‘Salt and Smoke’, Storm Blakley

All the ghost stories seem to take place in conveniently creepy places like old manors at midnight, but not mine. It’s in a family-owned corner convenience store, at about three in the afternoon, that I first see my true love.

I’m in for my usual restock of cheap whiskey and harsh cigarettes, and have already had too little to eat and entirely too much to drink. Don’t judge me, you don’t know my life. I don’t even bother with a basket, barely succeeding in keeping the three brown bottles from spilling out of my arms. I look up, having prevented a small disaster, and there she is, short and curvy, just watching me with those stunning dark eyes, as knowing and unknowable as the sea at night.

She wears steel-toe boots and a dress with flowers of some sort on it, a large-brimmed straw hat with a wide ribbon hanging down back resting on her short dark hair. I can’t tell you what colour any of it was, so don’t ask. Ghosts don’t have colour like the rest of the world; they belong to the in-between places, and whatever colour they might once have had leached out of them when they died. I don’t mean to sound cold; it’s just the way things are. Colour belongs to the living, not the dead. They exist in black and white and grey. Light and shadow, life and death, and the liminal spaces in between, that most people can’t perceive.

But I can. I’m the only one I know who can, since Gram passed away five years back. I miss her, so much, every day. She was the only one who ever understood, and I count myself lucky to have had her to teach me all she could. She’d be disappointed in me now, I know. She saw helping ghosts as a responsibility, while I see it a lot more like a burden. I drink to try to keep the ghosts away, as well as the memories. It might not be so bad if she were around, but Gram understood death better than anyone, and it’s highly unlikely she’d be stuck here, still. Her business was death, so no unfinished business there, as far as I can tell. It’s not like she wouldn’t come see me if she were still around, right? Right?

The afternoon sunlight shines right through the ghost, and she looks like gold, and it takes my breath away. She smiles, giving a shy little wave, and I almost drop my bottles when I instinctively try to wave back. This is met with a grin, but before I can react, it’s my turn at the till.

I toss a handful of stained, crumpled bills on the counter, and ask Andray for a pack of jerky, as well. He slides a pack of Smoke ’em If You Got ’em Assorted Jerky into the bag, beside my Hoarse Creek whiskey and Grove’s Unfiltereds. Andray’s a good man; he knows what I like.

“You need more to eat than that,” he implores, as he picks up the bills and unfolds them, riffling through them quickly with long fingers and doing the math in his head. “You don’t take care of yourself, my momma’s gonna have a word.”

I laugh, and tell him to keep the change, buy his mom flowers for me. They’re good people, Andray and Mrs. M. They take good care of me, which is probably for the best, since I don’t take care of myself much these days. Gram and Mrs. M would have gotten along like peanut butter and jelly, or something. Shut up, metaphors aren’t my jam. Ghosts are, supposedly, but I hate it. Seems to me that we shouldn’t hate the things we’re best at, but life has a way of fucking with me. I feel like I’ve forgotten something, but it dances just past my grasp, as such things often do.

Outside, I start to make my way down to the docks, my ragged runners slapping the pavement in an unsteady rhythm, the peeling sole on the left flapping a counterpoint, and the ghost follows, noiselessly. When you don’t really have feet, it’s hard to make footsteps.

I chose the docks for a reason. Salt is a good barrier against spirits, supposedly, and my hope was that the salt air coming in off the bay would keep the ghosts further away. It’s mostly worked, but the more stubborn ones get through. And they’re all so damned stubborn. Not-stubborn people don’t usually hang around after they’ve died. The noise of the boats coming and going, the susurrus of the sea rasping against the stones, can drown out the whispers of the dead, and that helps me sleep, which must be a good thing. Booze helps, but doesn’t, at the same time. I used to dream, I think. I read somewhere that everyone does, that if we don’t, our sanity starts to crack, but I don’t, anymore, or at least, I don’t remember them, and I can’t remember the last time I ever felt rested.

My apartment sits over a warehouse, so I have a nice view of the bay, and the sunsets on the water can be spectacular. When I’m awake enough to see them, anyway. Not as often as I’d like, if I’m being honest. I used to love watching the sunsets. They’re an in-between time, like ghosts exist in in-between places, and being drawn to them is part of my nature, I guess, as much as them being drawn to me.

I ignore the ragged armchair I’d hauled off the street a few years back, my only real piece of furniture, and sit on the floor by the window, out of the sun, thumping my bag down at my feet and reaching in to grab a bottle. The plastic cap cracks under my grip, and the top spins off easily, rolling across the floor and through her feet. I wince slightly, because that’s incredibly rude, but she doesn’t react. After a long drink, I rest the bottle in my lap and meet her eyes again.

“What’s your name?”

“Alia.” Her voice is louder, stronger than I expected. Ghosts fade with time, and it looks like she’s been dead for quite a while. She looks thin, attenuated, like smoke pulling apart from itself as it escapes the fire. She sits down across from me, cross-legged in the shadows, and I can’t help but wish she’d sit in the sunlight, so I could see her golden again.

“Hi, Alia. I’m Riley.”

“Nice to meet you, Riley.” It’s awkward, but kind, and that’s a nice change from the usual demands. You’d think that being dead would make people less likely to be assholes, but most of them, it just makes them worse. Especially when they find the one person in the entire fucking city, as far as I know, who can see them. Sometimes I think about moving to the woods, but that seems like such a pain in the ass, and there’s no way I could ever afford it.

“You’ve been wandering a long time.” I take another drink and light a smoke with the lighter I always carry in my pocket, though it’s almost out of fuel; I knew I forgot to grab something at Mrs. M’s.

There’s something wonderful about a perfect sunbeam, angling through a shadowed room, and watching the smoke dance in it, eddies and spirals, grey in gold. She’s watching it, too, with an indescribable longing in her eyes. Understandable; how long since she’s been able to feel anything?

“Yes.” She hesitates, twisting her fingers together in her lap.

“What are you looking for?” I ask, changing the subject. If she doesn’t want to talk about her life or death, that’s fine, and I’m not going to pry; ghosts deserve privacy as much as everyone else. Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they aren’t still people.

She came to me for a reason, though, so that’s fair game to ask. Most ghosts stick around because they need something. Closure, usually, though sometimes it’s an object, or someone they care about. Strong emotions tie people to places in life, so it stands to reason that that would last beyond death.

“It’s silly,” she laughs, looking away shyly.

“Can’t be. If it were, you wouldn’t still be here.”

She’s surprised at that, and a smile spreads across her face, chasing away the worry like the rising sun chases the morning fog off the bay. It’s wonderful to see; most of the ghosts I meet are angry, though I expect a lot of that has to do with my own attitude and hostility. I shouldn’t be, I know. Taking it out on them is wrong, but I didn’t ask for this, and since Gram died, I’ve been so alone. I’m still in the wrong there, though, and I’m going to have to work on that.

Gram always told me to be gentle with the dead. They’re lost, she reminded me, whenever I got frustrated. They’re lost, and alone, and scared, a lot of the time. I can almost hear her voice, and feel the warmth of her smile, her hands, the joints swollen and painful, on my shoulder. Be gentle, she said. Be gentle, be truthful, be kind, and make them welcome in your home.

A gust of wind brings the salt air in through the window, stirring the ragged band flag I pretend is a curtain, and I’m ashamed, yet again, that I’ve let her down; this isn’t a welcome place for the dead. There’s no change in Alia’s posture or expression, but for a moment she wavers, a reflection on water stirred by a breeze, and I’m terrified she’ll vanish. Salt doesn’t kill ghosts, just keeps them away, but she’s been here so long, she’s so faded, that for a moment it looks like she’ll tear apart like old silk.

I offer to close the window, but she shakes her head, the ribbon on her hat sliding gracefully over her shoulders.

“I almost feel like I can taste it,” she murmurs, and there’s that longing again. How hard, how lonely must it be, to exist in a world that doesn’t see you? To walk the ground of a place you called home, only to see everything change over the years, until nothing you knew remained, and to have to grieve your losses all alone?

“My dad ran a fishing boat, and he always told me the salt was in our blood.” That smile again, only lightly touched with sorrow. “This is the first time I’ve been back to the sea in many, many years.”

“That must have been hard, to be so close, but unable to come back home.”

She nods, and smiles again, but she looks so tired, worn out like a favourite dress.

“I’m sorry I brought you here. Would you like to go somewhere else?” Awkward again, but I’ve never been good at talking to people. Gram charmed everyone, because who doesn’t love a little old peach of a lady, but that’s a skill I was never able to master.

She’s shaking her head again.

“I don’t think I have much time left, and if this is the end, I’d like to be able to be home again, or close to.”

We sit in silence for a bit, her eyes on the sea out the window, drinking in the view of the sea as if trying to commit it to memory, while I do the same with every curve of her dark face. She doesn’t, we both know. Have much time left, I mean. Days, maybe, at best.

“What happens?” she asks, turning back to meet my eyes. Direct, this time, no shyness, only fatigue. “When we go?”

I answer her truthfully, as she deserves, as Gram would have wanted.

“I don’t know. Everyone has ideas, but I don’t think anyone really knows. Most people, I think, just make up stories, because uncertainty and fear of the unknowable are scary as fuck.

“My Gram, she knew more than most. Your family came from the sea? Mine came from the dead. As far back as we can remember, women in our family carried the dead. That’s what Gram called it: Carrying the Dead.

“Gram said that those we could help found their way home, but those we couldn’t would fade like old cloth, the weight of their grief tearing them into smaller and smaller pieces until there’s nothing left.

“Carrying the dead doesn’t just mean that we carry them home. We carry their memory, as long as we can. Everything else might fade away, but the memory of the dead we carry until the end.”

“Do you like music?” she asks suddenly, abruptly, her voice a melody all on its own.

That’s a loaded question, and a sore spot, but fair’s fair. If I’m going to ask her questions, she can, too, though I’m puzzled by the change in topic.

“I used to. I was in a band, once.” My stomach growls, so I butt out my smoke and tear into the bag of jerky, careless of manners or propriety. I haven’t eaten all day, so the smell is heavenly, even if it doesn’t count as real food. To be honest, I haven’t eaten much since Gram died. Everything tastes like ash. She’d be so sad to see me like this, I know, but when she went, so did all the light in my world, and I just don’t know how to deal with it, let alone carry on.

Until today, when I saw a vision in black and grey and gold.

The sun has lowered while we’ve been talking, and the beam on the floor is almost touching her. Outside, the afternoon sun will be dancing on the waves, marking the sails in shadow and light. Ships and boats of all sizes will still be coming in and out, regular as the tides they use to work their trade. Maybe one of them belongs to her family, still on the salt despite the gulf of years between them.

“What did you play?”


“Can I listen?”

I stuff the last of the jerky in my mouth, as I get to my feet, leaving the packet crumpled carelessly on the floor. Gram never ate in front of the dead; she felt it was disrespectful to those who could no longer enjoy the comforts of the living. She’d have tea, and pour a cup for them, a small offering like we used to give to hearth gods, back in the day. I haven’t done that since we shared a pot on our last day together, and I feel guilty, now. Alia deserves better, but I don’t have any tea to offer. My stomach appreciates the sustenance, though, since it was already getting whiskey-sour, and the taste of salt and smoke lingers on my lips.

The speakers are dusty with disuse, and I have to use my sleeve to scrub out the docking port enough to clip my phone in. I’d wanted to delete the songs when the band broke up, but never did have the energy to get around to it. My own way of carrying that particular dead, I suppose. No one else had the recordings, so if I’d done so, there’d be nothing of it left.

It sounds tinny, coming out of the cheap speakers, but she closes her eyes for a moment, that brilliant smile spreading across her face again. “Atmosphere,” Imani had called this one when she wrote it, and her guitar work was impeccable, rising and falling so as to reach the stars, my bass pulsing behind in a counterpoint as steady as the tide. Aditi had been a supernova on drums, always grinning, her impossibly solid rhythm the gravity that held the rest together. I wonder if she still plays.

I turn around, and Alia is behind me, one hand outstretched. She’s in the sun again, and gods, she’s beautiful. Here, away from the clutter of life, I can really see it. Glowing gold and black and grey shadows, the skirt swaying around her legs, and those eyes, like wells of night.

“Dance with me,” she asks, a small smile on her lips. I don’t know how, let alone how it’d be possible, but I don’t hesitate.

I step forward, reaching out for her hand, and her arm goes around where my shoulders would be. There’s no contact; there wouldn’t be, since ghosts don’t have mass, but somehow, our bodies move together as the music swirls around us, carried by the breeze off the bay, two strangers in tune with one another.

Imani’s guitar sings higher, her voice meeting every note, singing of hope, of reaching our dreams. The bassline is a pounding heartbeat, matching mine, and I can almost feel the weight of the woman in my arms. Aditi’s drums are inexorable as an avalanche, building towards a crescendo, and the suddenness with which the rhythm stops makes if feel like the floor has dropped out from beneath us, Imani’s voice hanging in the silence, clear as crystal, a lifeline in the abyss of absence.

“Thank you,” Alia whispers. “I always wanted to dance with a girl I liked.”

She kisses me, and to my shock, I feel it. Salt and smoke on my lips. Salt to ward off spirits, and smoke as a gift for them to enjoy, Gram had told me, one of my first lessons as a child. How could I have forgotten?

Alia gasps, taking a step back as if burned, touching her fingers to her lips.

“Salt,” she whispers in wonder, joyful tears in her eyes, and it’s as if a weight has been lifted off her, as if she’s come home after an indescribably long journey. Her body turns to mist, radiant gold in that perfect beam of sunlight. That sea breezes gusts through, sweeping her off her feet, her human form collapsing into a cloud, then carries her off through the window. I follow, silently, and lean my hands on the splintered sill to watch as she spreads out over the bay, headed towards the sea, going home.

There’s a new hollow inside me, next to the one that came when Gram left, but somehow, the two together make the pain less. Strange, how we deal with grief, with loss. Sometimes, one loss creates a hole big enough to swallow the world, but a second can take some of the pain away, as if the first ached with loneliness, and the second keeps it company.

Entwined with that, though, ribbons of gold weaving through the darkness of loss, is a sense of purpose I haven’t felt in a long time. Despite the losses she’d been through, Alia had always smiled, at least in the short time I’d known her, and there’s a joy like nothing else in coming home. Somehow, watching her disperse over the sea, I’ve also found my way back home.

I will remember her, as I remember all the others, those from before, and those yet to come. I will carry their memory to the end, like my Gram taught me, and I will never forget a dance in the afternoon sunlight, and a kiss that tasted of salt and smoke.

© 2022 Storm Blakley

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