by Christina L. Usher
Warren’s girlfriend was dead and gone, or at least that’s what he told her mother. He ended the call, unable to deal with the shocked silence, and inched between the bed and dresser to stare out the window. The streetlights were broken outside. People lingered in the discrete darkness, muttering and drinking like no one could see them. Warren took a drag from his cigarette, ignoring the whispers in his head.
Kaylee had stood here this morning, gazing down at their convenience store across the street, saying that it would soon become a chain of stores, that they wouldn’t have to struggle to pay rent and vet bills anymore. She had probably looked beautiful with the sunlight silhouetting her dainty curves, but Warren hadn’t looked up from his laptop. It had been hard to type an honor roll with the voices interrupting his thoughts, yet they had quieted when Kaylee swooped in for a kiss. He wished the silence could have lasted forever, but Kaylee soon left for the vet with her dog in tow. Now, Pugsly was at the vet and Kaylee’s body was at the morgue.
Warren ground the cigarette into an ashtray and wrapped the printed honor roll around a baseball. It crinkled as he snapped a rubber band around it while staring down at the store, the fluorescent lights glowing a ghostly white. The police impound lot curved behind the store and met the road next to it. Over the fence, he saw a few of the confiscated cars, particularly a smashed-up Camaro with a gray man inside. He could hear the man crying out for an Annabelle. Warren found the exposed seams on the baseball with his fingertips as easily as he could find his hand in the dark. He turned sideways, bringing the ball up to his ear.
Kaylee was dead, yes, but she wasn’t gone. A car crash may have claimed her physical body somewhere between the animal hospital and home, but his Kaylee was a worrier, and worriers never left early. It’d be easy to find her, bring her back, and keep her here. Nothing could be simpler.
He pitched a fastball at the car windshield. The glass cracked as the ball shot through the gray man’s head and smacked into the back seat.
Warren took a step back to his bed as he concentrated on the voices. He mentally followed them out of his body, causing his soul to peel away, like a moth emerging from a cocoon. His body collapsed onto the bed, still breathing but limp and lifeless, as his spirit emerged to stand next to the bed, his feet sinking into the floorboards.
His vision flashed from the colors of the living to the grays of the dead. His dressers became ash white, his floor an iron gray, and the bed sheets where his body lay turned a mix of smoke and rainy sky.
The whispers in his head amplified. He stumbled as the voices of the dead swirled into a raging storm of screeching, crying, and pleading. They begged for the chance to make amends, to catch murderers, to protect their families. Well, he wished they did anyways. At least then it’d be interesting. But most ghosts stayed here for the same boring worries they had in life: fights with bosses, missed TV shows, and money problems. It wasn’t fair that they expected him to mop up their messes before they left for the afterlife. They should have done that before they died.
He walked out of the studio apartment and down the three flights of stairs, listening for Kaylee. She’d probably be tethered to something beloved or an item having to do with her unresolved business. He’d already checked the obvious places — her laptop, her store, her grandmother’s perfume bottle — which left only her destroyed car in the police impound lot. Not an easy place to check while he was inhabiting his body. Good thing he could leave that thing behind.
Ahead, the high fence of the impound lot was draped in tarps and barbed wire. A glassy-eyed security guard sat in a booth in front, balancing a pencil on his finger. Warren gave him a nod as he slid underneath the security gate. Warren didn’t have to, of course. The guard couldn’t see him, and the gate could never stop him. However, flipping people the bird and going through walls lost its appeal when he was ten years old, after he forgot he wasn’t in spirit form and ran into traffic. No, it was much safer this way. He wasn’t going back to that mental hospital.
Inside the lot, the cars sat in haphazard rows, abandoned and dust-covered, while security cameras hung still from the light poles. Warren stopped. There had to be hundreds of cars here, most mangled and all different shades of gray, none resembling Kaylee’s clean, white Chevy Malibu.
“Hey you, help me start this car!” A voice blared in his head. He swirled around to see the once-gray man, the one he had chucked a baseball through, sitting in a smashed up Camaro. The spirit was now blindingly colorful with his red hair and Hawaiian shirt sticking out from the gray surroundings like a flower in winter. His hand hovered over the steering wheel as he leaned out of the window. “I need to finish driving Annabelle to the library, so she can study.”
Warren’s head ached with every word the spirit said. He shook his mind clear and said, “Look, I already told you Annabelle did fine on the test.”
“And I told you people to bring me proof.” The spirit smacked the steering wheel. His palm went through it. “I thought I was clear about that.”
“What do you think I just tossed through your window? At least read the paper around the baseball.” Warren turned back to the sea of car hoods to search for Kaylee’s. Life would be so much easier if spirits could actually touch things. Then, the dead ones could solve their own problems, or at the very least, Warren could just carry the proof to the spirits instead of using baseballs or borrowing Sullivan’s toy helicopter.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the spirit float into the back seat, keeping a foot near the steering wheel. The man was clearly an amateur ghost with an unsteady hover and a fear of going through things. Warren’s head snapped back to the car. “Wait, before you read that, did you see them tow a car today with a female ghost attached? She’s got curly brown hair and green eyes.”
“Nah. I didn’t see the girl, but I saw them put a Chevy by the tractor-trailer.”
The man brought his face close to the baseball, which sat on the backseat. He read the honor roll aloud, his head bobbing left and right as he followed the lines around the ball. He spoke the names softly at first, but Warren shot him an encouraging nod, and his voice grew louder.
As he approached his daughter’s name, the spirit flushed with energy. His foot left the steering wheel, and he rolled around the car, laughing, snorting, and kicking. He writhed in happiness, his eyes no longer on the baseball, yet somehow he still knew the names. A web of fractures spread around his body while he squealed them, his voice piercing Warren’s ears. The ghost became transparent as the colors bled from him. The fractures deepened, splitting his body. “Annabelle Tranton.” His soul crumpled like a sand castle at the name.
Silence fell. Warren gazed at the empty car, soaking in his latest accomplishment. Any other day, he’d have a victory smoke as Kaylee poured him a cherry slushie. She didn’t know about the dead people thing. He hadn’t told anyone that since the hospital, but she always knew when to start pouring. Today, he just had to be glad for one less voice in his head. The promise of silence was the only thing that kept him going.
And that silence seemed farther away when he saw Sullivan pass through the gate. Sullivan’s soul approached the car, spine straight, shoulders back, with a march that suggested holy righteousness and a dress shirt that suggested he couldn’t match buttons to their right holes. He smiled and waved at Warren.
Warren glanced at the empty seat, then at Sullivan, then at the seat. He tried to slink away as Sullivan leaned into the car, presumably looking for the spirit. Sullivan stood up, his dark eyes narrowing on Warren. “Where’s Danny?”
Warren cocked his head. “Who?”
“Danny. The spirit tethered to the steering wheel.”
“Oh. He’s not here anymore.”
“Dammit, Warren.” Sullivan clenched his fists. “I just spent a week tracking down Annabelle. I had to break into a hospital to get to her. A hospital for goodness sake. I almost got arrested.” Sullivan kicked the tire (his foot went through). He paced around the car, groaning and rubbing his face.
Warren noticed Sullivan’s remote control helicopter on the trunk, carrying proof that Annabelle was alive. The card from her sat in the helicopter’s “cargo bay”, a hand shovel attached its legs. Warren flinched. “Sorry, Sully. That was bad timing.”
“Bad timing? The honor roll won’t be printed for another month.”
“Looks like I’m a time traveler.” Warren parted his hands and smiled.
“Looks like you’re a liar, and that’s not funny.”
Warren shrugged and set his hands in his pockets. Sullivan always made being friends a chore. “You’re going to Hell,” Sullivan said, waving a finger in his face. “You can’t just lie to spirits. That’s like lying to orphans. Helpless spiritual orphans.”
Warren sighed up at the sky. “I don’t have time to actually help them. I have a career.”
“You serve slushies to teenagers at your girlfriend’s gas station.”
“It’s a convenience store. And I’m happy there. The spirits don’t bother me like they did when I was playing baseball. If the voices get too loud, I just turn up the TV. They can wait until I’m off duty, and they can accept whatever resolution I give them.”
Sullivan’s lip stiffened. He jabbed at Warren’s chest. “Just because one of them distracted you during the minor league tryouts doesn’t mean— ”
“Wait, how do you know that? I never—”
“It doesn’t mean you can take it out on the rest of them. They need us to help them.” Warren snorted. Sullivan couldn’t even button his shirt without his mother’s help. He brushed Sullivan’s hand away, but he continued on his little heaven and hellfire rant. Warren thought about walking away, but then Sullivan would just follow and continue talking.
Instead, he stood there, thinking about how Kaylee’s voice always drowned out the others in his head. There was something so perfect about it, so perfect about her. She never questioned him when he turned up the TV, or talked to thin air, or plugged his ears near graveyards. She even seemed flattered when Sullivan had introduced himself.
“He’s a sweet guy. He messages me on Facebook sometimes,” she had said a year ago, as she rung up a customer at the cash register. “He sent Pugsly a GPS collar when he ran away once.” Warren’s hand had twitched, knocking over the potato chip bags he was restocking. He shoved them back on the shelf as Kaylee finished with the customer. The man petted Pugsly, who was sitting on the counter, and commented on the pug’s nice collar before leaving. Kaylee asked Warren, “How come you never told me about him? He says he’s known you for years.”
Warren dropped the rest of the bags and leaned over the counter, whispering, “You actually talked to him? In person? How did he find you? What did he say?”
“You’re talking like he’s psycho.”
“He is. He’s stalking you.”
“No, he’s not. We met at the animal hospital’s dog park. He was digging a garden for them. Psychos don’t volunteer for community service like that.” She kissed Warren on the cheek and shoved him off the counter. “I can see how you’d be friends with him. You’re both a little twitchy.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“Don’t be shy about it. Let’s invite him over for dinner. It’s been so long since we had company.”
Warren’s jaw dropped. Sullivan was going to ruin everything. He’d let something slip and Kaylee would find out about Warren’s secret life. She’d think he was crazy. She’d finally understand why his family whispered behind his back. Why his mom kept trying to sneak him schizophrenia pills. Why he never talked about his one-month “vacation at a childhood resort.” She’d leave him for sure.
He jumped over the counter and grabbed her shoulders. “Please don’t invite him over. I don’t want you talking to him.” She cocked an eyebrow. He let go and tried to act casual by petting Pugsly. The dog growled at some teenagers in the candy aisle.
Kaylee wrapped her arms around Warren’s neck. He melted into her, smelling her lavender-scented hair and enjoying the silence of the whispers she afforded him. “Fine. I won’t invite him over.” She reached below the counter, pulling out a water gun. She pumped it a few times to build up pressure. “I didn’t really want to learn how to cook anyways.” She sprayed a baggy-jeaned boy until he emptied his pockets of gum and ran out. Pugsly went into a barking fit. “Damn shoplifters,” she had said.
Warren smiled, then frowned when he realized Kaylee was now dead and Sullivan was staring at him, with his hand held out. Warren shook his hand goodbye (as limply and grudgingly as possible) and stood in the same spot as Sullivan went back to his body, probably left in his car. After Sullivan disappeared through the fence, after Sullivan’s toy helicopter powered up and left, after Warren heard the whine of a Prius leave, and after he waited a few minutes, just in case Sullivan came back, he turned and ran to Kaylee.
He blew by rows of battered cars and trucks. He skidded around light poles like they were bases in a baseball diamond. He took turns going west and north, west and north, running to the tractor-trailer Danny had pointed out in the far corner of the lot. He kept tapping into the voices in his head, waiting for something that sounded like her, maybe a ‘no’ where the ‘o’ lingered or a ‘please’ where the ‘ea’ was high-pitched and clear as a bell. He heard nothing but the others.
He spotted her license plate poking out from behind the truck. He went around. He froze mid-step. The car was unrecognizable. The driver’s side door, no the entire side, had caved in. Glass decorated the seats and a limp airbag hung from what was left of the steering wheel. The roof was carved off by the Jaws of Life. A piece of her shirt hung from the torn metal.
Warren spun away, patting his pockets for a nonexistent smoke. He didn’t know it had been that bad. The police had said she was T-boned, but he hadn’t been expecting her car to look like a crushed soda can. He should have been there to protect her. He could have done something, maybe. Now, he was just here to pick up the pieces.
“Kaylee? Are you there?” His voice cracked a little. There was no response. Warren stiffened his shoulders. He turned back to the car, swallowing any emotion. Inside, his baseball cards were scattered on the seats, along with other things that seemed less important without her. The dog carrier sat bent and lopsided on the backseat — empty, of course, since Pugsly was at the hospital.
In front of the carrier, Warren saw a head. A beautiful little head of brown curls. He rushed into the car, hovering over the backseat to see Kaylee seated on the floor, staring up at the carrier. She was hugging her knees and biting her lip. His heart fluttered. He squeezed her shoulders and said, “It’s okay, honey. I’m here now. Everything’s going to be fine.”
For a second, she looked confused, maybe wondering why he was hovering or why he was in color while everything else was gray. He smiled. He could finally tell her about the ghosts. She had to believe him now. She wouldn’t think he was crazy. She’d think he was noble and special — a man who shoulders a burden and was misunderstood by everyone except her. But then her face went blank. She gazed back at the carrier, and asked, “Is Pugsly okay?”
Warren held his breath as the animal hospital secretary swiped his credit card. The morning sun was streaming through the windows, making the sterile white tiles around him glow. Now back in his body, he could feel the heat as he hoped and waited for the transaction to go through. It did, and the secretary let her glasses hang from a chain around her neck. She asked, “Are you sure you want to put him up for adoption?”
Warren glanced down at Pugsly on the counter. The pug had an eye patch, but was glaring at Warren with the other eye. The answer to her question was tangled up with the guilty knot in Warren’s chest. He swallowed, nodded, and asked, “You guys have a no-kill shelter, right?”
“It’s not no-kill.”
“Oh. Well, call me before you do … that. If you can’t find him a home, maybe I can.” Warren fumbled for a stuffed hedgehog in his backpack and handed it to Pugsly. He scratched the dog’s head and whispered into his ear, “I’m really sorry, buddy. Kaylee will disappear if she sees you’re fine. Neither of us wants that.”
Pugsly grunted. The secretary cleared her throat. Warren backed away, and she shuffled into the shelter wing, carrying Pugsly and passing a row of shelter volunteer pictures. Sullivan was in one, apparently gardening in the hospital’s dog park with a small shovel. It looked like he was trying to smile, but only half his mouth curved up and his eyes looked heavy. Behind him was a whitish smear of light, resembling a camera glare. It was a spirit; it looked like Sullivan’s mom. She stood there, gazing at Sullivan as he gazed at the camera. Neither seemed happy.
Warren left the police station with the pet carrier in hand and Kaylee in tow. He would have gotten them by sneaking past the guard at the police impound lot, but he couldn’t risk that kind of police attention. He set the carrier in the back and plopped into the driver’s seat with Kaylee settling backwards in her seat, watching the carrier. She now looked, for lack of a better word, ghost-like. She was wispy and gray against the brown leather, looking so frail he almost put a seatbelt on her. Instead, he seatbelted the carrier. He said over his shoulder, “I’m just glad you got tethered to something I can carry. I got real worried when I thought you were attached to the car.”
“We should go to the hospital. Pugsly needs me.”
“No, he needs his vet.” Warren patted the carrier, then clicked in his own seatbelt.
“I have to wait for him there,” she said.
“You can wait at home.”
“He’ll know I’m gone.”
“No, he won’t. Now relax. You’ll see him soon.” Warren started the car and tuned into a station talking about tonight’s baseball game. “Not too soon, of course. Pugsly may be at the hospital for a few days, weeks even. You gotta be patient.”
She turned back to the carrier, hugging her legs and hiding her face, except for those wide eyes. They’d never looked so desperate, like she was watching the car that killed her approaching again for another crash. She was shaking. He mimed squeezing her shoulder. He’d have to be in spirit form to actually touch her. “It’s okay, honey. I can help you. What did he look like?” asked Warren.
“A wrinkly face with ears that flop down and a short tail.”
“No, not Pugsly. I meant the guy that killed you.”
Warren pulled out of the parking lot. “The guy that hit you. They still haven’t caught him yet, but I can help if you let me. Now, think hard. What did he look like?”
She shrugged, her eyes on the carrier.
“Okay, we’ll take a running start. What do you remember at the vet’s office?”
“I dropped Pugsly off and left.”
“Wrong. You called me before leaving. Do you remember where you were going?”
“Back to Pugsly.”
“No, honey, you were coming home. Okay, we’ll start off even easier: What non-Pugsly things did you do that morning?”
She said it so calmly. The answer was simply she had done nothing. There had been no wake up kiss. She had not stared out the window, talking about a better life. She had not swooped in for a goodbye hug. She had done nothing.
“Nothing?” He hit a curb. He righted the car, but his eyes were still on Kaylee. The carrier shifted right, and her gaze followed it. “Kaylee, look at me.” She did not. Warren’s fingers tightened on the wheel. “Kaylee, what do you remember?”
“Not Pugsly, damn it. Do you remember the store? Do you remember me?” He glanced at the road, then back at her.
She sat still. Warren flipped through his memories, searching for any spirit that had or hadn’t acted normal after dying. He couldn’t tell. He hadn’t known any before they were dead. They had obsessions, sure, but he hadn’t thought the obsessions consumed them. Maybe they did. Maybe there was nothing left of her. Warren pressed his lips into a line, just waiting for her to say the name Pugsly one more time, to prove that he had lost his Kaylee even though he could still see her there.
“You’re Warren. You gave me your baseball cards to sell,” she said.
“Oh, thank God.” He chuckled, rubbing his face and relaxing into the seat. His eyes shifted back to the road. “Don’t kid around like that. I know you guys like to fixate, but you were taking it to a new level. You had me scared.”
“The cards were paying for Pugsly’s surgery.”
Warren hauled the carrier up the three flights of stairs to their studio apartment. Kaylee drifted after it, not saying much. That was fine. She just needed to rest, that’s all. Warren placed the carrier down in front of the door to dig for his keys.
His phone started ringing a ragtime tune, and he answered it. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s Sullivan. I just got the news. I’m so sorry.”
Warren whipped his phone down to stare at the vague Caller ID. “How did you get this number?”
“Never mind that. I’m sorry I got mad at you last night. Had I known, I would have handled things differently.”
“What are you talking about?”
Sullivan took a sharp breath. “Kaylee’s death?”
Warren’s eyes darted to her spirit. He turned his back to Kaylee, as if hiding her. Sullivan said, “It must be hard losing her so suddenly in a car crash. I hope she didn’t stick around. It’s hard to free the ghost of someone you love.”
“Is that why were you in the impound lot last night? Visiting her car?”
“No. I was helping out Danny.” Warren dug in his pocket for the elusive apartment keys.
“Shouldn’t you have been mourning instead?”
“Work gets my mind off Kaylee.”
“Where is she right now?”
“Heaven. Or maybe Valhalla. She was a quarter Norwegian.” Warren smiled. He could almost hear Sullivan’s mind hiccup at the mention of a non-Christian heaven. “Anyways, I’ve got to go, Sully. Catch you later.”
“You have her with you, don’t you?”
Warren froze. He didn’t think he was being that obvious about it. He looked around for Sullivan, but only saw Kaylee checking the carrier for Pugsly. He shrugged. “So what if I have her?”
“No,” said Sullivan. Then like a machine gun he said, “No, no, no, no, no. You’re making a big mistake. That spirit is not really Kaylee. It’s just a bag of misplaced emotions over an unresolved worry.”
“Pretty sure that describes most people.” Warren rocked on his heels and checked the hallway for eavesdroppers.
“For God’s sake, take this seriously. You’re torturing her. She’s probably terrified and desperate. All she can think about is her business. You release her or I will.”
Warren clenched his fists and hissed into the phone, “Don’t you dare.”
“It’s for your own good. I’ll be over in a few minutes to help you.”
“Like hell you will. If I see your ass anywhere near my apartment, I’m calling the cops. If I see your soul, I will kick its ass. And if I see any dog near my window, so help me God, I will cram a Bible so far up your—”
“So her unresolved business is Pugsly? Of course. That’s what Facebook—”
Warren ended the call. He wished it was a landline, so he could slam the phone down so hard it’d break a table. But instead he stabbed at the red button.
He rushed Kaylee’s carrier inside and stormed around the apartment, closing curtains, checking corners, setting deadbolts, and pre-entering the police phone number into his cell. He dragged a chest from underneath the bed, tossing his baseball uniform aside and taking out an aluminum bat. This was ridiculous. He shouldn’t be scared of Sullivan. That twerp couldn’t get into the apartment unless he was in spirit form, and even then he couldn’t bring the proof to release her. It couldn’t be done. She was safe.
Warren relaxed and turned to Kaylee, sitting with her knees drawn up, eyes wide, and body shivering. Exactly as he left her.
She just needed time to rest, that’s all. He put on the TV to give her something to do and then shuffled around the apartment doing dishes, sweeping, and hiding Pugsly’s toys. They only reminded him that Pugsly was in a cage at a shelter without them.
By evening, the apartment was spotless. Not a single dog hair graced the floor. He gestured to the place and said, “You’ve never seen it so clean, right honey?”
“Hmm.” For the first time in hours, she moved. She stood up.
“I also called the store and told our temp cashier to clean it up. You want to see?” He moved to the window and gazed down at the store, outlined by the setting sun. The brick walls were scrubbed clean, with big posters of two liter bottles taped to them. He looked over his shoulder at Kaylee, who was searching the apartment for something.
“Where did Pugsly’s toys go?” she asked.
“Gone, honey. Gone.”
“What did you do with them?” Her voice had a sharpness that pierced Warren’s skull. He blinked and rubbed his head. She roared, “Bring them back! I want them back!”
He stumbled, holding his ears. “Honey, calm down. We’re starting a new life together. We don’t need Pugsly’s toys anymore.”
“What?” That single word made his head snap back. “WHERE ARE THE TOYS? WHAT DID YOU DO WITH PUGSLY?” The words smashed into his brain like a baseball bat. He’d heard loud spirits before, but this was different. Her words were exploding in his mind. “I WANT PUGSLY NOW!” Pain shot down his spine and he fell onto his knees.
Kaylee’s eyes were wild. Her curls splayed out and her clothes whipped around in a storm. She was snarling at him, holding her fingers curled like claws at her side. This wasn’t his sweet Kaylee. It was a dark shadow of the person he loved.
He wobbled onto all fours. No, it wasn’t a shadow. Kaylee was still there, maybe not all of her, but that was her. He wasn’t going to let a temper tantrum take that away.
He stood tall, clenching his body. “You can scream all you want, but it won’t help. No one can hear you. No one can see you. You cannot leave this room, so I suggest you calm the hell down and be nice. Only good ghosts get what they want.”
Her eyes narrowed until Warren was sure she’d attack, but then she looked down. The hatred vanished from her body, and she returned to being sullen and nervous, choosing to hover-sit on the bed with her knees drawn up.
Warren opened the window by the head of the bed. He tried to light a cigarette, but his hands were shaking too much. He leaned out to breathe the night air instead. His ears were ringing, and he tried to turn up the TV at the foot of the bed, now broadcasting the baseball game, but the remote was out of batteries. He threw it down and buried his face in his elbow against the windowsill. Kaylee wasn’t supposed to be like this.
His phone rang. “What?” he answered.
“Hey, it’s Sullivan. You’re watching the game right?”
“Why do you care?”
“Is Kaylee with you?”
“In a way.”
Sullivan said something, but his voice was lost in static. At the same time, the audience on the TV cheered, making it especially hard to hear. When it calmed down, Sullivan asked, “So, have you decided to release her?”
“No, she’s still my girl. I’m not giving up on her.” Warren listened a few seconds, but Sullivan said nothing, so he hung up. Whatever mind game Sullivan was trying to play had failed miserably. He’d have to try harder than that.
After a minute, the TV crowd started going wild. Kaylee muttered an interested “Hmmm.” He turned around to see something running across the baseball field. Warren squinted as the camera zoomed in. It was a man carrying an object over his head. It was … Sullivan?
And he was carrying Pugsly.
Warren dove for the baseball bat on the bed. Kaylee bounced to life, standing and squealing, “It’s Pugsly! He’s on TV! Look, look!” He gripped the bat. “Pugsly! Pugsly!” He hurled it across the room. It crashed into the TV, which slid off its stand and fell to the floor, but the damn thing kept working. “You said I had to be a good ghost, and I was good!” Kaylee rushed over. Smiling from ear to ear, she knelt and placed her forehead against Pugsly’s wrinkled face. She started to disappear.
Warren launched his soul from his body. His torso landed on the TV, covering it. His vision flashed into gray scale as he slid in front of Kaylee, trying to push her away. She was giggling uncontrollably. Her warm brown curls bounced around her glimmering green eyes as she squeaked and squealed, clapping her hands and bobbing. “Such a good dog!” Warren held her hands still, trying to force her to stop moving.
Her face cracked. Fractures laced around her body. Pieces of her shattered. Warren grabbed at the pieces, meeting only air. He tried to make his hands move faster. He tried to think of what to say. There had to be some magical word that would make her stay, but his mind drew nothing. He closed his eyes, clutching her with every piece of him. Each finger pressed into her back and his nose sank into her lavender-scented hair.
His embrace slowly shrunk as Kaylee disappeared.
“I’ll miss you. Be a good boy.”
He was hugging only himself now. The room was quiet, empty. She was gone. Warren had watched disintegrate like a sugar cube in coffee. He couldn’t save her. She was gone for real, but her pillow still had a dent. Her laptop sat on the dresser, next to her grandmother’s perfume bottle. He could still smell lavender, still see the pet carrier. She was in this room in every way but the real one.
He could hear the voices again. They had been there all along, but they felt louder now. They echoed in the empty room. It felt so cold. There was no one else but him. He sunk to the ground, burying his face in his arms. She had left him alone with the ghosts.
His cell phone rang some time later. He didn’t know how much later. Time seemed to either have frozen or zoomed by. Nothing felt right. The room looked normal except for the TV on the ground, but it seemed dreadfully different somehow.
The phone rang again. The police phone number flashed in the Caller ID, and Warren slunk into his body to answer it. There was a long silence from the other end, but he could hear someone breathing. Sullivan’s voice came meekly, “Is she gone?”
“Yes, you asshole.”
Warren reached for the end call button. Sullivan cried, “Please, you were going to start hating her for only talking about Pugsly. I wanted better for you two. I didn’t want your last memories of her to be her begging for a dog.”
“It’s better than watching her die in my arms.”
“I didn’t want to do it, but—” A gruff voice cut Sullivan off. Sullivan returned to the phone. “Please, they arrested me for disrupting the peace and animal endangerment. They only accept cash for bail. You’re my one phone call.”
“You can rot in there!” Warren screamed. That was all the energy he had left. He sat on the floor, clutching the phone. He could still smell Kaylee’s perfume.
“Please,” Sullivan’s voice shook, “I’m sorry, but you have to help me. I don’t have anyone else, and everyone here is staring at me. They’re whispering. They’re c-calling me names. I can’t stay here!” His voice squeaked, becoming frantic. “They d-don’t understand. They don’t believe me. They … they…” Sullivan sniffed. “They think I’m a necrophile.”
Warren’s hand twitched. He moved the phone close to his ear.
Sullivan broke down sobbing. “They … they did a background check and saw I had warnings for b-bothering grieving family members. They looked at my Facebook and saw I’m friends with lots of dead people. And … and … and…”
“And what?” Warren’s hand hurt. His childhood therapist had labeled him schizophrenic. His Dad had called him moody. His teachers had held he was attention-seeking. Those names had hurt plenty. Necrophile hurt even more. “And what?”
“It w-was my mom. It was my mom.” Sullivan gagged on his own breath, sobbing and squeaking in a way no man ever should. He choked something to the police officer on the other end, and a few seconds later, Warren’s phone received a text message.
It was a picture of an evidence bag filled with the contents of Sullivan’s wallet. In the center was the wallet-sized photo the police must have been worried about. It was a picture of Sullivan holding a small shovel by a tombstone, with the words “Don’t deny who you are” written under the picture. It was actually two pictures taped together, a before and after with timestamps. The later picture had freshly dug dirt on the grave.
Warren had to admit that looked sketchy, but he spotted what the police did not — something that looked like a camera glare. The spirit hovered near the shovel in the first picture and was gone in the next. The tombstone itself had a name Warren didn’t recognize, but its death date was a year before the first picture was taken.
Sullivan said again, “It was my mom. She wanted to be buried under a garden.”
Warren stared at the picture, at Sullivan releasing his mother a year after her own death. There was no way he had simply forgotten or was unable to free her for that long. No, he had held onto her. For all of his preaching and hellfire rants, this missionary had held his own mother hostage.
“For a year?” asked Warren.
“She was the only person that ever liked me. I couldn’t let her go. But I had to. She always said ‘Don’t deny who you are’ and who I am is a ghost-freer. I free ghosts. I freed her.”
In his voice was sadness and confidence, or maybe it was bitter resignation, but either way, he stopped stuttering and his breathing smoothed, as if he found the strength to face the accusations of the police and to stand alone in his fight. But maybe he wasn’t alone.
Warren turned the name ‘ghost-freer’ over in his mind. It wasn’t a term that he’d heard before, and he was sure Sullivan had just made it up, but it had a sense of belonging to it. The word wasn’t clever or fancy, yet it bound him and Sullivan together. They were on the same team, battling everyone who called them insane, fighting the world to bring spirits peace.
Warren felt less alone.
Christina L. Usher grew up in Florida and is currently pursuing a PhD in Genetics in Boston. Though prepared for the life of a scientist, she fell in love with writing after taking notes during a Dungeons and Dragons game. Apparently, those in her lab took notice, because her inbox soon became filled with scientific writing and editing requests. She plans to become a science writer and help biologists write better research publications.