Under Her Wing continues events from the Cameo

   Sarah had never expected Debbie to apply for the Young Writer’s Camp, which

made it less of a surprise that she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself in the

least- although they were just rounding out the first day.

   Of the six girls entering their junior years at Hasek High only Debbie

seemed out of place. Looking at that long face for two weeks was not going to

be an happy task. And it was not what Elisa had intented when she’d set up

the scholarship last summer, right after resigning to work full time on her

writing career.

   Sarah had picked the Wild Shadows Inn after calling one of those numbers

Elisa always seemed able to provide. With Stanwick’s dorms closed for

renovation this summer, every B and B in this part of southern Vermont was

booked solid for the two week session. They had almost the whole place to

themselves – four of the inn’s five rooms- and so far the occupant of the

attic loft hadn’t made an appearance.

   With the exception of Debbie, all of the girls were sitting at the long

dinner table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

   Helen and Marta were smoking Virginia Slims from a single pack, openly

holding hands. The uninformed viewer might have mistaken them for sisters.

They had the same long, curly, shock-black hair, vivid rosy skin colour, and

high cheek bones. They even smoked with the same frenetic energy. The

cigarettes were never out of motion, never held still longer than the space

of an inhale. They clearly patterned their exhales for dual enjoyment.

   Susan sat at the other end of the table, managing to look surly and put off

even though she was smiling faintly at some joke Brenda had just made. She

was smoking a Marlboro 100 she’d just pulled from the box with black-nailed

fingers, attacking it with her mouth at regular intervals as though she might

be enjoying sucking its life away. Her hair was a dull blonde colour, faded

from the sun, and it hung limply over skin that was as pale as that of a

vampire. Only her lips had any colour at all, a deep red that came away on

the tip of the cigarette like dried blood.

   Nevertheless, everyone at the table would have readily admitted she was far

and away the most attractive of the bunch.

   If Helen and Marta were twinish, Brenda and Susan were polar opposites.

Brenda’s hair was naturally blonde but she’d dyed it with henna recently,

giving it a deep red luster. It was tossed and teased, like the smile which

never quite left her face. Where Susan was gaunt, almost skeletal on profile,

Brenda had a pleasant fullness to her face. She was slowly working a Marlboro

Lights 100, each inhale a study in patient pleasure, each exhale unique.

   Susan was vaguely tolerating another joke from Brenda, a sure sign of deep

friendship.

   Pricillia- they all called her Prissy, even to her face- was reading notes

from today’s lecture. Her blondish hair was pulled back into a pony tail that

complimented her black wire-framed glasses perfectly. Sitting there with a

sheaf of papers in one hand and a Saratoga 120 in the other, she looked more

like a college student that a would be junior at Hasek.

   Sarah lit her own cigarette and settled back into her chair to sip coffee.

Even now, ten years later, her mother’s wisdom still held. There was nothing

to compare with a cup of strong coffee and a cigarette. One inhale and one

mouthful of coffee was all it took to bring back memories- from high school,

from college, a random collage of past events all sharing the same tastes and

aromas. There was something pleasant about the way they washed over her,

opening a window on relaxation. After a five hour drive and half a day’s

classes, it was nice to revert to the simple pleasures.

   She lifted her head to exhale away from Debbie, seated to her right, and

blew a thick cloud of sweet smoke directly into the face of Mrs. Tremblay,

who referred to herself as ‘the innkeeper.’

   Tremblay didn’t seem to mind.

   “Was everything all right with dinner ?”

   Better than all right, Sarah thought. If they ate like this for two weeks

the van they’d driven up in wouldn’t be big enough for all of them when it

was time to leave.

   “Of course, Mrs. Tremblay.”

   Tremblay seemed nice, but Sarah’s initial impression of her was that she was

like a nosy aunt, not unwelcome yet capable of being bothersome.

   “One of the plates came back into the kitchen half-full.”

   Debbie turned her head away, taking a sudden interest in a Revolutionary War

mural over the fireplace. Cornwallis surrendering, Sarah thought.

   “I’m sure it had seconds on it,” Sarah lied gracefully.

   ” ‘Kay then.”

   “Tell me, has the other guest arrived ?” Sarah asked.

   “Nope. But he’s going to be one happy man, if you don’t mind me saying.”

   Tremblay struck Sarah as being sort of ‘salt of the earth.’ The wicked smile

the woman followed up her statement with reinforced the image. Not knowing

what to say, Sarah merely nodded her head.

   “Well, if you people are done, I’ll be heading upstairs. There’s a Bogart

Festival on Channel 3 and Gretchen will clear off the table when you get

done. If you need extra towels or anything, ask Gretchen for ’em. If you’re

going to be out past midnight, take one of the keys hanging next to the door.

It locks automatically.”

   Ken’s ass was sore as hell. He’d been sitting here in the car for two hours

now, parked four blocks away from the Wild Shadows, trying to work up the

nerve-

   So she killed somebody ? What difference did that make ?

   Besides, she hadn’t actually killed him. It had been an accident.

   But that Brendan fellow had died because somehow or other, she had known.

And now he was going to sleep under one of their   roofs with 8 of them  ? It

was just a little bit crazy. Why hadn’t they just gotten him a room in

another B & B close by ?

   Ken’s bladder, obviously in collusion with his ass, sent a fresh shockwave

of selfish pain threading through his bowels.

   It was ridiculous to be sitting here in a car, four blocks from his room,

his bladder a water balloon ready to burst, his backside feeling as though it

had been used to test sandpaper. It was especially silly when, after two long

and painful hours, Ken finally admitted to the truth to himself.

   He wasn’t afraid of Sarah in the least. She was hardly even a part of the

group.

   Elisa Hooper was the person he was worried about.

   And she was hundreds of miles away.

   And oh yes, he did had a gun.

   Of course, Brendan had been carrying a gun. It hadn’t helped him negotiate

that guard rail any better, had it ?

   Ken fell back on the breathing exercises. If there was one thing about your

training that was never overlooked, it was learning how to relax. After all,

smokers had a natural mechanism for relaxation. Calm was just the spinning of

a lighter wheel away. His people didn’t have it so easy. Biofeedback, mental

exercises, breathing routines. More complicated than lighting a cigarette,

more sterile, but the end results were the same.

   Finally, he accepted that it would be easier to observe them from the Inn

than the inside of his car. He decided to leave it here for tonight, though.

Just in case things went south in a hurry. Getting out of the car and

actually standing up on the sidewalk was largely an exercise in mind over

matter. Ken began stomping his feet on the pavement to exorcise the pins and

needles.

   Finally, he thought he might be ready to take that four block walk.

   Just as Sarah was wondering if homesickness was Debbie’s problem, the girl

looked at her and said “I think I’m going to take a walk, Ms.-“

   Sarah cut her off. “While we’re here, Deb, just call me Sarah, okay ? How

would you like some company ?”

   That it took Debbie almost two full seconds to say yes was only a small blow

to Sarah’s ego. All of the girls seemed to really like her- as a teacher-

even Susan, who went so far as to not make a show out of disliking her.

   They stood up and started walking away from the table when Debbie stopped

and said “Don’t forget your cigarettes.”

   It was a perfect summer night. There was no moon and the stars in the

Vermont sky were so vivid that Sarah imagined that she could spend the rest

of her life counting them.

   Ranford was exactly what one would expect from a small Vermont town. It was

a little after nine and the streets were almost bare. Lights burned in just

about every home and the only car moving on the street was a sheriff’s

cruiser.  They didn’t talk right away. Sarah left a trail of smoke in her

wake, careful to keep her exhales away from Debbie.

   Finally, just after she finished her cigarette, Sarah decided Debbie was

never going to get this started on her own.

   She felt a little displaced, like a camp counsellor ready to give the

 obligatory ‘Honest, this is going to be fun’ speech.

   “You know, when I first went away to college-” she started.

   Debbie stopped and looked at Sarah for the first time. “You weren’t thinking

I was homesick, were you ?”

   Sarah smiled. “Yeah, actually. You look more distraught than Susan, and

she’s had years of practise.”

   “Why did you start smoking, Ms.- Sarah ?”

   “Is that what this is about ?”

   Debbie nodded her head and turned away sheepishly. “Yeah,” she said,

sounding embarrassed.

   It was going to be hard to answer that question, Sarah realised. There were

a number of things she didn’t think it would help either of them to share.

The cold metal back of the cameo suddenly became perceptible against her

skin, a presage to thought.

   “Does it bother you that we all smoke, Deb ?”

   The girl laughed faintly. “No. Not at all. I mean, we’ve all been friends

since, well, forever. It’s no coincidence that all six of us applied for

scholarships to the seminar. I don’t know. I think-“

   Seeing as Debbie was not bothered by her smoking, Sarah lit another

cigarette, enjoying a long, seamless inhale that sent a wash of gentle

pleasure throughout her body. Her nose exhale was self-absorbedly perfect-

until she saw something out of the corner of her eye.

   “Are you- thinking about starting ?” Sarah asked. “Because I have to be

honest. I think a person should have their own reasons for starting to smoke.

And I’m not sure as your teacher that it’s my place-“

   Again, she thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye. Probably

a dog, she told herself, although it would have had to be a pretty damn big

one.

   “I know,” Debbie said. “It’s just that I’m curious, and well, I don’t know.

The rest of them all smoke. Not one of them has any problems with their

parents about it. And I don’t think I would, either. Mom’s always smoked. I

know she expects me to start- soon.”

   “But-“

   “That’s the thing. I know there’s a but, only I can’t figure out what it

is.”

   “Give it time, Debbie. In the meantime, try to enjoy the next two weeks. You

really have a lot of talent as a writer. I think you can get an awful lot out

of this seminar. That should be your focus.”

   “You mean, like Prissy ?”

   Sarah laughed. “No. I said focussed. Not obsessed.”

   Looking at Debbie, Sarah could see that she’d relaxed some. There was a more

natural cast to her stance and she’d stopped picking at the cuticles of her

fingers with her off hand. Maybe she actually had come up with some good,

simple advice. They turned around and retraced their steps, Sarah hardly

realising how intently Debbie was watching her smoke because she couldn’t

shake the feeling that they were being followed. Which was patently absurd.

There was an itch at the back of her neck, right up under the cameo’s chain.

   She scratched at it, but it wouldn’t go away.

 Debbie was sitting on the small balcony outside the room she was sharing

with Prissy. It was a perfect summer night, the light warm breeze

complimenting the heavy, moist air. She was sweating slightly but it felt

good. There was something relaxing about this place.

   She watched Ken strolling up the sidewalk towards the Inn. He was carrying

two pieces of soft luggage and a Powerbook case.

   The calm night air seemed to be having an opposite effect on him. He looked

vaguely nervous, even out of place.

   She remembered Ms. Tremblay’s comments and wondered if he would really

consider himself lucky.

   He disappeared up the steps and Debbie began thinking about her conversation

with Sarah again. She was right. You had to have your own reasons for

starting to smoke. It wasn’t something you did because it was expected or

because all your friends were doing it. So she began thinking about it.

   The mental imagery was- well, she found it vaguely exciting. She broke it

down into its individual steps. She imagined a brand new box of Marlboro

Lights 100s. The perfect symmetry of the box felt good in her hands. The

cellophane was slick but it came off easily. Cracking back the top of the box

and carefully unfolding the foil revealed the faint sweet smell of fresh

tobacco. Reaching in with thumb and forefinger she pulled a single cigarette

away from the rest. Like the box, its lines were pleasing.

   It felt right in her hands. Behind closed eyelids she saw herself

positioning the cigarette between the first and second fingers of her left

hand. In the right she held a black lighter.

   Debbie brought the cigarette to her lips, catching the very end of the tip

between them. She spun the wheel on the lighter tentatively and it didn’t

catch. There was just a faint hiss and a click.

   Relaxing inside relaxation, Debbie thumbed the lighter again. This time it

caught, the flame searing the end of the cigarette, which began to burn. She

was able to inhale deeply, feeling the smoke slide over her tongue and down

into her lungs, where it blossomed warmly. For the first time in her life she

felt calmness as a physical sensation which flowed through her, reaching

fingers and toes.

   Pursing her lips into a small ‘o’, she exhaled. Smoke streamed from her

mouth, a milky stream which quickly broke in the light breeze, surrounding

her in a hazy cloud that had its own unique pleasing scent. The excitement

heightened, a warm, lightheaded feeling.

   She smoked the entire cigarette, experimenting with different techniques for

inhaling and exhaling, and when she was done she wrote a short note and

slipped it under Sarah’s door. When she came back, Prissy was already in bed,

half-asleep, so Debbie went back out on the balcony to ‘practise’ some more.

   It was very hard, walking into the Wild Shadows. Although Ken had certainly

felt better after actually seeing Sarah. She was so-

   Well, average wasn’t exactly the right word. She was too attractive for

that- even seen in the pinkish arc-sodium half-light.       But she was just

ordinary enough that most of his fear had dissipated by the time he walked

through the front door. It was late. He knew he’d missed dinner. The smells

of coffee and cigarette smoke had washed away the odors of that last meal.

   He walked in quietly, working on not trying to observe anything in

particular. He knew, after all, they were here. And that they weren’t going

anywhere in the near future. No sense giving one’s self away unnecessarily.

   The first room off the entry hall had been transformed from a sun room into

a small office. He walked in, noticing with a certain distaste that the

otherwise gorgeous redhead behind the desk was smoking a Marlboro Lights 100.

Her name was Gretchen Long. She was a nineteen year old college student at

UVM who was doing a summer apprenticeship on Ranford’s town history.

   If not for the cigarette she was holding in her right hand, Ken might have

been tempted to flirt with her. She looked up from the dusty old tome she was

studying and exhaled a dense cloud of rich, cloying smoke. It ballooned out

into the room like fog and he hesitated at the threshold until it began to

dissipate.

   “Are you Ken by any chance ?” she asked. Her voice was perfect- friendly,

even inviting, almost musical.

   Her smile was infuriating.

   How could anyone who was a smoker have such a wonderful smile ?

   “By some chance I am. I’m sorry to be checking in so late-“

   Gretchen paused to inhale. She did it entirely unselfconsciously,

comfortable in her habit. When she spoke, abbreviated wisps of smoke escaped

her mouth with each syllable. “It’s not an hotel, Ken. We hang the keys by

the door. You don’t need one unless you’re planning to be out past midnight-

which is fine by us-“

   She finished the exhale, turning her head to the side for his benefit.   

   Ken admitted to himself that she was even striking in profile.

   Then she leaned forward, holding the cigarette out behind her with her wrist

bent jauntily. “-not that there’s anything to do in Ranford after midnight.”

   He wasn’t sure whether the smile on his face was forced or had come easily.

He wanted to think that it was forced.

   “That’s fine. I came here to relax, to get some work done.”

   Gretchen’s smile was certainly not of the forced variety. “What do you do ?”

    “I-” Here it was. The chance to truck out the half-truth and see how it

played. “I write grant proposals.”

   “For what university ?” Gretchen asked, inhaling again one the half-smoked

cigarette. Her green eyes were so bright, her face so smooth-

   Ken decided he was just going to refuse to go there. Next he would start

thinking that she was the sort who could easily be persuaded to quit- as if

Martha Tremblay would ever hire someone like that- and….

   No, Ken had been down that road.

   “I’m a freelancer. I write grants for anywhere between sixty and eighty

clients a year. Educational institutions, hospitals, major corporations.”

   “You should give me your card. I think I’m going to need a major grant just

to get through college.”

   He laughed. She smiled. Then she put her cigarette to her lips again- full,

pouty lips- and inhaled deeply.

   “Who’s grant are your working on right now ?”

   “I can’t say. Client confidentiality and all that.”

   Ken took the pen Gretchen offered with her free hand and signed his name in

the guest book. When he was done, she handed him the key to his room, still

smiling. “Don’t lose that. There’s a five dollar charge.”

   “I’ll try not to-” he replied. “Five dollars- just might break me, you

know.” They laughed again and Ken felt a sudden need to get away.

   Her smile really was maddening.

   Sarah looked at the note and smiled. It was time to get in the shower- and

hope the Inn had a big hot water heater. She decided to wait a few more

minutes and lit a cigarette to pass the time.

   Thinking about Debbie brought back memories. Of that first morning after her

mother had caught her smoking in the house. They were wonderful, scary

memories. The thought of the cameo almost washing down the drain….

   Her simple request read ‘Please buy me a pack of Marlboro Lights 100s.

Debbie.’ She’d slipped three dollars inside the note, which was written on

creamy ‘From Vermont’s Finest Bed and Breakfast’ stationery.

   Sarah took a deep inhale and opened the door to her room just as Debbie

walked into the hallway.

   “Box or soft-pack ?” Sarah asked casually.

   “Box,” Debbie said, and Sarah heard the nervousness in her voice. Of all

that had happened because of the cameo, the only thing Sarah regretted was

never knowing that delicious nervousness.

   Ken waited in his room until everyone else had left the Inn, feigning

sleeping late. By the time he got into the shower the water was luke warm at

best.   

   He wandered downstairs. While he really did a grant proposal to write, but

it would hardly take two weeks to do it. For the next few days he was on his

own, planning just to relax. Hopefully by dinner tonight he’d be ready to

start insinuating himself into the little group. Maybe by then, someone would

get around to telling him exactly why he was here.

   Gretchen was the only one left in the Inn.

   “Hey, sleepyhead,” she said as he made the landing of the stairs. She was

carrying two cups of coffee to the table. She set one down at the head of the

table and one by a heaping plate of steaming eggs.

   The thought of overdue breakfast was impossible to resist.

   She sat down and immediately lit a long white cigarette. She inhaled deeply,

her round cheeks hollowing out, and she held the smoke a long time before

executing a stylish nose exhale. Ken gulped half his coffee and dug into the

eggs, reminding himself how repulsive the smell of tobacco smoke was. As well

as the fact that Gretchen was nine years younger than he was.

   “You don’t mind if I smoke, do you ?” Gretchen asked, her voice almost

musical.

   “No, of course not,” he half-lied.

   “So, what does a grant writer do with his first day in Vermont ?” she asked,

leaning forward as inhaled again, resting her chin on her free hand. her eyes

were so bright, so young-

   “Relax,” he said, taking a renewed interest in his breakfast. Anywhere but

her eyes was a safe place to look. “I think I’ll spend the morning finding out

 what Ranford has to offer.”

   “Do you want a tour guide ?” she asked, her voice a bright noise.

   He thought no.

   He said yes.

 Debbie walked out into the midday sun, glad for the break. It was such a

perfect summer day, the sort that made her think back on being a very young

child of no more than five or six.

   At that time, summer meant swimming in the backyard pool, laying in the sun

and riding bicycles. And sweating, like she was now.

   But this time it was from nervousness. There was an half hour break between

seminars and most of the attendees were outside.

   It was unbelievable. Debbie had never seen so many high school students

smoking at one time. Just watching all of them was making her anxious. Not

only her friends, all of whom were of course taking the opportunity to light

up, but just about everyone at the morning session she’d been in.

   Her attention- too much of it, she had a feeling- had been taking by a tall,

lanky boy sitting in her row. According to the tag plastered to his Albany

River Rats t-shirt, his name was Kirk and he was a junior at Berlin High

School. He was currently roaming the grass in front of the Haskins English

Building, looking a little lost and lonely.

   His eyes were planted squarely on the ground, his head pivoting side to side

as though he’d lost something valuable.

   Debbie’s nervousness became a live thing as he wandered directly towards

her.

   It wasn’t until too late that she realised he was going to blunder right

into her.

   Kirk didn’t look up in time. He barged into Debbie, knocking her flat  as he

reached out to catch her, his hand closing only on thin air.

   “Jesus, I’m sorry,” Kirk stammered, bending down to help Debbie up.

   “Were you looking for something ?” Debbie asked, somehow not the least bit

angry about the fall.

   “Yeah,” Kirk said, smiling. “I dropped my lighter this morning out here

before the seminar started.”

   “You can borrow mine,” Debbie said, realising that admitting she had a

lighter was a step away from admitting she was a smoker.

   Not that she was, not yet anyway.

   She managed to dig the lighter out of her backpack after struggling with the

zipper for what seemed like forever. While he waited, Kirk extracted a

Marlboro 100 from his pack. He put the cigarette between his lips and cupped

his hands around hers. The touch of skin on skin made Debbie that much more

nervous but she somehow managed to get the lighter- black as she’d imagined

it- to catch the first time. Kirk sucked hungrily on the cigarette.

   As he exhaled, he asked if she was going to join him.

   “Of course,” she said, realising the moment of truth was here.

   Finding the pack of cigarettes was easier than finding the lighter had been.

She’d already removed the cellophane, stripping it away as soon as Sarah had

given them to her, just to ensure herself that she would be starting today.

   Excitement replaced nervousness. Debbie pulled a single cigarette from the

pack, held it to her lips with a miraculously not shaking left hand, and

closed her eyes as she flicked the lighter.

   It caught the first time, proving that even imaginary practise helped.

   She opened her eyes as she inhaled. Kirk was watching her with the obvious

appreciation of a fellow smoker. Debbie expected that appreciation would fade

as she coughed and gagged, certain that this real time version of her little

fantasy would never be so easy. But the smoke simply slid down her throat and

filled her lungs, bringing with it the barest tinge of-

   Euphoria was the word she would have used had she been writing about it.

   “That first one from the pack is always the best,” Kirk said

matter-of-factly.

   Debbie exhaled, pursing her lips and unconsciously imitating Prissy’s style.

   She let her hand drop, amazed at how weightless the cigarette seemed. As she

turned her wrist upwards reflexively, the cigarette squirted from between her

fingers and the relief at how easy this was going to be faded. She looked

down at the grass, sure the cigarette would go out, that she would be exposed

as a poser to Kirk, whose warm smile would certainly dim.

   But it didn’t go out.

   Kirk reached down. He was so tall that it seemed impossible that his hand

would ever stretch all the way to the ground, but it did. He picked up the

cigarette, holding it between thumb and forefinger, burning end above his

wrist and facing towards him. He reached out slowly and she opened her lips.

He placed the end of the cigarette between her lips and she closed them

around it, letting them brush his fingers. She then pulled her lips down on

the cigarette and inhaled again, amazed when the cigarette didn’t pop out of

her mouth.

   Again, the smoke slid easily down, bring that same rush she’d felt the first

time. The smoke trailing up from the end did sting her eyes vaguely, but

other than that the experience was perfect. This time she removed the

cigarette from her lips holding it a bit more carefully. Again she dropped

her hand down past her waist, wrist arched, and avoided losing her grip.

   “Thanks,” she said, exhaling as she spoke.

   “Good thing that the grass isn’t flammable,” he said jokingly.

   Debbie was so busy being shocked by how easily smoking had come to her that

when Kirk asked if she wanted to have dinner at the pizza place two blocks

from the Inn, she said yes before she even had a chance to think about it.

   Gretchen was quite the tour guide, it turned out.

   It was only about two, but Ken was already exhausted. They’d gone hiking,

rented mountain bikes and ridden down to Shadow Lake and back, and toured the

small shopping district on foot. It turned out that his guide was in

remarkable shape for a girl who’d been smoking since she was fourteen- the

truth was that Ken had gotten rather out of shape himself sitting hunched

over a laptop ten hours a day and the workout was long overdue. Still, he

wasn’t sure how a woman could smoke the way Gretchen did and still ride that

way.

   She was still nineteen and he wasn’t- and she was still a smoker and he

wasn’t- but Ken was starting to-

   Wish they’d sent him somewhere- hell, anywhere- other than Ranford, Vermont.

   They were standing outside the same pizza shop Debbie had agreed to a date

at.

   “Are you sure pizza is okay ?” Gretchen asked.

   Ken nodded. Right now his mouth was so dry and his stomach so empty that any

type of food and a beer to wash it down would be welcomed.

   The place was a little on the fancy side, but this was all going on the

expense account, so Ken didn’t really care. Still, he wondered what the tab

was going to be when the lunch seating wasn’t serve yourself.

   “Smoking, Gretchen ?” the waiter asked, smiling. Ken found himself absurdly

jealous of both the smile and the implied familiarity.

   She looked at Ken with puppy eyes that begged please.

   “Sure,” he said, and they were lead to the very back of the restaurant. It

was dark-

   Romantic, Ken thought sourly. Sting was warbling mutedly in the background

about a lost love and a lost road. There were flickering candles on the table

and as they sat down Gretchen lit her cigarette from one of them.

   He watched her inhale deeply, studied the way her chest heaved slightly as

she satisfied her nicotine craving and-

   Ken felt an unmistakable stirring south of the border and knew immediately

that he was in trouble.

   Deep, dark, end of a career type trouble.

   “Is something wrong, Ken ?” Gretchen asked, her voice indicating real

concern.

   He tried to smile. His eyes were up to it but not the corners of his mouth.

   “I was just thinking about work,” he said, not quite lying.

   She reached out with her free hand even as inhaled again on the long, white

cigarette. Inhaled sensuously as she patted his hand, making that faint

stirring a live thing. Her skin was warm and moist and electric.

   She spoke as she exhaled, sublime clouds of white smoke that drifted across

the table, not smelling the least bit odious.

   “I don’t want to hear another word about work the rest of the day ?”

   “We’re not done ?” he forced himself to say.

   She imitated a pout. Brought the cigarette, held below the table, back to

her lips and inhaled again, creating a furious disturbance in his underwear.

Again the chest heaved.

   “Only if you’re not having a good time.”

   There were lies that could not be told.

   I’ll be fine, Ken told himself. I just need loser jeans.

   “I’m yours,” he answered.

Sarah sat at the end of the table and watched Debbie with no small amount of

fascination.

   Just this morning she’d handed the girl her first pack of cigarettes.

Watching her now that just didn’t seem possible. She smoked with the avid

zeal of a long-time smoker, inhaling deeply but without effort, carrying on

everyday conversation and looking almost totally uninhibited.

   She seemed to be struggling a little with exactly how to hold but that was

certainly to be expected.

   Still, Sarah was certainly curious.

   When Debbie, looking more than a little embarrassed, announced to everyone

that she had a date, Sarah stood up and walked slowly over to the door. She

took one of the keys down from the peg and waited for her charge to make her

way to the exit.

   “What’s up, Sarah ?” Debbie asked, the glow of embarrassment still fresh on

her face.

   Sarah handed over the key. “Why don’t you take this with you- just in case.”

   The girl hesitated before accepting the key. “I’m only going out for pizza.”

   “I was your age once, Debbie.”

   Sarah opened the front door and the pair stepped out onto the porch, out

into yet another perfect Vermont summer night. There was something about this

place- the word idyllic seemed to match it well. It was easy to relax here.

Perhaps too easy. Sarah remembered a line from Elisa’s latest novel.

Simplicity is a lie.

   “Tell me something, Debbie-“

   The girl had paused to light a cigarette and Sarah noticed the pack was half

gone.

   Smoke trailed from Debbie’s mouth, a slow, sensuous exhale that would, if

Sarah guessed correctly, drive her ‘date’ wild. “Sure.”

   “How did- well, I would never guess that you had just started smoking

today…”

   In the distance a cat howled, followed sharply by the harsh repetitive

barking of small dog. The sounds of strife cut an edge of normality into the

place. There was the unmistakable bustle of an animal breaking through bushes

a few houses down and then the panicked cat slashed through moonlight down on

the sidewalk, followed hard by the dog, who ran a few metres past only to

stop suddenly and begin scratching at its neck, digging under its collar

where fleas had probably taken up temporary housing.

   The dog followed Sarah’s stare, met her eyes briefly, and then went back to

work ridding itself of its unwanted guests.

   “You’re going to think that this is silly,” Debbie said, her smile making an

uncomfortable fit to her face.

   “Try me,” Sarah replied.

   “Mental imagery. When I asked you about it last night I didn’t tell you the

truth. That I’ve been thinking about starting for a long time. Almost a year.

Sometimes I- I used to imagine what it would be like. You know, close my eyes

and relax and just think my way through the whole process. I’ve really been

wanting to do it.”

   “Why ?” Sarah asked, not at all sure why she needed to know.

   The girl’s discomfort seemed to grow. She took a hasty pull on the

cigarette, as if hoping it would provide relief. Her feet squirmed over one

another and her exhale was sudden, brief, and explosive in nature. But still

worth watching.

   “Because of you.”     

   “What ?” Sarah asked, confused. Until yesterday, they’d never once talked

about smoking. The response seemed almost bizarre.

   “Well-” Debbie paused, inhaled again, her lips tightening down on the

cigarette. There was no sound to the inhale except the sharper burning at the

tip. She held it a long time and finished with a nose exhale, split into two

distinct, uneven phases. Smoke swirled around then, that pleasant smell that

Sarah still enjoyed almost as much as smoking itself.

   It was enough to make her fish her own pack out of her skirt pocket and

quickly light up while Debbie was composing her answer.

   “Well, a lot of people I know smoke. But watching you do it is different

somehow. You seem to get something out of it most people don’t.”

   “I wasn’t aware that you really ever saw me smoke, Debbie.”

   Both women paused for patient deep inhales. Their exhales mingled in the air

between them, two women smoking together who felt no need to turn their heads

away from one another to obey polite conventions or political correctness.

   “Sometimes I’d walk down to the lounge with Prissy. You probably never

noticed. I’d stand outside the door, pretending to tie my shoes or hunt

through my backpack for something. And watch you. I can’t explain why. But

the way you smoke is different. I mean, I’ve always watched my mom smoke and

there’s something mechanical about it, like she only half-notices what she’s

doing. But you- this is embarrassing-“

   To which one of us ?  Sarah wondered. She was happy for Debbie that she’d

decided to start smoking, yet she felt vaguely uncomfortable about it. For

several reasons.

   “It’s not-” Debbie paused, took one final spectacular inhale on the

shrinking cigarette before placing it in the sand bucket by her feet, and

spoke as she exhaled, her voice murky behind the plume of smoke.

   She’s definitely going to need that key.

   “It’s not sexual-” she stammered, and then added “-not there is anything

wrong with that-” She paused again and Sarah sighed mentally. When had

society reached a point where even the vaguest mention of alternate sexuality

had to be appended with that Seinfeld line ? Of course there was nothing

wrong with that.

   “-but it is,” Debbie added, surprising her teacher just a little. “Not an

attraction as much as, well, wanting to feel the way you look when you smoke.

Did you know that you- you glow when you smoke ?”

   It was something Sarah had never considered. She knew she was an attractive

smoker, but glowing ?

   She inhaled, holding the smoke in her mouth a moment so that she could taste

it completely before allowing it to slide down her throat. She then inhaled a

noseful of the cool, ultra-clean night air before exhaling in that same slow

way as Debbie had done earlier.

   “You mean like radioactive, glow-in-the dark ?”

   “No, I mean like your face just- you look like- oh god, this is so

 embarrassing…”

   “I think,” Sarah said, deciding to let the girl off the hook for now, “That

I know what you mean. You’re going to be late for your date. Look, sometime

between now and when we leave, I’ll tell you a little story that might

explain that.”

   There was an awkward pause, during which Sarah smoked and Debbie watched.

   Maybe she was right, Sarah thought. Maybe there is something that I’ve

gotten so used to, I can’t see it.

   “I’m glad we talked,” Debbie said, and then she was gone. Sarah made a

mental note to herself to get the girl more cigarettes. At the rate she was

going, she’d need a carton to get through the next twelve days.

   Ken’s nervousness about making his initial appearance at the communal dinner

table was sharply enhanced by the email he’d received just fifteen minutes

earlier. It had been brief, to the point, and utterly surprising. He was not,

it seemed here for anything to do with Sarah or the girls in her charge.

Tremblay- or rather some information Tremblay had stored on her computer- was

the focus of his attention now.

   ‘Do whatever it takes to insinuate yourself,’ the email had read.

   As he sat down Gretchen came into the room, carrying a steaming bowl of fresh

ly mashed potatoes. The smile she flashed him was so electric that he doubted

he needed to do much more to insinuate himself.

   Just as bothersome as the effect that smile had on his anatomy was the

collage of thoughts that seemed to pollute his mind as he sat down.

   Half a day with Gretchen had unlocked an horrifying and utterly unexpected

realisation.

   As he settled into his seat at the foot of the table his mind drifted back

lasily to this afternoon. Gretchen, long white cigarette in her mouth,

leaning over the candle to catch a light. The way her breasts heaved as she

inhaled, the look of joy on her face. The elegance with which she removed the

cigarette from her mouth and swung it under the table for his benefit. The

milky white smoke trailing from her mouth and nose, seductive wisps of some

alien pleasure that he had always assumed was nothing short of disgusting.

   They were all finishing up their last cigarettes before the meal. Helen and

Marta were watching one another smoke, enjoying both the act and the

interaction.

   Prissy, who looked old enough to be Gretchen’s classmate, her smoking as

patiently realised as her constant studying.

   Susan had given up last night’s seat for his benefit and was sitting next to

Sarah, passing up her usual anger to argue- sedately for her- some point

about grammar with her teacher, while Brenda watched bemusedly.

   It would not be an exaggeration to say that Sarah was glowing. What he’d

seen last night he’d passed off as an odd effect of the street lamps, but

there was no question. The cigarette in her hand was an extension of some

internal joy which flooded her face with a sheen that was akin to visible

emotive energy.           

   She was not as attractive as Gretchen-

   Ken forced these thoughts down, fear his last means of defence.

   What am I doing ?

    He knew the answer. It came to him as he sensed his disappointment. That

emotion was brought on by the general extinguishing of all those cigarettes.

Around the table hands went to ashtrays, some of the cigarettes stubbed out

little more than half-smoked. A voice deep down inside him saw this as a

colossal waste, and that voice had a name.

   Trouble. He was neck deep in something that felt vague sickening.

   There would be relief when the meal was over. When all these women- they

were women because girls didn’t smoke- lit there after-meal cigarettes and he

would again be afforded the opportunity to watch.        

   Why had they sent him here now ?

   But he knew the answer to that. Tremblay had something. She was destined to

pass it on to someone who would write about it. Maybe someone at this table.

Or maybe it would pass from Sarah to Elisa.

   Unless he did his job.

   As Gretchen passed by him, brushing unnecessarily- and welcomely- close, the

smell of smoke clinging to her like a second skin, he touched her elbow. She

bent close and her hair, smoky wisps of wavy red, touched his shoulder and

arm, creating a cascade of gooseflesh.

   “Do you have any plans later ?” he asked, feeling very much as though being

alone with her was a lesser evil to sitting in this room and giving himself

over to something so utterly base.

   “Actually I was wondering if you wanted to watch me test out my fake ID,”

she answered, her voice low and sultry, pitched so that only he could hear

it.

   “I couldn’t say no if I wanted to,” he answered with a smile.

 The end of dinner came and went and with it Ken felt his control slip a few

more notches.

   There was, of course, plenty of smoking after dinner. A visual smorgasbord

of pleasure. And Ken found himself unable to do anything more than give into

it. Although his tongue initially felt like a slab of poorly-treated road

kill, he soon found himself having a lively discussion with Brenda about the

merits of the Simpsons.

   “It’s really the some of the most intriguing social satire on TV,” Brenda

was saying, each word carried along on a small cloud of smoke.

   He could hear what she was saying, could in fact draw a suitable response

from that mushy organ formerly referred to as his brain, but what he was

really intent on was the space of time between the last inhale and the next.

Although he was sitting in what would have in the past been a foul cloud of

second-hand smoke he found himself thoroughly enjoying himself.

   Just as Brenda brought the still-long cigarette to her mouth and inhaled

sharply, her cheeks sinking around the bones until they were taunt, Gretchen

came through the swinging door to the kitchen and brushed him with her hand.

   It was with some disappointment that he found that she was not smoking a

cigarette of her own.

   “You ready ?” she asked, and he nodded, not quite sure he was glad that he

was being rescued. He made his excuses to the table and stood up, glad that

he’d thought to wear a long sweater to dinner.

   “Isn’t it a little hot for a cardigan ?” Gretchen asked as they walked

towards the door, which looked very much like an escape hatch to the very

dizzied Ken.

   Gretchen took one of the keys down and then paused. She worked her

cigarettes from her purse and lit one quickly, taking a deep and very

sensuous pull that made the receding bulge behind Ken’s zipper jump

precipitously.

   It was impossible not to laugh at the question.

   Sarah was sitting out on the porch, relaxing. It was a lot of fun being here

at the Young Writer’s Camp- it had in fact, rekindled her own dreams, long

buried, of writing. But it was also hard work. The girls were all good kids,

but there were moments when Sarah felt a little too much like an instant

parent.

   Of course, all she really had to do was round them up a few times a day,

make sure they were still breathing, and drive them places. Cooking and

cleaning and worrying about how to afford college were concerns thankfully in

other hands. Still, she didn’t move very far away from thinking about them at

any point in the day, and part of her was the tiniest bit worried about

Debbie and her date.

   Tremblay ventured out onto the porch. Sarah tried to push down a feeling a

vague annoyance at the intrusion because it was silly. The other woman’s warm

smile put her at ease quickly. Still, she was surprised when the older woman

took a seat next to her on the porch swing. Tremblay didn’t seem the sort to

pass the evening hours staring out at the bland, peaceful streets of Ranford.

   “Do you know why Elisa gave you our phone number ?” she asked. Her tone was

neutral. There was a quality of searching to it, not unpleasant in spite of

the question being a little blunt.

   “Because you won’t give me an hard time about giving under-age girls

cigarettes ?”

   “Well,” Tremblay answered with a smile, “there is that. But that’s not the

real reason. I’ve known Elisa a long time. Very long. You could say that I

introduced her to our little club. She would have come herself, but you were

going to be up here and she’s always so damn busy-“

   “I know,” Sarah said. “She hasn’t been home in a month. Book tour and all

that-“

   Tremblay laughed, and the laugh was just what Sarah would expect from a salt

of the earth woman. Throaty, half-knowing, a little sarcastic. “Those book

tours are great covers for other things. I’ll be brief. I’ve been working on

something for the last year or so. It’s pretty big stuff and I’m not done

with it, but I will be by the time you head out. You take it with you. I

don’t know whether you’ll work on it from there or not. That’s up to her and

you.”

   “What is it ?”

   Again, Tremblay smiled, but it was a cold and predatory gesture. Sarah got

the idea that whatever it was, she’d be well-cautioned to take good care of

it. Mrs. Tremblay wasn’t the sort of person you’d want to disappoint.

   “I’ll let you read it. Let’s just say that the people on the other side of

the fence aren’t up to what you think they are for the reasons you think.”

   “That’s pretty vague-“

   “Yes it is.”

   Tremblay stood up very carefully as not to upset the swing and walked inside

without another word.

   Do whatever it takes to insinuate yourself.

   Ken felt insinuated, but he knew that it was just passive. What he needed

was to start feeling around-

   Feeling around Tremblay, he amended.

   Gretchen’s fake ID had done the job easily. They were sitting at a corner

table, working a pitcher of beer with the sort of slow ease which would have

marked them as longtime acquaintances to the casual observer. So far the

conversation had been easy- so easy. And there had been plenty to watch.

   The Hard Cider was like any other bar in any other small town in New

England, but for Ken it was the first time all over again because tonight the

place looked different. Smelled different.

   Was different.

   Of course, it was like any bar. Half the people here were smoking. In the

past Ken would have simply noted this fact with clinical distaste. They

taught you about the effects of alcohol on smoking, how the lowering of

inhibitions made smokers of plenty of otherwise normal people. Although

normal was the wrong word.

   Ken had been very pleased to see that there was, as with most bars, a candle

on the table. A big fat odorless blob of wax in an open-faced bowl. Gretchen

was using it right now to light her cigarette and found watching that

infinitely preferable to when she used a lighter. As she put her face close

to the candle the light made the soft, young skin shine- made it glow almost

the way that Sarah’s had earlier. She held the cigarette in her mouth without

using her hands and he had a feeling that sometimes a cigarette was not just

a cigarette, at least in his own mind.

   She was by far the woman he would have watched had he been forcedto make a

singular choice.

   But no such choice was necessary. Tall and short, all the colours of the

rainbow- it was all here in the crowded bar. Women with long slim cigarettes

and other with short, stronger brands. Patient smokers and those who were

hurried and frantic. All of them with smiles on their faces. All willing to

provide him with something that twenty-four hours ago, he would have spurned.

   Gretchen was pouring herself another glass of beer and Ken found himself

thinking back to a fantasy he’d had this afternoon.

   He’d make a crack about this being their first date and she’d respond that

this couldn’t be a date. She took a long, cheek pulling inhale like the one

the real Gretchen was in the middle of right now and told him that- and she

used the word sadly- this couldn’t be a date because she only dated men who

smoked.

   In the fantasy he looked at her and decided to ask her-

   Reality intruded. She was looking at him strangely.

   “You’re a million miles away, Ken.”

   “I was just wondering,” he said, and surprised himself by getting back to

his job, “how much you know about Mrs. Tremblay.”

   “It’s Ms. now, I think, not that she’d waste her breath correcting you. A

lot. Some things I can tell you, some I can’t.” The mischievousness in her

voice was almost as wicked as the way she waved her cigarette casually as she

talked. He was amased that they’d let her in. Her ID said that she was

twenty-three, not nineteen, but she looked sixteen right now with her long,

luxurous hair pulled back. Just the right age to be sneaking out of the house

on Friday night because her parents didn’t know she smoked yet.

   Although he knew from her history that had never been her problem. He

thought about what it would have been like to know her then, to see her

sitting on the small-town porch of her house, smoking peacefully on a warm

summer night, wearing some football player’s letter jacket, her hair in a

ponytail-

   The looser jeans he’d bought this afternoon were not quite loose enough to

make processing that image any easy act.

   “Tell me something you think I can know,” he said, allowing to himself that

this would take time. Time he seriously doubted he had.

   “She’s a really great person. She comes off a little brusque sometimes, but

she’s not the person you’d think to take a look at her. She doesn’t clip

coupons or watch soap operas or think the government is hatching some

conspiracy to take away all our freedoms.”

   “I think,” Ken said, feeling his boat slipping into the shallows, “that

maintaining a conspiracy is too complicated a task for the good old US

government. That sort of thing is best left to the private sector. Bill

Gates, for example-“

   Gretchen laughed. “You say some strange things. But I’ll tell you what she

said about you, if you ask me very nicely.”

   Her smile was so warm, and even though she followed it with a stunning,

painful to watch nose exhale, he no longer saw it as the alien smile of a

smoker. She was just an incredibly attractive woman whose only shortcoming

wasn’t her habit but her age. He found it easier to forget a far-off old

secret oath than the vagaries of the calendar.

   At once he hoped that he was completely misreading and completely

understanding what lay behind her superb smile. He had to know, so he did the

thing that would tell him. He joined the flirtation, taking her free hand

between his and giving it the sort of pressure she couldn’t hope to

misunderstand.

   He only wished he knew how he wanted this to work out.

   “Please,” he asked, begging playfully.

   “She said that she thought it would be good for you to date me. Don’t ask me

what that  means, but that’s what she said.”

   “Is this a date ?” he asked, sliding down into the fantasy in real-time.

   She extracted her hand from his and he felt panic. But he left his hands

there and she took the top one in hers and squeezed so gently that the touch

of her skin was maddening. She then exhaled a perfect cloud of wispy smoke

which drifted lazily, first between them and then towards the ceiling, where

it hung like a screen of private pleasure.

   “I-“

   She was embarrassed. What the hell was that ? That wasn’t any of the

reactions he’d expected. He expected her to be silly- and say yes- or

pragmatic, and point out the gulf of years between them. Although a girl who

started smoking at fifteen must be an more of an adult than some nineteen

year olds.

   Is that all I can think about, even now ?

   “I have a rule-“

   Her hand remained where it was. “You don’t date men twice your age, right ?”

   She slapped his hand. “Don’t be silly,” she said playfully, her smile

returning. She turned her head to the side, brought her cigarette to her

mouth and the only thing Ken could think of was that she was making love to

it.

   Instead of him.

   She turned her head up and exhaled through puckered lips, coating them in

more smoke. “You’re nowhere near twice my age.”

   Ken decided he loved that smell, that he would definitely be spending more

time in bars in the future.

   “I only date men who smoke, Ken. I know how stupid that must sound, but-“

   “It doesn’t sound stupid at all,” Ken said, and he understood only too well

the old saw about getting what you wished for. But her response did one

thing- it washed away the shame he’d felt clinging to his fantasy like a

second skin.

   “Please tell me you’re hiding something about yourself,” she said, forcing a

smile that was all nerves.

   He answered, feeling his feet take hold of the narrow ground.

   “Please tell me you have some experience as a teacher-“

 Ken was sitting in the dining room with Gretchen. They’d been on their fifth

date tonight.

   Or almost date.

   He hadn’t given in yet. He was certainly close to it, but Gretchen had been

very understanding- in a way.

   They’d spent all of their free time together- and she certainly seemed to

have plenty of that. Yes, she’d been more than willing to spend time with

him. What she hadn’t been willing to do was to allow their relationship to

pass beyond one of extremely sexually charged friendship. It seemed that her

rule was hard and fast.

   Among other things.

   They were both quite drunk right now. She’d taken it easy in the bar tonight

because she was driving, but they’d been back at the Inn for almost an hour

and she’d done an admirable job catching up, drinking Labatts in a way which

reminded Ken of college.

   It was hard to believe that this was his sixth day here.

   Six days without resolution had worn on both of them.

   “I never thought you’d last this long.” Gretchen was saying, her voice a

sexy whisper. They were doing there best to keep it down because all the

girls were asleep, as far as they knew. Her voice was husky in a way Ken had

decided was pleasant. She lit a cigarette, doing it with a slow, measured

precision for his benefit.

   It wasn’t until the third night that he’d told her the lesser half of the

truth. At the time he’d done it, he’d thought must be going crazy.

   He hadn’t much changed that opinion. Nor had Gretchen changed the way she

smoked. She seemed to understand that part of the attraction was how natural

she looked smoking. He hadn’t told her that he felt the same way- to a much

lesser extent, watching all the girls and their teacher smoke as well.

   She figured it out on her own.

   Gretchen exhaled a thick cloud of smoke which drifted lasily in his

direction, twisting and writhing in the backdraft of the ceiling fan. Her

hand snaked across the table and found his. Although she was clearly drunk,

the smile which bled across her face was not. Her fingers drew small circles

on the skin of the back of his hand, raising gooseflesh.

   “I really would love to start dating you, Ken,” she said, her voice sultry.

   She paused to let him mull this over, taking the opportunity to inhale

deeply on her cigarette. She held the smoke, running her tongue across her

upper teeth with her mouth closed. She parted her lips and licked them, then

let the exhale begin. She pushed the smoke no farther than the outside of her

mouth and it built itself up like a wall between them.

   “What does dating involve that what we’ve been doing doesn’t ?” Ken asked,

as though he didn’t know the answer.

   Her eyes flared as she said “Sex.”

   “And a cigarette when we’re done ?”

   “Exactly. Before and after. Aren’t you curious ?”

   “About sex ? Well, yeah.”

   Gretchen’s laugh was maddening. It made him want to bury his hands in her

hair and pull her close to him for a kiss.

   “That’s not what I meant.” She hesitated, taking another languorous inhale

on the cigarette which made Ken’s heart stop.

   “Can I tell you a secret ?” she asked, her voice electric. A secret was not

what he wanted to share with her, but it would be a start. He nodded and she

leaned so close that her hair brushed his hand. The smell of smoke clung to

her, a mind-twisting aphrodisiac. “I’ve never told anyone this, but I feel

the same way that you do-“

   “About what ?” he managed to ask breathlessly.

   “About men who smoke.”

   “I don’t enjoy watching men smoke,” he said smartly, enjoying the flirtation

as he had for the better part of a week.

   He expected a smart-ass sort of reply, but instead she brought her hand to

his face and stroked his cheek. “I’m serious, Ken. I’ve given you a lot and

now I’m asking for something back. I’ve seen you sitting here at this table.

You’re in Nirvana. I would feel the same way-“

   “You’re serious-“

   “I want to kiss you and taste it in your mouth.”

   He looked at the cigarettes on the table. The lighter was sitting on top of

the box. Was she really asking so much ?

   Only if she knew his greater half of his secrets, she would understand just

what she was asking.

   “Light one for me,” he said, knowing that this was going to change his life.

He couldn’t imagine it being for the better but right now he didn’t care. Any

more than he cared if he choked and coughed, if he felt sick- or worse. Even

the guilt would be worth it right now.

   Gretchen didn’t hesitate. After stubbing out her own, she pulled one of the

long white cigarettes from the box, put it between her lips and lit it. She

pulled in smoke and then handed it to him. He took it between trembling

fingers and watched her eyes light up. Watched her hands migrate beneath the

table, one to the inside of thighs, the other to hers. She gently ran a

single finger along the length of his hardness, making him shiver.

   The smoke curling from the tip of the cigarette was dry, acrid. What was

pleasant- or pleasing- about it seemed lost on him now. But then he looked at

her and he saw a longing in her eyes which was very familiar. He wondered if

that was what he really looked like.

   Only now was she exhaling the smoke from the same cigarette he was holding.

She let it trail slowly from her nose, a seemingly endless stream.

   He moved his hand towards his mouth, wondering what it would taste like and

feel like.

   Ken did his best to imitate Gretchen. He placed his lips just over the tip

of the filter and closed them down around it. He then inhaled, pulling air

through the cigarette.

   Immediately he sputtered and coughed, sure that he was going to disappoint

Gretchen, that somehow this had been his one big chance and now it was

ruined. But her hand never left his crotch, in fact the gentle stroking which

had been a single finger was now her whole hand and it was much stronger and

more insistent. He looked around the table and saw that her other was doing

the same sort of thing, but for herself.

   “We’ll have to work on that a little,” she said with a smile.

   He tried again, drawing a little less smoke into his mouth. He paused before

allowing the smoke to go any farther, trying to adapt to the taste. He then

let it go on to his lungs. The smoke still burned, but there was something

else.

   Something which made him understand exactly why he would do this for himself

as well as for her.

   He held the cigarette out to her as he exhaled and she took it with the hand

that she’d been using to pleasure herself. The other hand, the one working

inside his thighs, further intensified its activity as she took the sort of

cheek-hollowing inhale on the cigarette which would have normally put a bulge

in his pants. She timed the exhale perfectly, as though she could feel his

orgasm before it happened. A wave of milky white smoke crashed over his face

at the same time a dark stain spread across the front of his jeans.

   Ken decided it would it be a good time to kiss Gretchen. She didn’t object.

   The laptop’s screen appeared to be glowing from Sarah’s angle on the bed.

She was lying across it, smoking a cigarette and trying to organise her

thoughts.

   Tremblay had given her a disk with three files on it, three different

sections of notes about what they  were doing. The story unfolded on her

powerbook and somehow, as absurd, even insane as it seemed, Sarah had a

feeling that Tremblay was probably on the mark. But all she could do was lie

there, smoking and sipping at a beer she’d opened two hours ago, back when

she’d been thirsty and waiting for Tremblay to come to her room.

   She smoked that cigarette and two more without saying a word, without even

sitting up. She finally finished the beer, tipping it upside down so that the

last few drops ran out of the bottle and fell straight to the back of her

throat. Only when the pack she’d opened this morning was empty did she

finally stand up, walk over to the powerbook, and shut it down for the night.

   The truth was, she felt a little silly, not having seen it coming.

   It was all about money. The rest of it- the health concerns and the second

hand smoke, all of it just excuses. Ends to a means.     

   It was really about owning the right stock, and then choking off the

traditional distribution method. It was about control.

   Sarah lied down again, tried to put it out of her mind, but there was no way

she could do that. Being honest, she supposed that she should be relieved.

They weren’t looking to eliminate smoking. In fact, they were looking to

encourage it. In a way which would allow them to earn five dollar a pack

profits. But-     

   What was so monstrous about the whole thing was how simple it was, how easy

to see it when you held the right pieces in your hands. And yet seeing it-

   Did that make it any easier to stop ?

   Sarah didn’t think so.

   How Tremblay had gathered so much information, and from so many sources, was

a question she hadn’t been willing to answer. Nor had she been willing to

tell Sarah why she cared so much when she herself was not a smoker. All Sarah

was sure of was that if the information Tremblay had given her somehow hit

the mainstream, the backlash would put an end to all their well laid plans.

Which meant that neither she nor Tremblay were safe.

   Clutching the Cameo tightly in her hand, Sarah did her best to get past that

thought and fall asleep. All she remembered the next morning was not quite

seeing dawn.

The knock came on Gretchen’s door at a quarter after six.

   Ken and Gretchen were sharing a smoky kiss and the abrupt noise startled

them both. They dove under the covers as Ms. Tremblay’s voice cut through the

thick oak.

   “Get your pants on, Ken. You have visitors. They’re waiting out front.”

   Gretchen laid back and exhaled a thick, creamy cloud of smoke while Ken

dashed over to the window. Parked out front was a long, sleek black

limousine. He had a good idea who was inside that car, and he wasn’t looking

forward to chatting without at least downing a cup of coffee. He took his

time dressing, letting an appreciative Gretchen watch.

   As he walked out of her room he was surprised to see Ms. Tremblay standing

there, mug in hand.

   Even more surprisingly, she smiled as she handed him the steaming mug.

“Drink this first.”

   There’d been no question in his mind that Tremblay would not be happy

about-things- but her smile was so warm and reassuring that he found himself

re-thinking that. He took the mug and cupped it between his hands, enjoying

the heat. Amasingly, the coffee was hot but not so fresh that it was too hot

to drink. He took three quick sips and that was when Tremblay finally showed

some impatience.

   “Goddamn it, man, drink it. You think they’ll wait all day ?”

   The answer to her question was a loud braying of car horn.    

   “They’ll wake the whole damn house. Impatient bastards.”

   Ken drained the cup, wondering if the coffee would hide the smell of smoke

on his breath.

   “I put something in it that will freshen that monster breath of yours.

They’ll expect your clothes to smell smoky.”

   “What ?” he asked. Things were going much too fast for the hour of the day.

He felt vaguely like a rag doll whose affections were being fought over by

small children. “They who ?”

   “They- they they, Ken. Like I don’t know-“

   She held up a floppy disk, close under his nose. “You downloaded this from

my c-slash conspiracy directory. Repeat after me-“

   The disk looked like a huge flat bug swimming under his nose. He reached up

and took it from her. “Your c-slash conspiracy directory.”

   “Good,” she said, smiling again as she took the mug away. “Then you deleted

the directory and wiped all my free space. This is the only copy. Understand

?”

   There was another loud honk.

   “Goddamned assholes,” she said. Tremblay then did the most amasing thing.

She reached up and rubbed his head, tousling his hair the way she would a

small child’s. Strangely, it was a demonstration of affection Ken didn’t

mind. “Look, you did a great job so far. Don’t screw this up. Now get going.”

   The windows of the limo were dark. Of course they were. Ken had seen this

before, but it had never scared him the way he was scared right now. The

disk, hard and square, felt odd in the baggy pocket of his khakis. All he

wanted to do right now was go back to bed- with Gretchen. Of course, Gretchen

was probably helping Tremblay cook breakfast by now, so there was no chance

of that.

   Boy, did Gretchen look good in the morning. Her hair was wild from sleep but

her face was always so fresh and pretty. She rolled over this morning and

reached across him for the- for their- cigarettes and lit one, putting on a

show that he’d been more than happy to watch. Waking up next to her, knowing

that would be the first thing she would do-

   It took great effort to force the thought down but he had no choice because

he didn’t want to have to hide an erection right now.

   He noticed the back window on the passenger side was open and there was

smoke coming out, faint wisps-

   The door swung open and he ducked his head to step inside. It closed quickly

behind him.     

   The woman sitting across from him was smoking a Benson and Hedges and

smiling. She was late-twenties, short but thin, with a killer smile and long

black hair that had been teased with great patience. Her face was narrow but

pleasant and her grey eyes were intelligent. He knew he’d seen her before,

but he couldn’t decide where. Just as he thought he was close to figuring

that out, the car pulled away from the kerb and his stomach lurched. The

driver apparently wasn’t too worried about the speed limit, it seemed.

   “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ken,” the woman said, extending her hand and a

long stream of smoke in his direction. “I’m Vivian.” He took the hand and

shook it suspiciously as Vivian inhaled deeply on the B & H with practised

ease. “We stopped by today to see how you’re doing getting that information

we asked you to retrieve.”

   “Excuse me ?” he said.

   Vivian turned away from him and held her cigarette straight up between her

short but slender fingers. She smiled as though it was a diamond stick, moved

her hand back to her mouth and pulled again. Turning her attention back to

him she exhaled, a beautiful nose exhale that made him smile faintly in spite

of himself.

   “I don’t usually smoke in front of the members of the group, but I happen to

know that you’re okay with it.”

   “That’s just part of the act,” he said defensively. “I plan on quitting as

soon as I leave here-“

   Vivian smiled, like a cat studying a mouse caught in her paws. “And take

those nasty pills ? Oh, the games we play to keep everyone honest. It

wouldn’t work if the foot soldiers didn’t believe. But if you’ve done as you

were asked, you know what the real game is about. You don’t need those pills.

All our best agents smoke, Ken. You have it ?”

   This was too much at once, but at least the coffee was helping Ken think

straight. Playing along seemed like the only way to go right now, so his hand

went to the disk in his pocket. He removed it gladly because it felt

uncomfortable pressing into his-

   Again he suppressed any thought of that.

   “Just like- was it you who asked ?”

   Again the smile. Vivian had a very attractive smile, and suddenly it came

into sharper focus. He remembered seeing that smile last night. At the bar.

Yes, Vivian had sat alone for about an hour, occasionally fending off one of

the locals who’d gotten his nerve up to talk to her. She’d sat and pretended

to watch a baseball game, sipping at a beer and occasionally looking their

way. She’d had a cigarette in her hand the entire time, and it made his skin

crawl to know that he’d been watched that way the whole time.

   “Yes, it was me. I’ve known the truth since the day they brought me in and

now you know it, too. It’s a great little plan, isn’t it ?”

   The pitch of her voice had changed. It reminded him of the nuns at St.

Vincent’s High School. They asked you a question, thinking that you didn’t

know the answer. There was a vaguely mocking quality to it, and he decided

then and there that smoker or not, he didn’t much like Vivian. Not that it

made any less enjoyable watching her light another long white cigarette and

inhale deeply.

   She handed it to him as he was thinking about the limousine. Her bare wrist

sported an expensive diamond inset Rolex. He took the cigarette without

hesitation and pulled deeply. The smoke was thicker and harsher than he was

used to but the effect was the same. As he handed it back he experienced a

brief respite of absolute clarity.

   “There’s a lot of money to be made,” he said casually.

   “Exactly,” she answered, letting her hand linger on his as she reclaimed the

cigarette. He understood from that touch that the limousine driver would park

the car in some secluded place if Vivian asked- if he asked her to make the

request. It was as though he’d stuck the hand on a wet battery terminal.

   “Why me ?”

   “You remember all those psychological tests and the blood work you went

through when you started with the group ?”

   He nodded and accepted the cigarette again. They were filling the back of

the car with smoke and he found himself enjoying at least that part of it.

   “I can’t believe that you didn’t know about yourself until you came here.

Those tests told me that you were attracted to smokers- and smoking- from day

one. I never thought you’d last five years in the field without discovering

the truth about yourself. I sent you here because I knew this sort of an

environment would open your eyes.”

   The betrayal which was swimming in his mind must have registered in his eyes

because she added “But that has nothing to do with Gretchen. To be honest,

I’m jealous. I had hoped to crack your shell myself.”

   She took the disk from him and asked for details.      

   “I wiped the c-slash conspiracy directory as soon as I had the data,” he

lied.

   “Yes, I know. We hacked Tremblay’s computer at four this morning, thanks to

a security bug in her browser’s java script. Then we crashed her hard drive

directory. She’ll be suspicious, but she won’t suspect you- as long as you

act naturally. She knows she’s been hacked from outside before. And I told

her this morning that I’d stopped by to find out how our grant proposal was

coming. Stood on her porch and smoked a cigarette. It’s amasing. All you have

to do is light up and they lose all their suspicions.”

   Ken smiled because he knew that Tremblay was not so easily fooled.

   “And now that I’ve joined this select little sub-set of the group-“

   “Your assignments are going to change. And your pay. We can discuss the

numbers later.”

   Later ? Ken was worried that the unseen driver was indeed going to be asked

to pull it over, but instead Vivian opened the speaker and told the driver to

take them back.

   “Maybe down the road you’ll be running your own smoke-easy. Right here in

Ranford, if you’d like. You’ll tire of Gretchen after a while, though- you’ll

look for someone a little more mature. In the meantime, I just need to make

sure that our friend Sarah doesn’t have this as well-” She put the disk on

the seat and smiled. It was cold and heartless.

   Stunning.

   Her hand found his again and he knew that the driver had better get them

back soon-

   Debbie knocked on Sarah’s door. There was no answer at first, so she swung

the door open a crack and looked in. Sarah was across the room by the window,

hunched over her power book. She was scrolling urgently through something,

and Debbie was starting to close the door when Sarah turned around and said

“Come on in.”

   She swung the cover of the power book down and did her best to smile.         

   It came out poorly enough that Debbie asked what was the matter.

   “It’s a long story, Debbie. What can I do for you ?”

   “I just- I just wanted to talk, I guess.”

   “Have a seat. What’s on your mind ?”

   The girl paused to light a cigarette. It wasn’t an hungry gesture, but the

look of satisfaction on her face told Sarah that she was now a very contended

smoker. Her exhale was full-bodied and patient.

   “I’m worried about what’s going to happen when I go home.”

   “Things between you and Kirk that serious ?” Sarah asked teasingly, as

though she didn’t know what this was about.

   “No. We’re having fun together, but I know I’ll never see him after this.”

   “You could end up at the same college.”

   “I suppose. But I’m concerned about something that is going to happen in a

few days, not a few years.”

   Of course Sarah understood. She remembered that day her mother had walked

into the house, walked in and seen her daughter smoking.

   It had been the best day of her young life. And she told the story to

Debbie, omitting any reference to the cameo because Debbie hadn’t needed a

talisman to discover the obvious joys of smoking.

   “You said that you thought she expected you to start, Debbie.”

   Debbie stubbed out her cigarette just as Sarah lit one of her own. “I never

said she’d be happy about it, did I ?”

   “Do you really think she’ll be upset ?”

   “I don’t know. That’s what worries me. I really appreciate your sharing your

story with me, but your mom isn’t my mom, if you know what I mean.”

   “I’ll talk to her if you want-“

   “No, I need to do it myself. I mean, I am a smoker now. There’s no question

about that. The question is, how do I tell her ?”

   Sarah had an idea. She walked over to the nightstand and picked up the

portable phone. “Your mom works out of the house, right ? Light a cigarette

and we’ll make a call-“

   “I can’t,” Debbie said, but Sarah could see that she liked the idea. The

girl did light another cigarette and then Sarah handed her the phone. There

was a brief pause as it rang and then hellos were exchanged. Debbie smoked

nervously, looking as though she was sure this would work out badly.

   “I have something to tell you, Mom-” Another break.

   “I’ve started smoking.” There was a long pause, after which the girl said

“Yes, I really do enjoy it- no, I’m not sure why I waited so long- yes, I’ve

really just started this week. I wanted you to know-“

   “Sure, I can do that. Love you. Bye.”

   Debbie was crying not, but they were happy tears.

   “What happened ?”

   “She said that it was about time. That she can’t wait until I get home. Did

you bring a camera ?”

   “Sure.”

   “She wants me to send her a picture. Priority mail. She wants to see it so

she knows it’s really true. She sounded-“

   “Happy ?”

   Debbie nodded, and Sarah proceeded to take a whole roll of her student, in

all sorts of different poses. Watching her through the fish-eyed lens, she

thought Debbie had never looked so happy.

Tremblay came into the den and sat down. Both Ken and Sarah were already

there, wondering exactly why it was that she’d sent the kids out with

Gretchen to get dinner. Ken had a pretty good idea, and so did Sarah, but

they’d shared nothing more than small talk while they waited. Sarah was

actually teasing Ken about Gretchen when the older woman strolled in, looking

a little bit apprehensive.

   “I know you’re both wondering what I’m doing. I’m not one for long speeches,

so bear with me if I’m a little on the blunt side.”

   Sarah lit a cigarette and let herself sink back into the deep cushions of

the couch. As much as she’d been enjoying her time her in Ranford and at the

seminar, she was starting to itch for home. There was a lot of work to be

done.

   “Sarah, you may or may not know who Ken really is- but Ken knows all about

you.”

   Two sets of eyes widened to saucer-like proportions. Sarah favoured Ken with

a look of open contempt and leaned away from him.

   “None of that,” Tremblay said, her voice harsh and commanding. “Things

haven’t worked out exactly the way Ken had planned. Which is to our benefit.

Look, we could all pussyfoot around one another or get this over with and be

friends.”

   Abrupt was hardly the word.

   “The three of us have an opportunity here and-“

   Tremblay looked at Ken, who was nervously twisting his hands and gave every

appearance of wanting to disappear. “For God’s sake, Ken, light yourself a

cigarette and try to relax.”

   He did as he was told. Tremblay walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured

out three tall scotches.

   “I don’t drink hard-” Sarah started to say as Tremblay handed her one of the

glasses but the look on the woman’s face stopped her objection cold.

   Ken’s disappeared in two long gulps. Sarah took a more conservative swallow

and tried to ignore the way the aged scotch opened a blast furnace in her

stomach. She then inhaled deeply and found she liked the way the taste of the

smoke mingled with that of the scotch. A small smile crept onto her face as

Tremblay sat down again.

   “Do you want to tell us who that woman that came here this morning was, Ken

?”

   “I never met her before this morning,” he said defensively. “All I know is-“

He stopped. What was he doing ? The high-wire he’d been carefully trying to

balance himself on was now shaking violently. The truth was that he’d spent

all day- another wonderful day with Gretchen- trying hard to decide if he

could really live with walking away from everything he’d spent the last five

years working for.

   Or if he already had.

   “I don’t want to do this-” he finally said. He looked at Sarah, looked at

the cigarette in his own hand, thought about how he’d almost instantly

loathed Vivian- 

   “You already have, Ken,” Sarah said. She felt herself relaxing. It might

just have been the scotch, or it might have been the realisation of new

possibilities opening up. She exhaled sharply, watched the cloud of smoke

expand like spreading fog. “Let me help you along. You came here to get the

same information Ms. Tremblay gave me.”

   He squirmed slightly. There was one questioned answered, but the knowledge

brought no relief.

   “Yes,” he finally admitted defeatedly. He took a short, nervous pull on his

cigarette and stubbed it out angrily. “And now I don’t know what to do next.”

He stood up and began pacing nervously, the same way that he did when he hit

a bad patch writing a proposal. The words were all there, locked in some

cognitive recess, but now there were feelings involved as well and that was a

new sensation. One didn’t get attached to a grant, after all.

   “The question is what do the three of us do,” Tremblay said.

   “I take this back to Elisa,” Sarah answered. “And we find a way to make this

information public knowledge.”

   Tremblay started to speak, but Ken cut her off. “I’ve thought about that.

Who will believe you ? The whole idea of a conspiracy about smoking rights ?

It sounds so fantastic that I can hardly believe it, and I’ve been in the

middle of it for five years. Smoking is something people either do or don’t

do. Nobody thinks about it this way-“

   “Except everyone in this room,” Tremblay finished.

   “You seem to have all the pieces,” Sarah said. “I don’t know how, but you

do. So tell me this. Why-” She hesitated, looked at Ken.

   “I know about the cameo, Sarah.”

   Her hand went to her neck instinctively, and she felt an absurd sense of

relief when she felt the chain tight against her neck.

   “Why would they want it ?” Tremblay asked. “Think about it. If they don’t

really want to eliminate smoking, why would they want to get that cameo from

you ?”

   Some of the fog of discovery lifted from Ken’s thoughts. “Because they want

to stimulate interest in smoking. Everything we- everything the group has

been doing is about controlling distribution. You don’t look to control

distribution without also looking for ways to stimulate demand.”

   Tremblay nodded. “Exactly. There are millions of people who would never take

up smoking for just as many reasons. You probably think it’s magic, don’t

you, Sarah ?”

   The school teacher found the notion vaguely offensive, an insult to her

intelligence. She continued lighting another cigarette anyway.

   “I don’t believe in magic,” she answered, but the response was half-hearted.

“And to be honest, I try not to think about how it works, either. All I know

is the best day of my life was the day I started smoking.”

   “I don’t believe in magic either,” Tremblay said. “Except as a philosophical

construct. Magic is science without explanation. I know that cameo is very

old, that it’s been in your family a long time, but however it works,

whatever it does, well, there’s a logical explanation. And that’s what they

want to know.”

   “But they have hundreds of these things, don’t they ?”

   “Yes. But the secret remains. Someday, they’ll get an hold of one and figure

it out. It could trigger some latent DNA marker. That’s always been my

theory-“

   Latent DNA marker ? Ken thought to himself. That wasn’t how innkeepers were

supposed to talk. “Just who are you ?” he asked. “Hell, we don’t even know

your first name.”

   “It’s Nora- but you can call me Mrs. or Ms. Tremblay. I used to be a

research scientist with a major pharmaceutical company. But that was a long

time ago and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Sitting around

talking about cloning recombinant mutating strains got boring. All I really

ever wanted to do was run the Wild Shadows the way my folks did.”

   “How did you get involved in all this ?” Sarah asked. “You don’t even

smoke.”

   “No. Never really liked it. Tried once or twice and decided it wasn’t for

me. As to how I got involved, that’s none of your damn business. What we need

to focus on here today is solving our little problem. You want answers to all

of life’s thorny little questions, you’ll have to go elsewhere.”

   “I think the information the three of us have-“

   “Not the three of us, Ken. The two of you. I’m out of this loop as of the

end of this discussion. That’s why Elisa gave you my number, Sarah. I have

too many other projects- the first of which is getting myself a new computer.

My goddamned motherboard is fried, thanks to the group.”

   “I think that the information you and I have,” Ken said to Sarah, who was

glowing again as she exhaled a long stream of creamy smoke through her nose,

“is best used in small doses. Plausible deniability is what the group is all

about. How many faces can you put on this conspiracy ? Half a dozen ? And all

those people would disappear tomorrow. You tell the whole story and everyone

will just be convinced that you’re crazy.”

   “But it’s monstrous,” Sarah said.

   “It is and it isn’t. It’s just about money. About people sitting in cramped

back room and smoking cigarettes at a dollar a pop. Doesn’t that remove some

of the urgency ?”

   “No. I watch Marta and Debbie and Prissy and the rest of the girls and

remember what it was like when I was their age. You can see how much they

enjoy it-” Finally, Sarah allowed an arch grin to creep onto her face “-and I

see how much you enjoy watching, and I think to myself what it would be like-

They pass a new law somewhere every day. I get carded every time I buy cigaret

tes these days. I’ve had to go to three different store to buy for the girls

because I don’t want to have answer a lot of stupid questions-“

   “That’s just an inconvenience,” Ken said. Tremblay was sitting back now,

relaxing. They were going to work this out after all.

   “It’s also the law. It’s just going to get harder.”

   “Maybe. But the fact that it’s also an inconvenience works in our favour-“

   “Whose side are you on ?” Tremblay asked, wanting to prod Ken down those

last few steps.

   “Both,” he said. “Both because I’m the one who will, I think, eventually be

able to put a face on all this.”

   “The point is-” he continued, “well, the point is that people don’t like

inconvenience. They don’t like being told what to do.”

   “All the more reason the group, as you call it, will keep passing those

laws. They’re going to want this all driven underground, to be made

counter-culture, because that’s always where the money is.”

   “True. But the farther you let it go, the worse they’ll look when the truth

does come out-“

   “Just enough rope to hang themselves with, is that what you’re saying ?”

   “Yeah. The trick is not swinging with the rest if them when it happens, at

least for me.”

   “You’re staying with the group, then ?” Sarah asked.

   “I have to. Vivian is going to make me a very attractive offer, I think.

Walking away from it is-“

   “No less dangerous than what you plan to do, Ken,” Tremblay offered. “But

more laudable.”

   ‘I don’t know about that. I’m still digesting all of this. But I’ve always

felt that the more you learn, the more important patience becomes.”

   “Is that why it took you almost a week to get Gretchen in bed ?” Sarah asked

sarcastically. She was trying not to like Ken because he’d come here to

betray them, but it was hard work.

   “There is the age difference-“

   Looking annoyed, Tremblay said “Children, can we please stick to the topic

at hand ?”

   “What do you think, Ms. Tremblay ? You gave me that disk ? Did you intend

for me to just sit on all that information ?”

   There was a long pause. Ken finally gave into the temptation to light

another cigarette.

   “Not necessarily. As I said, I just wanted to be rid of it. The appearance

of Vivian this morning-“

   “You know her, don’t you ?” Ken asked.

   “Yes and no. I know of her. I hadn’t really thought she was the one who sent

you here Ken, that’s all.”

   “You knew all along ?”

   “Of course. This is all one big chess match. After a while, you can spot a

pawn a mile away.”

   That remark hurt Ken’s ego a bit, but it was more conditioning than anything

else. The group spent a lot of time convincing you that you were important,

but- What had Vivian called them today ? Foot-soldiers. And foot-soldiers

were always the last to know, weren’t they ?

   The question he couldn’t answer was why he’d want to keep playing the game.

   All he knew for sure was that he did.

   Gretchen had amasing hands. Ken was lying on his back, breathing hard,

wondering if his erection would ever go away. He was sure if she touched him

again he would have another orgasm on the spot.

   Her head was arched back, exposing her long, slim, perfect neck. Her eyes

were shut tightly and her own breathing was ragged.

   He’d discovered something else he enjoyed watching her do and he hadn’t been

shy about telling her. She was more than happy to oblige his desires. The

fingers of her left hand were dancing through her long pubic hair. The middle

finger was just inside the vagina, stroking the area he called her g-spot.

She was licking her lips with her tongue and her long red hair was draped

over her breasts. Only her spectacularly hard nipples poked through that

forest of hair.

   He thought there might be something a little odd about enjoying watching her

masturbate, but he didn’t care.

   Naturally, she was smoking at the same time. She was holding the cigarette

close to her mouth, her wrist bent. He’d just lit it for her and it looked

perfect between her fingers. She opened her eyes, leaned her head to her hand

without moving the cigarette, and wrapped her lips around the filter. Her

deep inhale took his mind off what she doing with the other hand completely.

   As she exhaled her bright eyes focused on him. “Finish it-“

   Her left hand found his right and moved it down between her thighs. He sat

up and sank his head into her chest. He pushed her smoky hair aside and found

her nipple with his tongue. She cooed as he began to suckle, the nipple

growing even more erect. He felt the last few quivers with his hand and then

her orgasm came, a long, slow vibration of pleasure. Her free hand pushed his

chin up and they met in a deep, long kiss. She exhaled through her mouth as

the kiss endured, and they traded the smoke until it finally faded.

   As it did, she broke the kiss, turned her head, and inhaled deeply again.

She held the smoke until Ken began to ache. She exhaled through her nose,

directly in his face, just as her left hand crept over the length of his

erection. A simple tweak and he came again, no less intensely than the first

time.

   “Why don’t you stay another week ?” she said, small wisps of smoke escaping

from her mouth as she spoke.

   “Do college girls still get married ?” Ken asked breathlessly.

   “I only marry men who smoke,” she answered teasingly.

   Debbie’s mom was the last one to show up at the school. They’d made good

time getting back- almost too good. The girls had seemed disappointed to be

getting back almost an hour early, and Susan had even suggested that it the

van might just have to break down somewhere along the way. The sullen girl

Sarah had come to grudgingly like was not really herself these days. She’d

spent yesterday afternoon lying in an hammock in front of the Inn, letting

the sun’s rays fade her vampirish skin to an almost human shade.

   Strangely, it didn’t look good on her.

   Sarah and Debbie were sitting on the front steps smoking and laughing about

van pranks when the girl’s mother pulled up behind the van in her white Saab

convertible. Sarah watched Debbie and saw that she was nervous despite the

phone call. This would, after all, be the first time her mother had actually

seen her smoke.

   They both stood up as Mrs. Pride got out of the car. She was puffing on a

Virginia Slims and her broad smile washed away any lingering doubts Debbie

had.

   They hugged briefly.

   “Thanks for the pictures, Debbie. I just want you to know that I really am

happy for you- for both of us. How was camp ?”

   Debbie rolled her eyes and gave her mother a little-kids-go-to-camp look.

   “They did call it the Young Writers’ Camp, didn’t they ?”

   Sarah stepped in. “Well, it was really more of a seminar.”

   “Yeah,” Debbie added. “It was great. I learned a lot.”

   “I can see that,” Mrs. Pride said, admiring her daughter’s casual inhale.

   “I mean about writing, Mom.”

   The three of them laughed and Mrs. Pride looked at Sarah. “I just want to

thank you for spending all this time with the kids. They all just love you,

and I think it’s great that you’d take the time to get personally involved

like this. It makes me think that I’d been missing something myself-“

   “Mom-” Debbie said, looking embarrassed.

   “No. I mean it. If I had paid closer attention I would have realised before

that you were ready to start smoking. I’m the one who feels embarrassed. I

owe you one, Sarah. How about the three of us get lunch somewhere ?”

   Sarah thought about the empty refrigerator at home and decided that lunch

sounded like a great idea. Besides, it would keep her from thinking about

other, more important things.

   Was it possible, she wondered, to discover patience over lunch ?

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