She drove a silver PT Cruiser GT with a 2.4 liter turbocharged engine that could muster 220 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and featured an optional shifter so she could change gears or let the car do it for her.
Stacy. That's what she named her PT Cruiser. It was her sister's name.
I never felt comfortable in it, though. I claimed that the seats slanted forward, which they did, and that made me feel like I might topple out through the windshield onto the road, which it did, but that wasn't why I disliked the car—I disliked it because whenever I sat in that passenger seat (she always drove), the leather gripped my clothes like tiny hands and my lungs collapsed as though a weight were resting on me, or hands pushing me against the seat.
"Another PT stress attack?" Tara would ask with a smile.
I tried to pass them off—some weren't as bad as others—and smile back at her, but the pressure would mount on my chest and sweat would bead on my forehead; I'd grip the arm rest on the door and squeeze it until my hand turned numb. A few times I nearly started screaming, but the lack of air in my lungs and my self-assurance that this was some completely irrational reaction, perhaps to some long-buried childhood trauma, limited my vocalizations to quiet groans.
Even with the window down and air pummeling my face and shooting up my nose, my breathing did not improve. It never did, until I got out of the car. Once I stepped free from the car, slamming the door behind me, my lungs filled up and the sweat evaporated.
I never told her this, knowing she would laugh long and hard at me, perhaps even have tears rolling down her cheeks, but I think I never liked that car because Stacy died in it.
Technically, she hadn't died in the car. Only a day after taking the car off the dealership's lot, my girlfriend picked up her sister and took her for a drive. They talked about their family, about me, too, I suppose, about how Stacy was going to college in a few short weeks and how much fun she would have drinking and meeting boys without mom and dad around to judge her every move, how she would actually have good friends, not ones who betrayed her because they envied her intelligence.
Then Stacy had said her head hurt, really bad, and then she collapsed against the door, limp. Tara laughed at first, thinking Stacy had only been exaggerating her physical exhaustion from dealing with their parents, but that initial misread turned quickly into frantic pleas and vicious shaking.
Tara never forgave herself for laughing at first. But I don't think it would have mattered if she had realized right away what had happened and sped to the hospital. The doctor said it had been an aneurism—something popped in her brain; Stacy had died in the hospital.
But moments before, she had been in the PT Cruiser, limp but breathing, in the passenger seat.
Tara would have laughed if I had propounded a supernatural theory about my PT stress attacks because Stacy had been a lovely, kind hearted girl who had liked me well enough, and I had enjoyed her company as much as I could have someone half my age.
But Stacy had often been ostracized from her peers as I said; so, I think my theory may have held some credibility. Some sisters are close; others are practically one.
Only a few weeks later, it was no longer a theory.
Walking to Tara's car, I saw Stacy in the passenger's seat—sitting there, head forward, hair blocking her face. I closed my eyes and walked closer. When I looked again, her head had turned to me, face pale, eyes red and swollen. I stopped, suddenly cold.
"PT anxiety hitting already?" Tara asked.
Stacy opened her mouth wide, wider than any human mouth could open—her teeth had turned completely black; bloody gaps marked where teeth had rotted away. Her eyes bloated into large teardrop orbs and she screamed at me. The scream did not pierce the air or make my ears ring, but it did turn my legs to Jell-O and my skin into a million squirming insects.
Tara laughed—I must have looked like a little kid being pressured into riding the monster rollercoaster. "You can't stay here," she said. "Bob and Vicki don't have a spare bed."
I looked from Tara to the passenger seat. Stacy's open-mouthed howl had drained to a defeated, sagging frown—even her eyes drooped. Her skin rippled, liquefied, and fell away like a gush of tears.
Tara got in the car and started the engine. I opened the passenger door and hesitated. Did the seat look wet? Did the air smell damp—like a coffin beneath mounds of water-logged soil?
"You look sick," Tara said.
I nodded. I eased my head inside the car; it felt incredibly hot and I immediately started to sweat.
Tara sighed heavily.
"Stacy wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable, or hurt you," she said.
She caressed the dashboard as she did my stomach when she wanted to help me fall asleep. "Besides, Stacy loves you, doesn't she?"
Did she mean the car or her dead sister?
"Maybe I should ride in the back," I said.
"What? That's stupid. I'm not a chauffeur." She smiled. "Stacy likes when you ride up front—so do I."
I took a deep breath and got in the car. The leather gripped me more firmly and the hands pushed harder, driving me back into the seat. I shut the door and tried to pretend the puddle in between my feet was from my boots. I would tell Tara what I had seen when we got back to our place. Then I'd give her the ring, asking her to marry a man who believed in ghosts.
I never got the chance.
Side supplemental air bags come standard on the PT Cruiser GT; they are supposed to cushion the driver's and passengers' heads in a collision. And, in all fairness, they did protect my head when a motorcyclist crashed into the driver's side door as Tara had been turning out of Bob and Vicki's driveway.
The motorcyclist had been nearing 100 miles per hour, evading the police, when he gunned the engine even more around a blind curve. Tara had been looking at me when the motorcycle hit, and for that I am grateful. I saw a glint of sun bounce off the bike and then I lay on my side, head resting on a deflating air bag.
Tara had looked to her left and then right and then smiled at me as she pulled out. I smiled back (trying to ignore the pressure on my chest) and I wish I could say I told her I loved her, but I didn't. She knew that, though. Our love had been so strong, so consuming like a giant comforter that you could wrap around yourself many, many times until you felt completely warm and safe.
The speed of the motorcycle combined with the Cruiser making a left turn flipped the car on its side. When I realized I was against the road, head on an inflatable safety pillow, I looked out the windshield for my girlfriend. Broken glass and scattered pieces of metal—was that the motorcycle's tail pipe?—lay strewn across the concrete.
Warm liquid dripped on my face. I looked up. Tara was still buckled in her seat, but her door had caved in, crushing her side—I couldn't see her left arm or leg. Her head sagged toward me; blood dribbled from her green eyes.
I screamed and everything went black.
And in the darkness, Stacy's gaping mouth hollered at me and then quickly melted to sagging, quivering lips and watery eyes.
I awoke in a hospital. Understanding.
I had suffered a broken right arm, fracturing it against the arm rest that I had gripped during my panic attacks. Tara and the motorcyclist had been killed on impact.
Her parents came to the hospital and we cried together. Her mother held me and we sobbed on each other's shoulders while her father sat in a folding chair and stared at the wall as though he were looking through it; tears fell steadily from his eyes.
"Both my babies," her mother cried against me. "They're both gone."
I know and I'm sorry, I wanted to say, but such statements sound so stupid, so insignificant.
"I want them back," her mother said. "I need them."
She kept crying, often uttering her daughters' names, but those words stayed with me, seeped into me and grabbed hold, tattooing me.
I want them back.
Two police officers arrived sometime later and asked for my account of the accident. I told them everything except how the blood dripped from Tara's eyes—that image would be mine forever; regardless of the pain it caused, I would shoulder that image alone.
"If you think of anything else," the larger of the two officers said, "please call the station and let us know."
I expected a business card, but small town cops don't have a need for such things. The smaller cop offered a slight smile, the kind you put on when the scene was tragically morose, but you were more or less indifferent. They started to turn away but I stopped them. The larger cop looked at me, eyebrow rising.
"The car, her car…"
The cops looked at each other as though this were a rhetorical question but perhaps this guy had been too shocked for it to register, maybe he didn't even realize his girlfriend had been killed, been nearly sliced in half, actually.
"Well," the bigger one said, "it was totaled."
"We got plenty of pictures," the smaller one said as though he were referring to his family's trip to Busch Gardens.
The bigger cop glanced at him and then turned to me. "You'll get a copy of the report. Your insurance company can get a copy also; they can call me, too, if there's a problem."
"I appreciate that," I said. "But where is the car? Right now."
They looked at each other. The smaller cop flipped open a notebook.
The car had been brought to Kane's Car Deposit, a modest junk pile of crushed cars and scattered car parts set on a section of dead grass on a back road just outside of the county. I made my way there via a blue and green taxi that stank of cigarette smoke; small holes with singed edges speckled the back seat.
I told the cab driver to wait just in case the car wouldn't start. "It's a junkyard," the man said. Dotted with splotches of ketchup, his white T-shirt stretched over a formidable gut. "They don't bring cars here that can get here themselves."
I nodded, told him to wait, and walked inside a small garage that smelled of oil and flatulence. Throbs of pain pulsated in my arm every few seconds. I should have filled my prescription first.
The office was small and cramped. Various bolts and screws lay on scattered yellowed papers on the reception desk like tiny paper weights. A rusted radiator sat in the only waiting chair, which had been torn in several places as though from an armed and angry customer. A glass partition separated the office from the garage; thick dirt streaked the glass in swirls.
A large man in a faded green T-shirt sat in a smaller back room at a table eating a sandwich over tinfoil. A radio squawked a sports show of some kind from somewhere in the room. I looked for a bell to get the man's attention, but settled for knocking on the front of the desk.
The man turned slowly, a piece of tomato hanging from his lips.
"Hello," I said. "I'm looking for a car."
The man stood slowly, his knees needing to accept the considerable girth of the man's middle section before walking, and slurped the rest of the tomato into his mouth. He made his way to the desk with heavy feet.
"We got lots of cars," he said. He dropped a swollen hand onto the desk; it creaked beneath it. "But most of 'em don't look like they used to." He laughed.
I chuckled with him briefly. "I'm looking for a car that was brought in earlier today—a PT Cruiser."
The man nodded several times; wads of skin shook below his chin. "I know just the one. Motorcycle crash. Totaled. Cops just dropped her off."
"Could I see it?"
The man clicked his tongue in his mouth a few times. "Why you want to do that?"
I raised my arm in its cast. "'Cause I was in it during the crash."
The car had been dropped off inside the garage so that it could be stripped for any usable parts before being crushed. I have never known much about cars, what I know about Tara's PT Cruiser—the specks, anyway—I got from the Internet, so I didn't know exactly what totaled meant.
The entire driver's side had been pushed inward, the metal ripping at the point of impact. It looked like a missile had hit it. In a way, I guess one had. The front had crumbled with the side and the roof had collapsed as well. Only the rear passenger tire hadn't gone flat—the front driver's tire was completely gone; a mangled disk of metal protruded from the wheel well like a disfigured fist.
"You think you left something in there?" the man asked. "Cause the cops said they cleaned the car out for personal stuff."
I looked at him. "Can they do that?"
His face twitched. "Think they were just being considerate."
"Right," I said. "Sorry."
I stepped to the crushed driver's side. I leaned forward and stopped just short of putting my head through the open window frame. Blood spatters stained the gear shift and both of the seats. I felt the warm liquid dripping on my temple. I touched my forehead and rubbed the sensation away. The aroma of Tara's body spray, a mix of vanilla and peaches, lingered inside the car like the wisps of memory that hang around the corners of your brain long after an event has passed.
The door was ajar. The edge had been torn and bent. I touched it, expecting it to be hot, maybe even scalding, but the metal was cool. It had just been a change for the metal that constructed the car as it had been a change for me—once whole, now mangled and irreparable.
The man stood at the front of the car, hands joined on his enormous gut. "Not much usable from the body," he said, "but there's some parts inside: engine parts, some transmission…"
He continued with his list while I opened the driver's door; it creaked loudly, metal grinding against metal.
"Surprised they didn't use the jaws of life," the man said. "Had they, you wouldn't have to open a door to get in; wouldn't be a door there at all."
Jaws of Life. An ironic term for something that would have been used to free the dead. I stepped forward and leaned inside the car.
"Surprised you only broke your arm," the man said. "Accident like that… Luckily to be alive."
I looked at him through the windshield that was no longer there. "Yes," I said. "Lucky to be alive." The smell of peaches and vanilla intensified as though she had just been here.
"Good thing you came right away cause we're probably gonna crush her and throw her in the graveyard tomorrow. Send the money to the rightful people, though."
"Graveyard?" I asked.
He made a thumbs up sign and pointed over his shoulder, behind him. "Out back. Where all the cars end up. You'd be surprised how many people come around wanting to scavenge through there."
I imagined this car flattened to a rectangle with damaged wheels. I saw all the people climbing on it and over it, either searching it for some desperately needed piece or using it as a rung on a ladder to get to a different car corpse.
The smell got stronger. I breathed deeply, closing my eyes. I felt Tara's hair touch my face as it so often did when we slept, my arms around her.
"Are you Kane?" I asked. "The owner?"
He laughed, belly vibrating. "No. He's probably off somewhere counting all his money and seducing all kinds of women."
"Didn't know the car crushing business was so glamorous."
"Ain't the business; it's the man," he said. "Just like with a car. The vehicle doesn't make you glamorous, you make you glamorous."
"Interesting," I said. Had he gotten such insight from a roast beef sandwich and sports talk radio? "I'd like to take the car back," I said.
The man looked at me as though I had said I wanted to rebuild it; hell, that's what he probably believed I meant. I glanced at the dried blood stains on the driver's seat, what was left of it anyway, and got inside Tara's PT Cruiser.
The man walked around to the driver's side. "You want to take it back? Home?"
I put my left hand on the part of the steering wheel that remained, gripping it as I had seen Tara grip it so many times, fondly, affectionately. "Yes," I said. "That's exactly what I want to do."
Was this such an uncommon occurrence? I supposed it probably was; who wanted a totaled car, especially the one in which their loved one had died?
"You believe in ghosts?" I asked.
He stared back at me. Blinked.
I didn't think he would understand.
I paid to have the car towed back to my house, the house I had shared with Tara for three years. I left my car in the driveway and had the PT Cruiser put in the garage. I didn't want people seeing the wrecked vehicle, thinking I was holding onto it because I couldn't let go of Tara.
And I didn't want them to watch me.
I sat in the car for a few hours the first time. I touched the steering wheel as I had at the car dump. I inhaled deeply; the smell of Tara's spray faint at first as though the tow over here had destroyed it, but then it came back stronger and stronger. I could have gotten her spray from inside and made it even more so, but that would have been fake; that would have been covering reality.
Something pushed on my chest, forcing the air out of my lungs. Sweat popped along my arms, the skin beneath my cast itching furiously. I tried to breathe, but the pressure intensified; the invisible hands pushed harder.
I felt my face turn red, straining for oxygen, for the pressure to be released. Tears rolled out of my eyes.
Then a cool wind passed over me and the pressure vanished—my body cooled.
I shut my eyes and saw her smile, saw it fill her face and clear her eyes. That made my heart jump, that look. I ran after her and she fled, laughing like a little girl. I found her and took her in my arms and said, "I love you."
I removed the jewelry box from my pocket and set it on the dashboard: white gold, emerald cut diamond. Just as she had wanted.
Later, I returned to the car naked. I sat in the driver's seat and took a deep breath. I shut my eyes and felt her hair on my skin, felt her fingers touch my own, felt her lips against mine, felt our bodies press together. She kissed her way down my neck and over my chest to my lap. She took me in her mouth and sucked on me, eyes peering up at me. I cried as I came.
I didn't tell anyone about the car—not her parents, or mine, or any friends. None of them would understand. They'd tell me to see a counselor. Well, maybe not all of them. Tara's mother might understand. She might understand all too well.
Death happens. We all must die. I know that. But death doesn't always mean the end. I sit in the car for hours; sometimes I sleep in it. Sometimes I see Stacy in the passenger seat, laughing, smiling. And sometimes, when the smell of peaches and vanilla is really strong, I don't think I'll ever get out of it. I think I'll just stay in the PT Cruiser until I'm a part of it, too.
J.T. Warren is the author of the upcoming novel Hudson House. Sample chapters of Hudson House can be read by viewing his profile. It will be available via ebook and hardcover on Amazon. Click on the homepage link on his profile to follow him on Facebook.