Claudia sat back in the wicker chair beside her bed and spoke into the phone. She gathered in a helping of air before she did. A half-moon hung golden outside the bedroom window.
“Goodnight, Claudia,” she heard from the receiver, a breath or two before. “I know these trips are getting harder for us.” He yawned out the last few words.
“Goodnight, Dennis” she returned right away. Then she waited—maybe too long, but there was nothing she could do about that. “I’m with you in spirit.”
“Love you,” Dennis said. He hung up.
She put her head down on her pillows and shut her eyes, intent on pretending to be asleep until she actually was. Alone with her thoughts, she dreaded her responsibilities for the next day. She opened her eyes, blinked twice, half-blinked once.
Just to the side of that reality, Claudia’s spirit climbed its way out of Claudia’s mouth. It was malleable and sheer gray-blue light. A nude sculpture of Claudia come to life but more rounded in the features. It cracked its elbows and neck, then stretched up and down and up again. She moved like an upright accordion, stepping forward and back in a sort of Charleston step.
“Love you,” it said. The words came out not fully formed, but almost. There was a slightness to them. They sounded understated and breathy. Casual.
The moon hung red over on this side of reality. Its light hit Claudia’s spirit, creating a muted purple to clothe the bedroom.
Claudia stirred. She coughed twice, spewing remaining leftover bits of her spirit into the air. The majority of her spirit stood by the window, fiddling with the latch. Its sheer hands slipped off glass and walls and most things.
“Love you,” it said, looking outside now, down into the street. Her eyes met with a mosquito’s on accident. “Not you, no. You’re the wrong species. And diseased.”
Yes, that mosquito did harbor disease.
The spirit slammed its body shoulder-first against the window. The glass cracked. It burst outward after another hit.
A baby monitor stood upright on the bedside table. It murmured, fuzzed, then fell silent. Claudia’s five-year-old slept across the house.
“Five years is too old to have a baby monitor,” Claudia said earlier in the night’s conversation with Dennis. Dennis was the protective one. “He’ll get too attached.”
Dennis raised his voice. “And would that be so bad, Claudia? I never knew my mother—I would have killed for the connection you two have right now.”
This again, Claudia thought. He would often reach for his lack of a mother in his formative years during arguments. One of his favorite strategies.
“We’ll talk about it when you get back,” she said, knowing they wouldn’t. They would leave it there until the next phone call during the next trip. That’s when they really argued—over the phone and away from each other. That’s when most of the damage was done.
Before she went to sleep, Claudia twisted the volume knob on the monitor down—almost to off. She heard her son’s breathing, but only just so. Tonight was her win, she told herself.
Claudia’s spirit put its leg over the sill, then fell out the window onto the hard winter ground. It was fine. It crawled forward. Everything was fine.
This side of reality always had a bustle to it.
A menagerie of spirits walked the sidewalks of Claudia’s neighborhood. The brightest spirits made dreams and nightmares, the dullest—the dead and dying—screamed alone in holes and hideaways. Tonight, Claudia’s spirit operated somewhere in the middle. A simple messenger.
A radiant party train sped down Grove Lane. It glided on air and needed no time to stop. Spinning bulbs and strobe lights lit all the houses on the street in a bright chaos.
But no one in that other reality would notice much. Maybe a flicker in the corner of their sleepy eyelids. Maybe a flash or two.
One spirit hopped off and landed like a gymnast in front of Claudia’s spirit, who was checking the mail. She had to find Dennis and figured the mail might hold some clues.
“Hey,” the gymnast spirit said. He was the color of the sun. “Boarding?”
“I don’t love you,” Claudia’s spirit said. “I’m not with you. My name is Claudia Callum’s Spirit.”
The spirit looked Claudia Callum’s Spirit over. It leaned against the mailbox, slumped like it needed the box to stay on her feet.
“That’s a terrible name,” the spirit said, grinning bleached teeth. “Mine is Stephens Ludgate. My name and my other’s.” He performed a standing back flip.
“You stole your other’s name?” She was familiar with this conversation. This outing—she made trips like it before.
Stephens’s body brightened; it flared. “No,” he said. “I didn’t steal a thing. He barely exists over here and I’m not going to just let a good name like Stephen Ludgate go to waste.” The party train let out an EDM whistle. “Though I did add a little panache of my own.”
He stopped talking and looked Claudia’s spirit square in the brilliant eyes as if waiting for her to catch something. When she didn’t speak and instead leaned harder on the Callum mailbox, Stephens huffed.
“The ‘s’ at the end,” he said. “I added it. That’s me. All me.” He enunciated it next. “Stephen-s.”
The party train beckoned with cheers and louder music. Disco. Confetti everywhere. The conductor hung her head out the front window, asking if anyone was getting on. The next stop would be a real treat: Tokyo.
“She needs to go to Dennis Callum,” Stephens called to the conductor. He whipped his head back to Claudias, smiling, excited and letting the disco take control of his body. “Wait, is he in Tokyo?”
She shook her head. That much she knew. The trip was domestic. She tottered backward but caught herself. She felt like throwing up.
Stephens took her by the shoulders and stood her up straight. He looked her in the eyes again—deeper, this time. A realization lit his face. Frowning, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” A pause. “Please, you should just crawl back down your other’s throat, Claudias. You don’t have the facts right. You can’t be with him if you don’t have those—that’s rookie spiriting. You’re old enough to know that.”
A song came on inside the party train that Stephens enjoyed too much to stand there and not groove to it harder than anyone had grooved to something. He took a few steps back toward the locomotive, letting go of Claudias. She collapsed to the ground.
“I’ll figure them out,” Claudias said in thegrass. “The facts. I have to be with him. She sent me out.”
“Spirit to spirit,” Stephens said. “She doesn’t want you to go. You probably just slipped out this time—a false alarm. You would know where he is without having to ask.” He sighed, “And look at you. You can’t stand, you’ve been given no energy to go to him.”
Claudias gritted her phantom teeth. “You don’t know what you’re saying. We have a deep connection—a love that can stand.”
Stephens stepped up onto the train. “Man, she must have filled you with the last little bit of that left.” The party train swelled. It started forward. “Come hang out if you wise up.” Stephens winked, and the party train partied out into the cold night. Stephens yelled, “Our others aren’t worth the anguish.” Then, he shouted for Tokyo.
“Love is worth anguish,” Claudias said.
A child’s spirit riding a bike on the sidewalk stopped in front of Claudias. He had a putrid look on his face. “That was a disgusting thing to say.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Claudias said, struggling to her feet.
She pushed the kid over, then turned and ran back to the Callum house, tripping herself every other step. Tripping herself through a downstairs window into the playroom. She crawled her way to the kitchen.
Dennis flew to Tampa this week. He had a meeting with a few investors about his restaurant. It said it right there on the calendar in the kitchen. As soon as Claudias—standing blue in Claudia’s kitchen—saw the note, she remembered too. Of course. Tampa. Investors. Flight 1514. Left a week ago. Back in a few days. Tampa Ramada.
A force tugged at her chest—slight at first, but the strength of it grew. It pulled her towards the front door. Claudias nodded, leaning into the tug. This was right—this was the kind of trip she made before. She didn’t have to do any work back when Claudia would send her out on the regular. It was easy back then. This pull guided her.
“Love you,” she said, raising her voice.
She smiled. Laughed. The mawkish tug pulled her out into the street again, as fast as she could move. With purpose and energy, she could move damn fast. She could glide like the party train: on the air with ease. She climbed higher—above the neighborhood, above the city, and then above half the states in between, tethered to Dennis. She passed other spirits along the way and they sang jubilant, each tethered to their destination. Now Claudias saw Stephens for what he really was—the party train, too. They were tragedies and failures on sheer feet and lighted wheels.
They masked their loneliness with that disco.
“I’m with you in spirit, mom,” a sepia spirit flying below Claudias cried out. “I miss you.”
“Je suis avec vous ensprit, Audrey,” a scarlet one whispered.
An ape spirit on its own journey screamed across the sky like raging mad. Flailing.
A sudden thought broke its way into Claudias after seeing that ape spirit. Claudia and Dennis fought about the trip to Tampa. He was never going to make it as a restaurateur and both of them knew it by now. His investors called him there to get out of the Dennis business. She told him this, and the next day he was on an earlier flight, citing the investors’ excitement over his idea.
“You’re a child, Dennis,” Claudia said to him before he left, pressing her fingers to her shut eyes.
“He wasn’t being childish,” Claudias said. “Claudia, you always do this.” She tried to think of something better—a pleasant moment between the two in the past couple years. They had two hours between dinner and sleep last Thursday with little to no animosity or stress between them. They reminisced about—damn, what was it?
Claudias dropped from the sky. She plummeted toward the earth, down into a forest. She crashed through treetops, smashing through branches and leaves—bird spirits, too. She wheezed light, and it dissipated into the dark.
“Are you okay?” said a barely there spirit out among the trees. Its voice was savage but delicate.
Claudias could almost make out a form next to a tree a few yards away. A dead spirit lingered here.
“Love you,” Claudias said. “No—not you—I need to get to Tampa.”
“Tampa,” the dead spirit howled. “I was from Tampa. Or my other was—the lines blur at this age. There’s a road.”
There was a road, out beyond the trees. A party train strutted on it, making the woods into skewed shadows through Claudias, who rested up against a robust fallen tree. She nodded.
“I would have seen that had I looked left,” she said.
“Well, alright,” the spirit said. “When your other dies—and you become one in this reality—I hope you are treated like I just was.”
“You’re emotional,” Claudias said. “You’re jaded.”
The dead spirit didn’t respond.
Claudias craned her neck back over the tree trunk. “Are you still there?”
“I’m sorry,” the dead spirit whimpered. “I was pretending not to be, but yes, I’m still here.” It apologized again. “I wanted you to feel bad for calling me jaded.”
Stay here, Claudias thought. Linger here with this spirit, detach yourself from Claudia and Dennis—detach yourself from that endless aggravation and responsibility.
The party train life didn’t seem so terrible either.
“What’s your name?” the dead spirit oozed.
“That’s a good one. What’s mine?”
Claudias shrugged. “How would I know that?”
The dead ones didn’t have names anymore. Not that other spirits ever asked.
“Would you find it for me? If you’re going to Tampa?”
“I have someone to be with tonight.”
“Someone can’t be that important. Look at you.”
Look at her.
The dead spirit moved closer. It had black eyes and velvet skin. “You’re dimming. Are you sure they want you?” It circled Claudius. “Are you even supposed to be out here?”
Claudias laughed, which gave her some energy. “Wants? He needs her.” She remembered when she and Dennis met. He had no money. She paid for dinner at least twelve times.
The tug pulled her across the forest floor for about three feet, and she cheered.
“Wait,” said the dead. “My name.”
She heard, but she didn’t wait. She leaned into the clumsy, clawing tug at her chest.
Tampa: 12, read the first sign Claudias spotted heading down the road. The tug pulled her like a child dragging along a red wagon. The road lay quiet in that other reality, save for a car or two puttering along.
Dreams lit the road—a few nightmares, too. Those creative spirits who tended to find the most secluded areas for their elaborate projects. One stood in a field by the road and kept building a forty story tower that kept collapsing into a heap of girders and concrete when it reached thirty-nine.
On the spirit’s third try, it eyed Claudias dragging across the asphalt. “I’m trying to teach her the definition of crazy,” it said. “It’s such an easy thing to grasp, but she still finds herself in the same patterns every year.”
“She could have a mental imbalance, you know,” Claudias said. She rubbed her chin.
“That’s not really my concern,” the spirit said. It started collecting pieces of its tower again. “And I would have one too, if that were the case.”
Tampa: 4 miles
A passing nightmare had set up a human-sized spider circus. It stood on the side of the road, looking pleased with its work. It grinned at Claudias as she lumbered by.
“I hate her,” the nightmare said proudly. She glowed a deep purple. “My other.”
“Why?” Claudias asked. “What could she have done to you?”
The nightmare chuckled. “I don’t even remember, this close to her waking. Today I’m a nightmare, tomorrow I might be a dream. Or a carrier pigeon like you.”
Another party train chugged down the road. The nightmare watched the lights and bobbed its head to the disco.
“I envy them,” it said. “Those who can just abandon their others.” It waved at the train. “Those who can say good riddance.”
“They’re weak,” Claudias said. “I envy our others.”
The spider circus opened for the night. Bugs from all over funneled in to see it.
The nightmare sprouted four extra limbs. “You’ve been a nightmare before, spirit.”
“I would remember that,” Claudias said, getting a little angry now.
“You would think so,” the spider spirit uttered through its mandibles. “But I won’t want to remember this in a few hours. What I’m doing to her. The dread and fear I’m causing.” The nightmare skittered a few steps forward. The lights crystallized in its eyes. “Come on in, if you want to see.”
A spotlight hit the nightmare. The crowds cheered as the circus’s ringmaster moved towards the tent.
Claudia hated spiders. Despised them. Killed them. Claudias stopped. She could resist this weak tug at her chest. She began planning a nightmare in her head. A bigger, better spider carnival. Her skin writhed and darkened.
Wind pushed the trees, and the light of an imposing sign hummed through them, high enough so that drivers on the freeway could see it.
Dennis’s spirit sat alone in the Tampa Ramada, room two zero five. Claudias found him there, laid back in a stained Windsor chair that came standard in every room.
Dennis had left the door cracked. Claudias crumbled against it to push it open.
Scanning the room, she smiled. Dennis had his shirts hung in the closet. His briefcase lay open on the floor by the bathroom. No signs of trouble or anything like that—at least not here. Her smile grew when she looked at his spirit, colored a muted fuschia.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Claudias said, in a tired way. She came in and plopped down on the bed.
Dennis’s spirit looked bored and shrugged.
Claudias kept talking; she rested on her back, looking up at the creaking ceiling fan. “I almost expected you to be somewhere else tonight.”
“Don’t you want to know where Dennis is?” his spirit asked. He put his head back.
“That doesn’t matter,” Claudias sighed. “I’m here. You’re here. He didn’t send you out to anyone.”
“But I think you should know. He is out tonight. With—” He choked up and put his hand over his face. “It’s only a matter of time until he brings someone back. It’s only a matter of time before he sends me out.”
“Love you, Dennis,” Claudias said in a quick way.
Dennis’s spirit shook. A confused twinge of a look covered his face. He stammered. “He doesn’t.”
Claudias sat up on the bed and gestured for Dennis’s spirit to join her. He did, with some apprehension. They stood as the only sources of light in the room.
The two smirked at each other the way Claudia and Dennis used to.
“Love you too, Claudia,” Dennis’s spirit said.
They continued like this until morning, whispering to each other with no space between them.
Nick Perilli is a writer and librarian living in Philadelphia with loved ones who have yet to watch Gremlins II with him. Work of his has appeared in Pidgeonholes, XRAY, and elsewhere. He tweets @nicoloperilli and spared no expense on his cheap website nickperilli.com.