Part 1 of Smoke and Ash
Professor Brown was looking up at the class from his dais, his love of the soapbox very evident in the way he carried his words and his gestures. He was a man of reason, and he was obviously begging the students to think. Not to just find the answer, because that was too easy; no, he wanted them to analyze the statement. And so he continued.
"Tragedy lies in acceptance. Why is that? I think the question here is, does it appear tragic from your perspective, or from theirs?" Brown scowled when no one answered, and Michael, either from necessity or boredom, raised his hand. All of the eyes in the room turned on him.
The daydream broke. The first thing to flood back was the noise; a city as large as this one was full of sounds. Car alarms, police and firetruck sirens, the white noise of electronic signs advertsiing the latest bullshit product. Even the water, something so clean and pure, was just adding to the cacophony. Then he saw the lights, brightly lit in windows up 20 floors and open signs coloring the urban landscape. It was all chaotic, but patterned. Like a complex machine working in unison to produce the most unhappy thing in mankind's history.
This was a cold city. Michael Flynn was sopping wet, stuck between the smelly dwellers of the its underworld like a pocket full of change. The water seeping through the buildings and cluttering the drains only spread the filth from its center, and it rained heavily often enough to ensure a near constant atmosphere of dreariness. He felt worthless in this drenching rain, and his white knuckles were clenched in anger at himself for not being prepared for it.
A man to his left was mumbling something under his breath, but with all the noise it was nearly impossible to understand. Then it all seemed to slow down. A car passed by and hit a deep pothole, deep enough to rip off the hubcap but leave the car driving. The owner must have never tightened the bolts, Michael thought, as it tore through wind and rain in his direction. It spun in the breeze, a whirling dervish of death, throwing the teardrops of rain around it in a spectacular display of perfect symmetry. The people in front of Michael parted, ducking or moving slowly to the side as he and the man just stood there watching it turn. From the corner of his eye Michael saw him look directly at it, mouth agape. Time seemed to stop. The hubcap sat, as if displayed in a museum gallery, it's edges dripping, tongues of blue flame jetting off in every direction. The first had already hit Michael in the face, throwing water into his eyes and blinding his vision in this most key moment. Finally, in the time it took a man to blink, it shot forward the last few feet to Michael's face. The man pulled Michael's arm just enough to allow only the smallest cut to appear on his cheek, as the metal disk hurtled behind them and through a window. It hadn't taken much to save his life, but clearly Michael was lucky.
“Thank. You...” He told the man, between bouts of labored, excited breathing.
In response the man stood, and looked at Michael with darker eyes than night. His murmurs were gone and in their place there seemed to be this quiet stoic nature, a clear transposition of something Michael couldn't comprehend. He gazed, unblinking, for several more seconds and then walked away, leaving the crowd around Michael stunned and surprised at his sudden exit.
“W-w...wait! What's your name?” Michael called after him.
“Jonathan,” He replied over the loud roar of the city, “Jonathan Bridges.” And with that, he rounded a corner and disappeared.
With such a close call, Michael was not only stunned but also frightened. Sitting on the bus home, feeling it lurch through the city streets, he watched the swarms of people get on and off. In between the waves he thought about what had happened. Why had he lived? The people who ducked out of the way were gifted with decisiveness, but Michael was too shocked to move. That frightened him more than anything, that at any moment he could be gone, split in two from a falling window railing or crushed by the very seat in front of him should the bus crash. He didn't know a single soul there, and, truthfully, he wouldn't have saved any of them. So who exactly was Jonathan, a man willing to save another, and more importantly, how did he save Michael? Truly he must have been a good man, why else would he have done it? And the man was fast, too fast, of that he was sure. Probably hopped up on some kind of new drug or aphrodisiac, Michael concluded.
When the bus finally left the gray streets and steel buildings behind, Michael was calm. Even though he lived just outside it, he felt much more secure and stable outside the towering walls. When he got off the bus, life seemed like a dream. Not a dream in the normal sense, but as if nothing in the past few hours had actually happened. He felt, standing there in the now dry, cold, biting wind of fall, that he had been reborn. It was then Michael sensed the chill on his spine, one that was hidden discretely amidst his shivering arms and legs. He was cold and uncomfortable. Michael stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked briskly home, the thought of something watching over him constantly at the back of his mind.
That night Michael Flynn dreamed he was running. He was afraid and a hand reached out from the darkness to pull him out. Its fingernails were crusted over with blood, cracked and marked with lines of age or of death; Michael couldn't be sure which. He sensed it had a voracious appetite for blood and when it turned in the black, its palm out, a crease appeared. Split lengthwise the hand bent backwards, allowing a cavity of red to appear. With a snarl it filled with teeth and lurched forwards, fingers extended like the feathers of a carnivorous bird, ready to devour Michael. Unable to get away, he was grabbed by the jaws and felt his very soul cracking as it bit down into him. Blood, guts, and bile poured out of his waist as his lower half was torn away. Held in its fingers Michael was eaten, bit by bit. But the atmosphere changed when it reached his chest. There was warmth there. When the beast tore into him, Michael's lungs poured out viscous fog; eyes opened on each fingertip and cried out in pain, the hand coughing up the body it had just consumed. Like a seamstress, the smoke slowly stitched his lower half together and took shape as the parts he had lost, coiling expertly betwixt his stomach and ribs. Built anew, Michael stood strong, watching the hand's eyes tear up and its mouth contort and cough with the force of having to give up its prize. Michael sucked in, letting the black, empty air fill his lungs, and breathed out onto the beast, dousing it in fire and smoke, causing it to cinder and burn. It fell to the ground and flopped about. It screamed before ceasing to move, and then turned to ash.
Smoke and ash.