Sunday Elm could smell it, a familiar sickeningly sweet scent. She looked up from her email to study the closed door, listening. The heavy thump outside of the room confirmed it: she was no longer home alone.
Normally this would frighten someone living on her own. Sure, Maurita, Arizona, wasn’t considered overly dangerous, but that wouldn’t stop someone’s heart from pounding at the strange noise on the other side of the door.
She wasn’t bothered, though.
If she were frightened by every unexplained sound she heard, she wouldn’t just be going to therapy, she’d be living in a loony bin.
Sunday kicked her long legs out from under her desk and tucked her unruly brown curls behind her ear.
Another thump. Something heavier had fallen to the floor this time.
Why do they have to bug me at home?
It was the first visit since the accident. Sunday stepped into the hallway, her breath growing short. She’d done this before. Dozens of times. But this time, she didn’t feel up to it.
Outside her office, the hallway looked as it should, with art and photos hanging on the wall. A picture of Sunday wearing a black cap and gown was prominently displayed— a smile spread across her young face while her father wrapped his arms around her in a proud hug. Most people didn’t notice the resemblance between them until they actually saw Sunday and her father standing side by side. It was easy to miss, since her skin was several shades darker than his. She got her darker complexion from her mom, but the way her eyes wrinkled and her large teeth took over her face when she smiled—that was her father.
A tangle of joy and heart-wrenching sadness washed over Sunday. She rushed past the photo, distracting herself by calculating how many years it had been since she’d graduated high school. She could hardly believe she would be invited to a ten-year reunion next year.
Her bedroom on the right appeared normal, with the bed unmade and a pair of flip-flops discarded in front of her closet. The living room still bore the evidence of her late-night binge-watching session, including an empty wine glass, candy wrappers, and her favorite blanket abandoned on the couch.
Sunday stood at the end of the hallway, where the small kitchen opened up beside her. Two cans rolled across the floor, stopping at Sunday’s bare feet where the hardwood met the kitchen tile. A can of tomato paste and one of refried beans. The woman on the beans label smiled up at her.
She picked them up and carried them back into the kitchen. The disturbance had obviously started there. The cabinet door above the oven hung open.
She took her time replacing the cans, examining the cylinders for any dents.
It was best to let them come to you, she knew. The cans were a cry for attention, and now Sunday made herself appear busy so they could interrupt her when they were ready to talk.
Well, not talk in the traditional sense. The dead don’t really talk.
“Rosarita, you look all right,” she said to the refried beans woman as she placed both cans back into the cupboard and shut the door with a soft clunk.
Her fingers were still wrapped around the cabinet handle when a cool breeze brushed past her. It wasn’t the bone-chilling cold described by Hollywood. Only something really powerful could have that effect on her. Instead, it felt like the sort of breeze that blew across the beach; pleasant, especially in the Arizona desert.
Sunday followed the cool air to the living room.
The spirit sat on the couch beside Sunday’s discarded blanket. Still playing coy, she didn’t raise her gaze when Sunday sat in the chair next to her, but instead picked at the purple fuzz the blanket left behind.
There was always something off about them. The spirits from the Other World typically took a human form. Almost. They had some control over their appearance, and most preferred the comforting look of the living.
But there was always something off.
Sometimes a missing feature, like no feet or eyes.
Sometimes a body part replaced by a tentacle or a pig snout.
Sometimes their hair was on fire or their arms were made of water.
Sunday didn’t understand the logic or reasoning behind these strange features. It could have to do with how the person lost their life, or with their death life. She had a theory about how the length of time the person had spent in the Other World affected their manifestation. She believed that the longer a person had been dead and living in the supernatural realm, the less control they had, as if they were losing the strength to keep their human appearance.
She waited for the spirit before her to acknowledge her.
The spirit used to be a woman. She wore a nightgown Sunday had only seen in old TV shows from the ‘70s. Her hair hung loosely, limp and pale like a waterfall cascading around her face. She sat with her horse legs stretched out in front of her. The hooves were adorned with ballerina slippers.
Unless the woman was an equestrian ballerina who had died in a tragic bedtime accident, Sunday couldn’t explain the state of the spirit. She did look a bit like Sunday’s most recent ex, though.
Eventually the spirit faced her. Her colorless skin faded into the grey couch behind her. Her eyes, dark-rimmed like a raccoon’s, were downcasted; she peered up at Sunday like a forlorn child. Her lips were as blue as her eyes.
“Can I help you?” Sunday typically treated these visitors like door-to-door salesmen: unwelcomed, but tolerated until she could get them to leave.
The spirit spoke to her.
“Coffee?” Sunday wrinkled her nose, put off by the obscurity of the request. She could taste it and smell it, but she didn’t understand why
Spirits didn’t talk. They communicated in other ways, like knocks or flickering lights. All that Hollywood stuff had to come from some grain of truth.
And for Sunday, she just knew.
It was part of her “gift.”
She insisted on putting the word in air quotes. Her “gift” was usually anything but.
Spirits talked to her by dropping images and ideas into her head. Not only could she see, she could hear, taste, and smell their memories and thoughts. Their ideas became her ideas.
Sunday saw a coffee shop.
The large storefront windows revealed a sidewalk dusted with snow. Customers came in shaking the white powder out of their hair and peeling their coats off to dry on the rack next to a space heater. The walls were decorated with colorful pieces of teacups, saucers, and mugs, a chaotic mosaic of china. The smell of roasting coffee permeated the fabric of the chairs, and the hum of chatter was only drowned out by the coffee bean grinder. Customers and employees alike were smiling and laughing.
Then the scene changed. Outside, snow still covered every surface, but inside dust covered just as many surfaces. The colors of the decorative dishware on the walls had dulled. Even the lights appeared dimmer. One man wearing a faded baseball cap sat at a table in front of the window reading a newspaper. The man behind the counter had asked if he wanted a refill three times. He wasn’t going to ask again.
The coffee shop was going under. Sunday understood. She knew that when the spirit was alive, she’d built the business from the ground up. She appreciated the hours that the woman had put into her tiny hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Petoskey, Michigan. Tourism ran the town and now, forty years later, the shop floundered. The spirit feared it would close.
Sunday felt for the woman, and not just because she spilled her sorrow into her head. The spirit came all the way from Michigan, but Sunday couldn’t help.
The dead woman would have to stick with knocks and flickering lights to communicate with the new owners in Michigan.
“I can’t help you,” she told the horse-leg spirit. “I really wish there was something I could do, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”
The spirit frowned. Sunday prayed she wouldn’t get angry. Angry spirits made a mess.
Despite her silent pleas, the spirit woman developed a red hue. Her darkened eyes glowed as she pressed her blue lips tightly together. She lifted herself off the couch to hover over the rug.
“Shit!” Sunday jumped to her feet, but not quickly enough.
The horse hooves slammed into Sunday’s stomach, sending her over the armchair and into the dining room set across the room.
The hooves had knocked the breath out of her. Her feet dangled above her and her arms were twisted up in the legs of a chair. The seconds dragged as her mouth gaped open and shut, like she was a beached fish.
The air couldn’t fill her lungs fast enough when she finally got a breath in. Coughing and gasping, she struggled to sit up. She raised her head high enough to see a DVD player sailing in her direction.
With a shriek, she ducked. The machine crashed into the wall behind her. The spirit screamed in her head, her dead lungs never needing to stop to take a breath.
“Fuck!” Sunday shouted, curling into a ball behind the chair. Above her an onslaught of knick-knacks and books were flung across the room. They piled on top of the broken DVD player. She needed to get out from behind the chair, but the thrown objects were unending.
“I get it lady, you’re upset. Just leave!” she shouted over the sound of screeching in her head.
The half-woman, half-horse spirit floated to the front door, ravaging the apartment like a tornado. Sunday covered her head with her arms. The spirit threw a lamp and overturned the couch. The scream in Sunday’s head packed a punch of rage and despair.
She’d worked so hard. She fought for everything she had in life. People like Sunday, young and surrounded by life-easing technology, caused her business to crash. She’s gone, and the people she trusted with her life’s work failed.
What’s the point? Why did she work so hard for nothing?
The spirit finally hovered out the front door, slamming it behind her. A few picture frames and a mirror crashed to the floor.
The quiet that followed was deafening.
Sunday peeked around her chair shield.
Empty. No spirit.
Sunday sat alone in the two wrecked rooms.
She shuffled out of her hiding place and immediately grabbed a large bag of salt from behind her dining room curtains.
She emptied half the bag along the bottom of the front door. After replacing the bag, she pulled paper curtains down over all the windows in the apartment, installed in front of the blinds. Red pentagrams enclosed in circles adorned the cream-colored paper drapes. The pagan-marked windows cast a warm hue over the apartment. Sunday finished the ritual by lighting a bundle of sage that had been tucked under a pillow in her bedroom. She placed the burning herbs on an incense tray to allow the smoke to dissipate throughout the front room. Typically, she avoided the salt-strewn, sage-smoked mess. The neighbors tended to complain when passing her pentagrammed windows, but sometimes they were necessary.
Suddenly, her front door shook, the two horse legs of the spirit splintering the doorframe. She leapt back, reminding herself that the spirit couldn’t make it past the line of salt. Another kick rattled the door. Sunday dove for the sack of salt and poured another layer across the entryway, just to be safe. The spirit was not welcome back.
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