that, but it was throwing up fireballs like a dying planet.

Things started happening fast. I was suddenly in motion, striding up the path. I was beating on the door, hammering my knuckles raw. I remember the sound of the blows. Pow pow pow, like a cluster of gunshots you might hear in the night. Then my own voice.


It wasn’t a shout so much as a howl. If my sister had been in that house, if she was anywhere in this world or any other, she would have heard it. I waited.

Nothing. I ripped the door off its hinges, and rammed forward into the darkness of the house, which opened for just moment, like a monstrous flower, then collapsed around me. I remember thinking, this is not just darkness, this thing is alive and if I don’t keep moving, it’ll swallow me. Then, as suddenly as a power failure snaps off the lights, my thoughts just flatlined. From that point on, I don’t remember a single thought, only images, feelings. I was a pure moving object, nothing more, with no more plan or objective than a thunderstorm moving through a town. I remember breathing hard, vaulting upstairs toward the front room, where I’d seen the flicker of light. My movements were almost inhumanly fast, though how I could have been so sure-footed in such complete darkness is beyond me. A door was closed but I kicked it open and then I was inside and the darkness of the room was so thick I could swim in it. It was the dark that lives inside the dark, and hidden in it, if you can see and hear, are the stories of everything that room has ever held or been witness to from the day it was new and bright to the night my sister was brutalized in it.

There are things all around us that can’t be talked about. I know this now. I wish I could truly describe what that was like, to see everything, yet not see anything. I’m trying, but I don’t have the words. There are no words. Start with this: if someone had been with me, if Gabe, let’s say was there beside me the whole time, he wouldn’t have seen or heard the slightest thing, not even a stirring in the darkness. Here’s how I remember the next 30 seconds of sheer terror. Suddenly there were people everywhere, but I couldn’t see them, only hear and feel them. I saw flashes and in those brief flashes I saw men. Men or boys. Blows were being struck, not on me, but on someone else. Something. else. I heard them and I also felt them. They felt like a fast car hitting a deer, over and over, and I knew somehow this was Sis. This was what I’d brought her to, delivered her up to, again and again. And I felt her there, close to me, helpless, hurting, writhing, whimpering, dying. In the awful stillness, her pain screamed out of the walls, the ceiling, the floor and I felt my terror rising into blind panic, I knew I was beyond control. I broke for the door, ducking and wheeling in the dark, and plunged back into the hall, half running, half crawling. I tumbled down the staircase. I hit the ground floor in a crouch and bounced back up like a cat, scrambling and clawing my way through the dark, into the foyer, and finally back into the casual air of the night.

It was over. I stood in the yard for a minute, listening to my breath, and looked back at the house. Words began to creep back into my head, but only in phrases like Breathe. Breathe. Breathe again. Breathe again, relax, get it done. Turning away, tall and straight, I walked to my cab like a man who knows exactly what he is about to do. Except I didn’t. I had no clue what was coming next. And yet I can see myself moving with a purpose, opening the trunk of my cab, and prying the lid off the orange plastic gas can. It was standard––we all carried one, all our drivers, along with flares for road emergencies. I must have grabbed the flare along with the gas can because I was gripping it in my hand when I started back to the house.

What happens next is like a scene from a movie:

I’m stalking around the house, sloshing gas. I soak the porch, the sides, I head back toward the cab. I pause halfway to swing around, fire up one of the flares with a Bic lighter. The pink-white magnesium glow makes a lazy arc in the night. Then a clatter on the porch, followed by a massive whomp, and it’s done.

Shades are so much weirder than you’d ever imagine. They don’t share each other’s world any more than they share yours or mine. Like, if I had a shade in my cab and we passed another shade, they wouldn’t even look at each other. Or if they did, they wouldn’t care, because every shade is the single lone citizen of an infinitely huge universe, population one. Some of the shades I drove, I had known them in life. They had known me. They knew my sister, too, but do you think there was a hint of recognition? Not one of them ever showed the slightest recognition of me. And neither did Sis, not a mention.

Weird? But even weirder is this: since the fire, I haven’t seen one shade. Not one. How do you explain that?

The Clarion said this town had never seen a such a fire. I believe it, because I got a full dose of it before I left. You wouldn’t think a rickety old Victorian could burn like that, but it was throwing up fireballs like a dying planet. People always rush to the scene. I heard the streets coming alive, but that was later. Nobody saw those first minutes—the blinding white fireball, the pyro show that blew up in its wake—nobody but me. I saw the house drown in fire. I watched its agony. As I drove away, I saw the final blast ripping through what was left of the decrepit framing, then came nothing.

Once I heard a bad car crash, and the silence that followed it——no bird sounds, no insect noises, no traffic——as we waited for the horror of the world to surge back. You always wonder who was driving, what the hurry was, and what it means that they’ll never get wherever it was they thought they were going. It was a moment like that. The echo of the blast hung suspended in the silence after that last crash. And then the world came back, like sounds in reverse. There was a lot of freaked out chatter from Gabe, cars were starting, lights popping on in houses. The town’s old air raid siren cranked up, that unholy wail that never sounds unless something has gone really wrong.

Mom and Dad were awake in their room when I came in. I could hear whispering, speculating, as they tried to figure out what the hell had just happened out there. They didn’t notice me on the stairs, so I was able to slip by and get to my room. It was dark, a good dark, a comforting, protective dark. I didn’t turn on the lights. I just fell on my bed and was unconscious almost before I hit the sheets.

Next day, I was up at noon after the best night’s sleep ever. I didn’t realize it, but by then, the whole town knew I’d done it. Somebody saw my cab, and there were other clues. I didn’t care. I wasn’t trying to get away with something. I was about to turn myself in when a local cop, Hunter, a guy I went to high school with, played basketball with, drove up in his cruiser to talk to me. He was in uniform, but he made sure I knew it was for the record only.

“Okay, my friend,” he said, after a few softball questions. He slapped his knees and stood up to go. “We’re done.”

“That’s it?”

He looked hard into my eyes and nodded. “That’s it.”

Halfway back to the cruiser, he turned back toward me, and raised a fist. “Hang in there, buddy, you hear?”

Hang in there, buddy.

So I wasn’t going to be led off in an orange suit. The earth didn’t rip open. I wasn’t carried off in a UFO. Nobody in town stopped talking to me. If anything, folks have been friendlier since the fire than before. Father Mackey stopped by the house and gave me a big grin as if I’d done a good thing. Maybe I had. But if it was such a good thing, why was it I didn’t feel so good?

Nowadays, I drive past the site all the time, and don’t feel a thing. I hear it’s going to be a Stop ‘n’ Shop, but nothing’s happened yet. Once, before they leveled it and laid on the gravel, I even got out of the cab and took a walk through the ashes and cinders. The remains. I was trying to see the whole thing again in my mind, but nothing came up. A blank screen. I sat down on a chunk of concrete let my mind drift into the way things might have been. The ruins would be gone soon and it would be just a patch of emptiness. I knew this would be my last time here. I thought I ought to have some feelings to commemorate that, so I made them up. I pretended I saw Sis standing in those ruins, reaching out to me with hot little tears of relief running down her face.

If this was a Hollywood movie, it would be over. Maybe one last scene where the guy and girl patch it up and decide to love each other forever. He pulls out a ring. She says, “It’s beautiful,” and she cries. I could pretend that’s the way it would be. I could pretend I won, gave Sis what she needed. You could pretend just about anything. For example, I could pretend I don’t know why months have dragged on without a trace of her. I could pretend I’ll be seeing her tonight, tomorrow night. I mean, who’s to say? I’m still young. There’s a lot of water left to flow under my bridge. It could happen someday. I could pretend it will.

But I don’t. Pretending is for losers. The smart part of my brain knows that pretending is a dead end. If you have to pretend, there are good reasons why it’s never going to happen, so you shouldn’t be wasting your time. For a while, I was pretending all the time. Once I even pretended Sis wasn’t my sister, and we were making out, but that was just too weird. I stopped and never did that again. I do have some basic good sense at times. I don’t pretend anymore.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Lazarus, the guy from the Bible who Jesus brought back from the dead. What’s it like for you after you’ve been dead for a while? You rejoin the living, you’re back, but how can life ever be like it was? I’d ask a shade but there hasn’t been a shade in my cab since the fire. But it wouldn’t matter anyway because I wouldn’t get an answer.  You can’t have a real conversation with a shade. What it’s like to be alive again? No offense, but to a shade, the question wouldn’t even make sense.

And I don’t know about Lazarus, but shades aren’t even alive again, technically, they’re still dead, so how would they know? Sis came back and, as much as I loved having her in my cab, I knew that thing in the back of my cab wasn’t my sister. It was something else, maybe even something in my own head, I don’t know. It hurts to say this, but every second I pretended she was back there, the real Sis was rotting in a box under six feet of graveyard dirt. When you’re dead like that, there’s no future in it.  There’s no way back.

A couple of months ago, I started going out with a girl, a classmate. She’s one of the so-called night-angels who called in requests for me. Unlike the others, she came back for more. Her name’s Joanne. I didn’t remember her from school, but she’s a sweet girl, practical, a bank teller. Real smart, romantic, kind of naïve. She’s easy on me. She told me one time she loved me—she’d always loved me, she said, almost as if she was saying she’d always loved chocolate.

One time she said, kind of joking, “Sometimes I wonder if you really do live in this world like everybody else, or are you some kind of weird tourist.” She comes close to the truth sometimes without knowing it. That I’ve got one foot in this world and the other in another one. Then there are times when she looks at me in a warm, admiring way, and I want to ask her who is it she thinks she’s seeing? It’s a fair question. It’s hard for me not to say, “Joanne, I have to tell you something. There’s a huge number of things I could never, ever share with you because they’re things that, if I ever told, you’d run screaming down the street.” But of course I don’t.

In the long run, I guess we’ll probably go our separate ways, but she makes me feel good when I’m with her, and there are even days when I think we could make a go of it. Is that love?

Gabe asked me the other day if I was okay with some day shift, and the idea didn’t seem half bad. Nights have gotten pretty bleak, anyway. I haven’t seen a shade in more than three months——not one. I said, “Sure, I’ll try it.” Something in his face relaxed and he clapped me on the shoulder with one of his big hands. It’s moments like that, thinking about driving the day shift, with Joanne at home at the end of the day, a good meal, some TV, a good book, moments like that when life seems to be moving again, in a slow, more-or-less forward direction. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, that’s big.

Then comes one of those murky, slow nights, moonless, full of fog, and I’m back cruising the Ridge Road again. Something just gets hold of me, and I can’t stop thinking about her. I’m out there again, in the dark and the fog, hoping maybe I’ll catch sight of her in my headlights, her little shoulders pumping up and down as she strides up the slope. And the the pain rises up into my chest, that hopeless ache, and I want to stop the cab and walk out into some field, fall face down in the grass and never get up. Here I am, straddling the other world again, a living shade who can’t get over his dead sister. I scan the road ahead and pretend she’s just over the next rise, around the next curve, and I’m pulling up slowly beside her and popping the door like always, my lips mouthing “Eloise…” over and over. And I’m thinking that this time, maybe, just maybe, because it’s all past now, maybe this time she’ll be like she was before, all perky and beautiful, laughing at me, teasing me. And we’ll be free. She’ll lean forward, hanging over the seat back, and kiss me on the neck like she did one time, and we can take a ride somewhere else now, somewhere nice. Maybe out to the beach, watch the sun come up. Then back to Mom and Dad’s. Ice cream. Home.

The End

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