Sharon’s lover is a smoke cloud. Or maybe black mist is a better descriptor. He doesn’t smell smoky, nor is he dry and suffocating. He is moist and dense, like a blackened fog. He hovers in the living room—barely moving, barely wafting—but Sharon remembers a time when his inky dew would dance and scatter across her body. She remembers how they once were.
They used to go to the orchestra, and Sharon’s lover would sneak away at intermission; he’d lodge his vaporous self in a tuba or trombone, escaping in thick plumes with each note, whispering a hidden melody to Sharon while other patrons gasped and murmured. They used to go to the movies, and her lover would drift to the projection box to make funny shadow puppets. They used to have picnics on the coast, and her lover would float above the waves, mixing with the sea breeze, dripping into the ocean and onto Sharon’s skin like warm rain.
They had been carefree and foolish, and Sharon’s lover lost part of himself after each outing—dissolved, evaporated, assimilated into a vast, distant atmosphere. Now there is less of him, and he seems unable to contain his remaining vapors. Sharon’s lover is dissipating—even as he sits motionless above the sofa. He is too afraid to risk wafting around the tiny house, let alone a concert hall or movie theater or open ocean.
To save him, their life together must become insular. Sharon tells herself that any worthwhile relationship takes work. She begins telecommuting, and she equips every room with multiple fans. She sets up alternating barrages of humidifiers and dehumidifiers for perfect atmosphere. These efforts are only temporary; Sharon’s lover is still dissipating. He is leaking out of windows and under doors. Sharon plunges her hands into the middle of his densest vapors. His center is less tangible. He is thinner. She presses her hands together and shudders when her palms meet.
She hires a contractor to fortify and seal her house. The contractor warns that the modifications will be nearly airtight. It could be dangerous, he says. She agrees to pay double, and he shuts up.
As construction progresses, Sharon fights off headaches. Oxygen becomes a luxury item, ordered off eBay in heavy canisters—forty bucks just for the goddamn shipping—and she gradually learns to need less and less of it.
While the contractor works, Sharon parades a series of shelter animals through the house—first birds, then cats, and finally dogs. One after another, the creatures gasp and wheeze and die. Like mineshaft canaries, each animal confirms dwindling oxygen levels and Sharon’s increasing resilience. There are at least a dozen carcasses.
Soon, Sharon’s lover will grow into a voluminous column of mist and smoke. He will fill the entire house, and they’ll never be apart. She knows it. She looks forward to their new life together. She cancels all plans that require open doors and fresh air.
The contractor seals the porch last, turning it into something like an airlock. The contractor barely makes eye contact with Sharon. He takes clippings of cat and dog fur, and he smells the latent pet dander, and he weeps into his toolbox. He asks Sharon if he can take the last living dog—a gigantic mastiff, half-asleep and barely breathing. He rips up the entire bill and Sharon agrees.
The contractor stumbles through the front porch airlock. He falls onto the front yard and sucks air. He gasps and lets his lungs expand. Shrunken blood vessels in his appendages burst with renewed vigor, spilling red across Sharon’s lawn. He wraps makeshift tourniquets around major arteries and pets the mastiff. He opens his lunchbox and feeds the dog half a bologna sandwich.
Sharon finds the display sickening. She kicks aside the last eBay canister and vows to never use it. She puts blankets over the windows. She recedes into her living room, and she breathes deep, letting black vapors slide into her lungs.
James R. Gapinski’s fiction has appeared in Juked, Word Riot, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. He’s managing editor of The Conium Review, and he lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon. Find him at jamesrgapinski.com and on Twitter @jamesrgapinski.