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"The Smoker" - Marco Mazzoni

Will couldn’t explain his own nervousness as he stepped out the back door, across his simple lawn. His children had come to him many times, perturbed by the animals they encountered in the woods behind the house. He would follow, stepping away from his easel, and explain. “That deer isn’t dying, that’s just part of how his horns grow back in. This frog is fine, the tail means she’s in between being a tadpole and a frog.”

Each explanation had satisfied them, and he had been able to return to work, letting them play in the yard where he could keep an eye on them. But he’d never heard a note of terror like this in their voices. Worry, yes, curiosity, yes. But Yvette shook so hard he couldn’t keep his arms around her, and barely spoke in a whisper as tears streamed down her cheek. Gregor had felt cold to the touch, fingers clenched into little fists.

Will had gone out to see this “Devil bird” that had terrified them, feeling a little foolish for being afraid in the daylight. Overcast daylight, to be sure, but daylight none the less. Just a bird. He could see the tree they had said it was perching on from here, a tall giant with a leafless crown. Despite his heavy jacket, he shuddered, not from the chill, oddly quiet air. Something was unsettling him. His feet crunched in the frost covered grass as he rounded the tree. There it was, a little sparrow sitting on a branch. Nothing to fear.

The bird turned it’s head, cocking it at him as he studied it. The children had seen plenty of sparrows, and he didn’t see why this one had startled them so. He took a step closer, to get a better look. The bird croaked at him, not the tweeting note he expected, but a harsh organic sound. It shuddered, the feathers of it’s breast puffing as it choked and shifted from foot to foot. He reached towards it, and the head snapped up, beak opening to release plumes of smoke.

Will swore, jerking back as it twitched madly on the branch, the smoke condensing, settling down around it in thick strands. Its dark eye seemed to fog over from within, covered in grey and red. He felt his gorge rising as the beak began to rip, the first of eight legs starting to poke out of the newly torn hole in the world…

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