Carbon Empathy

Today’s Flash Fiction comes to you thanks to two people: Chuck Wendig for the prompt, and JC Hemphill for the opening line.

The challenge was to choose an opening line from the submissions on the previous week’s prompt challenge (there were quite a number to choose from), and write a flash fiction piece of 1,000 words or so using that line as our opening line. So everything but the first line in today’s story is original by me. I’d really like to thank JC Hemphill for the excellent sentence and I hope a dozen people write flash fiction using it. There were a lot of good ones to choose from, but this one caught my fancy more than the others. So let’s get this party started, eh?

Carbon Empathy

by Rick Cook Jr.

“I met a man made of smoke today.”

I almost slammed on the brakes when my five-year-old son said that. As it was I practically drove off into a ditch less than two blocks from the school after his first day. The front tire bumped the curb, I over-corrected into oncoming traffic and my heart skipped a beat as we dodged a plumber’s van and righted us in our proper place.

“A man made of smoke?” I asked. We had run from one of them before, and I thought we’d given them the final slip.

“Yeah, he was walking around at recess talking to everybody, asking questions.”

I grabbed my cell phone and dialed home. “What kinds of questions, sport?”

“Like did we like our new school, was our teacher nice, what our favorite food was.” The call went through and started ringing. I held the phone to my ear while we talked.

“What did you tell him was your favorite food?”

“Cheese!” She wasn’t answering. Damnit, pick up!

“Did he ask you anything else?”

“Dad, can we stop for nachos?”

“No, son, dinner’s in an hour. Did the smoke man ask you anything else?” The answering machine picked up and I ended the call, dialing my wife’s number instead.

“No, but he messed my hair up and said he’d see me again. My hair felt fluffy when he touched it.”

I accelerated and started running yellow lights. She still wasn’t picking up.

“Did the smoke man scare you?”

“No.” I could see him frowning in the back seat from the rear-view mirror. “Are we gonna move again?”

The line clicked. “Hey honey, give me a minute.”

“No, Charlotte, wait.” The call ended.


“What is it, Bobby?” I held the phone while I drove. She’d call back.

“We’re moving again, aren’t we?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Can you grab my charcoals this time?”

“I’ll tell your mother when she calls back, okay?”


The phone rang after a few moments of quiet, reckless driving. “Charlotte, listen -“

“Hey, sorry, babe, the spaghetti was boiling over. Are you two close?”

“Yeah, ten minutes, listen -“

“Can you stop and grab some Parmesan?”

“No, Charlotte. I need you to -“

“Why not?”

“ASHFALL,” I yelled. I ran a red light without realizing it and almost got sideswiped by a car. There was silence on the phone, punctuated by the blaring of horns and the scared cry of Bobby in the backseat.

“Did you say -“

“Yes.  It’s time to scramble.”


“And Bobby wants you to grab his charcoals if there’s time.”

“I’ll put some in his emergency kit.”

“Good. See you in a few.”

“Love you.”‘

“You too.” We hung up and I kept driving. How had they zeroed in so fast this time?



“Did you do it today?”

He didn’t answer and that was answer enough.

“Bobby, we can’t keep you hidden if you won’t stop.”

“I know.”

“Then why? Do you want to get caught?”


“Then what is it? If you don’t like moving, and believe me, Bobby, I don’t like it either, but if you don’t like it, then why do you keep doing it?”

“I can’t help it. Davey hurt himself on the playground and he was crying and I didn’t want him to be crying anymore.”

I sighed. “That’s… that’s nice of you, Bobby.”

“Why do they come after me?”

“They’re not after you, they’re after what you can do.”

“Do they want me to help people?”

“I don’t think they’d be trying to kidnap you if they wanted you to help anyone but themselves.”

“But if I’m not helping anyone because I’m hiding, and I’m helping someone because they want me to, isn’t that a good thing?”

I didn’t have an answer to that, and frankly I was surprised he managed to have the thought at five years old.

“Isn’t it, Dad?”

“I don’t know, Bobby. I don’t have any easy answers for you. But if they take you away from your mother and me, you might be helping others, but you’re hurting us if you leave.”

“I don’t want people to hurt, Daddy.”

“You can’t fix everyone, buddy. You just can’t.”

He quieted down. I had a feeling this conversation was long from over.

We pulled into the driveway and Charlotte was waiting for us in the garage, our three scramble packs and the cooler full of food and water on the floor in front of her. Her baby bump was just starting to show. I hated running when she was pregnant, but what could we do? Bobby unbuckled his belt and hopped out while I was helping Charlotte load the scramble packs.

“Mommy, where are my charcoals?”

“Bobby, I didn’t have time to grab them. Don’t you have a couple in your schoolbag?”

“They’re just upstairs. I’ll get them.” He darted into the house and up the stairs before either of us could stop him.

Charlotte shot a pained look my way. “He’ll be fine. The damn things aren’t cheap, anyway.”

But a minute passed and their packs were loaded and he hadn’t come back down yet. “I’ll go get him,” Charlotte said, and she too disappeared up the steps. There was a cry from above and I dashed up after her, only to find Bobby’s hands covered in charcoal, holding onto Charlotte’s temples. Her arms flailed uselessly and her eyes were rolled into the back of her head. She was convulsing as the charcoal seeped from his fingers inside her head.

“Bobby, no!” I yelled, but it was too late. The charcoal disappeared inside her and she flopped to the ground, lifeless.

Already Bobby was rubbing the charcoal on his hands again. “I didn’t kill her, Daddy.”

“What did you do? Why did you do it?” I sobbed, picking Charlotte up and cradling her in my arms.

“I don’t want people to hurt. The smoke man says it won’t hurt if you can’t remember me. Then I can help others.”

I stared at him through bleary eyes. “No, Bobby. You can’t just go around changing people’s minds.”

The man made of smoke materialized out of a vent and stared me down. “Yes he can, if he doesn’t have to worry about you in pain.” He placed a smoky, ephemeral hand on Bobby’s shoulder, and the boy’s shoulder became indistinct, hazy. “He’ll do good works, I can promise you.”

“You can’t take our son away. Bobby, you can’t leave us like this, you just can’t!” I reached for him and the tears in his eyes were already drying.

“I have to, Daddy.” He reached out and placed his charcoal-covered hands on the sides of my head, fingers to my temples, and I felt something surging inside me, a pressure building until surely my skull must explode. And then… release. He let go my head, and before I lost consciousness I saw a most peculiar sight.

A boy I didn’t know and a hazy, indistinct man curled into each other, becoming smoke and drifting out through the window.

When Charlotte and I woke there were EMTs putting oxygen masks over our faces. We’d been experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning and didn’t realize it. I asked after the baby, and they assured me that everything was fine.

Our first born was going to be fine.


So I think everything is fairly self-explanatory in this little vignette, in that these people obviously exist in a world where supernatural powers exist. A smoke man and a boy with healing powers so long as he uses charcoal.

Why charcoal? That seems the relevant question left unexplained, and it’s because charcoal is any other form of biological matter burned down to its base component, carbon. Carbon is the building-block of life on our humble little planet, so it seemed plausible that a person who has the ability to manipulate the world around him would discover that starting with the basic building block of life as we know it makes it easier to manipulate and fix the hurt, so to speak.

Either way, I hope you enjoyed the little journey and don’t hate the smoke man too much. As he said, “He’ll do good works.”

11 thoughts on “Carbon Empathy

    • Thanks! I didn’t start out with the intention of it being creepy/unsettling, but it sorta became that as the kid ended up less and less a normal kid with normal kid thoughts.

  1. Very nice! Out of curiosity, did you write this in one sitting or do much editing? I’m asking because I have issues with finalizing my stories.

    • My process for most flash fiction or shorter stories is pretty slim. I outlined the basic concept and the ending, and then just winged it for the characters and the details. Once I started writing this it took about an hour. Then I let it sit for a couple of hours and came back to it to edit, looking for inconsistencies. There are still things I could easily fix or make more clear/concise with this piece, but I’ll do that eventually when I want to explore it further.

      By “finalizing” your stories, do you mean you have issues just getting them to the point that you feel they’re finished?

      • I have trouble finishing my stories. I start one, mull it over for a few days or weeks and then usually rewrite the beginning several times because i change my mind. I know where I want it to end up, but getting there is the trick. And I’m a perfectionist so I’m obsessed about getting the story right. I have one story that is actually “finished” but I’m not so sure.

        • I don’t focus on “where the story is going to end up” because even when I have an idea about the ending, I find it restrictive when I don’t know every last story beat that leads to that ending. What that means is that instead of doing a ridiculous outline where every last thing is set in stone, I just wing it and let the story beats transpire naturally as I write towards what I think the ending is going to be. For instance, with Carbon Empathy I knew the kid was going to be “abducted” by the man made of smoke, but I didn’t know why, and I surely didn’t have any idea that the kid was going to come to the decision to leave until I started exploring the ideas while I was writing.

          Essentially, you can write and rewrite a story to death and never get anywhere. The only method that’s ever worked for me is to rough out a really basic outline, and then I move forward no matter what. Don’t go back and make changes until you’re finished with the first draft. Even if you think “I’m going to rewrite the first paragraph because I have a new idea that will work better going forward” you don’t fix it. You make a note to fix it and then you move forward as if you’d made the change.

          In an article I wrote last year, Maintaining that Momentous Momentum, there’s a section where I talk about the writing process and how editing is the killer of finishing a story. You could go read the article, but it’s pretty long and the relevant section can be condensed down to this little snippet:

          Don’t Edit Until The First Draft Is Done.

          Finish the entire story, wring it from your brain like water from a stone if you have to, but do not go back and make changes until the ENTIRE story is out of your head and on the page (or computer screen). You can’t write a good first draft, but you can refine a first draft to make it good. But you have to complete that first draft before you can make it good.

        • Thanks, that is just what I needed to be reminded of. I think the writing process in general would go more smoothly if I began finishing some stories. Not finishing each one seems to build up a mental wall and then my writing slows. I will check out that article–it sounds like it will be helpful!

  2. Such a fantastic snippet of fiction. The pace in which the story escalated you wrote very well, my pulse increased through the car ride home. Piecing together the unspoken urgency was fun and fresh, thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thanks for reading! I had a lot of fun with this one, and it’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to it, as some have called it sad, others creepy, others tense and escalating, some sad but hopeful.

    • Thanks! This one does sit in the back of my head percolating because the idea of carbon-based superpowers has a lot of unique ideas to attach to it if I’d just start writing them down when I think of them.

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