Some stories haunt you long after you finish the final word and put the book down.

This is one of those stories. Have fun sleeping, kiddies.

Smoke by Jeff Marsick

In the span of two heartbeats, Taryn went from unconscious to fully awake upon seeing the albino sitting across from her. Breath hitching in her throat, she reflexively tried to run, her body jolting as if tasered, but the nylon zip-ties on her arms and legs kept her bound in place to the chair.

“Shhh….,” the albino said. Black latex gloves sheathed his hands, one of which brandished a long screwdriver. “You scream and I’ll shove this through your eye and out the back of your head. Hmm?”

Taryn’s eyes flicked from the tool to the man’s ice-blue stare. He wasn’t posturing, she saw, wasn’t idly threatening. No, he just reclined on the couch, one leg crossed over the other like he belonged here. The man’s promise of violence was as casual as a comment about the weather outside. Taryn nodded.

“You know who I am?” he asked, his voice a purring of ground gravel, almost lazy in its delivery, as if he wasn’t in any special hurry to get the words out. She knew who he was.

His name was Smoke, the reason she and her boyfriend, Darryl, had up and fled Los Angeles with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and half a tank of gas in their car.

“You two are good,” he said. “Took me a little over a year to find you. Not bad for a pair of amateurs.” That last word came out as ‘ammatters.’

Smoke looked around the apartment, nodding his approval at the decor: framed photos of Taryn and Darryl on the walls, gentle pastel colors that changed from room to room; inexpensive yet tasteful furniture; the occasional tsotchke and memorabilia detritus that gave the place that lived-in feel without choking it out.

“When I think of Cleveland, it’s not usually something like this,” he said. He leveled those discomforting eyes back on Taryn. “The heroin your boyfriend stole from my people, I figure that’s long gone. So where’s the money?” He twirled the screwdriver as if to lasso the apartment. “In this place?”

Taryn shook her head. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Smoke dropped his leg and moved towards her so fast that Taryn instinctively gasped.

“Please don’t kill me!”

She pulled her head back, closing her eyes and waiting for the screwdriver to impale her heart. The zip-ties bit into her skin, holding her fast. Seconds passed and she turned her head to see Smoke leaning forward, elbows on knees, keenly searching her face with those haunting eyes.

“I’m not gonna kill you,” he said with a slight drawl, his volume still at a five. “You know how hard it is to dispose of a body these days? Television shows. They make it seem so easy.” He sniffed. “See, a lesson needs to be learned. If I disappear you, eventually the search will get called off. Your boyfriend will be sad, but he’ll move on. If I slit you ear to ear, bleed you out on this nice lumber, well, that’s tragic, sure. But then you’ll be cremated or put six feet under, and he’ll visit for a bit, but then he’ll move on.” Smoke shrugged. “Out of sight, out of mind, the lesson to be learned fades to forgotten.”

Smoke stood up, and Taryn caught a glimpse of red on the floor next to the couch.
“No, your boyfriend needs to know the error of his ways for all the rest of his time on this earth. He needs to see it, daily, be reminded of it and have his soul burn for it.”

“I didn’t—I didn’t know anything about any heroin.” Taryn’s words coming fast on the tide of rising fear. “Darryl told me he had gotten into trouble and that’s why we needed to leave California. He told me about you, that I had to watch out for you. But—but he said that we were okay now, that he had made everything right and that—that we could settle down now. That we were done running.”

Smoke eyed her sidelong, scratched pensively at the jagged scar that ran from his left ear, down his throat, and across his jugular to the opposite collar bone, poking peekaboo above a black T-shirt. He shrugged.

“Maybe true. Maybe not. Fact is, you shacked with the wrong boy, so you’re guilty by association.” He shrugged. “Sorry, darlin’. That’s just the way it goes. As for being square with my people, well, that there’s just not true. He stole from them, now I’m obliged to steal from him.”

Smoke turned to the side of the couch, took a booted foot and toed a red, plastic, five-gallon gas can toward Taryn. As it sssshhhhed across the floor, Taryn started breathing faster, arms straining and zip-ties biting deeper into her flesh. She saw a long tube snaking away from the fill end of the can, terminating in something that Smoke held. The can stopped at her chair and she heard liquid slosh about inside.

“What’s—what’s in there?”

“Paint thinner,” Smoke said, bringing his hand up, and she saw where the tube from the can was leading to: a gas mask. “You huff this for long enough, it’ll torch most of your brain cells. When the boyfriend comes home tonight, you’ll be alive, but not much more than a drooling idiot.”

Smoke loosened the straps on the mask, came near to put it on her.

“No no no! Please, please don’t do this,” she whimpered, eyes rimming.

Smoke paused, got down on a knee, his ghastly face on level with hers. “It’s not going to hurt. You won’t feel a thing,” Smoke soothed. “I promise you, it’ll be like a nice warm buzz. You’ll still get to see him, he’ll get to see you. You just, well, you just won’t know it.”

“I’m pregnant,” Taryn blurted, almost defiant. Twin rivers of tears ran down her cheeks.

Smoke stood up, his face still without emotion, but now canted slightly to the side, as if viewing her in a different light.

“Ten. Ten weeks pregnant.” She nearly shouted it.

Smoke looked at the floor, tapped the gas mask against his thigh, as if contemplating. He reached into his back pocket, pulled something out—a piece of paper—and unfolded it. Smoke looked at it for a long moment.

“Yeah,” he purred. “I know.”

He placed the paper on the table so she could see the ultrasound photo of what would be her baby boy. As Taryn stared into the kitchen at the refrigerator, at the blank spot by the magnets, Smoke slid the gas mask into place on her head and tightened the straps.

Jeff Marsick is a former Coast Guard officer and chiropractor, now a screenwriter and comic book writer. He lives in Connecticut, but yearns for someplace warmer and drinks a lot of Scotch to dull the pain. You can check out Dead Man's Party, his comic about a hitman who puts a contract out on himself at; and his Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, about a female zombie leading a monster-fighting special ops team at