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Michael had 4 days to live. Demons made sure of that. He almost made it, and he's ready to tell you how. For the first time, read his gut-wrenching account of the last four days of his life, told from his perspective, in J. Powell Ogden's short story, SEVEN CIGARETTES. Not available anywhere else!Pre-ORDER YOUR FREE Short Story Download May 1, 2018
Chapter One - Seven Cigarettes
I DUMP THE REMAINING cigarettes out of the pack onto the damp wood of the picnic table and line them up, side by side.
There are seven.
With the morning sun rising above the trees, warming the back of my neck, I roll them until they are in four groups. Three in the first, two in the second, one in the third and one in the last. I look at the last one, feeling jittery. I can do this.
I snag one from the cluster of three, slide my lighter out of the front pocket of my new black Chinos and light it. I take a long drag and blow the smoke out slowly.
“Don’t look at me like that, B.F.,” I say to the jumpy Chihuahua standing on the bench beside me. He cocks his head to the side, his shiny black eyes attentive. I’m sure he’s accusing me. I’m sure he’d tell Sue and Bill if he could, but he can’t. B.F., the Chihuahua, is my best friend.
“I’m quitting,” I say. “I swear. See?” I point to the cigarettes. “I’ll smoke three today, and listen, I may not even smoke them all, okay? I don’t need three. I get two tomorrow, one on Friday.” I take another long drag off the cigarette and feel a bit lightheaded. I blow the smoke out. The tail of it curls around behind me in a barely there breeze as I consider the last one. “The seventh I’ll smoke with you, right here, at sunset on Saturday. That’s it. Then I’m done.”
B.F. gives a little yip. He’s calling me on my shit. He does that. Sue got the dog for me last May. The same day I got released from juvenile detention. The same day we got the official call my mom was dead.
I scratch my closely-shaved cheek. It’s raw. “I quit the pot and the pills, right?” A pleading tone has entered my voice and I don’t like it. In fact, I hate it. I clamp the cigarette between my lips and scoop up the remaining six and stuff them roughly back into the box, bending a few. Damn it. I straighten them out, and take one last hit off the cigarette in my mouth before carefully pinching it out and sliding it into the pack with the rest and stand up.
The sun is now above the dewy trees of Bain Park, and the morning air is a bit muggy but still fresh. Alive. And I feel like I’m being watched. It’s an itchy feeling that started last spring and won’t quit. Like something’s waiting for me to screw up. Just one more time.
Of course that’s all in my head. That’s what the therapist says. It’s just me fucking, you know, ‘self-sabotaging’ again.
I glance at the new cell phone Sue got me. I’m late.
“C’mon, B.F. Let’s go.” I tug on B.F.’s leash and it goes taut. He plants his little feet and won’t move. I sigh and scoop up the dog, knowing he can’t walk fast enough anyway, muttering, “Maybe you need to go to school, too.” B.F. is almost small enough to stand on my hand. When I brought him home last May, I totally stopped making fun of all those flouncy reality TV girl types who carry their toy dogs around in their status-symbol purses. It wasn’t a class thing. It was a utilitarian thing. If they walked their dogs on a leash, they’d never get anywhere.
So I jog back up the street to Sue and Bill’s, cradling him lightly against my chest. My black Chinos are stiff and scratchy on my thighs, and my short sleeved, Oxford shirt and tie feel too tight. It’s a real tie. It goes all the way around my neck with its silk, triangle knot slipped up snug against my throat. Like a noose.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Saint Joan of Arc Catholic High School. A fresh start.
Though they tried to hide it, Sue and Bill were super happy I’d decided to switch schools, but at the moment, I missed my soft, broken-in, blue jeans with the hole above the knee. I’d worn my Bruce Springsteen concert Tee under the button-up in secret rebellion. I hadn’t even started at the private school yet, but I already hated it. Hated it. There were too many rules and “expectations” and not enough kids to get lost in. They knew who I was. They knew why I was switching schools. They’d keep track of me. There was only one reason I wasn’t reneging on “the plan,” and I wasn’t even sure if that reason would be there. If I wasn’t such a pussy, I’d have just called her to find out. I could have got her number. But I didn’t.
I burst through the front door of the fifties-era, two-story Tudor and set B.F. down on the hard wood floor, unhooking his leash. He runs around my feet, already missing me, I think.
I smile. “I’ll be back at four. Promise.” Then I dash up the stairs to grab my backpack and headphones. My acoustic guitar is lying across my unmade bed. I pick up the guitar, tuck the pick under the strings, and carefully zip it back up in its case. The bed with its tangle of sheets, I don’t touch.
Sue meets me at the bottom of the stairs, holding a brown paper bag. My lunch. She reaches out to brush my dirty blonde hair out of my eyes, tugging worriedly on a few strands at the nape of my neck. “It’s a little long.”
“It’s fine,” I say. She’d wanted to take me to the barber shop, but I’d drawn the line at the brand new tie. My Converse were grimy, but the right color. White. The hair I’d hacked shorter myself the night before with a pair of her sewing scissors. It looked a little messy, but what the fuck in my life wasn’t messy? I dig up a smile for her. She smiles back. Sue is my foster mom. She has been for almost a year. And obviously I don’t deserve her.
Her eyes travel from my hair to the edge of my right sleeve, which covers most of my bicep. I follow her gaze. “Maybe you should wear long sleeves today. The rules—”
“It’s covered. It’s fine.” I grab my lunch from her, kiss her on the cheek, and walk out the door before she can say anything else.
“Be good, Michael!” she calls after me.
I feel my shoulders twitch.
She always was one to believe in miracles.
And for the first time in my life? I’m hoping maybe, just maybe, someone who believed in me wouldn’t be disappointed.
Chapter Two - Six Cigarettes
AT THE BUS STOP, Shawn Fowler waits for me. Dressed in khakis and a long-sleeved shirt rolled up to his elbows, he snaps his fingers and holds out his hand, expectant. “Gotta cigarette?”
My fist closes possessively around the pack in my pocket.
“C’mon man. My dad rode my ass all morning. You know he’s an asshole.”
Yeah, he was. Ex-military. A voice sharp as bomb shrapnel. Gritty from years of shouting orders. Gritty enough to sand the hair off your balls. I’d had the pleasure of having my balls sanded by Colonel Fowler.
“What did you do?”
“Breathe,” Shawn says.
I laugh. I think for a minute then…goddamn shit. I dig out my pack, tap out two cigarettes, handing him the one I’d already started and pinched out. He swipes it eagerly, lights it. “Thanks, man.”
I light the new one, my sixth to last, and try to savor it.
Shawn grins, sly. “So, dude, you’re a good, Catholic boy, now.”
“I guess,” I say, non-committal. Shawn Fowler was the last person I’d talk religion or philosophy with. Every conversation ended up a sex joke. He’d been great to smoke pot with, but that was about it.
“Shit, man, you have no idea how good you had it at Fairview. I hope you don’t meet Sister Larry, today. She’s—”
“Lawrencia. It’s like Latin or some shit.”
“Oh.” I’d met Sister Lawrencia, Saint Joan’s principal, already. The little, blue-haired nun had to waive the school’s acceptance criteria to admit me. My grades and conduct weren’t exactly stellar at Fairview. I mean, I’d been suspended last May. But Sue and Bill were fixtures in the Diocese of Cleveland and had the bishop’s ear. Sister Larry had “high hopes” for my “blessed future” at Saint Joan. She wanted me to “stop by” today and check in. Lucky me. I’m saved from explaining all that, and from hearing whatever crude angle Shawn would spin it, when an old Subaru station wagon pulls into the Seven-Eleven lot behind us. A tall, athletic, Asian kid and two girls get out of the car. My heart skips a beat.
I know the guy, and I’m pretty sure I know the smaller girl. She has to be his little sister. Her shiny, jet black hair brushes the top of her shoulders when she turns her head. Eyes nearly black. Merideth DiMaro. The tall kid, her brother, is Leo. I remember Merideth from second grade at Saint Paul Elementary. We were in the same class before I got yanked out and exiled to Cleveland Public. I recognize the other girl, too, but I don’t remember her name. Gabby? Faith? If those girls were here, maybe she would be, too. If so, she’d be on the bus already. I take a drag off my cigarette, my fingers trembling slightly, then shrug my shoulders and hold the cigarette down by my side out of the other kids’ direct line of sight. It doesn’t help.
“Meri,” Leo says, eyeing my cigarette critically and moving away. “Hey, come here.” The look on his face is his favorite. Righteous Bastard, sub-type disgust. I’d seen it on his face before. Whatever, dude. I take another drag and look right back at him.
Meri sees the cigarette and rolls her eyes at her brother. She doesn’t move. I smile a little. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s the Merideth I remember. Would she remember me, too?
“Meri, c’mon,” Leo says.
Meri ignores him and looks down the street. The city bus is plowing toward us. It pulls up, dirty and wheezing, to a stop. I finish the cigarette in two long pulls, let it drop from my fingers, and line up with Shawn behind Leo and the girls to climb on. My heart is really pounding now. I take a deep breath and try to look cool, wondering why I’m so nervous. The tip of my little finger brushes my lower lip as I search for a sliver of nail to bite. But there isn’t one, and I grab my backpack strap instead and step up onto the bus.
In the cool interior, my eyes find her immediately. I smile, my heart lifting. It’s gotta be her. You can’t miss her hair. It’s a frizzy wild thing and would be a mess like mine if she hadn’t subdued it in a sloppy ponytail. She looks my way and I bolt. My eyes do anyway. I fix them on the back of the bus, my palms sweating.
If she’s Catherine Forsythe, I haven’t seen her since second grade, since the day my whole life blew up in a cloud of greasy black smoke.
I feel the warmth of her eyes on my back as I pass her then Merideth-Meri squeals as she sits down across from her. “Where are your glasses, Cate?”
Cate? Are her friends calling her “Cate” now? I knew girls, like guys, liked to shorten each other’s names to prove to the world the importance of their friendship. It was a stamp of ownership.
I wonder what this girl Cate’s glasses looked like. I smile again, almost laugh. Catherine’s were pink, huge and plastic in second grade. In second grade, Catherine was my best friend. In second grade my dad was a cop. In second grade my mom was still beautiful.
I feel a hitch in my chest, my heart stalling out, and for a second, the bus and every dirty morning thing in it is gone. The space around me shrinks, overheats. I dig my headphones out of my pocket, plug them in my ears and click on a random playlist as I slide onto the seat at the back of the bus next to Shawn, and I wish to Christ he actually is gone, but he’s poking me and pointing at the girl with the sloppy ponytail and missing glasses.
I yank out one ear piece. “What?”
“That bitch got me banned from the bus for a month last year.”
“Fuck you, man. She’s not a bitch,” I say.
“You know her?”
I bite my lip. “No.” I plug my earpiece back in. I don’t want to talk to Shawn about her either. I scroll through my playlists, sneaking glances at the girl with the missing glasses and her friends as a little Pop Evil streams through my headphones.
The girl looks aghast at her friends as they pull out some makeup and coerce her to let them paint her eyes and lips. God, it’s hilarious to watch. The pinch of her mouth tells me she’d rather be anywhere else. The state of her hair tells me she doesn’t care about things like makeup. As I watch, I wonder how I’m going to figure out if she’s the Catherine I remember.
Ask her if she remembers me?
Ask if she remembers digging for slugs or panning for tadpoles in the muddy creek behind my house when we were little?
Catch her as she gets off the bus? Say, Hey, I’m Michael Casey. Remember Red Fang? Christ, it all sounded so lame.
Then Fate takes over.
The bus dips in a deep pothole and bounces. My teeth clack together, and Meri-Merideth’s makeup box tips in her hands. The makeup flies everywhere, and I watch with interest as the pink mascara tube rolls toward me down the aisle and disappears behind my feet. It hits the back of the bus and rattles around.
I yank both headphones out in time to hear Cate-with-the-missing-glasses yelp a little prissy expletive. She stumbles down the aisle toward me, her eyes on my feet, searching for the tube. When she squats down awkwardly in front of me, I can smell the shampoo in her hair, and I lean forward with my elbows on my knees, my stupid tie dangling in front of her. Then she looks up into my face. Merideth-Meri did a good job. This girl’s eyes are a little tired, but her irises, ringed with gold, are the deepest blue I’ve ever seen.
And I can tell she has no idea who I am.
Suddenly I can’t breathe. So I force a little smile and nervously look away before finding the guts to look back. I want to ask her full name. I’m hoping she’s Catherine, but I’m suddenly painfully aware of the fuck up I am now.
I look down at my Converse, which are blocking her access to the mascara, which is rolling around behind them, and decide to tease her instead.
“So…what are you going to do now?” I look away again like I don’t really care.
I hear a little huff in her voice. “Um…threaten to tell everyone you stole my mascara if you don’t give it back?” The huff is adorable. Yeah, teasing was definitely the way to go.
I look back at her and say, “Now that wouldn’t be true. I don’t think that is your mascara.”
Her face turns pink. “Okay…tell everyone you stole Meri’s mascara?” she says, adding some attitude. I like the attitude better.
“Now that would put a dent in my reputation,” I agree. And I’m out of words, on edge as our thin connection stretches even thinner, so I bend over to grab the mascara for her. When I sit back up, there is a shocked expression on her face and her eyes are on my right arm. I glance down. My sleeve has slipped up a few inches. I look back at her face, angry and defensive. It’s only a fucking tattoo, I think. My words are back. Explosive words. Mean, accusatory words. But I don’t hurl them at her because the bus suddenly slows and she falls face first into my lap. Her hands are on my thighs, her warm, soft body presses against my chest, and I can’t breathe again. She’s not very big.
When the bus jerks to a stop, she starts to fall away from me, and I almost drop the mascara as I catch her wrists just before her head hits the hard seatback behind her. “Whoa,” I murmur. Her blouse gapes above the top button, and I can’t help it, I glance inside and see her lacy bra. But that’s not what catches my eye and makes me pause, makes me want to pull the now and solid realness of her in tight and push her away at the same time.
I remember the little silver ring I see on the chain around her neck. The ring rests just above the small mound of her breasts beneath her shirt. I’ve seen that ring before. Touched it.
And I know for certain she’s Catherine.
My name, my ticket to more time with her, sits on the tip of my tongue, but it won’t budge. What do you say to someone you haven’t seen in eight years? How do you clear away almost a decade of shit to dive back in to a stupid, little kid friendship you held onto for years in your head to stay sane? How much would she remember? Would she even care?
In the few seconds it takes these questions to spill through my head, something bizarro happens. An electric tingle grows where my hands circle her wrists to keep her safe, steady.
Catherine tries to pull away. Her eyes are wide. “Sorry,” she says.
I search her face. Does she feel it, too?
I can’t tell. Her cheeks are deep pink again, and I realize I’m holding on a little too tight. I realize our faces are a little too close for two strangers who just met on a fucking city bus. My eyes are unguarded.
I let go and glance away. She grabs the mascara out of my hand. “Thanks. See you around?” There’s a real question there. I can tell she’s not just being polite. Her voice is soft. She pauses. Waiting. But I can’t look in her eyes again. All I can do is nod as she turns and walks away from me back up the aisle to her seat. Her friends are laughing. Shawn is poking me again. But I shove my headphones back in my ears, turn up the volume, close my eyes and tip my head back on the seat. I don’t look at her the rest of the bumpy ride to school. I don’t want to see her with her perfect friends in her happy life. And I’m suddenly not sure if I’ll ever introduce myself, make her remember.
After everything I’ve done since I saw her last, maybe it would be better if we both forgot.