The world outside the churchâ€™s windows is a tapestry of fire. The flames burn a sick yellow as creatures stare down from them. Theyâ€™re not demons – I never believed in all that fire and brimstone talk my grandfather would spout. No, these arenâ€™t demons staring down at me as I walk down the aisle of the church. These are the animals that Lucy and I would see when we stared into the flames of a burning house after we got everyone out.
Iâ€™m not alone in the church. I havenâ€™t been yet in this dream. Much like in real life, people canâ€™t help but show up for a superheroâ€™s funeral – and a teenaged one at that. Everyone is seated, a sea of half-familiar faces, distant relatives, and the media personnel that had snuck in to get a first hand account of it all. Lucy and my friends took care of the last group when this was all a reality, but in this dream everyone ignores them. Everyone is just too busy staring blankly ahead at the coffin that rests at the very end of the aisle. Itâ€™s the same stare they gave on that day, but more pronounced. As I pass them, I hear them murmur behind me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€œSuch a shame.â€
â€œFar too young.â€
â€œWhat about the other twinâ€™s powers?â€
I ignore them. Like I did in real life. I just continue walking until I find my spot in the front row with my mother and father. Unlike real life, my mother is silent. Her mascara drips down from her neutral expression while dadâ€™s hand pats in time to a clock that I canâ€™t hear. Just a continuous pat of reassurance that loses more and more of its meaning each time their hands connect.
If I was poetic, Iâ€™m sure that would mean something to me. But Iâ€™m not, so it doesnâ€™t. Itâ€™s just odd. Weird. Wrong? Just like this dream. Just like this entire situation.
A portly man that I barely remember from my first communion stands behind the coffin, speaking empty words about pearly gates and salvation. I donâ€™t hear the words really. Hell, I donâ€™t even know if heâ€™s speaking English half way through, but my mind is taking cues from a memory, when I wish it would just let me have a dreamless sleep.
The priest doesnâ€™t go on for that long. Iâ€™m grateful for that because the longer I stare at the coffin in front of me, the more I feel the loss of a twin. The sudden emptiness that Iâ€™m not sure normal siblings have for eachother.
I hear the howls from the windows, and I look up to see the flaming beasts clambering to get in. They melt through the windows, the glass peeling back in blackened revulsion, and the animals claw their way down the walls. Wherever they touch, fire is left. Fire that soon travels to the banners hanging nearby and to the wooden rafters above.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€œSuch a shame.â€
â€œFar too young.â€
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€œCan you imagine?â€
The fire has now engulfed the roof, debris raining down on the church like the apocalyptic fury that the priest was now screaming about – I donâ€™t even remember when he shifted topics. Heavenâ€™s pearly gates no longer hold a candle to fire and brimstone.
People donâ€™t run. People donâ€™t cry. They just continue to blankly stare while my dadâ€™s hand continues to pat-pat-pat away.
Sometimes in the dream, I just sit patiently while the world burns around me. Sometimes, this time, I stand as my familyâ€™s bench catches and move towards the coffin. The entire world around me is on fire and yet I still feel cold. I stop in front of the coffin and look inside as something heavy and smoldering falls behind me. The church is crumbling all around me, taking everyone with it, but I just donâ€™t care. Iâ€™m busy.
My sister doesnâ€™t belong inside oak. She doesnâ€™t belong in that simple black dress with grandmotherâ€™s pearls around her neck. Sheâ€™s a goddamn superhero – like me. Sheâ€™s the second half of the Torchlight Twins. My wonder twin. Half of our power. Half of our brand.
The smoke blurs the dream. I can still breath but I donâ€™t want her to fade away so I lean closer into the coffin, but it doesnâ€™t matter. I continue to lean until I am pressing my forehead against my sisterâ€™s, and Iâ€™m hugging her close inside the coffin that I donâ€™t remember climbing into. Flames lick around the edges of the coffin and we both just remain still, listening to the crack and splintering of the oak as it catches.
The dream plays out as it always does. Us together in the end, consumed by the fire that we both used to be able to control. Burned until nothing is left. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Our only hope is that one of those animals we saw in the fire so many times will eventually become a phoenix to bring us back.
I wake up in a room that I havenâ€™t slept in since Lucy and I left to make it big in Virtue City. My room is still pretty much how I left it as a sixteen year old, reminding me of how much my tastes have grown in three years. My eyes flicker around the room, the only light coming from the dawn outside my window, and I look around at all the posters on my wall of those I used to idolize. The Patrician is telling me to reach for the stars while Gamma Girl is flashing me an encouraging amount of cleavage as she battles a robotic assassin. I had waited in line as a kid to get them signed when my family went down to Virtue City, and I treasured them.
If only I knew that Patrician was sort of a primadonna and Gamma Girl fought more bouts of anorexia than robotic assassins, I would have aimed for better idols.
My alarm clock hasnâ€™t gone off yet, but I know Iâ€™m not going back to sleep so I roll out of the bed and get dressed. I find the pair of jeans Iâ€™ve been wearing for the last week and snatch a flannel shirt from the closet that feels like a size too small. Iâ€™m dressed within a minute and out the door, plodding down the hallway of my parentsâ€™ house
In Virtue City, I had my own place. A small little studio that Lucy called â€˜cutely grungeâ€™ whenever she came over for Thursday night take out. My parentsâ€™ home isnâ€™t small nor is it â€˜cutely grungeâ€™. Itâ€™s one of those ranch mansions with pine wood floors, pristine white walls, and the occasional hunting trophy displayed because my father is nothing if not cliche.
I take the stairs two at a time, and regardless of how early it is, I can hear someone in the kitchen. From the amount of smoke already in the air and the sound of cursing, I know itâ€™s my dad.
I enter the kitchen just in time to hear the sizzle of bacon become a crackling inferno of grease, and I see Paul scrambling to detach the small fire extinguisher from the wall as fire dances in momâ€™s skillet. My hand is up before I can even register what I am doing, and I reach out for the core of the fire, the heat.
With Lucy, I could have made this grease fire tap dance to Mozart. Yet, Lucy isnâ€™t here. Sheâ€™ll never â€˜be hereâ€™ again. And so when I reach out for the fire, I feel my control slipping immediately. I stiffen my fingers slowly, rolling my hand into a fist as the heat rebels against the constraint Iâ€™m trying to put on it. Like a child mid-tantrum, it fights me the entire time until my fist finally closes, and I put the flame to bed. The only thing that remains is the smoke that is clogging up the kitchen and the burned husk of meat that Iâ€™m assuming is going to the dog in a few.
I used to be able to control infernos. Now I can barely take the piss out of a little rebellious grease.
â€œJesus tap dancing Christ!â€ Paul coughs between words as he tries to fan the smoke away from him with his cowboy hat. He stumbles a few steps towards the sink and reaches over it to push open the windows there. He spends a minute trying redirect the smoke, and I just remove the skillet from the stove. Paul eventually gives up, deposits the hat back into his head, and lets out a chuckle. â€œGrease nearly burned my keister.â€
He smiles, but Iâ€™ve seen Paul in court before. Itâ€™s his â€˜Iâ€™m just a simple Montana Lawyerâ€™ smile that is supposed to make the jury forget that he charges seven hundred dollars an hour. I offer him a smirk before turning off the stove.
â€œMomâ€™s not getting out of bed today,â€ I say. Â Itâ€™s not a question. I donâ€™t need to ask it. Itâ€™s just me acknowledging what I already expected.
Paulâ€™s smile sours, and he just nods his head. The toaster chimes, two blackened pieces of bread popping up. Paul busies himself with collecting them onto a plate and spreading a few globs of jam on top of them. Paul hates jam which is how I know heâ€™s cooking for mom.
â€œItâ€™s only been two weeks,â€ he says after a silent moment between us. â€œI remember when the Broncos got beat by the 49ers. I didnâ€™t leave the house for damn near a month.â€
I know that Paul isnâ€™t trying to compare a loss of a football game to a loss of a daughter; heâ€™s just trying to lighten the mood and avoid thinking about Lucy until Mom is out of bed and heâ€™s alone in his woodworking shop with a bottle of scotch. So, I just offer a smile to him and begin cleaning up his mess. The bacon gets tossed to Pongo who had been hiding under the table this entire time. Iâ€™m rewarded with a wag of his tail before the golden retriever begins chewing noisily.
â€œYou handled that grease fire pretty damn well,â€ Paul says as he pulls his hat from his head to adjust the brim. Itâ€™s another tactic of his – avoiding eye contact when he was trying to force a subject into a conversation.
â€œPhonomenal cosmic power.â€ I brush away the conversation as quickly as I do the rubbery eggs into the trashcan. As I busy myself cleaning Momâ€™s skillet, Paul clears his throat behind me.
He wasnâ€™t giving up.
â€œGoing to take time, Lucas. When you first began this whole hero thing, you didnâ€™t have much control then. Just gotta focus -â€
â€œPaul.â€ The word cuts through his sentence like how my fire blasts use to cut through a Mechron tank. Maybe there is more annoyance than I meant to give it, but I know what Paul is trying to do. Heâ€™s trying to give me hope. Like heâ€™s always done. As a lawyer, Paul was always spinning silver lining for his clients; when he wasnâ€™t in front of them, heâ€™d try spinning it for us. Nothing was ever impossible. Nothing was ever beyond reach. My childhood was filled with these platitudes, and right now I couldnâ€™t really stomach the thought of hearing one.
Paulâ€™s silent behind me now as I turn off the facet and then focus on drying. I feel him watching me, and I feel that familiar sensation of my blood beginning to boil. Back in the day, Iâ€™d have to worry about my temper getting out of control and accidentally setting the dish rag on fire. Now, my anger is just… impotent.
â€œLooks like you have a visitor,â€ Paul says after a minute or two. I look over my shoulder to find him staring out the kitchen window and into the lawn.
â€œMedia?â€ I ask. The media thrived on platitudes. Worse than Paul. Everyone wanted an interview with the â€˜Surviving Twinâ€™. Everyone wanted to know what my sisterâ€™s death meant for the Torchlight Twinâ€™s â€˜phenomenal cosmic powersâ€™. They had hounded me before and after the funeral, and it was only my fatherâ€™s promise to sue for harassment and his twelve gauge that kept most of the reporters off his property. Most.
â€œNot unless they fancy spandex and learned to fly.â€
I sidle up to Paul and look out the window. And that boiling in my blood simmers away until my hands are left cold. The woman must have spotted Paul and I peering out, because she offers a one hundred watt smile and a wave. Her black hair is a mess – though I guess mach one would do that to anyoneâ€™s hair, and her toned body is covered from neck to toe in purple. Her skin is dark brown and just seeing her makes me mentally count the days since Iâ€™ve actually showered.
Starling has this effect on me.
â€œIf you ainâ€™t going to go out there to greet her, I might as well slap on some aftershave and give it a try.â€ Paulâ€™s hand clasps my shoulder for a second before he grabs the breakfast tray and hoists it up. He offers me the same look he gave me when he allowed for â€˜five more minutesâ€™ when he walked in on Angela Craft and me Â in high school, and then heâ€™s moving towards his bedroom.
I just continue to stare out the window until I realize I probably look like Iâ€™m glaring. Starlingâ€™s smile doesnâ€™t retreat, but she does reel it in a little before she begins looking around the back yard. She saunters over towards the tire swing Lucy and I use to wrestle over, spins it a bit, and then just takes a seat, waiting. Â
A year ago, I would have dropped everything to speak with the â€˜Fantastic Flier of Virtue Cityâ€™. Lucy use to tease me about how my costume looked a little sharper whenever I knew we were going to meet up with Starling for a mission. But today isnâ€™t a year ago. It isnâ€™t the past, as much as my mind wishes for those days back. Today is today, and for today, I have dishes to focus on.
So thatâ€™s what I do.
Starling watches me through the window as I finish cleaning up my fatherâ€™s mess. Iâ€™d occasionally glance out, and sheâ€™d just offer a friendly smile while she continued to sway in the swing, her feet crossed at the ankles. I rush through the tail end of the cleaning, opting to brush off the toast crumbs and gristle onto the floor for Pongo to finish up. And then Iâ€™m drying my hands and moving out the back door.
The thing about my familyâ€™s place that always gets me is how silent everything is. Fifteen acres of land with only four people and a dozen horses isnâ€™t exactly competition for the thousands of people on every street in the city. No sirens or honking horns or people just shouting about whatever it is people want to shout about. Here? Itâ€™s just the wind and the occasional neigh from a stubborn stallion.
Starling sways on the swing, her head resting against the worn rope as I approach.
â€œDidnâ€™t think youâ€™d be so quick to go back to wearing flannel, Montana,â€ she says with a dimpled smile. A year ago, Iâ€™d have blushed. Today, I cross my arms and lean against the side of the old oak tree.
â€œWhen in Rome,â€ I offer. â€œNext week, youâ€™ll see me open carrying a AR-10 upper’s.â€ â€œOh, flannel and firearms. The two big Fs of Montana, huh?â€ She leans forward a bit, teasing. Her smile is just… fantastic.
I shove my hands into my jean pockets and look away. â€œMontana is actually known for the three Fs. Flannel, firearms, and fantastic meth.â€ Iâ€™m rewarded with a chuckle which is nice. And itâ€™s nice to have nice again in my life. Yet, Starling isnâ€™t here to just be nice. I know this, and I donâ€™t want to delay the inevitable so I just lets out a breath before saying, â€œSo, Patrician decided to send a pretty face, huh?â€
I look back to her and find those amber eyes gazing back at me. Her smile softens until it looks a bit sad, and then she nods her head. â€œHe wants to know about your powers. Most of the team told him to give you a few more weeks but Patrician is…â€ she trails off. Ever the good soldier, she isnâ€™t going to say it.
So I say it for her.
â€œAn asshole.â€ My eyes lock onto hers, and we share a knowing smile. I know she agrees, she knows I donâ€™t care anymore. And we both know Patrician is right. â€œLeague always needs an active roster of the best, and he needs to know if I can still fight Doctor Mosiac or Human Error, huh?â€
She hesitates before dropping her smile. She then nods. She doesnâ€™t want to have this conversation. I donâ€™t either. But being a superhero is awesome like this so I push on through.
â€œNope?â€ she asks with a cant of her head. â€œLucas, Patrician just needs to know how your powers-â€
â€œNo, I know. Iâ€™m just telling you how it is with my powers. â€˜Nopeâ€™ they arenâ€™t as strong. â€˜Nopeâ€™ I donâ€™t think theyâ€™re ever going to be as strong as they were. â€˜Nopeâ€™ I canâ€™t stop a grease fire without breaking a sweat. â€˜Nope,â€™ I understand I canâ€™t stay in the big leagues with my handicap now. And â€˜Nope,â€™ I donâ€™t want to sign up for your newsletter.â€
I almost get that all out sounding strong and good natured, but my voice cracks at the very end. Starling reaches out from the swing to take my shoulder, but I step away. I tense my jaw, blink away the tears stinging my eyes, and then reach into my shirt, taking hold of the dog tags there. I give a sharp yank and the chain snaps free. I pull the tags out – my communicator – and offer it to her without making eye contract.
â€œLucas…â€ she begins as I drop the communicator into her palm, but she hesitates. She doesnâ€™t want to see me go. I donâ€™t want to see me go. But we both know how the League is. They couldnâ€™t have a spare communicator out with a person who couldnâ€™t protect it. Hell, this was safer for me even. Theyâ€™d announce my retirement from the League and no villains would hunt me down in hopes to getting the Leagueâ€™s technology. This all made sense. It was logical.
But fuck me.
â€œYou just need more time to deal with this,â€ Starling says as she stands up, trying to slip the device back into my hand without much success. I whip my hand away and she just moves closer until sheâ€™s pressed against my body and closer than weâ€™ve probably been in a long time. Her eyes are on mine, and her attempts to return the communicator stop when her hand comes to rest on my shoulder. And now we just stare.
God, sheâ€™s beautiful.
And then weâ€™re kissing. And part of me knows that some brave paparazzi could be snapping pictures from a distance and that this really wasnâ€™t a good time for me mentally to be doing… this. But a larger part of me thinks â€˜who gives a fuckâ€™. Lucy gave all the fucks in the world and she is dead, killed not by some noble sacrifice but by a guy who didnâ€™t watch a PSA on driving drunk. Lucy followed all the smart rules in life, made the right choices, and now she was dead. So at this point, I donâ€™t care. So I donâ€™t stop the kiss.
And neither does Starling.
Our lips meet, and I can taste a hint of spearmint. Her arms circle around my neck and my hands go on autodrive and wrap around her waist, keeping her close. A year ago, this would have ended with me skipping away and texting Lucy like an overly excited thirteen year old girl.
But today is today.
And it ends when I finally pull away, sharing her breath as my forehead rests against hers. I need to do the smart thing. Like Lucy would have. I need to do the right thing. So I drop my hands from her waist and reach out to take hold of her hand still gripping the communicator. I gently push the hand back to her chest before forcing a smile.
â€œI canâ€™t be a superhero right now. I canâ€™t be… anything to anyone right now.â€ Iâ€™m not sure if the words are right, but Starling understands them. She always does. She looks down towards the necklace in her hands, blinking the wetness from her eyes before she returns her gaze back to me.
â€œThe League will make an announcement about your retirement then.â€ Her voice comes out a whisper but I donâ€™t need her words. Just her gaze. For a little while longer. And she gives me that for another minute. We stare, saying a thousand things we never spoke and probably never will. And then I grab her shoulders and gently push her away from me.
She slips the communicator into her belt before offering me one last smile. Iâ€™m stoic – well, as stoic as I can be. I know Iâ€™m probably going to be a sobbing mess the moment she leaves, but for now, I just hold up a hand and wave. She returns the wave before launching herself into the air, her body growing smaller and smaller until all that was left was clouds.
Iâ€™m sure if I was poetic, Iâ€™d find a metaphor in that.
But Iâ€™m not.
So I just slide down the oak tree, grab my head in my hands, and try not to think about the loss.
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4 comments on “Down In Smokes”
I’m not sure if you legally are allowed to but if Fandible ever makes a book out of your short stories then I know i’d definitely buy it.
Great read as always. though damn Billy do you have to play with our heart strings like that? Only thing that could have been sadder is if you killed the dog
I eventually pull myself up from the tree. Sob stories can only be taken so far before people tire of them or you tire of them yourself. I try to put myself back together, wiping my eyes until they look more annoyed by the pollen in the air than the emotional shit storm that I just sailed right into.
So I go back into the kitchen.
Pongo has a gun. He’s barking at me and demanding my wallet. I don’t have my wallet. He can’t suffer the pain of not getting another fix of meth. I don’t even have enough time to stop him. Hell, I don’t even have enough time to figure out how he can manipulate the trigger with his paws. In the end, he’s dead.
Shit. Now I need to finish the dishes and clean up this mess.
Mondays, am I right?
See now that is a true sob story right there. Poor Pongo you will live on forever in our hearts
Dammit Billy you’re making me way to emotional for this early in the morning.
But seriously though that was great and I loved it, I can’t wait for another session of Rotted Capes now!