The first time they killed Jim Steele, they fed him a cocktail, light on the gin, heavy on the bleach. Now, I’m not sentimental, don’t misunderstand. Jim had it coming. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a friend, but I knew who he was well enough. Big sonofabitch. Mean. Still, it’s a lousy way to go. What I heard, he got on the wrong side of one too many people. That’s never good if you’re trying to stay on the upside of the grass. Me? I wasn’t there. I was what you would say, otherwise indisposed. But my brother, he was there. He told me later how it all went down:
“It- it was aw-w-wful. Real aw-awful.” Jackie smiled; his grin full of half-chewed hamburger. He always stuttered. If I think back, I don’t think I have a memory of him where he didn’t. Wasn’t his fault. Some cats are cool. Others are born with their tail caught in a doorjamb. Jackie just happened to be one of those. He caught a world of grief for it. When we lived in Southie, our pops would pop him in the mouth every time he did it, which was a lot. “Do it again, Jack. How many times I gotta tell you? You never learn does you? If your mother was still alive, she’d’ve reconsidered having you. Dumb bastahd.” They did that sort of thing for years. Both of them. Until the day my pops swung for him one more time, only instead of him connecting with my brother, I reached out and caught my father’s fist in mine.
“Whaddaya gonna do Bobby? Hha? Ya gonna hurt me?”
I love my brother. He’s all I have.
“You should have seen it. Bobby, you should have. N-n-ever seen nothin’ like it. His lips were like,” Jackie squeezed his face with his hands, contorted his mouth into a caricature of a fish, “you know? Like this. I didn’t- I didn’ think he needed a full gallon, but he did. I swear. A full gallon. Put up one H-h-ell of a fight too. I held him d-d-d-d-own, you know?”
“Wasn’t no big deal. J-ust his han—”
“Just his hands? Jackie. How many times I gotta tell you?”
My brother shoved a handful of fries into his mouth. How he didn’t choke was beyond me.
“They asked, okay? I’m n-n-no kid. What was I su-p-p- to do? Stand around?”
The Hell he wasn’t a kid. What was he? Twenty-one? He may as well have been twelve. It was bad enough that he was even there. A thousand times I told him: You tell them to talk to Bobby, you understand? Talk to Bobby. I’ll take care of it. Talk to Bobby.
I tossed him a napkin. “Wipe.” I watched as he did so.
“So, what happened to him?”
“What do you mean, to who? To Steele, Jackie. What, you forget already?”
Jackie smiled at me, the way he used to when it was Halloween and he had somehow ended up with the biggest haul of candy. “He foamed. Foamed like a kitchen s-sp-sp-sp—”
“Like a sponge?” I asked.
“Yeah. Like one of those. It was awful.”
It wasn’t but two days after my little brother spent an hour vacuuming up lunch on my dime that he called me at home.
Last time I heard him this upset, our father had died.
“Say that again?”
I guess some bartenders are better than others. Whoever was mixing drinks the night Jim Steele got cornered in an alley blended his cocktail too weak. You wouldn’t think a guy could handle a jug of Clorox going down his windpipe, but apparently Steele was a big enough brute to need seconds. He must have still been among the living when he ended up at Three Pines for ‘recycling.’ Probably walked right out the front doors. Me, I can’t imagine a guy doing that, not after getting his lungs filled to the brim with bleach, but then again, what do I know? I’m no doctor.
“You sure it’s him?”
“Listen to me. Jackie. You’re certain? You gotta be certain. You’re sure it’s not some joker who just looks like him? Lotta guys look alike.”
There was silence for a moment as if Jackie were figuring out what to say. “B-bobby,” Jackie’s voice sounded scared, “what d-do I do?” I understood why he was scared. He had every reason to be scared. Killing a guy was one thing. Having him wandering around after you helped try to euthanize him was something else entirely, none of it good. “Bob-b-by?”
The second time they killed Jim Steele, the job got done right. I know, because I’m the one who got it over with. Thirty-eight caliber to the back of the head. If they’d been smart, they would have sent me the first time. I wouldn’t have used bleach. I would have used Drano.
As it was, I watched the back of Steele’s head come apart like a cantaloupe. One second Steele was stumbling around, the next he’s crumpled on the floor, legs all a-jumble, with the insides of his head decorating the wall like some unfinished Jackson Pollock. He never felt a thing. I love my brother, but unlike him, what I do is a job. Professional all the way, start to finish. A little bit of soap, a little bit of water, and come midnight, there was no trace left of Jim Steele. Not even on his wall.
It was three in the morning when my phone rang again that night.
“You better be telling me you’re coming over with a bottle of whiskey, an apple pie or something.” I still wasn’t dry from my shower. It felt good to be clean.
“He’s n-n-n-not d-dead.”
“H-he’s lookin’ f-for you.”
“Who’s looking for me?”
“I sw-swear Bobby.” If he was frightened before, now, my brother’s voice was petrified.
“I spent two hours, two goddamned hours on my hands and knees picking up his brains Jackie. And you’re telling me… How? You wanna explain that? How could he be looking for me?”
It wasn’t ten minutes later that I got on the T. The train’s robotic announcement sang out to an almost empty car.
This train is departing.
I swear to God; I blew that oversized giraffe’s brains out.
Doors are closing.
How could he be looking for me? How was that even possible?
Doors are closing. Please hold on.
Jackie was wrong. That’s what it was. It wasn’t hard to imagine my brother freaking out over someone else who looked like Steele, some other character who stood six three and had a face like an anvil. At this hour of the night, God only knew what Jackie had seen. It could have been anyone. It probably was. Hell, Jackie was probably drunk anyway. Steele was a lot of things, but he wasn’t some boogeyman. Two hours from now I’d be calling my brother, waking his ass up out of bed for once. And I’d be letting him know the next time we went to lunch, he’d be the one picking up the bill.
Next stop, Kendall.
Steele. Damn that guy. Bastard just didn’t know how to stay dead.
By the time the train shuddered its way past Fenway, out from the warren of underground tubes and into the open air, past the endless red brick of buildings which in the dark looked near black, past strings of glittering lights, I had lost track of time. When I was a kid, I loved how the subway popped out from underneath the earth; the view changing all at once from darkened concrete to trees rushing past. Now, in the dark of night, those trees lurked about like ghosts. The streets, the buildings themselves seemed to come alive. Their lights moved between tree branches in my field of vision like some stop animation film flickering past. It wasn’t long before I got to the end of the line.
Jackie said Steele was at Riverside. This far out, he may as well have said he wasn’t even in Boston anymore. Out here, there was more green than brick, more dirt than asphalt. The way I figured it, I’d have better luck finding a Pilgrim in these sticks than I would Steele. But Jackie said Riverside, so that meant that I was here.
A minute’s walk past Riverside Station, where the trains of the Green Line turn around and head back into the city proper, lies I-95. It doesn’t take much street sense to know you aren’t just going to up and cross the freeway. Not if you want to live, anyway. But if you were born here, like I was, if you spent God knows how many heat-struck summers roaming the sticks, trying to keep yourself entertained, you know something else: Behind the depot, past the tracks where they store derelict trains too busted up to run the rails any longer, is an overpass. Calling it that is giving it too much credit. It’s more like a rundown death trap, something you might see spanning some mountainous chasm in Venezuela. That slab of flaking concrete is how when we were kids, we used to sneak our way into Lower Falls when we crashed a party the rich kids threw from time to time. We used to call them the bourgeoise, only we pronounced it bor-gee. The overpass wasn’t much back then. It’s worse now. In some places you have to watch your step for fear it might give way beneath your shoes. It’s about as wide across as I am at the shoulders, maybe a bit more. And on that overpass, wouldn’t you know it, stood Jim Steele.
In the rolling half-light coming up from the interstate, he looked a proper mess. Black eye. Bruises. His face was puffy. There was no way around it, the man in front of me was no apparition. It was him. It was Steele. He wore a crumpled cigarette on his lips, loose tie ‘round his neck. Jim Steele looked me straight in the eye.
“Bobby,” he nodded.
“Jimmy,” I said. I should have said something witty, a tough line that could have masked the weird crawling sensation that settled in my stomach. What can I say? In my business, I don’t spend too much of my time talking to the dead. There’s the living, and then there’s those who used to be living. This was a first for me. Steele should have been where I left him. He should have been in a garbage bag.
Steele popped a match. He lit his cigarette. “Well? We gonna dance? Or what?”
I murdered this bastard not two hours ago. Two hours! And now he was standing on the Lower Falls overpass, mangled Marlboro dangling from his kisser. Me, I don’t go to Church. I don’t meditate, and I drink black coffee not green tea. That shit’s for hippies. All I know of the afterlife is that I’ve sent many people into it. I don’t believe in ghosts. But this? This was the same man I dealt with earlier. In the flesh, blood. Only now, he wasn’t dead, wasn’t rolled up in a bedsheet, stuffed into the Hefty bag I left him in. Two hours ago, Steele was worm food, decaying beneath a field in Westborough. Now, he was here. It wasn’t possible. Things like this don’t happen.
The slow rain hardened, washed across the interstate in sheets of water that before morning would turn to waves of sleet.
“Cat got your tongue?” Steele seemed to find this amusing. He laughed and then spit something out of his mouth onto the ground. It looked like a clod of dirt. Cold rain ran off his hair, trickled over a depression in his forehead, the same place where two hours ago the round from my pistol had exited his cranium.
Now I can hold my own in a contest of wits, but I’m smart enough to know my limits. You want to learn what they teach in college? Go talk to someone else. I’m not your man. But what I know is this: dead people don’t smoke Marlboro’s, and they don’t just suddenly appear asking if you want to tango. Steele, the man in front of me, wasn’t dead, though the last time I had seen him, dead was how I had left him. Jackie wasn’t kidding, he hadn’t seen a ghost. He had seen Steele, just like I was seeing him. Bold as brass.
The rain swept between us like a curtain. “In your condo, it was— It was you.”
“Damn right it was.”
It was my fault. I was stupid, doubting my eyes, reviewing the mental tape in my mind. Instead of watching him, I was watching what I had done to him. For that, I paid a price.
Steele sucker punched me. His fist connected with my jaw. I saw stars. Hell, I saw galaxies. At his size, Steele didn’t have hands, he had cinderblocks at the ends of his arms.
His blow spun me around. I ended up with my face flat on the filthy concrete.
I reached out, still in a daze from his blow, tried grabbing his ankle. Call it instinct. Call it muscle memory from years of doing a job.
“Not tonight, Bobby.” Steele stepped on my fingers, ground them into the flaking overpass cement.
I heard my fingers snapping. When he stepped off, my hand was so much hamburger. His cigarette fell. It landed next to his shoe; sizzled in the pooling rain.
Steele knelt down. His knees made sharp crackling noises as he did so. “Now, you and I,” he said, “we’re even.” He spit what looked like dirt on the ground a second time. “I’ll tell Jackie you said hello. Matter of fact, I’ll make sure he enjoys it. Nice and slow, so he has something to remember me by. It’s the least I c-c-c-can d-d-o.”
“See you around, princess.”
I heard the click of a handgun’s hammer, and then an awful sound, like the popping of a balloon.
Everything exploded into dazzling, ferocious white.
When my eyes settled, when the white was gone and the blinding aftershocks of purple vanished from my vision, I found myself alone.
Steele was gone.
There was blood on the ground. I could see it, taste it. The pool of red before me was steadily being washed away by the cold, persistent drizzle. It dripped down onto the passing cars going by on freeway below, got whisked away by the sweep of wiper blades. My ears were filled with some odd, supernatural hum. It was disgusting. It swayed in volume, made me nauseous.
I stirred. When I got halfway to my knees, my arms collapsed. I fell back down to the bloodied concrete. A cloud of flies arose off of me. Black. Dense. They landed on me again. I felt them crawling about my skin, lapping at me with their tongues. There were thousands. They moved in my throat, wiggled around. I gagged, coughed until it felt as though the ribs of my chest would break from the effort. I began to vomit. Only, instead of retch, I vomited blood. It came out of me in lumps, congealed in globs like red gelatin.
What had he done to me?
Beneath me, the interstate rolled past, a never-ending river of light. Beyond it, the glitter of the city.
I found him again. Steele. Not in Riverside, but in the Commons. When I saw him, I shot him in plain sight. He crumpled backwards into a mass of bougainvillea, collapsed into the riot of spiky red and green. I stabbed him in Alewife, where the trains reach the end of the Red Line. I listened to his voice go from a scream beneath the Minuteman Parkway to a gentle gurgle of bubbles beneath the blade of a kitchen knife.
And still he wouldn’t die.
I ran him through a woodchipper. Held his head beneath the murk of the Charles until his legs stopped kicking and his lungs filled with dirty water. Burned him alive. I kept him chained to a pipe in the basement of my apartment until he was nothing but skin and bones, until he crumbled when I touched him, like so much dust.
“How long are we gonna do this,” Steele asked, “you and I?”
The sound of rolling steel on rails screeched its way out from the tunnels of the Boston underground. The approaching train pushed in front of it a smell of damp, of decay. Steele was bloodied from my beat down.
“U-until it’s done,” I said, my voice wavering. How long had we done it already? How long had he run from me, through the alleys, the narrows of Boston, while I followed? A month? Years?
“When will that be?” He stared at me with eyes that looked electric blue beneath the fluorescent lights. I couldn’t tell if what I saw was fear. It must have been. It’s what was in mine.
I let him fall. He reached out and tried grabbing my hands. For a second, I tried grabbing his. The wheels of the blue line train turned him into mincemeat.
My little brother held my hand, his small, warm fist in mine. We walked the curb of Western Ave. His face was bruised. I didn’t have to look at him to know there were tears falling from his eyes leaving trails of wet on his cheeks.
“Do you th-think you’ll always-s-ss be there?”
He stared at his feet. We trod on shattered glass that lay scattered on the sidewalk. In the glow of a sunset filtering its way through barren sycamores, those shards of glass looked like so many glittering embers. They did not warm. Could not warm, no matter how they burned. Instead, the cold of October made my brother curl deeper into his jacket.
“I do,” I said.
My father’s door wore a fluttering paper that read: CONDEMNED. It crossed my mind that it had been so, long before that paper ever got there, stapled to the wood.
“P-promise. Bob-bb-by, prom-mise.”
I looked up three stories at my father’s window.
“Wacha gonna do Bobby? Ya gonna hurt me? That it coward?”
Down again to the shards of a shattered windowpane beneath my feet. Across the doorway shivered yellow tape that crisscrossed the flaking blue paint. POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS.
I have walked until I could carry myself no further. I have waited until no more waiting could be done. I have shivered in darkness. Cried in the solitude of a city that will not let me go. And still the sun will not rise, to warm my bones, to end a night that has no end.
Perhaps someday I will see my brother again. I’d like that, though I’ve come to believe where he is and where he has gone, I cannot follow. Here, there is no peace.
I saw him running, Steele. Whatever price he had to pay for having lived; he was paying it still. He disappeared down Court Street, towards the Wharf.
I tried to head my way to Beacon Hill, away from him.
I’ve paid so much…
I felt myself turn, heard the crunch of the sidewalk as I began to follow him.
…and I’ve grown so tired.
F. Francis Amanti holds a B.A. in English from Williams College. His stories have previously appeared in “Under the Bed”, “Storyteller,” and “Five on the Fifth.” He lives with his wife and children in Palm Harbor, Florida and is currently working on his first novel. He is online at ffamanti.com