This story comes with a warning for body horror. You have been warned.
Little Greg was eight years old when he developed a plan to save his parents’ lives. And it was so simple too! His heart thumped, imagining the scenario playing out. Would it go as he thought it would? Or would they laugh in his face? Once they knew he was serious they would soon clock on and change their ways. He was sure of it.
He chose a rainy day to emphasize his point, maybe with a pronounced cough or two. Outside the window, grey clouds laboured heavy across the sky, with the gentle pattering of rain striking the glass and windowsill and pouring from the gutter and into the street. The window was open a crack, and his father’s cigarette smoke feigned escape in slow-moving swirls, almost blue against the grey.
All well and good, thought Greg, but there’s not just the smoke you can see. There’s that invisible cloak that clogs and chews at the back of your throat and lungs like rabid, bleeding teeth. A vapour that settles in the sofas and clothes and even on the walls; photographs in frames turning prematurely yellow. How yellow was his own insides?
And his father’s? His mother’s?
His father dragged, a fire blazing at the end of that white stick, drawn from a pack with a blackened lung on it. He’d had to ask his father what it was – and what it meant – Nothing to worry about, Greg. And in the end, he Googled it. The safety blocker had been on all the sites he’d tried to click on, but Google Images had told him the whole story. More than he wanted to know.
Days like today, they smoked indoors, either at the window or on the doorstep, wind back-drafting through the open doorway and filling the rooms and stinging his eyes and… enough is enough!
He coughed, and his father startled and flapped his hand around by the window as though to shoo the ghosts of cancer out, saying “Didn’t see you there, champ. What you doing?”
Greg coughed again, only slightly put-on, and said “I want to talk to you and mum.”
“I’ll say it to both of you at the same time.”
“Mother!” shouted his father. Greg never understood why they didn’t just call each other by their name – she wasn’t his mum!
“What?” she called back from the utility room. “I’m busy!”
“Greg wants to talk to us!”
She came flapping to the doorway, steam trailing behind her that Greg could only imagine as cigarette smoke, even though he knew it was just from the dryer. “What is it, honey?”
Greg sat on the edge of the armchair, hands clammy and blood rushing to his cheeks.
“Have you done something?” said his father suddenly, leaning towards him and away from the window.
“We’re not quick to judge in this house,” said his mother, who then smiled at him. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll all be okay.”
He looked at them both and wondered how come two full-grown adults could be so stupid. “I have an ultimatum,” he began, trying to keep to the script he’d written down and scrubbed out and written down again. “After I’ve finishing saying what I have to say right now, I am not going to say another word to you until you both quit smoking. If you don’t care enough about me to want to stick around as long as possible, I don’t care about you.”
They laughed – of course they did – he knew they would. They would laugh to hide their insecurities and the flaw they openly flaunted. There would be embarrassment buried behind that laugh, that smile, because they would know he was right. And he could see it in the way they looked at each other – mother piercing her eyes at just the right time, a look that scolded. Father rolling his eyes and crushing the white stick into the ashtray, half-done.
Mother folded the wet towel in her hands and threw it over her shoulder, walking over and bending down to Greg. “Okay, honey, we hear ya. But you know, you can’t just stop speaking to us.”
Greg had intended to say more if more needed saying, but looking into their eyes, he knew there was no need. He opened his mouth, and then closed it. She ruffled his hair and turned back to the utility room, and father pulled the window shut and went back to doing whatever it was fathers do.
The novelty soon wore off for Greg. Every time he wanted something – which was a lot – he would get as far as opening his mouth before remembering not to let a peep escape from his vocal chords. It was hard work! He may have done a small eee at one point, but no-one noticed. His brothers, both older than him, had said “You go, champ,” and “We’ll see how long you can last.” And his father teased him periodically, opening the biscuit tin and asking “Would you like one?” When Greg nodded, his father said “Sorry, didn’t hear ya,” and scoffed down a custard cream.
This just steeled Greg’s resolve. Something he’d heard once in a movie where they played cards in a casino felt right: doubling down. He was not going to give in.
Not while playing in his room on a dry day with the window open a crack, facing the garden where his parents smoked with the invisible smog squeezing through the gap and wringing his lungs inside out.
Not while walking to school with mother and refusing to stay by her side, instead riding that wave of cigarette smoke front and centre (wiping out as someone else walked by whisking a cigarette to their mouth). ‘Wipe out’ – something he’d picked up from a movie, or was it a song?
Not while riding in the backseat of the car and having his mind pulled from the book he was reading as ash, flicked out of the slightly open window, blew back in; volcanic cinders spreading across open pages and sticking to his shirt-front.
Not while he was still breathing. Not while they were still breathing.
“We have to do something about this,” said Helen. The lit cigarette nestled between her two fingers, so easily, so elegantly, called to her, and before she knew it the filter was between her lips, and she was sucking in, and her lungs were full, and her need was sated. For a few seconds she registered the smell like something alien and disgusting – the poison she knew it was – and then it was peace, and her own childhood home and the memories that clung like the dandelion seeds in spring to the clothes hanging on the washing line. Catch a fairy, Helen. Make a wish. Her own father was gone – the lungs – but he was with her when she smoked and felt in a reminiscing mood.
How his breath rattled in the end.
Dave watched his wife thrust her cigarette into the ashtray, and after taking just a single drag! Jaw clenched, he asked, “About what?” knowing full well about what. It was a bold move from the lad, but at eight years old he’d soon give up and move on. He dragged. Manna from heaven! A little tickle of a cough scratched just above his heart and he held his breath and swallowed, waiting for it to go. Since the bike-sheds at school – how cliché! – he’d had a similar problem. Just a little niggle down there whenever he inhaled with too much vigour. Mark Dempsey and James Freeling sucking like no tomorrow, quickies before the bell – while he’d had to take it slowly. Which was fine by him. More time to savour. And he’d always have a bit left to share with Donna Jackson when she came slipping past the edge of the shed, sniffing them out. He’d enjoyed passing the butt – it was almost like kissing. The way her lips puckered on the filter…
Like his wife’s now. But his wife wasn’t smoking. “Greg’s right,” she said. “We should stop.”
There was a knock at his bedroom door and he put down the book he was reading – IT by Stephen King. He’d seen it at a car boot sale, those two red letters emblazoned in blood across the black cover. IT. He’d set himself up for a plea bargain with mother, but she’d simply handed over fifty pence and he’d picked it up, feeling the weight of it, the darkness of it. He couldn’t watch horror films or stay up past half-eight, but IT was fine (eyelids drooping at midnight, unable to read another line, unable to give in to sleep).
Mother and father came in, mother leading, father holding back in the doorway, leaning against it, scorn etched across his face. “We’ve come to a decision, haven’t we, father?” she said, settling on the bed. It sank so much further with an adult on it.
“We’re going to give up.”
Greg nodded, smelling the remnants of their recent date with cancer as his mother leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, her hair dangling across his face like a reeking shroud.
“So you can give up the act now,” said his father, arms crossed. “Talk to us like a normal kid.”
Mother smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “He is a normal kid – just a very conscientious one, Dave. Okay, Greg?”
She must be serious, he thought, she called him Dave. Greg nodded and dipped his head back into the book.
He didn’t expect his parent’s to give up ‘just like that’. He knew it would be challenging for them, but they had to start somewhere, somehow, and all he’d wanted to do was give them the kick up the backside they needed. He stayed silent for a few more days, wrinkling his nose whenever one of them entered the room, searching for the giveaway bitterness that would follow. He thought he smelled it once or twice, his father returning from work with a head of sweat. Patches appeared on their upper arms, and packets of chewing gum appeared on the coffee table and the kitchen breakfast bar. Mother’s jaw worked furiously as she hung clothes and dusted exposed shelves. Father bought a vape kit, causing Greg to work on Google, demanding to know if these were just as bad. An hour later he came to the conclusion that they were not: he was worried about cancer and the mild effect of nicotine addiction didn’t worry him half as much, and if it helped his father quit the real thing, all the better.
“Dad,” said Greg.
He grunted, taking a few seconds to register that his son had spoken to him. “Finally.”
“I want a biscuit.”
“You know where they are.”
Greg ran towards the kitchen, bumping into his mother and yelping “Sorry!” as he pirouetted around her.
“Dad said I could have a biscuit.” He reached up to the biscuit tin and removed the lid with a satisfyingly metallic whine. He plunged his hand into the golden treasure and retrieved a custard cream, before racing back upstairs to his bedroom and his book.
It started with a tickle at the back of the throat around one A.M. in a pool of torch-white light, sat cross-legged with the thin sheet pulled across his crown as though he was the anchor pole of a tent. Pennywise and the Loser’s Club dancing on the inside of the sheet until it rippled with rainbow colours painted by the brush of his imagination. They were all here with him, overflowing from the open pages but trapped in the gossamer light.
When he breathed, he could feel the old dust of the yellowed pages entering his lungs, through his nose, that smell enveloping him. A little scratch down there he clamped his throat together to stem and wish away. Scratch-scratch. Not now, he thought. I’m nearly finished. He didn’t want to cough and risk waking his parents who would then inevitably check on him.
But then he coughed, his hand flying to his mouth so quickly the book slammed shut, so he fell flat and righted the sheet and switched off the torch. He blinked. Eyes shut or eyes closed, it was all just black to him.
A few days later and he was off school with a nasty cough. Helen pressed her palm to Greg’s forehead and almost let out a small squeal he was so hot. She bathed him in a cool bath until the temperature dropped, giving updates to Dave via text message and debating whether they needed to go A & E or not. “Not,” was Dave’s assessment – “Probably just a virus and taking him to hospital will just expose him to other bugs. NOT GOOD IN HIS STATE.”
So she lay him in bed with her tablet for Netflix and made sure he drank lots of water. She listened from the ground floor as she polished and hovered and emptied the dishwasher, to those phlegmy coughs.
At work, Dave left his place in the production line just like he always did, five-to-the-hour, every hour, for a sneaky cig. Everyone knew he did it. Others also did it. The numbers against them were growing though – the smokers versus the non-smokers. Pretty soon, he knew, there would be a clamp down and the one enjoyment he had in life would be restricted here, as well as at home.
The phlegm turned red. The fever didn’t abate. Helen grabbed a glass and rolled it over suspicious looking spots to see if they disappeared. She practically poured water down Greg’s throat. A constant damp towel steamed from his forehead above puffy red eyes.
She called 101, the non-emergency number, before Dave came home from work and using all her strength not to call 999. She went through the symptoms and was advised to go into A and E. She met Dave at the door and turned him around with Greg in her arms.
“101 have to say that, to cover their asses,” he said.
“I don’t care. Look at him. Look at him.”
He looked, and had to admit that actually, his son looked terrible.
Greg was admitted to hospital due to his high temperature, but after an examination and listening to his rattling lungs, the doctor sent him for a CT scan while his bloodwork was checked. Helen held his hand throughout while the rotor spun and the whirring burrowed into Greg’s consciousness, in and out as he was, skin so hot it was dry. The ghost of his mother’s tight hand crushing the bones in his fingers.
Helen couldn’t stand it; in the ward she’d stand by the window staring out over the hospital’s front entrance at those coming and going and feeling like an outsider in a place she did not belong: blue-dressed ill shuffling with intravenous rehydration bags with life-line snakes trailing to arms. Wisps of cloud, blue and swirling. She imagined the release those smokers were feeling and wished she could open the window just a crack; just a little second-hand relief to rub her tensions away. Oh, what was wrong with Greg?
Dave looked up at the window, cigarette down to filter and nerves shot. He looked at the hospital entrance but could not bring himself to re-enter, not yet. With cold hands he lit another one. With fingers V’d he inhaled, barely noticing and certainly not enjoying the circulation of tar and nicotine in his lungs, swirling inside his bronchial tubes and absorbing into Greg’s bloodstream.
Greg coughed, up in the hospital room, but Dave was unaware. Dave just kept on smoking while his son burned from the inside out.
Dave felt a tug on his elbow and turned to see his wife, vacillating, her eyes shot the colour of blood with rings of darkness hollowing out her sockets, bottom lip down-turned as though tears were an intake of breath away. “Oh, Dave,” she said. “I’m so scared.”
“It’s just a fever, a bad fever, nothing the doctors can’t fix,” he said, hands shaking as his wife took the cigarette, ash drooping, from his fingers. “Right?”
With muscle memory adeptness, Helen finished what Dave begun, and Greg sizzled.
“Cancer?” Dave said, brow furrowed. “How?”
The Doctor rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, ironing out his doubts. “Lung, and I’m sorry, I’ve never seen anything like this… this kind of aggressive, formulation… it’s unheard of.” Sweat dappled his hairline. “I’m sorry, but Greg is just riddled with tumours in the areas we scanned, and his white blood cell count is just next to non-existent.”
Greg opened his eyes but had no idea where he was: the lights in the ceiling were dim and yellow and above his head another, small striplight sparkled, a firework; the room span to the sound of beeps and the music of someone crying, and he burned. Boy, did he burn. He tried raising his head but darkness threw a blanket with stinging pain across his temple. He moaned, or tried to moan, but couldn’t, and saw his mother and father standing in shadow, faces dark, hovering over his, a shimmer to their cheeks. They reeked, he knew this. Or maybe it was him. Something squeezed his hand until he heard his mother scream, and that something let go. His mother shouted “He burned me, my God, my poor baby.”
He swallowed, needing water, but his throat glued together somehow and his Adam’s apple got stuck. His eyes popped open with stinging outrage and pierced his father’s, blaming him but not knowing why. The light in his father’s eyes was yellow, in this light Dave was all nicotine and years of exposure. No father of mine.
Greg arched his back, the beeping rising to siren levels, but his throat remained closed, and just before he passed out he felt his lungs catch fire and his ribs explode and the flames burst across his body, igniting his skin and flesh, rendering him to charcoal while the hospital room blazed.
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