Mr. Smoke (a short story)
In his essay ‘Why We Crave Horror Movies’ Stephen King puts forward the idea that all of us, to varying extremes, come with a built-in need to occasionally exercise our sicker, more “anticivilization emotions”. Watching zombie movies and those in which people are menaced and often killed are, King suggests, ways to “keep the gators fed” so that we don’t end up pulling a Jack the Ripper.
This idea stuck with me from the first reading and I wondered, What would happen if someone took away the outlets for our darkest tendencies? Would we turn into monsters? Or would we create them?
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In an air conditioning vent of the ladies bathroom at London Heathrow, Mr. Smoke was coming to life. He began as a pair of yellow eyes, expressive and perfectly circular. There was no face to speak of, no head and no body, either, because Suzie Lowrey hadn’t gotten that far yet.
At seven years old, Suzie was smart and curious with a taste for dark things. She read Shirley Jackson and, if her father vetted it first, sometimes a little Stephen King. At least she used to. ‘I don’t think she should read that stuff anymore,’ her mother had said. That’s where they were going when Mr. Smoke happened, to see Suzie’s mother.
The Lowreys were divorced; he lived in London, she lived in Montreal, and the start of Summer being the agreed upon time for a short exchange, Suzie and her father had left for the airport early to catch the 08:35 out of Terminal 2. It was already warm with a slow breeze, and the two of them stood outside the terminal building while he smoked, a book of matches which said Cooke’s Cabs on it, tucked into his palm.
‘I’ll be fine, dad,’ Suzie said, ‘it’s just a bathroom break.’
‘I’m right outside,’ he said. John Lowrey was a grey, fading sort of man, whose wardrobe was made up mostly of unremarkable outfits his ex-wife had bought for him when they still together. He read a lot, but could never remember the last book he had read if someone asked. ‘Oh, I think it was that, you know,’ he would say, ‘The one who did,’ and so on. It didn’t matter; he loved Suzie, and she loved him.
No more horror books, Suzie thought standing at the bathroom sink, likely meant no more horror movies. There was nothing in the suitcase, she knew that, and the Duty Free was more Ray Ban than Ray Bradbury. No more horror, no more books, no more movies. She wondered where they drew the line. This in itself was a terrifying prospect.
She let the water run over her hands and stared up into the dark grate of the air conditioning vent. Mr. Smoke, his perfectly circular yellow eyes the size of lemon slices, stared back. ‘Good girl,’ Mr. Smoke’s eyes seemed to say, ‘That’s good. Keep going. Make me whole.’
‘Are you done?’ an older lady in a blue coat asked. ‘My little love, other people are waiting to wash their hands.’
‘Sorry,’ Suzie said. She looked again at the vent; Mr. Smoke had gained a shark-toothed smile. ‘Good girl,’ he whispered. ‘What a wonderful imagination you have.’
‘Dad,’ Suzie said, ‘may I look around the shop?’
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘but no sweets.’
‘I don’t have any money,’ Suzie said flatly. He slipped a folded ten into the front pocket of her jacket. She hugged him.
‘Be back in 10,’ he said, ‘and stay away from the perfumes, please.’
Wandering around the Duty Free, Suzie picked up stuffed toys and oversized bars of chocolate. At one point she picked up a tester bottle of Chanel №5 and sniffed it. A smiling lady who looked like a Barbie doll bent down to offer her a little packet of something. ‘No, thank you,’ Suzie said. ‘I’m not supposed to eat too much sweet stuff.’
‘Good for you,’ the smiling lady said. ‘Best not to get started.’
‘Do you sell books?’ Suzie asked.
‘Not here, sweetie,’ the lady said. ‘Try the newspaper shop.’
Suzie pocketed the tester bottle.
The Barbie doll lady straightened up and turned away, giving Suzie a clear view of the stands holding all of the sunglasses. Each stand was covered in little mirrors, and she saw Mr. Smoke in every one. His big yellow eyes had gained depth, his smile was wide and sharp, and now he had a head, too.
His skin was ash grey and cracked, dusty like the cast of a Pompeii victim, and all around the edges of his head, little ringlets of smoke snaked and danced. Suzie smiled and began to walk towards him. ‘Ah, not yet,’ Mr. Smoke mouthed. ‘I’m not ready.’ He lifted a long finger which had at its end, a nail as shiny and black as a hawk’s. Suzie smiled a big, giddy grin, wide enough to show off the tooth she was missing. Mr. Smoke smiled back, his own teeth as sharp and jagged as surgical bone saws. He pointed to the door.
‘You didn’t buy anything,’ John said, taking Suzie by the hand. ‘I didn’t really give you much money, did I?’
‘That’s alright,’ Suzie said, still smiling. ‘Is the plane ready?’
‘Let’s check,’ he said.
As they left, Suzie looked back; the Barbie doll lady was handing out the last of her packets and another little girl was trying on a pair of wayfarers in the mirror and laughing. Mr. Smoke was on the move.
At the gate, the speedy boarding and VIP ticket-holders breezed past, their phones and passports tucked neatly between their pre-tanned fingers. ‘I hope they’re not expecting too much sun,’ John said, then, ‘Oh, have you seen my book? I had it just now, and-’
‘What was it called?’ Suzie asked.
‘It was,’ he said. ‘Ah, never mind.’
When it was their turn to board, Suzie handed over her passport and looked the boarding assistant dead in the eye. She did her best to replicate her passport photo pose, but the assistant didn’t look up. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and handed the passport back.
‘How high does the plane go?’ Suzie asked.
‘Your captain will tell you, the assistant said. ‘Next, please.’
‘You know how high it goes,’ her father said. ‘You fly all the time.’
‘I know,’ Suzie said, ‘I just like to test the staff for when I rate them later on.’ He smiled at her, then gave the lobby a final frowning scan. Maybe that’s it, he thought. He patted his pocket and thought of the Cooke’s Cab matches. ‘Shit.’
Inside the plane it was cool, and the speedy boarders had already adjusted their little air-con dials to their own desired strengths and angles. ‘No window seat, I’m afraid,’ John said.
‘I don’t mind,’ Suzie said. ‘I like the aisle. Less cramped. I think I’ll need the bathroom soon, anyway.’
The Lowrey’s neighbor, the lucky owner of the window seat, was a smartly-dressed, but somehow dickish-looking man in a blue sport coat. John couldn’t place it, neither could Suzie. In the end John decided that it was the man’s tight haircut, his perfectly-shaven and handsome face and the cologne which even John had to admit was perfect for him. ‘Pardon me for squeezing in,’ Sport Coat said.
‘No, not at all,’ John said, ushering Suzie into the aisle.
Sport Coat sat down and asked, ‘Holiday?’
‘For her,’ John said. ‘Taking her to stay with my wife, ex-wife for a few weeks.’
‘Oh, rough. You’re going all that way to drop her off?’
‘I’ll spend a day or two,’ John said. The man’s cologne really was something, and John did not like the way it made him feel.
‘Alright,’ Sport Coat said. ‘I wouldn’t do it, but…that her? Your kid?’
‘Hello,’ Suzie said. Sport Coat lifted an eyebrow then turned to face the window, pushing in a pair of earplugs. Suzie poked out her tongue.
The captain, who introduced himself as Michael Jackson, got a few laughs just for that and had clearly embraced the name, refining his welcome speech accordingly.
‘A very good morning, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, ‘and welcome aboard this 08:35 flight from London Heathrow to Montreal-Trudeau. I am your captain, Michael Jackson, and I am joined in the cockpit this morning by co-pilot Andrea Watts. Flight time to Montreal is around seven hours, twenty minutes, which isn’t too Bad. We’re expecting some turbulence at the start, which could be a bit of a Thriller but nothing too Dangerous, so please don’t worry, we’ll be here to Rock With You all the way.
‘In a moment the cabin crew will begin safety demonstrations. Please give them your undivided attention, since you may be a Smooth Criminal, but nobody’s Invincible. That’s all, so if you’re ready, let’s Beat It.’
There was a round of applause throughout the cabin, and the man in the sport coat removed an ear plug, ‘What’d I miss?’
The plane was rolling, and forty minutes into the flight, having checked the prices of everything in the in-flight magazine, Suzie unbuckled her seat belt and made her way slowly to the front bathroom. She slid the lock to the ‘Engaged’ position and looked around.
‘Are you here?’ she asked. She waited, listening to the rumble of the engines, then she turned to face the mirror. Her own reflection was nowhere; instead, Mr. Smoke filled the glass, his ancient torso morphing through dust and smoke and cracked earth. Suzie smiled and he smiled back, his bone saw teeth now even sharper, even more serrated. All over his body the smoke worked its way to the surface and out the cracks, swirling in lazy ribbons up and away.
‘I smell it,’ Suzie said excitedly. ‘You’re real.’ Mr. Smoke’s teeth parted as he nodded and a plume of smoke billowed from the sinkhole. ‘Look,’ she said, and pulled out the book of Cooke’s Cab matches. A diabolical smile spread across Mr. Smoke’s face, revealing a tongue as long and black as a cobra’s. The billowing smoke formed itself into a solid hand, which took hold of one of the matches and broke it free from the pack. There was a snapping sound and then the warm yellow of a growing flame. Suzie giggled, showing off her missing tooth again. ‘And this,’ she said, pulling out the pocketed bottle of Chanel.
Smoke began to pour from the sinkhole, turning and solidifying into Mr. Smoke’s various body parts; he looked like a genie emerging from a lamp. ‘Such a clever girl, too,’ he hissed, and he cupped the bottle of perfume in his clawed hand.
By the time the crew had armed themselves with extinguishers and blankets, the fire had already begun to eat through the bathroom paneling. Flames tore into the cabin ceiling and began to waterfall outwards onto the seats nearest the cockpit. Headrest covers disintegrated, magazines curled and then burned, and when the contraband flammables people had smuggled aboard began to explode, fireballs rocketed into laps and faces. Overhead lockers burst open and flaming bags dumped themselves in the aisle. The fire was raging now. People were screaming, scrambling to unbuckle themselves, crawling to get away from the heat. Some were trying to break windows while others tried to stop them.
Mr. Smoke, now entirely in his element, emerged from the bathroom and rose, a towering monster, until his head reached the ceiling and he could go no further. He opened his mouth wide and seemed to suck all of the air out of the cabin before blowing it, and the fire, back out and along the entire length of the aircraft. Up went the rest of the headrest covers, more exploding carry-ons and then the duty free trolley.
Now out of his seat, Suzie’s father scrambled over burning bags, upholstery and fleeing people. ‘Suzie!’ he shouted. ‘Suzie!’ The man in the sport coat batted wildly at the seat in front of him, and at his clothes and face. His earplugs had melted into his ears.
‘Suzie!’ John screamed. She appeared in the aisle, most of her clothes burned away along with her hair; she was bald and blistering. All at once screaming, crying and laughing, Suzie began to teeter-totter through the whole burning mess, hot tears streaming down her scorched face. John reached out, stretching as far as he could, and she reached back, but Mr. Smoke took her. He lifted her off the ground and with a smile, pulled her back into the flames.
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