Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

It Was Never the Fire

He was the kid who looked at the sun too long. He hunted for lighters like sharks hunted for blood. Christ intrigued him for all the wrong reasons.

He only ate smoke.

Cigarette smoke. Wood smoke. Car exhaust. Incense. Liquid nitrogen on rare occasions.

Smoke.

• • • •

I raised my mother and my sister. I took boxing lessons for the day my father came back sober. I was lean as a whip, and sharp as a viper.

I kept a gun under my pillow. Four bullets: Headcase. Heartshot. Just In Case. Special Occasion.

I would have had friends if I weren’t so busy being alone.

• • • •

I saw him with the Nicotine Kickers, thin greasy scum of the earth leather jacket junkies who’d beat the shit out of you for a smoke.

My pack was empty. I stared down a pale scarecrow named Derrick who was itching for some sweet burning.

That’s when I saw him, sucking out cigarette smoke from burnt tips like soda through a straw. His eyes were wide, colorless gas puddles. His teeth were rotten and black.

Those flammable eyes watched as I snapped my fist into Derrick’s throat, who crumpled and fell to the concrete, gasping.

“You knocked Derrick on his ass,” the smoke eater said later, sitting behind me in class.

I shrugged. His breath was a humidifier on the back on my neck. “Good,” I said.

“He’ll do the same to you,” he said. “He’s going to after school. I heard them talking about it.”

“Then he’ll end up in traction.” I looked over my shoulder, dead in his saucepan eyes. “I don’t play games.”

“I do,” he said, his voice flat. “But not right now.” He extended a hand. “Smokey.”

I should have turned back around. I should have ignored the black-toothed boy with his lungs full of smoke. But I knew in my heart, that if I pulled back my hand, the smoke eater would continue to fall. He would have nothing to grab on to.

So I shook his hand. “Obvious name,” I said.

“Got a better one?” he countered.

I smirked. “Not right now, Smokey.”

I turned back around as the teacher walked in the room. “Don’t you have a name?” he asked me, quiet.

“Yup.”

I heard him lean back in the chair. I could almost hear him smile.

• • • •

“This is the only time I ever feel close to being human,” Smokey said, letting out a puff of breath that swirled and swam away in the late winter air. Empty of breath, he took a hit of the Evergreen incense sticks he had lit earlier.

“Why’s that?” I asked, half interested.

Smokey breathed deep, began tapping his fingers on the concrete sidewalk. His highest was forty.

Thirty. Thirty-four. Thirty-Seven. Forty-One. Forty-Five.

I glanced over at Smokey. His cheeks were strained and fit to split down the middle. His eyes began to roll back into his skull. The tapping was picking up speed.

“Smokey. You have to breathe,” I said, picking at a hangnail.

The tapping became faster. It was his heart screaming through his fingers:

beatbeatbeatbeatbeathelpmehelpmehelpmebeatbeatbeat

I punched him in the shoulder. “Goddamn it, Smokey, you need to breathe!” His clear eyes found me under their lids and he shook his head, frantic.

This was the fourth time this week. I rapped him on his distended, fleshy stomach, again and again until he broke and snapped like the little rubber band he was. His breath came screaming out of him like dragon fire. He fell onto his side, crying, as he watched it float away.

“Stop fucking doing that,” I said.

“I don’t want to lose it,” whimpered Smokey.

“The hell are you talking about?” I said, getting to my feet.

He was on his back and I saw starlight in his eyes. In his hand, the Evergreen incense sticks were dying. “Breath is the soul, friend,” he said, breathless. “All year ‘round, only I see smoke for what is, the breath of things, the drifting away of it all. Only in the winter, when the world’s so cold we can all see each other dying, do I feel human. When everyone sees through my eyes, that’s when I feel normal. But tomorrow is spring. Tomorrow I lose it all.”

“So why hold your breath?” I asked.

He looked at me, tears standing on the brim of his eyelids. “I didn’t want you to see me dying.”

I stared back, waited for the words behind his words. Smokey always had words behind his words. He rolled over as he spoke though, away from me, so all I could hear next was: “That comes later.”

The Evergreen winked out.

• • • •

“Eternity should be a concern of the small-minded,” said Smokey.

I cracked my knuckles one at a time, focusing on that sweet, crunching sound so I didn’t hit him in the teeth. “Are you trying to say something about me, Smokey?” I asked.

He sat back in his cafeteria chair and put his hands in his lap. “Not your mind, just your perception.” He tapped on a sheet of paper in front of him. “Look at this.”

I glanced up from under heavy lids. Mom had found a new boyfriend. He worked at a liquor store. Having to wait up for them was destroying any chance at sleep I got. It felt a little like childhood.

I looked at the paper. A snake was etched onto its surface, going round, eating itself.

I understood the feeling.

“Why’s he eating himself?” I asked. Crack, went my thumb. Snap, went my pinky. My wrist creaked and cracked with the motion. Smokey did not answer. Crack. Snap. Crack. Snap.

It had gone too quiet. I looked up from my raw knuckles and saw that Smokey’s eyes were on fire. The gasoline puddles, often docile, hazy, dead, had lit up with a heat I’d never seen before.

“He’s not eating himself,” Smokey said, his voice leaking through his teeth. I’d never seen him like this.

So I pushed him.

“He’s eating himself,” I said again.

His pale fists slammed onto the plastic cafeteria table, making our terrible lunches shiver and scatter. Other students, already afraid of the psycho and the smoke eater, jumped.

He stared at me and for a moment, I thought he would lunge. But then, I saw the shaking of his stringy arms, the vicious tide of tears cooling the fire.

“He’s not eating himself, because if he ate himself, he’d die. He’d die into nothing and would not come back. He pursues himself so he does not die! If he catches himself, the world is over. But if he cannot catch himself, he can never die. Do you understand?”

I regarded him for a moment. “No,” I said. “I don’t and I don’t think I ever will, Smokey.”

He stood then, the chair flying out beneath him. I wondered if he would run. I’d never seen him do it, run. His lungs were shit.

“But you don’t have to understand me to be my friend?” he finally said.

Crack. Snap. Crack. Snap. Crack. Creak. Crunch. Snap.

“Would I be here if that was true?”

Gravity found him. He fell into his seat, back arching, head flat on the table, arms draping his head. His whole body shook in the silence.

It took some time before I realized he was laughing.

Crack. Snap. Crack. Snap.

• • • •

I should have been enjoying myself. It was early spring and the baseball game was just exciting enough that I didn’t have to sneak off to the drugstore for a pick-me-up. The sounds of the Saturday afternoon game were enough to drown out the exhaustion of my sleepless nights.

I’d taken a bat to the head of Mom’s monster. But I still could not sleep, only because when I closed my eyes, I saw his tear-stained face.

Still, it was a good day.

But I couldn’t enjoy myself. Smokey and Rebecca were making too much of a goddamn scene.

Smokey had told me once, “God blessed her with curves first and brains last,” but I think he was just in a bad mood. She was a sophomore, smarter than most people in a ten mile radius. She just happened to like boys better than books.

Which would have been fine if not for the kid she stood with, a kid with too much bone and not enough skin, whose thick tattoos spiraled up and around his neck: bat wings flapped into viper’s teeth gnashed into skull and crossbones grinning mad. He stood between her and small Smokey, who fought back against the tattooed man’s friends.

I rubbed my knuckles, watching Rebecca talk to her older brother, poor pale Smokey, who thought he was doing right by her but really just didn’t want to share.

He lunged for her, crying out.

Her red hair caught the sun and she burned like a thousand candles. She looked beautiful then, terrible, as her palm cracked against Smokey, stopping him in his tracks.

She had drawn blood. Smokey held a hand to his face to stop the tide of red that welled up from where her nails had dug deep. He did not move, not even as Skeleton laughed and his friends laughed with him. Only Rebecca was quiet, staring in horror at her brother, her brother who did not understand the meaning of “stop.”

Rebecca and Skeleton moved off. The boys let go of Smokey, who sagged against the earth, holding his face.

I watched them walk away, watched them walk into the future, saw the spiderweb of possibilities fire off from every footstep they took.

I looked at Smokey and saw nothing.

He lay on the new grass of spring and I felt my gut gnawing at itself, wrestling with the fact that my friend had no future, at least none that I could see.

• • • •

I didn’t know what was more distracting, the way Smokey fingered the sheer white lighter with such love, or the way his eyes followed my sister around the edge of the pool.

She was a runner. Everyone in my family was. But her legs were made for pumping, and when she got going, not even the wind deserved to catch her.

Eileen sat back on a plastic deck chair and did her best to ignore the stare of men around the community pool, did her best to read in peace.

I had not seen Smokey since June. It was a little more than a month before school started. His cheek had healed nicely, had left only a pale scar below his eye.

“I read a lot over vacation,” Smokey said, his eyes darting from between my sister’s legs and back to the bright spark of his lighter. “There’s some crazy shit out there, man.”

“Yeah?” I answered, shifting in my chair to block my sister. Smokey’s eyes flicked up to find me staring back at him. After a moment, he dropped his gaze, the hint taken. “I read the Bible. Old Testament is especially fucked, all kinds of horror in there. Vengeful God is vengeful. New Testament though . . . that’s where all the ideas are.”

I raised an eyebrow. He laughed. “I know you don’t get it. I don’t fully get it, not yet. Still, I think I’ve solved it. Eternity isn’t the problem, it’s how we get there that’s been giving me trouble.” He winked, like we were in on the big conspiracy together.

He picked up a handful of grass, held the ends over the flame of his lighter until they bled. He breathed easier after snorting their smoke.

“Sure,” I said, rubbing my raw knuckles. “Sure, Smokey. I’ll pretend I know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Pretend enough and it comes true. That’s called faith,” Smokey said back, eyes focusing on the fire of his ivory lighter. He had a whole drawer full of them, but the ivory one was his favorite.

I looked away from the flame and turned over my shoulder. Eileen had an older man on the grass, his arm up, belly squelching into the mud. I smiled as she shoved him away. He must have tried something she didn’t appreciate. The last guy who did that got worse. Good for her.

I turned back and saw Smokey holding his hand over the flame, unwavering from the heat. He seemed to be waiting for something.

“Where’s Rebecca?” I asked, trying to pull him away from his worship.

“Eleven blocks away. Her hand is on Jimmy Henderson’s thigh and she thinks he loves her, but it’s not true.” He spoke like a machine gun, mechanical, rattling like the stutter of bullets. His voice was cold. His eyes did not leave the fire. “No one will love her, not since—” but he stopped himself and his eyes shot up to mine.

He waited for me to ask. I didn’t. Family business.

Eileen came up to us, book in hand.

“This place isn’t fun anymore,” she said.

I got up from the pool’s edge and so did Smokey. We all started walking home. In a moment, she had her arm through Smokey’s. She knew what this did to him.

“Warm me up, Arson?” she said, all business. My skin crawled.

It didn’t matter to Smokey. His hand settled on hers, trembling. My sister and I walked home.

Smokey though, he flew.

• • • •

Her arm was wrapped in bandages, great clumps of flame missing in her hair. She ran through the hallway, assaulted on all sides by eyes. I hadn’t seen her all summer.

Something had happened to Rebecca. I set out after her.

She looked over her shoulder, saw me coming. On any other day, she would stand her ground and drive me back with her voice.

But today, she ran. I let her. Runners would scratch your eyes out before being caught.

I saw Smokey striding towards me. He stood tall and he wore a wide smile. I knew something was wrong.

His thumb flicked, twitched against a phantom lighter shell. We both knew he lacked the control needed to have it in school.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, taking a step back.

The smile did not move. His eyes were glazed, like he’d been huffing paint thinner. He reeked of nicotine and women’s perfume. “Guy can’t be happy?” he asked, his voice dopey, slow.

“Not you, Smokey. Cause when you’re happy, it means someone else is miserable. Where’s the body?”

His eyes widened, flicked to me. “Hiding in the girl’s bathroom. She’s crying right now. She worries no one will love her, not even a squeeze under the bleachers. She’s right. Her heat is fading fast.”

My heart went cold. I couldn’t feel my bones. When I spoke, I heard the grating of my teeth and jaw. “What did you do to Rebecca?”

His smile was a black crescent moon. His eyes held a dark, hot light. “Breath is the soul trapped in the skin. It took me a while, but the principle is the same. Skin could burn too, couldn’t it? I can’t breathe her soul, but I can transform it, like turning the wine into blood.”

Pulled from thin air, he held up the ivory lighter. My heart skipped a beat. “It was a harmless thing,” he said, his speech slurring. “While she was sleeping, I’d go to her. In the heat of June, I transformed her clothes, inhaled their memories. I just wanted to know so badly. But it wasn’t enough. Not by half. By July, I was burning clumps of her hair. I started knowing things, friend. Her shames. Her passions. Her joys. Secret things. I was scared it wouldn’t work, but it did. So I kept going. By August, the ropes were tight. They’d hold her fast. I worked my way up, from nail to elbow.”

His eyes were shining and he stood on the edge of something beyond ecstasy. “I transformed the flesh and breathed in the soul through the smoke of her body. I know her so well, friend. I know her so, so well. I know her like I know the grass and the trees and the winter. I know her. And she will never be so close to somebody again, as she is to me now.”

All I could see was red, red like her hair. A sickness howled in my guts.

“You see?” Smokey said through his sickle smile, pleading, “This is the answer! This is the beginning of something wonderful! Don’t you see what I’ve done?”

“Yes,” I said. I felt every knuckle crack, every tendon pop and snap as my hands clenched into fists. “Yes, I can finally see you, Smokey.”

My hands were around his throat in a moment. I was operating on instinct, the same instinct that drives men to crush insects beneath their heel.

Smokey did not fight back. He was not so stupid. But he did not submit.

My hands came away from his throat. They snapped out and struck him in the chest, once, twice, three times. There was a screaming all around me, but I’d be lying if I told you I cared.

His feet remained on the ground. Short of breath, eyes lolling in his head, he smiled that sharp smile meant for wolves. He smiled to see my anger.

Fist to eye, kidney, and nose, temple, tooth and heart. Dropping my center of gravity, I struck him below the sternum. My hair fluttered as his breath was torn from him and finally, he fell to the ground where he belonged.

The whole thing took less than thirty seconds.

Smokey looked up at me from the ground, and although he was bleeding, he was not crying. He looked at me with those wide eyes, not with anger, but with disappointment.

“You’re sick,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, the truth of it now dawning on me. “You’re a spider, trying to trick us into letting you live in the light. You don’t deserve light.” I spotted the ivory lighter before his feet. He had dropped it. “You don’t deserve fire,” I said as I brought my combat boots down onto it.

A wordless scream ripped through Smokey, his back arching in agony. Here then were the tears: none for his mutilated sister, but an ocean’s worth for his cheap, plastic god.

“Get out of here,” I said, my voice ragged and hurt. “If I ever hear that you’re hurting her again, I’ll kill you. If you try to talk to me again, I’ll kill you. I have a bullet with your name on it. You know this.”

“I’m sorry,” he said in a whisper of wind through tombstones, still high on his sister’s smoke, “I’m sorry you’ll never understand. I’m sorry you won’t be coming with me.”

“That makes one of us.”

He did not look back as he crawled away. He only pushed and pulled himself forward, leaving behind a slug’s trail of blood. I felt hollowed out. I could not keep my hands from shaking.

But I didn’t move a damn inch. Not until Smokey was gone. Not until the spider dragged itself back to its web.

• • • •

I could sense it in the air around me. As autumn shed its skin and left us to winter, it grew stronger. When winter cried itself away and spring came laughing, only then I knew it for what it was.

Smoke on the wind, blinding my eyes, stinging my nostrils. I had been the one thing stopping Smokey from setting the world on fire just to breathe it all in.

But I wasn’t there anymore, and knew that whatever fire Smokey had started, it was blowing downwind and headed right towards all of us.

• • • •

“I have her.”

“I know, Smokey.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because she hasn’t been home in a day and you’re not creative. Because ending your own life isn’t good enough.”

“If you think this is an ending,” he said, “Then you don’t know me at all.”

He told me where they were and hung up.

The gun was a comforting weight as I took it out from under the pillow. I had all four bullets loaded just in case. It was a special occasion.

• • • •

The smell of gasoline clawed at my nostrils. It spilled out past me as I edged open the factory door.

In the center of the room sat my sister. He had dressed her in a white gown, soaked in lighter fluid. The only sound was the slow drip of it onto the floor, also shining with the colorless liquid.

She had fought back: the bruises and gashes were evidence of that. Still, her hands were tied behind her, and she looked at me, shouting muffled words through the tape across her mouth. Her legs were splayed out at terrible angles, broken and bent. He had finally found a way to stop her running, and it made me shake with rage.

“You came.”

Smokey emerged from the shadows behind my sister. He wore a white shirt and khakis, soaked through with the same gasoline as my sister. His face was red and bleeding from where my sister had clawed at him, but he did not notice.

“You’ve come to watch our baptism by fire,” he said through bloody, blackened teeth.

I raised my pistol. All in a moment, he was behind my sister, hiding, laughing. “You are so fast, friend, so strong. Clever.” He peeked at me from over my sister’s head. “But can you hit me and not her?”

My hands did not shake, though my eyes did narrow.

A flower of flame burst to life in Smokey’s hand and I could not breathe as it danced and flickered inches from my sister’s lighter fluid dress.

“Did you ever figure it out?” he asked, desperate need flooding his voice. “Did you figure out the secret?”

“Breath is the soul,” I said. “But you can’t steal it. You need the smoke of the flesh to see, to know. Breathe the smoke, know the soul. It’s never been about the fire, it’s about what comes after.”

“You sound like my disciple,” he said, sounding proud.

“Maybe I am.” I licked my lips. “You taught me everything you think you know. But now we’ve reached the point of no return. You always wanted knowledge. You sucked up smoke from anything that would burn because you’re so goddamn curious to know its secrets. But you’ve never known the secret of yourself.”

His eyes were dark, hearing the truth of it. “You can do what you want to yourself, Smokey,” I said. “But you’re not taking her with you.”

His smile disappeared and he rose to his feet. He held the lighter over my sister. “You might know the secret, disciple. You might understand the ending. But if you think you can finish this story, you’re wrong. You’re not telling the story here. I am.”

“How does it end then, Smokey?” I asked, creeping forward, gun raised. “How does your story end?”

He grinned at me. “You know that stories don’t end. They only begin again. I burn to know but I’ve never known myself! Once I burn, I’ll breathe in myself and become the snake that chases his tail. I’ll breathe deep the story of my life, and then . . . Well, then I will know for sure what is wrong with me,” he said.

I saw tears cut streaks in the film of oil, though he still smiled. He sounded like he was hearing himself for the first time, and liked what he had to say. “We’re all broken in some way, aren’t we? That’s why I wanted you to come with me, wanted your sister to come with me. You both deserve a chance to know yourselves. I’m just trying to help.”

I didn’t think it was possible, but my heart broke in that moment. “Smokey,” I said, “If this is you helping, you’re doing a shitty job.”

He thrust the lighter over my sister’s head. “You think you don’t need my help? You think you can answer everything with your fists, shrug off every hollow feeling inside you, because what? Because that’s all you’ll ever be?” He shook his head, sad, smiling but sad. “There’s more to life than that,” he said. “And I’m going to show you both.”

I edged closer, only feet away. He squared his shoulders and brought the lighter close to his heart, as though standing vigil at his own wake.

“We’re not going to be broken anymore,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “I’m not going to be broken anymore.”

“Oh, Smokey, you’re not broken,” I said, flicking the safety off. “You’re just human.”

The bullet buried itself deep into Smokey’s heart. The momentum of its silver flight shook Smokey’s body. The lighter in his hands jerked, found flesh and lighter fluid in a heartbeat.

The gasoline roared with pleasure as Smokey went up in flames. He did not make a sound. He did not move. He only smiled.

Throwing away the gun, I took off my jacket and ran past my sister, throwing myself at Smokey. The jacket grew hot as I got under his armpits and pushed him back, away from my sister. I had to get him away from the gasoline on the floor and out the back door.

Thick curls of black smoke rose from his body as he burned. I tried not to breathe, but the smoke found its way to my nostrils and I coughed and choked on his burning body. My jacket was beginning to catch.

Smokey’s legs suddenly gave way as he died and the fire fell with him. The floor ignited, sweeping out in all directions.

“See you on the other side,” he rasped, before an ocean of flame swept over him.

Abandoning my jacket, I turned on my heel, still choking on the ashes of my friend and raced back. In a moment, I had my sister in my arms. I ran for the door, through the newborn flames.

My muscles screamed but I charged ahead. In a moment, I burst through the doors, emerging into the night air. Its cool kiss soothed my burnt and aching body.

Siren wails emerged from the silent night as I untied my sister. When the tape came loose, she screamed and raged, a raw and choked sound. She fell against me, and we collapsed to the cold pavement. We held each other tight, and did not cry. If I closed my eyes, it could have been ten years ago.

Together, we watched Smokey burn under the moon.

• • • •

Autumn comes after a silent summer. One October night, I sit in front of a bonfire.

I can still smell the gasoline, even now. I can still remember the taste of my friend’s ashes, the clogging swell of his smoke in my throat.

I watch the logs whine and split, mesmerized by the threads of smoke that leak from their wounds. I watch those gray serpents spin in the air, and I want to—I want to breathe them. To know them.

But that is impossible. I know it is impossible.

I’ve thrust my face into the smoke before I can stop myself. I don’t regret the sweet burning as I breathe the smoke. I feel more complete than I have in some time.

The smoke settles in my lungs, and my head snaps up to the dark forest around me, a forest more intimate to me than just moments before. A vision flashes to life before me.

A broken door stands alone in the dark woods. Sitting behind it is a child, still as calm water. There is a great heat all around him, painting him in sunset colors. A woman in shadow holds a match inches from his face. The child is not scared in that moment.

But I am.

Because the child has eyes the color of gasoline, teeth like tar. I taste ash in the back of throat. I smell gasoline and burnt flesh.

Looking up from the vision, I see a man made of smoke standing beside me. I see him and know those colorless eyes beneath the threads of his wispy body.

Smokey is silent. Only points at the vision, smiles.

I am not alone in my body. I am not alone in my breath. Beneath my breath, there is another, waiting.

It just took him a while to arrive.

Some part of me knows that if he wanted to, Smokey can make me stand and march me into the fire.

But he doesn’t. Not yet.

For now, the two of us sit in the dark before the fire, before the vision, and watch a freshly broken boy learn of smoke.

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Martin Cahill

Martin CahillMartin Cahill lives in New York, just outside that massive city everyone’s always talking about. Bookseller by day and bartender by night, he writes whenever he can. Every so often he remembers that sleep is important. He is thrilled to be attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop this summer in San Diego. Other fiction of his can be found forthcoming from Fireside Fiction. He can be found online at http://martintcahill.wordpress.com and on Twitter at @Mcflycahill90. Tweet him about craft beer, books, or Locke & Key and you’ll most likely become fast friends.