This snap fiction story (what’s that?) asked for a light when I spotted a jumble of cigarettes and an abandoned pack on the pavement near my home.
Here’s the snap I took that day and the story that it inspired. Enjoy!
Waiting for Ignition
Petra took a moment the way one takes a dog by the scruff if its neck, forcing it to sit. Clarity is a function of attention, and attention a function of time—so if it was clarity she needed, she must claim the time, restraining it into submission.
What is was that had made her stop in the middle of a rolling flock of shoppers she didn’t know. It could have been the bearded sexagenarian in the unflattering tawny parka, slavishly following his unintentionally garish wife out of one shop and into another, without even the pretense of interest. It could have been the youngish, tired couple hoisting their impatient, flailing preschoolers onto their shoulders to speed their way to the movie theater. It could have been any of the anonymous extras in this tableau that Petra had wrested from an unsuspecting moment.
Sit. Down. Good boy. Wait.
She looked at the abused pack in her left hand, lid still open, one cigarette already extracted and waiting for ignition between two fingers; in her right hand, the disposable lighter obligingly awaited its cue.
How had she ever started smoking? For her generation, there was no excuse. Before she ever lit her first smoke, she had known all about the “merchants of doubt” and their cynical campaign to immunize the tobacco trade against the truth. For Petra, smoking had been an admission of weakness from the start: the reluctant concession that in her heart, the need for belonging would always trump dignity.
Drop it. Heel. Stay.
She did sense the docile multitude of consumers moving around her, skirting her moment like magnetized particles avoiding a contrary pole. But in her little vortex, Petra felt the weight of the pack, the weight of its lineage—and the gravity of what she had abandoned in her pursuit of love.
He was the one who had smoked, not she. He was the one who had claimed her, who had demanded sacrifice. He had embodied a promise and he had not delivered.
Could she do it? she thought. In forsaking the addiction, could she also discard the unhallowed dependence that had introduced her to it? Nothing comes from nothing. She might peel away the onion, layer by layer, but there would always be more to cry about.
Who it was that had eventually bumped into her she would never know. It could have been the sauntering teenage boy, a long distracted arm wrapped around his girlfriend’s shoulders. It could have been the lanky barista weaving her way back to the coffee shop from her lunch break in the park.
But there it was. On the floor. The mess of her compulsion, the muddle of her life. Released, unhanded in an instant. And her little moment began to stir. In faithful obedience, it asked for direction. Petra sensed an auspicious levity in the air, and she finally knew what do to.
Stand. Leave it. Come.
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