Smoke Signals

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November 11th 2014  |  0  |  Category: Fiction , Horror , Thriller  |  Author: Dan Taber  |  2670 views

The first cold gusts of winter had just arrived. Fortunately the opulent walls of Max’s Manhattan penthouse kept the chill away. Warm pendant lighting sparkled across the surface of amber marble tile, casting the bathroom into a comfortable glow.

Max scowled, brushing his hair with swift violent strokes until his cell phone beside the sculpted stone sink began blinking. It was his client at the tobacco company again. Already? He supposed it was a good thing he was in such high demand, but it was only yesterday when he had wrapped up the long yet ultimately lucrative case. A man had to take a break sometime. He went still, staring vacantly at an elaborately framed still life of black orchids. Where had that thought come from? He was a working man, not someone who needed breaks.

Nevertheless, he silenced the phone and began applying a layer of liquid tan to his face. Staring into the mirror, he engaged his powerful eyebrows in a handsome manner. Stress wrinkles lingered on the sides of his eyes and the uncontrollable sneer on his thin upper lip was more defined than ever. No matter how much he tried to cover it up, the toils of aging were relentless. It was the sneer which bothered him most. Sometimes, while lying awake at night, he would deliberately relax his facial muscles in an attempt to get rid of it. But inevitably he would awaken the next morning unchanged. He let out a weary sigh. There was no point dwelling on it. Tightening his tie and giving himself a look of confident approval, he resolved to hurry his wife. The confounded woman was always late.

Walking into Diane’s dressing room, he was taken by the beauty of her shining black hair and soft, thin shoulders. Suddenly aroused, he felt an urge to kneel quietly and tenderly kiss her neck from behind. Once, that would have been acceptable. But now? It had been a long time since they had entertained that kind of relationship.

As he shuffled closer, her face became visible in the mirror. It stopped him cold. She was applying lipstick to what appeared to be bone around teeth. Her hair was so thin that it failed to cover the rusty rash consuming her scalp and only mere scraps of flesh clung to her face. When she saw him standing there horrified in the reflection, she started and the lipstick painted a skewed smear onto the wet carnage that was once a flawless cheekbone. “Jesus Max. Do you always have to be so quiet?” She wiped the smear with a handkerchief. The blood and slime that came away gleamed a sickening purple under the glare of the vanity lights.

“I fired the dog walker,” she said, taking the last drag off of a cigarette and extinguishing it in a crimson glass ashtray. “I went into the kitchen yesterday and, can you believe, he was pouring himself a glass of water . . . just like he was one of us. When I asked him what he was doing, he looked into my eyes and smiled like I was some strumpet on the street flirting with him.” She shuddered. “To think . . . someone like me . . .” She moved closer to the mirror and puckered invisible lips.

It occurred to Max that the pitch of her voice was lower than it used to be. And then he realized that she had been sleeping a lot lately. Perhaps her hands were trembling too much as well. Had she been like this for some time or only recently? Had he ignored her for that long? He considered speaking with her about it but what could he say? “Diane, your voice sounds like an old man and you look like a zombie?” He was pretty certain she would take those observations personally.

Dinner that night was sour despite the expertise of the exceptional chef. Max alternated back and forth between trying to figure out if this odd occurrence was a hallucination or if something evil was happening in the world. He repeatedly forced himself to stare at her as though if he looked hard enough, her decaying face would return to normal. But of course, it never did. He finished off two bottles of wine, shifted uncomfortably and spoke little.

Eventually, Diane sensed his discomfort and even found it in her heart to ask if something was wrong. “No . . . nothing dear,” he mumbled.

Six months later she was dead. Esophageal cancer.

Soon after his initial encounter with Diane’s deteriorating image, Max found that there were others like her whom he could see as macabre apparitions of death before dying. His barber of twenty years, the man that bagged groceries at the supermarket, the usher at the movie theatre. Countless strangers. It wasn’t everyone, perhaps one in a few thousand, but it was enough to drive him to the edge of madness.

When Diane’s ugly struggle ended, he locked himself inside with the hope that the dying faces would just go away. For a full week he sat in his living room drinking bourbon and staring at a very plain wall. Eventually he convinced himself that it had all been a prolonged lapse of reason and summoned the courage to look out the window. At first, everything appeared normal, but in a few minutes a dark form with long black limbs and an odd sideways gait scrambled down Park Avenue, causing him to recoil in fear. He argued with himself that it was too far away to see anything clearly and spent some time crashing through closets to find his binoculars.

Returning to the window, he was fascinated to see the street up close from his high vantage point. There was beauty in the jovial conversations carried on by school children and something sublime about the patterns in which humans hurried to work under the pinnacle of advanced technology. He noticed the craftsmanship in the architecture and recalled that he had been interested in such things once. His wonder was interrupted when he saw a man stumble and glance upward with eyes crying torrents of blood.

Max began to pace from window to window, gaping incredulously, reeling and testing the accuracy of his vision repeatedly. Even though he was nearly certain that the dying faces must be real, the idea that it was impossible still comforted him with slivers of hope.
The sun set and rose again before he realized that there were still no answers. Shuffling down the hallway into the bathroom, he glared at himself in the mirror, seeking lucidity behind his troubled eyes and wondering what he had done to deserve such a fate. Was he the only one who could see these horrors?

He had always shunned the premise of psychology, considering it a useless science that exploited mentally weak people. But that conviction faltered when he found himself on the verge of gouging out his own eyes. Perhaps a therapist could offer a solution.
Even so, he walked into the office of Dr. Umberger with the certainty that the man must be a quack and the fear that all of the ways in which Max justified his actions would be exposed to the world. Each question was a probing violation, every suggestion an abusive lash. And when the session was over, he knew that he had been used. The laughable diagnosis was pathological lying coupled with denial, but Max knew the miserable truth: denial only lasts as long as one can look away.

Seven months passed and Max’s previous life began to seem like a fond dream that was slowly slipping from memory. Standing on the sidewalk beside 125th street, he stared into a storefront window, watching television screens depicting well groomed elves dancing and singing: “It’s the most wonderful time . . . of the year.”

He looked homeless. His suit was tattered around the edges and he had grown a long, tangled beard. Litter swirled around his feet, company to his melancholy. Blinking lights and countless advertisements displaying exaggerated gleeful faces lined the street. Shoppers and children bustled about, avoiding him. Some eyed him suspiciously. The traffic surged forward, breathing polluted clouds.

Taking a deep breath, he miserably moped down the sidewalk, stopping at a mannequin in a window. His eyes widened as he marveled at how closely it resembled Diane. Same kind of absent personality as well. Just the way he liked them. A warm yearning sensation found its way to the forefront of his musings. He tried to grasp it like a bubble in the breeze but his eyes wandered to a man in a trench coat with black, rotting pits for eyes wherein minute pinpoints of light shimmered. Greasy, swine-textured hair fell over the man’s crushed nose.
There were always more horrific faces in Harlem. Even before the dying showed themselves, the people in this area had scowled at Max. Some had been downright hostile. He had once considered avoiding danger by refusing assignments there. But ultimately, the money was too good to refuse. And now, work was the last aspect of his life that was still normal so he clung to it the way a soldier’s dying fingers clutch a rifle. It was a man’s job to make a living. To support his family.

The only problem was there was no family to support. There was only himself and he had begun to recognize that he had very few needs. All he really wanted was for the dying faces to go away.

He walked into the deli, turned to speak to the cashier and immediately saw a liability. Behind the counter, there was an out dated poster of a cartoon cat smoking a cigarette. Those posters were banned a long time ago, but apparently the owner of this place either never got the memo or never considered such things important.

“May I speak to Mr. Moretti?” Max asked.
“For what?” The cashier replied.
“I have an appointment.”
The cashier stared back with red, grinning eyes.

“The appointment is for right now,” Max said, prompting the cashier to nod and walk away.
Max waited, idly staring at the pornography magazines while considering how to approach the conversation. This deli had the highest tobacco sales in Harlem. Although Mr. Moretti had been accused numerous times of selling to minors, Max still had to be cordial because the company that hired him needed to maintain a “productive relationship” with such a lucrative distributor.

“Not bad huh?” Mr. Moretti arrived. “Triple E’s.” He was an immense, balding man, dressed in an expensive Italian suit and sporting a broad smile.

“A bit too much for my tastes,” Max responded, wishing he could feel something.
“I guess too much of anything can be too much eventually,” Mr. Moretti said with a chuckle.
“Anything?” Max asked, forcing a grin.
“Well,” Mr. Moretti looked thoughtfully to the side for a moment. “Not money. We can never have enough of that.”
“So it seems.”
There was an awkward silence. Mr. Moretti clasped his hands behind his back. “So what can I do for you?” he asked.
“You know why I’m here Mr. Moretti.”

He paused. “So I do,” he smiled nervously. “I know your company has been informed that I have been accused of selling to minors. It’s all bullshit. It’s those anti-cigarette groups. They’re pissed off at me because I make so much money and then they spread lies on the internet. You know those people aren’t always the saints they make themselves out to be. I’m taking care of it though. That I can assure you. I appreciate your help, but there’s no need for you guys to waste your time. I can handle it on my own.”

“You’re taking care of it?” Max asked, significantly nodding towards the poster.
“What that? It’s just a cartoon,” he exclaimed. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to take down the poster and I want you to stop selling to minors.”
“Done and done.”
“Thank you.”
Max walked out the door and jogged through the beeping traffic to cross 125th street and descend into the subway.

Twenty minutes later, he arrived downtown. Emerging from the subway onto First Avenue, the first thing he saw was an elderly woman who gazed at him with an expression that would have been kind, except for the fact that her cheeks were melting. He cringed, covered his mouth and stumbled away, wondering how he could have possibly endured this for a year without completely losing his mind. Oh, yes. Alcohol. Picking up his pace, he rushed into the doorway of his favorite bar.

There was a large, elegant dining area in a room to his left, generally empty, and a long polished bar crowded with heavy drinkers in the room to his right. The small tables near the bar were filled with and odd assortment of people. Some were conservatively dressed in business suits or elegant evening wear while others wore leather jackets, faded jeans and more provocative clothing.

The house band was playing an upbeat R&B number while a few couples danced. Max knew that later in the night, people in the audience would collaborate with the band to create an impromptu jam session. He never understood how musicians could do that; it was fascinating and one of the reasons why he loved this place. Correction: used to love this place.Everything that used to be enjoyable was now rotting around the edges like a dead animal in the wild.

The singer looked up from his keyboard revealing a half fleshed face with a wild array of misshapen teeth sticking out in random haphazard angles. “God damn it! That’s not how it’s supposed to be!” he passionately intoned. Such a wonderful voice, and it would soon be gone. Max closed his eyes, took a deep breath and ambled to the bar where a glass of scotch was waiting for him, along with the bartender’s faltering smile. “Another day at the office?”
“One too many,” Max replied and took a heavy swill.
“Maybe it’s time for a vacation . . . or at least a new suit. You look like death.”
“What else is new?”
The bartender paused thoughtfully. “I guess I’m probably gonna bang that chic down there.” He nodded to the end of the bar where a heavily made up brunette in a bridesmaid dress glanced back with drunken eyes. “You want in?”
As the bartender walked away Max managed a chuckle that felt disgustingly foreign, like a spider crawling into his mouth. He fixed his eyes on the bottles behind the bar. Unfortunately, behind the bottles was a mirror wherein a long-haired man with numerous earrings and flesh composed of ash and embers stared back. Max realized that this man was standing directly beside him. A suffocating cloak of dread descended upon his shoulders. Max turned his eyes to the surface of the bar. Even so, he could not help stealing glances at the mirror. Somewhere in the back of his mind, there was still the suspicion that perhaps these horrors were a figment of his imagination and would disappear if he looked at them from the right angle.

The subtle flames around the edges of Ash Face’s demonic countenance flared as if fueled by oxygen when he opened his mouth. “It’s real convenient for people like you to justify your evil actions by saying ‘it’s okay because I need to make money.’”

Max thought he was being antagonized until someone else replied. “I know a lawyer for a prominent tobacco company, and he would argue that people make their own choices. He would say that anybody can decide whether or not to smoke.” It was the ordinary man in a sharp suit standing behind Max who was apparently arguing with Ash Face. He recognized the man, but could not determine if he had been a casual acquaintance or a respected colleague. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to gaze into a well shaven, clean face. In the mirror, the man looked back at Max expectantly.

“You know somebody else who feels this way?” Ash Face sneered sarcastically. “Wouldn’t happen to be your stance too, would it?”

“Maybe it is my stance,” Sharp Suit replied indignantly. “I mean, I’m not rich, but I support the rich. Even if it is a tobacco company. And I see no need to apologize to you for selling insurance. In fact, if you were smart, you’d take out a policy with me to protect your family. But you won’t do that will you? Why? Because you don’t agree with insurance and you discriminate against the rich without any facts. How’s that working out for you? And for what?” He pointed a thumb into his own chest. “I was born broke just like you. And I’ve struggled to earn the little that I have.”

“Looks like you’re doing a lot better than I am right now,” said Ash Face.
“That’s because you spend your time complaining about the rich instead of taking the time to make a good living for yourself. The world needs rich people; it needs money for the economy to thrive.”
There was a pause in the conversation and Max was beginning to hope that it was over, but Ash Face was simply gathering his thoughts.
“The world needs money for the economy to thrive? I don’t even know what that means and I doubt you do either. Deep down, you know you feel guilty. You know you have a dirty fucking soul.” The embers of his face flared.
Feet shuffled and Max began to shy away from a physical altercation. But Sharp Suit spoke calmly. “You’re overstepping yourself son. And you’re drunk. And I’m not going to grace your argument when I can tell by the smell on your jacket that you smoke. Nobody made you smoke. You had that choice just like everybody else. And then you blame the tobacco companies,” he snorted.
This made Ash Face shut up for a moment. “Yes, but you choose who you work for as well, do you not?” he eventually replied. “I have chosen to do something for a living that helps humanity. You have chosen a profession in which the more fear you make people feel, the more money you make. And your lawyer friend has chosen to spend his life working a job that ultimately causes death. Never mind the fact that cigarette companies choose to put countless chemicals in cigarettes that make them more addictive than they inherently are and are then not required to list all of those ingredients on the package. What is it, like five hundred additives right? And like sixty of them are known to cause cancer? Not sure how revealing they are about those details. At least I know that when I die, my soul is clean.”
“Your soul is clean,” Sharp Suit scoffed. “It’s not my fault people have fears and it’s not my responsibility to coddle weak people who are too stupid to realize that cigarettes are harmful. You support the tobacco company by continuing to smoke. Do you not at least see that flaw in your argument?” He sighed dramatically. “What do you think Max?”
It was as Max feared. He was Sharp Suit’s so-called “friend.” He struggled to remember the man’s name but everything he had once known was now a jumble of vague impressions. Was it Ethan, Evan, maybe Ed? Whatever it was, Max wanted him to go away. Unfortunately, the man was smiling with the assumption of an alliance and would not likely suffer Max’s silence.
“Does it matter?” Max replied. After a pause, he decided to elaborate. “But I guess . . . the truth of it is it’s the fault of both. The smoker chooses to smoke regardless of the billboards that say it’s hazardous to your health. But the companies choose to promote that choice, and then, most of the time, justify helping to kill people by saying that they need to make money for their families. In the end, most people just do what they’ve been trained to do.”
This didn’t seem to sit well with Sharp Suit or Ash Face but Max didn’t care. He downed his scotch, put a twenty dollar bill on the bar and jostled through the crowd past the band and mutated singer:

To lessen my troubles stopped hanging out with vultures
And empty saviors like you
Well I wish I had a nickel for every miracle
You easily tricked me into
You can lead a horse to water
But to make him drink is another matter . . .*

Max had scarcely stepped out of the bar when he felt rough hands on the back of his shoulders. A trickle of cold dread dripped down his spine. Before he had time to consider what might be happening, there was an itchy, mildewed fabric covering his face and something cold and metal brushing against his elbow. The sound of wheels accelerating mirrored his reeling confusion.
Momentarily the hood was pulled from his face and he saw smiling teeth, braces, a patchy unshaven chin and wild cartoon-like eyes.
“Fucking priceless,” the face said, turning to the dark forms lumbering on the edge of Max’s peripheral vision and then gazing again into Max’s eyes. “You should see yourself. Fucking priceless.” Smiling improbably wider the man exclaimed, “This is why I do this.”
Calm settled over Max. Nothing that might happen here could possibly be worse than what he had endured for the last year. He told himself this repeatedly. He would not give this geeky fuck any more satisfaction than he already had. But something gnawed at his serenity like an impending hurricane.
A memory flashed into his mind’s eye. It featured a cute child with dark, bowl shaped hair and an unwavering smile. He was playing with blocks under a sunny sky. Emerald trees swayed gently in a soft breeze. He almost didn’t recognize himself.
A sensation of hope permeated his mind. Tears trickled down his cheeks. It had been such a long time since he had felt that way. There had been dreams once. Dreams which he wanted to fulfill. It was that sunny day in the backyard when he first had the idea.
The scene shifted and he saw himself older, sitting in the guidance office at school after getting into a fight with a classmate. The counselor managed to drag Max’s career plans out of him. With a beaming smile, he revealed his vision to build solar powered buildings.
“Well, your grades in technology are . . . perfect. And Mr. Banks praises you as one of the best students he’s ever had. But it sounds a bit outlandish to me,” the counselor said. “I would focus your attention on something that will make you real money. Like law. You’re smart enough. Or focus on building nuclear power plants or oil refineries. Those are the future of energy. That is, if you’re interested in making some real money.”
Max saw the edge of his teenaged lip twist in disdain. God he was ugly when he did that. His mind fast forwarded to his high school graduation. The valedictorian spoke of dreams and progress. Afterwards, classmates, family members, even other students’ parents whom he had never met shook his hand and congratulated him on his choice to study law. But was it his choice? No, he recalled, it was really what his parents had fervently encouraged him to do.
“Just do it and be over with it,” said his father. No it wasn’t his father. It was one of the dark forms against the opposite wall of the . . . van . . . Max realized.
“But that wouldn’t teach anybody anything, now would it,” the man with the braces replied. “You’re too nice Sam. I keep telling you that. You forget why we do this in the first place. I think you need to stop forgetting so much.”
An apathetic grunt came from the dark form. Max noticed electronic equipment lining the walls of the van and people in dark sweatshirts turning knobs and typing things. There were blinking lights and computer monitors running script.
“Sam forgets,” the man with the braces whose smile now faded said to Max, “That we do this so people like you learn it’s not okay to pretend that you’re not killing anybody. Do you think that you’re not killing anyone?”
“I don’t know. It depends how you look at it,” Max replied, exasperated.
“And how do you look at it?” There was a milky, sour scent on the man’s breath.
“Well, I’ve contributed to their deaths. But they have choices like everyone else.”
The man frowned, his lips contorting into an odd, pouting shape. Whatever thoughts that were causing his expression to change were suddenly repressed and the smile returned as he held up a computer chip the size of a mosquito with tiny mechanical legs. “See this? . . . This is a neural generator that also contains a very special type of sensor. It is designed to detect all diseases that are caused by cigarettes within a half mile radius. You can’t possibly hope to comprehend the technology involved so I’m not going to bother explaining, but suffice it to say that this thing knows when somebody within a half mile radius is dying from an illness caused by cigarettes. After you won that case nineteen months ago, we implanted one of these into your brain while you were sleeping. Once it detects victims that you and people like you help kill, it sends a neural pattern to your synapses. This causes you to hallucinate in such a way that you see those who will die from cigarettes, dying before they are dead. Got it”?
“That is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve heard in my entire life.”
“If by stupid, you mean hard to believe, I’ll concede the point. Nevertheless it is true. A lot can be achieved with the proper motivation.”
It came to Max that he must be the brunt of a very cruel and unusual practical joke. Nothing else made sense. “And who exactly are you?” he sardonically asked.
“Me?” the man was startled. “I am the son of a mother I loved very much. One of many whose family has been destroyed by smoke, chemicals . . . and men just doing their jobs. Well, it’s my job to prove that it’s not okay to kill for money.”
Reaching into a briefcase at his side, the man pulled out a syringe, and pushed with his thumb to release a small droplet of fluid from the tip of the needle.
This was no joke. How could Max have expected that after the last year? He didn’t really expect it, he realized, he had just wanted this not to be real. How many things had he considered to be true or untrue simply because he wanted to consider them such?
Desperately scanning the interior of the van for a way out, he saw a yellow sign that read CCAC: Concerned Citizens Against Cigarettes. His bloodshot eyes went wide, racing like cornered rodents. The tense muscles in his back tightened further and veins stretched the flesh of his neck as he began to thrash about frantically. Unfortunately, he had been strapped to some type of harness without even realizing it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the dark forms tightening the last strap around his right ankle. And then he felt a prick pressing into his forearm. The pain of the needle was laughably miniscule compared to the agonizing fate his life had wandered into.
“Concentrated nicotine,” the man with the braces remarked casually.
Max stopped, comprehension dawning. “You’re a murderer.”
The man tilted his head curiously to the side. “You hear that Sam? He says I’m a murderer.”
Another grunt.
“Well, I can’t say you’re wrong about that one.”
Max wanted to scream but nothing came out. There had been so much misery of late and he was exhausted. A man could only endure so much. Nothing mattered anymore.
But a primal instinct surfaced, fighting its way to his will and strengthening it. Life was precious, suddenly more meaningful than he had ever imagined. He had talked his way in and out of lies and truths countless times. He would fight.
“But you’re not helping anything, you’re just killing people,” he said.
“I’m not just killing people. I’m killing people like you. And probably if I kill enough of you, it will make a difference. The sensor and the hallucinations are just so I can teach you something, so you see the truth before you go. Admittedly, I do take pleasure in that.”
“But don’t you see?” Max stammered. His thoughts were unraveling.
The next words arrived muffled as if from under water. “Oh, I see. I see deeply. But do you see?” The man held up a mirror.
Max attempted to comprehend how something like this could be possible. He lived in what was supposed to be the most just country in the world. There were laws which were supposed to be followed. Laws that stated murderers were to be prosecuted. So where was law enforcement now? He struggled to behold the face of his killer one last time but saw only his own reflection in a mirror held by a man who had decided to speak for justice. He watched as his face aged a lifetime in a moment and suddenly he knew.
Life was about living your dreams. And nothing else.

* The Black Crowes, Sometimes Salvation


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