Excerpt: “Smoke and Ink”

I describe the black smoke that had bubbled from between the buttons of my shirt, and Reema sits patiently, waiting for her turn to speak.

“I think you need to get out of here,” she says.

“Reema, you know I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“And that’s the scary part,” she says. “I know you’re telling the truth about what you think you saw, but I’m not sure why you think you saw it at all. Maybe you should take a drug test or something.”

“I’m clean,” I say, crossing my arms. I wasn’t expecting her to bring that up. Reema, of all people, knew how hard I had worked to get beyond that dark spot in my past.

“You think you’re clean,” she says. “Who knows what those psychos you’ve been covering would do to get someone to believe them. You said you had coffee with them: They could have slipped you something or –”

She has a point, and I uncross my arms to show that I’m willing to acknowledge it. As I draw my hands away from my chest, my jacket pulls back a bit and I see Reema’s expression change into one of surprise and horror. Looking down, I pull the lapels away.

I’ve left my gel pen uncapped in my pocket, and black ink has soaked into my shirt.

“Or maybe that’s it,” she says, grimace turning into a half-smile that’s half sweet, half mischievous. “I still think you should take a drug test, though. Hallucinations take more than a visual trigger.”

Then I hear it: eight piano keys crashing in a single chord and filling every corner of my head with noise. I look for the culprit, but there’s not a piano in the room. Not a stereo, speaker, radio or even windchime. But the sound — a chord struck just barely off from the rest of the song, continues, and it snaps the string of words in my head so they go skittering off like plastic beads across tile.

“Yeah,” I feel like I’m shouting over the din. The only words or Reema’s response that break through are “wait in your office” and “get the building medic.”

I inch down the stairs, each step muffled by the endless piano chord reverberating in my head. Once in my office, I close the door behind me and remove the pen from my pocket. I whip it at the wall so hard that it cracks completely in half and bleeds a matching stain into the rug.

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