Here then is a memory: I woke out of a dream I lost as soon as I opened my eyes and we were driving somewhere. Outside the sky was as full of stars as I had ever imagined it could be. I looked over at Adrian, concentrating on the road with his hands firm on the steering wheel, and he turned to me.
“Turn something on?” he asked.
I snapped the radio dial, the sharp click of it turning, and Sam Cooke’s voice pooled out.
In the darkness, the music sounded almost alien. I leaned forward and pressed my face to the dashboard, felt the thrumming of the song through my body.
“We won’t be there for a while yet,” Adrian said. And I was perfectly fine with the distance between us and our destination.
We’d been together not that long, a couple of months, when he told me “I carry a lot of ghosts,” and I thought he meant it metaphorically. But he didn’t. He told me the story of how he’d seen them since he was small, how it ran in his family. “The dead follow us around like shadows,” he said. I asked him what it was like. He shrugged at that point. But, later, I’d learned how his parents divorced because of it, how his sister swallowed a handful of pills, how his mother didn’t speak anymore. “They just need so damn much,” he told me. He stared out across the living room at someone in the corner that I couldn’t see. “And we can only give them so little.”
At a party, once, a woman kept me in a corner, her body blocking any possible routes of escape, and barraged me with questions about what I wanted to do with my life. She didn’t know me but she felt like she did, she said. “I can see so your future stretched out before you and, trust me, it’s not great,” she told me. Her breath smelled of rum and Coca Cola, sickly sweet and medicinal.
Across the room, I noticed a man leaning against the opposite wall, he was staring out the window and he looked like someone I had once met in a dream. “Sorry, I need to go,” I said to the woman and pushed past her.
When I approached the man, he turned to me and said, “I know you, don’t I?” And I nodded, though he didn’t, but even his voice felt comfortable to me, like slipping under warm covers on a chilly night. “What’s your name?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Adrian.”
The first time we kissed, for a second, I couldn’t hear a thing. Sound dropped away from me.
Then came the beating of my heart and his.
“Are you happy?” a friend asked me. We were sipping too hot lattes at a café in town. “In general?” I asked. She nodded. “I am,” I said. She studied my face and said, “I don’t remember the last time I was actually happy. Like I remember moments that made me happy, but I don’t remember it ever just being the state of my being. Sometimes, I wake up and I think to myself, what’s the point? And then I go through my day, because that’s what you do, and I get home and go to bed, and even in my dreams, I can’t imagine being joyful.”
I tried to think of an answer, something kind to tell her, but I couldn’t think of anything.
So I asked her, “what do you dream about?”
And she shrugged, “I don’t remember.”
“Then how do you know you’re not happy?”
“I just do. There’s no place that I wouldn’t not be.”
That night, at home, I watched Adrian sleeping and wondered if the ghosts even crept into his dreams. If they asked him for so many things as he chased birds through cities or watched ocean tides cascading backward.
One day I found him sitting in the corner of our room, crying. I tried to touch him but he flinched away until he looked up and saw that it was me. “There’s just too many and I don’t know how to help them.”
I sat down in front of him and held his hands. I didn’t know what I could do. It felt like someone was pushing against my body with all their might, holding me under something vast, and I wondered if that’s how he felt.
In the doctor’s office, she pointed out the shape on the screen, and said, “look, can you see?” I nodded. Adrian held my hand and I could feel his pulse in my palm.
“Do you want to hear?” the doctor asked. She turned up a dial and we heard the beating of a heart, so small and so strong. I wondered if all our pulses were finding each other’s rhythms, matching up to have the same beat.
“What a perfect sound,” Adrian said.
Holding his hands, I tried to let him know that everything would be alright. He looked up, startled, glancing around the room.
“What is it?” I asked.
“They’re gone,” he said.
But around us, I saw so many ghosts. They cluttered the room, studying us. They looked at me surprised, unsure.
“It’s only you here,” he said.
“I’ll always be here,” I said.
That’s what we do for the ones we love, I think. We carry each other’s ghosts.
Chloe N. Clark’s work appears such places as Apex, Glass, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and tweets too much @PintsNCupcakes.