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Punchline by Ray Printer Friendly

“Do you even know what you want out of life?” Mary asks.

“Does anyone?”

“Beside the point. I’m asking if you do.”

“No. I’d prefer not to drown. Does having a preference of death count as knowing what you want out of life?”

“No.” She’s on her back, hands behind her head, staring up at the sky. I’m sitting beside her, looking up, too, wishing there was something up there to see. It’s a black night, no moon, low clouds, the world is darkness so thick that it feels like you’re breathing it. “Do you ever wish we had died that night?” She asks.

I readjust myself against the windshield—my ass has been sliding down the hood of my beat-to-hell pickup for the last five minutes, and it’s getting pretty uncomfortable. I light a cigarette, more for the light source than the desire to smoke. “Almost every day. You?”

She plucks the cigarette out of my hand and takes a drag. She hands it back. The smoke she exhales is invisible against the dark night. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I have dreams about it. We die, so I guess it should be called a nightmare, but it doesn’t seem like a nightmare, you know?”

“Yeah.” I hear the sloshing sound as she tips back her bottle of cheap wine. I can see the reflection of my cigarette tip on the glass for just a second as she lowers the bottle.

“You used to say you couldn’t live without her, you remember that?” I say, wishing I hadn’t already finished my bottle. There’s another one in the cab of the truck, but although this line of conversation has potential to go all sorts of wrong, I’m not quite irreverent enough to interrupt it for a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.

“Yeah. You did, too.”

“So were we right, or does this count as living?”

“You don’t know?”

I take a deep drag of my cigarette before answering. “I wouldn’t mind some clarification.”

I hear the sloshing sound, and the cold glass of the bottle is pressed into my hand. “This is all the clarification you’re gonna get from me,” she says. I take a drink of the wine and I take another drag of the cigarette before passing both to her. We sit silently, thinking our separate thoughts, each of us staring out into a different patch of black.

“I’ve never believed in ghosts.”

She laughs. “Shit, Nathan, you’re one of the most haunted people I know. I’m not saying you’ve got Casper floating around, or some little girl sitting in front of your TV, but I’m guessing you’ve seen your share of ghosts.”

“You know what I mean. I had a friend, he swore to me that his house was haunted. He lived in this house until he was twelve years old, he wet the bed the entire time. His folks had him goin’ to shrinks and all that, but they never could figure out the problem—he didn’t tell them about the ghost because he was afraid they’d think he was crazy. He told me that any time he tried to go take a piss in the night, there was this little girl in the bathroom, dressed up like a ballerina. She would dance all over the bathroom, spinning around and shit. The thing is, she cried all the time. She cried tears of blood.”


“Yeah, so the dude would wake up in the middle of the night, needing to piss, but he wasn’t about to go in there and drop his drawers while this little chick is dancing around the bathroom, crying tears of blood all over the place.”

“I don’t blame him a bit. So the point of the story is what? That you don’t believe your friend?”

“The point of my story is that I do believe my friend. I grew up with him, I knew he wet the bed all the time, but never when he spent the night at my house. I stayed at his house once, I woke up, he was crying about the ghost in his bathroom and his pants were soaked. I went in, I didn’t see anything. I believe my friend, and I say I believe in ghosts, but I think it’s one of those things.”

“One of what things?” She hands the cigarette back, but it’s almost done. I take another drag and drop it into my empty wine bottle, where it dies with a hiss.

“One of those things you say, and you think you believe, but when it comes right down to it, you don’t. You have to witness it firsthand to ever fully accept the unacceptable.”

“There are better places to have this conversation than in a deserted graveyard in the middle of the night.”

“I wonder. Maybe that’s what gives it weight.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” She sits up. She has an edge to her voice—not much of an edge, but I can read her pretty well by now. She thinks I’m screwing with her.

“You said I was haunted. Not by Casper or the Poltergeist girl, is what you said.”

“I was speaking figuratively. You’re haunted by the ghosts of your past. I didn’t mean like the ballerina girl in your friend’s bathroom.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” I slide off the hood and open the pickup door. I fish the last bottle of Mad Dog out from behind the seat, and I take several swallows. “She’s haunting me, Mary. She’s literally haunting me, like the ballerina girl in my friend’s bathroom, like Scrooge got on Christmas Eve, like Slimer from Ghostbusters.”

“This isn’t funny, Nathan.”

“It isn’t supposed to be.” She thinks I’m messing with her. It’s weird, because I haven’t ever messed with her. I’m not one of those guys that plays practical jokes or tries to scare his friends with elaborately planned tricks. I never have been that guy, I never will be.

“Why are you saying this?” I can’t see her, but I know that she has sat up, that she’s sliding down the hood. “Why are you telling me this?” There’s too much emotion in her voice. As much as should have been expected, I guess, but more than I thought.

“Because,” I say, and I can’t continue my thought. Why the hell am I telling her this? The first answer that pops into my head is that I was hoping it was happening to her, too—I was hoping to have someone to share in my misery and my fear. I can’t tell her that, though. “Because I’m scared. Because it’s driving me out of my mind. Because you’re the only person I can tell.”



“No. No. You can’t tell me. I don’t believe you, Nate. Maybe the guilt is finally getting to you—that’d be understandable, even though it wasn’t your fault. Maybe you’re just losing your shit. I don’t know what your problem is, but it isn’t a ghost. It isn’t the ghost of my dead sister haunting you.”

“Just like that?”

“Take me home.”

“You won’t even hear me out?”

“I said take me home.”

I’m too drunk to be driving, but it doesn’t really matter—it’s a small town, and all the good folks are asleep. The only people likely to get hurt or killed are Mary and I, and that wouldn’t be a big loss, in my opinion. Still, I drive slowly, even though the tension in the cab of the truck is suffocating. I try to talk to her, but she just stares out the window, unresponsive, like a stranger who wishes to remain one.

I stop in front of the house she shares with her mother, and I kill my headlights. She doesn’t look at me until she’s out of the truck, about to close the door.


She looks at me , but doesn’t say anything.

“What’s going on? I mean…what’s going on?”

“Something’s wrong with you, Nathan, that’s what’s going on. Something inside of you is damaged or broken or rotten. You’re no good.”

It’s like a punch in the stomach, like something inside of me just imploded. I turn my head and look at the steering wheel, because I can’t look at her. She shuts the door and walks up the sidewalk to her front door. She’s halfway there when the porch light snaps on. I see her mother peering out through the screen door. I wait until Mary’s inside, until the porch light goes off, and then I put my truck into gear and drive away.

I had planned on going home, maybe finishing whatever beer I had left in my refrigerator, but I suddenly find myself passing through the rusty iron gates of the cemetery. I don’t know if it’s just the booze or if I passed out or what, but I have absolutely no idea how I got here. I haven’t had enough cheap wine to be blackout drunk, but something’s definitely up. I see her sitting on the tombstone, and I understand. I put my foot on the brake, and try to throw the truck into reverse. The engine dies.

Resigned, I grab a new pack of cigarettes out of the glove compartment, and search under the seat until I find the newly-opened bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. The cemetery looks the same as most of the cemeteries in the Panhandle of Texas—graves peppering the hills like droplets of mud on a worn out rug, a dirt road snaking through the dying, yellowed buffalo grass like a stream of dust and gravel, and a chain link fence surrounding it all, as if we could keep the sorrow contained.

I can’t see any of that, though. The low cloud cover is still hiding the moon, and the darkness hides everything except the glowing figure perched upon the grave marker. I step in a gopher hole and almost bite it, but I manage to regain my footing before I get a face full of gravel and corpse-cover dirt. As I get closer, I use the light she emits to find my way across the uneven ground without face-planting.

“You’re back,” she says. It’s still her voice, but it’s not quite her voice. There’s another noise hiding behind the voice I remember, an undercurrent of sound reminiscent of the howling wind that used to blow through the trees outside my window when I was a child. That noise always scared the shit out of me.

“You are, too,” I say. I peel the cellophane off the pack of cigarettes and shake one into my hand.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” she says. “It’s bad for your health.”

I place the cigarette into the corner of my mouth and dig out my lighter. “I have a feeling,” I say as I light my cigarette, “That cigarettes are the least of my worries, at the moment.”

Her name was Lisa, and I was in love with her. I was a Junior in high school when her family moved to town. Her mom, her dad, her, and her sister. Her dad was imported to help out one of the failing companies that had been hit hard with the latest oil bust. He had a big title, and he talked a big game about turning things around, but my dad worked for the same company, and he compared Lisa’s father to the guy that comes out to kill the horse with the broken leg.

Every guy in school was in love with her, because she was beautiful, she was nice, and she was fun to be around. She picked me, and no one was really surprised. Good looking kid, captain of the football team, decent personality, and intelligent enough to carry on a conversation with polysyllabic words—what’s not to like?

We were those kids, you know? If there was a crown involved, we were going to win it—unless we privately withdrew from the competition in order to allow someone else to win. Which we sometimes did, because we were just that nice. I sound like a cocky, self-serving asshole, I know, but it’s true. People liked us. Our peers, our elders, it didn’t matter. We were the kids that Eddie Haskell always pretended to be. The other kids wanted to be like us, and their parents wanted them to be like us, too. We were the golden children.

But in every story, there has to be a bad guy, and if you’re lucky, you never realize that it’s you. I wasn’t that lucky. I remember the exact moment that I realized I was the bad guy. We aren’t to that part yet.

We began dating, just like we were supposed to—the perfect little couple that would grow up to have a perfect family and do great things in the world. So much potential.

Junior year, Senior year, and then it was summer, and we were going away to college, because that’s what perfect children did after graduating college.

One day, I’m sitting on the couch, waiting for Lisa to come downstairs—we were going out to a movie, and she was still getting ready—and Mary walked in.

See, Mary was the exact opposite of Lisa. She did the punk goth thing, the nose-ring thing, the dress-in-black-and-talk-about-sorrow thing. She was sarcastic, she was gloomy, she was fatalistic…and she was naked. Now we’re to that part.

I should have averted my eyes. The hero, the good guy, that’s what he does when confronted with his girlfriend’s sister in the buff, right? I just stared. At her pierced nipples, at her shaved pubic region, at the tattoo of Bugs Bunny just to the left of her vagina, a voice bubble above his head. I found out later that the speech bubble contained Bug’s famous question—a dirty play on words that always made Mary giggle.

She was drying her hair, the metal arm bracelets jangling as the towel scrubbed back and forth on her head, her breasts bouncing. She lowered the towel and screeched.

“Sweet fucking shit! What the hell are you doing?”

I covered my eyes and turned around. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I was just waiting for Lisa!”

“And staring at my snatch is part of that process?”

“No, I was just…crap! I didn’t mean to! I’m so sorry.”


“No,” I said. “Just the boobs and vagina, I swear!” It was a bad joke, but I didn’t feel like my apologies were doing any good. And then she laughed.

“Not bad, golden boy.” The towel snapped me in the butt, and then I heard her trotting up the stairs. Seconds later, I heard Lisa call from the top of the stairs.

“Did I hear someone screaming?” She looked beautiful as she walked down the stairs. She wasn’t dressed up any more than normal—just a sundress and a pair of white sandals—but she looked outstanding.

“It was your sister. I sort of saw her naked.”

“Sort of?”

“Yeah, you know, sort of totally naked.”

“I’m assuming it was you that was doing the screaming, then?” She asked, smiling her perfect smile.

“Very funny. Will you run up and tell her that I’m sorry?”

She laughed and went back up the stairs.

The thing is, I had talked to Mary before, kind of. She didn’t run in the same circle as her sister and I did, so there wasn’t all that much social interaction. Sometimes I saw her when I was over watching TV with Lisa or something, and we made trivial conversation during commercial breaks or while we were waiting to eat. I don’t think we really disliked each other, we just didn’t ever really notice each other.

That changed the day I saw her naked. That night, as I made love to Lisa, I saw the image of Mary in my head. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened.

I guess you could probably say that about our entire relationship. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened.

It started with that day, I know that, but I honestly can’t remember how it progressed from there. A little flirting in the kitchen , maybe, while we were dropping our used dishes in the sink. Sitting a little too close on the couch. I’d intentionally show up early for dates with Lisa, and spend the extra time with Mary.

Deep down, I knew I was doing this stuff on purpose. Deep down, I knew I was flirting with danger. Deep down, I already knew I was the bad guy. But that was deep down—the surface was thick with rationale. I told myself it was coincidence, I told myself I was just being nice to my girlfriend’s little sister, I told myself that it was no big deal.

And then we kissed.

Lisa was out of town at a basketball game—the girls were still clawing their way towards the state title, but the boys had already been knocked out of the running, which is why I was at a party instead of a basketball game. Mary showed up, and immediately began drinking too much. I had been there for a while, so I was able to work my way up to drinking too much. We nodded to each other, and that was that…until she needed a ride home. I loaded her up into my pickup, and then she told me that she was too drunk to go home. So we drove out to some field and we walked around a bit, and then we ended up making out.

I woke up the next day feeling like a rotten asshole, the guilt ripping at my heart like a rabid dog on crack. She felt the same way, and we agreed to forget about it, never tell anyone, all that.

And then we were doing it again a few weeks later. And that’s how it went. The excitement of the adventure was just barely stronger than the guilt that consumed us afterwards. Just barely, but enough.

And then one night, Lisa was out with her friends, a “girl’s night out,” even though there wasn’t shit to do when you were “out.” They were supposed to make some popcorn, watch some movies, and maybe sneak some wine coolers. Which they did.

Then they decided to take a drive. Nobody knows why, because on route, they hit a deer, then a tree. They were driving too fast, and none of them were wearing seat belts. She died while I fucked her sister.

I say nobody knows why they took that drive, but that isn’t entirely true. I know why. They were going out to the Haunted Tree Trail. Sometimes the irony in this world is as thick as the bullshit. It’s rumored that during the Civil War, prisoners were strung up side by side, throughout the branches of the Haunted Tree. If you go out during a full moon and chant, their ghosts will show up and…something. The rumor’s pretty vague about all that—the main point is that you can go out and chant, and they’ll show up.

Lisa and her friends were heading out, sharing the last bottle of Boone’s strawberry wine, listening to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and dancing along with it, being dumb kids. She never even saw the deer. She heard the tires squeal, and felt one thump, and then another, and then she was waking up in darkness.

She tried to tell me once what it’s like being dead, but she was never very good with words, and death hasn’t improved her ability to convey ideas. Besides, her main concern isn’t trying to explain the afterlife to me—it’s trying to get me to join her there.

“You told her,” she says. Up close, she doesn’t seem nearly as glowy, but the fact that I can see her at all is odd enough, considering the blacked out sky.


“I told you not to.”


“I told you she wouldn’t believe you.”

“You were right.” I have a cigarette in my hand, but I’m not really smoking it. My mouth is too dry, either from the booze or the fear.

“Why’d you do it?” She asks.

“She’s the only person I can talk to, anymore. She’s the only one I thought might understand.”

“What’s the real reason you told her?”

“I think you already know.”

She laughs. “Baby Nate doesn’t want to be trapped alone in the nightmare, does he?”

She’s messing with me, and it’s working, but I try not to let it show. I drop my cigarette onto the ground—onto the dirt above her corpse—and I crush it out with my heel. Her laughter stops instantly, and the smile turns to a glare.

“Don’t worry, Nathan, you aren’t alone.”

I look at her, trying to figure out if she’s saying what I think she is. The resentful smile tells me all I need to know. “She’s your sister, Lisa.”

“You’d be amazed at how little something like that matters, once you’re dead.”

“We didn’t cause your death—you know that.”

“Don’t try to understand it, Nathan. Don’t try to understand why I’m here or what I’m doing. You won’t get it, and I won’t explain it. If a solid reason helps you sleep at night, just tell yourself that it has to be done. I’m a ghost—ghosts haunt.”

“So are all ghosts bitches?”

The glare again, but harder, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Adrenaline pumps into my bloodstream, and I think I may have made a terrible mistake. But then she smiles—one of those catty, bitchy smiles that only women can pull off. Almost sexy, if there wasn’t so much promise for pain and penance.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Lisa says.

Her laughter echoes in my brain, and the world goes dark.

I wake up with the sun in my eyes, a cramp in my neck, and the radio blaring out some stupid hillbilly song. I’m in my truck, that much is clear. I struggle into sitting position, and feel around in the console until I find my sunglasses. I’m in a ditch. My truck is, I mean. My mouth feels like jerky made of sandpaper. Everything’s at an angle, and I realize that my pickup stopped just short of tipping over.

I start it up and reverse carefully, until I’m able to take the ditch at a lesser angle and get back on the highway. It’s a miracle nobody called the cops. I drive home slowly, trying to ignore the pounding headache and the ready-to-evacuate stomach.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, of course. Sometimes she comes as a dream—either angry and mean or sexual and ready to almost please. Other times, she comes as an entity; other times, she just comes as guilt.

I don’t know if she’s real or if I’m losing my mind. I’m not sure which of those options I’d prefer, honestly.

I’m puking my guts out when the phone starts ringing. I try to ignore it, but it won’t stop. I puke a few minutes longer, the phone a constant backup singer to my main lead of hacking and retching.

And when I’ve puked all I can, when I can’t put it off any longer, I go pick up the phone.

“What took you so long?” My mother asks as soon as I’ve said hello.

“I was taking out the trash, I didn’t hear the phone.”

“Oh.” And then silence. She says all she needs to with that silence, although she doesn’t know it.

“So what’s up?” I ask, playing my part.

“I’ve…I’ve got some bad news, Nate.”

No shit. “Oh. What?”

“It’s about Mary.”

No shit. “What about her?”

“She’s dead, honey. She killed herself last night.”

No shit and no shit. “I…I have to go right now,” I tell her, and I hang up the phone while her voice is still pouring from the receiver.

I hear the laughter as I shower, as I dress, as I fill my gas tank and empty my bank account. It stops as I cross the county line. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to outrun a ghost, but I guess that isn’t something a guy would talk about, is it?

By the time I stop driving, it’s two days later, hundreds of miles later. Not real sure where I am, but I think it might be Nevada. I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. I check into a dumpy motel, take a shower, and fall onto the bed, ready to fall into sleep.

Just before the darkness overtakes me, I hear it. This time, I recognize the laughter of two people. As frightening as this is, the noise that truly terrifies me is the sound of the bathtub filling with water.

posted 11/05/07


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