AT NIGHT IT FILLS MY mouth, this unnamable, unmournable ghost. I don’t know who it is, but on calm nights it tastes like smoke and cedar. On days when the wind sweeps in, hard and angry from the north, it tastes like ocean salt. It pushes against the corners of my gums, pressing down on my tongue.
The first time I tasted it, it was smoke in every pocket, the thick fog of a raging fire, the last puffs of wood, bending in flame.
“Do you smell that?” I asked her. Eve was sitting across from me, picking at the fries she had sworn was enough for lunch.
“What?” she asked. Her nostrils flared, just a little, just so that I knew she was trying.
“Can’t you smell that smoke?” I glanced around the bright green lawn where we sat, waiting for our lunch break to end. I thought that there must have been a scent on the wind so heavy, a breeze so dense with the smell of fire, that it had come in through my nose, tricked my mouth into thinking it was a taste.
I watched her knit her eyebrows, look up at the sky. Her eyes were blue.
“No,” she said. “I don’t smell anything.”
It vanished then, like it knew.
“How’s your sleep been?” she asked me.
“Oh, you know,” I said, shrugging. The sun was in her hair, shining. “What about you, how’s getting used to sleeping alone?”
“Bad,” she said, and laughed.
I don’t know why it picked me, why it nestles close to my gums, blossoming through my mouth in waves of soft yeast. Those first days I felt it, I thought I was dying. I searched the internet for explanations, scoured WebMD for diseases that would conjure these phantom tastes. I checked my teeth for rot. I pressed my spleen. There was no explanation that could account for the way it woke me with lavender sprigs, the way it lulled me with fingers of chamomile, the way it took me by surprise with a burst of mushroom spores. It traced my mouth in a haunting all its own.
The taste of a ghost is something like air with no movement, a flavor with a cold underside, the way a gasp tastes at midnight. It filled me with phantoms, shades of the world it inhabited, the world it moved through.
It woke me, nightly. Tore through my dreams and left me frozen with it in my mouth. It’s presence at night, in the dark, was a scream clouding over my tongue.
The first night it woke me, it delighted in my sharp intake of breath. I could not move and it giggled in the stale spit that had nowhere to go. Stiff, I stared at the ceiling and felt its malice in currents of salted, sour milk. I curdled. It spread like mint, to wash the memory of itself from me.
The day I got fired, or, in my boss’s words, “let go,” from the office where I worked with Eve, it bloomed over my tongue like sweet tarts. As if to comfort me. As if to say, remember when you were a child and could not even dream of a job like this existing. As if to say, you cannot begin to imagine what is out there.
I sat in front of the manager, who was talking somehow far away, about how they had hired me as a temp, and I had done my job. They didn’t have a permanent position to offer me. I hadn’t done anything wrong, they told me, and in my mouth was a riot of sour fruit.
I pressed the tip of my tongue along the backs of my incisors. My lips puckered, drawn over the taste of grapefruit, the tang of cherry. I realized that my manager had stopped talking, had probably stopped talking some time ago, and was staring.
“You can go now,” they told me.
“Okay,” I said.
On the walk back to my desk, it harvested orchards on my teeth. As my tongue swirled, each tooth was a different garden. Each molecule of spit its own tree. The sharp bite of lemons shocked me almost to tears. I had not known that ghosts could summon these phantom tastes, that one could pick me, inhabit my mouth like a houseguest who made no hint of leaving.
“I’ll miss seeing you at lunch,” Eve said, when she heard I was leaving. Her hair was the color of wheat. Her nose was a pillar of salt pinched on her pale face. She scribbled on a piece of paper, slid it across the desk. “We should hang out.” Said in that way that meant we would not be hanging out, but be sitting alone at our own homes, in our own lives. Said in that way that meant she did not know me well enough to know that this was not goodbye. Said in that way that meant that even though we had had lunch together every day for six months, she still wanted to hide.
For the rest of the day, it was on my tongue like fresh strawberries, a summer child.
That night, I woke up to it, there. It was dark and there was no time to see. It was in my mouth, my cheeks puffed. It was salt and burnt honey.
The room was dark. There were things in every corner. I tried to move. Something was wrong. My eyes were open. I could not blink. It had woken me up, on purpose. It was pushing down on my tongue, acrid and biting. It was dark in every direction and something in the corner was moving. I could not scream. I could not breathe.
There, between the bumps of my tongue and the red ridges above, it was laughing.
have you heard of sleep paralysis? I texted Eve.
She had listened to me before, when we sat together on our lunch breaks, as I told her how tired I was, how no matter what time I went to sleep, I woke at three in the morning, how I used to try to go back to sleep but had given up, had started getting up, and wandering through my empty apartment.
She had listened. “I have trouble sleeping too,” she said.
“Yeah?” I held out my bag of chips to her.
“Yeah, well.” She shrugged.
I raised my sandwich and put it back down without taking a bite. Eve didn’t notice. It sucked the moisture from my mouth, and I tried to swallow what wasn’t there.
“You still haven’t gotten a dog yet, huh?”
“Do you think that would help?”
“I don’t know, do you?”
She picked at the fabric on her knees. The cloth was pilling.
“I still miss him, how fucked up is that?”
It filled my mouth with ash, malicious and cruel. I began to cough, to choke, trying to get the thick grey thing of it out of me. She handed me her water, but nothing else could fit around it. I opened my mouth and tried to drink but the water was pushed out, sent sputtering out in coughing fits.
Eventually, I made noises like words. “Have you told anyone yet? That he’s reaching out to you? The police?”
The colors of her eyes went swimming. “What good would it do?”
A few nights after I got fired, I dreamt about him.
I went to his door, knocked, and just like that he was there.
My mouth was saltwater.
His shirt was soft against the fingers of my hand. He was strong, I could feel his muscles shifting, tight, beneath the cloth. My lips pushed open, against his arm. He was saying something, but it didn’t matter.
I bit with the force of all my hauntings. I bit like the sound of ribs cracking.
In my mouth was red, the taste of iron. I pressed my tongue against the punctures.
His hand was on my head. His fist was on my skull. He was yelling words.
That morning I woke to the alarm, the tang of rust on my mouth. I had a meeting with the temp agency. They’d been notified that I was let go and were calling me in to find a new position. I went to the bathroom to get ready. There was a wolf in the mirror. A creature with hair. Lips cracked, chin covered in blood. I raised my hands, grazed my stained face with the tips of my fingers. I was almost late for my appointment, after spending so much time washing my face, brushing my teeth, and screaming.
Two weeks after I was fired, Eve and I sat in a coffee shop far from both of our houses. She stared into her tea, taking imperceptible sips. We had texted every day, constantly, since I’d been fired, and here she sat silent, closed.
“How’s it been at work lately?”
I told her about my new job, my new cubicle, about my manager Felix who loved the company so much it frightened me. She looked at the blue ceramic mug that she held cupped between her palms and did not meet my eyes when she spoke.
“I sent him an email last night.”
It punched through my mouth in carbonation.
“Can we get out of here?”
I picked up our cups, cleared the table as she waited by the door. Behind her, through the glass door the early autumn evening was untamed and unbound.
Outside, walking down the side streets of brick houses, I turned towards her. In the places where the sidewalk vanished and we had to walk in the street, I made sure she walked closest to the curb.
She had him blocked on every social media platform, had gotten a new phone number and preemptively blocked his, had moved to a new apartment without leaving a forwarding address. She didn’t tell anyone where she lived. And still she wondered. He had moved an hour north to a different city, and still she heard things from their mutual friends. Where he was working. Where he went to drink. How much coke he did last weekend.
It cracked my mouth with spoiled eggs. I was sick but would not let it interrupt her.
The night before, she got home late, after sleeping with a stranger she met online. Home to an apartment untouched and unlived in. She had started to boil water for pasta. Started to cry. Turned off the water and poured a glass of vodka.
It rolled across my tongue in thick, rotting yolks.
Around us, the evening was turning a deep purple. Cars drove past us. We had not watched where we were going and did not know how to get back.
After everything, after all she had done to distance herself from him, to make sure he couldn’t find her, she sent him an email. Just two sentences, from an account he already knew, an account she wouldn’t have to change to hide from him.
“I’m such an idiot,” she said. She tugged a leaf from a tree and began to take it apart. I watched her fingers and tried to ignore the nausea.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“It’s okay,” I said. It exploded its decay across my throat and I had to bite my tongue to hold its bile in. “You’re going to be okay.”
“I don’t even want to know what you must think of me,” she said. She stared at the tattered leaf in her hands.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I told her, and it filled my mouth with sulfur.
We found our way back to our cars. She promised to call me when he responded. If he responded. We stood next to her small car, and she reached out to me. She pulled me to herself. She smelled like coconut. It rippled through my tongue, through my head. “Thank you,” she said. She told me her address, let me save it in a note on my phone. “Just in case,” she said. I watched her drive away and did not taste anything at all.
Before I met her, I went to work and went home and that was it. I closed the blinds at night and opened them in the morning. In my one-bedroom apartment, alone, I cooked bland meals for myself and always turned the television off before I went to bed. I woke up often at night. It was there before I met her, but after, after I missed work for being sick and she said she had missed me at lunch, that day we sat outside and she looked at me, when her smile was opened only for me, after she looked at me and told me why she wore a cast, that’s when it started to take on shape.
I had not known that a haunting could fill my mouth, could spread itself over my tongue in soot, in raspberry pulp and pomegranate rinds, in vinegar and spoiled cheese.
I have never seen a ghost, but I can tell you how it tastes.
She called me, late, crying.
“I saw him with someone else,” she said through a wall of mucus and tears.
I got dressed and sped through town.
Her door was unlocked and just that like, she was crying on me, my mouth full of brine.
She spoke words I did not understand about feelings I could not imagine. Her body shook as she wept. I shook as she shook, there in my arms. The things I could not tell her tripled. Cubed. I held her head against my shoulder, led her to sit on the couch.
She was crying in my arms and her breath, and her breath.
I told her about the dream where I went to his house. Where I cursed him. I did not tell her about the taste of his blood.
“You have to understand,” she said. “He’s not all bad.”
The first time I met her, she had just left him. She came to work with bandages on her head. She needed a special chair. She did not let anyone ask what happened. The first time I met her, she smiled at me, and the world fell at her feet.
“I don’t care. He’s a monster.” I should not have said this. Her body stiffened. Neither of us spoke. She stepped away from me.
“What do you know,” she said. I had never seen her like this. I felt it moving on my tongue, tasteless and thick with threat.
“I’m sorry,” the words could barely get past it. “You know what I mean. I just want you to be safe.”
“You must think I’m a real idiot. Crazy.”
“Evie, I don’t.”
We went back and forth like that until the words stopped making sense. I got up and toasted bread for her and watched her eat it. I poured water and watched her drink. Her apartment was so empty I felt afraid.
The question neither of us would put to words: If he was a monster, what did it make her, for loving him, for wanting him back after what he did to her?
“What should we do about the new girl?” I made us into a we, so that she wouldn’t have to feel the weight of it alone. It wouldn’t be hard for me to find her, to track down his social media posts and find her name, her face, a way to send her a message, a warning.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Oh my god.” Her eyes got wide. She held me to her in awkward shapes on her small couch. She made noises like mourning and I held on, my hands on her back. I lost track of time, and eventually she lost the energy to cry.
We fell asleep there, heads pressed together, arms in uncomfortable stretches.
That night I dreamt in iron. I dreamt in front of his door.
He was there, again, his arm still bleeding. I pulled him toward me, pushed his mouth open, pulled his tongue with my teeth. Bit down, hard.
I woke in the night with the lights still on. It was there. The weight of it pressing. My mouth was full of blood. There was something in my throat. My arms were not there. Her door was unlocked. The chain hung limp and useless in the dark. I could not breathe. In an instant of hours, it was everywhere. Her hands were on my back. I listened for the intake of breath, the rustle of fabric as her lungs expanded. Her mouth so close to mine. It was fire.
It was moving from my mouth to my fingers, my toes. It was panic. The taste of smoke beneath my toenails, ashes in the fibers of my skin. It wanted her. I screamed, and it swallowed the sound, sewed my lips closed. I tried to move against it, and it danced.
My muscles were dead and it was pushing at the edges. The taste of flames against my open, staring eyeballs. Burning skin where her fingers touched me.
I stopped screaming. Stopped moving, and there it was.
I had fallen asleep with my tongue between my teeth. It was caged in me. The blood in my mouth was starting to overflow, to seep over the cracks of my lips. The way it hated me tasted the way oil burns.
There were things in the corners, moving. I couldn’t move my eyes to see them. Something was on the other side of the door, and there was nothing to stop it. Something was already in the room, and there was nothing to stop it.
Outside of time, we held each other there, locked and waiting.
When it left, when morning came, I peeled myself away from her. Though I got up slow, though I moved millimeters at a time, she woke up, her face a map of tear stains and smeared makeup.
She gasped at the sight of me. “Oh my god, what happened?”
I covered the bottom of my face with my hands.
“Sorry,” I said. In her bathroom, I washed the blood from my skin, from my mouth.
“I had a nightmare, must have bit down on my tongue during the night,” I told her. “Don’t worry about it, it’s one of those things I told you about.” She looked at me and shook her head.
“Thank you for staying,” she said. She sat with her knees tucked under her chin, her arms wrapped around them. “Do you want coffee?”
That day at work, I didn’t open my mouth for anyone. Not to laugh and not to speak, just in case the marks were visible, just in case it was still bleeding. I smiled with pursed lips, spoke with a mouth unmoving.
That night we sat at her apartment. She read out loud as she wrote the message. “This girl is never going to believe me,” she said. “She’s going to think I’m trying to break them up, out to get him.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You know you’re doing the right thing.”
It was there in memories of watermelon, as if to tell me last night wasn’t real, as if to tell me I had nothing to be afraid of.
She took my hand in hers as she pressed send.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” she said, “but would you stay the night again? I can make you a bed on the couch, it’ll be actually comfortable.”
“Of course,” I said. It was sea salt on the jagged places where my tongue had bled. She hugged me, and the scent of salted coconut was everywhere around us.
I held her to me. When it was time, I would slide the chain into place on the door. I would make sure she drank water before she went bed in her room. I would lay on the couch all through the night, keep my mouth closed, and not let it near her. In the back of my throat, it was there, waiting.
Madeline Kinkel’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Yemassee, and Nightingale Magazine. She is the co-translator of a book of Lida Yusupova’s poetry, forthcoming from Cicada Press. She was an Aspen Words Emerging Writers Fellow in 2020.