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Literature

“Haunted Smoke” [Short Fiction]

Trapped in a dark, empty shopping mall, a young mother strives to protect her son from the environmental hazards outside and entities that they bring…

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Haunted Smoke banner, image by Lance Marwood

Alessia and her son had gone to a nearby thrift shop that Saturday evening. As the boy looked at the variety of previously-unwanted toys and board games near the back of the shop, and his mother browsed the discounted dishware, they smelled smoke and noticed the sunlight turning red. The two joined the shopkeeper in peering outside as the sun’s scarlet hue further deepened. Mother and child then returned to perusing the merchandise, though she felt very strongly that they should go home soon. Shortly after, they heard the shop owner begin to yell at someone. The boy turned around to view the scene with eyes shaded, while the red, smoke-obfuscated sun shone dimly through the all-glass storefront. Suddenly, he heard a loud gunshot. Panicked, the boy rushed down a nearby aisle. His mother caught him and the two swiftly returned to the back of the shop.

The two hid behind a small, dusty bookshelf, while the sunlight further dimmed and the shoddy fluorescent lights crackled and flashed wildly. The arguing towards the front only got louder, but came to an abrupt end. Alessia and the boy could only hear the ensuing “What the…? Holy–! NO! GAH!” followed by another gunshot and shattering, falling glass. The visceral cacophony was closed with gurgling and splattering.

Five or ten minutes had passed, the mother peeked very cautiously. It was very nearly dark. She saw the shop owner dead and, well, everywhere. The all-glass storefront had been obliterated and the shop was filling up with smoke. There was not much other damage to the shop itself, but the poor old man who owned the place had his throat cut and been sloppily disemboweled, blood and viscera strewn haphazardly across the floor and pooling behind the till. It was as if his assailants were rabid animals.

Catatonic, the mother had to get her son out without him seeing the grisly scene; how she felt didn’t matter. Shaking slightly, Alessia turned to her son with a feigned smile.

“I want you to keep your eyes on mommy, okay baby? Don’t look around, just look at me.” She picked up the child, one hand on the back of his head, and carefully dashed out of the store. She was able to see just barely through the smoke which overran the shop, and managed to avoid slipping on the ponds and puddles of crimson which beset the place. Alessia then had to contend with the heavy smoke once outdoors. Still holding the child, their eyes began to burn and they coughed incessantly as she struggled to find the car in the thick wall of brownish-black smoke.

By some miracle, the two reached the car. Once in, Alessia sped the two away towards a nearby shopping center. Able to see slightly, the boy witnessed the ethereal silhouettes of three or more figures approaching the store. As the group turned slowly to see the hastening vehicle, the boy was startled and sunk back into his seat, continuing his coughing fit and frantically reaching for his inhaler. Due to the extremely low visibility, Alessia preferred to go somewhere close by, and was thankful that she didn’t need to go far.

This “small mercy” was dispensed with when they arrived at the Queen’s Market Mall – often shortened to “Queensmarket” – as the place was dark, save for the space between the inner and outer doors and for the attached department store. By now, the sun had almost completely set, and the atmosphere more oppressive as the smoke became heavier and more noxious. The mother quickly grabbed the boy from the car, and hastened into the building. Slung over his mother’s shoulder, the boy again saw a few strange figures in the distance. He held his eyes shut and tried to bury his face into his mother’s neck in a futile effort to hide.

Once past the first set of the two walls of doors, Alessia set the boy down.

“Are you okay?” The boy, wide eyed, shook his head.

“What’s wrong?!” said the exasperated, exhausted woman. The boy slowly pointed, ramrod-straight, towards the outside. She looked and saw, with little clarity, a figure sprinting across their field of view in the furthest reaches of the parking lot. Calmly, Alessia reassured her son that it was only another person, and that the smoke “plays tricks on people”.

To herself, however, she wished that the person could be helped. She accepted various circumstances and moved on, opening the second pair of doors into the mall proper. As the last glimmer of red sunlight petered out, the mall was now pitch-black. Not planning on staying for long, she called emergency services. Her cellphone had died, and the landlines were all down or busy. They travailed the vast, empty darkness overcome with fear, sticking close to the walls as they did so.

Holding the boy’s small hand with one of hers while feeling the wall with the other as they moved along, they soon reached the drugstore. A few lights remained on. Desperate for help, Alessia picked the boy up and dashed across the way to the place. Seeking shelter and security for the time being, she hid the two behind the pharmacy counter. Alone in the cavernous building devoid of life, in one of the two well-lit places in the entire mall and surrounded outside by heavy smoke, Alessia began sobbing loudly. She couldn’t keep up appearances for the boy any longer.

The boy, upset by the spectacle of his crying mother, began mewling himself. Their howls echoing past the drugstore and through the halls, their faces wet with tears and sweat, this was all that remained for a time. The boy soon fell asleep, but Alessia needed to remain awake and alert despite her fatigued condition.

She had a sudden thought: they were in a drugstore, and drugstores sometimes carry small electronics. Not wanting to leave her son alone, she gently picked him up and rested his head on her shoulder. She then went to the relevant aisle, whereupon she came across a hand-cranked flashlight-radio. She frantically opened the box and removed the remaining packaging, turned it on, and… “It works!” she whispered excitedly.

A piecemeal radio broadcast came through.

“Two-thirds – province of – have – I repeat: -thirds – static – have – static-”

Panicked, she alternated between tuning and lightly smacking the device before the signal died. Frustrated, she tossed the thing aside and sank to the floor, sobbing once more, hands covering her face. All hope was truly lost; this wasn’t going to be a story of redemption or hope regained. She cared moreso about her son than anything or anyone else, but… all was lost. No one was coming to save them, no one knew they were there, it was mortally dangerous to go outside, and she wondered about the figure at the far end of the parking lot that the child had pointed out.

The boy awoke in light of the drama, and only knew to hug his mother. She held him close, quietly whimpering “Sorry, baby”. Disturbed, she dwelt for a while on what had happened at the thrift store, briefly spacing out.

“Mommy?” questioned the boy, whose mother then regained lucidity.

“Yes?”

“Who were those people at the other place?”

“What other place?”

“The place where you told me to only look at you.”

Thinking he meant the now-dead shop owner and his ostensive assailants, she replied with only “I don’t think they can help.”

The boy continued. “What about the people who were outside that place? They saw us leave.”

“What?” replied a flustered Alessia. “I looked back when we were leaving, and saw some people watching us.”

“What did they look like, honey?”

“I couldn’t see very well.” Too tired to be annoyed with the boy, she picked him up and left for the mall’s exit, briefly conceding that they needed to brave the conditions outside to survive.

“I need to go to the bathroom” said the boy. Alessia grumbled as she changed course to find the nearest washroom. She continued feeling the left-hand wall and shining the cheap hand-cranked flashlight around. After a while, they’d found the washrooms.

Cautiously and slowly shining the gradually-dimming light around the room, she stood with her back to the boy as he used the facilities. In the meantime, Alessia decided to wait the smoke out indoors; it was simply too dangerous for even the slightest breath outside. The boy washed his hands and the two left, their way only illuminated by the faintest glimmer from the flashlight.

They stopped next to the wall just outside the washrooms in the mall’s main concourse. The mother began cranking the device, and the boy, afraid, looked around. Each crank let out a brief flash of light. The boy was staring at the outer blackness beyond the glass doors, when one brief flash revealed several reddish-orange dots.

“Mommy, look!” exclaimed the boy, his voice echoing. Alessia looked up and froze. It was not the “outer blackness”, but the eyes of five shadowy entities standing stock-still and gazing fixedly at the boy and his mother. She dropped the flashlight, which broke upon impact.

The vicious beings snarled, bearing only long, sharp teeth. The demoniac spectacle instilled terror in the mother, while the uncertain blackness of the expanse behind them exacerbated matters. Unable to move, the terrified woman could only stare at the uncanny and ominous creatures. The beings, however, were unable to enter. They broke the glass of a few of the mall’s outer doors and smoke steadily filled up the space between.

Once they’d passed those doors, Alessia screamed and picked up her son, then sprinting through the darkened, cavernous hallway. Further sounds of glass shattering came seconds later; the creatures were in. As wildfire smoke began to hastily overtake the building’s otherwise-clean air, numerous piercingly loud alarms sounded intermittently, accompanied by the emergency lights which dotted the place. Alessia and the child could now see small areas of their surroundings. Dashing from light-to-light, her legs began to hurt, as well as her shoulder from carrying her eight-year-old child much of the past six hours.

Her right foot met moderate resistance and she tripped, careful to hold on to the boy. She cracked a rib. Determined to get up and keep moving, she pulled through and held the child over her non-injured shoulder. She quickly but very painfully arose. Though now given to a moderate limp and persistent sounds of agony, Alessia needed to protect he child from the otherworldly terrors which now pursued them. Behind the jarring noise of the smoke alarms, the snarling grew louder and was accompanied by a cacophony of scuttling and guttural hissing as the woman strode as quickly as she was able. The beings were far more than five in number.

Heart-in-her mouth, Alessia sprinted to the department store. Its security wall closed-and-locked, she forwent frustration and returned to the drugstore. It was among the shops which filled with smoke first, but she didn’t care. She locked the two behind the counter of the pharmacy, quickly taking a couple painkillers, her ear now bleeding slightly from the ceaseless alarms. She glanced over to the locked doors leading outside; it was not only getting brighter, but it seemed wet.

The monstrous noises were still vaguely audible behind the piercing shriek of the smoke alarms, and were getting louder and nearer, one was coming from the ventilation shaft while another came from the ceiling above the cash registers. With a rush of adrenaline, Alessia picked up a nearby chair and threw it through the lower half of the door, then hastening the boy through the new opening into the violent, cold, smoke-clearing rain. The creatures growled intensely as they neared the mother. Her dirtied camisole caught on a piece of glass still jutting out of the bottom of the doorframe.

“Mommy!” exclaimed the terrified child, the mother kicking and pushing against the floor with her last ounce of passion. Suddenly, she bore a loud grunt. One of the creatures had grabbed her leg just as she managed to pull herself outside through the small, jagged opening. The cool breeze blew assertively through the makeshift opening. The creatures recoiled in disgust, while the mother looked on cathartically. With the onset of the heavy rain and the strong breeze, the smoke had dispersed and brought the creatures with it.

Alessia stood up as straight as she comfortably could, holding the boy close and lifting her face, eyes closed, to the rain. She looked at her tired, scared young child.

“I love you.”

“I love you too mommy.”

She grinned sweetly.

“Are we going home now?” asked the boy.

Knowing that their home had likely not survived the disaster – and not wanting to lie – Alessia stayed silent. She ushered her child into the car and the two left the mall. They left the city having not seen anyone else. They remained isolated for hours as they traveled south to find refuge.

Many rain-filled days passed, federal investigations ensued, and Alessia began to heal from her injuries. It was soon determined that the wildfires which engulfed, ultimately, most of Western Canada and the Northwest United States were of indeterminate origin. The only thing found at the fire’s presumed starting point was an old book. Further inquest into the authorities’ handling of the disaster revealed that the fire started and spread too quickly, and that it could not be put out or sufficiently controlled by any available means. Crews panicked, while governments were unable to forewarn or save many people at all. No one knew anything about the malevolent, ethereal, smoke-dwelling beings aside from Alessia and her son, and very few ever would.

For more horror short stories, check out our previous works here.

Michael Wilson is a horror writer focusing on short and flash fiction. He is currently completing a BA dual degree in Philosophy & English. He occasionally writes other content on his blog "Nightside Musings". He is also a hobbyist musician and painter.

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