HOW TO LOVE A GHOST
When you are falling in love with a ghost, you will learn quickly that the curve of a question mark will be the hook you use to pull her in, the way you try to keep her. You will learn just as quickly that you won’t always get answers.
“I’m trying to figure out who murdered me.” She said it so easily, plainly, as if it was something people said all the time. It wasn’t what I’d expected when I decided to chat up the girl sitting alone at the bar.
She sighed, looking up from the notebook she was writing in. She spoke slowly, as if I might not understand the words. “I’m trying. To figure out. Who murdered me.”
I blinked once. Twice. “Okay.”
Finishing the last of my beer, I resisted the urge to brush my fingers over her cheek. I’d seen it from across the pub and up close it was even more fascinating: the way her skin seemed to shimmer. Maybe it was the beer I’d had or maybe the light didn’t quite know what to do with her. I couldn’t blame it. I had no idea what to do with her either.
I glanced down at the near-empty whiskey glass sitting beside her notebook. “Can I buy you a drink?”
She shrugged, looking back down at what she’d been writing, scribbles I couldn’t decipher. I bought her another whiskey and myself another beer, and sat down beside her.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“When did it happen?”
“I don’t know.”
She picked up her glass; I could see the color of the whiskey through her fingers. “What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
I frowned. “Well… what do you know?”
She looked at me then, really looked at me. Her eyes shifted from one color to another. Brown to green to blue to hazel, other colors I never thought eyes could be. When they finally settled, I was looking into the steel gray of the sky before a storm. The kind that makes you feel like you’re standing at the edge of the ocean, hearing waves crash, waiting for them to slip over your head.
“I know that I’m a ghost. I know that I’m dead.”
She will tell you things you don’t understand. She will make you question everything you thought you knew. Be patient when she talks in circles, when she doesn’t finish her sentences. Listen even when you don’t know what she is saying, because there are clues to the mystery of her hidden inside all these things you don’t understand. And when she tells you the earth is nothing more than a reflection in the surface of the moon, tell her you believe her.
We were walking through the woods. She was looking around, looking at the trees, the rocks, the leaves. Every so often she would stop and write something in her notebook. She was looking for clues to her existence, looking for clues to her disappearance. I was just looking at her. I watched her reach out, her fingers brushing the trunk of a tree, the surface of a rock. Each time they sank in a few inches, and each time I felt a useless surge of panic that she would disappear inside these woods.
“It happened around here somewhere,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“The birds told me. Can’t you hear them? Just listen to the wind.” She climbed on top of a log and walked across it as if it was a bridge to somewhere. I followed her, afraid that if I did not walk exactly where she did, I would be left behind. Then she stopped so suddenly I almost ran into her. She turned to face me and in her voice, at the edges of her eyes, there was fear. “You hear them too, don’t you? The birds?”
I wanted to reach out and take her hand, but I had never touched a ghost before and I was afraid. I was afraid that I would try to hold her and she would slip through my fingers like air. I was afraid, but not that I wouldn’t be able to feel her. I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to feel me.
“Of course I hear them,” I said. It would not be the last time I lied to her.
She will need you to tell her what her voice sounds like, what color her eyes are, what her skin feels like. Tell her she is beautiful even when you cannot make out the shape of her nose or the length of her hair. Be patient with her; she doesn’t remember what she looks like. She no longer has a reflection, so you will become her mirror. She will need you to tell her that she still exists. She will need you to tell her that she matters.
She stared at the ceiling as I traced my fingers down the curve of her neck, across her collarbone, down to where the sheets pooled at her hips. I stared, fascinated with the way my fingers made her translucent skin ripple, like breaking the surface of a still pond.
“What’s your name?” I asked, pressing my palm lightly against her chest, marveling at the way it did not rise and fall. I wondered if I would ever grow used to the way she didn’t need to breathe.
“I don’t remember. Something… something with an A maybe…”
I pressed my lips to her cheek. “Allison.” I kissed her again, just below her ear. “Alice.” I tasted the edge of her mouth. “Anna.” Her jawline. “Amy.” Her forehead. “April.”
“April,” she said. “That sounds nice.”
I wondered how her body could feel so warm against mine when her heart no longer had a beat. “Is that your name?”
She shrugged. “It seems familiar.”
The date was April 3rd. I said nothing. I wouldn’t take away this one thing I might be able to give her. “April,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
Forgive her when she is distracted. It is a difficult thing to be a ghost, especially around the living. You will have to make more than your fair share of decisions because she won’t be able to stop trying to fit the clues together, pieces of a puzzle that might form the picture of her death. Her mind is too busy to decide what movie to watch or choose between pizza and Chinese for dinner. She will get lost inside thinking about who she was supposed to be, about what her life might have been.
“Brown hair, maybe. I keep getting flashes of brown hair,” she said.
I handed her a cup of tea and sat down beside her on the couch. I often found myself playing the role of a detective in our conversations. Somewhere between jogging the memory of a fellow cop, interviewing a witness, and comforting a victim.
“Male or female?” I asked, picking up the remote and turning on the TV.
She took a sip of her tea. “I don’t know. It’s just… it’s just flashes. I only have flashes.”
I slipped my arm around her shoulders. “Law and Order or Game of Thrones?”
“Why would someone want to kill me?”
I kissed the side of her head and turned on Game of Thrones. I had not yet begun to worry that almost all of our conversations revolved around her murder. I had not yet realized how a murder did not always break you like the shatter of a hammer against glass, forceful and all at once. Sometimes it was patient, picking at the seams one by one, until you were helpless, freezing in the cold, with shreds of the blanket that had once kept you warm slipping through your fingers.
She will spend endless amounts of time staring at walls, trying to remember the moment she died. She will disappear inside books, inside movies, inside stories that are only in her head, trying to escape the same moment. Sometimes she isn’t really in the room with you, even if you think you still see her. Ghosts slip away easily, slip through walls and doors and windows and arms. She will forget that these things should contain her, should hold her. Some days will be worse than others. Some days you will call her name and she will answer you. Some days she will forget her name belongs to her. And some days she won’t be able to hear you at all.
I lathered shampoo into my hair and watched her rinsing the suds off hers. I was okay with our silences, which happened fairly often. I didn’t mind the quiet; I was okay with simply existing in the space beside her. It wasn’t the quiet that bothered me, it was the feeling that sometimes accompanied the silence, the feeling that she wasn’t really here, the nagging sense that although I could see her, she was too far away for me to reach.
When long minutes had passed without her moving and my skin had grown cold, I finally spoke. “April,” I said, wanting to make sure she could still hear me.
She just stood there, water pouring over her body and through it. She could have been a trick of the light, a figment of my imagination. I reached out, touched her side. My fingers slipped through skin, flesh, and then I felt bone. Still she did not open her eyes. I reached out with my other hand, trying to hold her at the hips.
“April,” I tried again, and still no response. My grip tightened, pulling her against me. I kissed her, not stopping until I felt her lips move against mine, until I felt her hands on my shoulders. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her to me, wanting to make sure she was real. I wondered who I was trying to convince.
Remind her that you love her. Say it again and again, because she will have trouble holding onto the words. Even when she wants to, she won’t always be able to feel you when you touch her, she won’t always be able to taste you when you kiss her. Don’t give up. It will be worth it when her transparent, ever-shifting skin turns the color of a blush. It will be worth it when her heart beats beneath your hands, even if it is only once.
I handed her the green toothbrush after squeezing toothpaste on it, took up my red toothbrush, and started brushing my teeth. We had been living together for six months now, and had still made no progress in finding her murderer.
“I wonder how he did it,” she said and I knew she had forgotten she was holding the toothbrush.
I spat into the sink. “So a movie do you think? Or read tonight?” I had begun to try to pull her away from her past, to help her look toward the future, to help her look toward me.
“A gun maybe. Or a knife.”
I watched the toothpaste fall off her toothbrush and onto the floor. I wiped it up with a bit of toilet paper.
“Maybe it was a she… I shouldn’t assume.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, not looking at me. “Do you think it was slow? Painful? A crime of passion or was it planned?”
I took her toothbrush and set it back in the cup on the edge of the sink. Slipping my fingers between hers, I led her down the hall to our bedroom. I sat on the edge of our bed and pulled her onto my lap. She looked at me then, as if she had just realized I was there.
“Why do you think they wanted me dead?”
I took her face between my hands. “I love you.”
She stared at me for a long time, until I was beginning to wonder if she had heard me at all. When she finally spoke her voice was desperately soft, as if she was afraid of her own question. “Why?”
“I love you,” I said again. I held her until my hands no longer went through her. I held her until I felt it against my chest, her heartbeat, solid and strong.
Forgive her when she disappears inside other people. Forgive her when you lose her inside someone who cries and can’t stop. Forgive her when she becomes a person who cannot stop screaming. Forgive her when you no longer recognize this woman who gets angry at you for no reason at all. Forgive her because she is just trying on people the way you tried on personalities in high school. She is just trying to remember who she used to be, trying to figure out who she is supposed to be now. Forgive her, and remind her who she is to you.
It was late when I got home from the pub. I was surprised to find her still awake, watching TV, a bottle of wine on the table.
“Hey babe, what are you still doing up?” I asked, slipping off my shoes.
“Why can’t you ever be home on time?”
I sighed. “I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it would not be enough. I felt a headache begin behind my right eyebrow.
“You said that last time, and the time before, and the time before that. Is it really so hard to let me know when you’re going to be home late?” She was standing now, facing me.
“I’m sorry. Look, I’m really tired. Let’s just go to bed and we can talk about this in the morning?” I reached out to take her hand, but she yanked it away.
“Don’t touch me! You can’t just keep talking your way out of this!” She crossed her arms over her chest. “You were with her weren’t you?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting just a little?”
“Oh right, I’m crazy! The crazy dead girl. Is that what you tell your friends?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She waved away my words with an angry hand. “You’re thinking it! I know you are!”
I tried to focus on what she was saying but I was distracted by how definite her edges seemed now, how the light reacted with her like any other person, as if she wasn’t a ghost at all. I reached out and took her by the arms, reveling in how human she felt. “She’s just a friend from work. I’ve told you.”
“I’ve seen the way she looks at you. I’ve seen the way you look at her. Must be nice to touch someone with blood in their veins. Must be nice to kiss someone who’s still alive. Why don’t you just leave me already?” She pulled away from me and stormed into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
I waited a few minutes before going in, before curling up behind her on the bed, feeling the strength of her anger push back against me. I was always torn when she took up these battles with me, torn between hating the fight and loving how it made her so alive. I kissed her neck, telling myself to never forget the way she felt, solid and living beneath my lips.
I whispered the words against her skin: “Do you see the way I look at you?”
When she texts you in the middle of the day, don’t think she is clingy. Reply to her, because she is weighed down by all the things she doesn’t remember. She needs you to respond, because sometimes when you’re not around, she feels like she is disappearing. When she cries in the middle of the night, don’t think she is leaving. She is just weighed down by all the things she does remember. She needs you to hold her, because sometimes even when you are around, she still feels like she is disappearing. Hold her and don’t let go.
I woke up to her crying. Not the sound; she was a ghost, she had mastered the art of silent pain. But I could feel her beside me in our bed, her body shaking from the sobs, her own personal earthquake. I worried she would break apart along the fault lines, worried the pieces of her would drift away, so much more difficult for me to hold onto than the whole of her. I wrapped my arms around her, so tight it would take the air from a person who still breathed.
“I’m here,” I told her, because I wasn’t sure she could feel me. “I’m here.”
I held her until her body went still. She twisted in my arms, and I looked into her face, my heart thumping against my ribs as if it could escape me to live inside her, to bring life back to her body. Her eyes had been washed clear of color by her tears. She had never looked more like a ghost and I had never been more terrified of the love I could feel for her, taking up all the space inside my veins until it choked my heart.
She looked at me like I could save her, and I had never wanted to be a hero, but I wanted so badly to be hers. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft, terrified. “Do you think I deserved to die?”
“No,” I said without hesitation. “No, Jesus, no. Never. Never.” I held her tighter, until I could feel her body sinking into mine. She was always not quite solid, but at times like this, she was more ghost than human, more dead than alive. I held her until she fell asleep, her tears still soaking into my shirt, damp against my skin. I stayed awake for hours, remembering the girl I had followed across that log, across that bridge, remembering the girl who heard clues in the way birds sing.
She will love to travel, love to try on new places, but you will have to be careful that she doesn’t get swallowed whole. Hold her hand when you cross the street because she will get lost in the feeling of the sun on what used to be her skin. She will get lost in picturing herself in this place, as these people. She will forget to watch for cars because she no longer fears death. For this same reason, you will have to keep her from standing too close to fire, from being swept out to sea by the current. It will be hard work to keep her from dying again.
She was running.
I tripped over stones and fallen branches, struggling to keep up. My lungs and legs burned with the effort, but I couldn’t let her out of my sight. What if she never came back?
“April!” I shouted. “April, wait!”
“I know where it is! I know where I died!” She didn’t slow down; if anything, she seemed to go faster. Then she was gone.
“April! April where are you!” I broke through branches that pulled at my clothes, my hair, my skin. Even the forest was trying to prevent me from reaching her.
Then the trees ended and there she was. Standing on a cliff. Standing way too close to the edge.
“It was here,” she said. “This is where I died.”
I walked towards her slowly, as if I might spook her. I was afraid to breathe, worried that any shifting of the air around us would push her over. I reached out and took her hand. “April, get away from there. Come back to me.”
I looked at her, ignoring what she might be looking at. I didn’t want to look down, didn’t want to find the body that she used to have, didn’t want to see it bloody and broken, decaying there all alone.
I had to pull hard at her hand before she turned to face me. I couldn’t make out the edges of her, couldn’t tell where she ended and the blue began. The wind was pulling at her, pulling more and more of her into the sky.
“Don’t go,” I begged her. I knew it was selfish but I didn’t care. “Don’t leave me alone.”
She shimmered back into focus, slowly at first, then all at once. Closing the distance between us, she kissed me softly on the mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll try harder.”
I held her hand all the way home, sure that if I let her go, she would disappear.
Sometimes you will have to talk for her when you are out at parties, because she has forgotten how to interact with the living. You will have to hold her hand so she doesn’t drift away, so she doesn’t get lost in the crowd, doesn’t wander down dark alleys, into back corners in the pub, all the places the dead are drawn to. She will try to live for you and that is dangerous. She will try to live for you and in doing so, she might forget she is dead. This is the happiest both of you will ever be, but remember it’s a long way to fall, from alive to dead. It’s a long way to fall.
She tried for a long time. She put away her notebook and she didn’t mention her death or her murderer. Instead we talked about life, talked about living.
We started going out more and she would talk to people. She started taking walks and joined a book club. We took trips at the weekends and she laughed, sang along with the music in the car. It was on one of these trips that she said it. We were on the beach, sand between our toes, the sun going down. I loved looking at her, watching the sun change her skin the same way it colored the clouds. I loved listening to her read the poetry she saw in the rolling of the waves.
She kissed me suddenly, surprising me.
I laughed. “What was that for?”
“I love you,” she said.
I pulled her to me, kissing her hard, trying to make sure she didn’t lose those words, didn’t lose that feeling. I held her tight, desperate to make sure she held it in. “Say it again.”
“I love you.” Her lips pressed softly against mine. “Do you hear it? Do you hear the birds?” Her eyes were the colors of the sunset.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.” And this time I was telling the truth.
Know that she will try very hard to make you happy, but she is a ghost and you are alive, and this will inevitably become a problem. She will turn her back on all she has been looking for in an effort to make things work, but she won’t be able to keep running forever. Her death will catch her eventually and you won’t be able to save her.
I slammed my hand down on the table. “Just eat something!” I shouted.
She flinched, pulling one knee up to her chest and wrapping her arms around it, a shield to protect her from me. In front of her was a plate piled high with steak and potatoes, gone cold from waiting.
I ran my hands through my hair, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that you haven’t eaten in days.”
She was starting to fade away. It was getting more and more difficult to find her in a room. She didn’t make an impression when she sat down on the couch, didn’t shift the sheets when she was in bed next to me. She was losing the ability to open doors; her hands were beginning to pass through things.
I’d been trying to pretend everything was all right, but it wasn’t. She wasn’t. She was drifting away from me and the harder I tried to hold on, the faster she faded away.
I stood up, walking around the table and crouching down beside her. I took her hands, ignoring the way they vanished inside mine.
“April, love, talk to me.”
She shook her head.
“How can I help if you won’t talk to me?”
She opened her mouth and closed it again. She stood up and led me to the bedroom, pulled me down onto the bed, covering her, smothering her. I needed no more encouragement than her hands tugging at my shirt.
I made love to her as if I could make her live again. She held onto me, the edges of her shimmering in and out of focus. When she started to cry, I kissed her tears.
“I love you,” I said. “I love you.” I said it over and over, as if my love was a rope that would keep her here with me.
She said it back. “I love you.” And this time, this time, for the first time, I couldn’t stop the doubt from creeping beneath my skin like poison. I didn’t doubt that she loved me, didn’t doubt that I loved her. I doubted that our love would be enough to make her stay.
Know that she will break your heart. All stories of murder are tragedies, and hers is no different. She is a ghost, a life cut short, and her broken edges will hurt you. She won’t always be able to hide her pain, and you will see glimpses of her death without her wanting you to, without you trying. And those glimpses of her agony will all but kill you.
She was gone.
I got home from work and she wasn’t there. I didn’t panic at first, because this happened every so often. I would come home and she would have vanished. Sometimes it was quiet, nothing disturbed, nothing out of place. I would search, walking from room to room, calling her name. I would find her in bed, staring out the window, or maybe sitting on the floor in a corner, lost in a book.
But sometimes, like now, it was violent. A wine glass knocked over on the table, books shoved off the shelf and onto the floor. The things she had tried to use to keep herself here. When this happened, I knew she wasn’t in the apartment. Sometimes I found her, at the pub or at the beach, and sometimes she came back on her own.
It wasn’t until after I had searched the pub and the beach without success that I started to panic. It took me longer than it should have to realize where she must have gone. I drove down back roads at a pace that made me wonder if I was trying to become a ghost too. I ran through the rain, struggling to remember the path we had taken before. When I broke through the final line of trees, I saw her, standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down.
“April,” I said, and at the same time I wondered if a name she wasn’t sure was hers would be enough to call her back. I walked carefully to stand beside her, not looking down. “April.” I wanted to reach out, to pick her up in my arms and carry her back home. I made promises to myself. If she came back with me I would try harder. I would take her to see all the places she dreamed of. I would watch her favorite movies again and again. I would read all the books she loved. I wouldn’t fight with her. I would tell her I loved her every hour on the hour. If she would just come back to me.
Her voice was so quiet I almost didn’t hear her. “It was me.”
“What?” I was afraid to touch her, worried I would tip her over the edge.
She turned to look at me, the rain going right through her, and I wondered if it was too late. “I remember,” she said, her voice hollow. “It was me.”
“I don’t… I don’t understand.” I wished she would start crying, screaming, anything other than the dead look on her face, making her more corpse than ghost.
“I’m the murderer.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No.”
I couldn’t tell if she was crying or if it was just the rain. “I killed myself,” she said.
I shook my head. “No, no you didn’t. No. It’s not true.” This was by far the darkest of the lies I had told her. This was the moment I would come back to, the moment I would torture myself for endlessly.
I should have let her tell me the truth. I should have accepted it and gone from there. I should have told her I was sorry, but she could start over. I should have told her it was okay, I loved her anyway. I should have asked her why she’d done it, helped her find an answer. Maybe, if I had, it wouldn’t have ended the way it did. But instead, as I looked at her, I couldn’t take it, couldn’t take the memory of her suicide, playing across her face over and over. I couldn’t take seeing her in that much pain.
“No,” I said again. “Come back, come home with me, we’ll figure it out, we’ll figure out who really did it, I promise.” I held out my hand. “I love you. Come home with me.”
I managed to convince her and that night I desperately fought sleep as I held her in my arms. I was certain that if I took my eyes off her, I would never see her again. But I was exhausted, and as my eyes drifted closed, I heard her whisper, “I love you,” before sleep finally took me.
In the morning I knew she was gone before I opened my eyes. There was no visible evidence that she had existed at all. No clothes, no mug of half-drunk tea, no pictures. I couldn’t describe the angles of her face, couldn’t remember the smell of her hair, couldn’t tell you the color of her eyes. I pressed my hand against empty white sheets.
Outside, the birds were singing.
Erin Lodes is a Michigan native who recently spent two amazing years living in Ireland. She is currently writing short stories and growing her freelance editing business. She suffers from incurable wanderlust, loves red wine, hates coffee, and wants nothing more than to travel the world and tell good stories. Erin has recently had her first piece of fiction accepted for publication by New Zenith Magazine.