Where There's Smoke

“What’re you gonna be this year, Clive?” Mum asks.

“Probably nothing,” I reply. “Work’s been pretty busy, you know how it is. Haven’t had time to get a costume.”

Mum nods, then coughs. I stop pushing her wheelchair and wait for the fit to pass – thankfully it does.

 “Well, I don’t think I’ll be dressing up,” she says, settling deeper into her blankets. “Joe’s bunch will be dressed up enough for all of us, I’m sure. Don’t know how he affords it, the rascal… oh but I’m glad they could come. You too, Clive.”

“Glad to be back,” I say.

We resume our stroll. Mum’s lapsed back into silence. I suppose she’s enjoying the sight of the trees. They look lovely today, autumn fleshed out in shades of squash all yellow-red-orange; I can see why she insists on having these walks.

Now we’ve reached the edge of the woods. The wind picks up, rustling the trees. Branches scatter the sky. No more houses in sight.

***

I’d been nine then, maybe ten.

The night was clear as I walked the trail. Above me, a half-moon shone through the branches. Beneath me, dead leaves crunched.

It’d been about ten minutes since I ran away from home. The tears on my cheeks had finally dried, and for that I was glad. I’d never been so mad — so pissed — at Mum before, and it hurt. I’d felt hot and disgusting when I’d left the house, had puked up dinner all over someone’s lawn. A bunch of trick-or-treaters saw me and yelled out gross. I’d felt bad, but much better than before. I would never forget the sight of —

Crack.

I stopped. Turned around. The path was empty. The trees were still.

Crack.

There it was again –

Crack.

Snapping, crunching, coming from the forest. Footsteps? My heart beat faster as the snapping came closer, closer — then I could see it. From the depths of the trees, the face of a skull, a grinning skull, pale and horrible.

I screamed, took a step back, half-stumbled and ran into the woods.

Branches whipped past me. I looked behind but I couldn’t tell if it was following – I’d never seen anything half as terrifying and I guess I’d never get to say goodbye to Mum, I could just imagine her on the porch steps with a cigarette, angrily puffing away, I’d never make it home and she’d be angry forever.

The wind whistled past my ears, high and reedy like a whistle. What if it caught me? I’d barely seen Joe today, he’d been out trick-or-treating – I’d been feeling sick and so I’d stayed in and – maybe he’d find me. I fought to breathe. Little black dots crawled over my eyes, turning the world even darker. I knew it was behind me, I could hear it – but I couldn’t run anymore. Let it catch me and eat me or do whatever monsters did, my lungs had stopped working, I gasped and huffed and tried to be as quiet as I could. Leaning against an old oak, I risked a glance behind me.

Nothing but trees.

Slowly, my heart settled. It’d gotten colder and the trees around me had thinned out; I’d never been this far out in the woods before. I zipped up my jacket higher and moved forwards.

Moments later, I reached the gorge. Below my feet, solid rock ended in a cliff, and below that flowed a river. The water was silky bright; along its shores, pebbles gleamed.

Mum had never taken us here before. She’d always said they should put railings up, or keep this place fenced off. Back in her day, some kid had fallen in and drowned. I’d heard the cops found him miles down, washed-up and bloated, purple fingers and purple toes but a face as pale as milk. I peered down, watching the water flow. What was his name? The river was beautiful.

Once, when I’d been little, we’d gone down here for a picnic. With Dad. Joe must’ve been my age, and we were playing by the rocky shore when, I don’t know, I must’ve tripped and fallen into the water because the next thing I remember Joe was pulling me out, throwing me back to shore. I’d coughed and spat and heaved half the river up, Mum was crying like nothing I’d ever seen before. Dad just laughed.

Maybe that was why she didn’t want us out here.

“Watcha doing? kid?”

I whipped around, lost my balance – one foot stepped into nothingness – and a hand yanked at my arm, pulling me away from the edge. I scrambled up. Against the half-clouded night sky, a man stood by the cliff, his face silhouetted by the moon.

“Y’alright?”

The voice sounded familiar. “Shane?”

The man chuckled. “Nope. That ain’t me.”

Good. If it had been… as small I was, it would only take a push. A wave of shame ran through me and I stepped back. I didn’t trust myself.

The man tilted his chin up and I froze. He had no face. He had a skull for a face – the grinning skull – this man was – 

“D’int mean to scare ya earlier, jus’ wanted a puff. I can walk ya back to the trail if y’like. Y’can breathe, kid, don’t faint on me, I ain’t gonna carry ya back...”

I blinked and squinted at his head. The skull – it was painted on, probably face paint. Shiny and white. Like Mum did sometimes. It was Halloween, after all.

The skull-faced man took a drag from his cigarette. The moon caught the smoke and turned it greenish, making him look like… like something from a dream, or a nightmare, something that crawled on walls and hid behind shower curtains. I shivered. No. It was just face paint. Face paint. I’d never felt so silly.

The man exhaled. “So? Were ya plannin’ on jumpin’?”

Of course not. I shook my head.

 “Then let’s be headin’ back, too damn dark out here.”

I wanted to say sure, okay, but I’d been holding my breath and when I let it out and breathed in, my lungs were full of the smoke; these weren’t cigarettes, not like Mum’s Marlboros. This was thicker, it smelled wild; it was clogging my lungs, fuzzing up my head –

“Hey kid breathe, ya look like yer gonna –”

 ***

Mum said not to come downstairs but I’m done my book and I’m bored and it’s been HOURS, it’s been AGES – I don’t even feel sick anymore – my brother’s off with his friends s this is what I’ll do, I’ll ask her if I can go and find them. I don’t have a costume but they’ll let me tag along – Joe’s nice sometimes – so I go down the stairs and I walk into the kitchen and there’s a big funny-looking lump on the kitchen table – it’s moving. I frown, and squint, and then I see them – Mum – and someone else – Shane. Mum and Shane, Shane from our street, he waves when I walk by –

She sees me and startles, lets go of him. A wine glass tumbles to the floor. It shatters. Wine runs everywhere. Mum brushes shards off her jeans, face flushed, and Shane helps her. I take a few steps back and say I’m sorry — she snaps her head up and tells me to go back to my room. Shane looks guilty; he’s always been nice but he’s basically a stranger, he has no right to be here, he has no right. I know that and so must he, and so must Mum, but all she does is glare and wipe at her gown and suddenly I can’t stand her anymore — I can’t stand this — I turn and leave, grab my jacket, I’m out the door and it’s cold outside.

***

“Kid? Hullo?”

I open my eyes and the dream dissolves. I’m on the ground; the skull-faced man stands over me. His eyebrows are twisted in a frown.

“You were mumblin’, somethin’ about yer mum…”

I struggle up. I can feel myself blushing.

“Don’t worry kid, I’m sure yer fine… I’ll walk ya back.”

I make no move.

“Oh – right, ha! – forgot I was all painted up – musta been a fright eh? My daughter, she did this herself, good isn’t it? She’s a right bit older than you are...”

We walk. He babbles. The smell is still there, but its weaker now. I wonder if he’s drunk. As we leave the woods, I recognize the smell at last; a few years ago, Dad had picked me up from school and we’d stopped to stare at a creature by the road. It’d looked almost like a black cat, but was much flatter and had white stripe down its back. I went up to it. Dad called after me to stop, but I kept going. It was cute.

It saw me, turned, lifted its butt and then I was on the ground – the smell was eggs dipped in batteries, impossibly strong. When I ran back Dad saw me and started laughing, laughed even harder when I hugged him and got both of us covered in the stuff. Mum had been livid when we’d gotten back.

I’m too tired to be angry anymore. I just want to be home.

We’ve arrived at my street. The road is empty; my house sits alone, windows dark. The skull-faced man walks up and rings the doorbell, then steps back and out of sight.

The door opens. Mum’s there. She looks at me, does a double-take, opens her mouth to say something then puts her hands on my shoulders, as if making sure it’s me, and I know I’ll be scolded, probably grounded…

But instead she brings me close, holds me tight, my face is wet again and I hug her back. She smells like smoke – I wonder how many cigarettes she’s gone through, waiting for me – and then she pulls back with a stern look.

“Get some supper, Clive, your brother’s asleep so try to be quiet. You can warm the pizza in the oven. Just be careful not to burn it, hon.”

Then she sobs, and hugs me again.

***

“Mum?”

Her eyes are closed. I can’t tell if she’s breathing or if – I wait for a second, a wrench in my throat, before I see some movement in the blankets. Thank god. I reach into my jacket and bring out a Marlboro. Snick, flame, puff-puff; smoke. My hand stops trembling.

I glance down at her. She hates it when I smoke, wants me to quit. Filthy habit, she says. I wonder if she’s jealous.

The cigarette runs out. I drop it and brush myself off. It’s time to go back — lots of cooking to do before the family arrives. I’ve gotten good at cooking, these days.

Anthony TanComment