The Fume Cupboard

by Ben Marcus


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


Before I returned to the car I noticed a fume cupboard at the top of the embankment, one of the old wooden-style medicinal booths.  Up until now I had only heard rumors.  If you drive the northern route they line the highway, vestiges of a short-lived burst of civic health initiatives.  But this was the first one I’d actually seen.  Often they are burned down just days after being erected, and sometimes false fume cupboards are mounted by amateurs, with hacked-up, untested medicines that can kill you if you breathe in any little bit of them.

In a fume cupboard you could bomb yourself with different kinds of healing smoke.  You could dial the oxygen all the way down and get a pure dose of medicine, and even if you fainted the cabinet would be flushed of its chemicals and rich oxygen would get poured in until you revived.

I was keen to try one.

I pried open the lock and entered it for several deep inhalations, cramming my body into the narrow cylinder.  Usually the most potent fumes had long since blown through.  The sanitation department did not regularly recharge these chambers.  But the wooden walls of these units supposedly held smell remnants and if I inhaled with enough force I might pull the sharp medicinal air into my lungs.

I crouched, took a hard suck.  I pressed my face into the blackened wood, mouthed it, then pulled in with all the force I had.  I stepped back and tried rapid, shallow breaths, holding my nose to feel the full force of this treated air.

Nothing came to me, just dust.  It was like standing inside a person’s body, not my own, except it smelled like nothing.

On the inside wall was carved a cluster of graffiti.  I could not readily decipher it, but it looked familiar, something I was sure I once knew.  It was too short in width to be a word, and too complex to be a single letter.  Someone had made this symbol with a knife, and an oily substance had since filled the gouges, blackening the shape.

When I scraped out some of the gunk it was more clear to me.  The graffiti was the whole alphabet superimposed on itself, a tumor of all our letters stacked on top of each other in one stifling clot.  It was as if the entire alphabet had imploded into a single, dark point.