Rotten Black Smoke
In the very least, he had cut his losses.
The worst case scenario had played out and Deiya was mostly alive, no longer on fire, and a moment away from reaming out anyone who dared a word in his direction. Deiya Nadine is done for today.
He is crowded in the back corner of the bus, combats hiked up on the armrest in front of him, long johns torn indiscriminately, bra itching absolutely everywhere. If anything, he expected such annoying sensations would be gone or inconsequential when no longer quite living. Knowing everything was the same makes him feel worse.
No one on the bus bothers him; scathing looks aside.
He plays the bus game. Having stood on the cold corner of Fierk and 30th, Deiya clambered onto the bus at its second stop. Now across town and nearing the end of the bus’s route, no single passenger had ridden as long as he had. A winner is Deiya.
The back of the bus now smells like a grease fire; the pungent black smoke had seeped through his clothes and skin. The smell follows him out into the street.
A thick sludge of fallen leaves covers the sidewalk, turned soggy by relentless rain. It squelches under his combat boots.
Another three steps. Another squelch, squelch, squelch. Then Deiya flickers.
Back on the bus, Deiya draws closer around his knees. Curled up, defensive, antagonized. The sentiment turns in his heart, a slow study in temper.
Then squelch, Deiya is walking down the street.
“Aw, fuck, this is what they meant.”
It doesn’t take long for Deiya to get home, because he runs for it. He doesn’t want to be curled up on the bus again; feeling cold, sour, itchy. He’d rather be skipping past his residence administrator, three steps at a time.
She shouts something about tenets of social housing. Deiya hopes it’s not about the smell.
In half an hour, Deiya both hopes it’s not about the smell and no longer cares about the smell. It won’t leave.
Having scrubbed down, up, again, and turned his skin red and raw, there is an absolute certainty he will smell like black smoke until no one knows when. No one knows when is a terrible timeline. Deiya imagines it's possible he could die and be stuck with this smell without even a body, and how less likely but somehow plausible it would be to become fully alive and the same. And then maybe die with the undying smell, and all roads led to an undeniably certain end.
He imagines this while finding a clean set of clothes to pull on so he can toe open the balcony door without freezing.
The acrid bra goes into a barbecue. Deiya lights a cigarette, smokes into the night’s breeze, and watches it burn covered in lighter fluid.
Tonight is wetter than it is cold; the kind of wet that soaks the chill into one’s bones. There was something awful to say about feeling cold after being on fire. Deiya writes it down in a notebook after stubbing out his cigarette.
His bra is an ashen carcass in the barbecue, his cigarette butt sits in a bowl of coffee grinds, his notebook is falling apart but Deiya keeps writing in it until he thinks of the time. He thinks of the time because he does not feel tired, not in the very least. Everything about the world is tiring, everything about tonight was exhausting, but nothing resembling the draw to sleep has taken its space in him.
It is three in the morning.
It is four in the morning.
It is five in the morning.
Deiya glowers at the digital clock on the oven. Its bright green numbers glower back.
Spartan is not a word to describe his apartment, because social housing came partially furnished. A better descriptor is sparse. Utilities, appliances, a couch that could double as a bed and was therefore in no fine shape, and a coffee table scuffed and marked with rings from coffee mugs, cider bottles, cans, and glasses that never lived long. Open concept really meant quick to build; this apartment block had been a cheaper production and therefore easier to buy out into social housing.
Deiya's mattress was shoved into the niche that tucked the private space away from the balcony's line of site. From it, he can glower at the oven. His cell phone – a little charred, a little melted – charges on the floor next to him. A light blinks occasionally next to the speaker.
He is too busy glowering at 5:51 in stick numbers. It turns over to 5:52. All the air leaves Deiya's lungs in a long, drawn out groan preceeding a flail that lands him flat on the mattress.
He closes his eyes and waits.
He flickers. The bus is just turning onto Fierk street. Sitting in the back, Deiya stares listlessly out the window; cold, sour, itchy. This lasts a second longer than last time. The feeling is pervasive, and only when Deiya fights it off does he find himself back on the mattress, staring at the ceiling.
It is 6:14 when he starts to think of places he could take his mattress to set it on fire. Joaquim runs a smashing emporium, the Marshes Collective House has a bonfire in the front yard, and he's pretty sure he can tweak his apartment's smoke detector enough to burn half the thing before all manner of alarms go off. It is 6:16 when he gives up on sleep.
So far not being necessarily alive is not so great.
"But can you go through walls?"
Deiya scoffs and thumbs the water ring from his cup across the table. "Got a body, so, physics? Still apply," he says, though he's not quite sure physics is the most appropriate science for the scenario. There must be some study somewhere on transitional states of death. Deiya would hate it. "Still eating."
Across the table, Meejo is finishing their four dollar breakfast – only marginally better than the three-fifty breakfast. On the splintering table, the plates clatter with a bounce of the table's uneven legs. Deiya's plate is a smear of grease and rye toast crusts. Meejo is chewing the last bite of salt masquerading as hash browns.
"Still though, worth a try?" they cough out. A cup of abysmal pour-your-own coffee is regrettably chugged.
Deiya sips his; it tastes like cigarettes in a grease fire. He's pretty sure The Allemande's coffee tasted a little less terrible before last night. "I'm not really invested in trying out whatever." He leans backwards and snags the coffee pot from the row of brewers behind him. Free refills.
Meejo refuses the pot offered to them.
"Thinking about," Deiya groans, stretching the pot back in its place, "grabbing a mandolin off of Raman. Play with some folks."
Placing their coffee cup upsidedown on their greasy plate, Meejo hums. "I thought you didn't anymore."
Deiya shrugs. "I've got a lot of words I've been writing."
They talk until their plates are taken away; sometime closer to the evening than noon. Meejo talks clients, they talk emotional labour and trying to sell the van they've been living in. Deiya talks little; he holds Meejo's hand across the table and sips grease smoke and singed tobacco. They are both pretty happy that Deiya survived the night.
Raman swings by Deiya's apartment block while he's out, so he leaves the mandolin with the residence administrator. It has hardly been a week since Deiya came home smelling like a grease fire. Sioban Potsch, social housing residence administrator for Kerl Lane, had been concerned at first, then annoyed by the smell. She had yet to hear complaints and had yet to notice the smell hanging around the building in Deiya's absence, and so she had returned to concern.
A note is left on Deiya's doorknob. Sioban isn't in her little windowed office between the elevator and the steps to the staircase when Deiya comes in that afternoon, so he gets all the way to his apartment just to walk back down to the office.
There is a fresh latte in Sioban's hands, and she's unlocking the door to the office when Deiya comes down the steps smelling like a fire. To him Sioban's latte smells like grease-soaked cigarettes on coals.
"How you've been Deiya?" Sioban chimes, smiling. The keys rattle in her hand as she turns them in the lock and shoulders the door open.
Deiya is turning the door hang notice between his fingers, wearing away at the edges of the cardstock. "Oh you know, could be better." He keeps his eyes downturned.
Sioban knows they are terracotta, she commented on them when they had met. She is the kind of person that compliments and mentions all the little things, in sweet voices and assurance. So far Deiya has learned from her that his skin is desirably soft, he looks great in black – especially torn fishnets – and his makeup is very suitable for him. His makeup is a black smudge, usually older than leftovers in his fridge.
Sioban doesn't say anything about how clean-faced he's been since he came home smelling like a grease fire. "Holding up alright?" she asks, taking the notice before Deiya worries it into a paper tissue. "I'm always around."
There is a noncommittal 'uh' from the tenant standing empty handed in the doorway. He's still avoiding everything – Sioban's eyes, her latte, the shining surfaces of her tidy office – when the residence administrator pulls out the case.
"I shouldn't have to remind you, quiet hours are–"
Deiya knows when quiet hours are. The mandolin case catches his whole attention and lights him up. Not only did Raman follow through, but he brought the matte finish with the pickup – or he was playing a cruel trick and had swapped cases. Sioban is still talking but Deiya can't pay attention to anything else but the case and his anticipation. When she passes it over, Deiya thanks her mid-sentence and skips up the steps before she has anything more to say on the matter.
There are cans of cider and sweet drinks that would pucker anyone's mouth littered across the apartment – bunched around the mattress, a row by the balcony door, an assortment on and in front of the couch. Deiya shoves the cans off the couch and lays the case on it.
"Raman, you beautiful piece of shit," he praises, smiling down at the six course mandolin.
For a second he is back in Sioban's office. The door is closed now and he is halfway through it. Then he's back in his apartment, but still not himself. He wrestles away the sensation – the not being there, the uncontainable anticipation, the sense he is not solid. In his hands the mandolin neck is real. The matte finish on the body grazes his fingertips and Deiya grounds himself in being real.
In her office Sioban stares wide-eyed at a housing form, sure she just saw a tenant appear in her closed doorway and sure that was impossible.
Deiya plays mandolin every day until his fingers should bleed. They don't.
His fingertips turn raw, fleshy, but don't bleed.
Struggling with half melted phone keys and sore fingers, Deiya invites Meejo over for something 'psychologically concerning'. She shows up before the hour turns, but not before Deiya finds himself in Sioban's office for a solid five seconds.
Sioban is, luckily, not in her office.
He keeps himself out of the mood – too much anticipation – and slip ups wind up with him standing over his couch. This is happening when Meejo knocks on the door.
He had been in the kitchen, tossing an empty can in the bin, but looks up from the couch. There's no small amount of cursing under his breath as he paces across the apartment to the front door. "Hey."
Meejo smiles. "Hey." They are holding a half-eaten lunch. "Should I be worried."
Deiya shrugs and shoulders the door closed. In the kitchen, he spots an empty can of lychee drink on the floor just short of the bin. "I'm still working things out myself."
The full turn-around Meejo does is for the benefit that they haven't seen the place since before Deiya's incident at the track. "Oh sick, you got the mando."
Following them to his so-called bedroom, Deiya swoops low to grab a can of something full of sugar; finding it half empty, he sips it. Everything tastes like smoke and curdled fats but the sugar makes an impression better than anything else he's tasted in the past week. "Yeah, it's been great," he coughs. "Mostly?"
"Lost your calluses?" Meejo is smiling into their words. Their voice is a tickle.
Deiya scratches a collarbone, snorting a laugh and being sheepish. Meejo, with their bowl cut and lacy hem cardigans, is too much sometimes. "Yeah, but that brought me to, uh," he presses tight the can in his hand. "I need to check something."
And he needed someone to witness. Meejo gets it, they get a lot of things.
So in the bathroom, over the sink, Deiya takes a knife to the fleshy part of his palm under his thumb. The sharp edge slices through blotchy brown skin, down to muscle.
He feels it as a dull ache.
"There's no blood, right?"
"Shit, Deiya!" Meejo howls. They make sure Deiya puts the knife down before going for the mint tin set out on the counter with 'FIRST AID' scrawled across it in marker. "No," they admonish, "no, you're not bleeding."
Deiya breathes out long, grateful, and bitter. "Okay."
"Okay," Meejo mimics, then, "not okay." The mint tin has pain killers, needle, thread, scissors, and a well-compressed triangle bandage. "I get you're figuring everything out but, piss, not a good way to go about it." Deiya's told them enough about their youth that Meejo doesn't go on about the state of the supposed first aid kit. "This is ste–"
"Of course it's sterilized," Deiya says into his other hand. He's turned away, resigned. Being not alive had been pretty normal so far. He had started to hope he could go on like always, and occasionally find himself on the F29 bus whenever he felt particularly terrible.
"I hope this means you're not going to try walking through a wall any time soon."
Deiya wheezes a laugh. "Shit, no."
Since Deiya has to put down the mandolin while his hand heals, his callouses have a chance to form. Then he spends something near eight hours a day playing on and off. Jun comes over with his harmonica and jokes about sugar-filled drinks. He's there on a regular enough basis that he keeps cash on him to pick up some the next time. There's a corner store down the block and the tall, sighing grandmother running it now greets him and chides him for the steady stream of sodas and iced teas.
Deiya subsists on a diet of salty foods – usually potato in composition – alongside ciders and the sickly sweet drinks. The ciders almost taste better with the black smoke tinge.
Their hangs turn into jams, where someone orders in and when he has the cash for it Deiya insists on an all-night diner of comfort food. He gets a small bucket of mashed potatoes every time.
He adds more salt.
Mark died last Spring, so it takes a mountain of empty ciders, Lily's clove cigarettes overpowering everyone's tobacco, and Meejo insisting they will not be in on it, before they find an adequate drummer.
Sometimes Lily hops trains and is gone for months, they play shows without the fiddle.
It keeps him busy. Meejo comes to shows when they're not sugaring, screams lyrics they've memorized that Deiya wrote. Songs about loss and living. Lily and Jun write a song about Mark, Deiya cries the first time he hears it. He can't keep a dry eye hearing it afterwards, but at least he doesn't find himself crying in White Lake Park every time, otherwise he'd never be able to play it.
At The Redtree, they open for a touring band that fills up the bar. Deiya has played in front of more people before, he's played at rallies and protests, but he is nervous. Meejo is talking to him in the cramped hall between the storage room and the stage when he disappears.
For far too many seconds, Deiya finds himself on the F29. His bra itches and a terrible feeling wells up from his insides. The bus's fluorescent lights whine, Deiya squints at the instant headache. The white light bears down on his fried mess of hair, and everything smells like a grease fire more than it has for weeks. Deiya is there just long enough for the back of the bus to really start reeking like the black smoke Deiya tasted every time they tried to eat. The stink rises with the feeling from his gut, until it's in his throat.
Just as it becomes hard to swallow, he is standing in Sioban's office. The lights are out, the door is closed and Deiya is standing in it. Anxiety ripples through him like a dry heave forcing its way upward. He keels and is in his apartment.
There is no mandolin on the couch, but Deiya stares down where it had been. He stares at bare couch, aged by nights slept on by all manner of folk.
Some more seconds pass before he remembers why he had been staring at the couch.
He comes back to the hall wretching. Meejo wraps an arm around him after a short scream of surprise.
"Are you fucking okay?"
Deiya is spitting out his tongue, he hadn't realized how the taste had waned in power since the day of the fire. It prevailed in every part of his mouth, and now returned to its original intensity. He leans both hands against the hall and bows his head between them, Meejo's arm across his back is a weight of reassurance.
He hacks out nothing but spittle. "I'll manage," he says, thready and hoarse.
"Do you need water?"
He shudders at the thought. "Please no." One after the other, his hands crawl up the wall until he's upright. "What's the time? I've got to– to tune with Lily."
"Deiya." Meejo's voice is level and stern. "You were gone. You're not going out there."
"I can, I'm fine." Deiya's words are one thing and his actions another; he flattens himself against the cool wall. There is a cold sweat sticking his cheek to the painted concrete. "I'm just–"
Flattened against the wall, Deiya curses with shaky exhales. "I'm leaving pieces of me places."
"Don't tell me it's fine." Meejo has a hand on his shoulder and its presence is no longer reassuring. They watch as Deiya turns to face them, cynical, and just in time for him to wince at Meejo's grip.
From the end of the hall, Lily swings out of the storage room. Lily is a picture of grace even as she stumbles and brings up an elbow to brace against the wall. Her priorities are in line because the matte mandolin in her hand doesn't even graze concrete. The picture that is Lily, is tennis shoes and black skinny jeans over narrow hips, with frills on her cuffs and smudged pink eyeshadow.
Deiya loves Lily like a heartache. She smells like clove cigarettes and a misguided sense of direction. He doesn't know when he started smelling things like misguided senses of direction, or anything that wasn't a grease fire.
The mandolin makes it safely into Deiya's hands, and the band's fiddler continues down the hall in a stumble.
The second his hands touch the frets, Deiya feels solid. He cradles it in his chest. "I've got a handle on it."
It takes half a year before someone comes looking at a show.
Meejo is laughing over Deiya's hand, kissing where the string had embedded itself when it had snapped mid-song. He hadn't bled and hadn't noticed until Jun pointed it out; they continued the show without one of Deiya's high Ds.
Barstaff steps into the room to inform them of the person waiting around.
Deiya laughs he'll be back as soon as he's done. The mandolin comes with him. Its accompaniment does not go unnoticed.
He's sure that if he weren't holding matte finish under his fingers, he'd be sitting on the F29. A can of cider is pushed across the table to him, he eyes it suspiciously.
"The bartender says it's all you'll drink."
Deiya doesn't miss the suspicion in their voice, nor does he miss the hyper awareness and scars. It's not the first time he's seen someone like this, but no one had ever given him a name for them before. He cracks the can open with one hand.
This is an investigator. "Why don't you put down the mandolin for a second so we can talk?"
Deiya shrugs into his cider.
"I hear you've been haunting the late night bus."
Five. Five times Deiya has successfully bluffed his way out of a situation. He is much too old to have such a low count. His strained laugh into the cider is not about to add to the list. "Haunting is what ghosts do."
"And you're not a ghost."
Deiya snorts. "Can't go through walls."
The investigator makes a considerate face. They lean back in their seat, stretching into comfort. "Fair enough."
"A lot of people would be mighty sad if you tried anything on me," Deiya informs them. Not that he figured the investigator had any say on whether or not he ought to be around still – he wasn't about to call it 'alive'. His experience with these sorts, fleeting as they were, was that they were always on a mission.
Entitlement, he called it.
Duty, the investigator barbs back.
"Bemmsley Track and Field had a nasty fire back in Fall. Three people were involved. You used to work there."
"Volunteered," Deiya corrects, pointing at them with the hand wrapped around the cider. The investigator doesn't know how close they are to the whole picture, and Deiya is determined not to let any pieces slip. "You regularly go around threatening folks?"
They look away, Deiya smiles into his ashy drink.
In the back, Meejo waits another five minutes before Deiya returns. With the drummer, Lily, and Jun, they've been arguing about the mechanics of goats and urban myths. Around a shit-eating grin, Jun corrects, "Suburban myths."
"More like extra-urban," the drummer winks, looking over his shoulder as the full band – plus Meejo – are reunited.
"At least they bought me a drink."
The next one is further off the mark.
"You sure you're not a lich?"
"I'm like, half dead. So no."
Deiya is already tired of this and now just frustrated. They only come to shows, though he's seen them tailing him in the street. Always another investigator, always with a different angle. Trying to clean up loose ends, trying to make sure the world kept in neat order, trying to prove something.
It's outside of a show when a haggard old woman smoking a cigarette says something not in the script. She had gestured him over with a lighter, though Deiya was cutting back. "Fancy helping?"
Deiya looks inquisitive, but he's learned to keep his emotions down a bit further than he had in the past. There's no mandolin in his hands to keep him grounded. He wonders if taking her up on a light would help calm or just provoke his nerves. "Not really."
"That's alright." She makes it sound like it really was. "Got some things figured out?"
The alley is dark and wet but not cold enough for Deiya to fear flashing onto the F29 just out of association. "I don't bleed and I don't go through walls." He shrugs and leans against the brick as if he weren't doing it for show.
She breathes smoke, it matches her hair. "That's one thing."
"And I get a good sense of people." He sighs through another exhale from the cigarette.
The investigator hums. "What's your girl smell like, then?"
"Not a girl," Deiya hardlines. She drops the inquiry.
Meejo is kind, their laugh is subdued, and their capacity for emotional labour is so grand that it only made sense that they get paid for it. Under the sweetness and determination to survive, they smell rotten.
Deiya doesn't tell them. He's content to spend his days with black smoke, oil, grease, and rot. Deiya had cut his losses.