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?
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?”
“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 -“
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”