Goddess bless Keisha, Donna, and me. Ashe thinks quietly while picking at the ‘Hello my name is badge’ stuck to her vibrant cardigan. As if even thinking too loud may agitate Miasma.
This is supposed to be an exciting day. There’s even a caterer and fancy snacks. If Miasma chooses you, it spares everyone else. Sacrifice for the greater good, but Ashe has never been more terrified.
No one knows exactly what Miasma is, or how it thrives, just that it demands sacrifice and obedience. Best guess is it was born from Russian bombs dropped on Ukrainian nuclear reactors before World War III was officially World War III. When it was just some white man with an inferiority complex bombing neighbors. Now every thirty-six days it appears somewhere in the world and demands blood, a Visiting.
Last Visiting, the town refused to set a table, so Miasma took everyone. Rumors are screams of the former residents still echo in the smoking tendrils left behind.
She wants to take comfort in the warm embrace of her partner, Tishan, the smiles of her children Ashanti, Chadwick, and Eloisia. Instead she’s sitting here with two strangers drinking mediocre coffee.
Sulphuric fumes make it harder to keep it together. The lethargic tendrils of ash grey smoke slither along the ground towards the table. Keisha glances from Donna to Ashe.
“Don’t react. I think it’s choosing you Ashe.”
No, please don’t!
Everyone wants to be chosen. Well no, that’s a lie, no one wants to be chosen, everyone knows one life to save thousands is a worthwhile sacrifice.
Ashe wants to go home to Tishan and the kids. If she closes her eyes, she can conjure a perfect snapshot of their beautiful smiling faces and sparkling brown eyes.
Tishan would know what to say to help with the anxiety clearly etched on the other’s faces. Ashe opens her mouth blurting out the first thing she thinks to say. “Uh, my partner, Tishan, and I want to take our kids to the indoor beach on Saturday.”
A whisper of a smile visits Donna’s lips. “Emilé and our kids have been! I had to work.” The way Donna’s face falls is an endearing distraction from the sulphuric stench and sensation of Miasma encroaching on them. Tendrils wrap up the back of Ashe’s chair. Whimpering, she tries not to move and potentially startle Miasma.
The smoke tendrils hug Ashe closer. “Do you have kids, Keisha?” she asks.
“A cat, Noodles, but no kids,” Keisha answers tightly.
Donna sips her coffee. “Partner?”
Keisha shakes her head and cradles her mug but doesn’t drink.
Smoke wraps arm-like tendrils around their shoulders. Tears fall freely from all three women.
Whether fear or sheer panic, Ashe gasps and sputters, “I have a partner and three kids, Miasma,” with a stuttering breath she continues, “please don’t take me from them.” Her words shake. “Don’t take Keisha from Noodles or Donna from her family. What can we offer instead?”
Grumbling comes from Miasma, oddly close to thunderous laughter.
“One, or many.”
Ashe yelps and laughs at herself. “I wasn’t expecting an answer, forgive me. I’m Ashe, this is Keisha and Donna. Want to sit for coffee?”
Miasma cradles her, the sulphuric stench so strong she can hardly breathe.
Ashe holds her cup up and smoke moves in, taking everything, and leaving smoky sludge at the bottom.
Shifting back, it wavers. “Yes,” Miasma finally says. “If that is coffee, give me more!”
Before anyone can speak, smoke has emptied everything on the table.
“Intriguing, what else do you have? I want to try more!”
Donna pushes a button next to her for the server to bring another coffee carafe, and then the food button.
Ashe lets out a deep breath and smiles. “Tell us about yourself while we wait?”
“No one ever asks about me. You really want to know?”
Ashe nods. “Please, tell us your hopes and dreams.”
Miasma sniffles as acid dots the ground. “No one ever asks. As bombs dropped on my meadow, a curse fueled by sorrow, rage, and grief created me. With each life taken the curse strengthens. I cannot stop. My dream is to blanket a nice field and rest again. I am just a lowly brume in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“How can we help you get back to your meadow?” Ashe asks.
The server pushes a small cart with coffee and pie. Miasma devours everything then folds around the terrified server. “More!” Then with hesitation Miasma hovers back, “…please?”
The terrified Server nods. “You can have as much as you want, just don’t hurt me…”
With effort Miasma finally mumbles, “Thank you,” before returning to the table. It carefully wraps around Ashe, gently massaging her head.
“The curse is binding, I’m not sure I can be a brume again as much as I wish to be. The beautiful meadow is my family. Bees visiting flowers, deer nibbling on grass, a harmonious existence. Now a powerful instinct to consume until satiated drives me, but I never am.”
“Well, maybe we can help fill that void? Tell us more about your meadow. Describe it in as much detail as you can.”
Miasma waxes poetic about every blade of grass and leaf on the trees, only stopping when they bring more dessert and coffee out. Excitedly going on about the creatures and the fun they had.
Ashe gets up and lets Miasma chase her, playing together like the animals used to before.
Slowly pieces of Miasma fade to white and disappear.
Another grumbling laugh catches Ashe off guard. “This works, I’m filling in a way I long forgotten. Thank you.”
“Well then let’s eat, drink, and play. Maybe our families and the caterers can join?”
“You would allow families to play with me, you’re not afraid?” Miasma asks, settling against Ashe like a pet cuddling its owner.
“No, you’re lonely, love, and the best way to heal loneliness is with companionship.”
Soon the table is abandoned in favor of a football the server had in their car and a game; Miasma and the children on one team and the adults on the other. The longer they play, the more of Miasma fades away in white puffs, until only a small rope of smoke remains.
“Thank you for reminding me of kindness, and giving me hope. If you ever wish to play again I believe I’ll remain here.” The last of Miasma wisps away leaving everyone standing in a brume, alive and together.
Shannon is an out neurodiverse writer, filmmaker, and single mom. She works as a script doctor/ghostwriter (one of the good ones) and sensitivity/authenticity reader. When she’s not writing and letting other people take the credit she works on original content for screen and prose. You can find her on Goodreads and Twitter.
Miasma is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine August Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the Photographer/Image prompt for August by Lorna Simpson