Bogleech.com's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" The Smoker "

Submitted by Miranda Johansson

I first became aware that something was wrong when my husband's plants began to wilt.

I'd been waking up in bed with a raw throat for a week or so already, but I believed it was just an oncoming seasonal cold. I drank a lot of water and tried to sleep as much as I could. It didn't help. I guessed it was just a very persistent bug.

Then the flowers began to die. My husband took very good care of them, you see he made sure that they got a lot of sunlight, and he never forgot to water them. He was even a little iffy about keeping the windows open, a holdover from when we used to live in an apartment in the city, with an exhaust-choked street below. Despite his care, though, the flowers were yellowing, drooping.

I came home from shopping one day and realized that the house was very hot, and that it smelled of cigarette fumes. And yes if I really focused, there was even a faint haze in the air. Incredulous, I asked my husband if he'd been smoking, but he told me no. He'd never smoked a cigarette in his life, and didn't seem to notice either the heat or the smell.

These days, my husband and I lived out in the country, on a secluded little farm consisting of a farmhouse, a barn and a tiny field. We'd nearly got it for free, which honestly didn't come as a surprise the barn was rotting and the field was choked with weeds. We weren't picky, though. We really only wanted to get away from the city and our apartment there.

The country air was sweet and clean, silent ranks of pines separating our new home from the road beyond. I opened the windows to air the house out... yet the haze kept getting a little thicker every day, the smell of burning tobacco and tar a little more abrasive.

My husband still didn't notice it, even as my throat got worse and the plants began to wilt. Or he pretended not to notice it, at least. "What the hell are you talking about?" I asked him, looking at his face through a film of smoke that threatened to make my eyes water. "Stop fucking around."

My husband never was much of an actor, but now he looked genuinely hurt and confused. "What, 'fucking around'? I'm not! I don't know what you're talking about!"

"What do you think I'm talking about?" I said, fervently gesturing about the hazy room. My husband looked around, wide-eyed and exasperated at my anger, shaking his head in perplexity.

And so on.

By the time I noticed the glow in the basement, I'd developed a persistent cough. A smoker's cough, wrenched from deep within my lungs until a brisk walk up the stairs would have me doubled up. (My husband told me to go see a doctor, but I waved the suggestion away.)

On the day that I noticed the glow, that was exactly what happened I walked too quickly up the stairs and ended up steadying myself with one hand on the light switch I'd been throwing, doubled up and hacking painfully. My husband had enough experience with the situation by now to know that asking me if there was anything he could do to help would earn him nothing but a rude gesture of dismissal, and a curse if I had the air to spare. So he stayed away, and I remained alone at the top of the stairs to the dark basement, coughing my lungs out.

After a while I straightened up, throat raw and head thumping, and turned around to shut the basement door. Except that's when I noticed it.

Despite the fact that the lights were out, there was a faint glow down there. And not the bright white of an electrical light, either, so it wasn't the light from the hallway shining down there. Curiously, I stepped down on the dark stair again and shut the door behind me.

Sure enough: after a minute or so of my eyes growing accustomed to the dimness, I could see faint silhouettes of the assorted basement detritus, outlined by an orange glow.

I hurried down the stairs, taking as much care as I could not to trip and fall in the gloom. You see, my first thought was that there must be a fire, which filled me with a sense of panic except, as I started pulling out boxes, attempting to find the source of the glow, I thought about the smoke which had been a problem for weeks now. The fire couldn't have been burning that long, could it? Not without spreading. It didn't make sense.

I found the thing underneath the stairs. It was hidden away behind a wall of boxes, but not really doing that great a job at hiding, what with the reddish light it cast. I couldn't really make out exactly what it was. The only thing I could see was its well, at the time I thought it was an eye. A big, round, glowing, orange eye.

It was a fire, I realized, though not a house fire as I had first thought. No, it was more like the burning end of a cigarette.

The rest of the thing was hard to make out, because it was black as ashes. It looked spindly and twisted and wrong. Slowly, the thing turned to face me, its glowing eye pulsing like a heartbeat, or like someone sucking rhythmically on a cigarette. I was suddenly filled with a sense of furious revulsion: this was the thing that was responsible for the smoke, and as it regarded me mutely, I searched the basement for something to kill it with.

I came up with a dirty old shovel, veiled with spiderwebs, and I lifted it high over my shoulder, preparing to strike the thing underneath the stairs. Except, at the last second, I began to cough.

This fit was worse than the last, worse than any I'd had so far. I ended up on my knees, my chest crushingly tight and burning, my mouth tasting of blood from my ragged throat. Even after the paroxysm subsided, I stayed where I was, weeping pitifully.

The thing underneath the stairs did nothing, said nothing. I left it there and slunk up the stairs. I didn't dare try to attack it again.

When I came down to make breakfast the day after that, it was in the kitchen. It was in the corner, as if lurking, but compared to the cheery white-and-yellow color scheme in the room, it stood out like a sore thumb. I yelled in fear when I saw it, and my husband soon came hurrying down the stairs.

"What? What's the matter?" he asked me, following my gaze into the corner and surprise not seeing anything.

I was quiet for a moment, trying to find my voice. "It's... nothing," I finally managed. My voice had dropped since we moved in, grown dark and gravelly from the smoke ravaging my throat. "I just slipped and fell."

The black thing had turned to face me again, and this time, in the bright light of day, I could see it clearly. It reminded me somehow both of a sickly plant and a body burnt to a crisp. It clung to the floor with things like roots, and had what was either a stem or a spinal column clad in charred black flesh. From the spine-stem hung two wrinkled pouches, like ravaged lungs, expanding and contracting in weak, shallow breaths.

It had a head, horribly human-shaped despite being bald and featureless. Well, featureless except for the snout. It must be a snout, I thought, because it's a living thing, and living things don't have giant cigarettes as body parts. The snout's glowing end what I had taken to be its eye pulsed as it had the night before, filled the room with more and more of the noxious smoke.

"Well... okay," my husband said. I could tell from his tone of voice that he didn't believe me. Nonetheless, he turned around and left the kitchen, leaving me alone with the silent cigarette-thing. It said or did nothing as I made breakfast.

I thought there was only one of them, that the thing had somehow moved from its cranny in the basement up into the kitchen where it lurked next to the refrigerator. I soon realized that was wrong.

It was in the middle of the night, a few days after I had first seen the thing in the basement. I hadn't been down there since then, and I avoided the kitchen as best I could. That night, I woke myself up by coughing; I rarely slept through the nights now, and my husband had taken to sleeping on the downstairs couch to avoid being disturbed by my frequent fits.

Once I had finished, I reached with a shaking hand for the water glass on the bedside and tried to soothe my raw throat with a few gulps. I don't know what compelled me afterwards to get out of bed and look out the window, but this is the sight that greeted me:

A breathtaking starry sky. I'd lived my entire life up until that point in the city, and I still hadn't gotten used to how many stars you could see when there weren't any artificial lights at night. Only the stars were mirrored on the ground, in the old overgrown field. Up above a million cold white stars, and down below, in the acre, a lurid orange pumpkin-glow, like hundreds of tiny eyes.

They were growing in the field.

That's when I realized I wasn't dealing with a single tormentor. No, they were everywhere, everywhere. After that, I started seeing them more and more when I drove into town to buy food, I saw them along the road, the smaller ones peeking out from the underbrush, the bigger ones lurking behind the pines.

In town, they were growing in cracks in the pavement. They were lurking behind dumpsters in alleys, they were clinging to the facades of buildings. When I returned to my car, one was growing on the hood of my car.

They're everywhere.

They even grow on people.

They're even...

Jesus, help me, they're even growing on me.

---

The smoker was found in his car, off the shoulder of the road, less than a mile from the house he'd recently moved into with his husband. He had apparently driven into the nearby town to go grocery shopping, and had been returning home when the accident took place.

There had been no collision in fact, the car was hardly damaged, except for some scrapes on the paint from the underbrush. It seemed the smoker (as the news dubbed the mystery's victim in the aftermath) had lost consciousness while driving, and the car had swerved off the road before rolling to a stop.

The police officers who responded to the call about the car accident, and subsequently found the smoker's body, believed it to be the remains of a junkie, because of the small, circular scars in the crooks of the man's elbows and down his forearms. It was the coroner who later on managed to identify them correctly: as the old scars of hundreds of cigarette burns.

The smoker, according to his husband, hadn't smoked a cigarette in nearly ten years.

Yet, his nails and fingertips were yellowed by years of nicotine use. His teeth and gums were similarly worn. Strangest of all, when he was opened up for the autopsy, it was found that nearly nothing remained of the smoker's lungs but two black, shrivelled lumps each about the size of a fist. An incision made in one of them caused a large quantity of off-white tar to come oozing thickly out.

According to the distraught husband, the smoker's health had been declining since their move, without any discernible reason. The husband's repeated suggestions to see a doctor had been deflected. With the symptoms of disease so obvious, there was no suspicion of foul play; the cause of death was ruled as being COPD, resulting from complications stemming from the victim's time as a smoker.

When the trunk of the car was opened up, six grocery bags were found, all stuffed with nothing but cartons of cigarettes.

A lot of questions remain unanswered in the case of the smoker, and the only ones involved who might know the answers are probably not going to be very helpful. After all, blacklungs don't say anything at all.