Chapter 1: Born of Smoke and Flame

The first flash-fiction installment of a long-term series

Chapter 2 of this series can be found by clicking the link.

I wake to the acrid smell of smoke. My first two feelings are alarm and irritation. I assume for a few moments that I fell asleep with the stove still on. I tend to do that when I’ve been drinking, and last night I was definitely drinking.

I’m just beginning to wonder what pan I’ve ruined this time when I catch a whiff of the hoodie I apparently took off and rolled into a makeshift pillow. It is damp in spots, and it smells strongly of smoke and ash.

And then it hits me, like a wave breaking against a rocky shore. I remember where I was and what I did last night, and I immediately retch, craning my head out over the side of my bed just far enough to avoid drenching my comforter with vomit. I can’t even be sure it didn’t get splashed a bit.

When I’m done heaving, I snatch up the dirty hoodie, wipe my sour mouth, and toss the hoodie into the laundry basket. Careful not to touch down in the puddle of vomit, but still feeling too weak to move with any agility, I awkwardly stagger to my feet and out into the kitchen.

I scan the counters for any sign of a beverage, but find only the chaotic assortment of food and ingredients I left out last night. The stove isn’t on, I notice, but it just as easily could have been. There’s a pan on the stove filled with grease and the other half of a fish fillet I decided to fry at 1:00am. I’m not quite ready to tackle all of that, so I make my way to the bathroom with a grumble.

I’m dismayed by the blackness smudged across my face. I lean closer to the mirror and paw gracelessly at my right cheek, smearing the oily, black grime. I’m suddenly filled with a wild panic, and I begin stripping off my t-shirt and jeans as quickly as I can. I reach in the cupboard for a new bar of soap, and I start the shower before I finish disrobing. I need to be fast.

In the shower I scrub myself nearly raw. The blackness clings to me, though, and what I do manage to lose to the water is creating dark streaks against the tub’s white porcelain finish. I sneeze violently, and a long, tarry web of black snot dangles from both of my nostrils. No matter how much of the blackness I watch spiral down the shower drain, it doesn’t seem that I’ll ever get it all off of my skin or out of my nose and throat.

I’ve just opened the shower curtain when I hear someone pound on my exterior door downstairs. “Mr. Jasper,… Green Bay Police Department.”

I curse quietly but viciously under my breath, grabbing a towel, wrapping it around my waist and dashing for the stairs. I have to meet them down there where they can’t see everything strewn about my second story duplex apartment. I’ve got to keep them where they might not smell the smoke on my clothing.

“Yes, gentlemen,” I blink at the two officers through the morning sunlight. I need to sound believably unaware, not disproportionately shocked.

“Sir, were you aware there was a fire down on the next block last night?” the older, white officer asks while the younger Latino officer readies his pad and pen.

“Uh, yeah,” I answer, trying to sound eager to assist, “I thought I heard some sirens, and I stepped out onto the balcony to see.”

“Did you go down there?” the older officer asks, cocking his head slightly.

“No,” I say, shaking my head slowly for emphasis, “I was already in bed and didn’t feel like getting dressed.” I realize too late that they only need to speak to someone at the bar to find out that I’ve lied about being home in bed. A new wave of panic crashes over me. If I wasn’t still a little wet from the shower, I’m afraid they’d see me sweating.

“So,…” the same officer asks, hooking his thumbs in his thick belt and shifting his weight, “you weren’t down there at all. Didn’t see anyone.” He says it more like a statement of fact than like a question. His younger partner looks up from his pad with curiosity, though, as if waiting for me to answer.

“Right,” I say, trying to sound definitive. It is too late to go back on the lie about being home now. That would only invite further questions.

“Alright, then, Mr. Jasper,” the older officer makes a quarter turn toward the porch stairs, and the younger officer pockets his pad and pen, “you let us know if you hear anything about anyone who might have been down there.”

“Will do,” I say as I pull the door shut and head upstairs to begin gathering up my pungent clothing. I’ve got to get it out of there. I don’t think that they’ll come back, but that clothing can’t be in my apartment if they do. Then I realize they just might return if they find out from someone at the bar that I lied about being home. I need to get rid of those clothes and get to the bar.

I pass the bar to drop the black plastic garbage bag of clothes in a commercial dumpster so that it’s not somewhere between my house and the bar. I slide it in the side panel instead of lifting the lid in an attempt to draw less attention. I don’t notice anyone around right now, but it seems like an area with the potential to see some foot traffic.

I try to make myself as small as possible as I enter the bar. It doesn’t matter, Cliff is the only customer, and he sees me right away. Helen is behind the bar, but she’s not seen me for awhile, and we don’t really know each other very well to begin with. Cliff pats the seat of the barstool beside him and scoots his beer so that it is more centered with his body.

I order a pitcher of draft beer for myself and half-heartedly ask Cliff how he’s doing before going quiet. Cliff is probably ten years older than me, and he’s native. He’s not Oneida like most First Nation folks in Green Bay, but rather Menominee, originally hailing from a little further north. He’s just mentioned something insignificant, and I remain quiet because I didn’t catch it. I can’t stop thinking about the fire.

I can’t get the sound of that child’s desperate cries out of my ears. I can’t get the smell of smoke out of my nostrils. I swallow a large gulp of beer to try to wash the irritation from my throat.

“Hey,” Cliff’s volume and energy level suddenly increase slightly, “Did you hear about the fire down your street?”

“Yeah,” I croak. I add, “Shame,” so that my response doesn’t sound suspiciously dismissive.

“They say someone pulled a kid out of it. A little boy,” Cliff explains. “Wasn’t a fireman or family member, they say. Confirmed it with them, I guess. The kid couldn’t identify the guy either. Says he had like a ski mask or something on.”

My stomach tightens as I realize I forgot to collect my balaclava when I gathered up my smoky clothing. I think I saw it on the floor near my hamper.

Cliff stares ahead at the television and smiles a wiley smile, “Some folks are saying it was an angel.”

“You don’t see many angels in Navarino,” I smirk, in spite of myself.

“True,” Cliff concedes, “but maybe the neighborhood has a hero.” He pauses for a moment, then adds in defense of his point, “Someone pulled that kid out of that fire.”

He’s not wrong, I hesitantly admit to myself. Someone did.

I hope you enjoyed this story. Please stay tuned for the next installment and invite all you know to join us as well. Together we’ll navigate the story over time. Follow me on Medium and on Twitter @aaron_debee.

Freelance Writer/Blogger/Editor, veteran, Top Rated on Upwork, former Medium Top Writer in Humor, Feminism, Culture, Sports, NFL, etc.

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