The Circle

   Lori rolled down her car window slowly. It was beastly hot out on the

highway, and as always on Friday, the road was packed with out-of-staters

heading for the Cape or other shore points to the east.

   The joy that it was Friday was almost entirely counteracted by the traffic.

   The cell phone beeped for her attention and she picked it up, glad for the

distraction.

   “Lori, it’s Maureen.”

   As if anyone but her sister- and roommate- ever called her on the cell phone.

   “What’s up ?”

   “I was wondering-” she hesitated, and Lori knew what was coming. “Since

you’re already out, would you mind stopping on the way home and picking me up

a carton of cigarettes ?”

   “I thought that after two months, you’d finally quit for good. Did Jake call

and blow you off for tonight ?”

   “He called to blow me off, but not for tonight. For good. He said that-

look, I don’t want to talk about this now. You don’t have to stop if you

don’t want-“

   “No, I’ll stop. Fortunately, I have your ID with me.”

   “Do they still card you ?”

   “More than they don’t.”

   “I’ll pay you back as soon as you get home.”

   Lori walked into the store and relished the air conditioning. The place was

packed, which meant that she would have to stand in line for ten minutes

holding a carton of cigarettes.

   Not that she really cared what other people thought-

   Come to think of it, she did care, but what could she do ? Maureen would

certainly be more agreeable once she’d lit up- the last two months had been

nothing short of uncomfortable, after all.

   At least she wouldn’t have to put up with Jake anymore.

   As she pulled the carton of Marlboro Lights 100 from the display case a loud

chime sounded, alerting everyone in the store that she’d taken them. One

woman pushing a cart looked at her coldly, as if to say ‘How can you do that

?’

   Lori would have liked to ask the woman how it was that she could bring

herself to push her five or six year old boy around in the cart rather than

making him walk, but she passed. Instead she headed for the express lane and

got a spot behind a graying octogenarian with about twenty items in his cart.

He began loading the belt, oblivious to the brightly lit ‘Ten Items or less’

sign over his head.

   God, the heat is getting to me.

   She turned to look at what was going on behind her to get her mind off the

old man, and found herself staring directly into the face of Ms. Thorton, her

health teacher last year. The face brought back memories of high school,

which Lori was glad to be leaving behind. The thought of starting college in

the fall, of not having to answer to period bells, was enough to make up for

seeing Ms. Thorton, at least until she opened her mouth.

   It was no understatement to classify the woman as disagreeable.

   “So I see that you’re smoking now, just like your sister.”

   The tone dripped disapproval.

   “Actually, these are for my sister.”

   “Then your sister should have come and bought them.” She raised her voice

slightly. “You’re not even eighteen yet.”

   Lori turned her head to look at the cashier, who looked up at the same time,

curious. It was Jean Margolis, not exactly a friend, but-

   “Is it any business of yours ?” Lori asked curtly.

   That was the wrong tack to take. Without another word, Ms. Thorton exited

the line and made a path to the service desk, an angry look on her face, her

stride purposeful.

   Lori swallowed hard.

   She considered putting the cigarettes back and going somewhere else to buy

them.

   But amasingly, Jean had already rung the old man out. Lori was expecting

that he would need ten minutes to extract exact change from his little change

purse, but he paid with two crisp twenties and vacated his spot so quickly

that Thorton was still stuck behind a woman buying what looked like a year’s

worth of lottery tickets as Lori handed the carton over.

   Just as Jean scanned the cigarettes, the woman got the assistant manager’s

attention.

   Lori’s heart jumped into her throat. She handed over her sister’s old

license and Jean scanned the bar code.

   “Hmmm. Says you’re twenty-one,” Jean said with a smile and a wink.

   “You scan the licenses ?”      

   “That’s the new thing. They don’t trust us anymore. Someone with a birthdate

of January 1st, 1911 was buying two hundred cartons of cigarettes a day- and

sixty cases of beer. It’ll be 22.38. Better hurry.”

   The assistant manager was working her way out of the service desk, but she

had to reach over the half door to undo the lock. Lori passed Jean a twenty

and a five and grabbed the carton hastily. Jean handed her two ones and some

change and she made for the door.

   As she walked hastily through the parking lot, she saw a security guard

coming out the doors. She broke into a run just as the man yelled “Excuse me,

miss-“

   She piled into the Saab 900s, locked the doors, and gunned the engine,

almost reversing her way into the old man’s Reliant K-car.

   Missing him by inches, she roared out of the parking lot.

   At the stop light she look at the carton in the passenger seat. That was the

last time she went there to buy cigarettes.

   “I don’t usually buy cigarettes,” she reminded herself.

   The light was a long one, so slow to change that she half expected to see

the security guard roll up next to her car in his golf cart and go anal on

her about a carton of Marlboro Lights 100s.

   She went so far as to check the rear view mirror, but there was no sign of

pursuit.

   Ms. Thorton’s reaction to the cigarettes and her subsequent escape was

making Lori feel belligerent. What was the big deal anyway ? So what if they

had been her cigarettes. She’d be eighteen in nine months. She didn’t see

anything wrong with a girl her age smoking.

   Of course, she also had no idea what it was Maureen saw in her habit. Until

recently she’d been smoking close to a pack a day- twice what she was smoking

when she took her slightly off-campus apartment as a freshman three years

ago. They’d been sharing that same apartment for the last year, when their

parents had moved to Denver and decided Lori would be better off staying with

her sister and finishing high school.

   Ever since Lori had moved in, Maureen had tried to get her to start.

   With no success. Every so often, Lori came close to giving in, but the

impulse was never as strong as it was right now.

   When she saw Ms. Thorton pull up behind her in her dented up Camry with the

‘Jesus was Right’ bumper sticker, Lori decided that she was going to do it.

She pushed in the car’s cigarette lighter, started to tear the end flap off

the carton-

   As the light turned green and she pulled away, reason reasserted itself.

   “What was I going to do ?” she asked aloud.

   As she drove the road, she answered herself. “You were going to smoke.”

   Pulling into the driveway, Lori was struck by a bit of melancholy. Today had

been the last day of her internship working as a editorial assistant. While

she hadn’t exactly made any close friends, she had enjoyed the job.  It was

ironic, in a way. There’d only been one hard and fast rule at PrePub. No

smoking. No smoke breaks, no smoking at lunch. If you wanted to smoke- like

Girard, her mentor for the last six weeks, you had to leave not only the

building, but the parking lot.

   The time had coincided with most of the two months Maureen had gone without

a cigarette. Now, on the same day the job ended, Maureen was going to start

smoking again.

   She walked into the house carrying the partially opened carton of

cigarettes. Her sister was lounged on the couch, wearing revealing tight jean

shorts and a black halter top.

   That she’d been crying made her all the more stunning. Her sandy-blonde hair

was in total disorder- as usual, it rung her face in a way which all her

effort with comb and blow dryer never quite matched. In short, Jake was some

sort of maniac for walking away from her. Of that there could be no question.

   Lori handed over the carton and her sister studied the torn flap with

interest.

   “What happened ?”

   “I ran into Ms. Thorton at the Stop ‘n Save-“

   “So ?”

   Lori told the story from beginning to almost the very end, omitting only how

close she’d come to lighting one of the cigarettes out of pure spite.

   “And that’s how the carton got half opened ?” Maureen asked teasingly.

   “While I was running away from the rent-a-cop, I almost dropped the carton.

It slipped in my hand and I just caught it by the end.”

   “I thought maybe you had half a mind to try one or something.”

   Lori laughed. “Of course not.” She wondered why her sister hadn’t finished

opening the carton, why she hadn’t lit a cigarette yet. She was just sitting

there, smiling.

   “Ex-smokers make the worst antis. It figures that Thorton gave you grief.”

   “Ms. Thorton used to smoke ? She’s like the poster child for the

anti-smoking faction at school. She tried to get the student smoking lounge

shut down. It didn’t go this year, but I’m sure it will the next time. Most

of my friends hated her.”

   “She quit my freshman year,” Maureen said, finally tearing the end off the

box. Instead of taking out one of the packs of cigarettes, she put the carton

down and studied the flap as though there was a fortune hidden on it. “I

remember she had to take off a week of school in January. She was a mess. I

think she quit drinking coffee around the same time- it was some religious

thing, at least with the smoking. She had a few relapses along the way, but

by March, she was already preaching the gospel.”

   “Were you smoking then ?” Lori asked.

   “I was 14 that October, so, yeah, by November I was smoking- if you could

call it that. Just one or two cigarettes a day, Virginia Slims that I’d

stolen from Mom. It wasn’t until she caught me that I started smoking for

real. That was about three months later.”

   There was a short silence, during which Lori expected- for some strange

reason, wanted- Maureen to light a cigarette. But she made no move to even

open a pack. She just sat there, worrying the flap, looking surprisingly

calm.

   “How did Thorton know you weren’t eighteen ?”

   “Everybody in the whole damn school knows I skipped a grade. Remember how

David said in his valedictory speech that I would have been in his shoes if

I’d waited a year-“

   “That’s right. David is an asshole, just like his brother.”

   There it was, mistake number one. Lori had a feeling there’d be plenty of

those tonight, things she’d inadvertently say things which would remind her

sister of her ex-boyfriend- like mentioning his brother David.

   “After all I went through to get those, why aren’t you smoking yet ?” Lori

finally asked.

   “Because for two months I quit. I never plan to do that again. In a few

minutes, maybe, I’m going to light a cigarette and be a smoker for the rest

of my life. I want to savour that first cigarette, make it special. I don’t

suppose you’d like to join me- we could do it together.”

   There was a very appealing sound to the question.

   Instead of giving her a direct answer, Lori thought for a moment. “You never

told me about your first cigarette. What was so special about that one ?”

   “Is that not  a no ?”

   “That’s not anything. As soon as you tell me your story, I’m going to go for

a long run-“

   “Can I come with you ?”

   “I thought you were going to the gym today-“

   “I was. Jake called about twenty minutes before I was going to leave and I

spent the rest of the afternoon moping.”

   “I wish you’d moped your way out to the store-“

   “Look, I’m sorry about that.” She paused, pulled one of the packs out of the

carton, and studied it. “Okay- my start smoking story- do you remember Bill

Leer ?”

   Lori sat down next to her sister and gave her a brief, impulsive hug. She

still had the clean smells of shampoo and faint musk. But even when she was

smoking, she smelled nice.      

   “What was that for ?” Maureen asked.

   “I was trying to be comforting. Yes, I remember Bill. You were dating him

when you started, right ?”

   “Exactly. He came home with me after school one day. We were pretending that

we were going to study together. And mom was doing that thing she always does

when you have people over-“

   “The one where she spies on you. She finds like about one hundred excusing

to wander into the living room-“

   “Yeah. And Bill and I are doing about as good a job of pretending to study.

But after the fourth trip into the living room I notice that Bill is like

seriously checking Mom out. I mean, it was embarrassing. I’m sitting on the

couch with my boyfriend and he can’t take his eyes off mom. So finally she

goes into the kitchen to stand around until she can come up with another lame

excuse and I turn to Bill to give him shit-“

   She stopped. “Are you sure you want to hear this ?”

   “Let’s put it this way. If you don’t want to tell me, we can go take our

run. I mean, how embarrassing could it be. Did he have a woody for mom or

something ?”

   “A woody ?”

   Lori pushed her older sister playfully. Maureen pushed back, and for a

moment the two girls settled for mock wrestling with one another. Maureen,

always the stronger, got the upper hand quickly and soon she had her younger

sibling’s arms pinned to the couch. She leaned so close to Lori that their

breasts met. The tips of their noses were almost touching, but both of them

were enjoying themselves.

   “It wasn’t a woody. It was a flaming hard-on. He’s wearing these tight

shorts so it can’t get up, but there’s this ridiculous bulge. At least he was

a man about it. He just looked at me with those dopey brown eyes of his and

said “‘I love watching your mom smoke. She’s so  cool.'”

   Maureen let up on Lori and sat back, noticing something odd.

   “Your nipples are hard.”

   Lori looked down at herself and shrugged her shoulders. “You’ve got the damn

air conditioning on so high- your nipples are hard too.”

   There was a time when the two women would have taken the opportunity to

tease one another by stroking those hard nipples until someone begged for

mercy. Those days were long gone. They both thought about it, and they both

thought better of it.

   “So, I’ll bet you said to Bill, ‘Well, I smoke, too,’ even though you

didn’t.”

   Looking down at the curve of her shirt, Maureen saw that her nipples were

indeed hard. She let her left hand stray upwards and casually stroke the

sensitive area, once, then twice, and finally a third time, just enough to

create a level of arousal which was useless right now.

   Besides, what she really needed was a cigarette.

   “Exactly. Well, he didn’t believe me, so I told him to meet me behind school

the next day after we got out. I figured we’d walk through the woods and I’d

smoke for him. I mean, I know it sounds awful, but I couldn’t stand that he

was more interested in mom than me. I was so jealous and angry.”

   “Where’d you get the cigarettes ?”

   Maureen laughed. “I thought that was going to be the hardest part. I set my

alarm for 2 a.m.. I was so nervous. I knew what I wanted to do. Get one pack

from mom’s carton in the kitchen. I was terrified that she would have just

opened the carton. But it was half-empty. No one woke up, no one knew

anything. Mom never did miss that pack or the book of matches.”

   “And that’s when you had your first cigarette ?”

    “No. But I opened the pack and practised. I could tell just from pulling

air through the unlit filter that smoking was something I was going to enjoy.

I had to try six matches before I got one to light but I figured an

half-empty matchbook would lead him to think I’d been doing this for a

while.”

   “How come you never told me this story ?”

   “You’ll find out in a minute, curious one.”

   “We walked away from the school into the woods and I decided that it’s

finally time to light up. I’ve had all day to think about it and well, I

stopped thinking about or caring about Bill. I wanted to smoke. It wasn’t

about him or mom or anybody but me. I wanted that cigarette like I never

wanted anything in my life.”

   For no real reason, Lori reached down and picked up the pack of cigarettes.

Just to study it, of course. The lines of the pack were so sleek. She

wondered. To Maureen, this was just another pack of cigarettes, no matter

what she said about starting again being special. To Lori, they represented

the portal to a new adventure.

   Or something like that.

   “Billy- as you put it- popped a woody- as soon as he saw the cigarette in my

mouth. I wasn’t nervous by then- just anxious to get started. I got the first

match to take and lit the cigarette without any problem. I took three very

shallow inhales just to get my feet wet, then I really let go.”

   “Billy must have been out of his mind-“

   A slow smile spread across Maureen’s face. “Oh, he was. He muttered

something about wanting to kiss me, about tasting the smoke in my mouth. So I

exhaled- no cough- all those years of living with mom and dad paid off- and

we kissed.”

   “With him pressing that up against you-“

   “Precisely. But I liked it. I took a few more deep inhales, we kissed, and

just when both of us thought he was going to explode I unzipped his pants and

finished the job for him with my hand.”

   Lori tried to keep the look of distaste off her face but failed. “You were

right. I didn’t want to know this.”

   “But the whole point is that I loved every minute of it- including what it

did to Bill. I was happy to help him along. That day anyway. It was a first

for both of us.”

   “That’s not what you want to share with me, is it ?” Lori asked teasingly.

   “No. But I’m not having my next cigarette without you.”

   The run was over. As always when they ran together, Lori was amased by what

good shape her sister was in. Seven years of smoking had done absolutely

nothing to her cardiovascular system.

   The two women were sitting on the porch, sweating up a storm and waiting to

get to a point where their showers would take when their next door neighbour

spotted them.

   Karen strolled up the walk casually, puffing occasionally on her Benson and

Hedges 100. Her exhales were long, slow, much the way that Maureen remembered

her own.

   “Hello, girls. How’s the rental treating you ?”

   “Well, the air conditioning still works, so we’re pretty happy,” Maureen

said. “How’s the garden this year ?”

   “It’s been real rough. It’s been so dry and hot-“

   Just then Karen’s oldest daughter Melissa came out of the house, wearing

plaid boxers and a loose fitting sweatshirt which looked entirely too warm.

She casually smoked a VS 120 as she walked across the lawn barefoot. Her

mother looked at her, the disappointment obvious on her face.

   “Missy, how many times have I told you not to walk around outside without

shoes on-“

   “Mom,” Melissa pleaded. “I’m sixteen. Please don’t call me Missy.”

   “Shoes-“

   Melissa turned to look at Maureen and Lori, smiling as she performed a short

but powerful nose exhale.

   “One time I get stung on the foot by a bee-“

   “We were in the hospital for six hours- and you should have seen the bill.

They charge by the minute.”

   They were an interesting picture, mother and daughter, smoking two

completely different sorts of cigarettes. Melissa was already several inches

taller than her mother and the long thin cigarette matched the look well, as

did Mrs. Appleton’s Benson and Hedges. But they both smoked the same way.

Long inhales, rapid exhales, and plenty of them. It was enough to make

Maureen want  to rush inside.

   “Any vacation plans for the summer ?” Karen asked.

   “We’ll head up to the family cabin some weekend, and we’re supposed to spend

a few days in Denver in August,” Lori said. “How about you ?”

   “We’re going to Corpus Christi,” Melissa answered. She took one last long

pull on the cigarette, and seeing it was spent, she walked out to the end of

the driveway and dropped it in the gutter. She lazily strolled back up the

driveway and only then did she finally exhale.

   “What’s in Corpus Christi ?” Maureen asked.

   Mrs. Appleton smiled. “Well, Dave’s mom, dad, and sister. But that’s only

part of why we’re going. There’s a convention for families who smoke, and we

thought we’d check it out. There’s supposed to be something for everyone- if

you’re a smoker, that is. One of the most exciting things- as far as I’m

concerned- is that they’ll be teaching newbies how to smoke. Michelle’s been

dragging her feet-“

   “She is only thirteen,” Lori said, trying to sound as neutral as possible.

   “Exactly. With all the anti-smoking campaigning going on, well, in ten years

tobacco could be a prescription only drug. We want to make sure that Michelle

gets a chance to know what it’s really like to be a smoker in a normal

environment. As it is, I got a letter in the mail today from the school

saying that the smoking lounge was going to be shut down unless a rider to

the school budget is voted down. It’s part of Ms. Thorton’s ‘Zero-Tolerance’

program. I can’t believe she and I go to the same church.”

   “Don’t start on Ms. Thorton, please,” Lori said.

   Both of the Appleton women had now finished their cigarettes. Before Ms.

Thorton could ask what her neighbour meant by that last comment, she pulled a

pack of Benson and Hedges from the pocket of her sun dress and lit one. At

the same time, Melissa pulled her cigarettes from her front pocket and lit

up. Only when both of them were filling the hazy late afternoon air with

smoke did Karen respond.

   “What do you mean ?”

   “I was buying a carton of cigarettes at the Stop ‘n Save-“

   “I didn’t know you smoked,” Michelle said. She was letting her cigarette

dangle from between her lips now, pulling on it intermittently to draw the

smoke into her waiting lungs. She exhaled through her nose in a tight series

of measured bursts.

   “They’re for me,” Maureen chimed in.

   “Let me guess,” Karen said. “Thorton got into line behind you. When she

realised that you weren’t eighteen, she went straight for security.”

   “Were you there ?” Lori asked.

   “No. The same thing happened to Melissa about two weeks ago. I thought you

quit, Maureen ?”

   “I gave up on quitting, Mrs. Appleton.”

   “I knew you would come back to it. I can remember when you were fifteen and

Melissa was oh, ten. It’s so funny. You were living over on Greece Street and

here you’re my babysitter and now you live next to me. Where was I-“

    She paused and though for a moment. “The first time I told you that it was

okay to smoke while you babysat the girls, the look on your face was like

pure joy. I knew then that you were the real thing- not a poser. Not

someone who holds the cigarette in their hand to look cool once in a while.

You were a real smoker then, and you’re a real smoker now.”

   “Thanks for the encouragement,” Maureen said, watching Melissa pull hard on

her cigarette. Maybe it was time to suggest she switch to a fuller brand.

While the long, slim cigarettes complimented her height, they didn’t seem to

be satisfying her smoking needs. Unlike the Bensons and Hedges, which were

obvious enough for the very contented Ms. Appleton.

   “So why aren’t you smoking ?” Karen asked.

   “I promised myself not to start again until Lori starts, too. When you talk

about people being overdue to start, she must at the very top of the list.”

   “So this is the big day ?” Karen asked Lori, to which she said “I don’t know

yet. Despite all my sister’s prodding, I have no real desire to start.”

   “That’s too bad. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

   “Maybe I’ll find out, Mrs. Appleton.”

   Both women had showered, and now the discussion had turned to the idea of

doing what people were supposed to do on Friday nights- go out.

   Maureen was in favour of the idea- which had been a surprise. Going out

meant going to the Rusty Hammer- the only place in town they could be sure

that Lori would get into using Maureen’s license. And the Hammer was one of

Jake’s favourite places.

   Lori couldn’t begin to decide what to wear. There was a closet full of

clothes to chose from, but nothing seemed right. It was still beastly hot

out, and they’d walk to the Hammer- so they could get hammered, as Maureen

would say. That was an half-hour walk in the heat followed by a few hours in

the bone chilling Hammer. In the summer they set the air conditioning to

about 55. Your sweat would flash-freeze to skin if you were underdressed.

   She walked into Maureen’s room wearing just her favourite bra and panties,

and saw that Maureen was having similar problems. They made quite a sight in her

full length mirror, two young women wearing nothing but dark grey underwear.

   “Can’t decide what to wear ?” Maureen asked.

   “No. I think I have too many clothes. It’s just so damn hot out and so cold

in the Hammer.”

   “I’m going to take a sweatshirt, I think. So, have you decided that it’s

finally time to let me start smoking ?”

   “Go ahead,” Lori said. She walked over to Maureen’s night table, noticing

her sister had replaced the recently absent ashtray. In it was the open pack

of cigarettes and a pair of lighters. She picked them up and walked over to

her sister. Just then the air conditioning came on again, and the overhead

vent began blasting refrigerated air.

   Although Maureen took the cigarettes eagerly, she made no move to light one.

   “You don’t think I’m serious, do you ?”

   “Serious about what ?” Lori asked, as if she could pretend she had no idea.

   “About not smoking again until you do.”

   “I know you’re serious. But I don’t think you can wait that long-“

   “I will-“

   “Maybe you should call Bill Leer. He pitched in the first time-“

   Maureen’s face turned from jovial to serious. She put her hand on her

sister’s shoulder, then ran it through the long strawberry blonde strands.

   “I really want you to share this with me. Is that too much to ask your own

sister ?”

   Lori saw that her hair was now in complete disarray. “Do you have a scrunchy

I can borrow ?”

   “Sure. On the dresser.”

   For a moment neither woman said anything. Lori walked over to her sister’s

dresser, feeling as if there was a great weight on her shoulders. Too much

pressure. She picked a black one and as she pulled her hair back she saw the

picture Maureen kept on the mirror. Lori’d taken the picture on her

seventeenth birthday. They were out in the backyard on Greece Street, sitting

by the pool in their bathing suits.

   Just as Lori had gone to snap the picture the three of them had brought

their cigarettes to their mouths as one. They looked so happy.

   It wasn’t that much to ask.

   Lori felt goose bumps run down the length of her body. It was part cold and

part excitement.

   “Okay.”

   “Okay what ?” Maureen asked excitedly.

   Lori walked over to her sister and reached out for the pack of cigarettes.

“Okay I’ll try one. One. And if I don’t like it-“

   “We’ll talk about that.” Lori extended her hand but Maureen shook her head.

   “No. I’m going to give you your own pack.” She walked over to the bed where

she’d dropped the carton and took out a second pack, grabbed the other

lighter, and handed them to her sister.

   Lori noticed that her sister had the same goose bumps.

   The pack was so smooth with the cellophane encasing it. Her fingers were

moist with sweat but she managed to tear the wrapping off. After she dropped

it in the trash she cracked back the flip top and very carefully unfolded the

foil. Her sister followed suit, and soon the two of them were standing

together, ready.

   “Wait,” Maureen said. “I want a picture.”

   She grabbed her camera and they put the unlit cigarettes in their

mouths. Maureen best-guessed the angle the camera should be held at and

snapped off a shot.

   “What do I do now ?” Lori said, her voice muffled by the cigarette.

   “Pose-“

   Maureen snapped off three more shots and tossed the camera on the bed.

   “First, you light the cigarette. It works best if you hold it in your mouth

with one hand and thumb the lighter with the other. That way if you get

nervous you don’t drop your just-lit cigarette on my nice hardwood floor.”

   “Then what ?”

   “Don’t inhale. Just pull the smoke into your mouth. Get used to the taste

and the feel of the smoke. I think you’ll find it’s nothing like what you

expected. I’d take at least three baby inhales like that- just into your

mouth. Get used to moving the smoke around. Then you can inhale- and when you

do, remember that you’re not swallowing the smoke, you’re just breathing it

in.”

   The moment had finally come, and once again Lori had the impression that she

was starting on some great adventure.

   They lit their cigarettes at precisely the same moment.

   Maureen felt the smoke slide down into her lungs and the feeling of peace

and contentment was absolute.

   Lori pulled a small amount of smoke into her lungs and rolled it around her

mouth. The taste was much different than the smell, sweeter, fuller, more

pleasing, almost cool.

   She exhaled the smoke and was not surprised at the tingle of excitement she

felt seeing smoke emerge from her mouth in a short, tight stream.

   “Very good,” Maureen said, executing a long nose exhale which filled the

room with smoke.

   Lori looked at that smoke rushing from her half-naked sister’s nostrils and

thought that Jake must be thoroughly insane. How could he not enjoy watching

that ? Lori herself was- it was embarrassing, but she was almost turned on by

it herself.

   She took two more baby inhales as instructed. Then it was time to try and

inhale. Maureen watched with great curiosity, although she did not ignore her

rapidly shrinking cigarette. She was clouding the room with her own smoke,

thinking about how long overdue this was and how stupid she’d been trying to

please Jake. If he wasn’t turned on watching her smoke there was definitely

something seriously wrong with him.

   Try as she might, however, Lori couldn’t pull the smoke into her lungs.

Maureen watched her try three times and finally laughed. Lori shot her an

evil look, but there was also a tingle of pleading in it.

   Maureen stubbed out her cigarette and lit another one. She pulled it from

her mouth dramatically after a stunningly deep inhale and shot smoke in the

general direction of her sister.

   “I know what to do. I’ll inhale, and then blow the smoke into your mouth.”

   “You’re not kissing me-” Lori insisted, wondering how her cigarette could be

only half-gone while Maureen had moved onto a second.

   “It’ll get you used to it-“

   “No kissing.”

   “Okay. Come here.”

   Lori walked over to her sister hesitantly. “I’m going to inhale. After I do,

put your mouth over my nose. I’ll do a nose exhale and you can breath it in-“

   “No snot-” Lori said menacingly.

   “I want you to smoke, Lori. I’m not going to screw around here.”

   Lori nodded. Maureen inhaled, another monstrous pull. She then held the

smoke and Lori, who was trying not to giggle, put her mouth over her sister’s

nose. Maureen breathed out, a long, patient nose exhale which Lori absorbed

easily.

   “Oh my god,” she said, understanding. “That’s why you smoke !”

   Then they hugged one another and dissolved into twin fits of laughter. They

fell onto the bed together, still intertwined, and smoked while wrapped in

one another’s arms. Maureen noticed both that her sister’s nipples were once

again hard as rocks and that each inhale was deeper and more satisfying for

Lori.

   When she finished the cigarette, Lori looked and Maureen. “Let’s go. The way

I feel right now-“

   “I know. It’s too bad I’m not Ricky Lake, huh ?”

   “Ugh,” Lori said, grimacing.

   “You know he loves you- since third grade. And right now-“

   “Yes. Right now I would.”

   They couldn’t stop laughing at that.

   Lori reached across the table for her pack of cigarettes-

   My pack of cigarettes,  she marveled. That had such a great sound to it.

   She was pleasantly drunk. They both were. The biggest hurdle of the evening

was long over. They’d run into Jake after about fifteen minutes. He’d seen

that Maureen was smoking again and left in a huff. As it happened, Lori could

see in her sister’s eyes that she was already over him. Which was nice.

Maureen had always been the crying champion of the Hamilton family, but she’d

seemed to be outgrowing it. In fact, she was so happy that her little sister

had finally started smoking that she seemed giddy.

   Maureen poured beer into their glasses, emptying the pitcher, and signalled

for another. Just then, Jean wandered over.

   “Got your sister’s ID still, huh ?”

   Lori lit a cigarette and smiled. “Yeah. You too ?”

   “No. My cousin Rachel’s. She gave it to me a few months ago when I went to

visit her in Rochester. Could I-“

   “Sure,” Lori said, passing the cigarettes and lighter over. Jean set her

glass down, lit one and inhaled with the sort of practised ease that Lori

hoped to develop, then handed them back. She noticed that like Maureen, Jean

had a really cool way of holding the cigarette down by her waist, wrist

cocked. Very feminine.

   “I didn’t get you in trouble today, did I ?”

   Jean smiled and took a sip of her own beer. “No. My manager checked the scan

log and it was clean. But it did bogus me. Usually she puts aside a pack of

Marlboro 100s for me at the end of the day and slips them in my apron when

I’m cashing out, but not with all the commotion. It’s no big deal. I just

have to get my mom to buy me a pack. Which means I get the ‘How are much are

you smoking these days ?’ line of questioning, as if she cares. All she said

when she found out I had started was ‘You’re going to have to pay for your

own.’ My birthday’s next week and she’ll give me a carton if I’m nice to her.

But I thought these were for your sister ?”

   “They were,” Maureen said. “But she finally saw the light. Even if she was

scared half to death.”

   “What a disaster,” Jean said. “I thought Thorton was going to call 911.”

   “Thorton thinks she is 911,” Lori said. “I was so mad. And she ended up

behind me at the stoplight in that old beater of hers. I almost lit up right

there-“

   Maureen gently kicked her sister under the table. “You lied to me- I knew

you were thinking about it-“

   Jean caught the eye of one of her friends, who was headed for the door.

“Gotta run. Thanks for the cigarette.”

   “Any time,” Lori said. When Jean was gone, she looked at her sister, and

although her voice was getting slightly slurred, she managed to say “I’m glad

I waited and we did it together,” without sounding like a total sap.

   “You want to go up to the cabin tomorrow ?” Maureen asked. “It’s a long car

ride. I can teach you how to hold a cigarette when you’re driving and catch a

light with the windows down-“

   “Sure. Tell me about the nose exhale again-“

   The two sisters were doing something they hadn’t done in five years at

least. They were lying on Lori’s bed, wearing only their smoky sweatshirts.

Lori’s head was on Maureen’s stomach, just below her breasts. They were

smoking and talking about boys and their parents and the trip up to the

cabin- probably a four hour drive at least, when Lori finally asked the

question that had been bugging her all night.

   She still had a good buzz from the beer, but she was a little worried that

when she asked her question her sister would think she was crazed.

   “Mo- Can I ask a serious question-“

   Surprisingly, her sister’s response was a smoky laugh. her voice was at

first muffled by that smoke, which Lori now found intoxicating.

   “Yeah, I was horny as hell the first day I smoked the way you’re smoking

now.”

   Lori slapped the bed with her free hand. “Mo-“

   “I could see the look in your eyes the whole night. I did what you’re doing

once. Hell, I’m doing tonight. I feel the same way. I mean, I could just-“

   “You don’t do that, do you ?” she asked.

   “No. It’s funny. I think most people who say they don’t do, but no. Well,

very rarely. Maybe a few times a years.”

   “I never-“

   “You never smoked before, either. I don’t know, sis, Ms. Thorton would say

you’ll go blind.”

   “Is that your subtle way of encouraging me ?”

   There was a long silence.

   “God, I feel like I’m going to explode,” Maureen said. “Now I know how Billy

felt.”

   “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t-“

   They laughed, and then giggled, and then-

   “Let’s stop in and say Hi to Mr. Barstow. It looks like her got a new car.

Or a new used car. He never struck me as the convertible type, though.”

   They parked at the end of the driveway, lit cigarettes, and walked up to the

front door of the cabin. There was the sound of a young woman’s giggles

coming through the open window. The two girls looked at one another

suspiciously. If there was something less likely than the septuagenarian

taking to a convertible it was his taking to a young woman.

   But Maureen knocked anyway.

   The man who answered the door was most definitely not Mr. Barstow. He was

younger, shorter, and puffing on a long cigar. Barstow was a pipe smoker, if

you could call what he did smoking. It was mostly dry sucking.

   “Can I help you ?” the man asked in strong British accent.

   “Mr. Jameson ?”

   “Lori, wasn’t it ?”

   “Still is.”

   Maureen was perplexed. “You know each other ?”

   “Remember that seminar I took last summer ? Pre-Colonial British History ?

Mr. Jameson was a guest lecturer.”

   The woman who belonged to the giggle appeared at the front door. She was

also smoking a Marlboro Light 100, just lit. She had an ageless quality about

her, as though she could be anywhere between seventeen and twenty-seven. She

exhaled graciously and smiled, her perfect white teeth a nice match to her

pale skin. Her long blonde hair caught in the afternoon breeze and danced

about her long graceful neck.

   Lori decided she was stunning.

   “Mr. Jameson, this is my older sister-“

   “Why do you always add that ?” Maureen joked.

   “-Maureen.”

   “And this is Alicia MacCardell.”

   Everyone said hello to everyone else and then a silence ensued. But it was

not awkward as it should have been. Lori knew why. They were all smokers, and

that one uniqueness about all of them made them part of a community.

   “So you stopped by to see Mr. Barstow, I presume. He’s in Europe for the

summer-“

   “That’s sounds great,” Maureen said. “We were on the way to our cabin and

thought we’d stop by.”

   “There’s another cabin back here ?” Nathaniel asked curiously.

   “You’d never know it, because it looks like the road just ends a mile up- or

like it ends a few hundred yards up, depending on how persistent you are. In

fact, we haven’t been up here all summer, so we’ll probably have to drive up

and down the road to find the entrance.”

   “Well, why don’t you stay a while. We’re going to have tea, and I always

make extra, just in case.”

   “Sounds great,” Lori said.

   They were sitting around the dining room table- Lori had always thought it

odd that a cabin had a dining room, but Barstow was a very proper sort of

man.

   “So, what brings you up north ?” Nathaniel asked. He clipped the end off his

cigar and Alicia lit it for him. It caught quickly and as Maureen answered he

handed it to Alicia, who took a ladylike puff and handed it back.

   “My sister started smoking- finally, at seventeen- so we thought we’d

celebrate.”

   “Really ?” Alicia said, her voice bright and inviting. “Seventeen is kind of

late to start, isn’t it ?”

   “Well, Maureen’s been trying to get me to take it up for a year now, and I

might not have started yesterday if it wasn’t for my old health teacher-“

   With some gentle encouragement from Alicia, Lori told the story about Ms.

Thorton, and then how her sister had finally gotten her to come over. She

found herself enjoying talking about it and Alicia and Nathaniel seemed

genuinely interested. She skipped the part about her sister’s nose exhale and

how the night had ended, but it was still a good story. By the time they’d

finished talking, it was close to five-thirty and Maureen was starting to

worry about the groceries going over.

   “We brought some salmon up- more than the two of us could ever eat. I was

going to grill it. Are you guys up for that ?”

   Alicia and Nathaniel decided they were, and the two girls left immediately

to start preparations. Once they were gone, Nathaniel grabbed Alicia around

the waist from behind and hugged her tightly.

   “Why did you encourage that girl to tell us about how she started smoking ?”

   Alicia inhaled deeply on her cigarette, turned around in his arms, and

breathed her sweet smoke on her lover.

   “Because I know it turns you on to hear about young women starting to smoke.

And if it turns you on, it turns me on. I really want you to understand

that.”

   Her voice was so sultry, her eyes so bright. Nathaniel realised suddenly

just how happy he was. He pulled on his cigar, held the smoke, and breathed

it into her mouth as he kissed her. They traded it back and forth until it

had faded and then they broke the kiss.

   “Let’s test that theory in the bedroom-” he said, but she pulled him to his

knees and they ended up doing their research on the dining room floor.

   “So what do you do ?” Lori asked Alicia. The meal was just ending and they’d

gotten past the weather talk and the drive up talk and were just starting to

really get to know one another.

   “The student thing,” Alicia said off-handedly.

   If Nathaniel was relieved when Maureen said “Me, too. I’m a year away from

my BA-” no one noticed.

   “What will you do then ?” Nathaniel asked. He was clipping the ends from two

cigars, and he handed one to Alicia.

   Seeing that the two women were mildly curious she said “I always have one

after dinner- especially one like this. I’m so stuffed. Everything was

great.”

   “Maybe I should go into the restaurant business,” Maureen joked. “Actually,

my BA is in English Lit. So that means I’ll be looking for a grad school

programme.”

   “I might be able to help you there,” Nathaniel said, his english accent

having taken on a decidedly cheery lilt due to the wine he’d brought. “I have

contacts throughout most of the schools in the Northeast.”

   “Then we should talk. I have no idea where I want to go.”

   Lori looked at her watch and smiled. She’d been smoking for just

twenty-fours now, and as she lit a cigarette she was struck by how natural it

felt. She’d decided on the car ride up that she wasn’t going to regret that

she’d wasted the last year resisting her sister’s gentle urging to start.

Instead she was going enjoy what she’d discovered. She’d made a pact with

Maureen that neither of them would ever quit. It had been one of those silly

little things, but it felt right.

   “It’s such a stunning night,” Alicia said, drawing on the long cigar in a

surprisingly feminine way as she moved her chair tightly up against

Nathaniel’s. They clasped hands and all four of them turned their heads to

the sky. The stars were something you could actually see up here, the banding

of the Milky Way and the moon low on the horizon.

   Lori inhaled slowly, fully. She spoke as she exhaled, liking the way it

muted her voice. “It wouldn’t be the same if I wasn’t smoking, you know.

Everything seems different now. The colours are brighter-“

   “You’re happy,” Alicia said. “I don’t think I was ever happy until the

first time I smoked, and-” She squeezed Nathaniel’s hand tightly, finishing

the thought without speaking it.

   “You’re right. But I had no idea. It’s like someone opened this door for me

that I’d kept closed for no reason. It’s nice to talk about it.”

   Someone looking down on the four of them would have seen four orange flares

at that moment, two large, two small. Smoke drifted up lazily from the table

as the fog rolled in. The night air was chilly and damp, but Lori found that

was a perfect complement to the cigarette smoke.

   “How long are you up here for ?” Nathaniel asked.

   “A week ? You ?”

   “The same. We just got in a few hours before you, actually. I insisted on an

early start so that we wouldn’t miss tea.”

   Somehow that didn’t sound nearly as hokey as it should have.

   “What’s the night life down in the town like this year ?” Maureen asked

curiously. “It seems different every season.”

   “Well, I don’t have a baseline to make comparisons,” Nathaniel said,

exhaling a large cloud of dark smoke which filled the air with a smell Lori

decided she liked very much. “But it seems like they are having a rather

successful tourist season. They even have the sort of upscale yuppie bar

people like myself prefer.”

   “Sounds like it’s worth checking out-” Maureen said.

   “I’d love to, but I have a deadline to meet on a paper for a journal.” He

looked at Alicia and smiled. “Perhaps-“

   “I’d love to. Do you have ID, Lori ?”

   “Says I’m twenty-one. Of course, it also says I’m my sister-“

   “You don’t mind, Nathaniel ?” Alicia asked as the three of them stood up.

   “No. Really, I have to work. Maybe tomorrow.”

   They said their goodbyes and Nathaniel sat back with pleasure as he watched

the three of them walk of the patio and into the cabin, trailing smoke behind

them. Although he was mildly nervous about his situation with Alicia, he had

a feeling this was going to be a very pleasant week.

   “Thorton. T-h-o-r-t-o-n.”

   The clerk, an older high school girl with a mouth full of braces, smiled

depreciatingly at the teacher and then-

   Thorton’s blood almost- almost- boiled. Right there in front of her, she

paused in the middle of looking up her reservation and lit a cigarette.

   Leaning over the desk, she saw that they were Parliaments. The long ones,

same as she used to smoke. The last from the pack. She leaned too close, in

fact, and got a good noseful of smoke which-

   After a brief bit of mental legerdemain she convinced herself the smell of

that smoke was sickening.

   The girl inhaled again as she turned the page and Thorton felt her control

slipping. The question was which way it would go. No one understood her

anger, no one understood why she was so set on eradicating smoking from the

high school. For starters. No. There was no one who could understand the

double-edged sword cutting into her right now.

   “A-18,” the girl said, looking up and smiling. She was a little pissed at

this woman for not thinking she knew how to spell, but she’d probably had a

long drive up here and she looked like she could use a beer and a smoke right

about now. She pulled the key from the cabinet and handed it over. “I see we

have your credit card info. You can pay by cash or check, too. I’ll walk you

over.”

   Thorton tried to relax. The girl with the braces and the cigarette was

trying to be nice to her. How could she understand ?

   “Thanks-“

   “It’s Veronica. I’m here most of the time. If you need anything, just ask.”

   They walked out the door, Veronica in the lead. She trailed a sweet haze of

smoke behind her which Thorton found maddening. The hand with the cigarette

made graceful arcs to her mouth, stayed for a set interval- she was a very

steady smoker- and then went back to her side. The smoke trailed from it,

caught in the arc-sodium lights. It danced and writhed and called to Thorton

in a way she couldn’t resist.

   “I’m sorry you can’t park by your room, but you’re in the back.”

   She turned to smile at Thorton and the light caught her braces as a long

stream of smoke leaked out of her mouth.

   “Is there a cigarette machine here ?”

   Veronica turned and favoured Thorton with a very pleasant smile. “You bet. I

hear they’re going to get rid of them, but hopefully not before I turn

eighteen this winter. It’s funny, it’s right next to your room. That’s where

I was headed anyway. You need change ?” Veronica stuck her hand in her pocket

and jingled what sounded like ten dollars in quarters. “It’s so quiet here at

night- no offence, but people never check in this late, which is a joke. It’s

only eight, but usually everyone’s here by six. Not that I mind, because I

have to watch the desk ’til midnight. If I didn’t smoke, I think the boredom

would drive me crazy.”

   “I know exactly what you mean,” Thorton said.

   When they reached the room Thorton dropped her stuff just inside the door

and then walked over to where Veronica was feeding the machine quarters. She

remembered back to her college days. Almost every pack she smoked came from th

e vending machine. There was a special joy associated with pulling that lever

back. The feel of the machine at work. The way the pack dropped down onto the

metal tray, all shiny and wrapped. The thrill of knowing you had a whole new

pack to smoke at your leisure. Soon after that, she’d quit. As soon as she’d

started teaching.

   Her adrenaline was skyrocketing, her mind racing. Tomorrow, she would get

down to business because it wasn’t crazy to have followed Lori all this way,

was it ? Tomorrow she’d reassert her self-control, but tonight she was going

to reward herself for- it had been six months this time, hadn’t it ?

   “Damn. Out of Parliaments again.” Veronica pulled the Marlboro Lights 100s

lever and a pack dropped down.

   She immediately started feeding quarters in again. Thorton fumbled in her

purse for her wallet and as she thankfully came across an half-empty pack of

matches Veronica touched her arm.

   “Don’t bother- these quarters come out of the vending machine anyway. What

brand ?”

   “Same as your,” Thorton said, barely able to speak. Her tongue felt like a

blanket. Her eyes seemed swollen. Her throat was itching.

   Veronica handed over one pack, stripped the other and lit a cigarette

immediately. “If you need more, I’ll be up another four hours at least. Just

knock first if it’s after eleven.”

   Four hours ? Thorton looked at the pack as Veronica walked away and the

thought that she’d be able to get more-

   No, she pushed that aside. Tonight was a one-night lapse. She certainly

hadn’t come to this little tourist trap to start smoking again.

   She knew something must be wrong, because she was thinking about just giving

in and starting again. It would mean moving. They’d never believe she’d gone

back to it where she was now. After all the trouble she was causing about it.

She’d be humiliated. It would also mean no more teaching health. She had a

minor in history to fall back on, but-

   It would mean leaving the church which seemed to have become such an

important part of her life. Too many losses for a little personal pleasure.

   “Just tonight,” she said, feeling a little bit unravelled.

   She come here to help Lori, a bright kid. A bright kid who had started

smoking. She’d seen her push the cigarette lighter in at the stop light. Saw

her fumble with the carton.

   It hadn’t been hard finding out where they were going. She’d called the

Appleton’s and pretended to be the girl’s paper carrier. ‘They left me a

message but it got cut off’, she’d said. Fortunately the youngest girl

Michelle had answered. Mrs. Appleton was sharp and she might have seen right

through the petty deception. As it was, Michelle had done everything but fax

her a map.

   Kelly put all that aside. She turned on the light. Tried not think about how

disturbed some people might think she was for doing this.

   There was a wide mirror on the wall opposite the bed. Kelly took herself in,

studied the vision of her reflection.

   It was unsettling. The wind blowing through the car had not been kind to her

hair. It was puffed out behind her like twin airfoils, a nightmare seventies

do which made her look forty instead of thirty.

   “I feel forty,” she told herself. Her lips were pale. Her eyes were drawn

and there were dark smudges underneath. I look old, and tired, and haggard.

   Oh, Kelly knew what was going on here. This was the time she needed most

desperately to remind herself why she’d quit smoking or pray or something.

But she couldn’t. She was about to light one of these cigarettes and as

always before she did, she was struck by how unhappy she’d become. It didn’t

really have anything to do with smoking. That was just the catalyst. Or so

she told herself.

   She started by going into the bathroom and washing the road grime off her

face. How you got road grime on you in a car was beyond her, but it was a

fact that she had it. The cold water felt good. When she was done, she felt

almost human. Ten years younger. She tried a smile. It worked. Of course it

did. Kelly understood why.

   She pulled her hair back into a pony tail. She was on the thin side, but her

face was very full- not fat- just pleasing. With the hair tight back like

that, well, there went five years.

   Hell, maybe seven.

   It was her college look. The full face. Always smiling. The ever-present

ponytail. The kind attitude that had gotten lost when she’d realised what she

thought was going on in the real world.

   Only one thing missing.

   She opened the pack slowly. The urge to tear the cellophane off and rush was

annoying. In the midst of casting aside the main force of her self-control

she remained determined to possess some shred of it.

   The smell of tobacco calmed her. She put aside all of it. Looked in the

mirror and wondered how this could be the same face as five minutes ago.

   She thought about turning off the light so that she wouldn’t have to watch

herself. But she wanted to watch herself. If she had to do this, she would

enjoy it. The cigarette was brought slowly to her lips. She held it there

with one hand for a moment, then let it dangle. She had hundreds of pictures

of herself smoking. The support group assholes had advised her to throw them

away, but she’d kept them as a reminder. Some were from her high school days

in Virginia, where smoking was still generally acceptable. Others from

college. She and her sister.

   Kelly smiled around the cigarette. Lit it with a match. Although it had been

six months, she inhaled deeply and finished with a stately nose exhale. She

sat and watched herself smoke the entire cigarette, walking back and forth

and holding it the way Diana had taught her so that it would catch attention.

She watched the years fall away from her face until she really looked

twenty-three again. Only then did she turn out the light.

   As she lit the second cigarette, she thought about driving home in the

morning.

   But she knew when the morning came the idea would seem less reasonable than

it did now.

   Finally, she stopped thinking altogether. For tonight, it was enough to be

happy.

   Until she ran out of cigarettes.

   Smoking had done what it usually did for Kelly. She was relaxed. She could

think again.

   Right now she was trying to think like Lori. Not because she was going to

cause her any problems. Quite the opposite.

   It was amasing what a pack of cigarettes would do for you.

   There’d never been a relapse remotely like this. One or two cigarettes snuck

at home at three am- and she’d smoked at dinner with her sister when she’d

gone back to Fairfax recently. Mostly because Diana had mocked her for

quitting, and turning her antiism into her religion.

   That was six months ago, the last relapse. Diana was astute- hell, she was a

psychologist, after all. She’d told her sister in plain english that the

whole religion thing was a sham, that antiism was her god, that she’d jumped

on it the same way she’d worked so hard to eradicate her accent once she

moved up north. That somehow, the contrariness which had always been part and

parcel to her personality had gotten out of control. That she was hiding

from-

   She’d said a lot of other things as well, on issues ranging from sexuality

to anal retentiveness in the extreme, but the bottom line was she was right.

For seven years she’d been clinging to a whole mess of things which had

nothing to do with who she was.

   Like not smoking.

   Kelly wasn’t really sure how you came to such a digital decision as this,

how you tossed seven years of your life and everything that you’d become into

the trash.

   Not until she looked in the mirror. It was a little vain to say that she

looked twenty. She knew that. She looked- well, she looked twenty-three, as

though she’d gone back to the moment she’d quit smoking.

   That was how she’d felt. Digital was the only word for it. The switch had

been flipped off. Whatever it was that had been wrong with her was gone.

Maybe she’d take a week later this summer and let Diana get her some comp

sessions with a colleague. She had a feeling she needed to know why this had

happened. But that could come later. Right now it was time to unravel this

fine mess she’d gotten herself into, and Lori might be able to help her.

   She knew where she’d be. Out with Maureen. They might have come up here to

relax, but it was a Saturday night. They’d be out- Lori with her fake ID-  

   Kelly found herself admiring the girl for that. The person who’d gone

running off to the manager in the Shop ‘n Save yesterday was dead and she was

about to be buried.

   Or cremated.

   It was after eleven, so she knocked on the door and Veronica answered. The

girl looked at Kelly with some confusion on her face.

   “I wonder if I could get a few more quarters,” Kelly said.

   Veronica face transformed from confusion to a metal-crusted but highly

attractive smile. Kelly was shocked to see that the girl was chewing gum.

   “I didn’t recognise you at all.”

   “It’s not really my business, but should you be chewing gum with those

braces ?”

   Kelly was pleased to hear her southern drawl escaping from its lockbox and

returning to her voice, softening it.

   “I already smoked that whole pack, and to be honest, my-” she hesitated, but

for some reason she couldn’t explain, Veronica trusted this woman. “-my

semi-ex girlfriend wants me to quit. She wants to quit, too.”

   Grabbing her hand, Kelly started pulling her in the general direction of the

cigarette machine.

   “Trust me. I’ve seen you smoke. If your semi-ex doesn’t appreciate watching

you smoke, you should find yourself someone who does.”

   As Veronica let herself be led by the hand to the machine, both she and

Kelly felt something almost electric in the contact between them. She filed

that away for later analysis. It was certainly nothing, but-

   Veronica filled the slot with quarters and soon each of them were smoking

again, Kelly using the complementary matches from her room. On the way into

town, she’d stop and buy herself a real lighter.

   “Tell me, if I wanted to go out and grab a beer, where would I go ?”

   Veronica smiled again. It was a very pleasant smile.

   “Straight, gay, biker, or upscale ?”

   “There are four bars in town ?”

   “During tourist season. The upscale bar closes in September and the biker

bar does lousy business in the winter. I’m pegging you for the- upscale bar.”

   Kelly noticed the hitch. “Yeah. I’m looking for someone I know who’s in

town. Friends from back home.”

   “That’d be the Pollyanna. Did you mean what you said ?” Veronica asked,

sounding as lonely as a seventeen year old kid pulling all-night motel duty

should.

   “Yeah. Of course. You should always be with someone who appreciates who you

are.”

   Which didn’t explain why she trapped herself inside what she now thought of

as the Thorton Shell for seven years.

   As she drove out of the parking lot she decided that mental health was

indeed something wonderful.

   “You’re spoiling me,” Lori said. “Out drinking two nights in a row.”

   “Why do you think I moved four blocks from home as soon as I started college

? I didn’t want Mom and Dad copping an attitude about me flashing fake ID at

the Hammer, even if the place would go out of business without the 18-21 fake

ID crowd.”

   “Mom and Dad wouldn’t do that,” Lori said.

   “I know that now, but I didn’t then. Remember, I was there parenting experime

nt. You got the finished product.”

   Alicia sat back and watched the two sisters interact. She was having a good

time. And not that it really mattered, but they seemed to have accepted that

she was actually twenty-one, which made it easier to relax. The waitress

brought a second pitcher and Alicia paused in the act of lighting her

cigarette to pay for it.   

   “Take a look over there,” Lori said, pointing towards the bar proper.

   “Ohmigod,” Alicia said. “Men and women. Drinking. Smoking. Relaxing. What

would your Ms. Thorton say ?”

   Since the comment was in fun, Alicia hardly expected the reaction Lori had.

   “That is  Ms. Thorton.”

   Maureen took a closer look, leaned over to Alicia, and in a loud

conspiratorial whisper said “Time to cut her off. These kids who can’t hold

their alcohol-“

   Alicia smiled. Especially since she was the youngest at the table.

   “I mean it, Mo-“

   “Well, I only see three problems with that, Lo. First, that women is

twenty-five, tops. Second, Ms. Thorton is back home plotting to eradicate all

the pleasure nerves in the human brain. Third, that woman is smoking.”

   “Dammit, that’s Ms. Thorton. I’m going over there-“

   Part of Maureen was worried that maybe letting her little sister drink was

 a bad idea, although it wasn’t as though they were drinking grain alcohol.

But she decided to let Lori make a fool out of herself. It would be a good

learning experience about beer goggles. Better something like this than she

end up bringing Rick Lake home one night thinking he was Brad Pitt.

   Lori lit a cigarette, picked up her beer, and strolled over to the bar. Just

as she got over there the man sitting to the mystery woman’s left got up,

threw a twenty down on the bar, and walked off.

   She sat down next to Kelly, who was looking across the way at the throng on

the tiny dance floor.

   When the woman turned her head, Lori suffered a jarring sense of

dislocation. Perhaps Maureen had been right. This woman was so young, and her

green eyes were alive, not like the lumps of dull rage Thorton carried around

in her skull.

   Then she smiled, and for a second Lori was worried that she’d done something

stupid, like-

   No, it was  her.

   “Ms. Thorton ?”

   Kelly lifted her cigarette to her mouth, inhaled strongly, and enjoyed a

long nose exhale.

   “Hello, Lori.”

   “Ms. Thorton ?”

   “Call me Kelly.”

   Before she could stop herself, Lori said “You have a first name ?”

   It was unforgivably cruel, but the four women would laugh about it later, as

would Nathaniel.

   “Yes. And a personality. Although I seemed to have lost track of that for

the better part of a decade.”

   Suddenly Lori remembered the cigarette down by her waist. She’d learned how

to hold it so that it would be safe- and attractive as well. Her gut reaction

was to toss it on the floor, but then Kelly took another pull on her own, and

emboldened, Lori followed suit.

   “I thought those cigarettes were for your sister-” Kelly said, but her voice

was mild. Even pleasant. And she had a decidedly southern drawl.

   Fear crept up Lori’s spine. This was like something out of Tales from the

Crypt.

   “They were. She finally converted me to the cause last night- look, I hate

to be rude, and I know you’re still like almost my teacher, but what the hell

are you doing here, and what happened to you ?”

   “Well, I’m here for a lot of reasons. I- I can see you’re a little afraid of

me right now, and hell, I don’t blame you. All I can say is that I wanted to

apologise for giving you an hard time yesterday. That was so stupid.”

   Although there was no way she could, Lori felt as if she might just

understand. “I didn’t understand until last night why Maureen smoked. And

judging from the way you look, you’ve had some kind of epiphany as well.”

   “There’s a word you don’t get to use every day. Yeah. I feel ten years

younger.”

   “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look fifteen years younger. I

thought you were- well, if I had to guess, I’d say that you drove for four

hours to hunt me down for underage smoking-“

   Kelly raised her eyebrows. “I did.”

   Lori started to get up, but Kelly very gently touched her arm, getting her

to stay.

   The two women smoked in silence for a moment.

   “I- all I can say is that from the time I came to the school I was on this

stupid kick, and, well, now I’ve come out the other side.”

   “You followed me here,” Lori said, her voice a little hostile.

   “Yeah, I did. Or- don’t think I’m crazy, but a person wearing my skin

followed you here.”

   “And who’s wearing your skin now ? And why does it look so much better ?”

   It was a rude question, but Lori didn’t care. Until she saw the hurt in

Kelly’s eyes.

   “The original article. I feel like I did the day I quit smoking.” She looked

at her cigarette. “I really like this Marlboro Lights. I used to smoke

Parliaments, but-“

   “Well, if you like Marlboro Lights and beer, why don’t you come over and sit

down with us-“

   “You’d ask me-“

   “Oh, just to make Maureen eat crow, I would. But- I hate to insult you

again, but you seem, like really cool now-“

   “I’ve been an ass for a long time, haven’t I ?”

   Lori found herself slipping her arm around Kelly. “It’s okay. I was an ass

for the whole last year. Maureen’s been wanting me to start smoking and I

kept saying no.”

   “I hope I didn’t-“

   Lori laughed. “Actually, you went a long way yesterday towards helping me

decide to start again.”

   “And in a strange way, you’re the reason I started again.”

   The two women laughed. It was the beginning of a great week….

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