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Where There's Smoke
When I arrived at the loony bin, I had gone on strike. The rules were simple - no talking to anybody, because anything I said could be twisted around and used against my brother (who had been a good parent, no matter what Social Services said). Besides, who wanted to talk to a bunch of crazy people?
But slowly, I had felt myself being drawn into speaking. To John, to Harrison, even to Dorothy, even though she was probably legally required to report everything I saw to the government or something. Now it’s like I’m talking to anyone who wants a chat. I can handle it though - I’ve handled worse before. But some days are harder than others, and today I had accidentally slipped up and told Dorothy about the time I had walked in on Bro and some skank when they were doing it on the futon in the living room. Luckily, I was able to pass it off as an accident and an isolated incident - s*** like that happens to every family, if sitcoms have taught me anything. But the slip still hurts, and it sends the myriad circular burns on my left arm into a familiar chorus of stings. I need a cigarette. I need to find Veronica.
She’s sitting on the steps that lead out to where the dumpsters are, behind the kitchens. Nobody comes out here this time of day, so it’s the perfect place to slip away to if you don’t want to be found. We aren’t supposed to be outside without someone to supervise us, but I couldn’t honestly care less. If I wanted to run away, I would’ve done it months ago. They should know that by now.
Veronica hears the door open, and turns around with more than a little bit of surprise in her eyes. Upon seeing that it’s just me, and not a staff member like Dorothy she relaxes again, leaning back and taking a long, slow drag on the cigarette clenched between her teeth.
“Sam,” she says. Her voice is almost a purr, like one of Bro’s old girlfriends, the type who would walk around the apartment in almost nothing at all until Bro dumped them out onto the sidewalk (which he always did, sooner or later).
“Veronica,” I say, giving her a slight nod. I sit down next to her, elbows on my knees, hands clenched together almost like I’m praying. I don’t look at her; much less ask to have a cigarette. That isn’t how this…relationship works.
She, as always, makes the first move. She reaches into her pocket (her pants are so tight I can’t figure out how she’s able to fit anything in them, seriously, they’re like spandex) and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, casually holding one out for me to take.
I reach out and grab it quickly, before she changes her mind, and nod quick thanks. She lights it with the lighter she somehow managed to smuggle past security. The two of us sit there for a moment in silence - not exactly enjoying each other’s company, but enjoying not being alone for a moment. I like the quiet. The hospital is always so loud and full of people, and it’s nice to just get away from it all, just enjoy a smoke in peace. Even if Veronica never lets it last.
“So, Sam,” she says finally, her tone full of its usual dramatics. “Do you want to hear a story?”
I shrug. Veronica has a lot of stories, but no interesting ones.
“Are you suuuuuuuure? It’s a really good story,” she says like she hasn’t used that exact line to preface a thousand horrible stories before this one.
“Sure, whatever,” I say. She seems to be in a good mood and it would be really annoying if she flips out like she does sometimes, (last time she broke both the TV and her hand in a single, brilliantly retarded punch) so I figure I might as well humor her, at least until I’m done smoking. She sets off, jabbering melodramatically and gesturing wildly with her hands, and I do my best to let the words drift in one ear and out the other.
And suddenly she’s done, looking down on me and waiting for a response to what was assuredly the least epic drinking story ever, so I nod once, and say, “Cool story.” I’m about halfway done with my cigarette at this point, and I figure I can stall my way through the rest of the conversation if I play my cards right.
“That’s it?” Veronica asks. I say nothing, and she sighs. “I don’t get you Sam,” she says after a moment. “Any other fifteen year old...” I keep silent, and she sighs again, but turns back to her cigarette. I enjoy the minute of peace as best I can. Finally, she stands up, looking curiously at what remains of her cigarette. She smirks and drops it to the ground, crushing it with her heel. “I gotta tell you though, I don’t think I could ever put out a cigarette like you do.”
My hand instinctively goes to the burns on my left arm, but I shrug it off because it’s no big deal. There was this one foster family that asked me if I ever cut myself – this was way back, before I really started smoking – and I told them deadpan that I put cigarettes out on my arm because the pain made me feel alive. They freaked out, and the expressions on their faces were so funny that I actually started doing it, just to remind myself what they looked like in that moment. It’s my angsty teenage self harm rebellion. Holden Caulfield would be so proud.
“It’s pretty hardcore,” Veronica is saying as I come back to the present day. “Like, when I first saw you, I didn’t think much. And when you asked for a cigarette?” She laughs. “But when you just crushed it on your arm…gotta say, not bad.” She gives me a coy little wave and steps inside.
I finish the cigarette a few minutes later and look at it curiously for a moment. It burns, cherry red fire in black ashes, stubbornly back at me. My left arm aches. As I drop the cigarette to the ground, I kind of regret not saying goodbye to Veronica. I don’t think I’ll be seeing her again for a while.