Ghosts in My Lungs

I met her in the refrigerated section. In the dead of summer, I was the coldest thing around and she found me with five pounds of chicken in each hand and a plastic bag of tomatoes tucked under my arm. “Do you need help?”

I looked at her, sweat shining off the tops of her shoulders and dark strands of hair clinging to her forehead, and felt that first heatwave like I’d just walked outside. “Oh, I’m okay, I—”

She eased the tomatoes out from my armpit. “Didn’t think you’d need a basket?”

Her eyebrow arched up toward her bangs, a smile teased at her lips, and I wanted to crawl between the piles of cured meats or cartons of milk rather than answer her. “It—” A deep breath in. “I’m just making a dinner run.”

“You’re making ten pounds of chicken for dinner?” she asked, and the smile came out then, sizzling across the plastic-wrapped chicken.

“No.”

I dropped one package back onto the shelf, my eyes flickering from her face for only a second, and then held my hand out for the tomatoes. She held them back, a challenging tilt to her jaw. “You’ll have the same problem again soon enough if you don’t get a basket,” she said.

I felt the heat radiating from her even in this chilled section of the store, steaming through her tank and running shorts. The chill that lived inside me twisted, but the rest of me moved toward her, orbiting her shyly, and handed her the remaining chicken. “Thank you,” I said, and in the shared space between us, the ghosts that lived inside me fogged the air.

They stayed in my lungs most often, sunk low and heavy. Sometimes they sifted through my veins like venom, cold and blue, raising goosebumps as they went. Sometimes they slipped out in coughs and sneezes, or icy words, but they always slinked back in, liquid frost dripping down my throat. They don’t speak, not in their own voices, but still I can hear them like the crunch of packed snow or the crack of ice on a frozen lake. I keep my lips shut tight when I can, to contain them, to keep from spilling their chill into my own words.

I found that difficult the day I met her. “Don’t you have your own shopping to do?” I asked her as I searched for balsamic vinegar.

“No,” she said, still holding my chicken and tomatoes. “I came in for the air conditioning.”

I stood from my squat on the ground, coming back up with balsamic and olive oil. She held her open hand out for the bottles. The sweat on her shoulders was dry but in the creases of her skin it still glistened. “This is all I need,” I lied. “I can take it. Thank you.”

“No basil?” she asked. “Mozzarella?” She tilted her head and the fluorescent light reflected against the damp skin of her neck.

“No,” I said. “I’m not making— no.” My teeth ached like I’d taken a bite of ice cream.

“Okay,” she said. Only then did she withdraw her open palm, but still she didn’t return the chicken and tomatoes. “I can carry these to checkout with you.”

The ghosts pressed against my lips, solid in their violence, and I knew if I opened my mouth they would devour her. So I turned, silent, and she followed me.

Outside, the summer heat was brilliant and the ghosts dripped back into my chest. “Thank you,” I said, when she finally handed over my bag of groceries.

“Do you want to get smoothies?” she asked. She pushed her hair off her forehead, tugged a scrunchy from her wrist, bound back the thick black hair that stubbornly clung to her skin. I said nothing, and she continued. “Or coffee? It’s a little hot, but—”

“Okay.”

“Okay! You live close?”

I gestured up the road with a nod. “Great! You know The Drip on Main? Drop your things off and I’ll meet you there.”

“Now?”

“Unless you’re busy.”

She was sitting by the window when I met her twenty minutes later, sipping on an iced vanilla latte. I sat across from her, curled my hands around my mug of hot chocolate. “You don’t like whipped cream?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why?”

I took a gulp of the steaming liquid, felt the roof of my mouth blister, sending the ghosts back deep into my diaphragm. They fussed, filled what cracks they could between my organs, but stayed down, down, down. “Too cold,” I said.

She did most of the talking, her hands making fluttering shapes in front of her as she told me about herself—her job as a rock climbing instructor, her brother who was also her roommate, her favorite books and movies and the classes she was taking sporadically at the community college. “I’m not looking for a degree,” she said with a vague wave, like she was brushing away a fly. “I just like learning, so I take whatever classes I think look cool. If that included any math I’d probably have, like, four degrees by now.”

My hot chocolate was long gone, but I still kept my hands wrapped around the mug. The ghosts were slowly seeping back into my veins, restless and tangible. “How about you?” she asked, rattling her straw around her cup even after all the ice had melted. “Are you studying anything?”

“English.”

“Nice! Literature is one of my favorite subjects. Can I try to guess your favorite writer?”

She reached across the table and I swallowed hard, forced down the riotous ghosts, held my breath to keep them in place. She gently (so gently I trembled with it) pulled my fingers from their place on the chilled ceramic of my mug. Her hand was warm like a freshly drawn bath, like laundry pulled straight from the dryer, like the end of winter. She touched me like she was afraid she might burn me, with just the tips of her fingers dancing between my thumb and forefinger, and when I did not snatch my hand back, she clasped me tighter. “Frost.”

She waited weeks to kiss me. I could’ve kissed her first, but the last time I had kissed someone, the ghosts had poured from my mouth into theirs and we’d both come away coughing. I was so afraid of choking her. So I waited, as we both stood outside her apartment one June evening, hands clasped, loitering because I had to go home and she had to go to bed, but the cicadas’ song was too lovely to leave. When I finally unlaced my fingers from hers, when the ghosts swept in and turned my fingernails blue, she stretched up onto her tiptoes and kissed my cheek. “Oh,” she whispered, sounding wounded. Her hand reached up, hovered uncertainly over the place her lips had just been. “Oh no, it’s red. Did it burn?”

I rubbed the spot, trying to find a blister or a scorch mark with my fingertips. There was so much fear in her wide brown eyes as she looked up at me, and I knew it was the fear she saw in me whenever I opened my mouth and prayed the ghosts would let me speak. “No,” I said, and it was true. She was so warm but she never burned me. “No, it’s fine. You can—”

She took my face in her hands and pulled me down, kissed me so soundly I only had to hug her waist and hold on.

***

She was never cold. “Never ever,” she said, and she looked so sad when she told me while we lay on her bed, the window wide open and the curtains drifting in the summer breeze.

She was sprawled on top of me, chin sharp against my breastbone but I couldn’t find it in myself to mind. Her legs and arms were matched to mine and we must’ve looked ridiculous, frozen in some kind of mirror exercise, but everywhere her skin touched mine was a place the ghosts couldn’t hide. I hadn’t told her this. Instead, I’d said, “My hands are cold. My arms are cold. My legs now.” By the time every inch of her was pressed to me she was laughing so hard her cheeks glowed. She pressed her smile to my neck, slid her fingers in between mine, and when she began to kiss beneath my jaw, I felt a flicker of heat inside myself.

There were days her heat burned brighter, too bright for her to leave her apartment. She would call me, gasping, choking on the heat that bubbled up inside her. The first time, I brought ice and smoothies, the ghosts running wild inside me. They were quieter in the summer, weaker, but they drew cold from the things I held and filled my body with it. I was shivering on her doorstep, holding the bag of ice out when her brother opened the door.

He was quieter than her, but just as kind in the way he asked how I was and offered me some iced tea while he took the cold things I’d brought. “Iced tea?” I asked, but the ghosts made me spit it, vile and sarcastic. My teeth clattered together. “Are you kidding?”

Before he could respond, two arms, burnished bronze and damp with sweat, wrapped around my waist. She slid her hands beneath my shirt and I thought foolishly for a moment that perhaps she was a bit feverish. Her palms pressed to my stomach, her cheek between my shoulder blades, and the ghosts quailed against her heat. I ran my hands along her arms, gently, shyly, still. “Did you bring ice?” she asked, and through the exhaustion and slur of her speech, I heard a smile.

“You said you were hot.”

She hummed in response and her brother held up the smoothie and a cup of ice in each hand. I saw the way he held them at arms reach, the way he winced when she reached towards him, and I knew there must be some wave radiating from her that he couldn’t bear, that I couldn’t feel. She took the ice, tipped it back into her mouth, chomped on the shards. Steam poured out of her nostrils—not the same heavy fog I choked on when my ghosts were loud, but like a teakettle or a dragon. The moisture clung to my skin, dripped down my nose, and I swept my tongue over my upper lip. She watched me, took my hand, pulled me back to her room.

Her bedsheets, as well as her thin camisole and running shorts, were soaked through with sweat already, but when she pulled me against her on the bed I went so, so willingly. She was crooning some heat-made language, nonsense created by the fever, but I heard every plea when she pressed her lips to my ear. “Hold,” she said, and I did, stripping down and folding myself around her. The ghosts pooled in my core, furious, unable to fight against her scorching skin.

She lay curled in my arms while her insides boiled, sometimes sleeping, sometimes sobbing quietly into my chest, sometimes babbling as if she were drunk, as if this was all a dream. “I will pour you out,” she murmured, forehead pressed to mine while she wrapped my long hair around both our heads like a web, a cocoon. “I will pour you into a glass, a frozen glass! And I will drink you.”

“Have to be a pretty tall glass.”

She cackled, long and manic, and then kissed me like she really would gulp me down.

Each time the fever blazed, I stayed like this with her. It would fade eventually, usually by the next morning and I would wake with clammy skin, chilled, knowing it was past.

By the end of August, her fevers had mellowed. “Summer is ending,” she told me one evening when I noted she hadn’t had one in two weeks. “They only happen in summer, when the heat inside me can’t escape.” She played with my fingers idly, curling them around her own in silly shapes. “Except with you. It doesn’t even get to escape with you, it just…melts.”

I wanted to tell her she had it backwards, that she would have to melt me when the weather cooled, that I could already feel the ghosts turning me to stone when the sun went down. But she had said it so softly, like even she was unsure, that I couldn’t find a way to dispute her. So I only kissed her forehead and let her press her nose to my clavicle.

I began to dream of fires—infernos that worked their way inwards towards me as I stood on a darkened highway. I saw the flames approaching on each side, sparks arching above me, spiraling onto the asphalt and sputtering out at my feet. The heat didn’t reach me but the glow set my skin alight. I always woke shivering and coughing, my chilled breath steaming the air around me. The ghosts never let the warmth keep me long.

It was early fall when I thought I would lose her, finally. Earlier than I had hoped, but the first frost was always a surprise. I awoke shivering, buried beneath my mountain of blankets, and felt the ghosts in my marrow, in every bone. I thought I might snap in half if I moved.

She called at noon and I did not answer. She called again at dinner and again I did not answer. The ghosts were so thick inside me I imagined them carving away my insides to make more room. I cranked the space heater as high as it would go, mounded my blankets higher until there were none left, brewed pot after pot of tea and then eventually only hot water, pouring the nigh-boiling liquid directly from the kettle down my throat, and still the ghosts howled. When the fever had come over her, she had called me and begged for company. When my chill came, I could not open my mouth for fear of releasing all the vile things inside me.

I heard the front door unlock well past sundown. The cold kept me hidden in my nest, or more likely the fear, but still she found me. “Oh love,” she sighed, her voice muffled through the fabric.

The ghosts raged at the simple sound of her voice. Like grease on a flame, they blazed up, and I shuddered so violently the blankets billowed off of me. “Who let you in?” I growled. My voice was distant, detached from my own ears, and I would have cowered from myself.

“I have your spare key,” she reminded me gently.

“Leave.”

She stood there, rooted, no step forward but no step away. I yanked on the blankets and only then noticed she was holding them tight in one fist. “Give them back,” I snapped, my voice breaking like a shard of glass on the last word.

“Are you cold?” she asked, and I knew, I knew, she did not ask it facetiously, she did not mean to ask the obvious. She only wanted to find a way in, a break in my armor where she could reach me. But the ghosts have never been very forgiving. I have never been very forgiving.

“Am I cold?”

The icy mist poured from my mouth, my nose, out my ears like something had finally burst inside me. “Why are you here?” I hissed, crawling forward on my bed. “I never asked you to come. I never invited you—I gave you a spare key in case I locked myself out. Just because you need me when you’re sick doesn’t mean I want the same thing. I want silence, peace, not your—your fucking attitude in my space! I don’t need it! Get out— get out of m-my house!”

The ghosts whipped through the air around us, their laughter like the first crackle of thunder. They shattered the lamp’s lightbulb, the space heater, every mug cluttering my bedside table. Some of them had faces—unrecognizable, but familiar, human, and they looked at both of us as if they knew us. It was difficult to look directly at them, and they moved so fast as to make it impossible anyway. “You see?” I shouted at her over their ruckus. “How am I supposed to deal with this if you’re here?”

She looked away from them, back to me, her mouth hanging slightly open and her eyes wide with fear, or something similar. She’d dropped the blankets in her shock, and I snatched at them again. “Wait—”

Her sharp plea hardly preceded her leap onto the bed, and in the rush I pulled the blankets over both of us, hiding from the ghosts that raged throughout the room. Her breath filled the space beneath the blankets immediately, thick and warm and sweet like green tea. “Is this how you deal with it usually?” she asked. The darkness hid her face but I thought I heard the lilt in her voice that always accompanied her smile.

“They don’t usually get out,” I said. Now that the ghosts were out, my rage was melting quickly.

“Maybe now they’ll leave you alone for good?”

“No,” I told her. “They rarely get out but they always…always come back.”

Another crash sounded above us, and something buffeted the side of our blanket fortress. She flinched, and before I could tell her again to leave my home, she crawled into my arms, all warm skin and soft, tickling strands of hair. She tucked the blanket beneath the back of my head, securing us inside this nest, and then pressed her forehead against my throat. “Fine,” she sighed, and the puff of air that came with it raised goosebumps on my clavicle. “Let them try.”

I was frozen against her, rigid in fear and a lingering anger. “I was handling them fine before you came.”

“Were you? Because when I came in all I saw was a pile of very soft, very trembly blankets.”

There was a burst of cold air beside my ear and I flinched, clutching at her. She hugged me tight, her palms slipping beneath the three sweaters I was wearing and pressing flush to my back. “This is not handling it, love,” she said, not unkindly. “You shouldn’t be alone in this.”

We lay like that, her pressed tight against me while I trembled with fear and with the chill that would never leave me, even when the ghosts ran wild in the air around us. I knew it would abate if she pressed her bare skin to mine, if I took off all the layers of clothes I had armored myself with, but after the things that I’d said to her and with the shame of all my insides poured out, I wanted the cold to hurt. I wanted it to burn me the way I knew she never would.

Eventually, the ghosts tired themselves out. They pressed down on us in a thick fog, dampening the blanket. I knew she would never really feel their cold but I hated the thought of them touching her, so I peeled the blanket back from my face and took a deep breath. They rushed in all at once, filled my chest and pushed out further, and I coughed, choked around them. She sat up, pulled me up too, as if an upright position would settle what was inside me again. “In through your nose,” she said, “out…out your mouth.”

She was uncertain. They’d made her uncertain—or I had. Maybe she didn’t know how welcome her advice would be now. Either way, I did as she said, made a point of it. My breath fogged the air and I clutched my arms around myself. Her hand on my back, patting idly, slid down to the many hems of my sweaters, hesitated. “Please,” I breathed. I’d said this word before, when her hands toyed with my other edges, but this plea was not the same. It cracked and promised to break if she wasn’t careful. But she was. She always was.

Her arms slid beneath my sweaters, wrapped tight around my waist, and held. I hugged her shoulders and trembled against her until her warmth seeped into my bones and I finally, finally, stopped shivering. The ghosts had used so much of themselves that even they couldn’t find an argument against her heat. They slept inside, placated for now, and I fell into her. “Do you want to sleep?” she asked as she lowered me back onto the bed.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I’m really, really sorry,” I insisted. “I do this when it’s cold. It’s only just starting.”

“I figured. Do they always get this bad?”

“Sometimes. There’s never anyone around when it does. I make sure.”

She pressed her forehead to mine. “Is that why you were so mad that I came? You were afraid for me?”

It would be so easy to say yes—yes, that was out of protection, that was out of concern or panic, not my own nastiness.

“No,” I whispered. “I was only thinking about myself. I wasn’t expecting you. I…I get so much worse when I’m cold. So much more me, concentrated me, like my core—”

“It fills your whole body,” she said, not a question or a realization, but a confession.

“You’re never like this with your fever.”

“Not exactly like this,” she allowed. “Not the same, but similar. Mine is more…in my feelings? Well, you’ve seen.” She slid one hand out from under my sweaters and took my wrist, pulling my hand up to press flat against her breastbone. She held it there. “Not many people can say that. That they’ve seen me all shrieks and tears and still stuck around.”

She pulled her other hand out and pressed it over our joined ones. I still felt her touch on my waist, on my back, the ghosts not yet swept back in her wake. “Do you want me to stick around?” she asked, a softness alongside the teasing lilt she uses to hide. She would leave, if I asked. But only if I asked.

“Yes.”