by J. Herrera Kamin
We chose a secluded beach for Sally’s immolation: a picturesque spot beneath a crab apple tree where a circle of charred rocks formed a pre-used firepit. Malik arranged twigs, dead wood, dry grass and bunched-up newspaper into a funeral pyre.
I placed Sally next to the firepit. “Who wants to go first?” I asked.
The sun was setting across the water, making Sally’s electric-blue contours shimmer. She was two feet tall: a sky-blue bong made of spun glass flecked with gold and red, like sparks. Her bowl and bowl-stem were neon orange.
Jahan cleared his throat. “I’ll start,” he said. Out of the three of us he was the most devoted stoner. I suspected he had written his speech in advance.
“There never was a better bong than you, Sally,” he began. “You saw us through it all. Three years running—through parties, girlfriends, midterms, finals, movie nights, one-night stands—and that one term where all three of us had mono. Through thick and thin, you were there for us when we needed you most. Sally Salamander, may you ascend to Heaven so that God himself may rip a dank bowl of Jesus Kush from your lips.”
“Hear, hear,” said Malik. “Hear, hear,” I echoed.
As Jahan took his ceremonial final hit from Sally, I remembered the first night I ever tasted the bong’s wicked charms—remembered following my strange new housemates into the living room, where Salamander sat on the coffee table next to a bulging Ziploc bag of marijuana.
Malik had found her behind the theatre building.
We had pulled the ratty scavenged sofa chairs into a tight circle around the coffee table, and Jahan passed the two-foot-tall bong to me, along with a lighter. A glob of sticky ground-up weed was packed in the bowl.
“You first, Vince,” I remembered him saying.
And with that, I took the very first bong hit of my life.
By the time I finished coughing, Jahan and Malik had already smoked their fill.
A haze filled the room. We peered squinty-eyed at each other as our minds kaleidoscoped with alarming speed into higher planes of thought. It was like being strapped to an extra-dimensional rocket. Malik and Jahan’s faces were starting to look like caricatured masks of their real selves, and my mouth was coated with the strange new taste, like peppermint’s sultry, wayward sister.
Jahan pointed to me. “All right, Vince. Name her.”
My gaze fell upon the bong, the electric-blue glass glittering with sparks. “Poseidon’s Revenge?” I suggested, baffled by how utterly unlike my real voice those words sounded.
That garnered some appreciative shrugs. Jahan went next: “Articuno,” he said. When we looked askance at him, he added, “Y’know, the Pokémon? One of the three legendary—nevermind. Malik?”
“The Annihilator?” Malik offered. “No, no that’s terrible…”
We debated those three possibilities, but ultimately it was agreed that none of those names were viable. So we tried again:
“The Blitz Machine.”
“Shiva, the Transformer.”
“The Philosopher’s Stoned. No, god, that’s so awful…”
Not good enough—try again:
“Satan’s Peace Pipe… guys, I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.”
Somebody put music on, a hectic swell of early-nineties rap. I found myself staring at the bong. It glowed now with an unearthly light, its gracefully-curving glass the rolling, thunderous blue of a cloudless sky on a hot day, the gold and scarlet flecks scintillating like sparks frozen in time, like bugs trapped in amber.
My throat tightened, scratchy and tender from the hot smoke. The bong stared at me, meeting my gaze with a thousand invisible eyes.
“Salamander,” the bong whispered to me.
“Salamander,” I echoed. Beside me, Malik repeated the word. Soon we were all saying it, turning the four syllables over, inspecting them.
Maybe it was because we were all so cooked at that point that any name would’ve sounded mind-blowing.
From that day on, Salamander stuck.
And now here we were, three years later, gathered around Salamander again. Not saying hello this time, but goodbye.
The aroma of burning herb drifted on the air as the sun dropped toward the horizon.
Malik did his speech next. “It’s always tough, saying goodbye to a housemate. And Sally was the greatest housemate we could have asked for. I think it’s safe to say she’s the reason we lasted so long together, the three of us. I mean, think about it.”
Jahan and I thought about it, and we both nodded. In those early days of living together, as the weeks had worn by, Salamander had been our mediator, our counsellor, and in general the head of the household. When Malik’s TV-hogging or obnoxious comments started hitting nerves, or Jahan’s late-night DJ practice got out of hand, or the building pressure made me snap and scream and scream at both of them—whenever it all got to be too much, the three of us would gather in the living room and smoke about it, and promptly gain some perspective.
Before long, hitting the bong together became our sacred ceremony. And one by one, Malik and I followed Jahan down the path of the unabashed pothead. Seeing this, Jahan (a daily toker from seventeen) answered the unspoken challenge and ascended to the next level: smoking Sally every morning for breakfast. Malik was openly critical of this practice for a few months before he discovered that working out stoned was much more fun than working out sober.
Salamander gained notoriety. We would bust her out at parties we hosted, late in the night when only our favourite guests were still hanging around. Intimately familiar with Sally’s charms, we would watch in amusement as our friends collapsed, giggling uncontrollably, onto the sofa chairs or the hardwood floor.
Malik continued his speech: “The thing is, we’ve had too much of a good thing. And to be honest, we’ve been smoking for so long, I think being sober is gonna be a hell of a psychedelic experience. So, on to the next adventure.” He grinned. “To Sally.”
“To Sally!” Jahan and I repeated.
Malik lifted Sally from her funeral pyre and smoked his entire ceremonial final bowl in one hit. I watched him exhale the plume of blueish smoke into the evening air, and thought about how, in those early days, a single bowl would do you in for an entire day, and you couldn’t even take a moderate hit from Sally without coughing your lungs up.
But the three of us had been smoking from her every day, at least once a day, and usually a lot more than that. One bong rip became three, four successive rips, which was killer on the throat, but otherwise marvelous…
Until we found that joints, blunts, vaporizers no longer had any effect on us.
Still, the more often we did it, the less the burn really burned. Plus, our house had developed a reputation. “Oh, the stoner house is having another party,” I overheard in the library. “Wanna go?”
“You mean the house with that crazy bong? Nah. All they do there is get high. By midnight everyone’s too stoned to hold a conversation. I’ll pass.”
The sinking sun hit the horizon. Malik and Jahan both turned their eyes to me, and I stared back into their bloodshot gazes. In that moment the immensity of what we were about to do bowled over me like a tidal wave.
I’m about to break up permanently with Salamander.
I cleared my throat. Squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
Malik had replaced Sally next to her funeral pyre, and packed the bowl again.
“Sally stopped serving us a long time ago,” I said. “Somewhere along the line the wires crossed, and we became her servants. We can’t deny it any more: we’ve got a problem.”
Malik and Jahan both shuffled awkwardly. Jahan was blinking rapidly, and Malik was staring steadily down at his feet. I knew they were thinking about the events of the previous night. I mean, I certainly was.
I thought of Malik glancing up at me from a sheaf of stapled pages he was perusing, his eyes wide with horror. “You know that paper I wrote when I was really high, last week?” he muttered. “I failed it. If I get below eighty percent on the final, I fail the course. If I fail the course I can’t graduate.”
Looking from me to Jahan, his eyes hardened with resolve. “We gotta face the music, friends. We’re addicted. We’ve gotta get rid of Sally. That’s the only way.”
“You can’t get addicted to pot,” Jahan countered. “It’s impossible.” But the fight had gone from his voice. I knew that he, too, was in danger of failing at least one course.
We decided to hide Sally in the woods, so that she wouldn’t be so readily available. The nearby forest was about twenty minutes away on foot. We stowed the bong in the hollowed-out interior of a charred, lightning-struck tree.
Later that evening, though, a mere couple hours later, Jahan snuck her back into the house. We caught him smoking in the bathroom. “Nothing like a good hot-box,” he explained sheepishly.
“You can’t get addicted to pot,” Malik echoed sardonically.
“Guys,” I said. “Don’t you see? We’ve gotta go One Ring on this shit. We have to destroy it.”
Malik nodded. “Agreed.”
The look on Jahan’s face was that of a pet owner about to put down a beloved companion.
“Tomorrow,” Malik said. “After class.”
“Tomorrow,” I agreed.
And now it was tomorrow, and the sun was slipping beneath the horizon, the crescent moon was already out and gleaming.
“Thank you for everything, Sal,” I said. I grabbed the lighter from Malik, lifted the bong to my lips and sparked the ground herb in the bowl.
Inhale the burn—suck it right down into the bottom of your lungs—then slowly exhale.
I nodded to the funeral pyre. “Do it,” I croaked.
Malik crouched down to light the pyre. Soon the flames were popping and crackling merrily, and a woodsmoky aroma mingled with the fragrance of burnt herb and the stark salt stench of the ocean.
As the sky darkened to purple overhead, I placed the bong in the center of the roaring fire.
“Goodbye, Sally,” I whispered. “May you find fulfilment in your next life.”
We leaned back and watched as golden flames danced around the bong, suffusing the flecked blue glasswork with vengeful light. We watched as it started to crack and melt, the glass heating to molten red: Salamander losing shape, collapsing, folding in upon herself, all the while growing steadily hotter.
“You guys…,” I muttered.
The burning bong was orange now, dripping and incandescent. Dark smoke swirled from the fire to sting our eyes, along with a high-pitched whine that rose to a steady shriek—
“What the hell?” said Malik.
We squinted into the fire as the heap of molten glass that had once been Salamander twisted and shifted, until it coalesced into a dark, bulbous mass crouching in the flames.
The burning ex-bong turned to look up at us with two blazing embers for eyes.
Then it crawled out of the bonfire.
Lit from behind, it crouched there with reptilian stillness, returning our bewildered stares. It looked like a sculpture of vivid turquoise glass. Was it some kind of lizard? It had a flat head, a long muscular body, four stumpy clawed feet. A sinuous tail snaking back into the flames.
Jahan was the first to speak. “Suh—Suh—Sally?”
The thing that had once been our bong raised itself up on its hind legs. Beneath its white-hot ember eyes a crack formed, splitting into a razor-tooth grin; and from this grin flicked a forked glass tongue the colour of fire.
Out and back in, out and back in, licks of serpentine flame.
Malik and I backed slowly away while keeping our gazes locked on it. But Jahan didn’t move. He just stood there, transfixed.
“Is that you, Sal?”
That forked glass tongue spooled from her mouth. “Jahan!” Malik screamed, and the creature lunged, her jaws widening to clamp down around Jahan’s neck.
Our housemate crumpled. Malik and I ran.
We must’ve been quite a sight. Two twenty-something men huddled together at the back of the bus, halfway to catatonic, shaking and whimpering all the way home. “What do we do?” I whispered frantically as we piled into the lobby and locked the door behind us. “What do we do?”
“Look,” said Malik as we settled on the sofa chairs that ringed the coffee table. “We smoked some potent ganja down at the beach. Probably laced with something. Maybe PCP.”
Malik nodded. “I know we’re a bit tripped out—but Jahan’s probably on his way home now, and he’s probably pissed that we ditched him.”
He spoke with as much conviction as an atheist talking about Heaven.
We barely slept that night. We stayed in the living room, waiting for Jahan to return. We watched TV to pass the time. I brought my laptop downstairs and attempted to make some progress on a term paper, but it was no use.
All I could think of was Jahan silhouetted by the bonfire. Jahan crumpling to the ground in slow motion as razor-sharp teeth the colour of fire sank into his neck—
That thing crawling out of the fire, looking up at us with eyes like tiny twin suns—
Definitely PCP. It had to be.
By two in the morning Jahan still hadn’t returned. Malik put on some music, but that only set us more on edge.
At four in the morning my eyelids were drooping, but my heart was still on jackhammer mode. Malik was asleep and snoring gently on the couch.
Outside, the front gate went click.
Footsteps on the walkway. Footsteps up the stairs, up to the front porch. Slow, plodding. I glanced back at Malik, then decided not to wake him, and crept to the foyer. I stood in silence behind the door as someone tapped on it.
“Jahan?” I said tremulously. “Is that you?”
“No, it’s the cops.”
Relief, sweet, sweet relief at the sound of Jahan’s voice. “Yo, I can’t believe you guys ran off on me like that,” he muttered through the door. “Some joke. Let me in!”
He pounded again on the door, louder this time. I reached for the handle but suddenly Malik was standing beside me, reaching out to grab my wrist. Don’t, he mouthed.
“Hey—” I protested.
“Don’t you have your key, Jahan?” Malik demanded through the door.
Silence fell. Malik and I shared a dread-filled glance.
“Oh, I… I must’ve dropped my keys at the beach. C’mon, guys, what’s going on? It’s four A.M.; this isn’t funny.”
Malik let go of my wrist, and I unlocked the door and opened it.
There was Jahan’s face, staring back at us with wide, unblinking eyes and a too-wide grin cut from ear to ear.
“Oh,” was all I could manage.
She stood as tall as Jahan had stood, and she still looked faintly reptilian. Like a glass sculpture of a human-sized, bipedal lizard—and though the glass was solid it was also fluid, an ocean full of intertwining currents, with an inextinguishable shower of sparks caught up inside it. Sparks emanated from her body whenever she moved. Her luscious fire-glow hair fell upon her blue shoulders, framing a face that contained no recognizable human features other than those white-hot ember eyes and a slanted razor-tooth mouth.
In her left hand she held Jahan’s head, severed at the base of the neck. She lifted it up to our eye level, and we saw that she had her hand stuck up our dead housemate’s neckhole like it was a puppet.
“You cowards,” she made Jahan say, moving our friend’s mouth, somehow playing his severed vocal cords like harpstrings. “Cowards who leave their friends to die.”
Then the thing that was formerly our bong lobbed Jahan’s head at Malik. Malik caught it for an instant before letting it slip out of his hands.
Our housemate’s head bounced on the floor and rolled to a stop at our feet, with a splat and a squelch.
I couldn’t have told you who was screaming. Couldn’t have said whether it was me or Malik or both of us, or neither of us. We were frozen to the spot, we couldn’t back away or turn and run as the creature advanced through the doorway.
“WHAT ARE YOU?” I howled.
For a moment she froze—and I realized that she was still growing, slow but unstoppable. Her eyes flared brighter and brighter till they burned like twin stars from an evil galaxy. “SALAMANDER,” she roared, in a woman’s voice, somehow, but it was also a thousand voices wailing in unison, loud enough to shake the house to its foundation and splinter the wooden floorboards and crack the windows.
She towered over us now, so tall she had to stoop to fit under our ceiling. Blood and strings of flesh dripped from her toothy leer. Her bright orange tongue spooled out, swaying side to side like a pendulum.
“Vuh—Vuh—Vince,” Malik managed beside me, a furtive whisper out of the corner of his mouth. “Turn around.”
Salamander’s tongue slicked side to side, side to side, but she wasn’t moving, wasn’t advancing toward us. She just stood there, filling the hallway, blocking our path to the front door.
“On three.” Malik’s voice was shaking, but beneath the shaking there was resolve. “We turn around, we walk out the back door. We don’t look back at it. We don’t even think about it. We just walk away.”
Salamander’s arms hung limp by her side, motionless but tensed, gleaming with Jahan’s blood.
Just walk away.
The two of us turned on our heels to face down the hallway that led to the kitchen, and the back door. Malik started walking. I kept stride with him, matching his stiff but unhurried pace.
Just walk away.
We crossed the living room, past the sofa chairs and coffee table where we’d gathered around Sally every night, through to the hallway that led to the kitchen.
“Don’t look back,” Malik whispered hoarsely. “Don’t think.”
We couldn’t hear any footsteps, or anything to indicate that Salamander was following us. But I could feel that unblinking white-hot gaze burning twin holes into the nape of my neck.
Why isn’t she chasing us?
We were halfway down the hallway. I walked at the exact same pace as Malik, falling into perfect stride with him. Don’t look back.
Two-thirds of the way there. The kitchen just ahead.
I stepped into the kitchen, but Malik didn’t. I opened my mouth to say his name—then stopped myself.
There was the back door. Right in front of me, just across the kitchen.
I kept my gaze fixed on the back door. Just a few yards of floor tiles separating me from safety.
It wasn’t Malik’s voice.
In that split second before I turned around to look back down the hallway, I understood that getting out of the house couldn’t possibly stop her. She had followed us home from the beach. She was at least eight feet tall. A door wasn’t going to stop her.
Nothing was going to stop her.
So I turned and planted both feet wide, and choked down the scream at the sight of what Salamander had done to Malik. I stared past the shredded corpse that had once been my housemate, stared straight into Salamander’s blazing gaze.
“What do you want?” I shrieked.
Salamander crouched behind Malik’s remains like a cat tensed to pounce.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”
No response but a flick of her bright orange tongue. I started walking slowly toward her. Salamander didn’t move. It was that reptilian stillness again, a coiled spring, inert but vibrating with pent-up power.
I stood before her now, face-to-face, separated from her only by Malik’s body. I stood before Salamander, and she wasn’t eight feet tall, and her body wasn’t halfway between a human and a lizard anymore.
Her skin was blue glass, yes, and sparks still coursed about inside her. But Salamander was the same height as me now, and her face was a human face staring back at me, blue and sculpted from glass but undeniably human.
I managed a hoarse murmur. “What do you want, Sally?”
Sparks crackled out of Salamander’s nostrils, spewed from her mouth as she spoke: “Tell me I’m beautiful,” she whispered, with the rushing roar of a thousand desperate sighs all bound up within one voice. “Tell me I’m the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen. Tell me you’ll spend every day of your life with me.”
As she spoke my gaze fell from her eyes to her feet, to the butchered corpse laid between us, the blood pooling under my toes.
She would let me live if I said yes.
All I had to do was say yes.
I looked back up at her. “No,” I tried to say—tried and failed, because my knees buckled and I couldn’t hold my own weight up anymore. My kneecaps slammed into the blood-soaked hardwood floor. “Yes!” I moaned. “Yes, I will, I promise, Sally, I promise.”
I was on my knees, rocking back and forth, gripping the bong in both hands—cradling Sally to my chest like a swaddled infant. She was just a bong now, two feet tall again. The glasswork dripped with blood, blood caked in spots and chunks, blood running in congealed rivulets down the glass body, into the bowl and stem and the base of the bong itself.
I rose to my feet shakily, steadied myself on the wall and looked down at Malik. He lay there on the kitchen floor, sprawled in a pool of blood, eyes wide and lifeless.
Leaving the kitchen, I made my way back into the foyer, where Jahan’s severed head lay on its side in its own smaller blood puddle.
The front door was still open. I could hear sirens howling, distant but approaching. Red and blue lights sparkled down the road, speeding toward the Salamander House.
I went into the living room, and gingerly set the blood-soaked bong back on the coffee table. Then I sank down into one of the sofa chairs.
Heavy boots pounded on the porch steps. Raised voices. “Police! Come out where we can see you!”
I didn’t move. Neither did Sally.
They came inside. One of them slipped in the blood in the foyer and swore loudly. Another could be heard vomiting.
Two cops entered the living room. They were young and tall, their faces taut with horror and disbelief, flashlights and guns pointed at my face.
I cooperated. What else was I going to do?
The first cop handcuffed me. The second approached the coffee table and stared at the blood-soaked bong. He raised his eyebrows, then glanced from me to the bong, back to me again, and then to Jahan’s severed head sitting on the floor in the lobby.
“Holy shit,” he grunted.
I laughed in spite of myself, quietly at first, but the laughter grew raucous and hysterical as they led me out of the house, into the cool night air, and shoved me into the back of a police car.
They shouted at me to stop, but I kept right on laughing. I couldn’t stop.
What the hell. They weren’t gonna believe my story anyway.
* * *
About the Creator
J. Herrara Kamin donated his story for your enjoyment. Please visit his website to find out more about him and his work.
J. Herrera Kamin is a speculative fiction author from Vancouver, Canada. Since 2017 his work has appeared online and in print — most recently in print anthologies from Scare Street, Red Cape Publishing and Midnight Street Press.
If you were to write a ten-volume epic fantasy starring a punctuation mark, which would it be and why? What would the one-sentence plot summary be?
Response: I would write the saga of the lonely question mark who sets off on a noble but dangerous quest in search of the right question. If Question Mark can find the right question, he will summon the fabled Great Answer from the mists of time, and lead his people to enlightenment. Along the way, Question Mark befriends a Comma and a Period, who are destined to join forces as the mythical warrior Semi-Colon.
What’s your favorite imaginary sound, and why?
Response: My favourite imaginary sound is the elusive cosmic shimmer-crackle that occurs when a powerful warlock plucks a star out of the night sky. (Although another sound I think about often is the sound that C-beams would make when they glitter in the dark off the Tanhauser Gate — if sound could travel in space.)
About the Artist
Our very own D.R.R. Chang is an Addy-winning designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and you can get a free copy of his janky retro JRPG, which was formerly on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.