Natalie Le Roux
Dusk crept in over the New York skyline, casting long shadows over the street outside Sarah’s apartment building.
Fear inched its way up her spine as she watched the sunset on the horizon.
She twisted her fingers, wondering if the black smoke would come again tonight.
If she would once more be paralyzed with dread at the sight of her bedroom filling with thick plumes that had a life of their own.
Sarah checked the locks on the window one more time, making sure each one was clipped in tight, and shut the curtains.
If not for her having to get up for work the next morning, she would have gone out, spent the night in the city. Maybe stayed at a friend’s house, or simply found a club open till dawn and hid among the people.
But as fate would have it, she had the meeting of a lifetime in the morning and needed to sleep—not that her mind would let her rest, knowing that the smoke might be back for her again.
She moved to her front door and checked each of the bolts and heavy-duty locks she had installed when she moved in.
The locks served a much greater purpose than just keeping her safe in a large city. It was all she could think to do, to try and stop the living smoke from getting to her.
Once all the bolts were slid into place, she tugged on the door a few times and nodded. That should hold. Please let that hold.
She flicked the light off in the lounge and made her way to the bedroom. After locking that door behind her as well, she dressed in her vest and shorts and climbed into bed.
The light on her bedside table remained on, the way it had done since she was a little girl.
She pulled the blankets up to her chin and stared at the corner of her bedroom with unblinking eyes.
That was where the smoke always appeared.
After what felt like hours of staring, when the night outside drew toward its darkest, her eyes began to feel heavy.
She closed them, telling herself she needed to sleep, and tried to relax.
It’s just smoke, Sarah. It can’t hurt you. It hasn’t hurt you all these years, so there’s no reason to think it will now.
As her body relaxed and her mind calmed, she thought about the meeting in the morning. About how long she had waited for an opportunity like this, and how lucky she would be to land this contract.
All she needed to do was impress Mr. Takamori with her plans, and she would be set for life.
Her thoughts drifted away from the fear and panic that always came with the setting sun and focused on the architectural plans she had spent more than two years drawing up.
As her mind faded into sleep, Sarah rolled onto her side and tucked her hand under her head, only inches away from a set of bright red, glowing eyes watching her from a heavy plume of thick, black smoke.
Dreams of the past made Sarah toss and turn. She moaned in her sleep at the sight of her mother and father dying, the windshield exploding into a billion hard points of light as metal screamed and tore.
Her lungs felt the pain of the smoke filling them all those years ago, and as phantom aches in her back and legs stabbed afresh, she cried out, shooting upright in bed, her body covered in sweat, and her heart pounding.
She took long breaths, trying to calm her heart, and scanned the dark room.
No sign of the smoke. Everything looked the way it should.
She eased back onto her pillow, a tear slipping out to track down her cheek.
Other people had nightmares about monsters—she relived her past.
She would never forget the look on her mother’s face when she realized that she was about to die, that the man she loved lay dead beside her in the wreck.
That her baby girl, crushed by the jagged metal of the crumpled car, would probably not survive.
The pain and the fear in her mother’s eyes haunted Sarah to this day.
Even twenty-three years after the accident, she had a hard time thinking about her parents. Because every time she did, she saw them bloody and screaming in pain as they died.
Sobbing quietly into the pillow, Sarah tried once more to remember how she’d managed to survive that accident, how she could walk, after being almost cut in half by sharp metal blades and spikes of wreckage.
She could remember the moments leading up to the accident as clearly as her last meal, but it was what had caused the accident—and what happened in its aftermath—that she always had a hard time remembering.
Her grandmother had told her many times that trauma and shock for such a small child often caused those memories to disappear, but Sarah needed to know.
There had been something not right about that day…something out of place. And since then, the smoke had been a constant part of her life.
She needed to know.
Sarah wiped the tears from her face and shut her eyes again. Her mind took her back to the day her life had changed.
She was five years old, sitting in the car seat in the back of her father’s Ford Explorer, singing along to the music with her mother. A happy moment, one of many she could remember sharing with her parents.
They were on their way home from her grandmother’s house, late in the evening. Sarah remembered being tired and wanting to sleep, but her mother insisted she stay awake until they got home. That’s why they began to sing together.
She caught sight of her father’s face in the rearview mirror. He met her eyes and gave her a wink, before turning his attention back to the road.
The journey home took them down a long stretch of a country road, with nothing but towering pines and cedars and endless fields of grass as landmarks.
She knew this road well, having visited her grandmother many times before, and she loved to look at the tall trees through the window.
Not many cars were on the road at that time of night. A few large trucks roared past them, and besides the occasional light in the distance from a homestead or a farmhouse, there was no sign of humanity.
Sarah turned back to her mother, who had turned in her seat to look at her, and smiled as she began singing again.
The semi seemed to come out of nowhere.
The bright lights of the lorry aimed directly at them as the wheels of the car skidded on the damp road.
The jolly music playing in the car, the joy and love her little heart felt, and the life of her father ended as quickly as the car did when it slammed headfirst into the truck.
Loud screams and the shriek of metal twisting filled her ears as the car rolled and crumpled under the relentless weight of the truck.
As Sarah thought back to that moment, her mind captured the instant at which things grew hazy.
She knew the road to her grandmother’s house well. Even now, as an adult, she drove that road almost every weekend.
A wide divider separated the two lanes, making it almost impossible for a head-on collision to happen.
The driver of the lorry swore on his life that he was hit by something that caused his lorry to practically fly across the barrier and into oncoming traffic.
Sarah had still been in shock when she had heard the story on the news—still propped up in a hospital bed too big for her tiny body as she watched the red and blue lights on the screen and saw the twisted wreck.
But she could remember the police chief calling him a drunken idiot. A crazy man with no regard for life, and a bottle of whiskey riding shotgun in his cab. But Sarah saw the truth in his eyes when he spoke to the press.
A need to be believed. She understood that need all too well. She had her own crazy story to tell and knew no one would ever believe her. Because of another part of that night that made no sense to her at all.
With absolute clarity, she remembered seeing the metal shard embedded into her side. A jagged piece of black steel had cut through her, almost halfway into her middle, and her legs wouldn’t work.
She couldn’t feel them or move them at all.
Once the car came to a stop, she had screamed for her mother and father, crying endless streams of tears, but they didn’t answer her.
There was no sound except for the creak of metal and the hiss of escaping gas.
After what had felt like an eternity, her mother moved, groaning in pain, and twisted to look at Sarah.
The blood running from her head covered her face. The wide, deep gash through her skin showed white bone beneath, and her eyes held a fear in them that Sarah would have nightmares about for the rest of her life.
Panic came next to her mother. Panic of an animal caught in a trap. She began to scream, shouting that the car was going to explode and that she could smell gas.
She was begging for someone, anyone to help them, and to get her daughter out of the car.
Again, the moments after that were fuzzy in Sarah’s mind.
She could remember being lifted out of the car.
She could remember the light around her fading, as though a dark veil were being drawn over her, and she distinctly recalled a male voice shushing her.
Once away from the car, she was placed onto the ground, and with one hard pull, the metal was drawn out of her body. She cried out, her voice fading to nothing, and a second later, she was lifted into strong arms again.
Dark covers came over her, encircling her, and a deep hum began to sing a tune she didn’t recognize but would never forget.
As the pain faded and the fear eased, her mind calmed and she drifted into a state of what she now called conscious sleep. Awake, but not awake.
The next memory Sarah had was waking up in the local hospital, surrounded by machines and flickering lights and men with clipboards.
A team of doctors were amazed and confused at how she’d managed to survive such a terrible accident. Professionals like that didn’t look too hard for miracles, though.
She was alive; they had done their job. Other people needed their help. But Sarah’s grandmother was there, and from that day on, she was to live with the elderly lady.
Sarah pushed the thoughts that had tormented her for so many years out of her mind and turned on her side again.
The clock on her bedside table read 3:19 a.m., and she only had three more hours of sleep before she had to be awake.
She shut her eyes, not allowing the thoughts to push their way back into her mind, and tried to sleep.
Some time passed before Sarah managed to fall asleep again.
Her body curled into a ball in the corner of her bed, with the blankets pulled up to her shoulders.
A cold chill made her shiver, and she turned onto her other side, tucking her arms into the warmth of her duvet.
She took a deep, peaceful breath, but the icy air that filled her lungs made Sarah’s eyes shoot open.
Her breath caught in her throat, and the fear paralyzed her as she once again stared into a pair of red eyes burning in the thickness of the black smoke.
She wanted to scream, to run, to hide, but her body felt frozen in place.
“No,” she whispered, tears dripping off her lashes as her eyes remained fixed on the two glowing red dots, only inches away from her face.
“Sarah,” a deep, faraway voice called. She knew it had come from the smoke.
“Please, leave me alone.”
“Sarah,” it called again, the cloud of darkness in her room swirling and boiling like a raging storm.
“What do you want from me?”
The voice didn’t answer her. It never did. Not when she asked that question. Perhaps it didn’t understand human things like wants.
She decided to try a different approach.
All her life she had seen this smoke. No matter how far away she went, or how much she tried to hide from it, it always found her. But it never hurt her. It never tried to do anything to her. It just watched her.
“What are you?” she asked for the first time, hoping to get at least some kind of answer.
The smoke boiled more fiercely, black and gray puffs expanding and contracting like a lung, and the eyes grew brighter.
“Tell me what you are, please!”
“See me, Sarah.”
She frowned, inching back. “What?”
“See me. See my true form, Sarah.”
She paused, looking at the cloud around the eyes, then back at them. “I do see you.”
The eyes moved closer. “See me, Sarah. Trust me.”
“Trust you? With what?”
“Trust me,” the voice said, and before Sarah could react, the smoke surrounded her, blocking out what little light was left in the room.
Sarah screamed. But deep in the smoke, her voice faded into nothing.
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