nbsp; I push back the chair and stand, rolling my shoulders and neck. My back lets out a series of popping cracks that feel a lot better than they sound. My spine protests the shift in position, but I keep stretching, knowing the more I move the better it will feel. I bend at the waist and reach for the floor with my arms straight and my fingers out-stretched. Slowly I straighten, raising my arms, pointing my fingers toward the ceiling. I remain this way until my bones feel like they’ve shifted back to more of a normal position and aren’t all crunched together somewhere in my lower back. A tingling feeling of relief buzzes through my aching muscles.
I deal in murder and mayhem.
Bullets and bravado.
Fear and faults.
I crush bones as well as spirits.
I plant seeds from which hatred and sorrow grow.
I’m a man among men, but I’m not really living.
I answer to no one.
I’m heartless. Soulless. Lawless.
I’m what’s left of humanity after it’s burned. After good has succumbed to evil. When lies and lust roam free.
I’m what remains after the flames have been doused.
I’m Hell on Earth.
Brimstone and fire.
Embers and ashes.
I am motherfucking Smoke.
Most folks turnout the lights before they go to bed, but not Morgan. For as long as I’ve known her, she’s had this strange habit of keeping her lights on even when she isn’t home. She even sleeps with her house lit up like it’s her job to guide the god damned planes over to the airport.
That’s how I know something’s wrong.
Her house is dark.
Way too fucking dark.
I pull my gun and silently make my way to the front door. It’s open. I lean against it with my shoulder and step inside. My boot slides over something slippery. An all too familiar smell singes my nose hairs.
I know the smell of death so well I can decipher the different stages of decay based solely on the stench lingering in the air. With one whiff, I know the death lingering inside is recent.
It’s pitch black. I slide my hand against the wall and follow it until my fingertips hit the kitchen backsplash and I flip the light switch above it.
The house is bathed in bright white light. My eyes take a few seconds to adjust. The white shifts to red.
So. Much. Fucking. Red.
“Fuck,” I holster my gun.
I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life. I’ve caused my fair fucking share of it, too. But nothing like this. There ain’t an inch of the kitchen not freshly painted in red. It’s smeared across the white tile floor as if someone crawled or was dragged from one side to the other. There’s splatter marks on every wall. Every cabinet.
This wasn’t just death. This wasn’t just a kill. A hit.
This was pure fucking evil.
I round the center island, coming to a stop as my boot connects with a slender bare foot. There’s no need for me to hurry over to her; it’s not like there’s any saving her now, but I shove my gun into the waistband of my jeans and race over to the other side of the island anyway. I crouch down over Morgan.
What’s left of her. Every inch of her naked body is twisted and contorted. Her once blemish-free pale skin has been sliced and cut and opened at every angle exposing teeth and skull. Her dark hair is wet with her own blood.
My eyes travel down her battered body. “No,” I shake my head in disbelief. “No!”
What’s left of her once rounded stomach looks like something put through a meat grinder at the butcher shop. “God fucking damnit!”
I stand but I don’t make it to the sink in time, emptying the contents of my stomach around the counter and onto the floor.
I’ve caused my share of death, but even my brutality has limits. I’ve never done something like this. Not to a woman at least. Not to an innocent, someone who didn’t fucking deserve it. For the first time in my entire life the sight of death makes me physically fucking ill.
I steady myself with my hands on both sides of the sink. “Morgan,” I whisper. “Fuck.”
I crouch back down and attempt to cradle her in my arms but her body is so hacked up and bloodied I can’t get a hold on her. Flesh flops from her bones, falling back to the floor.
“I’m so fucking sorry, kid. I’m so very fucking sorry.”
I lie down next to her, getting as close as I can without touching her. My cheek is pressed to the floor. Morgan’s still-warm blood clogs my ear, soaking through my clothes and skin. I’m surrounded by all that’s left of her. I want it to sink into my bones and stay with me forever.
Morgan is dead. So is our unborn child.
And it’s all my fucking fault.
I’ll bedead within a year.
I try not to dwell on the thought because it makes me crazy. Most days I’m seconds away from losing my shit and proclaiming the desk lamp as my new best friend/Queen of England. Being tired doesn’t help. It’s as if gravity is pulling down on me much harder these days. If I don’t get a decent night’s sleep soon I’m going to start hearing colors.
We all die after all. My death will just be a little sooner than most. Before the wrinkles have set in and old age has me repeating the same stories over and over again.
My eyelids are heavy. I’m fighting yet another battle in the continuing war against myself to stay awake. My elbow slides further and further off to the side of the desk, my chin propped in my hand.
A scratching sound at the window gives me a jolt. My spine jumps. I’m jarred awake just before my forehead meets the keyboard.
Feeling under my desk I wrap my fingers around the knife taped underneath.
A shadow crosses the window and I pull my hand away from the blade and blow out a breath.
It’s only Izzy, the fat white cat who visits me on a regular basis. She’s preening on the other side of the high basement window, her collar scratching against the glass. I don’t know who owns her. I only know her name is Izzy because it’s written in large lettering on her pink sparkling name tag adorning her equally pink and sparkling collar.
It’s just a fucking cat, Frankie.
I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands. My eyelids feel as if they are being weighed down by padlocks. I shake off the tired and the sudden panic and turn back to my work.
The lack of Z’s isn’t ideal, but so far, it’s paid off. My latest project is worth every minute of sleeplessness and then some. If I were the bragging sort I’d call up everyone in my life and tell them about how I single-handedly…well, I guess it doesn’t really matter because I can’t tell anyone.
Plus, there’s the little fact that I don’t have anyone to tell.
“Izzy,” I shout to the cat’s shadow. “I’m doing a good thing. A really good thing.” The fat cat darts away from the window with an exaggerated leap, most likely startled by a lizard in the grass. “Dick.”
Great. Not only am I talking to a cat I don’t even own, I’m offended by the fur-ball.
I spend way too much time alone.
Today and yesterday have blended together. I’m not sure where one started and the other ended. The basement has such little light sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s day or night.
My phone buzzes on my lap, and I jump like I’ve been kicked in the spine, knocking over a stack of paper coffee cups. “Fuck,” I swear, looking down at the phone now laying on the ground with a crack across the screen. It’s only the alarm.
I’m getting jumpier by the day, but it’s not without reason. My work has come with a sacrifice of sorts. I’ve pissed off a lot of people. The kind most sane people wouldn’t dare piss off. I’ve taken precautions but there might come a day when those precautions aren’t enough.
Maybe one day I’ll be finished with my work. Finished looking over my shoulder. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll even stave off that heart attack threatening to take me under with every startled jump and jolt—well before I’ve hit the quarter century mark.
I pick my phone up off the floor and swipe my thumb across the screen to kill the alarm. The time can’t be right. Has it really been eight hours since I’ve so much as moved from my chair?
My legs are buzzing with that pins-and-needles feeling. I make sure to use the handrail as I ascend the stairs so I don’t go flying backward since I can’t feel my feet. The torturous static feeling thankfully lets up by the time I’ve reached the door at the top.
I cross through the living room and head for the kitchen. On the way, I stop in the hallway. I kiss the tips of my fingers and reach up to press them against the only picture hanging in the house. A picture of my mother. “Hey Mama,” I say, smiling up at her. She had the same long dark hair as I do and the same unique yellow/orange eyes. The picture was taken around the time she died, when I was just a toddler. “I hope I’m making you proud, wherever you are.”
My stomach growls, reminding me of where I was heading and I pad into the kitchen. When was the last time I’d eaten? Breakfast? Dinner last night? No, it was definitely breakfast. Breakfast yesterday. My stomach growls, louder this time.
“Yeah, yeah. I hear ya,” I mutter.
The contents of the refrigerator are…well, there aren’t any contents. Unless Google can show me how to make a meal from a half jar of pickles, two slices of cheese, and a six-pack of beer.
I lean on the counter and pull up the GrubTrain grocery delivery app. I order a few essentials, using the last forty dollars in my account.
I use the thirty minutes until the food arrives to go upstairs take a quick, much-needed shower and change into a baggy off the shoulder t-shirt with the logo of my favorite band, Veruca Salt, emblazoned across the front. The grey shorts I change into used to be sweatpants, but when they became frayed from stepping on the bottoms of the too-long legs, I took a pair of scissors to them and boom.
When I’m done, I head back downstairs and sort through the mail. My last name is Helburn, but all the mail comes in the alias name of Jackson. My father had changed it years ago. Insisted it was because of his work with the government.
It was years before I found out that was all a lie.
HE was a lie.
I swallow down the familiar anger rising in my throat. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with memories of my father’s actions or the mess he’s made of our lives and the lives of countless others.
I chuck the junk mail in the trash and set off on the first of my several-times-a-day routine of checking the locks on all of the windows and doors. Flipping open the alarm panel I click in my code and make sure it’s in working order.
In the master bedroom, I step over my dad’s clothes strewn about the floor, walking with purpose over to the window. I check the lock. It’s intact. I head back out, shutting the door behind me quickly, releasing a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
Taking the steps two at a time, I head back down to the living room of the two-bedroom, three-level, dilapidated townhouse.
It looks the same as the day we first moved in four years ago. Empty nails from where the previous tenants hung decorations and pictures poke out from the drywall at various intervals. The only furniture, a ratty brown three cushion sofa in the living room—no television— and a couple of mismatched barstools tucked under the raised counter separating the small living room from the equally small kitchen.
The doorbell rings, and even though I was expecting it, I’m still cautious.
I’m always cautious.
Standing on my tip-toes I glance through the peephole. On the other end of the brass tunnel is Duke, wagging his eyebrows and contorting his lips around his teeth. I smile because it’s impossible not to smile. Duke’s carrying a grocery bag in each hand. He holds them up to the peep hole, grinning proudly like a hunter holding up his kills.
Unbolting all the locks on the door takes a while because there are eight of them.
Duke’s megawatt smile greets me after I finally open the door.
“Hey,” Duke says smoothly. “I saw your order come through, and I wanted to make sure I brought it to you personally.” His smile widens and it’s is so damn bright it’s like staring into the sun. His sandy blonde curls are being cruelly squished by a neon green GrubTrain baseball cap.
Duke raises the bags again, flexing his muscular biceps beneath his matching GrubTrain polo shirt. He winks when he catches me looking at his abs flexing under the fabric. My face warms. He leans in and gives me an awkward hug around the grocery bags. He smells good, like Irish soap.
“Hey, Duke,” I say slowly, drawing out my words so he has no choice but to look at my lips. I bat my eyelashes and meet his hazel gaze. “Thanks for bringing those over so fast.”
“Anything for you, ma’am,” he says with a fake western style drawl.
“Ma’am? Hmmmm…I like the sound of that,” I tease, biting my bottom lip.
Duke shifts from one foot to the other, and I realize he’s shifting the bags to cover the growing bulge in his pants.
“Is your dad home today?” Duke asks, poking his head through the door and looking around.
“Working in the basement as usual,” I say. “Also, ignoring me as usual.” I stand to the side and let him in.
“I won’t ignore you,” Duke says suggestively, wagging his eyebrows on his way to the kitchen.
I chuckle and playfully swat at Duke’s butt. I’m about to close the door, but I freeze as I’m hit by a hot tingling of awareness. It warms my chest and spreads through to my limbs. My pulse spikes. I slowly push the door back open half expecting to see someone standing on the other side.
There’s no one there.
Duke is talking to me from the kitchen, but I’m not listening. Cautiously, I step out onto the little concrete pad of a porch and look around in every direction.
The gas station across the street has a few customers walking in and out. A few kids are playing catch in the empty lot next to the fence that separates it from the convenience store.
The choking feeling in my throat dissipates and I find my ability to swallow again.
Yup. I’m going crazy.
“Sarah? Where did you go?” Duke calls from the kitchen.
I step back inside and shut the door, locking all the bolts out of habit. “You and those damned locks. Your dad really is paranoid, huh?” Duke says, coming up behind me and lifting me off the ground. I kick my feet in the air and laugh. He carries me into the kitchen and sets me down on the center island. He turns his cap backward, takes a joint out of his back pocket. He lights it and takes a long pull.
“Your pops might be paranoid and ignore you all the time, but I think it’s fucking awesome he lets you smoke weed in the house,” Duke says on an exhale.
I shrug and take the joint from his fingers. Taking a long drag, I hold the smoke deep in my lungs before exhaling slowly. The pot does the trick and within a few seconds the tension eases, my shoulders drop.
“Even if he wasn’t okay with it, I doubt he’d notice,” I reply, sounding bitter.
“You alright, lady?” Duke asks, searching my eyes for clues.
“I’m fine. I just haven’t been sleeping all that great,” I admit. It’s the shortest explanation of a much larger issue, but Duke and I don’t have a big issue kind of relationship. We have a smoke a joint in the kitchen, make out until I send him home kind of relationship.