“Scorcher,” by Chauna Craig

People Holding Cigarettes 0 Comments

Someday it won’t burn, this smoke searing her lungs. And that, thinks Sylvie, after a long drag that shortens her breath, is when everything else will.

No rain on the high plains for over a month. Grass parched, high nineties. Everyone wants to be somewhere else, but the oil crisis lingers. The travel agency is like a funeral home but with better lighting and bright posters—toothy stewardesses who look down on her all day. She walks outside on her smoke breaks, even in the heat.

Linda smokes by the door so she can rush for the phone. She’s still there. Sylvie slows and pulls fiercely on the too-short cigarette. Burns the backs of her fingers. Yelps and drops it to smolder on the sidewalk.

“Stamp that out,” Linda warns, rubbing hers into the brick wall where she leans. Another charred hatch marking time.

“Yes,” chirps Sylvie. “Fire safety!” First, Smokey the Bear, then her smokejumper boyfriend, now a woman who thinks she’s everybody’s mother. She stomps on the butt, grinding it with her shoe until the heel snaps.

“Damn! Why do these things happen to me?”

Linda shakes her head.

“Is that the phone?” Sylvie asks. She watches her co-worker scurry inside. Alone, she breathes the warm, clean air, hand pressed to her aching chest.

“Pranksters,” Linda says when Sylvie limps inside and sits at her desk beneath a beautiful brunette encouraging her to fly the friendly skies.

The phone rings for real then, her line. “Hi, baby,” the smokejumper says. She leans back in her chair, props her broken shoe on the desk.

“Dropped your cigarettes,” Linda calls, tossing them in her lap.

“Cigarettes?” the smokejumper says like he’s never heard of them. “Since when do you smoke?”

“Since you left for the third time this month,” she says, remembering the way last night’s cowboy let his cigarette dangle from under his moustache. The scorched, tickling kiss.

“I don’t create the fires. I just fight them.”

“And how’s this one?”

“Hot and dangerous. Like you.”

“But you don’t create fires, you just fight them, remember? And I don’t go anywhere, just help everyone else live their escape fantasies.”

He clears his throat. “Baby, I’m calling to apologize. For the other night. I shouldn’t have called you that.” She invokes her right to remain silent. “You’re not a whore.” She twirls the broken shoe. “Please. Say something.”

“Stay safe,” she says, her throat unexpectedly hoarse. “I gotta go.” A young couple walks in. Linda’s gone to the back for typewriter ribbon.

“Welcome,” Sylvie says, baring her teeth in a smile. She needs this commission.

“It’s a scorcher out there,” the man says, mopping his neck with his collar while his wife fumbles for a handkerchief.

“Alaska?” Sylvie points to the colorful brochures on her desk. The man fans himself with Las Vegas.

“Somewhere cool, but not that cool,” chimes the wife. “Maybe the mountains.”

“Vegas is great if you’re feeling lucky,” Sylvie drawls, holding the man’s gaze until he drops his eyes.

“Cooler,” his wife repeats.

“Jamaica? Aruba? You can go anywhere. Depends what you’re willing to pay.” Each syllable sparks on her lips, trying to catch.

_____

Craig Portrait 1

Chauna Craig’s flash fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash International, Crab Orchard Review, Sudden Stories, and You Have Time for This: Contemporary American Short Short Stories. Her first story collection, The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, will be published by Queens Ferry Press (@QFPress) in 2016. Follow her at www.chaunacraig.com and @ChaunaCraig.

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