I smelled the smoke before I saw it. I, the only one of the three in the room awake, moved quickly to warn my unconscious companions. I hesitated slightly when I took in their sleeping forms. The shock of their slow breathing and completely slack faces made me completely forget the problem at hand. With the days lately being filled with long hours in meetings with people who embodied the very definition of danger, it wasn’t often any of us looked at ease. Anxious was our new default. Before I could snap out of it and shake them awake, the smell died down. Assuming that it had all just been in my head, I sat back down and tried to relax.
A few moments later, I saw smoke. It crept its way through the cracks in the door, rising to cover the ceiling like a thin blanket.
Now, fully convinced that it definitely was not in my head, I shook the two men awake. They sat up almost immediately, bodies tensed to fight. Once they realized who woke them, the tension surrounding them evaporated. They looked at me in confusion until Hiro, the bigger of the two, started coughing.
“I don’t want to alarm you guys, but I think the hideout is on fire,” I said, the sentence so rushed it sounded like one word. The two men jumped out of their makeshift beds on the floor and practically ripped the door off its hinges as they sprinted out the room.
I ran after them, keeping low to avoid the smoke when I bumped into Hiro at the bottom of the stairs. Him and the other male, Jed, were staring at something seemingly in shock. I was about to push them over, frustrated at their sudden moment of paralysis, when I saw what they were staring at.
Standing in the kitchen, whacking at a small fire on the stove with a towel, was the leader of our group, Mal. He wasn’t supposed to be back until later, so seeing him wrestling with a fire was the last thing I expected.
Jed was the first to speak up, “You need some help with that boss?”
Mal jumped, obviously not expecting anyone, and looked at Jed. When he saw the three of us, a smile spread across his face. This was more of a shock than his presence. I couldn’t picture the last time Mal had smiled at us like that. Like he was still genuinely happy.
“I was going to surprise you guys with a feast,” Mal said, still hitting the fire with the towel, “but I remembered I have no idea how to cook.”
The smile, the jokes, it was such a rarity from him nowadays that we didn’t know how to respond other than silence. Mal didn’t seem to notice and continued to relentlessly beat the fire.
Hiro, ever the calm and collected one, just shook his head and moved toward the window over the sink. He opened it, allowing the smoke to have an exit route, and moved to do the same with the other windows around the small apartment. Jed reacted next, laughing at the situation, and walked over to help Mal.
“Boss, you didn’t even turn the stupid thing off.” Jed switched the stove off and grabbed a huge metal tray from one of the counters. He placed the tray on top of the fire, smothering it until only the smoke in the air remained.
Mal looked thoughtfully at Jed’s actions, “Smother not strike. I’ll remember that.” He looked over at me, still by the stairs. I stood there motionless, Mal’s behavior not fully sinking in. This was the Mal I had met. This was the Mal that had brought me in on the greatest adventure of my life. He smiled at me, really smiled at me and gestured to come over. I did, a sense of relief flooding through me that maybe he hasn’t truly changed.
We were all standing in the kitchen, the smell of smoke still prominent in the air when Mal walked over to the cabinet farthest from the stove and pulled out a bottle. It was the only bottle of wine in the apartment, stowed away for a special occasion.
“Just so you know,” Mal said, trying to twist the top open, “I put that bottle as far away from the stove on purpose. Preparation, my friends, is key.” The bottle finally opened and Mal brought out four glasses. Mal poured a hefty amount into each, and the guys gladly reached for the cups.
I stared at my glass, now filled to the brim thanks to Mal, and wondered why it was so easy to open that bottle. It had been stored away for months, the top should have been almost glued shut, but Mal opened it in a matter of seconds.
“I know this was for a special occasion, but I think not dying is good enough,” Mal said raising his glass up and receiving a clink from the other two men. I watched as Hiro and Jed chugged the wine down and gagged.
“Can’t say it’s my favorite,” Jed said, his face scrunching up in disgust at the taste.
Mal looked at him intently. I watched as his demeanor shifted. He still had a smile plastered on his face, but it had twisted into something nastier than before.
Mal caught my eyes and lifted his glass towards me, a gesture telling me to drink. I paused, unsure of the liquid in my cup. It looked normal. It smelled normal. But there was something off about it. Something off about Mal. Slowly, I raised the glass to my lips, Mal’s eyes still on me.
As soon as I took a sip, I realized it was poison.
No, not poison, but tainted. I waited for Mal to throw his out, proof of what I suspected.
“I guess it’s an acquired taste,” Mal said, taking a sip.