Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

Smoking cigars was his new habit. Franco’s woman said you shouldn’t smoke so he switched from cigarettes. He would take a cigar a day as opposed to a pack of his favorite smokes. See, honey? I do listen.

The first time it happened, Franco lit a Cuban and downtown went up like a kerosene rag. The sky turned Satan red and Jack ‘O Lantern orange and black. Every single building was incinerated. He had been standing on his balcony watching the skyline. Franco and his flat were the only things spared. It was curious. The moment he finished his stogie this holocaust was vaporized and the city suddenly glinted and gleamed like polished marble. It reminded Franco of gems at a jewelry counter.

Like anyone fighting his jones, Franco reasoned that nothing would happen this time. His Cuban had been spiked and what he’d seen was clearly a chemical hallucination. It was alright. He could -and he would- light up again.

At the bodega, he bought a Dominican instead. He was being cautious. At home, in his La-Z-Boy, he stared out the balcony window with its skyline view and . . . lit up.

A long finger of orange fire descended from the sky, carving a path between the skyscrapers and high rises, tearing up the road surface like a construction crew. Franco had recently watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments on tv and God had carved those tablets in this way.

One by one, the finger shattered structures. Debris shot out like shrapnel. When Franco drew a deep breath, the finger turned white, sending shivers of heat across the Metroscape. Exploding glass beat a tattoo from every window.

Trembling and sweating, Franco finished his cigar. After the last puff, he stamped out the stub and flung it into the maelstrom.

It began to rain.

It was a fine rain, essentially a mist. Franco wanted to experience it -to see if it were real- so he went out on his balcony. He could not get wet. It was a dry rain, spangling droplets in the light of a now chalk white sun.

Franco was stunned, practically tipsy. Before the bathroom mirror, his face had not changed. Everything that said “Franco” remained: bulbous nose; high cheekbones; widow’s peak. His eyes were neither red nor dilated. The shirt he wore (blue) looked blue in the mirror. There were no strange creatures on his shoulder talking to him: neither tempting angel nor angelic devil. When he raised his arm, the man in the mirror did so, too. His fingers did not streak rainbows like the NBC peacock.

He wouldn’t smoke again. He would not.

The next evening, Franco sat on his bed with a Venezuelan. It was night, the door was closed, his curtains drawn. Only the light from his reading lamp filled the room. Slowly, Franco removed the wrapper then Zippo’ed his fire.

Nothing this time. No inferno. No dry rain. No divine finger. Franco took a deep drag until his lungs filled with a heat that he could feel in his capillaries. His vision swam, his body became pneumatic.

Waking, Franco saw that he no longer was in his room. His new space was undefined, filled by charcoal darkness. The only thing visible was a bed of hot coals, which glowed like a fag end. What he heard but could not see was lowing cattle. A man called out to another man: “It’s lit. Hold your horses.” There was a metallic clanging, the sound of what Franco assumed was a lantern.

For a long time, he watched the coals. The cattle sounds persisted, the conversation of the men a low hum reminiscent of cicadas. After considering his options, Franco stepped forward, the pad of his foot resting on red hot carbon. He felt no heat; there was no pain. What there was, instead, was a rising sound of distressed cattle. A piercing low, it began to puncture his eardrums. One bull bellowed above the herd. It came forward into view, kicking at a lantern. The lantern toppled then shattered.

From beyond the rising flame, the bull backing away from the blaze a man yelled, “Damn that old bull!”

Which was the last thing Franco heard or saw.