The Incense Salesman
Happy anniversary babe! I’m sorry I can’t come see you today – I’m just way, way too busy – but I wanted to send you this letter because three whole years is a big deal. If you’re around tomorrow we’ll go for a hike or something, so long as you’re cool with celebrating a day late. Also, you should be getting a gift in the mail today. If it didn’t come, blame the post office. Not me.
Darren lets the letter fall down to his desk. He takes the box in his hands – it’s about the size of a Bluetooth speaker and made of a cheap cardboard, not the good stuff Amazon uses – and shakes it, trying to distract himself by guessing what’s inside. It doesn’t work.
‘What is she so busy with that she can’t come and see me?’ he wonders to himself as he digs through his pencil mug for the little sword letter opener he has. ‘She hardly lives fifteen minutes away.’
Wielding his blade, Darren slices through the yellowish tape holding the top flaps down, then he slices through the tape holding them together. He dumps out the contents of the box – it’s loaded with packing peanuts and three more boxes. The first is a wide and somewhat flat unmarked cardboard box; within it are two incense burners, reddish oak disks with hunks of soapstone glued into their middles; handmade, too, as evidenced by the imperfections. Both soapstones have flower petals carved around the depression where the cone is supposed to go, and they’re both mixed in color, pink and a pale green, although one of them – the one with a crack in the disk – presents a lot more green than its partner with the frayed edge.
The other two smaller boxes contain incense cones, according to the text printed on them. One is white with a picture of a heart made of roses – the scent is called Romantic Rose, which Darren thinks is kind of cute – and the other is black with a picture of a woman wearing nothing but shirtless sleeves and black high-heel boots. A monstrous brown snake baring shark-like teeth is coiled around the woman’s naked body, constricting her right leg and revealing just about every other inch of her form aside from her mouth; in retaliation, the woman has the snake’s tongue gripped tightly in her left hand. The snake’s underbelly is plated in ghostly silver scales, and dark, black circles run from the back of its head to its tail. This scent is called Poison, and the i is even dotted with a skull, which Darren thinks is fitting; if you’re going to be lewd, you might as well take it all the way and be grim.
Upon sliding the trays out of the boxes, Darren sees that each one only contains one single cone. ‘What is this, some kind of free sample?’ Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, right? Megan didn’t need to send him anything – on their first anniversary they didn’t even talk to each other, not so much as a single text message was exchanged. It was understandable, as she was visiting a relative in Las Vegas at the time, although when Darren brought it up to her parents they told him they didn’t have any relatives living outside of northern New Jersey… anyway, it’s most definitely the thought that counts, so Darren decides to just man up and enjoy his present instead of wallowing in the pits of his mind’s most despicable what ifs.
Loading the Poison cone into the cracked burner with one hand – he decided to save the Romantic Rose cone for the next time Megan comes over in hopes it’ll get her to be romantic with him – Darren whips out his Bic with the other and sparks the tip. The flame encloses the cone’s dull head in a shell of wavering orange plasma which spouts smoke darker than the circles around Megan’s eyes after she got back from Las Vegas. The smoke fades into a lofty gray after Darren blows out the flame, and despite the scent being named Poison, it actually smells quite pleasant. So pleasant, in fact, that Darren decides to meditate.
Leaving the cone up on his desk so he doesn’t risk setting his bedroom on fire, Darren tucks his chair in and fetches a pillow from his bed. Sitting lotus on his hardwood floors always makes his legs go numb, but using the pillow helps; thirty seconds after contorting his legs, Darren’s lost in the trance.
He comes back to consciousness an unknowable amount of time later – though it couldn’t have been too long, as the cone is still releasing plumes of smog – and looks up above his desk so he can watch the smoke twirl and swirl through the air like he used to do before Megan got him to quit smoking pot.
And that’s when he sees the djinn.
The smoke gives way to the tops of her plump, supple thighs, her torso is lean and cut, her breasts are propped up by her folded arms, and her face – her terrifying, mouthless face – is tightened into a squint, her eyes sharp like fangs, digging into Darren’s soul. Her hair is dark and long but bundled, as not to flow like the haze from which she emanates.
‘State your name, mortal,’ the djinn says in Darren’s head, her essence dark and gorgonlike. At first Darren doesn’t say a thing, his body frozen like stone, but then he hears a distant rattling and remembers the snake on the box. The snake he can’t currently see.
“Darren,” he says in a voice which comes out like a sneeze: abruptly and laced with spittle.
‘You have awoken me, Darren; to return to rest, I must grant you a wish. Choose your words wisely, as the price they claim is death – though not for you.’
“Then for who?” Darren asks, but his mind stays silent and the djinn’s arms stay folded. “I will not make a wish until I know whose life that wish will be stealing, djinn; I’m familiar with your kind.”
The djinn’s eyes widen a bit at the human’s referring to her as djinn, but she keeps her arms folded. ‘Is that your wish, Darren? To know who will die upon my fulfilling of your desires?’
“No,” he says flatly, then stands up and crosses his own arms. They stare at each other for a long moment, Darren’s eyes locked on the djinn’s, the djinn’s locked right back.
Finally, ‘Nobody you’re close to, human; I am a djinn, not a devil, and a soul is a soul. I wish to go back to sleep. Make your wish with haste and quit wasting my time.’
Darren smiles with one side of his mouth. “Good, good. I want to spend my anniversary with Megan – we’ve been together for three years and I want to celebrate it correctly. That is my wish, djinn – to see my woman today.”
Though mouthless, the djinn smiles brightly. ‘So it shall be done, young man.’
The rattling of the snake’s tail grows thunderous. Darren falls to his knees and presses his palms over his ears, but it only makes the infernal clatter harder to ignore; it’s tunneling into his brain, seeping through his veins, invading his very being. His thoughts and feelings shatter into the pattern of a snake’s skin; then, his perception begins to fall away, one scale at a time.
Smoke fills the bedroom and Darren collapses in a dreamless heap, and the rattle only gets louder.
Hello Commons, this has been the first subchapter of the ninth story from Convenient Incidents, an anthology of fifteen interconnected short stories which revolve around a man by the name of Hilter Odolf Williamson.
Convenient Incidents is part of the Third Spiral, an anthology of sorts called The Here and Now which is comprised of stories told from the various planes of Existence.
Convenient Incidents is available to read for free in its entirety on my website. Click here to check it out.
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
If you like Convenient Incidents and would like to help support my work, click here and buy an autographed copy of the book (or anything else!) from my store. Alternatively, you can snag a cheaper (and unsigned) copy from Amazon by clicking here.
Be well Commons~