By Avra Margariti
Tendrils of smoke, the same color as my coffee dregs, rub against my cheek. I no longer shiver as much at the icy slickness of her touch.
Picking up my briefcase, I call, “Jeanie, come say bye to Mommy.”
Jeanie was petrified when Phoebe first turned into smoke, but now she hugs her mother around the waist without hesitation, enveloped by the charcoal-dark fog of her body. God, the things children can adapt to.
“Have a nice day, my loves,” Phoebe says, her voice as wispy as bonfire haze lingering over treetops.
I help Jeanie into her wool coat. On the way to the garage, her jam-sticky hand slips into mine. She’s always holding my hand these days, calls me Dad instead of Adrian—it’s like she’s afraid that with her mother up in smoke, I’ll stop loving her as if she were my own.
It’s been a couple of months, and already this is our new normal. Phoebe doesn’t have a solid form sometimes, simple as that. She couldn’t bear to see her reflection in the mirror at first, so Jeanie and I made arts and crafts projects out of cutting holes into cotton sheets—two holes for the eyes and one for the mouth like a ghost. I ironed those vibrant, bedazzled sheets—our girl works wonders with a glue gun—just like Phoebe used to iron my shirts for work. I only stopped cutting holes into sheets after I realized that although ghosts can haunt a place, eventually they move on. They leave.
Phoebe can’t seem to stay corporeal longer than a few hours now. The mailman knocks, she dissolves. The landline rings, she slinks into the cupboard. Jeanie drops a plate, Phoebe scoops her up and spirits her away from the sharp-edged shards in a cloud of smoke.
Roiling plumes lick the living room walls, their stains marring the lavender paintwork.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll swing by Home Depot on my way to the office and buy some cleaning supplies.”
I’ll order takeout. I’ll pick Jeanie up from soccer practice. I’ll do whatever needs to be done.
Always moving, never keeping still, it helps.
“What will happen if we open a window and Mom floats away?” Jeanie asks me one day.
Her drawing, a little stick-figure holding hands with an amorphous blob, lies abandoned on the kitchen table. I look into Jeanie’s wide eyes, robin’s-egg-blue like only a child’s can be.
I should have an answer for her, but I don’t. So I find someone who might.
In her sunny, cream-colored office, the therapist talks about phobias and coping mechanisms, about people turning into birds or plants or natural phenomena.
“It happens more often than you think,” she says, crossing one ankle over the other. Phoebe picks at the seams of her floral sheet. “I once counseled a newly-wed woman whose husband had turned into a wolf. She left bloody steaks on the porch every day for a month, and then one morning her husband sat at their kitchen table, eating a fruit salad as if nothing had happened.”
We make a half-hearted attempt at laughter, Phoebe’s sheet fluttering around the vicinity of her mouth. Yet we both know it’s been three months already.
Three months and zero improvement.
We stopped having sex about a month ago. Entering Phoebe was like being vacuumed into a black hole. I could fall and keep falling forever.
Phoebe cried black, sooty tears when I wouldn’t touch her. “I love you and Jeanie so much,” she sobbed. “So much.”
Not knowing another way to console her, I let her drift over me and mold herself against my body. She told me later that it made her feel safe. Safer, at least.
“I’ve been holding on for so long,” my wife says. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
Every night I fear waking up to an empty bed, but every morning she’s still here. I strip blackened sheets from our bed and blame the dampness of my eyes on the smoky residue.
Stars prick the smoggy December sky. With every chimney in the neighborhood spewing smoke into the darkness, Phoebe doesn’t look out of place. I sit on our marble porch steps, and she huddles against me. Together we look out at our backyard and all the pale dandelions that cling tooth and nail to survival despite the frost.
“Are we forcing you to be here?” I ask my wife, because I won’t forgive myself if I don’t.
“No, I want to be. I just don’t know when… if… I’ll be back to normal. Just when I think I can handle being corporeal, something happens and I can’t hold myself together.”
Jeanie is singing inside the house, ’80s post-punk. She takes after me.
“It’s okay,” I tell Phoebe. “I love you even if you’re smoke. Even if one day you turn into a wolf and I have to buy you steaks still dripping blood.”
She laughs, solid against me. Warmer. I curl my fingers through murky vapor until I grasp her hand. The sweet lilt of Jeanie’s voice bores through the smog.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Argot Magazine, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.