voyage through smoke
By Emily Pedroza
trigger warnings: fire, mentions of alcohol, mentions of death, tobacco usage, and blood.
John envelops the cigarette with his lips, dry and cracked from the cold’s icy clasp. The amber-glowing tip darkens as smoke swells within his mouth, crawls down his throat, slips to the empty hollow in his lungs. Its heat spreads from his chest outwards, tangling in his pulse, drawing heat to the night. White smoke paints the dark, illuminated by the fireplace; red flames licking upwards, as if eager to devour the brick containing it.
He draws his coat closed as he sits down, the cracked leather seat’s hinges groaning as it struggles to support his weight. Cheeks pinched red, lips bleeding blue, he curses under his breath. It wasn’t supposed to be this cold tonight– it’s only autumn for god’s sake. The room reeks of old piss and beer, its scent clinging onto every surface in sight. Considering how much they charged him, John would have never expected such a trashy room. He didn’t even know if he would be able to afford the way back to Chicago.
Bending over, darting his index finger to his tongue, he drags his rucksack over the splotchy matted carpet. Rummaging through the bag, the rustling of papers fills the room, feeding his fire of frustration. Eventually he finds a crumpled map, directions hardly visible and scrawled with red ink. Fanning leaves reveal a purple-pollen center, arms branching upwards, kissing the top of the page. Some folk offered to pay a hefty load for just a few seeds. In all his years of harvesting herbs, he had never received such a high amount as a prepayment. John couldn’t help but wonder why, as curiosity clutched his shoulders in a deadly grip.
He sits and squints at the paper, minutes slipping by as he scans over the pen lines, imprinting the words deeper into his consciousness. Waters around these parts are known for being vicious, only god knows what would happen if the paper got wet. Taking a last drag, feeling the acrid heat of his breath, the worn cigarette drops to a random patch of cement, crushed under the heel of his boots.
John starts stripping, clothes falling to the floor, later slipping on everything he brought in his duffel. He knew that eventually the heat from the layers would add up, a spark to tinder. Slinging his arms through his rucksack, he feels the familiar pressure on his shoulders, and tension swelling in his core. His basket sits in the crook of his hand, rubbing against the pink, still-puffy scar running from knuckle down to forearm. He took note of his calluses, the hardening hills that had gradually formed over the years. Eventually, he nears the front door, muscles aching from the steep flight of stairs.
A gruff voice calls from the front desk, “Hey man, you aren’t seriously thinking about leaving this late, right? It’s not safe out there, especially not when it’s this dark.”
Alas, John had already stepped through the door, nothing but the bitter smell of smoke lingering in his wake.
On his path to the docks, a man begs, clutching onto the trousers of John’s pants. “Don’t take the chance, young man. Don’t seek out those who lurk at night.” His face is smudged with dirt, voice laced with sorrow and paranoia.
Madman. John kicks his leg, trying to remove the man’s tight grasp, plunging deeper into the night.
The moon had turned a gloomy yellow, sinking into the clouds that uphold it. On the surface of the sea, the moon ripples, as if trying to rip free of the chains that hold it still. Crickets yelp, burying themselves in piles of decaying twigs, fallen from fanning cypresses and their arched limbs, leaves creasing in the wind. There was an iron-twinge to the water, as if blood had seeped into the sea.
The boat docks, tailored of dull oak, creak under him as he steps, regardless of how lightly he treads. As if he was prey to the dark, it latches onto his breaths and footfalls alike. His heart drums against his chest, and he suddenly becomes aware of his pulse, fear-laced blood racing through his veins, bulging at his skin. The air turns to sticky-sweet syrup, sinking into his lungs.
A rasp spills by the water, coming from a silver-haired man clutching onto a wooden cane. The moonlight drenches him in a sickly glow, tracing the wrinkles lining his eyes, the splits in his lips. “Take care of her for me,” he croons, voice soft like silk. Giving a wistful look to his boat, he continues, “She’s been my best pal for life. Try to get her back by tomorrow morning.”
John gives a curt nod as his thanks. His gloved hands envelope the elder’s free hand, sliding three coins in his open palm. The silver gleams, light crawling off its curves.
With that, he steps into the boat, into the great stretch of unknown they call the sea.
Hours blurred, air denting behind him like metal. It clings to his coat, tugging him forwards. The boat rocks, following the steep slopes, curving up then abruptly crashing. His eyes catch the edges of the isolated land, breath turning solid in his throat.
The aromas of his childhood had approached to visit, the perfumed air passing through his airways, kissing his hard-edges and sorrows away. Memories rise within his chest, like wisps of incense as they twirl around him: his grandmother’s sweet cherry perfume; backyard-grown speckled orange trees, which always fostered jasmine-like blossoms climbing up it’s arms; buttercream cake, and its caramel-vanilla aroma rousing from the oven. Euphoria fills his chest, golden warmth dawning like the grand sun. John wishes he could grasp onto the feeling eternally, feel it ripple against his fingers, bottle light and laughter in a diamond shell.
Soon enough, the boat reaches land, tracing the outline of the river, lurching at a stop. He loops the hawser around a nearby tree, feeling the thick rope and its familiar gritty grip nip against his palm, skin flushing red. There is a tree, pale-pink blossoms drape themselves against thin mahogany branches, scent akin to sweet almonds and cherry, John crosses the white and pink path carved for him from petaled rain.
A sparkle to his left catches his eye, bleeding through the bushes. It’s as if the wind is whispering—lips directly by his ear, breath fanning down his neck, slipping to his collarbones, ‘Run.’ So John runs—heels digging into dirt, ignoring his remaining logic—through the bushes, waiting for the sharp biting pain of twigs. Instead, his spine slams against grass, neck whipping against dirt. A groan rumbles from his throat, as he pushes off the floor. Blood was eminent, the taste latched onto his tongue.
“Jesus,” John whispers, eyes growing wide, “holy father, this is it.”
Lilac shaded blossoms rustle among sage leaves, glowing as if they were made of sun. Sweet perfume drips from their petals, the breeze sweeping the fragrance-filled petals into the air. The specks in their centers resemble deep eyes, welling with unspoken stories, pooling with life. The wind hums a lullaby, its voice smooth and velvety, soon the surrounding trees follow it in song. Bells dangle from branches, light and faint as they chime up and down a scale.
His knees dig into the soft beds of soil, disregarding the water seeping through his trousers. Fingers hugging the stem of the plant in an ever gentle embrace, he clips it at the base. Repeat.
Eventually, he holds a basket filled with the herb, exhaling as he does so. Tension had accumulated by his neck, as if his tendons were ready to snap.
“Help me, please!” A feminine voice cries, honey-like and fear-filled.
John sprints to the sound, pocket knife in hand as if a switch flipped within him. He is brought back to his childhood, memories flashing behind his eyelids.
His mother’s gut-wrenching sobs as Lucy, his baby sister’s body stills in the body of water. Her lips bleed purple, pain raking through his veins, barely registering his mother’s fists barreling against his chest as she bellows, “Why didn’t you save her, god damn it!”
John doesn’t register he’s crying until he feels water pass through his lips, salt sticking to his tongue. A lump claws his throat, begging to be released. Gasping as the air slips down his throat, he reaches her. His feet slow to a stop, shoes plunging into soil.
Curled up against a weathered rock, her wet hair splays against rock, sapphire strands spilling onto stone. The moon shines brighter in her presence, attention garnered on kissing the soft lines of her face. Her eyes are bejeweled, mirroring the ocean and all its depth. Blood soaks through her white tunic, crimson spreading like a disease. When she coughs, it racks through her throat, wet and coarse.
“Please. I need your help to get up,” she pleads. Her arm reaches up for his, bones thin, paper-like skin.
He freezes in his step towards her.
Dread fills the pit of his stomach, body incapable of moving, reeling as he sees red drip down her chin. His knife thuds a rock, skidding into the water. Soon he recognizes her blood-stained teeth, her sunken blank eyes, devoid of emotion. Silence stretches between them, dense and choking.
His eyes must have displayed his horror because she shoots towards him, digging her nails into the soft flesh below his neck. Her grip is unnaturally tight, unforgiving as blood swarms to his face, skin seeping purple. Eventually, despite his thrashes, thick fog swarms his mind, stealing away his senses.
John’s body gives out, going limp against her, muscles exhausted from wear. Through his blurred vision he makes out her face as it nears his lips leaving only an inch between them. Her pearly skin begins to peel, revealing a fractured shadow under its mask. A loud crack, then silence shortly following. The world tilts, crumpling as his vision blackens.
Static bright light is sucked from his mouth to hers. A memory flashes behind his eyes: his arms wrapped around his sister as they blow out candles to a cake, applause ringing loud and cheers of ‘happy birthday!’ A growing ache spreads within his chest, burning with intensity, like a cavity that decays with time.
But soon all John could think of was pain. No longer registering the memories as they fissured, fleeing his body and hers.
His breath failed him. Lungs spasming, as if the air had turned to tar. He couldn’t breathe.
Groaning, he digs his spine back into the dirt, wishing the ground would crack open and swallow him whole. Cold sweat drips from his nape into the soil.
He begs her to stop, mentally praying with each inch of his being to all the gods who would listen. He is left reeling with the pain and speed of it all, hoping for a pause, something momentary to clutch onto.
His teeth clenched together so hard he expected them to crack at any moment.
He didn’t even register he was screaming until he felt something snap in his throat, the smell of iron following.
Time seemed to stretch infinitely, buzzing pain seeping into his bloodstream, branding him. As if his memories had liquified and dripped away, the hollow in his head grew still.
The world went black.
John’s eyes pry open, stinging. His lungs burn, about to collapse on themselves. He notices piercing voices around him, whispers echoing around him.
A harsh voice to his left queries, “Young man, who are you? Where did you come from?”
John pauses, digging through his brain for the answer.
My name. What is my name?
The blue-headed woman and her deadly kiss are all that remains.
“I…don’t know.” His voice wavers, his eyes darting down.
“And why is that?” Another voice demands, almost taunting.
Sputtering, he stumbles over his words, “There was a woman on an island. . .she stole them. I swear it. You have to believe me, please.”
A woman’s cane knocks into his stomach, “You didn’t think we would let you off the hook, did you? Those crimes you committed just yesterday, you burned down a whole hospital for god’s sake. With your face uncovered, your face has been plastered all around town.”
A sob catches in his throat, “No, I’m positive it was her.”
His blood splatters against sand.