Gretchen Takes a Swan Dive For Her Swan Song


How was I ever gonna be able to let this go, I thought to myself as I sat on the patio furniture of our Richmond, Virginia, estate one final time this unusually warm mid-spring evening, taking up the center of the patio couch with my arms around the waists of two gorgeous young smoking women on both sides of me while overlooking the drained pool in front of me.

To my left was my loving wife Gretchen, 38 years old but as attractive and sexy as ever in her tanktop and pale blue cutoffs as she lit up the latest in her endless chain of Marlboro Reds 100s only seconds after crushing out the previous one in the overflowing ashtray on the table to her left.   The mixed emotion was evident on her face as she dragged contemplatively from her freshly lit cigarette, as it appeared to be finally sinking in that this was her final night as the CEO of Philip Morris after three very eventful years of turning the company around and reinvigorating the cigarette marketplace that had been left for dead for a generation before Gretchen figured out a way, against all odds, to make smoking cool again.  The job had been a love-hate affair for her for the past three years, but Gretchen had a young family to take care of and the demands of this job had kept her from tending to her family for too long.  It was time to move on.

To my right on the patio couch wearing a black blouse and matching black leather leggings was Sophia Fiorentino, Gretchen’s 22-year-old protege who stood poised to take over Philip Morris in Gretchen’s absence after more than two years of being groomed for the position.  As Sophia fired up her latest Parliament 100 while snuggling herself deeper into the right side of my body, her Italian goddess beauty shined as bright as her professional ambition.  Whatever mixed emotion was evident on Gretchen’s face this evening, Sophia cut the profile of a young woman overcome with confidence, aspiration, and swagger who knew she was right on the doorstep of inculcating the professional world in a tangible way.  The intense drag from her Parliament and deliberately stylish follow-up exhale that flowed symmetrically from her mouth and nose viscerally projected the confidence from which Sophia was about to take the world by storm.  It was a look I recognized from Gretchen three years earlier.

I lowered my hands from Gretchen and Sophia’s waists to their asses, enjoying the contrast between the casual tight denim clutching Gretchen’s lower body and the smooth, buttery faux leather from Sophia’s leggings.  I squeezed the two of them closer to me and admired that the superficial differences between the young ladies’ looks and wardrobe preferences fused together coherently when it came to their love of tobacco, and the smoky odor clinging to them as they cuddled with me was indistinguishable.  The overlapping of their worlds was approaching its completion, and I’d been lucky enough to be the literal middleman enjoying both girls for the past year now.

Much as I was enjoying the smoky silence with the past and future faces of corporate tobacco, I just had to take this opportunity to pick their brains one final time, asking aloud “How crazy is it that this is our last night together?”, throwing the generic jump ball out there and seeing where Gretchen or Sophia would take it.

“Mmmmm….I’ll miss these nights with the three of us sharing this couch,” Gretchen mused through a dense talking exhale in her intensely husky long time smoker’s voice, a flirtatious look on her face as she added, “….and sharing our bed.”

Sophia laughed as she took a deep drag from her Parliament and nodded in agreement even though I had hoped for her own sake that Sophia was ready to move on from being the third wheel in our “throuple” just as she was ready to move on from merely being Gretchen’s top lieutenant at Philip Morris.  She nonetheless played along as she flattered us through a talking exhale and added, “It’s definitely been the most exciting sex I’ve ever had with you guys.   When I try to light up a cigarette in my next boyfriend’s bed and blow the smoke in his face I probably won’t get the same reaction that I get from you two.”  Sophia gently nudged her chin on to my shoulder and added, “….especially from Mark,” a residual blast of Parliament smoke spraying me in the face and adding to the electric sensation I was already feeling.

Gretchen agreed but added, “I really do hope you get out there and date again soon, Sophia.  We’ve kind of been a crutch for you the past year.  Between us and the pandemic, you’ve sat out some of the best months of your life for playing the field.  I definitely think it’s time to strike out on your own, in dating and in the corporate boardroom.”

I nodded in agreement with Gretchen.  As much as I loved the regular diet of threesomes I was getting with Gretchen and Sophia, it was obvious it was an arrangement of convenience for Sophia, who got off on our mutual kinky fetishes and was able to indulge them sexually without the hard work and time commitments of dating.

Sophia seemed unconvinced as she took another deep drag from her cigarette, responding as though she’d already given this plenty of thought.  “You know the regulators and our competitors are about to take the gloves off and really come at us hard now.  I can’t let my guard down long enough to date the field,” Sophia responded in reference to her new corporate role.  “Any free time I have I’ll be spending with Jordyn,” she added, in reference to her five-year-old daughter.

Gretchen nodded in agreement as she pulled in the final remnants of tobacco from her current Marlboro Red in a deeply intense drag that glowed brightly only a couple of inches from my left cheek.  “I can’t argue with your priorities, Sophia.  I know you take your daughter and this company very seriously.”  Gretchen shifted to playful eyes again as she leered past me toward Sophia and added, “But I also know you well enough to predict you’re gonna explode if you don’t get laid!”

A husky laugh emerged from Sophia as she finished off her Parliament.  “Oh I have some options in mind,” she responded unconvincingly, fluttering her eyelashes as the final stream of smoke spilled from her face.  “Plus you guys say you’re coming to visit a lot.  And I’ll be visiting the Midwest to check out our assets there,” Sophia added in reference to the tobacco fields in Missouri recently activated as part of Philip Morris’s comeback strategy that Gretchen engineered.  “Maybe I’ll get out there a little more frequently knowing you guys will be waiting.”

Gretchen tried to hide her disappointment as she lit another Marlboro Red, not wanting to see Sophia continue to lean on the two of us for sexual fulfillment, particularly when we were about to be a time zone away.  Even though having the opportunity to sexually service both the queen and princess of corporate tobacco for the past year had been the honor of my life, I couldn’t disagree with Gretchen that it was time for all of us to move on, and it was unfortunate that Sophia didn’t seem to be taking the hint.

Retrieving her pack of Parliaments with sexual lust in her eyes as she lit up, Sophia lifted her leg draped in the tight faux leather and extended it over my lap and Gretchen’s.  With her Mona Lisa-like ability to direct eye contact upon both of us at the same time, Sophia ingested a fiercely deep drag of smoke off of the light-up and parted her exhale in deliberate and diverging streams off of her exhale, sending half of it drifting into my face and the other half drifting into Gretchen’s face.

I was fully enraptured by Sophia’s gesture, but Gretchen was not yet comfortable enough to fully get into it, looking over her left shoulder to our house with trepidation.  Gretchen looked back to Sophia as if to indicate she should hold off on the foreplay a bit longer, and then verbalizing her misgivings about the timing.  “Maybe give it about 10 more minutes before we get started,” Gretchen requested, using her cigarette to point to the upstairs of the mansion.  “We gotta make sure Kaitlyn and Brayden are sound asleep.”

Sophia nodded in halfhearted agreement, understanding Gretchen’s maternal instinct of sparing her offspring from the awkwardness of our unusual romantic arrangement but also a bit annoyed that that maternal instinct was stalling the mood of what we all wanted to be a special night.  Sophia kept her leg spread out across my lap and Gretchen’s as she looked past Gretchen to the baby monitor on the patio next to Gretchen’s ashtray that served as a listening post into Brayden’s bedroom, wondering how much longer it would be before bedtime for the kids would yield to playtime for the adults.  Sophia gave Gretchen an inviting smile as both women took deep drags from their respective cigarettes while locking eyes, with Gretchen’s body language conveying her continued inadvertent power dynamic that lingered over Sophia both professionally and personally.

——————————-

Meanwhile, from upstairs in our home, the glowing cherry of a freshly lit cigarette illuminated the dark bedroom window in the moments before the window was slid open.  A plastic bag full of unknown contents was dropped through the open second-floor window and crashed onto the shrubbery landscaping with minimal noise.  From there, a green rubber garden hose was tossed out, serving as a makeshift rope from the second-floor window to the ground outside.

Our 13-year-old daughter nervously tugged on the garden hose from her end, tied in a knot to the base of her bed frame and theoretically providing her a way out of her bedroom and a way back in while avoiding the detection of her parents or anybody else.  With a Marlboro Red 100 dangling from her lips, Kaitlyn smiled with glee in the split second before making her escape.   She climbed up on the window sill and began slowly repelling the garden hose to the great outdoors.

Kaitlyn descended the siding of our house with the stealthness of a cat burglar but without the appearance of a night bandit, her all-white ensemble glowing in dramatic contrast to the darkness of the night sky.   Her lacy white top revealed enough skin above her chest and below her midriff to be parent-unapproved on its own, but Kaitlyn also poached her favorite white denim miniskirt from Gretchen’s closet to complement the top.  Since she was a young girl, she’d admired the way the miniskirt looked on Gretchen, but now that they were close to the same size, Kaitlyn figured it was her turn to see how it looked on her.  While she didn’t want to get caught as she approached the completion of her slow-motion descent, part of Kaitlyn wished there was a witness to her escape as she puckered her lips confidently around the cork-filter cigarette still dangling from her mouth and thought she cut the profile of a real badass sneaking out of her parents’ home in her miniskirt.

Kaitlyn quietly picked up the plastic bag that she dropped out the window before climbing out and proceeded to run into the darkness of the gated community to her destination.   She took one final look over her shoulder while her home was still in view, knowing that Sophia was over and counting on us being distracted enough to not notice she was gone.  Once she was a comfortable distance from home, Kaitlyn slowed down, her early teen lungs more winded than they probably should have been.   As she approached her Marlboro Red to her lips for a final drag, she completely accepted that her windedness was unequivocally the result of her increasingly heavy smoking.

Kaitlyn dug her phone out of the back pocket of her white miniskirt and used the illumination of the final street light on the block to text a message on her phone to “Mason”.   It only took her about 20 seconds to craft the message reading “I’m out!  Lucas and I will meet you at the gate in 10 minutes!” before clicking send, the electricity of her naughty teenage antics beaming upon her face.  She put her phone into the back pocket of her miniskirt where it came from, and also where she plucked her pack of Marlboro Reds and lighter from.  A scheming smirk filled Kaitlyn’s face as she placed the unlit cigarette to her lips and recalled how the most trouble she usually got into was related to when Gretchen and I scolded her for smoking too much in recent months.  As she approached her lighter to spark up the cigarette, Kaitlyn took satisfaction in realizing that smoking too many cigarettes would be the least of her parents’ concerns about her bad behavior tonight.  A big messy burst of smoke blasted out of Kaitlyn’s face into the warm night sky before she scurried off into the darkness.

———————-

A few minutes later, Kaitlyn approached the fence at the front gate of the neighborhood where we lived, home mostly to Philip Morris employees and isolated largely for their security against a world full of haters.  She smiled as she saw a familiar teenage boy standing nervously in front of the fence, revealing herself so as not to startle him.

“Lucas!” Kaitlyn exclaimed in an elevated whisper as she approached.  “It’s me!”

The odor of Kaitlyn’s cigarette smoke tipped off Lucas to her emerging presence a split second before he visually spotted her, his breath taken away at the sight of the spunky Kaitlyn in her suggestive outfit.  A mischievous smirk on her face, she lifted the plastic bag into Lucas’s line of vision and shook it as she made her final approach as if signaling she had a big surprise in store for him.

“What’s in the bag?” Lucas cooperatively inquired.

Kaitlyn’s mischievous smirk grew wider as she playfully responded, “You’ll find out in a few minutes,” pulling her cigarette to her lips for a final drag and then tossing the cork filter butt through the fence, watching closely at Lucas’s response as she theatrically released her exhale, hoping for some sign of visceral arousal from Lucas that she frequently detected from Mason, but being disappointed when once again failing to detect any.  Her disappointment didn’t last long though as she admired the dimpled smile of her classmate and friend who she’d found herself increasingly attracted to in recent weeks, awaiting the aggressive return gesture of affection that she knew was coming.

“You always know how to keep me guessing,” Lucas flirted, putting his hands on Kaitlyn’s hips and pulling her close.

Kaitlyn beamed as she pulled in for a kiss, exchanging tongue with Lucas for a few moments as they both allowed themselves to momentarily forget that this would be their last evening together.  The sound of rustling footsteps from outside the gates quickly broke Kaitlyn’s focus and she immediately pulled herself away from Lucas’s lip lock, not wanting to get busted by the boy she figured was probably approaching.

“Mason?” Kaitlyn called out in hopes of an affirmative response.

“Yeah.  It’s me,” Mason identified himself, bringing about a beaming smile from Kaitlyn but a look of annoyance from Lucas who knew his time of having Kaitlyn to himself had now passed.

Kaitlyn walked up to the security gate and started punching in code numbers to allow “community outsider” Mason inside.   The gate opened and Kaitlyn’s brunette seventh-grade friend stepped inside, mixed emotion on his face upon seeing Kaitlyn and recognizing it would be his last night with her, and also upon seeing Lucas, his friend from school who increasingly cut the profile of a romantic rival vying for Kaitlyn’s affections.

“Glad you could make it, Mason!” Kaitlyn muttered teasingly, as if he’d been holding up the show, even though he had by far the longest travel time of the three of them.

Mason rolled his eyes affectionately and responded, “My parents will kill me if they find out I’m gone!”

Kaitlyn laughed as she dug her Marlboro Reds pack out of her skirt pocket and responded, “Mine too, but who cares!  It’s our last night!”  With a pouty look on her face, Kaitlyn placed a cigarette between her lips and lit up, noticing that Mason maintained eye contact on her the entire time and reminded Kaitlyn why he was still in the game despite her more instinctive attraction to Lucas.

Kaitlyn began to reach into her bag, and through a talking dangle, rattled off the terms for her teenage male suitors.  “No peeking just yet but I have a couple of gifts to pass along to you two right away,” Kaitlyn opened, pulling out two packs of Marlboro Reds and handing one each to Lucas and Mason.

“Thanks,” Lucas said, grabbing hold of the pack of cigarettes and rapping it against his wrist, giving off the vibe of a seasoned smoker before he opened the pack and plucked the first cigarette out.  Lucas regained Kaitlyn’s romantic attraction as her female hormones raged upon witnessing the ruggedly masculine way that Lucas handled himself with that cigarette.  With the unlit Marlboro Red dangling from his lips, Lucas made eye contact with Kaitlyn, asking “Can I have your lighter?”

Kaitlyn swooned as she handed Lucas her lighter and watched him spark up that cigarette and produce a geyser of smoke with his first drag.  She could tell the harshness of the smoke was quickly getting to the novice smoker Lucas as he quickly reached up to remove the cigarette from his mouth, but Kaitlyn greatly appreciated the show of strength as she took back her lighter from him.

Mason picked up on the chemistry between Kaitlyn and Lucas and frowned as he disinterestedly opened the pack of cigarettes that Kaitlyn handed him.  Mason had tried smoking cigarettes with Kaitlyn a number of times over the past year and a half, but despite the sex appeal it had for him when he watched Kaitlyn smoke, he didn’t much care for smoking himself.  He removed one cigarette from the pack and stuck it behind his ear while putting the rest of the pack in his jeans pocket.

Kaitlyn swiveled around with lighter in hand, making eyes with Mason with a hint of guilt she barely tried to disguise.   “Need a light, Mason?” she asked before taking a drag from her own cigarette.

“Nah…maybe later,” Mason responded, pointing to the cigarette that he placed in his ear.

Kaitlyn smiled, still finding it adorable that as much as Mason was intrigued by her smoking that he wasn’t much of a smoker himself.   She smirked again and responded, “Well I gave you guys cigarettes for a reason and in a few minutes I’m gonna insist you light one up for me!”

Confusion filled Mason’s face as he responded, “Why?”

“Follow me to the park and I’ll show you,” Kaitlyn responded with a mischievous gleam on her face, grabbing hold of Mason’s hand and guiding him toward her destination.  Upon looking to her right to see the envious look of Lucas, Kaitlyn proceeded to place her half-smoked Marlboro Red in her mouth, sliding her hand inside the handles of the plastic bag and then grabbing hold of Lucas’ hand.  She led the way up the hill toward the park with a boy on each hand and a cigarette between her lips, feeling empowered, carefree, and even more rebellious than usual.

A couple of minutes later, Kaitlyn arrived at the park in the gated community, releasing the hands of both of her boyfriends and running a few yards ahead into the open grass of the park, announcing with a flourish “I might be leaving you guys, but I intend to go out with a bang!” as she opened the plastic bag to reveal its contents, taking out three separate racks of mortar tube fireworks.

Lucas and Mason made nervous eye contact for the first time tonight, slowly building to a smile upon realizing that Kaitlyn’s hype was about to live up to expectations completely.

Kaitlyn retrieved her pack of Marlboro Reds from the back pocket of her miniskirt once again and plucked out another.  She placed it in her lips and fired up, taking an intense dangling drag off of the light-up and letting the smoke flow from her mouth and nose as she exhaled and clarified her point from earlier.   “Now do you see why I gave you boys cigarettes?” fluttering her eyelashes to let them know they’d soon be helping her light the fuses of these fireworks.

———————–

Gretchen was sinking her lips forcefully upon my neck as Sophia unbuttoned and removed my shirt, sinking her face into my chest and applying oral pressure proportionally similar to Gretchen.  Even as the air began to cool that mid-spring evening, the sweat was only now starting to escape my pores with horny female smokers raising my body temperature despite the loss of clothing articles adorning my upper body.  I fully succumbed to the pleasure, savoring their hot smoky breath as it worked my body and completely taking it in this final time, knowing that none of us was long for this patio couch and that we’d all be heading upstairs for the bedroom at any moment.  I closed my eyes for a moment and listened to the labored breathing of the two heavy smokers as their lungs struggled to endure the rising tide of sexual intensity, yet I was still fully confident they’d both muster up the stamina to exact their naughtiest fantasies upon me.

But just as I began to approach peak erotic ecstasy, along with the macho confidence needed to convince myself I was capable of pleasuring both of these young ladies, the momentum was broken by the sound of a ringing cell phone.  I tried to block it out amidst the easily distracting feeling of female curves and lips slathered across my upper body, but after about the third ring, it was impossible to miss the pair of familiar lips drifting from my left side.

“Shit!” fumed the husky-voiced Gretchen as she pulled away from me.   “Who’s calling me on my private line at this hour?”

I kept my eyes closed and hoped the distraction wouldn’t last long, savoring Sophia’s ongoing attempts to fill the void in Gretchen’s brief absence, but the flicking of a lighter represented a rare and ironic instance of bad news for me when Gretchen continued, “This number is familiar,” as if recognizing the digits even though it wasn’t coming from a regular contact.

“This is Gretchen,” announced my wife to the caller on the other end, leading me to finally open my eyes to gauge her body language in response to the surprise call.  Upon seeing my interest, Gretchen silently mouthed to me, “It’s Mason’s mom.”

The momentum for my three-way sexual tryst was now completely stalled as I was entirely distracted by this development, wondering why one of Gretchen’s harshest critics was calling her after 10:00 at night.

“Whoa, slow down, there Angie,” Gretchen warned in the aftermath of a nervous drag from her Marlboro.  “Do you have any idea how long he’s been gone?”

The fire in Gretchen’s eyes smoldered as she listened to the hot-blooded reply on the other end of the line and then responded, “Excuuuse me!” with the maximally intimidating husk I was used to at times when Gretchen’s tone was at its most vexed.  “You better have your damn facts straight before you go throwing around accusations like that about my daughter!”

Sophia had by now retreated from my chest and I stood up from the patio couch, deeply concerned by the personal nature this conversation was going.

“I will check on her but I can assure you that she’s fast asleep,” Gretchen testily responded, pausing as more angry words were exchanged from Angie’s end.  She took one more intense drag from her cigarette before interrupting once again with a renewed gravelly husk in her voice that commanded instant gravitas.  “Stop right there!  Let’s keep from saying things we’ll both regret later.  I’ll check in on Kaitlyn….and you keep looking for Mason.  If I hear anything and if she knows anything, you’ll be the first to know.  Deal?”

Gretchen paused for the response, before cutting off the conversation with a curt “Alright.”   As she ended the phone call, I followed her eyes as they guided me in the direction of Kaitlyn’s bedroom.  Sophia hovered near the patio furniture, not knowing what to do with herself as she watched Gretchen and I quickly moving toward the back door of our home.

The two of us ascended the stairs hoping against hope that Kaitlyn would be in her bedroom fast asleep, but our intuition and her recent rebellious streak led us both to expect to find an empty bedroom.  Gretchen softly turned the doorknob on Kaitlyn’s bedroom door with tremendous anticipation, and she and I looked at each other with disappointment and distress as the moonlight shining through Kaitlyn’s opened bedroom window revealed an empty bed with a garden hose hanging outside.

We hustled on up to the open window and peered out the window, quickly putting together that Kaitlyn planned to eventually sneak back in the same way she slipped out.  Looking at Gretchen as she dragged from her cigarette, I couldn’t help but catch a glimmer of respect in her eye as she admired her daughter’s work, but the anger quickly returned as Gretchen fumed, literally and figuratively, before sneering “I’m gonna kill that girl.”

I nodded in agreement and responded, “Well we know she didn’t get far.  Let’s drive around till we find her.”

We raced back down the steps and it wasn’t until we saw Sophia waiting at the door with anticipation that it hit us that our final night together was now officially a bust.  While Sophia’s disappointment was evident by the look on her face, being a mother herself she understood our dramatically revised priority and offered, “Anything I can do to help?” when it became clear that Kaitlyn was not in her bedroom.

Gretchen apologetically smiled before replying, “If you could wait here while we drive around, in case she comes back while we’re away, that’d be great.”

Sophia lit up another Parliament as she nodded in agreement.  “Yeah…of course.”

I looked at her sympathetically and offered,  “Sorry we couldn’t make this work tonight.”

Her lips still puckered up around her cigarette filter, Sophia let it be known it was the last thing on her mind as she responded, “Don’t even think about it.  Just find that daughter of yours,” adding with a wry smirk, “And don’t be too hard on her okay?”

Strutting toward the driveway with her Marlboro Reds in one hand and her car keys in the other, Gretchen snorted, “We’ll see about that.”

I shrugged with a half-smile gesture toward Sophia as I followed Gretchen to the car.

In moments, we backed out of the driveway prepared to search the gated community first and then explore outside the gates if necessary.  Just as we pulled onto the street, we looked at each other as if knowing the most obvious place to check out was the neighborhood park a few blocks away, but before we could even verbally convey this shared epiphany with one another, we were startled by the sound of amateur explosives from a distance.  We looked to the evening sky to see a burst of sulfuric color lighting up the darkness overhead.  Next I made eyes with Gretchen, sensing both fury at Kaitlyn for running off with these fireworks to illegally fire off while they out of season as well as a bit of relief that Kaitlyn so quickly told on herself.  Gretchen did her best to compete with our daughter’s colorful light display as she puckered her lips around her Marlboro Red and made it glow bright while driving in the direction of the light show taking place in the park.

————————-

“Back up, Mason!  Back up!” Kaitlyn jubilantly cheered as Mason used his reluctant cigarette to set off the fuse for the latest mortar tube that was strategically placed a few yards apart from the one Kaitlyn had just set off.

Mason was rolling with the adrenaline rush as he obeyed Kaitlyn’s rhetorical command and backed away from the fuse he just lit, seconds before the fireworks erupted into the evening sky.   The three of them watched with wide-eyed middle-school excitement as the fireworks they set off lit up, spraying a rainbow of color over the usually quiet neighborhood.  All three held cigarettes between their fingers, but only Kaitlyn sold the look, pulling the Marlboro Red up to her lips for a natural drag as she watched the overhead colors fade.

“I got the next one!” Kaitlyn said emphatically as she scurried on up to the next mortar tube, her glowing cigarette extending from her right hand as she descended upon her target.

As she leaned over to place her smoldering cigarette to the tip of the mortar tube, Lucas and Mason both found themselves ogling Kaitlyn’s ass in that curve-hugging white miniskirt and taking it in for a moment before they both caught each other in the act.  Mason and Lucas looked at each other and shared a satisfied chuckle about Kaitlyn’s show but Lucas placed his cigarette confidently to his lips to establish himself as the alpha male, correctly evoking the upper hand he interpreted himself currently having over Mason in courting Kaitlyn’s affection.

Kaitlyn broke up the peacock festival between the boys as she came barreling back toward them, half-smoked cigarette dangling from her lips.  Her electric energy was contagious and redirected the boys’ attention back to the sky to see the visual spoils from the latest mortar shell she ignited.

“Your turn again, Lucas!” Kaitlyn exclaimed, using her cigarette to point to the final mortar tube in the collection that she wanted him to set off.

Lucas hustled on up and used his cigarette to set the fuse, albeit without the pomp and circumstance that Kaitlyn had brought to the occasion on the last one or the two previous fireworks she had set off.  The trio nonetheless watched the sky light up one final time, wonderment in their eyes knowing they were responsible for this out-of-season show and feeling more pride than guilt for it, especially given that it would be the boys’ final night with Kaitlyn.

Lucas took the reins and wrapped his arm around Kaitlyn’s mostly bare waist, pulling her in and being taken aback by how intense the cigarette odor remained on her even with the otherwise dominating odor of sulfur in their midst, watching as Kaitlyn took a final drag from her cigarette and then tossed its smoldering remains into the grass.  Kaitlyn welcomed Lucas’s embrace and put her arm around his waist in response and throwing an admiring glance at him as he dragged from his cigarette.  But the moment was short-lived as guilt overcame Kaitlyn, recognizing that first love Mason was standing by himself just to her right.  She looked over her shoulder and noticed the sadness in his eyes, a look she just couldn’t accept.

“C’mon Mason!” Kaitlyn exclaimed.  “Let’s all head to the swings!”  Taking a boy in each hand, Kaitlyn dragged them through the open grass toward the playground equipment about 50 yards away.   Once they arrived, Kaitlyn’s eyes lit up with another mischievous flair as she said, “Let’s see how high the three of us can get this bad boy!” in reference to the swing directly in front of them.   Kaitlyn looked to Lucas, suggesting “You’re the biggest….why don’t you sit down first?”

Lucas took a final drag from the cigarette he had been smoking since they started setting off the fireworks and then took a seat on the swing.   Kaitlyn lit another cigarette before parking her ass on Lucas’ lap on the swing.  She then looked at Mason, motioning him to take the top bunk on the human pyramid.  Both boys knew that Kaitlyn was taking full advantage of the situation but nonetheless welcomed the opportunity for such close contact with the hottest girl at school, the touch of her body combined with the intense aroma of smoke clinging to her sending tingles through the boys’ bodies.

With a jubilant laugh, Kaitlyn stretched her feet to the sand below and Lucas did the same, sending the swing into motion.  Even with both the swing and all three teenagers moving, Kaitlyn still adeptly placed her Marlboro Red in her mouth to take a deep drag before extending her arm out to avoid burning her friends.  The eruption of smoke as she exhaled gave both boys just a little more motivation, particularly as their skin rubbed against hers.

After about 60 seconds of literal swinging, they’d had enough and Lucas let his feet bring the ride to an abrupt conclusion, leaving all three of them primed for a continued run of metaphorical swinging.  After pumping her lungs full of cigarette smoke and deciding which boy to move on first, Kaitlyn ultimately followed her instinct and gravitated toward Lucas sitting beneath her, beginning to aggressively engage in an open-mouth kiss even more intense than the one they shared earlier.  But doing her best to avoid making Mason feel left out, Kaitlyn grabbed him by the back of the head to press his lips against her neck.  While Mason still felt a little jealous knowing his stature at the top of this pyramid did not translate to the pecking order of Kaitlyn’s current preference, he nonetheless indulged the opportunity to feast on Kaitlyn’s neck even if it meant occasionally bobbing heads with his romantic rival Lucas who continued to share lip action with her.

A look of adolescent ecstasy filled Kaitlyn’s face, her eyes lighting up brighter than all the artificial sulfuric color of the hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks she’d just shot into the sky.  Whatever feelings of guilt that may have bedeviled her earlier were superseded by pleasure as she made out with her two best friends, feeling one of each of their hands stroking her bare legs.  She had no intention of letting things go too far when she first sat down on this swing, but at this moment, it was becoming less clear to her that she could rein in her raging hormonal urges.  No sooner did that thought enter her mind before an intervention brought her back down to Earth, with two shining headlights from a car in the nearby parking lot putting Kaitlyn’s show on full display for a critical parental audience.

Gretchen and I briefly sighed in relief as we saw the familiar face of our 13-year-old daughter a few yards in front of our headlights, but quickly reverted to anger as we recognized what she was up to with not one but two boys from school.  Despite all three of them clearly noticing us, Kaitlyn defiantly beckoned Lucas and Mason’s respective lips back to her mouth and neck as if to maximize our annoyance.  I laid on the car horn before stepping outside, about to vent my anger but knowing that Gretchen would do so far more effectively and intimidatingly than I was capable of.

“What’s wrong with you, Kaitlyn!!?” Gretchen exclaimed, angry bursts of smoke charging from her mouth and nose at an even faster speed than her hustled legs as she charged toward Kaitlyn and the boys.

With the smug self-satisfaction of a rebellious teen who had outsmarted her parents long enough to have an unforgettable night, Kaitlyn stood up off the swing with the boys and retorted, “Giving my friends something to remember me by on our last night together….that’s all!” as she took a final drag from her spent cigarette and flung it to the grass with an appropriately defiant flair.

Gretchen’s unamused response quickly shifted to Lucas as she asked, “Are you Jenna McNeill’s kid, Lucas?”, referencing one of Philip Morris’ marketing employees who lived in their gated community.

His face overcome with the most intimidation of the three despite his night-long efforts to play it cool with Kaitlyn, Lucas nodded affirmatively and responded “Yes ma’am!” to Gretchen with terror in his voice.

“If you run on home right now, I might think about not telling your mom about this tomorrow.  Sound like a deal?” Gretchen bargained.

“Yes ma’am!” Lucas responded again, wasting no time turning around and running as quickly as he could in the direction of his home and hoping he’d dodge a bullet with his parents if he could sneak back in.

I decided to lower the temperature a bit as I directed remarks to Mason, who I had a good rapport with going back to Kaitlyn’s first date with him at the root beer drive-in well over a year ago.  “Unfortunately, Mason.  You’re not gonna get off as lucky as your friend.  Your mom already knows you left home.”

Mason sighed, realizing this current confrontation would only be an appetizer to the trouble he would be in.

Gretchen picked it up from there, adding, “I’m calling your mom to have her pick you up.  We’ll all be waiting right here till she gets here,” she added as she placed her half-smoked Marlboro Red to her lips and dangled as she dialed the phone.  Nobody could take their eyes off of Gretchen as she spoke into the cell phone through a talking dangle to convey to Mason’s mother that they’d found him and would wait there to let her into the gated community and pick her son up.

When the conversation ended, Gretchen maintained her icy glare upon the two lovebird teens she was so disappointed with, and frustrated by the conflicting responses by the kids, with Mason looking fearful and despondent in sharp contrast to the brash, devil-may-care smirk that lingered on Kaitlyn’s face.

Kaitlyn stepped up her shameless rebellion as she put her hand around Mason’s waist and pulled him toward her.  “Don’t let ’em get to you, Mason.  It’ll all be worth it when you think back to this night and remember how much fun we had,” she said with a wink as she reached into the back pocket of her white miniskirt to retrieve her Marlboro Reds pack and lighter.

Gretchen and I were both about to tear into Kaitlyn for her sassiness but found ourselves speechless at the very adult-like way she slipped a Marlboro Red into her lips and flicked it to life with one motion, her pubescent bodily curves perfectly filling out that blouse and the miniskirt that Gretchen quickly realized was hers.

“Not another word from you till we get home, young lady!” Gretchen was finally able to get out while still mostly at a loss for words while visually taking in Kaitlyn’s hastening transformation from a child to a young woman.

Kaitlyn immediately picked up on her body being the center of attention, letting the cigarette hang from her lips as she continued to squeeze Mason tight and then immediately defying her mom’s command by responding, “Your skirt looks great on me, doesn’t it mom?” pausing with a mischievous smirk and adding through a bobbing cigarette, “But I’m sure it’ll still look great on you too!”

Gretchen and I both had to suppress a smile in response to Kaitlyn’s mind games, but I maintained my stern exterior as I backed Gretchen up.   “Your mother said not another word from you till we get home, Kaitlyn.  That means you keep your mouth shut!”

Kaitlyn nodded with another defiant smile, removing the cigarette from her mouth and exhaling in a way that clearly dominated the airspace of Mason who she continued to clasp onto.  As uncomfortable as he clearly was at this moment, I recognized in him that he was nonetheless savoring this intense, upclose exposure to my daughter’s secondhand smoke.  And as we all waited in silence for Mason’s mom to pick him up, it was pretty obvious that these were the final moments of pleasure for Mason to cling to before the consequences of running off to see Kaitlyn started really bearing down upon him.

A half hour passed before Mason’s mom picked him up and before Gretchen and I were pulling back into the driveway of our home.   Sophia waited in the driveway, puffing away on a Parliament and not wanting to miss our arrival, partly to be sure Kaitlyn was okay but also curious to see how much trouble she was in.  The three of us got out of the car, with both Gretchen and Kaitlyn smoking their respective Marlboro Reds.

Sophia came hustling on up to give Kaitlyn a hug, taken aback by her sexy outfit and the lingering look of self-satisfied pluck on Kaitlyn’s face.  “Good to have you back, honey,” Sophia said with obvious concern for the teenage Kaitlyn who she viewed as something of a niece for as close as we’d all become over the course of the last two years.  “But don’t ever do that to us again, okay?  You had us worried sick!”  Sophia pulled away from the hug and found it odd that Kaitlyn said nothing in response.  Observing the continued defiant smirk in Kaitlyn’s eyes, Sophia finally pressed, “Everything okay?”

Kaitlyn’s smirk intensified as she put her mostly smoked Marlboro Red in her lips and took out her cell phone and started texting away.  We were all curious what she was up to but knew it was gonna be another display of bratty teenage rebellion in one form or another.  After about 30 seconds of typing, Kaitlyn pressed send and Sophia’s phone buzzed as she received the text.

Sophia opened the text and read it aloud through a talking exhale, “Hey Sophia!  I’m great!  I had an awesome night!  But my parents told me I can’t say a word until I get home and technically we’re still in the driveway sooo…..”  Sophia smirked but shook her head at Kaitlyn as if signaling for her to not dig her hole any deeper.

Kaitlyn appeared proud of herself as she took a final drag from the cigarette and tossed it to the grass.

“I think it’s time for me to head home as I think your parents probably want to hear from you now,” Sophia said, leaning down to kiss Kaitlyn on the forehead affectionately as was common custom in the heavily ethnic Italian home Sophia grew up in, with Kaitlyn savoring the aroma of cigarette smoke blending with Sophia’s perfume and leather pants.

“Thanks so much for staying here while we looked for her Sophia,” I bid her adieu and she moved toward her car.  “We’ll see you tomorrow at the party.”

Sophia waved goodbye before driving off, leaving Gretchen and I with the singular focus of laying into Kaitlyn over all of her troubling behavior tonight.

“In the house right now, young lady!” Gretchen barked.  “We’re gonna talk about all the stuff we saw tonight.”

The smirk that had been on Kaitlyn’s face since she first got busted tonight continued to linger and it haunted us as we walked inside, especially Gretchen because it was an all-too-familiar pose that she remembered giving her own parents when she was about Kaitlyn’s age and starting to sow some wild oats.   Kaitlyn led the way into the house and hustled on into the living room to crash on the couch, folding her legs in the miniskirt and instinctively reaching to the back pocket to retrieve her lighter and another cigarette.

Neither of us had missed that Kaitlyn’s already prolific smoking habit had continued to escalate in the past few months, and with ready access to all the cigarettes she could get her hands on at the Philip Morris headquarters she visited Gretchen at regularly, had become nearly impossible to keep under control.  As Kaitlyn placed the cigarette in her mouth, I intervened.  “Another cigarette!” adding out of genuine curiosity, “How much are you smoking these days anyway, Kaitlyn?”

Kaitlyn maintained her defiant, above-it-all pluck as she approached her lighter to the tip of her cigarette and smugly replied, “Howeeeever much I want to.”

Gretchen’s rage boiled over and she reached out to rip the unlit cigarette out of Kaitlyn’s lips a split second before Kaitlyn was able to light it.  For the first time tonight, the smirk on Kaitlyn’s face was replaced with genuine fear of her mother’s aggression, the look of intimidation that Gretchen was typically able to impose on her tormentors finally having its intended effect.  The look of fury in Gretchen’s eyes and the dragon-like flairs of secondhand smoke bursting from her nose with every breath was a look Kaitlyn only saw when Gretchen’s rage was most personally and viscerally felt.

But seeing the fear in her daughter’s eyes and realizing how ineffective this approach had been on herself when she was Kaitlyn’s age, Gretchen abruptly backed down from the maximalist posture and put the cigarette back into Kaitlyn’s lips.  The fear in Kaitlyn’s eyes quickly abated as she welcomed her mother’s lighter to ignite her Marlboro Red.  At the very least, it appeared as though we broke through to her enough to get her off of the clouds and hopefully willing to engage.

“You know we don’t like being angry with you Kaitlyn but sneaking out in the middle of the night just won’t be tolerated,” Gretchen said as calmly as possible, letting out a mild smoker’s cough as she came down from her moments of raised blood pressure.

As Kaitlyn took an intense drag from her cigarette in silence and momentarily avoided eye contact, I continued “If you wanted to see your friends before you left, we’d have been happy to have let you hang out with them,” pausing to add, “Of course it would have been during the day and without any illegal fireworks.”

Kaitlyn couldn’t help but let another satisfied smirk cross her face before Gretchen laid in on what upset her most about what she saw tonight through a talking dangle.

“And what were you doing on that swing with both of those boys, Kaitlyn?” Gretchen inquired. ” I thought you were going out with Mason.”

“I am,” Kaitlyn responded with sincerity.

“Well then why were you kissing some other boy right in front of him?” Gretchen fired back.  “That’s very disrespectful to Mason.  You know better than that.”

“Pffft!” Kaitlyn sneered as she took another drag from her cigarette, adding “You guys are such hypocrites!”

Gretchen and I were both struck by Kaitlyn’s comment, and I responded with genuine confusion, “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh c’mon!” Kaitlyn replied with cigarette smoke angrily bursting from her mouth and nose just as it so frequently did from her mother’s.  “Do you really think I don’t know about you guys and Sophia?!??!”

Our daughter’s words knocked the wind out of our sails as Gretchen and I made brief eye contact in appreciation of being thoroughly busted.   Somehow, it had never occurred to either of us since seeing our daughter get groped by two teenage boys at once that we were inadvertently the source of the terrible example that inspired her human pyramid makeout session in the neighborhood park.  An extended silence filled the room as Gretchen and I both tried to think of how to respond to having the tables turned on us to this degree.  Sensing blood in the water, the look of confidence returned to Kaitlyn’s face and it was now Gretchen and I avoiding eye contact as Kaitlyn dragged from her cigarette like a boss, staring us down and sensing our shame.

————————————

The next afternoon, the banquet hall at the Philip Morris corporate headquarters was packed with people in a way that it hadn’t been in well over a year.  Just in time for public gathering restrictions to be lifted in the late stages of the COVID-19 pandemic following a critical mass of vaccinations, crowds of families and fellow employees met for the bittersweet going-away parties of two pivotal employees.  In addition to Gretchen’s departure as CEO, her mentor Wilson Stevens was retiring from the company, and they decided to have a going-away party for two on behalf of both of them.

Gretchen worked the banquet room saying her goodbyes to a number of employees, and I watched with pride from the seats near the punch bowl with Kaitlyn and Brayden as my wife received hugs and accolades from coworkers who clearly respected her greatly.  Approaching us with a cigar box was Gretchen’s beautiful youngest sister Melissa in the company of her three-year-old daughter Olivia and her niece Kilee, Kaitlyn’s closest cousin, all of whom came in with the rest of the family from Minnesota for Gretchen’s party.  Kaitlyn’s face lit up with excitement seeing the three of them approach, especially Kilee, and the girls’ electric energy was palpable as they didn’t get to hang out much since Kaitlyn moved to Virginia, a situation soon to be rectified as we were days away from moving back to Minnesota.

“Cigars anyone?” Melissa offered with a wry smile, upholding the Paulson family tradition of enjoying a cigar at a moment of celebration.

“Yeah, I’ll take one!” Kaitlyn responded excitedly, still smarting a bit from the previous night’s family drama but recovering quickly as kids do.

“Me too!” exclaimed an equally elated Kilee.

In her upscale black cocktail dress, Melissa was somewhat dressed the part of a 1920s-era “cigar girl” as she opened up the cigar box and handed one of the generous-sized sticks to both of her 13-year-old nieces and then took one out for herself.

“Got a light for us, dad,” Melissa said with a devilish smirk, placing the cigar in her mouth just as the girls did.

I shook my head pretending to be annoyed as I applied the butane flame from Melissa’s torch lighter first to Kaitlyn’s cigar, then to Kilee’s, and finally to Melissa’s, spending a good 60 seconds before they were all sufficiently lit.  With swirls of aromatic cigar smoke stinking up the room in a way that was tangible even in a smoky tobacco headquarters banquet room, I spent the next few minutes chatting with Melissa about her life back home in Minnesota with husband Zack and their daughter Olivia, occasionally including the shy Olivia in the conversation.

Meanwhile, Kaitlyn and Kilee bantered on the chairs next to me as they puffed on their cigars, with Kilee making no attempt to hide her excitement about Kaitlyn’s triumphant return to Minnesota as she exclaimed, “I’m so happy you’re coming back!”

Kaitlyn wrapped her lips around the big cigar and hoped it would hide her mixed feelings as she responded, “Yeah, me too,” pausing and then adding with a hint of sadness, “But I’ll miss my friends here.”

“Awww,” Kilee responded.  “You’ll make new ones fast though!  And you’ll have me!”

Kaitlyn nodded in agreement, but wanted to change the subject and take her mind off of moving away from Mason and Lucas.  She looked up to see Kilee’s mom Tina hand in hand with a well-dressed man she’d heard about and never seen before.  Using her cigar to point into the crowd, Kaitlyn asked “Is that Mitch?”

Kilee looked over her shoulder as she puffed from her cigar and nodded enthusiastically, responding  “That’s him!  He’s a really great guy.  We’re so glad to have him!” in reference to the man who swept single mom Tina off of her feet and recently asked her to marry him.

“That’s so sweet!” Kaitlyn responded with a smile.  “Your mom seems so happy with him.”

Overhearing the girls talking about Mitch and Tina, I took the opportunity to dish with Melissa about Tina and her fiancee as well, pleased that after years on her own that Tina finally found what seemed to be Mr. Right.  The apparent cozy situation at home with Gretchen’s family made it seem all the more appealing to leave the bustle of corporate life behind us and head back home to Minnesota in only a few days.

The dinging of silverware onto glasses distracted us from our conversation and we all looked into the crowd to see what the commotion was all about, seeing Wilson Stevens rise from his chair with a slightly embarrassed smile on his face.  He had clearly been beckoned by the crowd to give a short speech and grudgingly played along.

“All right, all right.  If this will get you off my back, I’ll say a few words,” Wilson said to applause from his long-time coworkers.  “Damn it, I stayed in the sales department and the boardroom for as many years as I did so I wouldn’t have to give speeches.  Y’all should know that by now,” he said to laughter.  “Seriously though, I couldn’t have asked for more with my career at this company.  We seemed to be going off on the wrong track several years ago but I’m pleased to see things have gotten back on track and I’m able to walk away knowing things are really looking good for the company I’ve spent more than 30 years with…..”

The room silently listened to Wilson’s speech, but the younger members of the crowd didn’t all have the patience for adult speeches, including my three-year-old son Brayden who was starting to fuss.  Her sisterly instincts kicking in, Kaitlyn grabbed hold of Brayden and sat him on her lap, grooming his hair to help settle him down.   I smiled at the gesture by my daughter to her younger brother, but she struggled to keep Brayden from continuing to act up.  The source of Brayden’s annoyance a moment earlier appeared to be sitting through the speech, but now it was clearly being in the direct presence of his sister’s cigar smoke.  As Kaitlyn cluelessly pulled the cigar to her mouth for an extended puff and carefully avoided burning Brayden with it, he pulled away with a wrinkled nose and buried his face in her sleeve in a futile effort to escape the smoke.  Kaitlyn just kept stroking his head like a loving big sister, not putting two and two together that her only sibling didn’t appear to share her love for tobacco.

I couldn’t help but smile as I observed, at this point hopelessly distracted from Wilson’s speech myself.  Having grown up with a smoking fetish myself and having noticed it in more than my share of other guys and young ladies over the years, I recognized the telling signs when they reared themselves…..and I also recognized signs of smoking repulsion when I saw it.  Given the Ellsworth and Paulson bloodlines that produced myself, Gretchen, and Kaitlyn, the odds were strong that the fourth member of our family would follow the family tradition of being favorably predisposed to tobacco smoke, but having witnessed my son in the presence of Gretchen and Kaitlyn and their heavy smoking during his formative toddler years, it was becoming increasingly clear he was poised to be the outlier among us.  I hadn’t mentioned these observations to Gretchen yet, but I can’t help but think she’s picked up on the same vibe.  Time would tell in the years to come how Brayden’s apparently instinctive revulsion to the habit that defined his mother’s life would manifest itself, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought that feisty Kaitlyn may actually prove to be the least challenging of our two kids.

“…but ultimately you got the wrong retiring Philip Morris employee making a speech,” Wilson continued.  “I will gladly yield my mic to my colleague who changed the culture of this company in a way I never imagined as possible and did so largely because of the silver tongue that I could never dream of aspiring to on my best day.”

Gretchen smiled upon hearing her mentor’s high praise and reluctantly walked toward him to rescue him from the spotlight, taking the mic and knowing that her audience was waiting for an inspiring message.  All eyes gravitated on Gretchen, decked out in her trademark white tanktop and pale blue cutoffs, not surprised at all that she’d wear what she’s most comfortable with at her going away party.  Raising her ever-present Marlboro Red to her lips for a deep drag before speaking, I was struck that from a distance she was almost entirely indistinguishable from the chain-smoking blond goddess I met at college 20 years ago despite a lifestyle that conventional wisdom said should have aged her much more quickly.

Gretchen waved her hand to calm the applause. “If we burn through all of our speeches right now, everybody’s gonna take off early.  I gotta save something for after the meal,” she announced half-jokingly through a messy talking exhale, her extremely husky voice being the first superficial tell of Gretchen’s 20 additional years of heavy smoking since I met her.  “I’ll make some final comments a little later on but I want to make this as much about celebrating and as little about business as possible.  After all, we’ve spent a year trudging through joyless social distancing mandates waiting to party….so let’s party!  In fact, I see my sister and daughter with cigars back there.  I think I might have to get in on some of that right now.   We’ll talk more later….”

The crowd applauded Gretchen’s brief oratorical appetizer as she parted the crowd huddled in front of her and ventured toward me and much of the rest of her family near the punch bowl.  She took a final drag from her cigarette and crushed it out in one of the many ashtrays placed throughout the boardroom, another reminder of how much Gretchen had restored the tobacco-friendly culture of the office in the past three years as the building was entirely smoke-free back in 2018 when she took over.

Gretchen hugged Melissa again upon seeing her and wasted no time dipping into the cigar box Melissa held out for her.  Gretchen indulged in a cigar a handful of times per year and it never quit being exciting for me when she did, so I happily did the honors of approaching the flame to the tip of her cigar.  Gretchen took the opportunity to scan the room as the flame slowly brought her cigar to life, and she smiled at the sight of Sophia’s five-year-old daughter Jordyn enthusiastically holding court in front of a dozen or so adults at the party, amused by the adorable little girl’s complete lack of inhibition as she relayed a story from school with maximal intensity and charisma.

“Looks like you have some competition in the speech-making department,” I mused, as Gretchen pulled her cigar away from the flame, smirking at the moxie of young Jordyn who couldn’t have more perfectly resembled her mother in appearance or tact.  We confirmed this as we looked past Jordyn and the crowd of adults she was entertaining to find Sophia engaging with a huddle of board members, wearing an adult version of the same black dress her daughter was wearing and also speaking loudly and authoritatively, enough so that we were able to eaves drop on some of her conversation.

“We’ve doubled the amount of Missouri acreage dedicated to tobacco in the last two years and I’m currently in talks with our farmers to expand it by another 100,000 acres next year,” Sophia asserted to the board with the certitude of an ascendant executive keeping her eye on the ball.  “We gotta keep doubling down when we have a hot hand and keep demand rising,” she added, taking a drag from her cigarette that felt like it was an afterthought but still maintaining the pristine polish of her stylish exterior with a symmetrical exhale from her mouth and nose.  “The regulators are gonna do everything they can to use this pandemic as an excuse to crush us.  We’re gonna really have to push back with everything we’ve got or we’ll lose momentum quickly.  At the board meeting on Monday, I’ll get into my plan in a little more detail for the next week’s FDA hearing.”

Gretchen beamed with pride as she drew from her cigar and observed her protege taking the reins with such commitment.  But her moment of personal and professional fulfillment from observing Sophia was quickly in conflict with the subsequent observation of her own mentor Wilson Stevens stepping away from Sophia in mid-discussion, an agitated look on his face as he nervously lit a cigarette.  Gretchen knew that Wilson wasn’t a big fan of Sophia, thinking she was a brash rookie without the business background necessary to successfully take the baton from Gretchen, but she figured it was a temperamental and generational difference for which Sophia’s performance would ultimately vindicate.  Still that look on Wilson’s face as he drifted toward Gretchen haunted her.

Gretchen smiled as Wilson made eye contact with her, but Wilson did not return the smile, instead using his eyes to motion Gretchen to follow him out of the banquet hall and into the hallway.   Wilson drifted toward the door and stepped outside, and Gretchen was by now very curious about what was troubling Wilson so much that he’d lure Gretchen out of their own retirement party to discuss.

Gretchen faked a nervous smile as she looked to Melissa and I, saying “Excuse me for a moment.  I’ll be right back,” before following Wilson to the hallway.

Pacing the floor of the hallway smoking his cigarette in escalating distress, Wilson looked Gretchen in the eye and bellowed, “We need to talk!  That girl’s gonna blow up everything you’ve done!”

Gretchen felt her heart sink that Sophia had clearly not won Wilson over a bit in the past two years, replying, “Oh c’mon Wilson.  I know you’re not a big Sophia fan but after listening to her just now, you can’t honestly believe she isn’t gonna do everything she can to keep this company successful.”

Wilson shook his head as if to signal he knew something that Gretchen didn’t.  “You don’t understand because you were unofficially retired for the past few weeks and have missed the last couple of board meetings.  She’s got some really big plans, Gretchen.  And they’re gonna be a big problem for us….much bigger than any pointy-headed FDA regulators could ever be.”

Gretchen drew nervously from her cigar, at this point genuinely alarmed by Wilson’s tone.  “Well it sounds like this is something we better get squared away before I turn in my security badge.”

Wilson nodded in agreement before elaborating.  “What she was talking about in there….pushing back against the regulators as they try to take advantage of the pandemic.  You know what they’re proposing…..huge new federal and state taxes, menthol bans, Tobacco 21, renegotiating advertising contracts,” Wilson paused as Gretchen shook her head affirmatively, impatiently waiting for Wilson to get to the big revelation.  “Well Sophia’s big idea to call their bluff is to threaten to pull Philip Morris products off of American store shelves and count on them buckling because they need us more than we need them.”

Gretchen’s eyes lit up as big and round as the cherry of her cigar as she responded, “Oh no!  That…just won’t work.”

“Unfortunately, she’s convinced the regulators are bluffing….and I’m convinced she’s not bluffing,” Wilson reasoned.  “I’ve tried to warn you she’s a loose cannon, Gretchen.  Before you leave town, I hope you can talk some sense into her.”

The color was drained from Gretchen’s face as it began to sink in that her plans to drift away quietly into retirement had to be very quickly reconsidered….and that everything from her promised closing speech at this party to her plans to head back to Minnesota with her family at the end of their visit would need to be changed to keep Sophia from destroying all that she’d fought so hard to build in the past three years.  With a determination in Gretchen’s eyes that Wilson hadn’t seen in the past few months on the job, Gretchen took another intense draw from her cigar and then nodded in agreement with Wilson’s assessment.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Gretchen asserted in a way that immediately washed away some of Wilson’s stress.  “I’ll take care of it.”

——————————————

Three days later on Monday morning, Sophia sat behind the desk of her new executive office, having wasted no time occupying Gretchen’s old digs.  Despite her youth, she exuded maximal professional gravitas on her elevated chair, decked out in an all-white pantsuit that contrasted sharply with her long, jet black hair but matched the color scheme of the all-white Parliament 100 smoldering between her fingers as she held her office phone to her ear with her non-cigarette hand.  It was clear by the intense look on her face that she was locked into verbal combat only a few hours into the job.

“The wholesale fee you pitched three months ago is off the table now!” Sophia insisted with conviction.  “You’re gonna have to cut that by 25% or we’ll continue to take our business elsewhere.”

Sophia was temporarily thrown off of her game by a knock on her office door and the revelation of a face she didn’t expect to see in this building again any time soon…the face of very recently retired Gretchen Paulson.  When Sophia recovered from the surprise, she used her cigarette to motion Gretchen into the room, knowing Gretchen would like what she was hearing.   Sophia took a deep drag from her Parliament as she listened to the speaker on the other line wheeling and dealing with her.

“The bottom line is that CVS thought they were gonna kick Philip Morris while they were down, remove tobacco products from their shelves, and run an entire ad campaign about how virtuous you were because of it,” Sophia argued through a lengthy talking exhale.  “Now your competition is kicking your ass and you want to come crawling back and fill your shelves with our cigarettes again.  You know, we’re willing to forgive but we’re not just gonna forget.  If you want to get back into the cigarette market, then I’m gonna insist you give us a substantial discount on your wholesale fee.  Your disloyalty is not gonna come without a price.”

Gretchen took a deep drag from her Marlboro Red and smiled approvingly at Sophia’s initiative in playing hardball with CVS and other retailers that quit selling cigarettes during the lean years but want back in now that cigarette sales are ascendant again.  This killer instinct was exactly the reason Sophia seemed like such a natural successor to Gretchen in this position.  Watching as Sophia gave her an emphatic thumbs-up that the negotiation was going her way only confirmed how hard it was gonna be for Gretchen to express her doubts about Sophia’s master plan with regulators as soon as this phone conversation was over.

Sophia took another indulgent drag from her cigarette, smelling victory on the horizon in this negotiation but continuing to grind away.  “The wholesale rate we’re paying to Walgreen’s doesn’t matter,” she insisted.  “We negotiated our terms with them back when we had less leverage than we do now.  If you want tens of millions of dollars worth of sales from our products back in your store, then you’re gonna have to cut that fee by 25 percent.  End of story.”   She paused and took another drag from her cigarette while awaiting the caller’s response.   After hearing it, the streams of exhaled smoke pouring from her mouth and nose told the story of victory achieved even before she verbally responded.   “Twenty percent…” she muttered aloud, deliberating for a couple of seconds with residual trickles of smoke flowing from her nose.   “Done.  I’ll have our attorneys draw up the contract and get it to you by the end of the week.  Keep in touch if there any further questions.  I look forward to doing business with you again.”

After bidding the caller adieu, Sophia put the office phone back on the receiver and let her jubilation fill the office at having pulled off her first major deal as CEO.

“Very nicely done,” Gretchen congratulated, stubbing out her cigarette on the ashtray on her old desk, the only cork filter amongst a half dozen of Sophia’s all-white inverted filter Parliament butts that represented a changing of the guard only a few hours into the new workweek.  “Pretty good feeling settling scores against those who stabbed us in the back before isn’t it?”

Sophia remained on the clouds as she responded, “Better than sex!” with mutual laughter ensuing.  “CVS was the big fish but there are still a number of others I’ll be strong-arming in the next few weeks.  With the brick-and-mortar stores bleeding cash after the pandemic, they’re looking to reverse their decline by whatever means possible.” Holding up her shrunken Parliament, she added “Luckily I got just what they need to keep the lights on,” taking the final drag from the cigarette and crushing it out in the ashtray in front of her.

Gretchen plucked another Marlboro Red 100 from her jean shorts pocket and inserted it between her lips, trembling a bit in a way that she only did in front of Sophia whose ruthlessness continued to spook her a bit.

Sophia picked up on Gretchen’s nervous display and her enthusiasm tempered a bit as she asked, “So what are you doing here anyway?  I thought you’d be on a flight back to Minnesota by now.”

Gretchen sighed hard as her congested lungs released the latest of the hundreds of smoky exhales they’re made to release every day.  After a nervous smoker’s cough, Gretchen finally mustered up the courage to respond.   “Rumors are going around Sophia.  I wouldn’t undermine your new authority for just anything, but if what I’m hearing is true that you’re planning to bluff out regulators by threatening to remove Philip Morris products from store shelves to get your way, I’m afraid I can’t head back to Minnesota just yet.”

Sophia seemed shellshocked, and then angry, by Gretchen’s intervention, plucking out another Parliament 100 from her pack as she carefully considered her next words.  “We’re in charge here, Gretchen.  The FDA and our other critics need to know that.”

“Absolutely,” Gretchen responded.  “Which is why the last thing we can afford is unilateral disarmament at this critical juncture where we have the whip hand.”

Sophia shook her head in bewilderment.  “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you of all people.  They’re not gonna kill the golden goose at the exact moment they need us more than ever for all the golden eggs we’re laying for them!”

“That’s true but only if we do this smart!” Gretchen exclaimed, her tension rising in tandem with Sophia’s.  “We’re giving them exactly what they want on a silver platter if we make that threat.”

“How do you figure?  They know we have leverage with our international sales.  If the worst happens and they call our bluff, we’ll be out of the U.S. marketplace for a few months and they’ll come crawling back just like CVS!” Sophia asserted.

“No!” Gretchen responded in her most elevated pitch yet.  “If we make this threat, the regulators will pounce.  It’s their dream come true to not have to deal with you or I.  We’d be ceding the cigarette market to RJ Reynolds who would gain at our expense.  They’d have a domestic distribution monopoly and would drive far less of a hard bargain than we have been because of it.  This would destroy us!”

Gretchen took a deep drag from her cigarette as Sophia sat in silence, still outraged but pondering Gretchen’s premise as though it was an angle she hadn’t considered and made some sense to her.  After mulling it over and taking another drag from her cigarette, Sophia defiantly responded, “Well, you’re the proven mastermind here so I’m willing to entertain any alternatives you have in mind for next week’s meeting.  You know the FDA is gonna eat us alive so I’m willing to take a high-stakes gamble to preserve our gains.  What kind of arrow do you have in your quiver?”

Gretchen paused, taking a deep and contemplative drag from her cigarette as if trying to put into words the hypothetical that she’d been toying with all weekend.  “So our critics either want to get a bigger cut of the action of our sales or they want to stop our sales entirely,” pausing for effect with smoke still spilling out of her face with every syllable.  “But what if we were to just….give the cigarettes away?”

Sophia furrowed her brow, wondering where Gretchen could possibly be going with this.  With equal parts curiosity and fury about Gretchen not going away when she promised she would, Sophia nonetheless came to terms that the intervention was gonna stick.   “Why don’t you have a seat,” Sophia offered, pointing her cigarette to the chair across her desk, adding with a salty flair “…and maybe try your best to stay on that side of the desk.”

Gretchen nodded with as humble of a smile as she could pull off, taking a seat as instructed.  She didn’t know who would be more upset with her between Sophia and her family about this development, but it was pretty clear Gretchen would be sticking around the mid-Atlantic for another week to attend this FDA hearing with Sophia.

————————

Eight days later, a dashing Sophia walked into the board meeting of the Food and Drug Administration meeting in Washington, D.C. in the company of long-time Philip Morris counsel Ken Quattrain to make their case for a lighter hand of regulation.  Regaling the room with her dashing and youthful presence decked out in a white blouse and stylish Italian leather pencil skirt as she filled up the room with the odor of fresh secondhand smoke, the FDA board sat in an elevated semicircle that gave them an air of supremacy over those coming before them.  The smugness of untouchability was almost always smeared across the faces of the powerful board members, but they really gave off an aura of superiority today looking upon Sophia and her lawyer, presumably because they figured they could walk all over the youngster filling the shoes of the successful power broker Gretchen.

Sophia fired back a confident smile, projecting to the board that their overconfidence might serve them poorly in the moments before she introduced herself.  “Greetings board members.  We’ve already formally met but as of last week I’m Altria’s new CEO Sophia Fiorentino, and I’m looking forward to having as good of a relationship as possible with this agency moving forward.”

Continuing to project an unjustified supremacy from his seat, board chair Don Henderson welcomed Sophia and banged his gavel to begin the hearing.  “Ms. Fiorentino, as you know, it’s not the FDA’s role to have a ‘good relationship’ with tobacco companies.  The board is about to make its recommendations to the federal government and to state governments and I don’t think your company will like them very much.”

Altria attorney Ken Quattrain took it from there, responding “We come here eager to listen to your proposal…to collaborate in places where we can find common ground…and to present alternative solutions on matters where we differ.”

Don Henderson nodded with continued confidence that he had the upper hand, replying “The arrogance and bad faith displayed by your company toward this agency’s decadeslong effort to reduce tobacco use in recent years is not likely to yield much ‘common ground’ between our goals and yours, Mr. Quattrain.  Cigarette smoking has increased by double-digit percentages in the last two years and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to reverse that trend.  The FDA is prepared to formally recommend a $2-per-pack federal tax on every pack of cigarettes and suggest that states move forward with new tax increases of their own.  The new administration should be receptive to our proposal and I suspect with the hit that most states’ budgets have taken during the pandemic and ensuing economic recession that most of them will be equally receptive to our suggestion….”

Henderson paused to survey Quattrain and Sophia’s responses, taken aback by the continued confidence in their eyes as he continued, “…..In addition, we’re gonna recommend a federal Tobacco 21 law that your company has fought against for the past three years, a total ban on flavored cigarettes including menthol, and perhaps most importantly, shut down this loophole you’ve taken advantage of in the settlement agreement that allowed you to advertise your product and get kids hooked.”

Quattrain shrugged and responded, “Our company takes issue with that hostile characterization and respectfully submit that we think we can change your mind on some of those punitive solutions.”

Henderson nodded again, as if feeling prepared for what was coming next.  “Yes, the board has heard a few rumors in the past week that you have a….very bold plan to counter the new regulations we’re about to impose.”

With a defiant smirk, Sophia responded, “Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you’ve heard,” shifting eye contact from one board member to another to foreshadow that they were stepping into another Philip Morris trap by falling for the planted storyline.

Ken Quattrain followed Sophia’s lead, serving up the first big surprise for the board.  “I could sit here and describe our counterproposal in detail, but I’d actually like to welcome a special guest to speak on the company’s behalf.”  He looked to his right as Sophia abruptly texted “now” into her phone and sent the message.

“What is this?” Henderson inquired skeptically, having a feeling who was about to come through that door in the split second before it opened.

Stepping inside wearing the white tanktop and jean shorts that she always wanted to wear to formal meetings as part of her professional duties, Gretchen exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke into the board room chambers before dropping her Marlboro Red butt to the carpet and crushing it out with her foot with the exasperated guffaws of the board members as her unwelcoming backdrop.

Henderson banged his gavel as authoritatively as possible, “Ms. Paulson!  You know there’s no smoking in this chamber.”

Gretchen shrugged with a look of bemused confusion on her face and the final wisps of smoke spilling from her mouth and nose, formally responding, “I know!  That’s why I put it out.”

“With one push of this buzzer, I will have a bailiff come in here and remove you from the premises!” Henderson barked, continuing his futile effort to maintain control of the room.

Gretchen kept her cool and shrugged again.  “Okay….what are you gonna do?  Have me fired?”  She paused to let the discomfort set in amongst the FDA board who clearly thought they were finally rid of her and found her stubborn continued presence most displeasing.  “Besides, I figured you’d be most comfortable hearing Philip Morris’ counterproposal from someone you’ve dealt with before.”

Henderson nodded skeptically.  “I’m sure your colleagues are thrilled that you can’t seem to let go of power and let them clean up the mess you’ve made.”

Gretchen gave a brief look over her shoulder to see a smiling Quattrain who, despite his years of nervous moments about Gretchen’s brashness undermining the company’s legal position, had grown comfortable that Gretchen had a better sense of the limit than he did whenever she blew right past the conventional boundaries.  But looking past Quattrain, Gretchen sensed the mixed emotion on Sophia’s face and knew that she was probably not much more happy about Gretchen’s presence today than were the board members.

Looking back to the board members, Gretchen was ready to make her case.  “I think you’re fundamentally misunderstanding the relationship you have with federal and state government bean counters….versus the role Sophia’s company has,” she said, pointing Sophia’s way to ease whatever turf war was simmering.  “Now–much more than three years ago–it’s in these politicians’ best interest to listen to our advice…..not yours.  As our sales have gone up, so has their tax revenue.  And insofar as our advertising has boosted sales among young adult consumers, they know this revenue source isn’t going away unless a hostile third party takes it away.  Sophia’s company donates to their resources.  Your board sponges away their resources.  And it’s not even a close call.”

Board member Lisa Bialek rolled her eyes.  “We’ve been having this tired debate with you for three years now, Ms. Paulson.  Sending hundreds of thousands of productive citizens to an early grave each year is no sane person’s idea of contributing resources.  Maybe there’s a marketplace for ignorant and misguided consumers who buy what you’re selling, but this board is not among them.”

Gretchen grinned.  “Well maybe these ‘ignorant consumers’ won’t have to worry about ‘buying’ what we’re selling much longer,” she teased, setting them up for the narrative they thought they were getting.

Henderson fired back, “If you think you’re gonna frighten this body with the threat of no longer selling cigarettes, then I think your chess-playing skills have greatly atrophied since the last time you were in here.”

Gretchen shrugged again.  “Maybe so….but perhaps selling our cigarettes isn’t the only way to deliver our product to the more than 55 million Americans who consume them.”

Henderson, Bialek, and the other board members furrowed their brows, quickly realizing that Gretchen had duped them with another red herring.

“Let’s speculate….” Gretchen continued.  “Let’s say a company had a couple of years of sales that were so impressive that they decided to give their customers a break.  And for a week they gave away cigarettes….limit of two packs per customer for seven days.  Such a gesture would foster goodwill among the customer base, stimulate brand loyalty, and probably raise the bar on per capita consumption levels.  And because of this company’s profitability, they’d still come out of that week financially ahead.  The only losers would be all the predatory middlemen trying to get their cut of the action on each would-be sale.  Maybe such a gesture might even scare the government extortionists away from imposing a bevy of new regulations if they thought they wouldn’t be able to walk away with the envelope full of cash they were counting on.”

Despite the fear in Henderson’s eyes after listening to Gretchen’s proposal, which was more elaborate than Sophia’s original plan that was intentionally leaked to the board a week earlier, he nonetheless chuckled trying to maintain his authority over the room.  “So you give smokers a one-week tax holiday in May that bleeds revenues to states and feds…..they’ll still be looking at higher net revenues in the months to come if they approve the higher taxes we recommend.”

Gretchen nodded, as if anticipating that response.  “Well maybe Philip Morris’ one-week tax holiday wouldn’t only be for May.  Maybe we’ll do another in June.  And another in July.  Each time we do, our customer base rises to cover our short-term losses while the revenue losses to federal and state governments mount for each month of lost sales.  It’ll be pretty damn hard for them to balance their budget off of the Philip Morris ATM machine with that much revenue uncertainty.”

A rising tide of fury was evident on the face of Henderson and the other board members as they appreciated that Gretchen once again negotiated herself an upper hand.  Nonetheless, Henderson pressed forward with steadfast determination bursting from his pores along with the sweat.  “However many tricks you pull out of that grab bag of yours, it won’t change this agency’s ruling.  We are moving forward with all of the recommendations outlined at the beginning of this meeting.  Much higher taxes.  Tobacco 21.  Menthol bans.  Closing advertising loopholes.  We’re recommending all of it, Ms. Paulson.”

“You go right on ahead and recommend it,” Gretchen calmly offered.  “And we’ll make good on our plan as well.  We’ll see once and for all whether politicians are more afraid of the gavel of you and your pointy-headed paper shufflers or if they’re more afraid of closing down the most reliable source of revenue they’ve had during this pandemic.   Three years ago, you’d have probably won that fight.  But I like to think after my tenure here, and the steady leadership yet to come from my successor…” she added, pointing again to Sophia, “…you won’t be in a very good position to score the kinds of victories you took for granted before we started fighting back.”

Gretchen paused and plucked her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s out of her jean shorts pocket, eliciting another round of vocal tension from the board members just as she did when she walked in.  “But I’ll respect your orders on one thing.  You told me I can’t smoke in here,” she said, inserting the unlit cork filter between her lips and adding through a talking dangle, “….so I’m gonna take this outside and let you discuss the fine points of your DOA proposal with my colleagues.  But enjoy this victory as I take my cigarette outside…because I think it’ll be the last victory you get for quite some time.”

Gretchen added an extra swagger to her hips as she walked toward the board room door, knowing the males on the board would have a hard time not looking at her ass as she exited the room no matter how much they hated her.  With a cigarette dangling from her lips as she arrived at the door, Gretchen gave one last look to Sophia and observed the sexual tension on her face for the first time in more than a week, unsurprising given Sophia’s track record of being turned on by Gretchen’s aggressive tactics on behalf of the company.  Gretchen winked at her in the split second before she stepped outside, a nonverbal cue to let her know that fulfillment of that sexual tension still awaited if she was interested when they both got back to Richmond that night.  Their previous “final night together” with me was blown up, but just maybe we’d get a second chance before our plane officially left for Minnesota.

—————————————

That night, Gretchen and I sat on the same patio couch outside our nearly departed home on an even warmer mid-spring evening than the previous week, only now with the swimming pool in front of us filled.  Knowing that when we returned to Minnesota the late April weather would be much cooler than it was here in Virginia, Gretchen and I decided to fill the pool to let Kaitlyn and Brayden get a taste of summer before we left.  Tonight, that decision would allow the adults to have a pool party of our own, as I was reminded of seeing Sophia’s car pull into the driveway.

I looked to my left with glee at Gretchen as she fired up another Marlboro Red, excited to pick up where we left off a week ago on what we expected to be our last night with Sophia.  Unfortunately, the discontent I’d seen growing on Gretchen’s face all afternoon had only become more obvious, and I had a pretty good idea why.  Watching the smoke flow lazily from her mouth and nose, I grabbed her hand hoping to instill some excitement and uttered with a flourish, “She’s here!”

Gretchen flashed a rather lifeless smile back and reinforced my suspicion that our great plans might be about to go sideways.  It couldn’t have come at a worse time as I watched Sophia strut on up toward us from her car, wearing a bare-midriffed halter top and a thin black sarong hanging from her waist, giving a tease for the incredible body that was about to be revealed in even more visual detail before long.  As Sophia approached her Parliament 100 to her lips for a stylish drag, I hoped it would get Gretchen in the mood.

Sophia dropped her pack of Parliament 100s on the patio end table next to the couch we sat on, fluttering her eyelashes at the two of us and getting right down to business, asking “So is there any chance Kaitlyn and Brayden will be crashing this pool party tonight?”

I smiled and responded, “Shouldn’t be any Kaitlyn interventions tonight.  She’s staying at the the guest house with Gretchen’s sister Melissa and her cousin Kilee.  Brayden’s there too.”

Sophia looked a bit surprised as she took another drag from her Parliament and asked, “Your sisters are still in town?” figuring they’d have gone back to Minnesota since the retirement party more than a week ago.

“Only Melissa,” Gretchen responded politely through a talking exhale.  “She decided to stick around here with Tina’s daughter Kilee and spend some more time with us.  Tina and Mitch went back last week.”

“Nice,” Sophia responded, letting her body language convey her pleasure at hearing those words as she placed her hand on my shoulder and began gently squeezing it.  “Much as I love to spend time with Kaitlyn, I’m glad to hear it’ll be just the three of us tonight,” she added, sitting down and squeezing her way in between the limited space between Gretchen and I and inadvertently doubling down on the smoky aroma that Gretchen had up to this point been the sole contributor to.

Sophia put her arms around both Gretchen’s shoulders and mine, not picking up on the hesitation coming from Gretchen until Gretchen began to fidget and then spoke up.

“Ugh…” Gretchen opened as if kicking herself for reaching this conclusion.  “I feel terrible about having you come here but I think I might have to pass again tonight.”  She paused to let the disappointment sink in before explaining herself.  “It has nothing to do with you or anything you did.  It’s about Kaitlyn…”

“What about Kaitlyn?” Sophia asked with confusion, taking her frustration out on her Parliament 100 with an intense drag.

Gretchen finished up a drag of her own and continued, “Last week when she sneaked out and we caught her at the park, she was making out with two boys at the same time.  It was kind of cute as first, but then she told us she knew about what we did with you.  I can’t be that much of a hypocrite.” She then looked past Sophia toward me.  “Mark, can you back me up on this?”

I sighed, my suspicion confirmed about what was bugging Gretchen tonight.  And unfortunately I couldn’t disagree.  “Gotta agree with my wife,” I responded grudgingly as I looked into the disappointed brown eyes of Sophia.  “We’ve been a really bad example to her.  Even though she might not officially know what’s going on here tonight, I think we can at least look at her with a clear conscience if she suspects us again.”

Gretchen continued to feel bad, her wink at the board meeting earlier being a de facto invitation that now just seemed like a cruel tease.  “You’re a mother too, Sophia.  I hope you understand.”

Sophia tried to reassert a Stepford wife smile to disguise her disappointment as she responded, “Sure…sure.  I get it,” pausing to finish off her cigarette and think of what to say next.  “Maybe I came for a pool party instead of what you had in mind anyway,” she added through a final talking exhale, doing her best to change the subject and disguise her feelings of rejection.

Sophia wasted no time taking off her halter top and removing the sarong over her waist, revealing an extremely stylish white bikini that, just like her pantsuit, contrasted perfectly with her dark brown hair and olive skin tone.  It wasn’t wasted on me that Sophia was taking the opportunity to show us what we were missing as I tried my hardest not to admire her perfect figure standing only a few feet in front of me, giving me my first visual of the season of an attractive female in a bathing suit.  Gretchen and I exchanged knowing glances as Sophia turned around to face the pool, wondering if we’d have the willpower to keep it in our pants amidst sultry displays like this.

Gretchen reached for her Marlboro Reds 100s pack to light another as she watched Sophia do a swan dive into the pool in front of us, her hourglass figure disappearing into the chlorinated water.  Keeping one eye on Sophia as she swam briefly underwater and one eye on Gretchen as she pulled an enormous quantity of tobacco into her lungs admiring the same third party that I was, I found myself wishing Kaitlyn was around tonight to help break the awkwardness of this situation.

——————————

Kaitlyn and Kilee nervously descended the stairs of the guest house they were staying at, with Kaitlyn leaning past the wall at the edge of the stairwell to see her aunt Melissa standing at the kitchen.  Kaitlyn took a nervous drag from her cigarette and motioned Kilee to follow her.

With a cigarette dangling from her lips and Brayden and her daughter Olivia sitting at the kitchen table, Melissa saw the 13-year-old cousins approaching her, cigarettes in hand with guilty looks on their faces.  She immediately detected something was up and stopped the call she had just begun to place.

“Melissa, can you do us a big favor?” Kaitlyn asked, pumping cigarette smoke into her lungs as she prepared to butter her aunt up.

Melissa grinned as she exhaled a huge plume of smoke, responding “You two are up to no good!  I can see it in your eyes!”

Kaitlyn and Kilee both giggled nervously, knowing they were already busted but confident that “cool aunt” Melissa would be enough of a pushover to help them pull off their great escape plan.   “It’s just that this is my last night to see my friends…maybe ever,” Kaitlyn said with a sympathetic pout.  “My mom doesn’t want me to see them but I just have to introduce them to Kilee so she can see how cool they are!”

Kaitlyn looked at Kilee as she pleaded with both girls dragging from their respective cigarettes, albeit with Kaitlyn continuing to sport the look of a more seasoned smoker.  Kilee also gave Melissa puppy dog eyes, eager to run wild if only for a couple of hours with the bad boy friends of Kaitlyn’s who she set off fireworks with the week earlier.

Melissa frowned that the girls were trying to con her.  “Awww, I was just gonna order a pizza.  Wanted us all to hang out here one final night before we headed home.  Your mom would have me for breakfast if I let you run off.  Both of your moms would.”

“They wouldn’t have to know, Melissa,” Kaitlyn pleaded through a talking exhale, confident that with the right touch she would have Melissa on the ropes any second now.  “We’ll be back by 9:00.  I promise.”

Melissa looked at her phone again and saw it was 6:45.  She took a drag from her Marlboro Red and began to consider it.

Sensing weakness and feeding off of Kaitlyn’s chutzpah, Kilee chimed in with her own two cents.  “You were our age once too, right?  Would you risk getting in a trouble to see your friends one last time or stay home to eat pizza with your cousins?”

Melissa laughed and shook her head as she watched Kaitlyn and Kilee nervously drag from their cigarettes in tandem again, looking them over and being amazed at how quickly they were growing up.  A telling smile began to fill Melissa’s face as she shook her head, telegraphing to the girls that she was about to cave and triggering a premature celebration in them that she was quit to temper.  “I didn’t say yes yet!” Melissa reminded, nonetheless making it clear that she was about to.   After another pause for a contemplative drag from her cigarette, Melissa set the ground rules.  “Nine o’clock sharp or I’ll strangle you myself!  I get to see the clothes you wear before you walk out of here.  No fireworks or anything illegal.  And if any of this gets back to your mothers, I want pink roses at my funeral!”

The girls laughed and high-fived each other, shaking their hands in celebratory excitement much like they did growing up, including the many times they were sneaking cigarettes in the janitor’s closet of their elementary school.  “Thank you so much, Aunt Melissa!” Kaitlyn exclaimed.  “We owe you so much for this!”

“You certainly do!” Melissa half-jokingly asserted as she watched the over-the-moon teenage cousins turn around to head back to the stairs, the cork filter cigarettes between their respective fingers down to their stubs in the moments before they disappeared behind the stairwell.  The memories were still pretty fresh in Melissa’s mind when she was the wild child sneaking out to meet her teenage boyfriends, and the mostly positive associations she still had with those nights.  It felt good to see the next generation make some of the same memories of their own even though it put her way out on a limb with her sisters by doing so.

Melissa turned around to see Brayden and Olivia frowning.  “We’re still having pizza though right?” Olivia asked with concern in her eyes.

Melissa grinned, unable to say no to kids of any age tonight. “Of course.  And now there will be more for you, me, and Brayden!” she exclaimed to euphoric screams of delight from the three-year-olds as she got back on her phone to make her second attempt to order pizza.  Holding the phone to her ear, Melissa lit another Marlboro Red and paced the floor waiting for the answer on the other end.  Just like every other female smoker of the Paulson family tree, Melissa didn’t notice as Brayden pulled away in disgust from Melissa’s cigarette that was only inches from his face as she wandered by and began to place her pizza order.

——————————

I was the only member of the would-be threesome who hadn’t dipped a toe into the pool after an hour and a half in one another’s company.  Much as I was enjoying the show of Gretchen and Sophia’s shapely bikini bodies indulging my basest male urges in this pool,  it was impossible to avoid the awkwardly competitive nature of the two women playing out their newly minted cold civil war in front of me in what seemed like a highly risky manner that had the potential to blow up at any moment.

Ever since Gretchen jumped into the pool an hour ago to keep me from being singularly seduced by Sophia’s bikini body all night, the two of them had been playing off of each other with ostensibly good-natured competitions ranging from touching the bottom of the pool at its deepest point to racing each other from one end of the pool to another, pausing semiregularly for a couple of poolside cigarettes.  Even though it was being done under the veneer of an “all in good fun pool party”, it was abundantly clear these two were letting their tug of war to be the alpha female of corporate tobacco come to a head under the guise of poolside competition.  Despite the minefield of risk it posed, the potential for a fierce catfight ensuing was nonetheless turning me on more than any conventional three-way tryst in our bedroom as I originally had planned ever could.

All good things must end and it was pretty clear that the aqua ladies’ underwater odyssey was fast winding down as they floated parallel to each other to the edge of the pool.  In seconds, they were both climbing out of the water in front of me, giving me a momentary sensory overload as Sophia’s white bikini and Gretchen’s watermelon-colored bikini dripped with pool water, the smell of chlorine thick in the late spring air and about to take the added aroma of cigarette smoke as they wandered up to the patio couch where I sat and reached for their respective packs of cigarettes on the end tables to the left and right.  The awkward silence between the two of them worked to my advantage as I could hear their smoked-out lungs wheeze in the aftermath of the workout in the pool.  The closer they got to me, the more labored their breathing was.  While Gretchen’s additional pack years made her wheeze slightly more audible, her strenuous workout routine prepared her for it a little better than Sophia, whose workouts were more sporadic and consequently less prepared for tonight’s workout in the pool. For a few electric moments, the only sound filling my ears was the modest gasps for oxygen Gretchen and Sophia’s lungs were laboring for.

As the temperature had dropped, the looming chill had quietly set in, but it was quite telling that despite the visible goosebumps covering Gretchen and Sophia’s bodies, their top priority was getting their hands on those Marlboro Reds and Parliaments packs.  Their bodies were craned in front of me in each direction as the two of them plucked out cigarettes and lit them in unison, the smell of cigarette smoke officially blending with the chlorine to push my sensory overload into overdrive for a split second before they picked up the towels sitting next to the patio furniture and covered themselves up.  While the heavenly aroma lingered, the peak of the fantasy had ended just that quickly, and it was back to the reality of a threesome gone wrong in its uncomfortable final throes.

A shivering Gretchen sat to my left and a shivering Sophia sat to my right, both covering their mostly naked bodies with towels and slowly warming themselves up.  It was as if the three of us were wrestling our strongest imaginable internal urges to the ground in painful silence for as long as was necessary waiting for the moment to pass, yet still being one indecent suggestion away from carrying on with the sexual tryst we had originally planned.  Every drag from Sophia and Gretchen’s cigarettes crackled with lustful suggestion.  Every exhale wafted into the airspace of the other, transporting pheromones like fiery chariots.  And on it went for the duration of their cigarettes, with each of the three of us waiting on pins and needles for somebody to make a primal move of aggression that would either lead to the bedroom or a hair-pulling airing of grievances straight out of a 1980s soap opera.

As she reached the end of her Parliament, Sophia broke the silence with an abrupt, “Well I suppose I should head home,” pausing to look Gretchen’s way, their eye contact matching perfectly with the glow of the respective final drags from their cigarettes that offered a final metaphorical ember before the night’s heated prospects flamed out.   Sophia tossed on one final open-ended life preserver as she added, “…unless you guys changed your mind.”

As both Gretchen and Sophia reached for their ashtrays and extinguished their cigarettes, it was clear even before Gretchen’s verbal response that it was gonna be a no.  “Afraid not,” Gretchen replied, making it official as she nudged me for my hand.  I proceeded to grab hold of Gretchen’s hand and put my other arm over her shoulder, making it clear to Sophia that I had made my choice.

Sophia seemed as though she had come to terms with the door having closed, but also seemed to sense the freedom of independence was now at hand.  Her frown was replaced with a liberated half-smile as she stood up and retrieved her pack of Parliament 100s, lighting one up and declaring, “I guess I’ll head home and relieve Jordyn’s babysitter for the night.  Let’s keep in touch though, okay?”

“Absolutely,” I responded, even though it seemed likely that it would be an entirely platonic arrangement from this point forward.

Gretchen lit her next cigarette as Sophia began to walk away, stopping her before she did.  “Sophia,” Gretchen called out, keeping both Sophia and I on the edge of our seats wondering if she changed her mind, but ultimately letting the mustang run free by simply declaring, “You keep giving ’em hell tomorrow, okay?”

Sophia smiled, feeling as though Gretchen really meant it this time about walking away from her managerial duties, replying “God damn straight!” before walking to her car.

Gretchen and I couldn’t help ourselves from admiring her perfectly sculpted ass through that see-through sarong and the white bikini bottom underneath it until she was out of sight and climbing into her car.  Gretchen and I made intense eyes with one another as she took a lustful drag from her cigarette.  I pulled her close for an open-mouth kiss and we had little difficulty piling on the passion, releasing hours of built-up sexual energy but maintaining our early-evening promise of monogamy.  Sophia may not have been there in person, but at least in both of our minds, she was very much the invisible third wheel fueling our fervor.  That probably wasn’t the most healthy long-term arrangement for our sex life, but we’d start mending the fences of a post-Sophia world starting tomorrow.  Neither of us was gonna feel any shame about it tonight.

————————–

In the same neighborhood park where Kaitlyn shot off fireworks with Lucas and Mason the previous week, a more subdued vibe filled the air tonight as the same three, along with Kilee, slowly paced their way across the park, talking and laughing with cigarettes glowing between the fingers of three of them.  Kaitlyn and Kilee complied with Melissa’s request and dressed modestly, wearing sweatshirts and leggings that better fit the mood of tonight’s festivities. As the four traversed through the grass in the park that was taking on the greenish hue of spring season, a pecking order of social skill and smoking familiarity was obvious even to the most casual observer.

Kaitlyn played the role of ringleader and socially herded these three friends to maximize comfort level and conversation, all while chaining through a steady diet of Marlboro Reds 100s with a level of reassurance well beyond her years.   Kilee, who was meeting the boys for the first time, was very comfortable with her regular stream of cigarettes and quickly developing a rapport with the group largely due to Kaitlyn’s leadership role in drawing connections.  Lucas projected a bad boy veneer knowing it was hitting the sweet spot with Kaitlyn, but also seemed to recognize he was in over his head in having any measure of control over the wild child whose affections he pursued and was in way over his head in competing with her ferocious cigarette consumption.  Mason turned down offers of cigarettes from his friends and seemed very worried about the trouble that awaited him at home when his mom found out that he’d sneaked out again.   And while Mason also seemed troubled that Kaitlyn’s affection was leaning increasingly in Lucas’ direction, the newest addition of their group was starting to prove very effective in taking his mind off of Kaitlyn slipping away.

The teenage conversation kept building momentum and Kaitlyn frequently looked past Lucas standing to her right to observe Mason and Kilee, quietly thrilled that her master plan seemed to be taking hold.  Whenever Kaitlyn had talked about or showed Kilee photos of Mason in the past year, Kilee swooned and lamented how much she’d love to date a boy like him.  Kaitlyn had internalized her parents’ lecture about how unfair it was to lead two boys on at once, but had been torn on letting go of Mason when she still cared about him.  Giving Mason and Kilee the opportunity to hit it off was by no means a flawless plan that Kaitlyn had constructed, but she felt confident that it was working here tonight based on their body language.

As the four of them approached the set of swings where Kaitlyn had formed her human pyramid with the boys a week earlier, she decided to step up her efforts to create two separate love connections.   She flung her current spent Marlboro Red 100 to the grass and grabbed Lucas by the hand, leading him to an empty swing and backing him down onto it.  She made quick eye contact with Kilee and Mason as if to nonverbally convey to follow her lead before proceeding to take a seat on Lucas’ lap on the swing, reaching for her pack of cigarettes and then lighting another.  A rookie smoker’s cough sent the first blast of exhaled smoke out of Kaitlyn’s mouth and drifting into Lucas’ face, her still-developing lungs overloaded with how much tar she’d sent their way tonight.

After a moment of devastation where it hit Mason that Kaitlyn had officially made her choice, he nonetheless looked at Kilee and smiled, admiring the smoke flowing from her mouth and nose after her recent drag.  He walked over to the furthest swing in hopes of whatever measure of privacy as possible and took a seat, offering inviting but bashful eyes to Kilee that she could join him if she felt comfortable with it.

Kilee placed her cigarette to her lips for an apprehensive drag, pondering whether she was mentally prepared to go further with a boy than she ever had before.  She maintained oral pressure on the cigarette filter for several seconds as she deliberated, but smiled upon pulling the cigarette away and exhaling her smoke.  It was abundantly clear at this point that Kaitlyn had set her up for this, but Kilee couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect with this boy who she’d had a long-distance crush on ever since Kaitlyn first started talking about him.

Mason was just as thrilled to see Kilee choose him, apprehensively sitting down on Mason’s lap atop the swing.  Up to this point, the only other girl Mason had been this close with was Kaitlyn, and while she was a tough act to follow, the more subdued girl-next-door charm of Kaitlyn’s beautiful cousin coupled with the familiar aroma of cigarette smoke clinging to her made it incredibly easy for Mason to welcome the replacement.

“I feel like I’ve known you forever,” Kilee confessed, tipping Mason off that she’d secretly fantasized about this moment as her body tingled with the feeling of her presexualized body pressed against a boy to this unprecedented degree.

“It just sucks that right when I get to know you, you’re gonna be leaving,” Mason responded, feeling a magnetic attraction that was unconsciously drawing her face closer to his.

Kilee took another drag from her cigarette, propelling the physical attraction a tick further before responding, “I know.  But with my aunt’s connections here, I bet I’ll still be able to visit sometimes!”

Mason smiled, trying not to get his hopes up for that remote possibility, yet still loving the sound of it knowing that Kilee was as much into him as she seemed and admiring the stream of smoke flowing from her face that for a number of reasons seemed a tick more innocent than what he was used to from Kaitlyn.

“You sure you don’t want a cigarette,” Kilee offered, as if picking up on Mason’s instinctive appeal to her smoking.

“No that’s cool,” Mason responded, all but confirming that instinctive appeal as he added, “I wouldn’t want to be the reason that there’s any less in that pack for you.”

Kilee smiled, peering over to Kaitlyn and Lucas and hoping they were far enough away that they weren’t hearing this, but knowing that Kaitlyn’s radar was fully tuned in to what she and Mason were up to. A beaming Kaitlyn made eye contact with Kilee as she picked up on the electric chemistry between her cousin and ex-boyfriend.  Kaitlyn then took the reins and pressed her face aggressively into Lucas’ face for an open-mouth kiss, expecting the gesture would be contagious a few swings over.

Mason locked eyes with Kilee and could tell by the moment of panic in her eyes that she’d never been kissed before.  He wanted this moment to be Kilee’s choice and smiled at her, hoping it would prove disarming yet invitational.  Kilee took a final drag from her cigarette and flung the spent butt to the grass with unfulfilled determination a split second before pressing her mouth to Mason’s, most of her exhale inadvertently spilling into Mason’s mouth.  After making out with Kaitlyn several times in the past year, Mason was used to having cigarette smoke exhaled into his mouth while kissing and took it in stride, along with a significant measure of gratification that he procured the first kiss ever offered by this comparatively wholesome smoker girl.  And now that she had gotten her first taste of male lips, Kilee was indulging with the pent-up demand of a girl who had been waiting a year and a half for this kiss to happen, and it happened to be coming from the boy she most frequently fantasized having her first kiss with.

Kaitlyn beamed with pride from three swings away as she continued to make out with Lucas.  Her own long-time fascination with Mason kept her from realizing that he would be a much more perfect match with Kilee, but now that oversight was being rectified.  And while it was unfortunate that it was happening on the only night they’d have together as a couple, she knew that Kilee would always have this moment to draw back on.  Whatever risk was involved in sneaking out and whatever consequences awaited on the other side, it was more than worth it to all four of them right now.

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Trevor’s Wintertime Wilderness Adventure (Chapter 17)


A pair of snowmobiles sped northward through a wooded trail on a bitter Saturday afternoon in late January in northern Minnesota, each carrying a driver and passenger covered from head to toe in snowmobile suits with their faces hidden from view underneath snowmobile helmets with tinted plastic shields.  The low hum of the snowmobile engines was the only sound corrupting the pristine quiet of the Minnesota wilderness setting, a thick blanket of white snow covering the landscape and weighing down the branches of the trail’s surrounding pine trees just as it had for well over a month.  The driver of the lead snowmobile pointed to the next exit off of the trail, signaling for the other driver to follow.  In moments, they were steering toward a log cabin with the sign “Crow River Diner” and an even mix of automobiles and snowmobiles in the parking lot.

The lead snowmobile braked at a clearing on the edge of the parking lot and the rear snowmobile soon followed, the drivers turning the machines off and beginning to remove their helmets.  A look of exhilaration filled the face of Steve McPherson as his helmet came off and the icy cold air of northern Minnesota in January consumed him.  His daughter and passenger Courtney also seemed to be enjoying herself as she removed her helmet.  From behind the steering wheel of the other snowmobile, however, far less enjoyment was to be found on the face of Trevor McPherson, who was clearly far out of his element and wishing to be just about anywhere else on his three-day Martin Luther King weekend, the biting wind hitting his bare skin and intensifying the chill that had filled his body more than 100 miles back on the trail in this single-digit weather.

Steve and Courtney both smirked as they observed the depths of Trevor’s misery, with Steve sarcastically quipping, “You look cold, Trevor.”

Trevor nodded in silence, giving them a look as if signaling his annoyance at agreeing to his father and sister’s request to travel by snowmobile to the family cabin by Bemidji over the long weekend.  But as Trevor looked back to see his passenger struggle to remove her snowmobile helmet, he was quickly reminded of why he agreed to go, observing his girlfriend’s golden blond hair fall out of the helmet and onto the shoulders of her snowmobile suit, the frosty air touching her face and giving her youthful cheeks and forehead a rosy glow.  But rather than being refreshed in the presence of the brisk winter air as Steve and Courtney were, or disgusted by it as Trevor was, Lauren was consumed with an entirely different priority.  And as Trevor watched Lauren unzip her snowmobile suit covering her chest and reach inside, he could feel the excitement and the relief build knowing what would be coming out soon.

Just as expected, Lauren’s pack of Marlboro Light 100s was soon revealed from within the depths of her snowmobile suit and she removed her right glove to open up the pack and pluck one out, seeming entirely undisturbed by the miserable cold that was kicking Trevor’s ass after nearly three hours of nonstop snowmobile riding in 7-degree weather.  Having felt Lauren’s grip around Trevor’s waist grow increasingly tight as the long ride progressed, he knew she was seriously jonesing for a cigarette, and watching her place into her lips the Marlboro Light 100 that was every bit as pristine white as the surrounding snowy landscape, Trevor’s instinct was validated.

Lauren handed Trevor her lighter and smiled at him as he removed his glove and sparked it up.  She cupped her hands to protect the flame Trevor ignited and the nicotine relief that filled Lauren’s face as she inhaled made her face glow even brighter than the raw Minnesota winter had.  Suddenly, the cold that Trevor had been so desperate to get out of didn’t seem like such a pressing concern anymore.

Trevor looked up to see Courtney pulling out her Marlboro Light Menthol 100s and sparking up as well, both girls making up for lost time by dragging hard from their cigarettes.  As Steve stood up from the snowmobile and stretched out a bit, Courtney looked at him and commented through a talking exhale, “Dad, we definitely need to stop more often for smoke breaks!”

Lauren nodded affirmatively as she continued to ravage the cigarette Trevor had lit for her.  “I’ll second that!” Lauren exclaimed emphatically, already four drags deep with frosty smoke spraying from her mouth and nose, reducing visibility far worse than any blizzard could ever accomplish.

“Yeah, yeah!” Steve responded.  “I wanted to get up to Bemidji before dark but we’re making good time so I think we’ll be fine.”

Much as Trevor loved the gifts that Lauren had gotten him for Christmas, the failure of her family’s attempt to help her quit smoking through hypnosis therapy was by far his favorite belated “gift” this holiday season.  And as he observed the mixture of pleasure and relief filling her face as she continued to devour this cigarette, he realized he was crazy to have ever believed any hypnotist would be a worthy match for Lauren’s cigarette addiction.  Part of him hoped for the sake of his girlfriend’s health that Lauren’s hypnosis would be successful and she would be able to kick the cigarette addiction that had dominated her life for most of their time together as a couple, but the selfish side of him couldn’t have been more thrilled that her habit survived into the new year.

Trevor proceeded to take Lauren’s hand and help her off the snowmobile, putting a stocking cap over his own head and then wrapping Lauren’s headband over her forehead and ears.  Lauren smiled and thanked him with breath every bit as stinky as Trevor had hoped for, and then the couple slowly followed Steve and Courtney toward the entrance of the log cabin diner.

Courtney stopped at the edge of the entrance and took a drag from her half-smoked cigarette, looking up to her father and then to Lauren before requesting,  “Dad, would you and Trevor mind going in and getting a booth while Lauren and I finish our cigarettes?”

Steve picked up right away on the fact that Courtney wanted to chat with Lauren and responded favorably to his daughter’s request.  “Yeah, we can do that.”

Trevor gritted his teeth as he let go of Lauren’s hand and followed his father into the diner, ticked off about missing the smoking show and the context of whatever conversation his sister and his girlfriend were about to engage in.

Lauren smiled at Courtney as she watched the males disappear into the diner.  “This was such a fun idea.  Thanks for inviting us!” Lauren exclaimed through a frosty talking exhale.  “Plus I haven’t really talked to you since finding out you were pregnant.  Congratulations, Courtney!”

“Thanks so much,” Courtney responded with a wave of mixed emotion on her face that told a more complicated story than her warm tone.  “Want to feel the baby?” she asked.

“Oh my God yes!” Lauren exclaimed as she took the final drag from her cigarette and flicked the spent butt into the snowy shrub in front of the cabin.

Courtney smiled back and placed the stub of her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 between her lips and proceeded to unzip her snowmobile suit down to her waist.  Courtney’s swollen stomach revealed bare skin stretching beyond the coverage of her sweatshirt underneath the snowmobile suit.  “Go ahead and have a feel,” Courtney suggested to Lauren through a talking dangle.

Lauren’s biological instincts were raging as she excitedly placed her hands on Courtney’s belly to see what four months worth of fetus development felt like, both of them disregarding the elderly couple entering the restaurant who were looking on in horror at the cigarette hanging out of the mouth of the clearly pregnant teenage Courtney.  “That is so awesome Courtney!” Lauren exclaimed joyfully as she tenderly moved her hands around Courtney’s baby bump hoping to feel movement.  “Are you at the halfway point of the pregnancy by now?” Lauren asked.

“Not quite.  I’m four months along,” Courtney answered, followed by a somewhat melancholy “Gonna be a big change.  That’s for sure,” as Lauren pulled her hands away.  Courtney proceeded to zip her snowmobile suit back up as Lauren extracted another Marlboro Light 100 from her pack and lit up another one.

Lauren’s cheeks hollowed as she ingested a massive load of tobacco from the cigarette dangling between her lips, engulfing Courtney’s face with an unintentional exhaled blast and nodding in agreement.  “I bet!” Lauren finally responded.  “I’m sure you’ll be ready for it though.  After you hold your baby in your arms, you’ll never know how you got along without him….or her,” Lauren added with a giggle.

Courtney nodded as she tossed her spent cigarette in the same direction Lauren had moments ago flung hers, maintaining eye contact as if to foreshadow the discussion was about to get heavy.  “Lauren, it’s none of my business what you and Trevor are doing sexually, but I do think it’s fair to warn you that I got pregnant even though I was on birth control,” she warned as she reached into her pack of Marlboro Light Menthols 100s to extract another, formally extending this encounter for the length of at least another full cigarette as she lit herself up.

The rosy hue of Lauren’s frosty cheeks partially hid her blushing, but her eyes still bulged after hearing Courtney’s revelation that completely caught Lauren off guard.   Lauren took a deep drag from her cigarette while considering her response, finally asking “Did you miss a couple of days or something?” with smoke spraying out of her confused and slightly worried face.

Courtney just shrugged, expelling one of her dense and lengthy exhales in Lauren’s direction and responding “It’s possible, but I sure can’t remember it if I did.  Birth control is usually pretty good protection but it’s not perfect.”

The concerned look on Lauren’s face grew as she came to terms with how easily she could be in Courtney’s situation right now.  She didn’t really know what to say and stalled by taking another long drag from her cigarette with a minor follow-up smoker’s cough.

“Just so you know, I’m not trying to put you on the spot Lauren,” Courtney broke the awkward silence.  “But if you’re taking the pill, don’t ever let yourself forget to take it even once….and if you do, be sure you have a morning-after pill on hand just in case.”  Courtney paused for dramatic effect before paraphrasing Haylee’s line to her on Christmas. “I’m only starting to come to terms with becoming a mother….but I’m definitely not ready to become an aunt.”

Courtney’s words hit Lauren like an anvil as Lauren nodded silently for another couple of moments while tending to her cigarette, finally coming around to saying, “I mean, I’m really good about taking the pill every day but that’s quite a wake-up call.  I’ll do everything I can to make sure there’s only one McPherson grandchild this year, okay?”

Courtney smiled as she touched Lauren’s shoulder comfortingly, responding “That’s all I can ask,” taking a deep drag from her cigarette and enjoying it in chilled silence for a few moments while Lauren put the finishing touches on hers, their frosty breath commingling with the smoke and flowing into each others’ faces as if they were engaged in a respiratory snowball fight.  In moments, the girls finished their cigarettes and tossed them into the snowy shrubs as they had their previous round, ignoring the ashtray outside the entrance only a few feet in front of them.

Proceeding into the diner, Courtney and Lauren brought the stench of their cigarettes inside, drawing the attention and ire of several diners as the girls walked past them en route to the booth where they saw Trevor and Steve waiting for them.  Lauren sat next to Trevor with a slightly nervous smile on her face, leading Trevor to correctly assess that Courtney had spooked her about the risk of pregnancy, but he was able to quickly block that from his mind as he endured the dominating stench of Lauren’s tobacco odor filling his airspace.  He gave a quick glance across the table in his father’s direction, figuring he was probably quietly enjoying the same sensation smelling Courtney’s smoke, but Steve quickly averted his inappropriate attention by asking the girls, “Finally decided to come in out of the cold huh?”

“Ugh!” Courtney exclaimed.  “It’s definitely miserable out there today.  Helluva day for Trevor and Lauren to make their first six-hour snowmobile trip!”

Lauren giggled and responded, “My parents’ hot tub sure will feel good tonight.”

Trevor, Steve, and Courtney all looked at her, trying to hold back their laughter and figure out how to break the bad news.  Trevor finally spoke up, “They shut the water off for the hot tub over the winter.  No soaking for us tonight.”

Lauren grimaced, a little embarrassed with herself for not thinking of that and also disappointed realizing the relief she’d been looking forward to for the past few hours would not be coming.

“I’ll get a fire going in the cabin that will warm you up though,” Steve offered reassuringly.  “Plus I heard it’s gonna warm up nice tomorrow.”

“Yeah I heard that too,” Courtney responded.  “That should be nice ice fishing weather.”

Trevor pulled up the forecast on his phone and read aloud.  “High of 38 tomorrow….compared to 11 today.”

“Should be warm enough for you guys to join us on the lake ice fishing,” Steve replied, trying to nudge Trevor and Lauren into joining him.

Trevor shook his head, figuring he was speaking for both himself and Lauren as he responded, “I don’t think so, dad.  Lauren and I kind of want to do our own thing.”

Steve nodded, expecting that would be Trevor’s response but still being a little disappointed.  When he suggested this snowmobile trip up to the family cabin over Martin Luther King weekend, he’d hoped all three of his kids would tag along.  He really wanted to keep his word to Father Lafferty at the previous month’s confession to take a more active paternal role and connect better with Trevor and Haylee, but Haylee couldn’t be talked into coming up with them and Trevor didn’t want to spend Sunday ice fishing, so it looked like it was gonna be the usual story of just himself and Courtney spending most of the weekend alone together.  But as Steve looked over to Courtney, their mutual body language reinforced that a major father-daughter conversation about Courtney’s pregnancy was forthcoming, so perhaps their spending the day together ice fishing alone would be for the best.

The waitress walked up to take the orders of the four diners, her ethnic Minnesota accent thicker than what they were used to from people in the Twin Cities.  As he always did, Trevor made eye contact with the waitress as the odor of cigarette smoke from his girlfriend and older sister reached the waitress’s nose.  She kept a good poker face about her as she began to take down everybody’s orders, but Trevor couldn’t help but smirk about what she must be thinking.  It was small moments like this that he figured would help him soldier through the long, cold ride up to Bemidji, nearly three hours of which was still in front of him.

——————————————–

A half hour later, Trevor and Lauren stepped outside of the diner before their fellow travelers after finishing their meals, as Steve was waiting at the cash register to pay the bill and a hormonal Courtney was visiting the bathroom.  Lauren wasted little time producing her pack of Marlboro Light 100s from the inside pocket of her snowmobile suit as the young couple progressed toward their snowmobile.  Dangling the unlit cigarette from her lips, Trevor approached the lighter toward it and Lauren again cupped her hands around the flame to protect it from the winter wind until the cigarette was lit and blasts of her frosty smoke burst into the thin winter air.  Lauren smiled sweetly at him as they proceeded to sit down on the snowmobile, and Trevor thought it was finally time to broach the subject they’d largely danced around for the past few weeks.

“So the hypnosis didn’t work on you, but what about your parents?” Trevor asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” Lauren responded through a talking exhale.  “Pretty sure my dad’s still smoking because he’s been the one still buying me cigarettes and I bet he’s keeping some for himself.  My mom tells us she’s quit but I have a feeling she’s still smoking in their bedroom and at breaks at the business.”

“Does your mom know you’re still smoking?” Trevor asked, unable to fully conceal his Cheshire Cat smirk.

Lauren nodded negatively as she took another deep drag, then verbally responded through another messy talking exhale, “If she does, she’s not talking about it.  I’m trying to hide it as much as possible because I know it’ll upset her if she knows I haven’t quit.”

Trevor made no further attempts to conceal his smirk as he rhetorically inquired, “So it’s possible you’re the only one who hasn’t quit?”

Lauren picked up on Trevor’s enjoyment of that possibility and decided to run with it, replying, “That shouldn’t surprise you, Trevor….” and then adding with a sweet flourish,  “You know by now I’m the black sheep of the Nelson family,” approaching the cigarette to her lips for a performative drag that she proceeded to exhale into his face with the best smoke rings she could muster with the bitter wind.

Trevor smiled as his girlfriend’s filthy smoke invaded his airspace so directly, keeping his foot on the gas as he asked, “So the hypnosis didn’t work at all on you?”

Lauren shook her head negatively, residual smoke still trickling out of her nose with every breath.  “Not at all.  I had three sessions and the first thing I thought about when I walked out of all of them was having a cigarette,” she responded, her mind briefly diverting to those hypnosis sessions and how she hoped that they would work in erasing not only her impulse to smoke, but also the haunting memories of Dusty Beaudry’s sexual assault.  She was fully prepared to bring that up to the hypnotist if he had been successful at all in excising her impulse to smoke.

Trevor smirked as he looked at the key for the snowmobile he held in his hand.  He looked up to Lauren as she took another drag, not picking up on her dark but fleeting flashback.  “Maybe he just didn’t have the right technique,” Trevor quipped, holding the snowmobile key up by its tip a few inches in front of Lauren’s face and beginning to swing the key chain back and forth in front of her eyes.  Lauren giggled and then played along, watching the key chain swing as if transfixed from it as Trevor softly spoke, “You are beginning to get very sleepy.  I will count down from three to one and when I get to one, you will wake up….and every time this weekend I say the word ‘hypothermia’ you will give me a blowjob.”

Lauren giggled loudly as she broke out of her simulated trance, taking a drag from her cigarette and responding playfully, “I think my parents’ hypnotist might have a better chance of getting me to quit smoking than you have of getting your request!” as she proceeded to put her snowmobile helmet over her head, keeping the shield open and placing her two-thirds smoked cigarette into her mouth, dangling it from inside the snowmobile helmet.

Trevor couldn’t resist the perfect opportunity and proceeded to close the shield on Lauren’s helmet, concealing her dangling cigarette fully inside.  Lauren quickly attempted to open the shield up, but Trevor kept his hand on it to prevent her from doing so, smirking again as he theatrically mouthed “hypothermia”.

Lauren giggled but began pounding on his chest as if to convey her emergency discomfort, at which point Trevor relented and opened the shield on her helmet, a giant wave of cigarette smoke flowing out of the helmet for several seconds and Lauren began coughing and plucked the cigarette dangling from her mouth.  Trevor was briefly nervous she’d be pissed at him, but when she caught her breath from the coughing she giggled again and said, “You’re gonna pay for that one, buddy!”

“I’m shaking….but only because of the cold,” Trevor responded smugly, looking lovingly at Lauren and a split second away from pulling in for a kiss, but hearing the bell of the diner opening and quickly realizing it was likely Steve and Courtney.

Trevor had his back to the door but his suspicion was immediately validated by the sound of a flicking lighter behind him, and Courtney’s voice teasingly chastising the young couple for the pending moment of PDA she was witnessing as she said, “Can’t even leave you two alone long enough to pee!”

“Actually your brother’s being a…brat,” Lauren responded, checking herself from saying “dick” in front of Steve as she’d originally planned to say.  Having seen Courtney light a cigarette, Lauren decided she had time for another and removed one from her pack, again beckoning Trevor for a light despite admonishing him in front of family a second earlier.

Courtney smiled and responded through a long-distance talking exhale, “I hate to break it to you, Lauren, but I’ve been living with him for 17 years….and he’s always been like that!”

Lauren giggled before Steve mentioned to Trevor that they needed to fill the gas tanks on the sleds before proceeding.  Trevor knew the halftime party was over and another three hours of deep freeze awaited them before they got to the cabin.  But after the moment he just shared with Lauren, he was now fully convinced that she would make the long, miserable ride up to the cabin more than worth it for him.

——————————-

Meanwhile, at the McPherson home, Haylee sat on the couch in her pink hoodie and sweatpants, her legs curled up at her side with a Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips, texting away on her cell phone.  Sitting on the floor at the foot of the couch in front of her were neighbor boys Jarrod and Joshua Wagner, who were once again engaged in their video game with Jarrod currently playing with the intense effervescence expected of a six-year-old boy.

“I’m about to conquer Level 7, Haylee!” Jarrod exclaimed, sneaking a quick glance at his chainsmoking 15-year-old babysitter, who only briefly looked up from her phone to acknowledge him.

“Awesome!” Haylee replied with a disinterested energy and an elevated husk in her voice.

The boys didn’t even need a babysitter today but Haylee volunteered to let them come over to play video games, partly because she wanted an excuse to get out of riding snowmobile to Bemidji and back all weekend with her father, sister, and brother, but also because Haylee was finally on the mend after being sidelined for two weeks with a head cold that flared up into a nasty case of bronchitis.  She hadn’t been able to babysit until the last couple of days, so when the boys asked to come over to play video games on Saturday, the timing was perfect for Haylee to kill two birds with one stone…as well as to plot out the details of her Sunday plans as she was currently tending to on her phone.  She took the final dangling drag off the stub of her cigarette and reached down to crush it out into the ash can on the coffee table, briefly diverting Jarrod’s attention just long enough to allow his video game character to get hit by enemy fire.

“Noooooo!” Jarrod shouted as his character was killed, preventing him from completing level 7 and notifying him the game was over.

“What did I say about shouting today?!” Haylee barked in a mildly whispered tone, her voice rasping several octaves lower than usual as a consequence of the bronchitis, wisps of residual smoke still spraying from her mouth and nose.  “My mom just got home from work and needs to sleep.”

“Sorry,” Jarrod said with a pout, looking to his little brother and generously offering him the video game control before adding, “Here you go Joshua,” with uncharacteristic goodwill.

Haylee was briefly struck by Jarrod forfeiting control of the game to his younger brother without a fight, but as Haylee reached for her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s for another, she quickly realized why, seeing the light in Jarrod’s eyes immediately flicker as Haylee plucked out another cigarette.

Jarrod sprung to his feet and passionately offered, “I want to light it!” reaching his hand out for Haylee to give him her lighter.

Haylee nervously leered over her shoulder to the stairway, making extra sure her mom wasn’t there before speaking to Jarrod through the unlit cigarette dangling from her lips.  “All right, but remember we can’t do this when my mom’s around, okay?”

Jarrod nodded affirmatively, getting an extra burst of energy by the added husk in his babysitter’s voice brought on by the bronchitis.  He approached the lighter to Haylee’s lips and flicked the flint with a confident ease, his skill with the lighter having dramatically improved upon his inaugural effort before Christmas.  Jarrod could barely contain his elation as the flame from the lighter brought Haylee’s cigarette to life, watching her lips pucker up around the filter upclose and ingest a huge blast of smoke.  Just as Jarrod released his hold on the lighter, Haylee’s smoke blasted from her mouth and nose and he noticed an even more visceral sensation on her face.  In a split second, Haylee turned away from Jarrod a bit and cut loose a ferocious, dry cough that dragged on for a couple of moments and made her chest heave with explosions of smoke blasting from her face.  Jarrod didn’t quite understand the specifics of Haylee being in the final throes of a lengthy bout of bronchitis, but even he was old enough to realize that Haylee’s heavy smoking probably had something to do with it.  He didn’t know whether to be frightened or excited by it, but his bodily response was clearly leaning him in the direction of the latter.

Haylee recovered from the cough without ever removing the freshly lit cigarette from her lips, smiling at Jarrod, and saying “Thanks,” through her talking exhale and ruffling her fingers through his hair with the mild affection appropriate for a babysitter.

Jarrod briefly stood there studying his babysitter’s profile, the cigarette perched in her lips and the stream of smoke rising into her face and commingling with her wavy light brown hair until her breathing intermittently pushed the smoke away from her face and toward him.  He forced himself to look away before Haylee scolded him for staring at her, but as he looked down to see his brother still engrossed in the game, Jarrod looked back at Haylee and muttered “I gotta go to the bathroom,” with a guilty look on his face.

Haylee just nodded, trying to hide her excitement at the revelation that Jarrod would briefly be leaving the room.  She looked over her shoulder and watched the boy walk away, waiting until she heard the bathroom door close before dialing digits on her cell phone with an urgency in her eyes.  Cigarette still dangling from her lips, she puckered up for a quick drag while her phone rang, awaiting a response from the other end until he finally picked up.

“Yeah, Brian, I only have a couple of minutes but I want to make sure we’re on the same page for tomorrow,” Haylee muttered through a talking dangle, pausing as Brian responded.  “It’s Haylee, stupid!” Haylee clarified, chuckling for a second realizing Brian probably didn’t recognize her bronchitis-induced raspy voice.   She continued, “Now I looked it up and the bus stop is like four blocks from your house.  Get on the D-line bus and it’ll take you to Eden Prairie and about seven blocks from my place.  Just call me when you’re off the bus and I can give you walking directions from there.  I’ll go to the drug store and pick up some condoms before you get here.  My mom will be working until 6 tomorrow night so I’ll have the place to myself for more than enough time than we’ll need,” she wrapped up with an excited flourish.

Haylee puckered her lips around the cigarette for another dangling drag as she listened to Brian’s response, quickly rolling her eyes and responding “I’ll pay you for the bus fare when you get here…..jeez tight ass!”  She quickly peeked down to three-year-old Joshua, oblivious and distracted by his video game and thankfully too young to understand the context of anything she was saying to Brian.  As the smoke poured from Haylee’s face, she shook her head in mild annoyance and grumbled back, “Just tell your parents you’re going to hang out with your friend at the mall for the day and make sure your friend has an alibi for you.  It’s not that hard.  If you wanna get laid, you’ll figure out a way, dude!”

Haylee continued to listen to Brian on the other hand, shaking her head as this boy more than two years her junior continued to both charm her and annoy the hell out of her.  She puckered her lips around the half-smoked cigarette for another drag, the granny ash barely hanging on as she responded, “Well I gotta get going, but I better see you here around 2:30 tomorrow!”  She paused as the smoke trickled out of her mouth and nose and then closed with “All right…..bye Brian!” attempting a Lauren-like sweet flourish when bidding him adieu but recognizing her husky voice didn’t allow her to effectively stick the landing.

Haylee removed the cigarette with the long granny ash from her mouth right after ending the call, leaning forward to deposit the ash into the butt can and then cutting loose another dry and heavy cough just as fierce as the one from a few minutes earlier but acting like it was no big deal after two weeks where the cough was at times even worse and more prolific.  An excited smile soon filled her face.  After nearly three weeks of being sick, Haylee found that her libido had been raging at full throttle in the last few days as she recovered, and the timing of this Sunday alone at home couldn’t have been better to feed the beast inside her panties.  She hadn’t been laid in nearly three months and while her numerous sexual fantasies over the past several days had all involved Jacob, she knew that a Sunday afternoon dalliance with him wasn’t gonna happen.  Brian was the only male currently in any position to tend to Haylee’s needs, and while her feelings about him were complicated, she was more than willing to let him take the reins.  She placed her cigarette back to her lips and puckered up with a satisfied look on her face signalling both her current pleasure from the warm smoke of her cigarette and an expected future pleasure coming from her lover’s warmth inside another part of her body.

Meanwhile, inside the bathroom, a nervous Jarrod stood in front of the mirror looking at his reflection for a moment before reaching into one of the bathroom drawers and digging his fingers through the piles of toothbrushes and shaving razors.  Underneath them all, and right where he hid them, Jarrod smiled nervously as he placed his hands on the cigarette lighter he found lying randomly around the McPherson home and a single Camel Pink No. 9 he had plucked from one of Haylee’s packs in the last couple of days.  Having now mastered the technique of Haylee’s lighter, Jarrod decided it was time for him to see just exactly what it was about these cigarettes that Haylee couldn’t seem to get enough of.

Jarrod studied his reflection in the mirror as he placed the unlit cigarette between his lips and let it dangle just as Haylee always did.  He thought it looked cool, especially since the cigarette seemed so much bigger in his mouth than it did in Haylee’s.  He felt his heartbeat race as the time had finally arrived and he approached the lighter to the end of the cigarette.  Having thus far only lit Haylee’s cigarettes, it was a brief mental adjustment for him to maneuver the lighter to the tip of his own cigarette, but he quickly found his rhythm and flicked the lighter to ignite a flame, touching it to the end of the cigarette and taking a very brief puff.  Looking in the mirror, he realized he hadn’t fully ignited the cigarette and knew that he had to make a second try, placing the lighter directly underneath the cigarette and flicking the flint again.  This time, he took a deeper puff to make sure the tobacco was fully lit before setting the lighter down.  Mission accomplished….and now all he had to do was smoke.

Jarrod’s adrenaline was racing to the point that he hadn’t really processed the taste of the cigarette until he took another deeper puff, watching the cherry glow in the mirrored reflection as his lips puckered around the all-white filter.  But as his brain finally began to comprehend the taste of the tobacco smoke currently blanketing his taste buds, he wrinkled his nose.  Somehow, it managed to be exactly what he expected it to taste like as well as a big disappointment.  Knowing how much Haylee and so many others loved these things, he was hoping that the taste would be much better than he instinctively expected.  Still, he was committed to not only smoking this full cigarette, but to smoking it exactly the way Haylee smoked hers.  He wanted to remove this disgusting thing that had been dangling from his lips for the last 60 seconds, but he wanted to have the full Haylee experience even more, and thus forced himself to keep that cigarette perched in his mouth as he intermittently puffed from it.

Jarrod’s discomfort escalated as he felt the stream of smoke rising from the dangling cigarette into his nostrils.  He nonetheless took another dangling puff and seconds later, the unpleasantness hit peak irritation as the stream of rising smoke got into his eyes.  Jarrod finally reached the point where he couldn’t take it anymore, reaching to his mouth to remove the cigarette.  He began rubbing his eye to relieve the minor burn it got from the direct hit of smoke.  He was used to smoke from Haylee’s cigarettes getting into his eyes and the watering side effects that came from his tear ducts, but this was an even more intense sensation, one he formally decided he didn’t enjoy.  He nonetheless put the cigarette back to his mouth and took another puff, inadvertently inhaling the smoke and startling himself with an even more intensely unpleasant bodily response.  He coughed out the smoke he had just ingested and then stuck his tongue out to nonverbally express his disgust with the taste now that it had fully engulfed not only his mouth but his entire respiratory system.

How could Haylee tolerate this let alone enjoy it, Jarrod thought to himself as he put the cigarette to his lips for one more puff, still not fully giving up on discovering the appeal as his brain kept replaying the image of Haylee’s pleasured face every time she took a drag.  But this latest puff was the final confirmation for Jarrod that smoking wasn’t for him, at least until he discovered what Haylee’s secret was that made the experience so much more pleasant for her.  He proceeded to the toilet and dropped the cigarette in, listening to the sizzle of the water extinguishing the cherry before flushing the half-smoked cigarette down and watching it swirl the commode before disappearing out of sight.  He sighed with disappointment as he walked toward the bathroom door, placing the lighter back in the drawer where he got it and figuring nobody would give too much thought to it since there were so many lighters laying around the house.

Jarrod slinked back out into the living room, meekly sitting to the right of his brother Joshua who was still playing the video game.  He could smell the cigarette on himself and even though he didn’t figure Haylee would be able to smell it on him given the distance and the stench of her own smoke she was constantly marinating in, he didn’t want to risk it and thus sat on the opposite side of Joshua as he usually did when playing games.

Haylee looked up from her phone and raised her brow for a moment from the couch, surprised to see Jarrod sitting further away from her than usual but never even considering that the young boy had just tried his first cigarette.  She reached down to her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s and plucked out another.  As she let it dangle unlit for a few seconds, she figured Jarrod would spring to his feet to come over and light it for her, but he just sat there checking her out from the corner of his eye with a continued guilty look on his face.  After sitting there waiting for him to announce himself for a good 10 seconds, Haylee decided she gave him enough time and instead approached the lighter to the tip of her own cigarette, firing it up and ingesting her first snootful of smoke from it.

Jarrod leered over Joshua’s shoulder and studied Haylee closely from the floor, observing her face as it erupted with positive energy from the maiden drag, followed by relief as he watched a generous quantity of smoke pour out of both her mouth and nose as she exhaled.  He was aghast at the decidedly different experience Haylee was having as she consumed this cigarette than he had.  At one level, he found it a little disgusting thinking of how harsh and nasty everything about that cigarette he just sampled had been for him, but a much more visceral feeling dominated his mind and body as he appreciated that his cute babysitter had this incredible power over him.  Not only was she able to boss him around and make most of his decisions for him, but she was also able to participate in this strangely alluring habit that Jarrod had just definitively discovered he was not strong enough to share with her.  It was such a thrilling revelation for him, as the bulge he felt growing in his pants was now confirming.

As a distracted Haylee continued to communicate on her phone, a smile flashed across her face at the exact moment she took another deep dangling drag from her cigarette.  Jarrod figured the smile was brought about by another positive bodily response from the cigarette, not considering that the pending company of another male was the primary driver behind Haylee’s current electric smile.

————————————

Later that afternoon, the snowmobilers had finally arrived at the McPherson family cabin and were hauling their backpacks full of luggage from the snowmobile toward the cabin door.  Steve unlocked the cabin door and held it open, chattering his teeth as he teased, “Would anybody object to me getting a fire going?”

“Ugh!” Trevor groaned as he walked past his father into the cabin holding his backpack.  “How long will it take to warm this igloo up?”

Steve laughed, “It should be nice and toasty in less than an hour.”

Courtney walked into the cabin with a lit cigarette between her fingers, shaking her head and responding, “Could be a long hour!”

Lauren came in last, cigarette dangling from her lips as she thanked Steve for holding the door open for her.  They began to take off the winter clothing they’d been wearing for more than six hours, but were disappointed that it didn’t seem much warmer in the cabin than it was outside.   “I’m gonna get out my hoodie,” Lauren announced through a talking dangle, putting her backpack on the countertop and unzipping it in search of the hoodie.

Trevor smiled as he observed Lauren’s bag from afar, seeing a half dozen unopened packs of Marlboro Light 100s front and center inside the bag that she had brought for the weekend.  Through a continued dangle of her current cigarette, she rummaged through the bag until she found the hoodie she was referring to, christening the cabin with smelly blasts of secondhand smoke with breath barely less frosty than what he’d seen from her outside.  She finally removed the cigarette from her mouth as she put the hoodie on over her sweatshirt.

Steve was by now starting up the electric fireplace, enjoying the first burst of heat emanating from it.  He looked over his shoulder to see Courtney walk into the larger bedroom that she typically shared with Haylee on trips to the cabin while ceding the smaller single bedroom to Trevor.  Uncomfortable as it would be, Steve felt the need to address the sleeping arrangements in advance of official room selection by the kids.  “Ummm, just in case anybody has any ideas, we’re gonna have Courtney and Lauren share the big bedroom while we’re here.”  He looked at Trevor with a bashful father-son energy and added, “Sorry Trevor, but you’re gonna have the small bedroom to yourself.”

Always the least bashful of the bunch, Courtney laughed and broke the awkwardness responding with, “Excellent idea, Dad!  Keep these two horn dogs separated!” with smoke spewing from her face through her laughter.

Lauren giggled, taking it in stride as much as possible despite the embarrassment of a sleeping arrangement discussion she figured was coming.  “That’ll be great.  Courtney and I need some girl time together!” she said, wisps of residual smoke slipping out of her mouth and nose with a continued frosty aura.

Trevor tried to roll with the awkwardness as best as possible, looking to Courtney and firing back with “That’s just fine by me.   You can listen to her snore all night.”

Trevor immediately knew he stepped in it and Courtney and Steve both responded by looking at him with a bit of surprise at the inadvertent revelation.  After taking a deep and inquisitive drag from her cigarette, Courtney pounced and asked, “And how exactly is it that you know that Lauren snores?!??!”

Trevor laughed nervously, feeling as put on the spot as he could remember in front of his father.  He didn’t figure it was breaking news to either Courtney or Steve than he and Lauren were in a sexual relationship, but for it to come up so directly was an intensely awkward unforced error on his part, leaving him temporarily speechless.

Lauren giggled and swooped in to the rescue, answering on Trevor’s behalf through a talking exhale.  “I used to fall asleep when sunning by the pool last summer.  Trevor always got on my case about my snoring.”

Courtney shot a suspicious smirk back and forth between Trevor and Lauren and then responded, “Suuuuure he did,” with a wink to Lauren.  The room continued to nervously laugh but Courtney decided to wrap up the torture, using her cigarette to motion Lauren toward her.  “C’mon Lauren.  Let me show you around our room.”

Lauren took a relieved drag from her cigarette as she giggled and followed Courtney into the bedroom.  Trevor wasted no time hauling his luggage into his own bedroom to escape the awkwardness that his Scandinavian and Irish household had always gone to great lengths to avoid, especially as it pertained to any conversation about sex.

Steve retreated back to the fire, enjoying the warmth as it slowly began to filter out of the fireplace and into the chilly cabin.  He opened his backpack and smirked as his eyes fell upon the two cans of Dinty Moore beef stew he brought with.  He waited until the kids were stepping out of their assigned bedrooms before addressing the room,  “I hope everybody enjoyed their lunch at the diner because with dad cooking, we’re gonna be having a pioneer-style supper tonight.”

Steve held up the cans of stew for all to see, watching Trevor and Courtney lightheartedly cringe while Lauren giggled.  Steve then added, “Depending on how many fish Courtney and I catch tomorrow, maybe we can fry those up tomorrow.  But if it’s a light haul, we might have to go to the gas station for some beef jerky and microwave burritos.”

Lauren giggled as she took the final drag from her cigarette and responded, “Either is fine by me.  I’m not picky,” as she looked around for an ashtray to crush out her spent cigarette.

Steve smiled and stood up from the fireplace to address the kids more formally, looking Trevor in the eye as he offered,  “Now I know you and Lauren are gonna spend the day hiking tomorrow while Courtney and I ice fish, but I was hoping we could all hang out together tonight,” he said, hoping to take this limited opportunity to connect with Trevor as he promised his priest, and then diverting his eyes to Lauren.   “Lauren, rumor has it you’re quite a shark at poker.  How would you feel about playing a few games with us in front of the fireplace?”

A sweet smile filled Lauren’s face as she responded, “That’d be great…but I didn’t bring any change to bet with.”

Steve shrugged, “We’ll just play for the fun of it.  Forget about the gambling,” he paused to measure the response of Trevor and Courtney and then asking, “Poker night after supper sound okay to everybody else?”

Trevor nodded affirmatively, not passing up any opportunity for even a partial replay of the smoky November poker party that brought a smile to his face every time he thought about it.

Courtney smirked approvingly as well, but then added, “I’ll play poker with you guys on one condition…..only if Lauren promises not to light up another one of her giant, smelly cigars!”

Lauren giggled, recalling Courtney’s unamused reaction to her cigar smoking at their last poker party.  “Don’t worry, Courtney.  I didn’t bring one,” as she opened up her pack of Marlboro Light 100s and plucked out another one.

Steve’s curiosity was piqued and Trevor picked up on it immediately.  A frisky smirk emerged on Steve’s face as he looked to Lauren and asked, “You smoke cigars, Lauren?”

Lauren giggled as she accepted a light from Trevor for her cigarette.  “Sometimes,” she responded.

Courtney smirked as she exaggeratedly recalled, “That cigar she smoked was about the size of my arm and she smoked it for like five hours!  I almost tossed my cookies about 10 times that night!”

Trevor usually liked to watch Lauren’s reaction from the first drag of one of the cigarettes he lit for her, but amidst the laughter of Courtney’s comeback he diverted his eyes to his father this time, observing the smirk on his dad’s face and recognizing that he was getting some excitement out of the vision of Lauren smoking a big cigar.  But it only lasted a moment as Trevor quickly noticed Steve shook himself out of it, clearly uncomfortable with being aroused at the idea of his son’s 16-year-old girlfriend, who was grinning with a sinful pride as she recalled her cigar-chomping poker night and her ensuing sexual domination of Trevor.

Finally after regaining his focus, Steve looked to Courtney and said, “Well thanks for the heads-up on that Courtney because if you’re gonna be puking when we play cards, I don’t want you sitting next to me.”

Laughter again ensued as Courtney plucked out another Marlboro Light Menthol 100 and lit herself up, joining Lauren in filling the cabin up with smoke more quickly than the fireplace was filling it up with heat.

A moment of silence ensued as Lauren took another drag from her cigarette and then looked out the window to see the sun had set and darkness was creeping into the wooded landscape outdoors.  She gave Trevor another of her playful smirks and then turned to Steve, “If it’s gonna be awhile before we eat, do you mind if we go outside for a bit?  I got a surprise for Trevor,” she said, winking at Trevor as a way of adding to the mystery.

“Yeah go for it,” Steve responded.  “It’ll be another hour before I even think about cooking this stew.”

Trevor looked at Lauren with confusion.  “We’re just starting to warm up after being miserable cold all day and now you want to go back outside?!?”

“That’s right,” Lauren responded with pluck.  “Out on our dock,” she added with a twinkle in her eye, knowing that mere mention of going out on the dock where they met a year and a half earlier would be all the inspiration Trevor would need.  “So get your gloves and stocking cap on!” Lauren continued as she grabbed her headband to cover her ears and forehead and then picked up her backpack with a dramatic flair as if foreshadowing to Trevor that the surprise was inside that bag as she dragged from her two-thirds-smoked cigarette with the same dramatic flair.

At this point, Trevor’s initial dismay about heading back out into the bitter cold had dissipated and he was thoroughly intrigued by whatever trick Lauren had up her sleeve.  As she put on her gloves and headed to the door wearing nothing but her hoodie and black leggings, Trevor figured she’d be woefully underdressed for the weather, but then remembered that Lauren seemed to do okay when in the bitter cold.  He proceeded to bundle up in his winter jacket, boots, stocking cap, and heavy gloves before following Lauren out the cabin door, and she eagerly took him by the hand to guide him in the direction of her destination.

Lauren continued to lead the way, trudging through the snowdrifts down the hill of the cabin’s backyard en route to the dock where they met.  Trevor was transfixed by the innocent image of his mischievous girlfriend guiding him toward the revelation of her big surprise, taking a final drag from her cigarette just as she stepped onto the dock and flicking her expired butt onto the edge of the icy lake with a picturesque frosty exhale blasting from her face.

Trevor and Lauren watched their step as they progressed down the slippery snow-covered boards of the dock until they reached the end, where Lauren sat down and Trevor followed.  Trevor suspected this arranged reunion on the dock where they met served some sort of nostalgic purpose for Lauren, but he had no idea what it could possibly be as he watched the smirking Lauren unzip her backpack and begin to reach in.  She looked up to him and fluttered her eyelashes flirtatiously as she removed a pair of ice skates.  Trevor smiled and stroked his jaw as Lauren began to remove the pair of boots she was wearing and lace up the ice skates.

“Figured this would be a good weekend to show you another side of me,” Lauren said as she finished tying up the ice skates.  She then reached into her hoodie pocket and removed her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s, extracting a cigarette and dangling it from her lips before handing her lighter to a transfixed Trevor.  “How ’bout a light before the show, baby?” Lauren requested through a talking dangle, leaning forward to accept the flame when it came.

Trevor’s heart was as full as his girlfriend was full of surprises and he approached the lighter to the end of her cigarette, sparking it up and watching her fill her insides with carcinogenic courage.  She pushed herself off the edge of the dock and glided onto the frozen lake with the skill of someone who had clearly skated many times before.  She swiveled around to face Trevor, taking another dangling drag from her cigarette and then progressed deeper onto the ice.  Trevor watched in amazement as his girlfriend skated toward the emerging moonlight, picking up speed and stretching out her thighs to glide at an accelerated speed.  She took a wide circular berth to generate as much speed as possible in the opening lap, and Trevor couldn’t get over how graceful she looked working the ice, occasional bursts of exhaled cigarette smoke providing a stark contrast to the otherwise angelic ice princess image.

Cigarette dangling from her lips, Lauren zipped closely in front of Trevor on the skates and began to step up her game, doing tight figure-eight laps on the ice and raising her left leg off the ice to do a rudimentary pirouette with her weight suspended entirely on her right skate as it twisted in a circle, digging into the ice as she spun for a few glorious seconds.  Trevor couldn’t have been more impressed watching Lauren work the ice with such incredible grace and unexpected athletic talent.  He never needed an excuse to glare longingly at her hips, thighs, and ass, but as he observed her lower body in those tight black leggings as she skated, Trevor had an epiphany, realizing that Lauren’s well-toned thighs and firm ass must have come from her previous life as an aspiring athlete.  He had heard Lauren mention in passing that she used to play volleyball and softball in elementary and middle school, but never put two and two together that her tight lower body was a residual benefit of her athletic past.

Lauren coasted on past Trevor once again, waving at him playfully with her half-smoked cigarette still dangling from her lips where it had never left since Trevor lit it for her a few minutes earlier.  He was hoping the show wasn’t over and Lauren didn’t disappoint, building speed and working the ice again on her skates with another round of figure-eights and amateur pirouettes, the moonlight and the intermittent glowing cherry from her cigarette providing Trevor the limited visual proof he needed to appreciate this was really his beloved girlfriend putting on this incredible performance.

As Lauren slowed down after a few more laps, Trevor knew the show was about to end, and the smile on his face couldn’t have been more inviting as Lauren coasted as slowly as possible toward the dock, the stub of her cigarette still dangling from her lips.  Trevor grabbed her arm and helped her climb back onto the dock as she took the final drag from her cigarette and then flicked the butt onto the ice, following it up with an intense smoker’s cough that reinforced the colliding of worlds between Lauren’s past life as a multi-sport athlete and her present life as a heavy smoker.

Trevor was struck by the cigarette stench coming off of the girl who had just given that performance and the gentle wheeze of her lungs as she caught her breath.  Lauren looked at Trevor awaiting his verbal response and finally decided to extract it from him, breathlessly asking “So what did you think?”

Trevor smirked.  “First I find out you’re narrating Christmas plays at Sunday school.  Now I find out you’re an Olympic figure skater.” He paused for dramatic effect before inquiring, “Just who are you, Lauren Nelson?”

Lauren giggled and responded, “My mom had me take skating lessons in like third grade and I stuck with it for a few years.  I even played a little hockey in junior high.  This year when they iced over the rink by my house I got my skates out and got back on the ice,” pausing for a moment and then adding with a flair, “It was just like riding a bicycle to get back in the groove.”

Trevor grinned.  “Well you’ll have to wait for the score from the Russian judges but you definitely get a 10 from me,” he teased.

Lauren giggled again.  “Awww, thanks baby,” she beamed, leaning forward to kiss Trevor on his frosty lips.

Trevor’s electric energy radiated even higher as he savored the taste of fresh cigarette smoke on Lauren’s lips, and he responded “Well you definitely caught me off-guard with your big surprise.”

A mischievous smirk re-emerged on Lauren’s face as she reached into her hoodie pocket and removed her pack of cigarettes once again.  “Oh that was only half of my surprise,” she teased playfully.

“Oh really,” Trevor played along, wondering what else Lauren had up her sleeve as she placed an unlit cigarette in her lips and handed him her lighter.

“That’s right,” she said with a sweet flourish, unlit cigarette bobbing up and down between her lips as she reached down for her backpack once again, making Trevor wait a moment before lighting her up.  “The other half…..” she said as she reached into the bag, “…..is that I brought another pair of skates with….in your size.”   She fluttered her eyelashes again as she leaned into Trevor to accept his light for her cigarette.

“You expect me to go out on the ice and do something like you just did?” Trevor asked incredulously.

Lauren ingested a giant opening drag off of the light-up and then replied, “Oh I’ll hang on tight to you baby just like I always do,” puckering up her lips playfully and exhaling the smoke into Trevor’s face.

Trevor smiled again, taking his boots off and slipping into the skates that Lauren handed him.  He made eye contact with Lauren as she took her next drag and joked, “I’m trusting you with my life, you know that?”

Lauren exhaled another frosty burst of smoke Trevor’s direction and smiled warmly, replying “Well that won’t be anything new either, will it baby?”

Lauren placed the cigarette back in her mouth and climbed back down onto the ice, grabbing hold of Trevor and pulling him onto the ice with her.  Trevor loved it any time Lauren took a dominant role over him, particularly while she was smoking a cigarette while doing so, and giving Trevor his first ice skating lesson certainly fit that category.   Trevor felt icy tingles trickle through his body as Lauren grabbed hold of his waist and glided forward on the ice, holding him up and preventing him from falling all the while suffocating him with her secondhand smoke and the odor of the stale smoke clinging to her hoodie and hair.

Nailing the logistics of ice skating was a secondary priority for Trevor as Lauren gave him her tutorial for the next couple of minutes, keeping him upright on his skates as they glided but deciding it was time to take the training wheels off a little.  Lauren released Trevor’s waist and grabbed hold of only his hand as they progressed along.  The speed got to be more than Trevor was comfortable with and he clutched Lauren’s hand more tightly and attempted to pull her toward him, only managing to stumble on his skate by doing so and quickly recognizing he was about to tumble on the ice.

Trevor was glad he was wearing his heavy winter jacket to soften the blow as he tumbled forward onto the ice using his left hand to block his fall while trying to let go of Lauren’s grip with his right hand.  But from the girlish scream he heard from Lauren, he figured out quickly that she was coming down with him.   Trevor positioned his back on the ice to cushion Lauren’s fall as her body fell atop his.  After hearing the sound of her ensuing giggle, he was able to sigh with relief that neither of them was hurt.  She soon lifted herself up, half-smoked cigarette still dangling from her lips as she climbed atop Trevor until her cigarette was dangling a few inches directly over his face and he rested his head on the ice-covered surface of the lake.  Trevor immediately recognized the homage to their poolside adventures last summer that Lauren was replicating.

“Once again, we find ourselves in this familiar position,” she muttered playfully through her talking dangle, her glowing cigarette perched just above Trevor’s face as she exhaled, asphyxiating Trevor with her filthy breath at as close of range as possible just as she knew he loved.

Trevor struggled to breathe amidst his girlfriend’s bodily domination until a temporary break in the air pollution allowed him to observe that she seemed perfectly comfortable even as he shivered, suffering from the extreme cold and the intense assault of smoke when Lauren was somehow not suffering from either.   He caught her off-guard as he vocalized his surprising observation, exasperatedly asking “How are you not cold?!”

Lauren giggled, forcing another load of carcinogens into Trevor’s face from the laughter as she pondered her response, finally articulating through a continued talking dangle, “Maybe because I’m a full-blooded Minnesota girl, Trevor!  You’re half cheesehead so I wouldn’t expect you to understand!” she added, cleverly taking advantage of her recent discovery that Trevor’s mom came from Wisconsin.

Trevor laughed aloud, choking on another burst of Lauren’s unrelenting secondhand smoke as he fought for any possible fresh air reprieve.  His male parts were by now standing at full erection, and he hoped Lauren could feel it through his thick winter weather clothing.  In seconds, the victorious smirk on her face confirmed that she did, finally reaching up to remove the cigarette from her mouth before the long, hot ash burned Trevor’s face.

Once Trevor finally got enough fresh air in his lungs to fully recover and respond, he recalled how the similar poolside encounter the previous summer ended.  He gave Lauren a shit-eating smirk and suggestively offered, “Hypothermia??”

Lauren laughed boisterously, remembering that that was the trigger word Trevor invented earlier in the day, the word supposedly rendering her hypnotically powerless to stop herself from administering a blowjob on him.  She took another indulgent drag and leaned forward to blow smoke rings into his face before responding, “You’re bitching about being cold even with your pants on.  I think your dick would freeze and fall right off if I pulled those pants off right here.”

Trevor smirked, realizing it wasn’t gonna happen here tonight and that it wasn’t a great idea with his father and sister so close anyway.  “Good point,” he responded, letting Lauren know it was okay to take a rain check on the offer.

She leaned forward to take dominion over him with her tobacco breath one last time, biting her lower lip lustfully and then softly muttering, “But I bet we’ll get some time to ourselves tomorrow and that your hypnosis will work better on me then.”  She then pulled herself a few inches back and took the final drag from her cigarette, flicking it several feet into the dark, icy distance.  “But for now, let’s go back inside and try some of your dad’s delicious stew, okay,” she said, bracing herself to stand up on the skates and then grabbing Trevor’s hand to help him on his feet.

Looking at the moon glisten onto Lauren’s blond hair, creating an even more angelic halo above her beautiful face than usual, Trevor took it all in for one final moment as he laid there before letting Lauren guide him to his feet on the ice.  They’d only been to the cabin for an hour or so and Trevor’s three-day weekend snowmobile safari was already worth the trip.

———————————

The next morning, Haylee navigated the suburban sidewalks carefully, the rising temperatures overnight causing the snow-packed surface to get slushy and thus more slick than they were when the temperatures were chillier.  Decked out in her favorite pink winter parka with curly light brown hair hanging onto the shoulders, she struck quite a pose for passing motorists who occasionally looked her way to see the cigarette dangling from her teenage lips.  She was several blocks into her journey and sufficiently motivated, however, puckering her lips around her freshly lit Camel Pink No. 9 and smiling as she let her mind be consumed with finally being a few hours away from getting laid.  As the moist and chilly air found its way into her fragile, sickly lungs along with the cigarette smoke she ingested, she cut loose another fierce and dry cough that reminded her that her bronchitis recovery was not yet complete.

Haylee crossed the street and perked up as she saw the Walgreen’s sign on the horizon on the commercial strip, the same Walgreen’s where she made out with Brian in the parking lot in the backseat of Courtney’s car as Courtney went in to buy a pregnancy test two months earlier.  Courtney had taken Haylee there after Christmas to get birth control per Haylee’s request, and while Haylee had taken the pills as directed, it hadn’t been quite a month yet so she wanted to play it safe and pick up condoms for whatever was gonna happen with Brian this afternoon.  The last thing she wanted was to come back to Walgreen’s a few weeks later for a pregnancy test as her sister had to do.

She continued to dangle drag from her cigarette as she got closer to the front entrance of the Walgreen’s.  With a few drags left on her cigarette, Haylee stood only a few feet away from the automatic door entrance and pumped the smoke into her lungs with a final flourish, the cigarette bobbing up and down like a yo-yo as Haylee’s damaged respiratory system finished it off.

The middle-aged male clerk behind the register not far from the entrance diverted his attention toward the open automatic door and expressed immediate annoyance when he saw the wave of cigarette smoke rolling inside.  His annoyance turned to abject disgust when he identified the source of the smoke as the mid-teen Haylee, who was removing the spent cigarette from her lips and tossing it to the pavement just outside the entrance, launching a juicy lugie in the same direction before stepping inside.  The clerk was aghast at the intensely smoky odor coming off of this young girl in the pink parka as she stepped inside, putting her mouth up to her jacket sleeve and aggressively coughing into it.

Haylee progressed inside like a girl on a mission, failing to make eye contact with the middle-aged clerk who’d spent the last couple of moments judging her.  She’d bought condoms a few times the previous summer when she was sexually active with Jacob and knew exactly where they were in the store and got to the right aisle quickly, spending just a couple of moments inspecting the merchandise before seeing the familiar box with the label Trojan Magnum.  Haylee smiled as she recalled the numerous occasions the previous summer when Jacob opened the box with that label, wrapped himself up, and then sent her to heaven.  An excitement overcame her as she contemplated the same thing happening today with Brian, and even if he wasn’t capable of doing to her what Jacob was, she was confident he’d still make her feel better than she had in a long time.  She turned around en route to the register in the mostly empty drug store, ready to make a purchase of the only item she had any interest in buying this morning.

Haylee approached the checkout register with an excited smirk on her face and the male clerk scowled as he watched her approach, not surprised after his brief introduction moments earlier to see she was buying condoms.  The clerk tried to maintain his professionalism as Haylee shamelessly dropped the box of Trojans on the counter, entirely dismissive of her only purchase being geared for her own carnal gratification. She broke out a $20 bill from her jeans pocket to make the purchase and the clerk held his breath to avoid the smell of stale cigarette smoke that still lurked on Haylee’s hair and clothes.

“Will that be all this morning?” the clerk asked bloodlessly.

A light went off in Haylee’s eyes as she looked at the cough drop display to her right and exclaimed, “Actually no!” stepping over to pick up a bag of Honey-Lemon Halls cough drops and setting them next to the box of condoms, and then adding, “Throw them in too.”

The clerk was taken aback by the husk in Haylee’s voice and couldn’t help but chuckle at her moxie, asking “Would you like a bag for this?”

“Please,” Haylee replied, looking up with a smile and making eye contact with the clerk for the first time and briefly winning him over with the fleeting moment of charm.  He put the cough drops and condoms in the plastic bag and handed it to Haylee as she walked off.

Haylee was still several steps from the front door when she plucked her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s from the pocket of her pink jacket, took out a cigarette and let it dangle unlit from her lips.  She wasted no time after crossing the threshold to the outdoors before she lit up the cigarette, never considering that the clerk she just smiled at was watching her walk away with disgust and bewilderment that a girl of her age and pedigree would be smoking cigarettes this day and age.  Her mind was entirely consumed with thoughts of what lied ahead for her that day, puckering her lips around the filter of her freshly lit cigarette to confidently ingest a tidal wave of smoke into her lungs.  As the smoke flowed out of her mouth and nose into the damp air, the estrogen about to erupt from her body felt tangible.  She wasn’t sure if the cycle of the birth control pills was contributing to making her so horny these last few days or if her body’s sex drive was simply being restored along with the rest of her senses in the aftermath of the extended illness, but she couldn’t think about anything else at this moment than Brian filling the inside of this condom….and then filling the inside of her soon thereafter.

Haylee broke out her cell phone and sent a quick text to Brian reading “Bought condom….get here quick!” as she began walking back to her house.

—————————————-

Meanwhile, up in Bemidji, Trevor and Lauren progressed slowly down the trail encircling the lake, the same trail they’d both taken several times in the past, most recently with Haylee and Brian on their Halloween weekend cabin trip.  Walking hand in hand, Trevor looked admiringly in Lauren’s direction as she dragged relaxedly from her cigarette, recognizing that her combination of black leather jacket and black leggings was the same outfit she wore when they took this hike over Halloween weekend, and it seemed fitting for the considerably warmer day compared to yesterday when they rode up.

For her part, Lauren was enjoying the wintry landscape as she checked out the tall pine trees covered in white that hovered on both sides of the trail.  The dripping sound from the pines drew her attention, and she nudged Trevor on the arm.

“Listen to snow melt in the pines,” Lauren said with a soothing calmness to her voice, adding “…it really is quite a bit warmer today isn’t it?” and approached her cigarette to her lips for another drag, her relaxed tone sending tingles through Trevor’s body.

Trevor smiled back at her and reached around her waist to squeeze her tight as they walked with Lauren responding in kind, the young couple trudging through the slushy snow beneath their boots on the trail.  But despite his best efforts to let himself go in the minute and stay as relaxed as Lauren was, a wave of concern crept across Trevor’s face as he got lost in a more troubling daydream, missing out completely as Lauren took the final drag of her cigarette, flicking her butt into the woods and polluting the fresh woodsy air with her filthy exhale.

Lauren wasted little time reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket and extracting her pack of Marlboro Light 100s, removing another cigarette and having to jolt Trevor out of his daydream as she handed him the lighter.  She giggled and said “Earth to Trevor!” before putting the cigarette between her lips and adding through a talking dangle, “What’s going on with you?”

Trevor smiled again and reached up to light Lauren’s cigarette as he contemplated his response, finally asking her “What do you see yourself doing after high school?” lightening the mood with a touch of levity as he added, “I mean, if professional figure skating doesn’t work out?”

Lauren laughed before dragging deeply off the freshly lit cigarette, caught off guard by the seriousness of Trevor’s inquiry in what had been such a carefree morning.  “Uh, I don’t know….” she started with a long pause, exhaling her smoke as she thought about the question she really hadn’t considered too closely until now.  “Go to college I suppose.”

“For what?” Trevor pressed, his concerns confirmed that Lauren hadn’t given much thought to the idea at all.

Lauren shrugged with a bit of annoyance, responding, “Something business-related I suppose.  I always figured I’d work at my parents’ business at some level.”

Trevor nodded, only partly satisfied with her response.  “Think you’d be happy doing that?”

Lauren furrowed her brow a bit as she dragged from her cigarette, surprised and confused by Trevor’s sudden ill-timed expression of interest in her career ambitions.  “I don’t know.  Haven’t thought too much about it.  Why all the questions?” she asked with wisps of smoke spilling from her face and drifting into Trevor’s.

Trevor continued to maintain a serious tone, not even losing his focus by Lauren’s secondhand smoke in his face as he usually did as he replied, “I’ve just been thinking about the future quite a bit lately is all.”

Lauren pressed, residual smoke still trickling from her nose as she asked, “What’s driving that?”

Trevor shrugged, responding “I guess after Christmas break, it really hit me that we’ll be graduating next year.  We got the ACTs coming up in April and then we’ll have to start applying for colleges.   It just seems like some big decisions are creeping up on us.”

Lauren dragged from her cigarette again, finding Trevor’s negative energy to be a bit contagious but also recognizing that he wasn’t wrong.  “So what do you think you’ll do after graduation?”

Trevor shrugged again.  “I’ve been getting quite a bit of literature in the mail from colleges lately.  It’s a lot to process…..especially when I don’t really know what kind of career I want to go into.”

Lauren interjected enthusiastically to make her case for the obvious.  “No doubt in my mind that you need to be a writer.  You have real talent for that, baby,” she championed, squeezing Trevor’s hand to emphasize her sincerity.

Trevor looked at her skeptically.  “Oh I’ve definitely thought of that but it’s really frickin’ hard to make a living as a writer these days.  The newspapers don’t pay shit.  The magazines are all shutting down.  Places that used to pay people to write stuff online now expect the content to be posted for free.”

Lauren listened on glumly as she dragged from her cigarette again.  “How about writing songs or movies?  You’d be good at that!” she asked through a talking exhale.

“That would certainly be fun,” Trevor responded, pausing to consume what he could of her exhale into his our respiratory system.  “But to get my foot in the door I’d probably have to move to where the film or music industry is.  LA….Nashville….possibly Atlanta,” he added, clearly having thought through his future plans in much greater detail than Lauren had.

Lauren hung her head with unexpected sadness and finally had to express it as lightheartedly as she could.  “Treeeevor, you’re bumming me out!” she exclaimed with a nervous giggle that she hoped would hide her genuine fear about the epiphanies of this conversation, a fear that life may one day steer her and Trevor in different directions, and perhaps sooner than she’d ever considered.

Trevor squeezed her waist again, feeling the smooth leather of her jacket and smelling the heavy aroma of the cigarette smoke clinging to her, putting her at limited ease as he laughed nervously himself and responded, “Not trying to be a wet blanket.  Just telling you what’s on my mind.”

Lauren reached up to caress his cheek and pulled his face toward hers for a soothing kiss that Trevor correctly identified as a gesture of possessiveness brought on by this uncomfortable conversation.  “It’s definitely something we’ll have to talk about more, baby, but today could we try to just enjoy ourselves and this beautiful day in the woods?”

Trevor smiled back, intoxicated by the taste of her fresh tobacco breath on his lips and incapable of challenging her whether he wanted to or not.  “You’re right,” Trevor agreed.  “We can certainly have this talk some other time.”

Lauren smiled sweetly as she dragged again from her cigarette and responded, “Thanks!”, grabbing his hand once again and swinging it playfully as they progressed the trail.

Trevor focused his mind on the trail again, looking up just in time to see a wooden sign with a left-pointing arrow marked “Chisholm River Trail” with a disclaimer of more isolated, difficult terrain for a four-mile stretch before it looped back to the lake trail they were currently navigating.

“What do you say?” Trevor asked, pointing to the sign for the more challenging trail.  “Up for a REAL hike through the woods today?”

Lauren looked at the sign with a bit of fear in her eyes as she took the final drag from her cigarette, exhaling and flicking the butt into the woods before looking Trevor in the eyes and asking “You worried it’ll be too rugged?”

Trevor smirked.  “Well I’m put pretty sure I can handle it,” he opened sarcastically before delivering the punchline, “…..but I bet a smoker would get totally winded if she tried it.”

Lauren giggled and punched him on the arm.  “After your pitiful performance on the ice yesterday, you have the nerve to say that?!?!” she said playfully.  “That’s it.  We’re going.  This smoker is gonna leave you in her dust again!”

Lauren led Trevor by the hand and guided him in the direction of the arrow on the sign, heading down the hill of the Chisholm River Trail not knowing what lied ahead but expected to find out, quickly regaining whatever energy had been lost by their serious conversation moments earlier.

————————–

Meanwhile, out on the lake, Courtney and Steve sat a few feet apart on lawn chairs on the ice, their respective fishing poles hanging into the water through holes they cut into the ice early that morning.  They’d been out here for nearly four hours already and had pretty good luck, the bucket sitting in between them containing a handful of bass and crappie. Courtney cut loose into a deep yawn at which point Steve looked her way and asked, “Not much sleep last night?”

Courtney cringed.  “Trevor was right!  Lauren could wake the dead with her snoring!”

Steve laughed and nodded, “I could even hear her through the walls.”

Courtney smiled as she dragged deeply from her latest cigarette, the smell of the menthol smoke hanging heavily in the damp air getting reinforcement as she cut loose a lengthy exhale and then quickly swooped in to finish the cigarette off with a finishing drag.

Steve couldn’t help but admire the show watching his daughter fling her latest spent cigarette butt a few feet forward onto the ice.  The white cigarette with the green rings and Marlboro logo slowly smoldered to its extinction, lying amidst several lookalike butts in the same general area that Courtney had already burned through while out there today.  Steve flashed back to the summer when he fished on the open water with Courtney in their boat, recollecting how her cigarette butts always floated in a circle around the boat in contrast to their current immobile resting place lying on the ice.  Beyond that specific image, Steve also flashed back to the awkward energy he had with Courtney last summer in the aftermath of her attempted seduction, but smiled as he looked at her now and appreciated just how much their relationship had gotten back to normal.  He couldn’t allow himself to get too overjoyed every time he remembered she was pregnant and would be forced to grow up much more quickly than he’d hoped she would, but even with that significant complication hanging out there, Steve still felt like Courtney was in a much better place overall in life than she was eight months ago.

“Got another one!” Courtney exclaimed, jolting her father out of his daydream.  “This one feels pretty big,” Courtney added, fighting to keep the fish on the line as she reeled it in.

Steve got out of his chair and readied the net just in case it was needed.  “We still might get that walleye dinner tonight!” he cheered her on.

As Courtney pulled the fish above the surface of the water line, she confirmed her father’s wishful thinking.  “Damn straight I got a walleye!” she exclaimed upon seeing the good-sized fish on the end of the hook flopping it around as she guided it to the bucket containing the other fish.

Steve smirked as he helped her remove the walleye from the fishing line, complimenting her success.  “Way to go there, kid.  A few more like that and we’ll be eating far better tonight than last night’s canned stew.”

Courtney laughed in agreement, smiling at her father and sharing the same general sentiment he did a few moments earlier, overjoyed about the improvement in their relationship since the last couple of times they were out on this lake.  She decided to tease her father a bit with a gloating proclamation.  “What’s this “we” will be eating better tonight?  If you want to join me in eating walleye tonight, maybe you need to start pulling your weight,” she boasted, pointing to the bucket to remind him she had caught more than him so far today.  Steve smiled back as Courtney removed the stocking cap from her head and unzipped her heavy winter jacket, her long blond hair falling onto her shoulders as she got one more jab in.  “I’m working up a sweat catching all these fish….but you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Steve laughed, enjoying the latest round of fishermen trash talk that he and Courtney had been engaging in since she was a young girl.  “By the end of the day, you’ll be the one begging me for some of my magic bait when I’m 10 walleye ahead of you.”

“Pffft….yeah right!” Courtney shot back with a playful dismissiveness, reaching into her jacket pocket to remove her pack of Marlboro Light Menthol 100s, plucking one out, placing it between her lips, and lighting herself up.  She looked around and admired their relative isolation sitting on the frozen lake but also the fellow anglers on the distant horizon, both inside and outside the ice fishing houses.  After a significant opening drag from her cigarette, Courtney mused through a talking dangle, “Not too many January days where we could tolerate being out on the open ice all day like this.  Trevor and Lauren don’t know what they’re missing.”

Steve nodded in agreement, trying hard to avoid admiringly watching the smoke streaming out of her face as he responded, “Yeah we sure got a great weekend.  Maybe we can go into the ice house later today but right now I’m comfortable right here.”

Courtney nodded in agreement, dragging from her cigarette again while tucking her unzipped jacket back and briefly revealing her swollen belly.

Steve was trying to find a good segue to initiate the conversation he knew Courtney both wanted and needed, but decided to drag out the small talk a bit longer, asking, “So are you ready for spring semester at school on Tuesday?”

In mid-drag, Courtney wrinkled her nose dismissively at the very moment the smoke started coming out, eventually verbally responding with “I suppose it’s time to get back but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.  I’m sure glad we were able to get up for this trip this weekend before school got rolling.”

Steve could tell Courtney was working her way up to meatier topics, and the hint of shame evident on her face as she stared at the smoldering cigarette she held in her hand tipped him off that it was time to press for details.  “Something wrong, Courtney?” he asked open-endedly, observing her continued guilt-soaked demeanor.

Courtney made serious eye contact as if warning her father that her news was considerable.  “Ugggghh!” she sighed, pausing long enough for Steve to see two breaths worth of residual smoke spill from her nose before she finished her thought.  “Dad, I think Wade’s gonna ask me to marry him.”

Steve’s face lit up, partly with surprise but mostly with confirmation that the wholesome country boy with the farm-raised values was gonna step up after discovering he impregnated Courtney.  He paused for a moment himself to process the magnitude of Courtney’s speculation before asking, “Just a hunch or has he given some specific hints?”

Courtney dragged from her cigarette again and then replied, “More or less a hunch because I think it’s the kind of guy he is….” noticing her father nodding in agreement as if he had made the same speculation, “….but he’s also been acting a little off-key the last couple of weeks.  Just seems like he’s either gonna leave me or propose to me and my money’s on a proposal.”

Steve looked her in the eye and asked, “So if he does propose, what are you gonna say?”

Courtney shook her head, her face filled with mixed emotion.  “I love him dad, so this should be an easy call, but I’m only gonna be 19 next month.  I really never planned on growing up this fast.  He seems like the perfect guy but, you know how it is, there are always warning signs.”

Steve listened intently, measuring his words carefully so as not to overplay his hand but ultimately asking, “Any warning signs you’re willing to talk about?”

“Well obviously we’re from two different worlds,” she replied in reference to their different upbringing and lifestyle.  And as she lifted her cigarette to her mouth for another drag, Steve correctly predicted based on her body language what was coming next before she proceeded, “Now he’s starting to bust my chops about quitting smoking during the pregnancy.”

“I was wondering when that was gonna come up,” Steve retorted, knowing Courtney would soon be expanding upon that revelation.

“I know I should quit and I feel terrible that I’m not able to, but my doctor keeps telling me it would be more harmful for the baby if I try to quit cold turkey rather than just cut down.”  She looked again at her cigarette with guilt and then added, “So far I haven’t really had the will power to do either.”

Steve gave her a comforting smile that let Courtney know he’d gone through this same situation with the heavy-smoking mother of his own children and would be a judgment-free arbiter of her predicament.  He nonetheless pressed forward with his other lurking question, “And how do his folks feel about all of this?”

“Ooooo!” Courtney replied with an intense flourish, approaching the cigarette to her mouth for a stressed-out drag and adding, “….they are not fans of your daughter these days, I can tell you that.”

Steve laughed nervously and replied, “I bet not.”  He paused and added, “Think a relationship with them is salvageable?”

Courtney shrugged, smoke bursting from her face in a long exhale, “I’m really not sure.  His mom has openly called me out for getting knocked up in order to tie Wade down, so she sure seems to think Wade’s gonna do the same thing I expect him to do,” using the cigarette to point to her ring finger to nonverbally convey Wade’s hypothetical pending proposal.  “And Wade tells me they’re both pissed I haven’t quit smoking during the pregnancy.  I might be able to convince Wade my doctor thinks that’s a bad idea but I’m not too confident about Glen and Louise Rosenquist.”

Steve listened intently, wishing he could ease his oldest daughter’s burden as he listened to her pour her heart out.  As she continued talking, he listened to her but also found himself pondering how heavy of a role would be appropriate for him to play in helping Courtney out on this, particularly as it applied to her relationship with her baby daddy and his parents.  But with every sentence of emotional struggle that Courtney continued to convey as they sat there, he resigned himself to the fact that he was powerless to not fight as hard as was needed on behalf of his daughter’s best interest and that it was just a matter of what the proper course was.

Courtney took a final drag from her cigarette and tossed it across the frozen lake in the same general proximity as its peers from earlier.  As she relaxed for a moment and let the smoke roll from her lungs into the winter air, she looked at the bucket of fish between her and her father again and then burst out in a laugh that didn’t at all fit the serious context of the moment.

Steve furrowed his brow and smirked at the surprise burst of laughter, asking “What is it?”

“I just realized I’m not gonna be able to eat any of these fish.  I can’t have mercury when I’m pregnant.  I shouldn’t even be touching them!” Seeing the light go off in her father’s eyes based on the revelation, she added, “Looks like you get to eat all the fish I catch after all.”

Steve smirked, adding “Well lucky for you I have one more can of beef stew in my bag.”

Courtney laughed and wrinkled her nose, the innocent look on her face combined with the latest reminder that she was a few months away from being a mother producing something of an epiphany for Steve.  He knew what he had to do now, at least in the immediate future.  It would be another long snowmobile ride home back to the Twin Cities the next day, but before MLK weekend was over, he still had one very important conversation to take care of.

———————————-

Trevor and Lauren trudged with exhaustion through the Chisholm River trail, hiking up a steep embankment amidst the relatively narrow and heavily isolated back trail and realizing there was likely no other human being around for miles in any direction.  Trevor took the lead, holding Lauren’s hand as they maneuvered through a particularly high drift of snow in the middle of the ungroomed trail, their boots going nearly knee deep into the slushy snow with each labored step they took.   Lauren paced herself, taking a final drag from her cigarette, flicking the cigarette into the woods, and quickly realizing she was doing herself no favors as her exhausted lungs coughed out the exhale.

Trevor looked back with a smirk, and then pointed ahead to a brief clearing in the woods next to the levee.   “What do you say we take a little break up there?” he asked.

“Sounds good to me,” Lauren replied amidst heavy breathing, eager to get these last 20 yards or so behind them for a well-deserved rest.

When they got there, Trevor sat down on the snow-covered incline, guiding Lauren onto his lap as both of them spent the next couple of moments silently catching their breath, realizing they may have gotten in for more than they bargained for in with this rugged back trail.  After a solid minute of catching their breath, Trevor mused out loud, “We gotta be more than halfway I hope.”

“I hope so too!” Lauren exclaimed in response.  “Who’s bright idea was it to take this boonie trail anyway?”

“Awww what’s the matter?” Trevor teased, placing his hand on Lauren’s leather jacket and petting her rib cage directly under her breast.  “Can’t those lungs of yours handle it?”

Lauren giggled and then gave Trevor a playfully sinister look.  “I don’t know, Trevor.  I think you’re even more out of breath than me.”

Trevor nodded in agreement as he leaned forward for a quick kiss, which Lauren merrily accepted just before she reached into her jacket for another cigarette from her pack.  She handed Trevor her lighter as she placed the cigarette between her lips, welcoming his light and taking an indulgent dangling drag off the light-up, letting the explosive opening exhale burst into Trevor’s face with extreme prejudice.  Their sexual chemistry crackled for a few silent moments as both enjoyed their bodies in each other’s arms with this wilderness setting as a backdrop.

But just as their friskiness was really starting to heat up, the muffled sound of a wild animal on the horizon caught Trevor’s ear.  He turned his head to his left, surprising Lauren with the rare moment that her boyfriend wasn’t laser-focused on her smoky performance art.  Trevor looked back at Lauren, “Did you hear that?”

Lauren looked confused as she took another dangling drag from her cigarette and haltingly responded, “I don’t…think so,” through a talking exhale, her smoke again drifting into Trevor’s face but not commanding his full attention.

“It sounded like a moose!” Trevor said with a curious gleam in his eye.

Lauren shrugged, removing the cigarette from her mouth and asking, “Are you saying we might be in danger?”

“No, no, it sounded like it was coming from the other side of the river,” Trevor answered, holding his finger up as if to hush Lauren so they could listen for more.

Lauren remained silent per Trevor’s wishes, waiting for about 30 seconds before they heard another animal grunt that sounded closer than the time before.  Trevor looked Lauren in the eye excitedly and nodded in the affirmative, his energy slightly confusing Lauren who still didn’t know whether she should be ecstatic or fearful of a nearby moose as she continued sitting on his lap.

Trevor could barely contain his excitement as he whispered to Lauren, “There aren’t supposed to any moose within like 150 miles of here.  Everybody thought they’d all migrated north into Canada as far back as 20 years ago.”

While Trevor’s energy continued to be contagious, Lauren looked confused as she pulled her cigarette to her lips for another drag before asking, “But didn’t we just pass a ‘Moose Lake’ like 10 miles south of here on the way up?” through a messy talking exhale.

Trevor nodded enthusiastically, replying “There were moose here for centuries but they’ve been migrating out of here since around the time we were born because of the warming climate….at least that’s what everybody believes.”

The sound of yet another relatively close moo from the nearby animal hit Trevor like a freight train as he pointed over his shoulder as if signaling where they had to go next.  “Baby, we gotta get a closer look.  If I’m right and it’s a moose, we are sitting on the news story of the year up here and we gotta get some pics.”

“Seriously?” Lauren asked with a combination of wonderment and anxiety, rising off of Trevor’s lap and following him as he ascended the levee until they had a clear vantage point of the river down the sloping embankment.

The young couple scanned their eyes along the narrow and mostly iced-over Chisholm River, but with today’s warmer weather a narrow stream of water flowed atop the ice.  Trevor was breathless as he spotted the mother moose slow-stepping her way onto the ice, her two calves behind her as she attempted to get a drink of fresh water for herself and her offspring.  Trevor grabbed hold of Lauren’s leather-draped shoulder and shook her excitedly as he pointed to the moose.

“Awww it’s a mama with her babies,” Lauren whispered, her sweet tone once again standing in sharp contrast to the fresh tobacco on her breath as Trevor smiled back to her.

Trevor reached into his pocket for his phone, leaning forward to snap some photos as the mother moose continued to progress toward the flowing water on the river, carefully avoiding slipping on the ice.  Trevor seemed frustrated as he snapped the pics, realizing the 30 yards or so of distance between him and the moose was too much for the kind of images he was hoping for, obstructed by too many tree branches and foliage.  He looked to Lauren as if compelling her to brace herself to hear out his case.  “This is a once in a lifetime photo opportunity,” he insisted in as whispered of a tone as he could muster. “Do you trust me to hang on to you if we go down past that tree and get this on video?”

Escalating anxiety arose on Lauren’s face as she looked at the steepness of the terrain down there and the 15-foot drop onto the icy river.  “Won’t she attack us if she sees us?”

Trevor shook his head no, replying “She’ll never be able to get across the river and up this embankment fast enough.  We’re good on this side of the river….at least if you trust me to hang on to you,” he added, fluttering his eyebrows as if tempting her with a physical challenge.

Lauren excitedly bit her lower lip, still feeding off of Trevor’s abundance of energy and then replying, “Let’s do it!”

Lauren took hold of Trevor’s cell phone and led the way as they ventured down the embankment toward the tree, approaching slowly so they didn’t alert the moose and watching their step in the relatively slick and slushy snowpack.   Trevor wrapped his arm tightly around Lauren’s stomach as he held her from behind, inching their way past the tree until Trevor realized they were as close as they could reasonably get.

“That’s good!” Trevor whispered.  “Now start recording,” he followed up, wrapping his left arm around a heavy branch of the tree while clutching Lauren around the waist with his right arm.

Lauren clicked the record button on the phone and pointed it down only about 15 yards to the distracted moose and her calves as they leaned forward to lap up the flowing stream water.  She was now into it just as much as Trevor and they both watched in awe realizing they were witnessing something very special.  But as enraptured as Trevor was watching the wildlife show on the river, he couldn’t help but briefly divert his attention to Lauren watching with wonder in her eyes, both hands holding the phone as it recorded with the butt of her half-smoked cigarette curled around in front of the phone, likely making it into the recording with streams of secondhand smoke swirling in front of it.  Trevor smiled as Lauren let go of the camera with her right hand just long enough to approach her cigarette to her mouth, letting it dangle from her lips and then grabbing hold of the phone again to get more of the recording.

The moose and her calves finally quenched their thirst, turning around and slowly migrating off of the ice without ever noticing the voyeuristic humans filming their unlikely presence in this river valley.  With the shrinking cigarette dangling from her lips, Lauren finally turned to Trevor as the moose drifted back into the woods on the other side of the river.  “I think I did pretty well, Trevor!  Got the whole show!” she exclaimed through a talking dangle, before stopping the recording and placing the camera phone in the pocket inside her leather jacket so she’d be less likely to drop it.

Trevor smiled back as her smoke flowed into his face, exclaiming  “Can’t wait to see the footage you got, baby!”  He held her tight as he pulled her back toward him and carefully navigated back up the embankment toward the trail.  As they neared the top of the levee, Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette and flicked the butt in the general direction they came from, watching as it rolled onto the ice near where the moose had only moments ago stood with her calves and serving as a sort of time capsule to let the world know she was there for what she knew was a very powerful moment.

Trevor pulled Lauren down the levee and returned to their resting spot, excited to play the video they had just recorded.  “Let’s see it!” Lauren exclaimed gleefully as Trevor attempted to view it.

“How about we slog our way through the rest of this trail first,” Trevor replied.  “To give us a little motivation to make it to the end?”

“Oooo, I don’t think I can wait that long!” Lauren exclaimed, excitedly grabbing hold over Trevor’s waist and squeezing him in anticipation.

“I guess we better get hiking again then,” Trevor said with a smirk, leading the way with a new vigor down the Chisholm River Trail, their exhaustion of 10 minutes earlier now a distant memory as they now had a clear motivation to move it along.

The trail’s most rugged terrain behind them, Trevor and Lauren walked another half hour or so with Lauren burning through a couple more cigarettes and Trevor repeatedly trying to play his recording but continuing to find they were still out of range.  Finally, they approached a clearing and could tell they were about to reconnect with the original trail, and just as they were about to exit the Chisholm River Trail, Trevor pressed play on the video on his phone and the recording began to play back.

“Here it is!” Trevor exclaimed, motioning Lauren to watch along, both of them filling with elation as they observed the video playing back with a clear image and audio, occasionally capturing the moose’s moo and even the sound of her calves lapping up the water.  He looked lovingly into Lauren’s eyes and complimented her.  “You should get a best director Oscar for this video.  Awesome work!”

“Thanks!” Lauren responded with a delighted pride, thrilled that she had delivered on something that clearly meant so much to Trevor.  “But all I did was sit in the audience.  Mama moose and her costars deserve all the credit for the show!”

Trevor smiled at her characterization and pulled her in to kiss her on the forehead, continuing to watch the video and finding it impossible to miss Lauren’s smoldering cigarette lurking in the upper right hand corner of the screen, semiregular swirls of smoke drifting in and out of the video.

Lauren giggled as she noticed.  “Looks like my cigarette made a cameo in the film,” pausing and then adding with a playful flourish, “Hope that doesn’t mean it’ll be rated R now!”

Trevor shook his head in mock exasperation as Lauren plucked out another cigarette from the pack in her jacket pocket, exaggeratedly grumbling, “Can’t you do anything without a cigarette?  The film is soiled forever now!”

Lauren let loose a husky laugh as she placed her unlit cigarette into her mouth and handed Trevor the lighter.  “Just light me up would you baby?”

Trevor dutifully leaned down to spark up her cigarette and then returned his attention to the ongoing video as it approached its end, watching the moose and her calves begin to walk away from the flowing water and speaking aloud for Lauren’s benefit, “They’re really something aren’t they?”  After a few seconds and not hearing a response from Lauren, he clarified his earlier talking point and insisted, “I’m not exaggerating here.  This is a huuuuge story that we found a moose in Bemidji.  This video is a freaking goldmine.  Not even joking.”

When Trevor continued to get no response from Lauren and he noticed the aroma of her freshly lit cigarette was nowhere to be found either, Trevor furrowed his brow in temporary confusion, looking up to see she wasn’t there.  But just as he was about to turn around to see if he could find her, he felt a giant sphere of cold, wet snow crash upon the back of his head and splatter all over his back and shoulders.  Caught off-guard, he turned fully around to see his girlfriend with a mischievous, shit-eating smirk on her face, the freshly lit cigarette dangling from her lips as she playfully reminded him through her talking dangle, “I told you I’d get you back for closing the snowmobile helmet on me yesterday, didn’t I, Trevor?” pausing and adding through a playful flourish, “Payback’s a bitch!”

Trevor smiled back, adoring his girlfriend’s playful streak and her long memory for payback.  “Okay, that’s it!” Trevor played along back, putting his cell phone inside his coat pocket and declaring, “It’s war.  No more Mr. Nice Guy,” leaning down to the ground to pack together a snowball of his own.

Lauren screeched in nervous excitement as she followed Trevor’s lead and pandemonium broke out for the next couple of minutes with the young couple slinging snowballs at each other in this clearing at the edge of the trail juncture.   The conditions were perfect for a snowball fight even if the couple’s aim for hitting each other in this dodge ball environment was less perfect, yet still nicking one another indirectly from time to time.  Distracted for a moment as he looked at Lauren adeptly maintaining her oral grip on the dangling cigarette, Trevor gave his girlfriend the opening she needed to land a shot directly at his neck with some of the cold snow falling down inside his jacket, the cold snow briefly taking Trevor’s breath away as it melted down his chest.

With a new intensity in his eyes and a hard-charging growl in his voice, Trevor bulldozed forward.  Lauren screamed playfully as he plowed into her as gently as possible, toppling her back into a snowbank.  Landing with her back in the snow, Trevor made a point of controlling his landing, knowing Lauren would appreciate the role reversal compared to the night before after the ice skating tumble.  He looked in awe to see his girlfriend’s smiling face as her head rested in the snow, the black leather of her jacket contrasting perfectly with the white snow beneath her and flowing blond locks partially contained by her head band but mostly sprawling about across the winter landscape beneath her.  Her half-smoked cigarette dangled comfortably from her lips, at one with the rest of her body, the ensuing exhale forming a halo of smoke above her that perfected Trevor’s visual of Lauren as the perfect snow angel.

“Well this is a switch, isn’t it?” Trevor observed aloud with the appropriate level of sarcasm as he hovered atop Lauren’s body, slowly closing in on her from above.

Lauren reclaimed her power as she puckered her lips around the filter of her cigarette, her cherry burning hot and keeping Trevor from fully bearing down upon her.  As the inhaled smoke began to pour out of her lungs and fill up Trevor’s airspace, she mused “An expert on the migration patterns of moose.  A woodsy adventurer hanging onto girls while dangling from trees over frozen rivers.  Who are you, Trevor McPherson?”

Trevor laughed out loud at Lauren’s clever turn on his commentary yesterday in reference to her surprise ice skating performance.  “I guess we’re both learning new things about each other every time we’re together,” he responded, slipping his hand out of his glove and reaching up to gently caress her rosy cheek with his fingers.

Lauren’s sweet spot was sufficiently hit as she finally removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and pulled Trevor down toward her, locking lips and exhaling her cigarette smoke into his mouth.  She could feel his virgin lungs swell up with smoke in the immediate aftermath of blowing it into his mouth, instantly becoming sexually excited and making out with him more aggressively for the next few moments.

When Trevor pulled apart, Lauren bit her lower lip and then approached the cigarette to her mouth for one final drag and then stretched out her arm to crush the cigarette out on the snow, listening to the sizzle of the extinguishing cherry as it was consumed by the moisture of the snowpack.

“Are we gonna do it here or are you still worried about my dick freezing off?” Trevor teased.

Lauren giggled and responded, “We’re pretty close to the cabin now.  Let’s enjoy ourselves in your bed before your dad and Courtney get home.”

“I like the sound of that,” Trevor added with a frisky smile, climbing off of Lauren and then lending his arm to pull her out of the snow.

Lauren missed Trevor’s mischievous tell in the seconds before he maneuvered himself directly behind her as she began to stand up, scooping his hands full of wet snow and then reaching up to Lauren’s black leggings, pulling the waistband back and dropping the snow down her backside.  By the time Lauren realized what was happening, her face filled with shock at the intensely cold feeling of snow down her pants just as Trevor snapped the waistband shut and smashed his hand on the ass of her leggings, further raising the stakes of her discomfort.

After catching her breath from the bodily shock, Lauren playfully shouted out, “Dude, I thought you were trying to get laid!  That’s not helping your case!”

Trevor just sat there smirking for a moment before conceding, asking “You’re right. What might I be able to do to make it up to you?”

“Weeellll,” Lauren speculated, reaching into her jacket pocket to pluck out another cigarette.  “After such an ungentlemanly gesture, I’m gonna insist you carry me home,” she added with a playful pluck, handing Trevor the lighter to spark her cigarette up.

Trevor laughed as he lit her cigarette, replying “It’s still like a half mile from the cabin.  Either you have way too much faith in my upper body strength or you don’t care if you end up falling in the snow again.”

Lauren giggled as she filled her lungs with the first drag from the new cigarette, replying “I have faith in you, Trevor,” as she returned the favor and stroked his rosy cheek with her hand.  “Now carry me home, baby.”

Trevor smiled as he reached his arms out and let Lauren leap into his embrace, feeling the leather of her jacket on his left hand and the spandex and polyester of her leggings under her thigh in his right, the aroma of tobacco smoke dominating his nose.  She smirked up at him and exhaled into his face as Trevor began walking, an exaggerated gesture of making herself comfortable in his arms as he proceeded, even though both of them knew they’d soon be making each other much more comfortable.

——————————-

Meanwhile, Haylee paced the floor of her home in her pink bathrobe, cigarette dangling from her lips as she peeked nervously and repeatedly out the open curtains toward the sidewalk, waiting for her planned lover to arrive.  The clock read 2:40 so Brian was a little late, but he had texted her when he got off the bus so she knew he’d be here any moment.  Finally, she spotted him approaching on the sidewalk, slopping his way through the melting snow.  A smirk emerged on her face and she puckered up her lips around her cigarette for a drag that was quickly followed by a brief melancholy sulk.  Looking at this 13-year-old boy approaching her home for sexual relations, she was disappointed how far she had fallen from a few months ago when a hot 18-year-old guy came over in a blue Corvette to serve her sexual needs.  But as Brian and Haylee exchanged smiles after making eye contact through the front window of the McPherson home, Haylee’s excitement returned as she finally had a guy she had some chemistry with who was here to serve her needs for the moment, and that meant a lot to her today.

Haylee strutted up to the front door and opened it to let Brian inside, the boy looking her over with confusion about the pink robe she was wearing.  “Better late than never,” Haylee greeted with the appropriate level of sarcasm typical in her discourse with Brian, her husky voice again catching Brian off-guard.

“What the hell is wrong with your voice anyway?” Brian asked with his typical adolescent bravado, his usual way of attempting to flirt with Haylee.  “Those cigarettes catching up with you already?”

“I already told you!” Haylee snapped back, cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips.  “I had bronchitis a couple of weeks ago.”

Brian grimaced.  “You still sound sick to me.  I don’t want your bronchitis!”

Haylee sighed.  “I’m not contagious anymore, dumbass!  I told you that days ago!”

Brian nodded, having no interest in pushing the matter further given what awaited him.  He began to take his boots off and noticed how the snow had gotten the bottom of his jeans wet.  “My jeans are all muddy!” he grumbled.  “I didn’t realize I’d have to walk 10 miles through the snow from the bus stop to your place!”

Haylee couldn’t help but flash him a bemused smile as she puckered her lips for another dangling drag from her two-thirds-smoked Camel Pink.  “You’re about to get laid and you’re whining about the walk over?  Seriously, Brian?”

Brian smiled back as he watched the smoke spray out of Haylee’s mouth and nose, realizing his tone didn’t really match the epic moment but not really knowing any other way to act with his limited romantic experience.

Haylee’s smirk got more mischievous as she began to untether her robe.  “Maybe this will help dry your tears!” she snorted playfully, removing the robe to reveal her nubile mid-teen body with limited coverage from a matching pink bra and panties, dropping her robe to the floor with a dramatic flair.

Brian stood there speechless as he studied her, mesmerized by her exquisite feminine form that he was seeing for the first time since she stole his virginity on Halloween night.  Seeing the pleasure in Haylee’s eyes about having her body ogled, Brian moved in and put his hands around her waist, slowly pulling in for a kiss.

Haylee removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and accepted Brian’s kiss.  She expected his usual opening revulsion at the taste of her cigarette breath, but he seemed to recover quickly as they pressed their lips together and exchanged tongues for a few minutes.  Haylee put her hand on the back of Brian’s head and rummaged it through his hair in a way that Brian knew meant things were gonna escalate quickly.  She pulled away from the kiss for a bit and confirmed Brian’s suspicion as she friskily asked, “Should we go up to my bed?”

Brian nodded, surreal as the moment seemed, with Haylee walking backward toward the staircase, holding his hands around her waist as they walked and caressing her shapely hips.  At a rare loss for words, Brian searched desperately for one of his trademark barbs as they ascended the steps one at a time.  “So that’s how it’s gonna be?  Straight to bed?” he playfully quipped.  “I was expecting a little wining and dining.  I kind of feel like a piece of meat.”

Haylee laughed aloud as she continued to slowly ascend the steps backward, reminded again why she found Brian charming as he always managed to keep her on her toes with his preternatural wit and unexpected snappy remarks.  “Maybe we’ll have time to eat afterwards,” Haylee responded through a talking dangle of what little was left of her cigarette.  “I have a feeling we’re gonna work up quite an appetite.”

Brian smiled back as they got to the top of the stairs, with Haylee grabbing Brian’s hand and leading him toward her bedroom, an accelerating sexual energy quickening her pace.  She hustled on into the bedroom, crushing her cigarette out on the nightstand near her bed while tossing the condoms in Brian’s direction.

Haylee reached for her pack of Camel Pinks to light up another cigarette as she laid down on her bed.  “Wrap it up and come on over here,” Haylee commanded through an unlit talking dangle.

Brian stared in awe as Haylee flicked her cigarette to life, watching the inaugural burst of smoke expelled from her respiratory system and blanketing her half-naked body.  Her curves were on full display lying there and Brian tried everything to get sufficiently turned on admiring all that exposed skin and the really good stuff he knew was waiting underneath the pink bra and panties…..but for whatever reason it wasn’t coming easily today.

Haylee watched with confusion as Brian slowly removed his shirt and jeans.  The unease on his face was impossible to miss as he stripped down to his boxers but continued to drag his feet.  Seeing and feeling the goosebumps form on her chilly skin, Haylee barked out through her extended talking dangle, “What’s taking so long?!  It’s cold lying here!”

Brian continued stalling but avoided eye contact out of embarrassment, making it clear to Haylee something was wrong as he slowly ripped open the box of condoms.

After about 20 more seconds of foot-dragging, Haylee finally put it together looking at Brian squirm around in his boxers.  “Oh my God!  You can’t get it up, can you?” she asked incredulously, a granny ash starting to form on her dangling cigarette.

Brian’s face turned red as he had no defense, no comeback, and no possible shield from the humiliation he was feeling.  Finally, he stumbled upon the words, “Not sure what’s going on but I promise I’ll get there.   Just give me a minute.”

“Ugh!” Haylee groaned, attempting not to emasculate him too badly but still frustrated by the delay.  “Get over here and put your hands on me!  Maybe that’ll help!”

Brian nodded, thinking that sounded like a good idea, and climbed atop Haylee’s body, loving the touch of her skin on his and thinking to himself that if this doesn’t get him hard nothing would.  She finally removed the cigarette from her mouth to ash as Brian lowered his lips to her neck, slowly working his way down her collar bone and toward her breasts.  The smell of fresh smoke let him know the cigarette was back in her mouth, which he found strangely arousing, plunging his mouth onto her breasts and working them over.

“Mmmm, yes!” Haylee exclaimed, hoping the verbal encouragement would help as she felt his lips caress her bra line.  After a couple of moments, she requested, “Take my bra off.”

Brian pulled himself off, avoiding eye contact as he moved his hands to her breasts, trying to hide his confusion as he caressed both breasts with his fingers.

Haylee was about to grunt at him for stalling again until it finally hit her.  “Oh my God, you don’t know how to get a girl’s bra off, do you?”

Brian silently kept his eyes locked on her chest to avoid eye contact, fully emasculated as he heard the beginning of Haylee’s laugh, which she suppressed as much as possible for the sake of his ego, but instead finding herself cutting loose a heavy smoker’s cough, belching out a blob of smoke that drifted straight into Brian’s face.

Brian took the opening to change the subject and reverse the power dynamic, recoiling in animation and exclaiming, “Christ, now I have whatever disease you have!  Thanks alot!” exaggeratedly waving his hand in front of his face in a futile attempt to evade Haylee’s smoke cloud.

Haylee sat up for a moment in attempt to undo her own bra since Brian wasn’t up to the job, barking back her reply.  “I told you I’m not contagious.  I just have a cough that won’t go away.”

Brian looked at her pucker her lips around the half-smoked cigarette and snapped back, “Gee, I wonder why!”

As their banter continued, it snuck up on Brian as he finally realized he now had the raging boner between his legs that he wanted a few minutes earlier.  He caught Haylee off-guard as he smiled at her, lifted himself off of her waist, and pulled off his boxers.

“Finally!” Haylee exclaimed, elated to see Brian’s erection.  “Now get that condom on before it disappears!”

Brian did as requested, ripping open the condom wrapper and pulling out the latex prophylactic.  As he began applying it to his erection, it was quickly clear to both him and Haylee that the condom was too big for Brian’s equipment.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Haylee grumbled, watching Brian try to roll it on with far too much slack for sufficient coverage.

Brian looked at the box in desperate attempt for self-defense and got what he was looking for from the label.  “Why did you buy Magnum condoms!?!” he asked Haylee.  “These are for really huge dicks.”

Haylee quickly realized the screw-up was hers, but still deflected.  “Well they fit my last boyfriend!” she fired back emasculatingly, even as she remembered that Jacob recommended that she size down from the Trojan Magnums the next time she bought condoms.

Brian sneered back, “You mean the old guy?  Maybe I’ll be able to wear these condoms too when I’m 30 or whatever he was!”

Haylee took a dangling drag from her fast-shrinking cigarette as she pondered what to do next, sighing and then concluding with, “Just try slipping it in and see how it goes!”

Brian liked the sound of that but wasn’t confident as he yanked Haylee’s panties off and tossed them to the floor, briefly admiring her officially naked form before he thrust himself into her glistening vagina.

Haylee sighed with pleasure at the feeling of the penetration, but her pleasure was short-lived as it quickly became clear with subsequent penetrations that the condom was rolling off Brian’s manhood.

“Stop! Stop!” Haylee held him off, apoplectic at what a comedy of errors this had become.  “This isn’t gonna work.”

Brian was really into it at this point and didn’t want to stop, offering “How about I just take the condom off and we do it like last time?”

“No!” Haylee fired back, using her hand to hold Brian at bay.  “My sister is pregnant and I don’t want to risk getting pregnant like her.”

Brian could tell this was completely falling apart but still fought for himself, asking “I thought you said you were on birth control.”

“I am!” Haylee responded through her final talking dangle, her cigarette now down to its filter with the final ash falling onto her chest.  “But I’m not gonna risk doing it raw dog again!”

Brian sighed and Haylee felt bad looking at the disappointment on his face.

“I’m sorry Brian,” she said, pulling him down to her chest and hoping he would take the cue to give her body some pleasure even if full copulation was now off the table.

Brian started kissing her boobs again, now fully exposed, and Haylee began to purr as his lips and tongue caressed her nipples.  She reached for another cigarette from the pack on her nightstand and lit up, chuckling briefly as she recalled her long-standing desire to lose her virginity with a fellow virgin.  At this point, neither she nor Brian was a virgin, but she was nonetheless getting the virginal experience she had longed for today, complete with all of the pratfalls she could have possibly imagined and then some.  She knew she was a little drunk on Halloween night when she and Brian consummated their sexual relationship, but she still remembered it as being pleasurable for both.  Now she was wondering if some combination of nostalgia and alcohol may have glorified that experience.  Still, Brian’s mouth on her breasts felt pretty darn good to her right now and she decided to just enjoy it rather than bemoan the fantasy encounter she had hoped for but fell short of.

Brian looked up from her breasts to see her smiling through her dangling cigarette, giving him the inspiration he needed to move south on Haylee’s body, moving his lips slowly down her stomach and waist.  He was prepared to stop if Haylee wanted him to but assumed consent as he kept progressing his lips towards her vagina.  He kissed her labia softly and listened to a brief pleasured moan, inspiring him to kiss a little more and then service her with his tongue.

The cigarette between Haylee’s lips went so erect it might have been able to support the Trojan Magnum condoms she bought earlier, ingesting a massive load of smoke into her lungs that matched her sexual stimulation.  Her instinct was to bark out directions for Brian’s lip and tongue placement but she decided to give the kid a break, knowing he was doing his best and placing her hand on the back of his head to rummage her fingers through his hair for nonverbal encouragement.  While Jacob was a comparative maestro when he used to go down on her, Haylee decided it was impossible to have this done to her pussy and not feel great, which her purring helped convey to Brian.

His face fully immersed into Haylee’s feminine plumbing, Brian was startled at the dinging of her cell phone on the nightstand.  When it dinged a second, third, and fourth time, Brian had become distracted.  As he felt Haylee reach over to look at the phone, he lifted his head from her crotch in time to see Haylee read the messages.  “We good here?” he asked.

“It’s just Carly,” Haylee responded through a talking dangle.  “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she requested, pushing his head back down into her soaking pussy.

No sooner did Brian resume with orally servicing her did the telephone start ringing.  “Oh my God!  What does she want!?” Haylee shouted, her smoke bursting from her mouth and nose with fury.  After it became clear that Carly left a message, Haylee picked up the phone to play it just in case it was an emergency.

“Haylee, I’m parked in your driveway!” Carly opened on the recorded message.  “I’ve gotta talk to you before I go back to school on Tuesday!  I really need some advice from my girl about this one!  I thought you said your mom was working and you’d be home alone today.  Not sure where you are but I’m just gonna wait outside till you either come out or until you get home.  Seriously this sooo can’t wait!” Carly exclaimed with a teenage urgency.

Haylee shook her head about how absolutely everything seemed to be going wrong.  Finally she arrived at the inescapable conclusion and broke the bad news to Brian.  “I’m gonna have to go down there and try to get rid of her.”

“What about me?” Brian asked with concern, his face adorably hovering just above Haylee’s exposed genitals.

“You’re gonna hide in my closet and not make a peep!” Haylee commanded through her talking dangle in a tone she usually reserved for Jarrod and Joshua, pulling herself up in the bed as if ready for business.  “Don’t even try to come out until Carly is gone.  She’ll kill us both if she finds our we’re together,” Haylee insisted as she reached down for her panties next to the bed and put them back on, keeping Brian in the dark about her own moment of intimacy with Carly.

Haylee picked up her phone, cigarette dangling from her lips as she texted to Carly, “Coming right down.  Just woke up from a nap.”  She watched as Brian slinked his way into her bedroom closet and then got up and raced for the stairway, eyeing the pink bathrobe she knew she’d thrown on the living room floor earlier.   Bending over to pick up the robe, Haylee wrapped her nearly naked body up with it just as the doorbell rang.  She knew she had a tightrope to walk with these two worlds colliding, and was increasingly nervous as she pondered the potential implications if the collision managed to inform either one of the two cousins of the other’s secret.

—————————————

The front door of the McPherson cabin slowly opened from the hand of a giggling Lauren, who continued to be carried in the arms of her exhausted boyfriend.

“Anybody home?!” Lauren called out, expecting that neither Steve nor Courtney would be back from ice fishing yet but checking to be sure, still unaware that the last time they made love in this cabin Courtney actually was there in the other bedroom.

Trevor sat Lauren down and she approached her cigarette to her lips, sweetly muttering “Looks like we’re the only ones home,” before taking a performative drag.  She kept the cigarette dangling from her lips as she proceeded to tear off Trevor’s winter weather gear, with Trevor responding in kind removing Lauren’s headband and leather jacket.

In moments, the frisky young couple was removing the rest of each other’s clothes and migrating toward Trevor’s bedroom, with Lauren grabbing an ash can for her cigarette along the way.  Stripping down till they were naked, Trevor smirked at Lauren as he playfully shoved her backwards onto his bed.  As he descended upon her, he mused “I was specifically told I can’t have a girl in this bed. I’m a little conflicted here.”

Lauren giggled, residual smoke spilling from her mouth and nose as she grabbed Trevor by the same increasingly muscular shoulders that carried her nearly a half mile from the trail to the cabin.  “I won’t tell if you won’t,” she replied with a sweet flourish, lowering him down onto her body to make out.

Trevor was overjoyed at their uncanny sexual chemistry, both fully on the same page for a tender round of slow-and-steady missionary love-making that seemed to fit their understated yet celebratory mood following the big discovery on the hiking trail.

Lauren felt the slightest hint of apprehension as she remembered Courtney’s warning about avoiding pregnancy.  But as she pondered her vigilant birth control schedule and the certainty that she’d never missed her daily pill, she let the concern disappear into the back of her mind and happily accepted Trevor’s hardness inside of her.

Thrusting himself into Lauren forcefully yet calmly, the young couple was in the earliest throes of a copulation poised to go dramatically better than the one currently being attempted in the McPherson home by their respective younger siblings.  Trevor knew Steve and Courtney likely wouldn’t be back from ice fishing till around sunset, so he was confident he had at least an hour for playtime with his girlfriend.  Perhaps he’d still have time to make good on the promise for oral gratification promised the night before with the mouthing of the trigger word “hypothermia”, but for now he was content to bed Lauren down with no bells and whistles.  And judging by the passionate response he was hearing from her, Trevor was confident Lauren was pretty content right now too.

——————————–

Haylee opened her front door, a mostly smoked cigarette dangling from her lips that at least partially disguised her guilt and shame upon making eyes with Carly waiting outside.

Carly looked her over in the bathrobe as if sensing something was off.  “Geez Haylee, you get the house to yourself all day and you decide to take a nap?!” Carly commented with an abrupt burst of laughter.

Haylee shrugged, responding through her talking dangle and revealing her still-raspy post-bronchitis voice to Carly.  “Just a little groggy still, I guess,” hoping Carly would take the cue and decide to come back some other time.

Carly furrowed her brow as she walked inside the house, dashing Haylee’s hopes.  “Yeah you don’t look or sound too good, I guess,” Carly responded.  “I thought you said you were feeling better.”

Haylee shrugged again as she watched Carly take off her shoes.  “Just some leftover fatigue probably,” she muttered, removing the spent cigarette from her mouth and drifting to the ash can in the living room to crush it out before curtly adding, “So what can I help you with?” hoping to nudge Carly along as quickly as possible.

Carly came busting into the living room, unable to contain her excitement as she responded, “Two words:  Emma….Olson!”

Haylee had all she could do to hide her grimace, knowing that Carly didn’t want her secret to come out about her sexual preference but fearing Carly’s cousin Brian could easily hear her from upstairs.

Carly continued to sense an unusual hesitation on Haylee’s face but was walking on the clouds too much to stop herself from continuing.  “This chick is like the hottest girl in my history class and she’s been giving me no end of signals in the last week,” Carly expressed in the uninhibited and animated tone she usually took on during her now-regular discussions of romantic prospects with Haylee.  “I mean, on Friday, I literally thought she was gonna reach across the desk and start undressing me!  Talk about someone violating me with their eyes!  But all weekend I’ve been telling myself it has to be too good to be true because there’s just no way Emma could be into girls….”

Haylee made a nervous face, her body language unmistakably signalling Carly to not say anything more.  Haylee reached down to her pack of Camel Pinks and plucked two out, handing one to Carly and keeping the other for herself and verbalizing, “Here have a cigarette,” lighting Carly up and then herself.

Carly scowled again at Haylee’s odd behavior.  “What’s going on with you?”

Haylee knew she was walking a tightrope here and just shook her head nervously while consuming her first dangling drag off of the freshly lit cigarette, trying to find the words but only coming up with, “It’s just…..not a good time Carly.  Any chance you can come back and we can talk about this later?”

Carly seemed surprised and a little hurt as she took another drag from her cigarette.  “It’s just that I’ll be seeing Emma again on Tuesday in history class….so it’s kind of an emergency if I wanna riiiiide our momentum so she’ll hopefully riiiide me someday soon…..”

Haylee grimaced, finally unable to stop herself from motioning her eyes toward the stairwell leading upstairs, a gesture she’d carefully avoided up to this point.  Making intense eye contact as if to signal Carly to say no more, Haylee verbalized, “Carly, this REALLY isn’t a good time!” her cigarette taking an ominous air bouncing up and down between her lips.

Carly’s confusion escalated another notch and she teasingly asked, “What’s the matter?  Do you have a guy upstairs or something?” with a laugh, trickles of residual smoke flowing out of her nose.

Haylee’s lackluster poker face again let her down as her guilty look intensified and she unconvincingly responded, “Pffft!  No!”

A light went on in Carly’s eyes as she took a drag from her cigarette and then responded, “Oh my God!  You do have a guy up there!”  With a shocked and animated burst of laughter, Carly teased, “Haylee, you little slut!”

Haylee could feel the heat fill her cheeks and knew she was blushing an even brighter shade than the Camel logo from her dangling cigarette, and her lack of laughter in response to Carly’s tease was the last nonverbal cue Carly needed to realize her presence was definitively not welcome here at this moment.

“Dude, I’m so sorry!” Carly apologized, standing up and heading in the direction of the door.  “I can totally get back to you later tonight…..or perhaps you’ll need until tomorrow,” she added with a teasing flourish.

Haylee stood up in an effort to guide Carly to the door and hoped she wouldn’t say anything else incriminating before she did.  “I’ll call you tonight, okay?” Haylee asked, trying to convey through her expression that she was very interested in hearing Carly’s story, just not at this moment.  “I want to hear everything and give you my thoughts before you go back to school.”

Carly smirked as she began slipping her shoes back on. “Don’t mind me….you got something way bigger than my drama going on upstairs,” pausing with a frisky smirk and then adding in a whisper, “So how hot is he?!??!”

Haylee just nodded, trying to move her along out the door and curtly answering, “Pretty hot.”

Carly smirked just before walking out.   “Sounds exciting.  I know you weren’t up for any lesbian stuff when I put the moves on you, but maybe I can talk you into a threesome some day with this stud, huh?” Carly requested with continued teasing animation, taking another drag from her cigarette completely unaware that she may have completely revealed all of her secrets to a decidedly unfriendly third party as she told Haylee goodbye and walked out the door.

Haylee felt an ache in the pit of her stomach as she watched Carly walk back to her car, start it up, and back out of the driveway.  She really hoped that Brian had remained sealed up in her bedroom closet as she instructed him to, but she wasn’t filled with confidence as she announced aloud through her talking dangle, “You can come out now.”

After hearing only a couple of steps from the top of the stairwell and seeing a smirking and fully clothed Brian in just a few seconds, Haylee’s fears were vindicated that Brian probably heard most or all of it.

“Oh I’m already out!” Brian proclaimed smugly as he began to descend the stairs, cryptically adding “Because a closet is terrible place to be hidden in!”

Brian’s double entendre all but confirmed to Haylee that he heard Carly’s accidental confession, but she nonetheless inquired, “How much did you hear?”

Brian approached Haylee in the living room once he got to the bottom of the steps and replied, “Oh, I heard quite a bit!” pausing with a smirk before forthrightly asking, “So Carly’s a lesbian, huh?”

Haylee sighed, puckering her lips around the filter of her half-smoked cigarette while deciding how to respond.  “She hasn’t figured it out yet!” Haylee snapped, “Not everybody knows who they are yet at our age, you know.”

Brian shrugged, his smug enjoyment nonetheless conveying his upper hand in this exchange which felt empowering after largely striking out in bed with Haylee a bit earlier.  “Hey not my place to judge but that’s definitely a big piece of information to be sitting on.”

“Well it’s not your business to know about!” Haylee snapped.  “Or to tell anyone else about!  That means your sister, your parents, anyone…..got it?!??!” Haylee commanded threateningly.

“Her secret’s safe with me!” Brian replied, his smug smirk growing as he added, “….and so is yours!”

Haylee’s lack of amusement intensified as she proclaimed through a talking dangle, “You’re such a pig!”

“Is there anybody in my family you haven’t had sex with?” Brian snorted.

“I didn’t have sex with Carly! We just kissed!” Haylee barked, then attempted to emasculate him with her addendum, “….and I didn’t have sex with you either, at least not today!”

Brian was still loving this dynamic of seeing Haylee uncomfortable and on the ropes, feeling a little better about himself after his lackluster performance in her bed.  Nodding his head and overcome with self-satisfaction, Brian mused aloud, “I knew it!  I always knew Carly was a dyke!”

Haylee looked at him with a fiery intensity enveloping her face and her nostrils burning with rage, no longer able to control her fury listening to Brian use a homophobic slur against one of her best friends.  She wound her hand back and delivered an aggressive, open-palmed slap across Brian’s left cheek.

Brian recoiled in genuine disbelief at what had just transpired, holding the fresh wound on his cheek while exposing the fresh wound on his ego as he grumbled back.  “What the hell did you hit me for?”

Haylee felt instant regret for letting her temper get the better of her to this degree, with a flurry of additional epiphanies being processed through her brain as she paused to take another dangling drag from her shrinking cigarette.  Hovering over Brian with a continued intimidating pose, she offered her mea culpa.  “I’m sorry, Brian.  I shouldn’t have hit you.  But nobody talks about my friend like that!”

Releasing his hand from his cheek to reveal the red mark from Haylee’s slap, Brian defended himself, “Shit, I was just joking.  I’m fine with whoever Carly wants to fuck!”

Haylee shook her head, resigned to the fact that Brian just didn’t get it and that she was expecting too much of this seventh-grader to think he would get it….about this or any number of things.  “Brian, I think you should leave.  This just isn’t gonna work with us.”

A wave of disappointment and sorrow filled Brian’s face, regretful that he had blown this golden opportunity with Haylee, and being able to tell by the look in her eyes that there was probably no coming back.  He hung his head down and drifted toward the door, his sadness making Haylee feel sad for putting this emotionally immature seventh-grade boy in this position in the first place, for the first time partially understanding why the world frowned upon her previous relationship with Jacob.   She walked over to the coffee table and crushed out her cigarette into the ash can, immediately picking up her pack of Camel Pinks for another one.  Just as Brian was about to walk out the door, Haylee called out.  “I’m sorry Brian.  Someday we’ll talk this out.  But for now let’s keep everything that happened today between you and I, please,” she added, attempting to reinforce that Brian would keep the secret even though she knew he hadn’t been great about keeping secrets in the past.

Brian nodded, a haunting sadness in his eyes as he walked outside and closed the door behind him with a long walk to his bus in front of him.

Haylee lit her cigarette after the door closed, her initial burst of exhaled smoke accompanied by a brief chuckle as she appreciated this was the second time she’d sent a teenage boy who came over for sex walking home in the cold of a Minnesota winter.  Only a little over a year earlier, she’d done the same thing to Grant after another elaborately planned sexual dalliance went horribly wrong.  She decided then and there that this would be the last time she’d scheme to spend time with a boy while her parents were away.

Taking another dangling drag from her cigarette, she felt additional guilt for betraying Carly, however inadvertently, and wanted to call her up and make amends as soon as possible while never revealing that Brian was the guy upstairs for whom she’d pushed Carly away.  She figured the relationship with Carly would be an easy one to fix, but then lamented what she should do about fixing herself.  Even a couple minutes of reflection made it clear to her that the relationship with Brian should never have happened, but the emptiness in her soul lingered and she thought it was worth a shot to let Brian semiregularly fill it these last couple of months.  Now she was starting over again, and while that was scary, it was probably for the best and just might have happened this way for a reason.

She puckered her lips around her cigarette once again and mustered up a limited smile, hoping that in the aftermath of overcoming both her physical and emotional sickness that life would throw something great her way.  From out of nowhere, another dry and fierce smoker’s cough erupted from her weakened lungs, reminding her the healing process wasn’t over just yet.

———————————–

Later that night, it was bedtime at the McPherson cabin, with all four parties resigned to their designated rooms.  Trevor lied awake in the dark, a smile splashed across his face as he replayed the video he and Lauren captured with the moose and her calves.  Even though he verbalized to Lauren how big of a deal it was to find this moose more than 100 miles south and west of what was believed to be their natural habitat, it was only now starting to hit him how impressive of a find this was as he rummaged through some online articles dating back more than a decade ago about the disappearing moose population of northwestern Minnesota.

Despite concentrating his attention primarily on the moose video, Trevor was intermittently distracted by the banter and giggles of teenage girls on the other side of the cabin wall.  He smiled, at one level wishing he was in the neighboring room where his sister and girlfriend were almost certainly chain-smoking cigarettes as they chattered, but this rare moment of observational distance was kind of nice too.  He couldn’t hear any specific words coming out of either Courtney or Lauren’s mouths, but he could tell by their tone that they really enjoyed each other’s company.

Trevor looked back at his phone as the moose video ended.  He’d already emailed it to a couple separate accounts to make sure it would be saved, but he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it beyond that until he ultimately decided he couldn’t waste the opportunity and needed to share this video with local media and just let the chips fall where they may.  Keeping in the back of his mind that this could conceivably be a big break for him, he allowed the poetic language swirling around in his head at various points in the day to return, as well as what Lauren had said in reference to being the moose’s audience.

He began to articulate these words into poetic form on an email file in his phone, slowly punching in digits into the keypad and dictating…

“The majesty of a Minnesota mother moose and her babies….

Bemidji is their stage and the rest of us mere spectators……

For they are reclaiming their habitat after a brief absence……

With the Chisholm River baptism of a new generation.

by Trevor McPherson”

Trevor smiled as he punched in the contact information for major Minnesota television stations WCCO and KARE, attaching his poem in the email with their web addresses.  Just as he was about to hit send, a familiar-sounding giggle from the voice of his beloved girlfriend in the room next door led Trevor to reread his poem.  Appreciating that two of the metaphors he utilized in it had come from the mouth of Lauren, he decided she deserved some credit, returning his cursor to the byline of the poem and adding “and Lauren Nelson” before clicking send.

Trevor sat the phone down on his nightstand with a smile, closing his eyes and pondering any number of implications that might arise from his decision to take this snowmobile trip with his family up to the cabin on this long weekend.

—————————–

Early Monday evening, Wade Rosenquist was heating up some leftover chicken for his evening meal when he was surprised by the ringing of his doorbell.  As he walked toward the door to answer it, he let a smile build on his face in anticipation that it might be a surprise visit from Courtney, given that he knew she was supposed to return from her weekend at the cabin today.  But when Wade opened the door, he found an entirely different member of the McPherson family on the other side.

“Mr. McPherson,” Wade greeted with a hint of confusion.  “Everything okay?” he asked, concerned about the reason Steve might be there.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” Steve reassured.  “But I came over hoping we could talk a bit tonight…if you’re not too busy.”

Wade nodded, nervous about Steve’s agenda.  “Sure.  Come on in,” Wade nonetheless motioned him inside, then hustling up to his microwave to shut it off before the leftover chicken was heated.

“Sorry….didn’t mean to catch you at meal time,” Steve apologized, adding “But I don’t have your phone number and didn’t want to ask Courtney for it.”

Wade looked back at Steve and made direct eye contact, his suspicion confirmed that Steve wanted to talk man to man.  “So she doesn’t know you’re here?” Wade asked, sliding a chair out for Steve at his kitchen table and then sitting down on his chair across from him.

“No.  She doesn’t,” Steve responded.  “And she probably wouldn’t like it if she knew that I was here…..but I feel like I owe you a talk either way.”

Wade nodded his head humbly with due deference to his baby mama’s father.  “Don’t blame you if you’re upset with me for getting your daughter pregnant, but I can promise you right now that no matter what, I’m gonna be a responsible father for your future grandchild.”

“Oh I’m not upset with you, Wade,” Steve reassured, shrugging lightheartedly and adding “Maybe I was a little bit at first but I can certainly relate.  My wife’s pregnancy with Courtney was unplanned too.”  He paused then added, “And I’ll take you at your word that you’ll be a good provider for your child.  I have no reason to doubt that.  Tonight I’m here out of curiosity if you have intentions with my daughter.”

Wade smirked, wondering all along whether Courtney and her family would be wise to his plans.  “Hang on a second,” Wade said, standing up and walking into the drawers inside his kitchen, opening one up and pulling out a small case that Steve could tell from a distance was just about the right size to hold a diamond ring.  Wade walked back to the table and set the ring case down in front of Steve.  “Not sure when I’m gonna ask her, but I am gonna ask her,” Wade added.  “And I hope I’ll have your blessing when I do.”

Steve smiled at Wade’s old-fashioned values, never imagining that either of his daughter’s future suitors would ask him for his blessing, but his look got steely and serious as he looked Wade in the eye and asked, “Do you love her?” giving Wade an unspoken out if his proposal was coming exclusively because of the pregnancy.

“I do,” Wade responded without hesitation, a charming smile emerging on his wholesome farm boy face as he began to explain.  “When I left the farm and came up here for college, I just felt a calling I couldn’t really understand.  There were plenty of great girls back home who I could have settled down and had a good life with, but I felt like something better was coming if I just followed my heart.  That night I met Courtney, I knew I was right.”  Wade paused and watched Steve smile hearing such a flattering description about his oldest daughter.

“And you still feel that way six months later?” Steve pressed.

“Absolutely!” Wade replied, again without hesitation.  “She has the perfect mix of sophistication I could never find where I grew up but with a heart of gold that reminds me of home.  I always scoffed at the idea of love at first sight, but I felt it with Courtney and I haven’t stopped feeling it ever since.  Courtney feels the same and has told me so several times.”  Wade paused and added, “That’s not to say my timeline for buying this ring wasn’t sped up because of the pregnancy, but there’s no doubt in my mind going back to July that it was gonna happen eventually.”

Steve smiled again, taken by Wade’s straight talk and obviously deep feelings for his daughter, but still looking for some feedback on a couple tougher issues.  “And your folks feel the same about her?” he asked with a hint of lighthearted sarcasm.

“Well…” Wade responded with a pause, Steve clearly having hit a soft spot.  “Unfortunately, Courtney is not one of my parents’ favorite people these days.”

“Does that concern you?” Steve asked.

Wade sighed.  “In the short term, yes.  My parents are the kind of people who will eventually come around if their fears about Courtney are proven wrong but she definitely has her work cut out for her.”

“Let me guess….they think she got pregnant on purpose to get you to propose?” Steve asked.

Wade chuckled and mused, “You sound like you might have some experience with this sort of thing, Mr. McPherson.”

Steve shrugged. “Definitely not a perfect comparison but yeah I can relate.”

“And my parents are really not pleased about the smoking.  They didn’t say anything before she got pregnant but now they’re really pissed about it and not afraid to let me know,” Wade shared.

Steve nodded.  “That’s certainly understandable.  But on that issue, I can tell you as the father to three perfectly healthy children born to a woman who smoked heavily through all of her pregnancies that the OB/GYNs are pretty much unanimous in advising pregnant smokers not to quit entirely during their pregnancy because there’s more risk potential from the smoking withdrawal than the smoking itself.”

Wade nodded to signify he’d heard it before.  “Courtney’s explained that to me and I guess it makes some sense.  I’m still concerned, don’t get wrong, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on it.  As for my folks, they both smoked till my mom got pregnant with my older brother.  They quit as soon as they found out she was pregnant and never had another cigarette since.  And they expect Courtney to do the same.”

Steve listened intently, recognizing the warning sign but knowing that his parents were ultimately able to overcome it with Becky and he was hopeful the Rosenquists would with Courtney as well, adding “Well I hope you’re right that your parents will ultimately come around on that because I’m pretty sure Courtney’s not gonna quit smoking during or after the pregnancy.  You gonna be able to handle that?”

Wade didn’t answer as abruptly as he did following the previous questions, but found his voice a few seconds later, responding  “We all have our imperfections.  If she’s willing to accept mine, I gotta be willing to accept hers.”

Steve was pretty confident at this point that Wade didn’t share the smoking fetish that consumed the sexual identities of himself and his son Trevor, yet still seemed pretty comfortable that Wade would ultimately accept a life with his heavy-smoking daughter without serious complaint.

Wade continued, showing Steve how much he’d thought about his future with his daughter as he launched into a lengthy shpeel.   “As far as providing for our future family, I’m still not clear about whether I’ll end up back on the farm.  If I’m being honest, I’m not sure if there will even be a Rosenquist dairy farm down the road with the trends in the business.  That’s part of why I decided to go for this diesel mechanic certificate.  I can do the work in the Minneapolis suburbs just as easily as I can back home in Cannon City and can pull in bigger money than anybody in the Rosenquist family ever dreamed of making in the dairy business.  And Courtney’s convinced she can get free daycare at your work office, and if so, that would really make the decision easier to stick around here for awhile…..”

Steve smiled wistfully listening to Wade plead his thoughtful case on behalf of why he’s the right man for his daughter, but Steve had long ago arrived at that conclusion based on Wade’s heartfelt description of his feelings for Courtney earlier in the conversation.  He didn’t know for sure what Courtney would say when Wade got on bended knee to propose, but right now Steve was thinking she’d be crazy not to say yes.  His mind drifted to nine months earlier when his confused and emotionally troubled oldest daughter tried to seduce him sexually.  Never could he have imagined that less than a year later he would be in a position where he might have to give her away to the man of her dreams, and while it was happening sooner and with more unsettling ambiguity than he’d have preferred, Steve couldn’t deny that this felt inevitable….and that it felt right.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Top 9 Random, Mall, and Casino Sightings of 2020


I’ve been predicting for years that my usual top-10 list of random sightings would fail to produce 10 sightings worth mentioning.  2020 may well have been that year even without a global pandemic that shut down just about everything, but given that there was a global pandemic that shut down just about everything, my sightings really took a hit this year.  With that said, between random girls from my neighborhood, one successful visit to the mall, and a couple of very successful visits to the casino before they “temporarily” banned smoking, I did manage to put together a list of nine sightings from 2020 that stood out as worthy of a year-end list.  I hope readers enjoy….and I hope I can produce more than this in 2021.

 

#9.  I was weaving my way through what passes for rush hour traffic on my drive home from work on a Tuesday afternoon in early December en route to a gas station next to a grocery store that usually has the cheapest gas in town.  It wasn’t a particularly cold afternoon by December standards in Iowa, but my radar was nonetheless up for smoking when I passed a gray SUV with a cracked window as I approached a stoplight.  Sure enough, I saw a cigarette in the left hand of a long-haired brunette in the lane next to me, and from my distant vantage point, she certainly looked young.  Luck was on my side as the light turned red and I was able to slide up parallel to her.  She exceeded expectations, looking mid-20s with flowing dark brown hair and a strikingly wholesome and stylish image for a young lady fitting her profile this day and age who sports a smoldering cigarette in her left hand.

I had hit the jackpot and was elated watching the cigarette approach her lips for a nice drag.  Since it was December, it was already fast approaching dusk by 4:30 so the glow on the cherry on her cigarette was shining bright as she ingested the carcinogens from the cigarette into her lungs.  It’s so rare in 2020 seeing clouds of smoke parse from lips this wholesome as they did when she exhaled, tossing the smoke out the cracked window.  The light was just turning green as the cigarette approached her lips for a second drag but I was in motion before I could appreciate the full cycle of tobacco ingestion.   Traffic was not cooperating as I proceeded and I was resigned to seeing nothing more from her as my car increased distance from hers in the moments to come.  Fortunately, we were heading to the same general destination.

As I made a left hand turn toward the gas station next to the grocery store several blocks up the road, I noticed a familiar beautiful face in my rearview mirror turning the same direction.  After I made my turn, I held off proceeding to the gas station and instead pulled into a parking stall to see where she was going and make an effort to follow.  I was able to loop around and follow her SUV until she found a parking spot near the front of the grocery store that she was about to head inside of.  I found a nearby parking spot….close enough to get a good look at her as she got out of her SUV, albeit with her cigarette long gone by now.  The stylish vibe I got from her was reinforced as I saw her full profile…decked out in a heavy white sweater with dark blue jeans and pair of brown boots coming nearly up to her knees.  She definitely didn’t fit the stereotype of a smoker girl in 2020 as I watched her ass work those tight jeans strutting into the store, hopefully with the odor of cigarette smoke clinging to her for other customers to choke on.

I didn’t know what to do at this point as I really wanted to wait her out and see if she’d light up again when she left the store….but I also didn’t want to sit in my car waiting forever.  I ultimately went and bought my gas as planned….then decided to take a risk and scope her out from the parking lot….at least for about 15 minutes in case she wasn’t in the store for long.  My timing was good as she came out of the store about five minutes after my return.  I was excited with the expectation she’d light up again and go driving right past me leaving the parking lot with another cigarette between her fingers.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen…but I still felt there was a chance she’d light up before too long and followed her out of the lot.  But she turned into a left turn lane quickly out of the parking lot and lost me before I’d get another peek.  All I could see was her turning left onto a heavily trafficked street in town with her window cracked again, indicating she probably lit up not long after pulling out of view from me.

So the sighting didn’t end with the best timing, but I still can’t kick about my impressive timing in the first half of the encounter, seeing such an unexpectedly glamorous young brunette with a cigarette and then being fortunate enough to have her follow me into the grocery store lot where I could get a closer look at her outside of her vehicle and confirm how sexy she was.  With the thin gruel that the sightings climate of 2020 offers, that’s a pretty successful commute home from work.

 

#8.  With few prospects for summertime sightings, it was a no-brainer to make a return visit to Centerville in southern Iowa this July.  Years of random visits through town and anecdotal observations from people with Appanoose County license plates kept validating my impression that this isolated small town just north of the Missouri border had a smoking culture that was a throwback to a previous generation.  In 2019, I spent the day there to evaluate said culture more closely, with mostly modest results.  My return visit in 2020 on the 4th of July put me on the doorstep of impressiveness on several occasions, but I always just missed a marquee moment or potentially epic event.  Still, the day’s main event was eyebrow-raising enough to make my year-end list….

I’d already been in Centerville for a few hours by early evening and was hoping the town square would be bustling with activity on the 4th of July, particularly since the global pandemic seemed worlds removed from this town of 5,000.  But it wasn’t looking good as the parking area in the town square was 80% empty in the hour or so before dusk.  I was pulling out of the town square and was at a stoplight when this teenage blond drove past me.   Up close, the lines on my 42-year-old face are a little more telling, but particularly in the summer with my skin tanned and my sun-kissed hair a platinum shade of blond, I still cut a youthful profile with several feet of distance, so I was apparently able to fool this attractive teen blond driver as she gave me very suggestive eyes driving past.  I was flattered but turned left when the light turned green.

The upside of fetishing in small towns is that you’re more likely to see young females smoking, but the downside of fetishing in small towns is that there are very few places to go in pursuit of sightings.  This meant that only about 15 minutes had passed before I was pulling into the town square again hoping to see something that would make this long drive worthwhile.  And lo and behold, there was a group of cars in the lot with a mixed-gender cluster of teenagers huddled together.  I drove slowly past and didn’t see anything immediately, but encircled the streets surrounding the courthouse and took a parking stall a comfortable distance away to observe.   It was quickly clear the teens were up to no good preparing fireworks to shoot off, but would I be lucky enough to see cigarettes as well?  I’d get my answer pretty quickly when I observed a cigarette in the hand of one of the boys and then immediately noticed another between the fingers of a brunette girl.   But the third and final smoker I’d notice in the cluster of a dozen or so teens would be the MVP as I got a familiar vibe about this slender, long-haired blond in a white T-shirt and tight jeans with a freshly lit cigarette between her fingers.  It was the same girl who was flirting with me at the stoplight about 15 minutes earlier.

Unfortunately, the largely abandoned town square parking lot was an obstacle for me here as I was parked a good 50 yards away but didn’t dare to pull up any closer in the empty lot or risk drawing attention to myself.  So I just sat in my car and watched from afar, observing the participants of this teen huddle weaving in and out of the scene as they shot off fireworks, giving me only limited visual access to the two female smokers and from too far away to appreciate their smoking style.   That’s not to say the sighting was boring though as a cop car pulled up on them a couple of minutes after I began my observation.  Fireworks are now legal in Iowa, but were they gonna get in trouble for being underage?  Or for being under 21 and smoking?  Apparently not.  The cop got out of his car to talk to them and while I didn’t hear anything, the group maintained its calm and bantered with the cop, the smokers amongst them keeping their cigarettes comfortably in toe during the brief interaction before the cop drove off.

At this point I just had to get a closer look and decided my only option was a slow drive past them in hopes of at least seeing something definitive from my favorite blond cutie.   It didn’t work out very well though as she spotted me on my drive past the huddle, shouting out something I couldn’t understand upon seeing me and apparently connecting the dots that I was the mystery guy from the stoplight earlier.  Needless to say, stopping to find out what she was shouting was not an option, and getting busted so thoroughly kept me from even getting a close look at her features, at least beyond that slender feminine figure, let alone observing her smoking style.  I drove off realizing this sighting couldn’t be salvaged and cruised around town for about 15 minutes before slinking back to the town square.  The teen huddle had already vacated the site and as dusk rapidly approached, the crowd in this town square was getting smaller rather than larger.  It was by now clear there would be no festivities in this town related to the 4th so when the sun officially went down, I decided to make the drive back home.

There are serious limitations to fetishing in this town but I’ll probably continue to make a visit every June or July, the only months of the year with enough daylight to make the long drive worthwhile.  Southern Iowa is known for having a lot of deer and I was reminded of this on the two-hour drive home as I nearly hit two of them on those isolated highways leading out of Centerville.   It strikes me that the culture of this town makes it inevitable that if I spend enough time there I’ll eventually run into something very special, at least by 2020 standards.  I was on the cusp of greatness with this teen smoking huddle this year but the logistics certainly kept it from being a classic.

 

#7.  Amidst the more than two months of 2020 that I was working from home, I had serious doubt I’d at any point see a worthwhile sighting.  A girl coming ahead in my countdown rendered that prediction incorrect, but she seemed like a fluke.  Surely I wouldn’t get that lucky again, I thought to myself.  Surprisingly, I did, albeit in a much more limited fashion on a random lunchtime walk in my neighborhood…

I was progressing down the sidewalk on a warm mid-April day and about to double back to head home when I noticed a trio of 20-something females progressing westward on the adjacent bike trail, one of them pushing a stroller.  I squinted hard after my initial gander because from my considerable distance I thought I saw a cigarette between the fingers of two of the young ladies.  Particularly with the stroller in their presence, it seemed unlikely, but as I looked closer I discovered I was right.  The two girls on both sides of the stroller-pushing mama were indeed smoking.

I was well-positioned to hustle on up and walk behind them as they headed the direction I was pretty much going in the first place.  The trio looked mid-20s and the two smokers were a blond in an orange tanktop and leggings along with a brunette in a tanktop and black shorts.  As they progressed in front of me, I couldn’t get a good look at their faces, but I was okay with that given that I had this rare opportunity to follow two young women smokers publicly in my neighborhood.  Both of them dragged intermittently as they chatted amongst each other and with the nonsmoking mother.  Neither exhibited a particularly memorable style but what a pleasure it was to see smoke pouring out of their mouths after every drag.  It’s never easy for me to get past tattoo ink and I had to grit my teeth through that.  It was a little surprising that I couldn’t smell any smoke given my close proximity and what I figured would be heightened sensitivity to the smell of smoke given the recent absence, but I nonetheless never detected the odor.

I followed for about three minutes before both of them finished their cigarettes around the same time and tossed them into the foliage alongside the trail.  I’d have loved to ID their discarded cigarette butts but it wasn’t particularly realistic so I committed instead to forge ahead of them on the trail and get a better look at their faces.  Neither girl was drop-dead gorgeous but both were attractive enough to keep me interested, with the blond being slightly more attractive of the two.  Any day I can go for a walk on my lunch break and come across two mid-20s girls smoking in the presence of a nonsmoking friend and her baby, it’s a damn good day.  I didn’t want to get too optimistic about the implications of a possible smoking comeback in the COVID-19 era, but at least for that lunch hour I allowed the optimism to wash over me.

 

#6.  While I have an even closer neighbor further ahead on this list, one of my best rewards from walks this spring and summer was a shapely and attractive late 20s blond who lived in an apartment complex across the stream from mine, and on several occasions in the early and middle months of 2020 I saw her with cigarette in hand.  It was April or May when I first spotted her standing with her boyfriend or husband in front of their garage.  The husband had a cigarette but it was the only time I ever saw him smoking.  It was mostly just his sexy blond wife wielding a cigarette as she was doing here, decked out in a casual T-shirt and jeans, dragging away on her cigarette and aerosolizing the COVID-filled spring air with her toxic exhales.

Over the next few months, I’d see blondie out smoking in front of this garage a half dozen more times, always by herself and impossible to miss due to her slender build and above-average height.  Most memorably, she was once out there with her vertically impressive lower body draped in very snug-fitting navy blue leggings that perfectly advertised her feminine wiles.  She certainly didn’t cut the traditional profile of a smoker in the year 2020 which made it that much more sexy to know she was regularly outside feeding an addiction that was clearly more intense than the addiction of her lighter-smoking husband.  The downside was that my vantage point walking past her garage area only lasted about 20 seconds and I’d stick out like a sore thumb if I attempted to linger or double back, so I had to make the most out of those 20 passing seconds and hope I’d catch a drag and an exhale each time.  She never disappointed as I almost always got to see both a drag and an exhale as I passed.

And though it took me a while to connect the dots, I regularly took note of a white car in traffic on this same walk where a hot 20-something blond routinely drove past with a cigarette in her left hand and a cracked driver’s side window.  It was only when I saw this car pulling into the apartment complex’s parking lot that I realized it was the same woman.  I saw her smoking four times while driving this spring and summer, but my best sighting came when she had to slow down for a bicycle crossing on the nearby bike trail and took the opportunity to light a cigarette.  This was especially thrilling since there were two young kids in the car, presumably her offspring.  She may go outside of the apartment to smoke but it was a bridge too far if the kids expected mom to not smoke while driving in the car with them!

I last saw her in July and suspect she’s moved away.  As I’ve said before, people seem to come and go quickly from the apartment buildings in my neighborhood.  This gal had the potential to put a genuinely killer sighting on the board with the right context but for 2020 I cherished those 20-second sightings I got walking past her building on my walks and even the two-second sightings I got when she drove past me.

 

#5.  The malls in central Iowa were just starting to open in early June and I decided to make a journey one sunny Saturday afternoon to see if could find a sighting.  I had low expectations, but after more than three months since my last mall visit, I thought it was worth a try.  My low expectations were easily fulfilled.

I first went to an older mall where crowds were small and most stores were still not opened.  I wasn’t there long before I realized I was gonna come up empty, so I decided to head to the more upscale mall on the west side.  About halfway into my journey, I was at a red light and spotted a blond with a freshly lit cigarette between her fingers behind the wheel and a male passenger, but they made a right hand turn and were speeding ahead out of sight.  I was distraught watching her pull away, thinking my prospects of catching up with her were low.  Luck was on my side though as my light turned green and she turned into the parking lot of a strip mall and ended up parking her car.  I followed her on in and found a nearby parking spot with a nice vantage point.  How could I get so lucky??!?

The blond was by no means a standout beauty but had an alluring plain jane appeal.  She appeared early-to-mid 20s and had her blond hair in a small ponytail.  As I suspected on the first gander at the traffic light, the male passenger was not smoking, a dynamic that intrigued me even more.  I observed from my nearby cocoon as she puffed away, figuring she was gonna finish the cigarette and head inside one of the stores in the strip mall.  I eagerly anticipated getting a closer look at her face and a full glimpse of her body when she got out of that car, but unfortunately (and oddly) that never came.  She dragged from her cigarette and released modest exhales out the open window for another three or four minutes, dropped the cork filter butt out the window onto the pavement, and then just drove off.  It was odd that she parked her car for no other apparent reason but to finish smoking, but I was still grateful to see what I did and the day had produced one more sighting of a young female smoker than I anticipated.

But that ended up just being a warm-up act for the main event at the upscale mall when I arrived.  I had never seen a smaller crowd at this mall on a Saturday, but it was still a little more active than I anticipated as I drove a few laps around the perimeter of the mall and then parked in a stall that was quite a bit closer than I’d ever gotten to the main entrance of this mall in the past on a weekend.  It wasn’t until I put the car in park that I looked up to see two very attractive early-to-mid 20s blonds sitting on the median smoking cigarettes.  The first of the two girls was wearing sunglasses and a sexy, summery flower print dress and was taking a drag the second I laid eyes on her.  I didn’t figure she could be beat but was pleasantly surprised when I looked past her to see an even hotter blond in a tanktop and jean shorts with cigarette in hand to her left.

I only got to take in about five seconds of this before the girls stood up and started approaching the passenger side of the truck they were sitting next to.  I was devastated because I thought it was over as the girls were now out of my sight range, but the abundance of available parking worked to my advantage and I quickly started my car and pulled up a couple stalls to their right where I could overlook them.  Just as I pulled in, the blond in the dress and sunglasses wrapped her lips around the cork filter of her half-smoked cigarette and took a nice drag, opening the rear passenger side of the truck and climbing inside.  Sighting over?  Definitely not!

As I observed the two girls, I noticed that both blonds were still smoking as they sat inside the truck, and to their left on both sides were their presumed boyfriends, neither of whom was smoking.  I was best positioned to see the front seat blond in the jean shorts and she delivered big-time, extending her smooth, tanned legs up onto the dashboard of her boyfriend’s truck while intermittently dragging from the cigarette that she held in her left hand away from the cracked window.  It was incredibly hot watching her feminine domination of the boyfriend’s truck, stretching out her comely body all over his dash while filling the cab up with cigarette smoke and making no effort at all to spare anybody.

I had about 60 seconds to observe as the two smokers put the finishing touches on their cigarettes, dropping their butts out the cracked windows in near synchronization.  As the front seat blond’s boyfriend pulled out of the stall, I couldn’t resist getting out of my car to check out what they left behind, and sure enough, two smoldering cork filters laid there on the pavement a few feet apart.  The backseat blond in the summer dress was smoking a Marlboro 27 while the front seat blond in the shorts was smoking a Camel Menthol.

So for those keeping score, that’s three young female smokers in the presence of three nonsmoking males just a few minutes apart.  Not sure if this was a fluke or a trend, but it sure was a nice reunion for my mall sightings visits after three months of boring Saturday afternoons at home!  Sadly, they were the only sightings from malls in 2020 that were worth mentioning.

 

#4.  I was driving home from work one perfect early summer day in mid-June and found myself at a red light wishing I’d changed lanes to better position myself for a turn several blocks ahead.  Suffice it to say I’d be damn glad I didn’t change lanes because a few seconds later, a black car pulled to my left and I immediately noticed it was a young female holding a cigarette in her right hand.  Nice!

I inched my car up a couple of feet to be perfectly parallel with her and get a better look.  Was this too good to be true?  Not at all.  She was a long-haired blond who looked about 22 with a pretty face.  I wouldn’t describe her as particularly wholesome but she didn’t look like you’d expect a smoker to look this day and age.  And as my eyes were feasting on her pretty face, my nose was feasting on the smell of her cigarettes as it spilled out the cracked passenger window directly toward me.  Her presence was already intoxicating for me, and I was about to get my ultimate reward as she approached the cigarette to her lips and took a very intense drag.  I kept my eyes trained on her but almost wanted her to stop dragging because I was putting myself at risk for getting busted!!!  But she never looked my way as she was clearly too immersed in pulling poisonous smoke from that cigarette into her young body for a ridiculous length of time.  Doesn’t get any better than this, I thought to myself, until it did….

A long exhale inevitably followed after her lengthy drag and I was overjoyed observing it flowing my direction through her cracked passenger side window.  But even more rewarding was seeing where her cigarette went next.  Her car had an oddly elevated console where an ash can rested in a cupholder directly in my sight.  As she tapped her ash into the can, I observed a heaping pile of all-white cigarette butts flowing over the top of it.  This was one serious smoker girl.

The light turned green and I took one last deep whiff to ingest as much residual smoke as I could that lingered through our mutually open car windows, accelerating and hoping to catch her again at the next light.  I wouldn’t though.  She slowed down and pulled behind me, needing to make a right turn on the next block.  I was disappointed I wouldn’t see more but intensely satisfied with what I had seen, and as I looked in my rearview mirror I got to enjoy one final observation.  Her passenger side window was open….but the driver’s side window wasn’t.  No wonder she was ashing into the butt can in her console.  She was driving around smoking with her driver’s side window up.  What an amazing find she was…and I could only imagine what it must have smelled like in that car.

It’s probably a long shot I’ll see her again but maybe, just maybe, we’ll find ourselves at the same traffic light in the town we probably both live in some other time on the horizon.

 

#3.  It was a Saturday afternoon in early April and things were looking down in the world.  This was the peak period for COVID-19 lockdown hysteria and it was increasingly clear that 2020 was gonna be a lost year, including for my Midwestern fair season which is typically what gives me the will to live for 11 months of a typical year.  I would have taken any kind of pick-me-up I could get and, to my great surprise, I got one by the girl next door…literally.

I was sitting in my apartment near the window when out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple of young females stepping out the patio door of the downstairs unit of the building next door.  A familiar pre-teen brunette was among the duo, a girl I had seen before around this place.  Next to her was an older blond with braided pigtails who looked about 20 or 21, but honestly I wasn’t close enough to see her face and those pigtails might have thrown me off a bit regarding her age.  The blond looked like she had some Hispanic features and was decked out in a light jacket and casual dark blue jeans.  This group of neighbors had lived in this unit for a few months now, but it was the first I’d seen of this blond.  Since I’d never seen smoking activity from the unit, my expectations were nonexistent that smoking would transpire.  So imagine my surprise when the pigtailed blond took a couple of extra steps into the lawn and lit up a cigarette, the blast of exhaled smoke erupting from her mouth and demanding my full attention….

Shortly after the young girl went back inside, the blond sat on the edge of the patio tending to her phone and smoking her cigarette.  It was clear this was no novelty.  She was sufficiently addicted based on the way she was feeding her lungs so casually while tending to her phone.  I enjoyed drag after glorious drag and wondered if I had just had terrible enough timing to miss this girl on multiple previous smoke breaks in the past couple of months.  If I did, I wasn’t gonna make that same mistake anymore and planned to look out that window every five minutes for the rest of my life if I had to.

I kept doing that the rest of the day and into the night, and it paid off.  Every hour or two, she came back out to smoke another cigarette.  By her third cigarette, I was able to see what I believe was a Marlboro No. 27s pack emerge from the pocket of her jacket and could clearly identify the cork filter as she placed the cigarette into her mouth and lit up.  The bronzed color of the pack had the vaguest match of her skin tone as she appeared to be a very light-complected Hispanic girl, making it all the more unusual that she had such a serious smoking habit.  I was never close enough to really dig deep with the details of her performance, but that was a small sacrifice with the possibility of having a young blond smoker in braided pigtails who seemed poised to give me a steady diet of sightings from the comfort of my apartment!  Was it too good to be true?  At least for that Saturday, the answer was no!

Right around sunset, the blond came outside with the same preteen brunette and another younger girl, and a Hispanic middle-aged woman who appeared to be the blond’s mother.  This had to be a family unit of varying degrees of separation, but the black sheep of this family was very obviously the blond who was the only one to light up a cigarette.  From there, the four of them broke out sparklers that the blond and her mom helped the young girls ignite.  The blond smoker on two occasions dropped her cigarette to the grass, presumably to avoid exposing the two young girls directly to secondhand smoke while lighting the fuses of their sparklers.  As soon as they were lit, however, she picked up that cigarette from the grass and put it back into her mouth for more succulent drags.  She even took a few photos of the girls with their sparklers after they were ignited, smoking her cigarette while preparing the camera and checking out the images after taking the shots.

I’d gotten four sightings from blondie in about six hours, and at around 10:00, the patio light came on and the girl stepped outside once again, this time wearing her pajamas when she lit her cigarette.  It was just adorable to behold, knowing she’d walk back into the apartment with her pajamas reeking of cigarettes to the substantial number of houseguests.  At that snapshot in time, I had convinced myself I had a heavy-smoking blond neighbor cutie who would be putting on wonderful shows for me multiple times daily over the vast expanse of time that I expected to be working from home next to this very window overlooking her apartment patio.  Maybe 2020 wasn’t gonna be so bad after all.

Suffice it to say I only had one day in the sun.  Late the next morning, I went for a walk and as I approached my apartment cluster, I saw a white car with out-of-state plates pulling out.  Behind the wheel was a bronze-skinned blond with braided pigtails and in the passenger seat was the woman I expected was her mother.  At first I thought maybe they were just buying groceries, but those out-of-state plates (looked like Washington!) bothered me.  About a half hour later, they pulled back into the parking lot, presumably because they forgot something before they left, but I never saw the car or the girl again for the rest of the spring or summer.  They were just visiting for the day apparently.  2020 was back to being the worst year of my life!

Ever since then, I continued to keep one eye on that apartment patio just in case she came back.  If I saw the license plate correctly and they were from Washington state, then it definitely wouldn’t happen soon as that’s about 2,000 miles away from central Iowa.  Still, I hoped that with patience and good timing, I’d check out that neighbor’s apartment patio and see a 21-ish blond who defied all conventional metrics on who’s likely to be among the diminishing ranks of addicted cigarette smokers in the miserable present era puffing on another cork filter only a few yards outside my window.   It would take until the second half of November before my wish would come true, but imagine my delight when it did.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I happened to peek out my blinds to the patio of the next-door apartment to find a trio hovering outdoors.  One was the 12-ish brunette girl who lives there with her mom.  The second was a college-aged white boy I’d never seen before.  And the third was a young female in a gray sweater with her back to me, a cigarette protruding from the fingers of her left hand.  Even though her hair was now brown with a reddish tint, no longer blond and no longer in pigtails, I knew who she was without even looking at her face.  The Hispanic, nicotine-addicted cousin was visiting, and apparently with a wholesome, white, and nonsmoking boyfriend at her side.  Her smoking style soon confirmed it was her, with a regular diet of nice drags and cloudy exhales exploding from her youthful face, contaminating the airspace of the pink-lunged company she kept.  It sure was nice to once again look out the window of my apartment and have the smoker girls come to me!

Dusk comes early in the second half of November so I wouldn’t have as many opportunities for effective voyeurism as I had in April, but I still got to see her smoke two more times.  The first was rather annoying in that she came out wearing a huge parka with her head covered as she sat down to smoke, tending to her phone and giving me a very limited vantage point to enjoy.  I still snapped a couple of pics out my window, but given the distance and her considerable coverage with the parka, you can’t make out much.  But I could still see those nice drags and the explosive bursts of chemical filth coming from her mouth every time she exhaled.  About halfway through her cigarette, her nonsmoking boyfriend came out and sat next to her.  Maybe the guy has the fetish and maybe he doesn’t, but he’s in rare company having a college-age girlfriend who is such a clearly addicted and unapologetic smoker in the year 2020.

I’d get one more sighting well after dark.  The college-age girl came out on the patio in her white sweater again….and the 12-year-old brunette who lived there followed her out.  The young girl didn’t smoke, but the older cousin certainly did.  What an incredible example the college-age girl was leaving…an example few 12-year-old girls get this day and age.  Admiring their features from afar, it was hard to tell amidst the darkness who was the middle school girl and who was the college girl at times as both of their faces beamed with uncorrupted youth.  But if I ever I confused one of them for the other in the darkness, it didn’t take long to tell who was who because the cherry of a burning cigarette glowed brightly every time the older girl approached it to her lips to take a drag.

She was gone the next day.  I’m guessing they don’t live in Washington as I originally assumed based on their license plates because I doubt they’d drive that far twice in one year for a weekend visit.  Wherever they’re from, I’d kill to know the story behind this heavily addicted college-aged Hispanic girl who defiles her family’s apartment patio multiple times a day every time she visits.  I doubt I’ll ever get that story, but I certainly hope to see her return in the weeks and months ahead.  Typically, renters in my complex don’t stick around too long before they move on, but I’m certainly hoping this family renews its lease another year so the potential exists for more great shows in 2021 like the two I was blessed with in 2020.

 

#2.  The virus was starting to spike again by late October and for every conventional reason it was a dumb move to spend my Halloween night at the casino, but I did it anyway.  Thankfully I didn’t catch anything….other than a really incredible multiple-cigarette sighting from a knockout blond.

As I made my first pass around the smoking-permitted casino floor that Saturday evening, one gal really jumped out at me.  She was a late 20s blond with a beautiful face who really stood out in the crowd, even with a mask on her face, wearing a black top and tight pale blue jeans.  She was sitting in front of a machine with an ashtray within arm’s length, her boyfriend hovering behind her as she tended to the slots.  There wasn’t a cigarette in her presence on first inspection, but I took a jackpot-sized mental note of her, my radar thundering as she had the look of a smoker if ever I’d seen one, and I made sure I didn’t venture too far as I sensed immediate greatness with this one.

On my next pass about 10 minutes later, her boyfriend was just leaving to inspect the slot machine field, and within a minute or so, my heart began to race as she opened her purse.  Sure enough, a pack of Marlboro Lights came out and a fresh all-white was inserted into her lips.  My intuition was vindicated as she lit up and took that first drag, making it easy to identify why she had such a defined smoker’s look as her lips puckered up around that cigarette filter.  Now the slot machines were socially distanced and made it more challenging than it would have been a year earlier to get great pics in the well-lit casino, but I found the closest machine I could and fired away with a decent measure of success.

Already by the second drag, her defining feature as a smoker became visible as she placed the cigarette in her mouth and removed her hand, puckering her lips for a fierce and extended dangling drag that took an express train to deepest reaches of her black lungs.  The smoke took just as beautiful of a journey exiting her face as it did entering it, thin streams of smoke flowing from her mouth and nose with residual spurts escaping her respiratory system on the second and even third breaths following her exhales.  This girl was the real deal, and best yet nearly every drag went this way until the cigarette was crushed out into the orange ashtray, her mind helpfully distracted by the glowing lights and bells of her slot machine.  If this was all I got from her, it would still have been my best Halloween since I was a young boy, but that would be far from all I got….

I really prefer it when my favorite casino girls stick with the same machine much of the night rather than wander around because it’s so much easier to keep tabs on them.  My wish came true with this girl who stayed at this same machine for more than two hours, her boyfriend wandering in and out of the scene several times as he restlessly worked the rest of the slot floor.  About 15-20 minutes later, I ventured back to her favorite machine and had a feeling that pack of Marlboro Lights was coming out of her purse again soon.  I found a machine to the side slightly to her rear that was very isolated and perfect for voyeurism.  My instinct was validated again as another cigarette was soon produced.  This quasi-rear vantage point wasn’t good for photos but it was great for general observation as she surgically took down that second cigarette with the same stylistic gusto she took down the first.  In fact, her high point of the night came during this cigarette.  About three drags in, she took one of her lengthy dangling drags and happened to lift her head and swivel it to the left and right while in mid-dangle, the cherry glowing bright as the cigarette hung between her lips for the longest stretch that it did all night….probably about 15 seconds.  This vantage point was also great for observing her exhales, and in her case, pretty much every breath over the course of the cigarette came with a residual trickle of exhaled smoke.

I spent most of the rest of the night in close proximity to this blond goddess, and the relatively light crowd in this isolated corner of the casino made that possible.  Blondie’s boyfriend wandered to and fro several times, and I noticed that her cigarettes were typically lit in the aftermath of one of his visits, making me suspect he was a nonsmoker who she was trying to spare.  That theory was debunked by night’s end as he was smoking one too, but he was clearly a much lighter smoker than she was.  She smoked five cigarettes over the course of the two hours I was there, and at one point I got another slot machine directly parallel to her.  This was less handy for watching her directly, but it was much handier for sneaking pics on my camera, and I got a couple more really good ones in mid-drag.  The casino lighting and my inability to use a flash without getting spotted kept me from getting any really great pics, but I did very well under the circumstances.

The frequency of her cigarettes seemed to increase over the course of the fabulous five, and it was on the last one that her boyfriend was smoking with her.  I wasn’t spending too much time observing his style, but she definitely outclassed him during the period they smoked together.  It was at the end of this cigarette that she stood up from the machine for the first time in more than two hours, only now making eye contact with me and possibly thinking I looked a bit familiar by now just before the two of them walked off.  I wandered past her vacated machine and saw the ashtray full of all white butts she left as souvenirs of her presence along with the heavy odor of cigarettes, both of which contrasted deliciously with her beautiful face.

I’d get one more look at that face near the cashier’s window as she and her boyfriend were cashing out before drifting toward the exit.  They didn’t leave the casino though and instead wandered in the direction of the casino hotel, where I suspect they were about to celebrate her winnings with some rowdy time under the sheets.  As he placed his lips on her ashtray mouth after all that slot machine smoking, I hope he realized how lucky he was.  And I was pretty lucky myself to have ventured to the casino that Halloween night and be graced with such smoking royalty for more than two hours.

It’s a good thing I visited when I did.  A couple of weeks later, the casino announced it was “temporarily suspending” smoking in the casino as a COVID protection measure.  As of New Year’s Day, they announced they’re continuing the smoking ban and other COVID mitigation efforts “well into the next year”.  My fear is that it will never be lifted even when the pandemic ostensibly ends, taking away my last venue for seeing indoor smoking.  If it is, at least I’ll be able to see my casino sightings run ended in style, but I really hope it doesn’t end.

 

#1.  While my survival instinct should have kept me from casinos during a pandemic, it’s not as if I have any reason to live without sightings of young women smoking so on a few occasions starting in July I decided to visit the major casino in central Iowa, particularly since it’s one that didn’t impose any smoking restrictions when it reopened.  Casinos draw an older and downscale audience, but most times I visit I see some younger faces with cigarettes that make the visit worthwhile, and such was the case for my visits in 2020.  But there was one girl who genuinely captured my imagination and made my year-end list this year, and I knew the second I laid eyes on her that she was poised to be the casino MVP of 2020.

Perusing through the corridors of the smoking-permitted area of the casino, I laid eyes on this early-to-mid-20s blond stopping a casino server to place a drink order.  I was lucky enough to be able to find a convenient loitering spot and admire her presentation in a maroon blouse with a pair of white shorts that nicely framed her lower body.  She had an energy about her comparable to the 2018 Missouri State Fair girl who looked like Lucy Camden from “7th Heaven” and became one of my favorite fairgrounds sightings of all-time, and I picked up on that as I lingered for her incredibly lengthy transaction with the server, waiting for her to retreat someplace where a cigarette could possibly be smoked.  I kept close tabs on her for the next few minutes and watched her mingle with a few people before finally sitting down at a machine.  I sat down at a machine close to hers and in moments, she opened her purse, leaving me waiting for a couple of moments with baited breath till a red and silver pack of Marlboros made an appearance.

My adrenaline raced and I was lucky enough to have my phone in hand, immediately readying it as she retrieved her lighter from her purse.  It’s impossible to get a great photo amidst the substantial backlighting inside a casino, but I captured two shots of her lighting up.  Seconds later, she christened the casino smoking area with her personal contribution to its supply of polluted indoor air.  I was immediately struck with the ease at which she carried herself with a cigarette, alerting me to the likelihood that she was a regular smoker and not merely a girl indulging her freedom to have a cigarette with a drink while playing a slot machine.  Her drags were intense and her exhales were some combination of furrowed-lip blasts from the corner of her mouth or heavy upward-aimed rockets into the air.  Either of the two were pleasures to behold.

She didn’t spend much time at this machine, and that would be her MO for the rest of her tenure at the casino as well, but I wasn’t too heartbroken to see her stand up, allowing me to admire her curvy ass in those perfectly realized white shorts.  It seemed as though the party she came to the casino with was quite large as she was socializing with a wide variety of people over the 45 minutes or so she was in my proximity, at this point turning to the machines behind her to chat with some fellow 20-something female friends.  She had her back to me now, but I remained seated at my well-positioned machine to watch her continue to smoke as she talked to them.  But before her cigarette was finished, she got up with the two friends and they migrated to an ATM for more gambling money.

Blondie was the only one smoking as they tended to their business but her cigarette was near its end.  I weaved my way in and out of some machines to keep tabs and just as they were heading off, she took a final drag from her cigarette and started approaching a random slot machine.  Some 20-something nonsmoking guy was sitting there trying to peacefully play his machine, but this blond cutie wandered right into his space and proceeded to crush her cigarette out into the empty ashtray nearest him before pulling back to walk away with her friends, never saying a word or addressing the guy other than to expose him to her secondhand smoke and leave this cork filter souvenir in his presence.  It was a beautifully obnoxious way to end the show and I watched her walk off with her friends thinking that her performance was alone enough to make this casino trip worth it.  But for some reason, I didn’t expect I’d see her smoking again.  Thankfully, I was wrong about that….

Only about 10 minutes later, I was exploring the other side of the casino’s smoking area and feasted my eyes upon the can’t-miss presentation of this blond sitting at a slot machine in her maroon blouse and white shorts with another freshly lit cigarette.  I managed to find another conveniently open machine in close proximity and watched the show, again mesmerized by the ease at which she maneuvered while wielding this cigarette.  Her drags continued to be compelling and I got a couple more on camera, albeit with more blurry lighting issues.  But most memorable about this second cigarette was that her new machine happened to not have an ashtray front and center….so she proceeded to thoughtlessly flick her ash onto the casino carpet on two different occasions.  The sheer obnoxiousness of it was hard to put into words…and was unbearably sexy.

About halfway through her cigarette, she placed it in her mouth and carried out a gorgeous 30-second dangle while tending to the machine.  I was settling in for a great show, but as I said earlier, this girl wasn’t particularly patient with the machines she sat at and quickly got up in search of another.  I enjoyed seeing her shake that white-shorted backside of hers as she explored the casino floor for just the right machine, casually dragging from her cigarette as she progressed in a way that’s so rare to see indoors.  Finally, she claimed another machine and got in the last couple of drags on her cigarette before crushing it out in the nearest ashtray.  I knew when I laid eyes on this girl that she’d be the night’s MVP, and she had easily delivered on that early promise only a half hour or so after I first spotted her.

Unfortunately from there, she was frantically pacing the floor of the casino on her phone, clearly trying to meet up with somebody.  She had familiar contact with multiple people and I suspected she must have come with a vanload of family and friends.  But after about 10 minutes of this shuffling around, she met up with a middle-aged couple that were almost certainly her parents….and they were sadly heading down the escalator to the exit.  Still, there was one more chance for a marquee moment and I followed them out the door.  I kept a distance in case I was becoming too familiar to blondie after a half hour of taking machines in close proximity to her, but it was impossible to lose track of her with that ass being a glowing beacon of neon white in those shorts.  And sure enough, just as they crossed the street into the parking lot, her purse opened and a cigarette came out, her third of the last 45 minutes.  The cigarette went into her mouth and dangled as she chatted with her parents, the vibe of the sighting and her body language at this point really taking me back to the 2018 Missouri State Fair.  I figured she was lit but that cigarette just kept dangling there for the next 30 seconds or so as she chatted with her parents.  I’m not sure what facilitated the delay, but I finally saw a lighter approach her mouth and flick the cigarette to life as both mom and dad prepared cigarettes of their own.  Still, it was adorable to see the daughter be the first one of the three to initiate the smoking.

I decided to back off at this point and just watch from across the street as they drifted out of sight into the parking lot, occasional expulsions of smoke appearing from the mouth of the daughter.  In the abstract, visiting the casino in pursuit of sightings probably isn’t the smartest move, but if I am gonna contract a life-threatening virus, doing so while observing a smoking show like this is exactly how I want to go!

 

And now I begin 2021 with tremendous uncertainty about what the sightings landscape holds.  Will the vaccine be delivered efficiently and in a timely enough fashion for there to be a fair season in 2021?   Will we all be held hostage to those who either drag their feet or refuse to get the vaccine, keeping summer events from being held?  And even if there is a fair season, will we all still be required to walk around in masks?  And will fair administrators use this as an excuse to ban smoking?   How about my favorite casino?  Will they allow smoking again when the pandemic approaches its end?  Or will they decide after months of not allowing it that it’s a good opportunity to take it away forever?   Furthermore, it’s a safe bet the new administration and Congress will be rabidly antismoking, taking the most extreme measures possible to suffocate whatever limited amount of smoking still exists among my preferred demographics, including even higher cigarette taxes, menthol prohibitions, and mandates to reduce nicotine levels.  There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into 2021 and I’m not all prepared to accept it’ll be a better year for smoking or sightings than 2020.  But I pray that I don’t lose another summer.  If I’m able to get out there are see crowds of young females, my odds are already better for seeing attractive smokers than they were in 2020 just because of the law of averages.   With that said, the writing is on the wall that my time is limited for which the multiple hours that I invest pursuing sightings every year will be worth it.

Posted in Potpourri | 3 Comments

Trevor Unwraps Yuletide Cheer Hidden Under The Tree (Chapter 16)


Steve McPherson parked his Lexus at the edge of a residential urban street, arriving at his destination and bracing himself for a moment before getting out of the car and doing what he had to do.  Steve opened the car door and stepped outside into the chilly mid-December air, looking around for a minute and smirking as the nostalgia of home filled his heart.  The gritty Irish neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, had changed a lot since Steve grew up there, but it never stopped feeling like home to him.  He only came back to the old neighborhood once or twice a year at this point in his life, but always made a point to return just before Christmas, and as he looked across the street to the towering St. Mary’s Catholic Church, his trip down memory lane was cut short with the intimidating reminder of why he had returned this afternoon.

Steve resumed gathering his thoughts as he had done for much of the day and especially on this Tuesday afternoon’s drive from work to this church where he had been baptized and confirmed.  He slow-walked across the street and eventually ascended the long flight of stairs leading to the church’s entrance.  Steve had cut regular ties with the church for most of his adult life, but every year just before Christmas, Steve kept his long-standing tradition of seeking absolution for his sins of the past year, and this year, he had more sins than usual to confess to.

Steve walked through the front door to a church that was entirely empty, a look all too common in recent years indicative that he was far from alone among regular attendees from prior generations who’d moved on while the neighborhood wasn’t nearly as Irish or Catholic as it was 30 years earlier.  But as Steve looked to the confessionals along the church’s west wall, he knew Father Lafferty would be waiting for him.  A nervous smile flashed on Steve’s face as he walked over and opened the door to the confessional, kneeling down and sliding open the screen door to announce his presence.

Seeing the silhouette of the elderly Father Lafferty peacefully listening on the other side of the screen, Steve began talking.  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  It’s been one year since my last confession.”

Father Lafferty administered a sign of the cross.  “May the Lord be in your heart, Steve.  It’s really good to see you here as always this time of year. I hope you are well,” the priest opened in the same soothing voice that had been putting Steve at ease since he confessed his sins to him as a young boy.

Steve cut right to it, responding, “It’s been a challenging year for me, Father,” pausing as if to make clear that this year’s confession would hit harder than the boilerplate Catholic guilt of years past.  “I’ve spoken to you in the past of my struggles with my sexuality, specifically my fetish for my wife’s smoking addiction despite the considerable risks.  And how I’ve sat back and allowed my daughters to be consumed by this same addiction.  Unfortunately, worlds collided this year, Father….”

“I’m listening,” Father Lafferty responded in a tone apprehensive of what might be coming next.

“I’ve never revealed this fetish to anybody, including my wife, but it was obvious she always had me figured out.  Apparently my oldest daughter had too,” Steve continued, pausing before adding “…and it tainted her own sexual identity and her relationship with me.”

“She admitted this you?” Father Lafferty asked amidst Steve’s struggle to verbally press on.

“She did….a couple of months after trying to initiate a sexual encounter with me one night when she and I were home alone together,” Steve paused again, leaving the priest briefly in suspense before continuing, “I put a stop to it, Father, but I didn’t recognize the warning signs leading up to it and let it go way too far.  Looking back, it’s pretty clear I let my smoking fetish control me.  I let it control me by not putting my foot down early when Courtney started smoking years ago.  I let it control me by getting some level of satisfaction in seeing her smoke just like I have with my wife and other women over the years.  And that night, I let it control me by recognizing something was off right away but still letting it get to the point where she was unzipping my jeans…but still letting it play out because of the cheap thrill it was giving me.”

Father Lafferty paused to gather his thoughts amidst the moment of silence before adding, “Steve, we all succumb to temptation at times.  We are imperfect beings.  You recognized the danger of that temptation at the moment it was most important to do so and you put a stop to it.  The Lord led you to salvation just when you needed Him to.”

Steve nodded in partial agreement, “But you don’t understand, Father.  Even at that moment when Courtney was starting to take my jeans off, I paused for a split second.  What kind of a father does that make me that for even a moment I considered engaging sexually with my teenage daughter?”

“It makes you an imperfect father, Steve.  It makes you a father that has room to learn….room to grow….room to improve by Christ’s example,” the priest continued.  “But also a father who in a moment of crisis will do the right thing even when the demons inside are pressing him to make the wrong choice.”

Steve felt the relief fill his soul, but had not yet absolved himself of the guilt he felt for the encounter.  “I patched things up with Courtney and we’re on good terms again.  In fact, she’s in college now and has a really great boyfriend that seems like he’ll be great for her, but every day I look at my wife Becky, I’m overcome with shame.  I haven’t told her, obviously, and never plan to, but she works so hard to be a good mother to them and a good wife to me.  She’s dealing with so much with her own mother as we’ve talked about before.  It would devastate her to find out about what happened with Courtney, but in some sense, I feel like she deserves to know.  She indulges my fetish for her smoking even without my volunteering it to her, but I really don’t think she understands how much physical harm it’s likely to do to our family…..or the psychological harm it’s already done.”

Father Lafferty again pondered the proper response.  “It’s ultimately up to you if you want to share this information with your wife, Steve.  She probably deserves to know, but even without an explicit confession of the encounter with Courtney, your feelings on the physical and psychological health on your family are a matter of greater urgency.  Are the impacts felt elsewhere in your family aside from Courtney?”

“They are, Father,” Steve confessed.  “I’m guessing you’ve heard the news stories about the Somali-American cigarette smuggling ring busted by the ATF this summer.”

“Yes,” Father Lafferty, responded, adding with a hint of guilt of his own, “Several of those Somali immigrants that were arrested were sponsored by St. Mary’s back in the day when they came to Minnesota.  I knew a few of them personally.  Your family was involved with that smuggling ring?”

“My wife Becky had been buying black market cigarettes from one of them…..Abdullah,” Steve replied, “She was buying from him when he was arrested and witnessed the whole thing.  No charges against her but she still feels tremendous guilt for her role in it.”

“She’s not the only one who feels guilt about that situation,” Father Lafferty confessed.  “I lost contact with those young men and women over the years.  I like to think if I’d played a more active role, I could have kept them from going astray.”

Steve nodded.  “If you don’t mind my saying it’s a bit reassuring that I’m not the only one in this conversation who has a burden to carry, Father.”

Father Lafferty laughed with the gentle ease of a skilled communicator.  “The Lord has given us all a burden to carry, Steve.  Some carry a heavier load than others, but we all have what it takes to find absolution.”  He paused and then prodded Steve to expand.  “And how has the stress of this year impacted the rest of your family?”

A surge of additional guilt filled Steve’s heart as he realized he stepped into this confessional without mentally preparing himself for any material on behalf of his youngest two children, confirming his long-standing inadvertent preference on behalf of Courtney among his offspring and negating Father Lafferty’s impact up to this point in validating Steve’s worthiness as a father.  Steve spent a couple of moments gathering his thoughts before answering Father Lafferty’s inquiry.

“My son Trevor seems to have things pretty well together.  He’s 17 now…has a good head on his shoulders…has a girlfriend who’s a total sweetheart.  But I think he’s gonna spend his life fighting some of the same demons I am, Father,” Steve confessed.

“What demons are those, Steve?” Lafferty pressed.

“His girlfriend is a smoker…just like his mother and his sisters….just like my mother and sister.  And I kind of doubt it’s a coincidence.  I’ve seen the way Trevor looks at his girlfriend….and I sure recognize that look,” Steve emphasized.  “I’m sure he thinks it’s harmless.  I did too at his age.  But as you get older, you sure start to recognize some of the costs.”

Father Lafferty took advantage of the pause in Steve’s explanation to offer some advice.  “You said he has a good head on his shoulders.  You should probably trust him to make the right choices.  A little guidance from his father and from the Lord will go a long way with that, Steve.”

Steve nodded silently, agreeing with his priest’s counsel as his mind drifted from his least challenging child to his most challenging.  “As for my youngest daughter, I have deeper worries about her.  She and I have just never connected.  I mean, she’s 15 so I try not to take that giant chip on her shoulder too personally but….I don’t know.  There’s an emptiness inside of her that scares me,” Steve offered, pausing to add, “And her mother and I had a big incident with her this year dating an 18-year-old.  We put a restraining order against the kid and she’s barely said a word to me since then unless it’s through clenched teeth.”

“I see,” responded Father Lafferty, holding back from asking if Haylee had a sexual relationship with the 18-year-old and assuming by Steve’s tone that he believed there was.  “And she shares her mother and sister’s bad habits?”

“She does…..hard-core,” Steve confessed with a sigh.  “I’ve failed her on that as well.”

“It’s a setback, Steve, not a failure,” Father Lafferty countered.  “It’s not too late for her or anybody in your family to find salvation from the Lord.  But it starts with you.  You come here today and can quickly point to the ways you feel that you’ve let them down.  What better time could there be to start fixing what’s broken than this glorious time of year when Christ was born?  And maybe you can’t fix all the big things right away.  That’s not the point.  But after such a trying situation with Courtney, you found the path to righteousness and worked things out with her.  With God’s help, you can find the strength to continue guiding her on the righteous path…and you can do the same with your wife and your other children.  There is no challenge on this Earth we’re given that we can’t handle with the Lord’s guidance.”

Steve listened intently to Father Lafferty’s words, finding an odd detachment from the spiritual message after all of these years of relative absence from the church, but still welcoming the warm, judgment-free words of the only person alive who he ever confided his darkest thoughts with, and he decided to share that gratitude aloud.  “Father, I’ve been confessing my sins to you since I was nine years old and I’ve always walked away fulfilled.  Today has been no exception.  You’ve given me a lot to think about.  And I hope I’m able to return here next year with a cleansed soul.”

“I pray that you will, Steve,” Father Lafferty responded, his voice filled with hope and confidence that Steve would follow through on this vow.

It was now time for Steve to bring this confession to a close, and the words of the Act of Contrition that he learned in third grade flowed easily from his mind despite only saying them once a year just before Christmas.  “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You Whom I should love above all things, I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin,” Steve closed.

Father Lafferty responded by voicing the Prayer of Absolution. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Thank you, Father,” Steve responded one final time with a smile as he stood up and exited the confessional, progressing through the pews and genuflecting to the altar before heading to the exit at the rear of the church where he had entered 20 minutes earlier.

Steve was struck by the darkness of the sky, having lost track of time and briefly forgotten that these mid-December days were some of the shortest of the year.  The glow from the church’s nativity display radiated along with the surrounding streetlights and gave him the necessary illumination to find his way back to his car parked across the street.  Chilled by the creeping Minnesota winter only a couple of days from officially beginning, Steve quickly started his car and cranked the heater up to high.  He admired the distant glow of Christmas lights from the residential streets ahead and decided he had a little time to explore the light displays in his old neighborhood before heading home.  But as Father Lafferty’s words came racing back into Steve’s mind, he decided he wanted to get home as quickly as possible to put his advice into action, putting his car into drive and turning toward the western Minneapolis suburbs where his family was waiting for him.

————————————-

Trevor McPherson sat on the left side of the couch in his family’s crowded living room that early evening, his giggling girlfriend Lauren Nelson seated on his lap with her back resting on the couch’s armrest and her legs sprawled out across the sofa.  The socks on Lauren’s feet were only inches away from encroaching upon the space of Trevor’s younger sister Haylee sitting on the right side of the couch, distracted as she stared into her phone with a freshly lit Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips and occasionally looking up to six-year-old Jarrod Wagner and his three-year-old brother Joshua.  Haylee was babysitting the boys tonight as she did most weeknights and they were currently keeping themselves entertained with the electric train that encircled the McPherson family Christmas tree.

“C’mon, just one hint!” Lauren requested playfully as she took a deep drag from her half-smoked Marlboro Light 100 and then let the smoke spill from her mouth into his airspace without making a spectacle of it.

Trevor caressed Lauren’s thigh atop the black nylon and spandex of her tight black leggings, a smirk smeared across his face as he responded to his girlfriend’s plea in reference to the Christmas gifts he bought her.  “Nah, don’t want to set expectations too high.”  He smoothly leaned his face toward hers and added, “But I do think you’re gonna like it.”

Lauren put her hand on his chest and smiled sweetly, following through with Trevor’s gesture and moving in for a quick kiss on the lips.  “Good idea, baby.  Let’s not spoil the surprise.  I know I’ll like whatever you got me,” before approaching her cigarette to her lips for another drag.

Trevor watched admiringly as Lauren pulled the smoke into her body, her innocent look hitting him even harder than usual tonight with her long blond hair flowing onto a slightly dorky maroon Christmas sweater with a campy white snowman pattern.  For whatever reason, Lauren liked to wear these sweaters this time of year, and they served as a striking visual and olfactory contrast for Trevor as the cigarette smoke spewed from her mouth and nose as she exhaled, eventually clinging to the wool of the sweater and giving it an odor that was quite a mismatch to the wholesome imagery.  Lauren smiled again at Trevor as they maintained admiring eye contact from only inches away, trickles of residual smoke still spraying out of her nose and dominating Trevor’s airspace.  Only in the brief and fleeting moments between Lauren’s smoky breaths was Trevor able to smell the hotdish his mother was cooking for supper in the kitchen.

Lifting her eyes from her phone just long enough to give Trevor and Lauren an annoyed side-eye glare that neither of them picked up on, Haylee was struggling to deal with her increasingly jealous feelings as she observed the latest of an all-too-frequent string of public displays of affection between Trevor and Lauren right there in front of her on the family couch.  While she was glad that her brother and her best friend were so clearly happy together in their latest cozy embrace, Haylee’s nostalgia for ex-boyfriend Jacob was hitting her really hard with the emotionally charged backdrop of the holiday season.   Whatever limited romantic and sexual arrangement she enjoyed with Lauren’s brother Brian was simply not cutting it for her right now as she longed for Jacob’s presence.  She imagined herself seated upon Jacob’s lap in his loving embrace just as Lauren was in Trevor’s lap, wrapping her lips tightly around the filter of her Camel Pink and ingesting as much smoke as her respiratory system would allow in, the warmth in her lungs coming as close as she would get to the warmth of Jacob’s missing touch.  The consequences of that overly aggressive exhale came in the form of an intense smoker’s cough that knocked the granny ash of her cigarette to the couch cushion while drawing the attention of the lovebirds sharing the couch with her.

Haylee tried to carry on, rummaging through her phone and hoping to evade the glances of Trevor and Lauren who could both tell through Haylee’s body language that she was struggling and reined in their PDA display.

“Check this out!” Jarrod exclaimed from the floor, breaking up the awkwardness as he lowered the string of garland from the artificial Christmas tree so that it was about to collide with the incoming electric train encircling the tree.

Just as Jarrod hoped would happen, Haylee sprung into action, sitting up on the couch and admonishing him forcefully through her dangling cigarette.  “Don’t do that!  You’ll tip the tree!  Just play with the train and leave the tree and everything on it alone, okay?”

The Christmas spirit filled Jarrod as he admired the steamroll of smoke spraying from his 15-year-old babysitter’s mouth and nose as she scolded him in her pink hoodie and sweatpants.  “I’m sorry Haylee!  I won’t do it again,” he artificially repented while slowly coming down from the visual high as his brother started the train again.

Much as they tried to rein in their public displays of affection for Haylee’s benefit, Lauren and Trevor made eye contact once again as they watched the electric train encircling the Christmas tree.  Lauren pulled her cigarette to her lips for a decadent drag with lovey-dovey eyes maintained Trevor’s direction, expressing through her body language that she remembered the last time the Wagner boys played with the electric train in their presence…..more than a year earlier when Trevor used the train to distract them long enough to steal Lauren’s virginity in his parents’ bedroom.  Lauren blew a dense plume of smoke into Trevor’s face as a nonverbal cue of the wonderful memory and Trevor stealthly goosed her asscheek to return the favor, his airspace dominated again by her exhaled cigarette smoke.

The living room TV was turned on to the local 5:00 news as it often was, and while nobody had been paying much attention to it, the eyes of Trevor, Lauren, and Haylee all began to focus on the TV as the mug of a familiar face appeared on the screen.   They listened to the news anchor as she announced the story to accompany the image.  “At the Hennepin County Courthouse today, a jury convicted Abdullah Guleed on a third-degree felony smuggling charge for selling black market cigarettes throughout the metro area.  Guleed was the first conviction following more than two dozen arrests from this smuggling ring discovered in August, which authorities say was financing an East African terrorist organization.  A judge will preside over Guleed’s sentencing next month.”

Lauren took a deep final drag from her cigarette and leaned forward to crush it out into the overflowing ash can on the coffee table, her eyes still trained on the TV as the defendant Abdullah Guleed was being frog-marched through the courtroom by authorities wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.  With smoke spilling out of her mouth and nose, Lauren leaned into Trevor’s ear and whispered, “Isn’t that the guy your mom was buying from?” hoping that Becky wouldn’t hear it just down the hall in the kitchen.

Trevor nodded affirmatively while keeping eye contact on the TV, the image of Abdullah’s harsh treatment reinforcing Trevor’s gratitude that his mother avoided the serious criminal consequences of being involved in that smuggling ring, bewildering as it was to him that anybody was heading to prison for selling black-market cigarettes.  He made brief eye contact with Haylee who also seemed a bit shaken by seeing what had just happened to their mother’s one-time “business partner”.

The mood of the room quickly lightened again as Lauren leaned forward from Trevor’s lap to retrieve her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s and indulge herself with another one.  Trevor held back his smirk as much as possible as Lauren’s search predictably yielded no cigarettes.  A confused look on her face, Lauren went through her usual motions of leaning every which way in search of her beloved gold and white cigarette pack, and amidst her distraction Trevor looked toward Jarrod on the floor and smiled, giving the six-year-old a stealth thumbs-up as if to confirm the plan was afoot.

At this point leaning fully forward and rummaging her hand across the living room carpet underneath the couch, Lauren pondered aloud with continued genuine confusion, “What happened to my cigarettes?”

Trevor told on himself quickly as he sarcastically responded, “Oh I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Lauren quickly sat back up on Trevor’s lap knowing she’d been duped, giving Trevor a playful evil eye and asking with exasperated annoyance, “What did you do with them, you punk??!?”

Trevor maintained his smirk and gave Lauren an exaggerated shrug.  “Haven’t seen them.  I really think you need to keep better track of those things.”

Lauren shook her head playfully, telling Trevor “You’re hopeless,” before looking to Haylee as she plucked the spent Camel Pink No. 9 from her lips and crushed it out in the ash can in front of her with rich bursts of smoke exploding from her mouth and nose.  “Help me out here, Haylee,” Lauren pleaded.

Haylee flashed a knowing smile but maintained her neutrality as she responded, “Hey keep me out of this!”

Trevor looked Jarrod’s direction as a verbal cue, at which point Jarrod restarted the electric train.  As the train began encircling the base of the Christmas tree, Jarrod laid on the horn at full volume to make sure nobody in the room would miss it.  As Lauren looked to the train as its shrill horn filled the quiet room, a gleam emerged in her eyes as she got the joke and located her gold and white pack sitting inside an open boxcar of the electric train.   “Hey those are mine!” Lauren exclaimed as she pointed to her cigarettes.

The room filled with laughter as Jarrod picked up the pack of cigarettes and shot to his feet with youthful energy, leaning over the coffee table to hand the pack to the grateful Lauren who Jarrod continued to find a bit intimidating despite her friendly demeanor.

Lauren attempted to lay a playful guilt trip on Trevor as she opened up the box of Marlboro Lights 100s and her lighter.   “Trevor, how dare you use those boys to do your dirty work…..again!”

Haylee gave a quick side eye upon hearing Lauren say “again”, wondering what the context might have been for Trevor “using the boys to do his dirty work” in the past and coming relatively close to the correct answer as she speculated.  Haylee and Jarrod’s eyes were both trained on the loving teenage couple as Trevor approached the lighter to the end of Lauren’s cigarette and sparked it up.

Lauren took an indulgent first drag off the light-up, removing the cigarette from her lips and smiling sweetly at Trevor, whose smile quickly turned to a nervous scowl as he remembered Lauren’s hypnosis sessions for quitting smoking began one week from today, and that tonight just might be one of the final times he ever got to light one of her cigarettes.  Trevor was able to let the thought drift away as quickly as the cloud of smoke Lauren had just exhaled, not willing to let fears of a smoke-free Lauren ruin Christmas for him.

Haylee reached casually to the coffee table to retrieve her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s, but as she approached the unlit cigarette to her lips, a surprise request came from the floor.

“Let me light it for you, Haylee!” Jarrod requested, emboldened after just witnessing the chivalrous gesture by Trevor lighting Lauren’s cigarette moments earlier.

Haylee gave Jarrod a dismissive glare as she picked up her lighter, gently but emphatically declaring through an unlit talking dangle, “You’re not playing with my lighter.”

Trevor and Lauren both looked at the disappointment on Jarrod’s face following Haylee’s rejection, and Lauren decided to intervene on Jarrod’s behalf just before Haylee flicked her cigarette to life.  “Oh let him light it, Haylee,” Lauren offered.  “It’ll be good practice for him to know how to light a lady’s cigarette,” she added as she dragged from her cigarette, winking at Jarrod to let him know she was wise to his game but also trying to help the boy out.

Haylee looked at the smirking Lauren as though she was crazy, protesting through her ongoing unlit dangle, “I can’t have him playing with fire.  You’ve seen what a holy terror he is!”

“I won’t ever touch it unless you say so, Haylee!” Jarrod pleaded, sensing an opening and taking advantage of Lauren as an ally.  “I promise!”

Haylee still seemed reluctant, but Trevor, Lauren, and Jarrod looked her way eagerly awaiting her decision and recognized she was about to give in to the peer pressure.  Haylee looked Jarrod in the eye and lectured,  “These are very dangerous for kids.  Don’t even think about using it for anything but lighting my cigarettes, okay?”

Jarrod nodded in nervous anticipation of finally fulfilling a long-standing fantasy of lighting Haylee’s cigarette for her as she handed him the lighter with continued reluctance, not thrilled with Lauren for suggesting it and putting her on the spot.  Jarrod had watched Haylee lighting her cigarettes many times over the years and was hopeful he could master the device, nervously holding up the pink butane lighter toward the tip of Haylee’s cigarette and attempting to turn the flint and generate a spark.  He was surprised by the firmness of the flint and struggled to turn it with his kindergarten-sized thumb, continuing to struggle for several moments and feeling the intimidation looking up at an impatient Haylee and listening to a giggling Lauren.

“You have to really push down hard on the metal circle,” Haylee instructed through her continued talking dangle, losing patience waiting for the nicotine hit she craved and nervously leering toward the kitchen hoping her mother wouldn’t step out and see Jarrod with a cigarette lighter.

Still sitting atop Trevor’s lap, Lauren took a deep drag from her cigarette and held up her own lighter to give Jarrod a direct visual example.  “Like this, Jarrod,” Lauren instructed, aggressively rolling the flint in front of Jarrod’s eyes.  “Really give it heck!”

Inspired by Lauren’s tutorial and determined to satisfy his babysitter, Jarrod put his full concentration on getting it right and applied as much thrust as his thumb could muster, successfully sparking a flame directly in front of Haylee’s cigarette.  Haylee leaned into the flame, puckering her lips artfully in front of Jarrod’s mesmerized gaze and drawing in the inaugural rush of smoke into her lungs.  Watching Haylee’s face and upper body overcome with the pleasure and relief from the cigarette that he had brought to life for her benefit, Jarrod instantly had a new favorite moment with his babysitter with an additional reward of Haylee’s first exhale from the new cigarette starting to flow into his face.  The intimacy of providing her this primal pleasure even exceeded the feels he got when she let him rub sunblock all over her body poolside, and he hoped it wouldn’t be the only time Haylee would let him experience it.

“Yay!!!” Lauren cheered on Jarrod to help him celebrate the thrill of victory, bursts of smoke trickling from her nose, adding with a sweet flourish “That skill will come in handy for you some day, Jarrod!”

Jarrod continued to smirk on the floor as he listened to Lauren’s accolades but couldn’t pull his eyes away from Haylee continuing to dangle the cigarette he had lit for her, enjoying an early Christmas present that set that bar high for whatever other gifts he was poised to receive next week.

Trevor smirked just as brightly observing Jarrod’s euphoria and then shook his head at Lauren and sarcastically quipped, “Yeah….I’m the bad influence here.”

Lauren giggled as she took another drag from her cigarette and wrapped her hand affectionately around Trevor’s face.

The reflection of a pair of headlights pulling into the driveway briefly glistened off of the ornaments and strings of garland on the Christmas tree before the light quickly went dead and the low hum of a car engine turned off outside.

“That must be dad,” Trevor announced, giving the rest of the room a cue to dispense with all the misbehavior which ironically excluded the two teenage girls smoking in the immediate presence of the young boys.

Awaiting the opening of the front door, Trevor, Lauren, and Haylee barely noticed the ringing of Becky’s cell phone coming from the kitchen.  In seconds, Steve walked in to greetings from all five occupants of the living room.  With joy on his face and a renewed mission in his heart, Steve returned the greetings of those in his home.  The sight and overwhelming aroma of fresh cigarette smoke had more mixed connotations for him than usual tonight, but it was nonetheless a welcome beacon of home and the loved ones whom he welcomed having a fresh start with.

But only seconds after Steve’s inspired entrance, a mournful bellow of visceral human suffering emerged from the kitchen.   “Nooooo!” Becky shrieked in agony through her husky middle-aged smoker’s voice followed by a rush of equally agonized tears, quickly diverting the attention of everybody in the living room and bringing them to their feet en route to the kitchen.

Steve’s initial instinct was driven by the same Catholic guilt that sent him to confession today, and for a split second he feared his revelations to the priest had somehow made their way to his wife’s ears, but as he sprinted into the kitchen and laid eyes on his wife falling to her knees with her cell phone to her ear and a Marlboro Red in her free hand, he had a pretty good idea what the real issue was.

Trevor, Haylee, and Lauren raced into the kitchen next to Steve, with Haylee breaking the silence to ask, “What’s wrong, mom?” with genuine concern on her face.

Tears rolling down her face while still listening to the person on the other end of the phone, Becky struggled for a moment before finally verbalizing through her grief, “Mom died.”

Steve raced up to her and got down on his knees, wrapping his arms around Becky’s shoulders and holding her quietly as she continued to listen to the news unfold about her mother’s passing on the other end of the line.

An emotional Lauren buried her head onto Trevor’s shoulder, having never even met Becky’s mother but still devastated for Becky’s loss.  Trevor was swept up in the emotion as well, responding to both Lauren on his shoulder and his mother’s display of overwhelming grief.

Standing by herself with her Camel Pink dangling from her lips, Haylee just felt numb.  It was hard to see her mother like this, but she couldn’t help but feel some mild relief that the bad news didn’t relate to anybody she was more personally connected with.  It had not yet sunk in to Haylee how inappropriate it was that she felt this way about her grandmother.

———————————

Four days later, Haylee stepped out of her bedroom that Saturday morning in a silky pink dress that flattered her figure and her general image, placing an unlit Camel Pink No. 9 to her pouty lips and flicking it to life one-handedly.  Haylee proceeded down the hall to the stairway with a thick trail of smoke in her path, eventually descending the stairs and making eye contact with her mother halfway down.

Becky dragged deeply from her Marlboro Red, the motion highlighting the lines on her face and all they represented, most notably the anguish of having lost a parent only days earlier.  At the foot of the steps about to head upstairs to change, the glowing pink of Haylee’s dress broke Becky out of her hypnotic slumber as they made eye contact, quickly replaced by an annoyed anger.

“Haylee, don’t even think about it!” Becky exclaimed as she looked her youngest daughter up and down in the inappropriate pink dress.

“What?!” Haylee mumbled through a talking dangle, being pretty sure what her mother was referring to but choosing to play ignorant.

“Do you really have to be told that you don’t dress like that for a funeral??!” Becky protested with escalating annoyance.  “Go change into something black!”

Belching out smoke from her mouth and nose, Haylee made one more halfhearted attempt to wear the dress she’d been wanting to try out for months.  “Pretty sure grandma would have respected me for being different,” she mused through a talking dangle.

The fury in Becky’s eyes burned hotter while in mid-drag of her own cigarette, pausing to consume the hit of smoke before raging back, “I am NOT doing this with you today, Haylee!”  Aggressively pointing her index finger at Haylee with smoke charging out of her nostrils as she spoke, Becky added, “Change out of that dress and show some respect for your grandmother!”

Haylee got the message and immediately realized this was the not the right battle to choose, responding “Fine!” with the final burst of residual protest while crossing paths on the stairs with her mother.

As Becky continued upstairs to change, Haylee strutted into the living room where Trevor sat alone on the couch alone in a suit and tie, waiting to take the 2 1/2-hour drive to Becky’s southwest Wisconsin hometown for the wake and funeral service.  Looking for someone to commiserate with now that her mother was upstairs, Haylee threw herself down on a recliner next to the couch where Trevor sat, puckering her lips around her cigarette for a dangling drag and then grumbling “This is gonna be the shittiest Christmas ever!” with a waft of her exhaled smoke filling up the living room airspace.

Trevor darted his eyes Haylee’s way.  Ordinarily, he’d be inclined to let one of Haylee’s pissy asides stand without comment, but today he shared her aggrievement and chose to express it in a more subdued tone.  “Yeah, not exactly gonna be Feliz Navidad for me either.  Lauren’s gonna be with family most of tomorrow night and Monday.  Today was supposed to be our Christmas together.”

Haylee looked at Trevor with some genuine disappointment that Trevor and Lauren’s Christmas weekend plans were scuttled.  Cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips as she spoke, Haylee responded, “So you’re not gonna get to see her at all?”

“Not till Christmas night on Monday.  The new plan is for her to come visit then,” Trevor answered, burying from open discussion his additional concern that on the day after Christmas, Lauren and the rest of her family were going to see the hypnotist they long ago scheduled appointments with to help them quit smoking.  Trevor was genuinely nervous that he could be down to one final night of Lauren being a smoker.

Haylee shook her head as if expressing she felt Trevor’s pain, removing her cigarette from her lips to tap the granny ash into the butt can and then adding, “This funeral is gonna fuck things up for all of us, I guess,” dismissing her mother’s recent advice about being respectful.  Placing her cigarette back to her mouth, Haylee continued to grumble, “I guess I better go change into that crow costume mom wants me to wear,” in reference to Becky’s insistence that Haylee wear a black dress.

Trevor smirked at Haylee’s characterization as he watched his sister head upstairs and leave her usual trail of smoke in her path.

Once upstairs, Haylee crossed paths with her father as he traveled from the bathroom to his own bedroom.  Steve gently put his arms on Haylee’s shoulder, warning her as diplomatically as possible.  “Your mom’s gonna have a really hard weekend, Haylee.  Let’s all do our best to help her get through it, okay?”

Haylee was disarmed by her father’s tone, dangle-dragging from her cigarette and nodding in agreement before progressing to her bedroom to change into a black dress without further protest.

As Steve continued toward his bedroom as planned, he was sidetracked by the voice of another of his daughters dangling a cigarette from her mouth.  “Dad, could you please come in and help me with this!?” requested Courtney from the bedroom across the hall.

Steve smiled upon hearing the inviting voice of his oldest daughter beckoning her father for help as she had done so many times as a young girl.  He pushed open Courtney’s cracked bedroom door to see her standing in a black dress with a Marlboro Light Menthol 100 dangling from her lips, looking at her own reflection in the mirror atop the nightstand and struggling to zip up the back of the dress.

“Help zip this for me would you please, Dad?” Courtney asked through her talking dangle, mentholated smoke spraying toward her own mirror image reflection.

“Sure,” Steve responded cooperatively, admiring his daughter’s beauty in the mirror as he zipped the dress up to the top, detecting a hint of nervousness in her that he dismissed as residual awkwardness from their prior incident.

Removing the cigarette from her mouth while admiring her figure in the reflection, Courtney asked her father’s opinion.  “What do you think?  Fit me okay?”

Steve was hardly a good judge of fashion and couldn’t have imagined himself giving his daughter’s dress choice a tepid review, but he genuinely liked what he saw as he looked the dress Courtney was wearing over and responded as such.  “Looks great, Courtney. Really, really nice.  It’s just too bad it’s for such a grim occasion.”

Courtney turned around to face her father, adding “I know.  Poor mom,” pausing and then thanking her father for the assistance with an odd hint of disappointment on her face, putting on a smile one last time as Steve prepared to leave.

Steve was pleased to see a light in Courtney’s eyes again, and was encouraged that she felt comfortable enough with him again at this point to ask her to zip up her dress just as he’d done for her multiple times in the past.  Maybe the path to absolution would be easier with Courtney than he had feared while in the confessional, Steve thought to himself as he closed his daughter’s bedroom door and progressed down the hall.

But the hint of disappointment on Courtney’s face became unmistakable once she was alone again.  She took a frustrated drag from her cigarette and then posed in profile in front of the mirror in her black dress that snugly compressed against her twelve-week baby bump.  She’d been hoping to get through the holidays before telling her family and Wade’s parents, but looking at that growing watermelon inside her belly as it stretched out the fabric of the black dress, she didn’t figure making it another 10 days without being noticed was an option, particularly when mingling at her grandmother’s crowded wake service in a few hours.

Courtney had really hoped her father would notice her secret when she invited him in to zip up the dress, knowing that his response would be less explosive than her mother’s would be and possibly giving her a bit of cover for the pending verbal revelation.  Unfortunately, even the big juicy meatball across the plate that was her pregnant belly failed to catch the gaze of her father.  She took another deep drag from her cigarette and launched one of her trademark monster exhales directly into the mirror, producing an oddly psychedelic smoky image.  Sadness filled her eyes as she pondered how she could possibly get through the next two days without her secret coming out in the least optimal possible way.  All three of the McPherson children had their reasons why this poorly timed funeral service was cramping their style, but Courtney’s reason was definitely the most compelling.

———————————

Two hours later, the McPherson family Lexus progressed in a southeasterly direction, and they were by now more than halfway to Becky’s hometown of Pigeon Bend, Wisconsin, where her mother was to be buried.  It had been nearly three years since Becky had been home, and looking through the passenger side window at the familiar snow-scaped foliage of the Mississippi River valley bluffs, the mix of good and bad memories were racing back.  She took a deep drag from her Marlboro Red and finally felt the single tear that had long been at the tip of her eyelash roll down her cheek, deep in contemplative thought.

Steve looked over to her as the smoke flowed out of her mouth, quickly getting sucked out the cracked window into the chilly late December air.  He knew that as hard as it was gonna be for Becky to bury her mother, dealing with the rest of her largely estranged family might be an even bigger challenge.  He didn’t know whether words of comfort or silence were a better choice for the moment, but decided to go with the former as he consoled, “It’s gonna be a good ceremony, Beck.  There’ll be a lot of love there.  Just like Ann wanted.  Try not to spend much time worrying about your dad and sister.”

Becky grunted with annoyance, a burst of residual smoke spilling from her mouth.  “Easy for you to say.  You’re not the one they blame for ‘kidnapping’ mom away from them.”

“They had their chance to step up and care for her,” Steve reminded her.  “You were the only one who would.”

Becky took another drag. “Yeah….” Becky replied with a hint of anger in her husky voice, sarcastically adding “…dad was a little busy ‘stepping up to care’ for mom’s replacement.”

Steve decided to relent after hearing Becky’s hot response, not wanting to litigate her family issues with the kids in the backseat overhearing it.  He hoped tempers in the Gunderson family could be reined in on this solemn day, but was not filled with confidence after this trial balloon.

In the backseat, Trevor sat in the middle as he always did on family trips, graciously yielding the window seats to his heavy-smoking sisters who were both doing their thing as usual.  Even with a winter jacket on, Trevor was chilly feeling the cold air rush in through the three cracked windows that the female smokers were ashing out, but it was a small price to pay for the visual.   Trevor also took a mental note after every dairy farm they passed, reminding him that they were currently in the same general area as the farm town where Wade Rosenquist grew up….and where Lauren faced the nastiest predator of her life three months earlier.  The cold chill of the air matched Trevor’s lingering association with this landscape, imagining the menacing Dusty Beaudry lurking behind the wheel of every pickup truck they passed.

Sitting to Trevor’s left, Courtney was also visually consuming the landscape, wrapping her lips around her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 in deep thought.  A faint hint of a smile emerged on her face every time they passed the barns of the dairy farms that dotted the landscape, bringing to mind warm thoughts of Wade.  But the smiles always vanished as quickly as they emerged when she realized she would soon have to break the news of her pregnancy to Wade’s parents.  For a number of reasons, some tangible and some less so, breaking the news to the Rosenquists scared her more than breaking the news to her own parents.  She expelled a snootful of mentholated smoke that caught the wind from her cracked window, sending a minty blast of chilly smoke through the car into the airspace of her father and brother.

And sitting to Trevor’s right was Haylee, looking down to her phone with a half-smoked Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips.  She looked up from the phone briefly as her father turned left onto a bridge.  She admired the view of the ice-glazed Mississippi River as her father steered over the bridge, caught by surprise when she saw the large sign reading “Welcome to Wisconsin”.   While Trevor and Courtney had their own associations on the Minnesota side of the river, the nostalgia for love lost hit Haylee like an iceberg as she passed that Wisconsin state line, remembering that Jacob had gone to college there.

Haylee puckered her lips for a dangling drag with a bit of a guilty look on her face as she pulled up Google Maps on her phone.  She recalled Jacob was going to college in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and curiosity got the better of her as she plugged in the name of her mom’s hometown of Pigeon Bend to see how far away it was.  She didn’t set her expectations too high for an unexpected reunion, but when her search result yielded a two-hour, 59-minute driving distance between the two towns, the disappointment on her face was tangible and she released the smoke from her lungs with a dispirited whimper.  If only for a split second, she allowed herself to fantasize about a Christmas miracle bringing her and Jacob back together today, but the reality that her weekend would instead be spent in close quarters with immediate and extended family alike brought her right back down.

————————————

It was almost 5:00 when the McPherson family walked toward the front entrance of the Frederickson Funeral Home in Pigeon Bend, the daylight rapidly yielding to darkness with the sun already set behind the river valley bluffs dotting the landscape.  Varying degrees of anxiety filled all five of them as they navigated through the crowded parking lot, simultaneously impressed and intimidated by the crowd of family and former neighbors in attendance.  Courtney, Haylee, and Becky all dragged copiously from their cigarettes as they neared the funeral home entrance and came to a stop at the edge of the foyer leading toward the front door.

Steve smiled at Becky as he grabbed Trevor by the shoulder, commenting “Trevor and I will head inside first and soften everyone up for you.”

Becky laughed nervously while dragging from her two-thirds-smoked Marlboro Red and responded “Yeah, good luck with that,” through frosty breath that commingled with her exhale, and then stood silently as Courtney and Haylee’s frosty respiratory discharges blurred together with her own in a toxic jumble that represented a perfect visual symbol to this funeral home entrance.

Trevor and Steve could feel half of the eyes in the funeral home lock upon them as they stepped inside the front entrance.  To Trevor it was a blur of vaguely familiar faces of distant relatives on his mom’s side that he hadn’t seen much if anything of since the family’s estrangement.  He watched his father exchange casual greetings of acknowledgment as they progressed through the crowd, undoubtedly wondering where his mother was or if she came at all.  Finally, Trevor spotted his grandfather’s familiar face and he gravitated along with Steve in that direction.

“Hey there, Trevor!” his grandfather greeted, extending his hand to greet him.  “Haven’t seen you since I came up last Christmas,” in reference to his visit where Becky was absentee.

“Hey grandpa.  Nice to see you,” Trevor greeted back, enjoying the rare opportunity to bond with his grandfather but still feeling awkward given the tension between him and his mother.

“Emmet, sorry for your loss,” Steve greeted Becky’s father with an even more tension-filled handshake, even though he’d maintained far more cordial, if limited, relations with Emmet than Becky had.

“I appreciate that, Steve,” Emmet said, maintaining eye contact while shaking his hand and then pausing for a moment to hesitantly add, “Please tell me my daughter showed up with you.”

Steve nodded affirmatively, “Yeah, she’s here.  Should be in any second.”

As soon as Emmet looked toward the door, he was greeted with the sight of his daughter and two granddaughters stepping inside, drifting his eyes toward Steve to nonverbally convey that he knew he had work to do to win over this room.

Becky and Haylee removed their coats and began to hang them in the long closet full of coat hangars designated for guests as Courtney looked over the room in a panic, putting her hand to the zipper of her black leather jacket but unable to bring herself to unzip it and reveal her baby bump to the distant relatives she knew would be doting on her over the course of the evening.

“Courtney….give me your jacket and I’ll hang it up,” Becky requested, shaking Courtney out of her temporary paralysis.

“Uh….actually I think I’ll keep it on,” Courtney replied.  “It’s a little cold in here.”

Becky furrowed her brow in confusion about Courtney’s defiance, but her attention was quickly diverted at the sight of her younger sister Kelly approaching, breaking the ice right away by opening her arms to invite Becky and the girls in for a hug.  Becky and Kelly both got immediately emotional, their sobs flowing liberally over their mutual love for their late mother.

“Let’s make this weekend just about mom, okay?” Kelly requested, sweet relief to Becky who didn’t want to spend the weekend fighting with the sister she’d barely spoken to in several years.

Becky pulled away from the hug and responded, “Absolutely.  It’s what mom would have wanted,” with as warm of a smile as she was capable of sharing with the sister who she felt chose her father over her and her mother back when it counted.

Kelly briefly engaged with Courtney and Haylee, the girls intrigued by the vague resemblance between their mom and her sister, with the attractive and visually polished Kelly representing an interesting contrast to what their mom might look like if she hadn’t chain-smoked for 30 years.

Moments later, the three McPherson females progressed towards the inviting smile and friendly wave of the family patriarch.  Emmet held his arms open and requested, “Your grandpa needs a hug from his favorite girls,” while making eye contact with Courtney and Haylee.

“Hey grandpa,” Courtney and Haylee greeted with a mix of embarrassment and genuine happiness to see him, each collapsing into one of Emmet’s open arms for a group hug.

As the girls melted into his respective shoulders, Emmet’s joyous grandfatherly smile turned into a disappointed grimace as the intense odor of fresh tobacco dominated his airspace coming directly from Courtney and Haylee’s hair and clothes.  While continuing to squeeze his granddaughters in his embrace, Emmet gave Becky a chilly and maximally judgmental glare that immediately fouled up whatever chance there might have been for a genuine truce.  Emmet already knew that Courtney and Haylee smoked, but the intense stench of cigarettes broke his heart as it was such a stark reminder of choices made by him and by Becky that led them to where they were now.

Courtney and Haylee broke apart from the hug with their grandfather and the smile returned to Emmet’s face as he told them, “I’ll catch up with you two beautiful young ladies later tonight.  I better see how your mom’s doing right now.”

The girls took the opportunity to drift away as Becky and Emmet put on their best “let’s get through this” smiles as they stepped toward each other.

“Good to see you, Becky.  It’s been too long,” Emmet opened.

“Dad…glad we’re all able to make it here,” Becky responded awkwardly.

Already at a loss for words, Emmet pointed to Courtney and Haylee and said, “The kids are sure growing up fast aren’t they?”  As Becky nodded affirmatively, Emmet chuckled and added, “Looks like they’re growing up just as fast as you did.”

Becky immediately got defensive. “What does that mean?!?”

Emmet shrugged dismissively and then responded, “Why do you have to let them smoke?  Do we have to condemn our kids to our own bad choices?”

“Ahh there it is!” Becky sneered, her husky voice raising as she added  “It took you all of two minutes to start telling me how to live my–”

Emmet held his hand up to cut her off before she made a scene.  “Let’s not, Becky.  Just want to see them have as good of life as possible,” quickly changing the subject and asking “You guys have a place to crash tonight?  You’re welcome to stay with me.”

Her blood pressure sufficiently raised, Becky tried her best to maintain her cool while retaining a fight mode posture, responding “Nah….Tess Brewer’s letting us all stay at her cabin out on Montour Road,” in reference to her childhood friend, adding  “She’s always been there for me,” as a backhanded jab at her father who hadn’t.

“Well I hope you’ll still come visit after the wake,” Emmet invited.  “I’d really like to catch up.”

Becky paused, not really wanting to go there but feeling she had no choice.  “I really don’t want to have to introduce the kids to your mistress, dad,” recognizing that a visit to his place would involve being in the presence of his new wife.

“Becky, that’s not fair!” Emmet snapped back.  “I asked Sharon not to come tonight to keep the peace but you’re gonna have to accept that she’s part of my life now.”

“Accept it?!” Becky shot back with a fire in her eyes.  “You abandoned my mother when she needed you most to marry your blackjack dealer!  I had to take mom up to Minnesota to care for her because you refused to keep your vows.  But I’m supposed to just let bygones be bygones and break bread with you after they lower my mother into the ground?!”

From several yards away, Steve could see the family reunion between father and daughter was quickly escalating and swooped in to intervene before they formally made a scene.  “Please just stop!” he said softly but authoritatively.  “They’re gonna open the casket in a couple of minutes.  You both have bigger things to think about right now.”

Becky’s eyes were still on fire as she looked at her father one last time and then nodded to keep the peace.  They drifted apart in the moments to come as Becky and Steve walked hand in hand toward the casket.  They only got a few steps when Becky made eyes with a man in his mid-60s who she had another emotional reunion with.

“Oh John, it’s so good to see you!” Becky said, embracing the grizzled-looking guy with a heartfelt hug.

Trevor watched with growing curiosity after entering the casket room, watching his mother engage with this haggard-looking guy he’d never seen before who was walking with a limp and a cane.  Trevor wondered if he was a long-lost relative that had never showed up at any previous family reunions.  But his attention was brought back to the primary issue of the night as the funeral director walked up to the casket, preparing everybody in proximity for its opening.

The room instantly became entirely quiet as the funeral director lifted the front half of the casket to reveal the embalmed body of the deceased.  Even though the room had attempted to mentally prepare themselves, several gasps were heard at the sight of Ann Gunderson’s remains, her 63-year-old face looking far too youthful to be ready for a wake service.

Trevor scanned the room for the family’s responses, noticing his grandfather remaining stoic but with an undeniable lump in his throat.  A hint of sadness was evident on Haylee’s face but Trevor knew that his grandmother was as much a stranger to Haylee was she was to him, having been suffering from dementia for as far back as they could remember.  Courtney was wiping away some tears, and Trevor figured she had some memories of grandma that he and Haylee never got.  But front and center in front of the coffin breaking down the hardest was his mother Becky and this rugged-looking John guy that Trevor had just seen for the first time, and the two of them embraced in another hug as they felt each other’s pain.  Trevor had no idea who he was, but was determined to figure it out before the weekend was over.

———————————–

An hour of insufferable mingling ensued inside the funeral home, with Trevor mixing it up at a table making small talk with some vaguely familiar cousins.  But he kept a close eye on his mom as she worked the room with much greater diplomacy than she handled her father, keeping a stiff upper lip as she mingled with distant family.  Still, Trevor knew exactly what she was up to when she found a moment to break away and made a straight line for the front entrance, ripping her coat from the hangar with a single determined thrust and then stepping out the door.

Becky had just crossed the funeral home foyer into the bitter evening air of the parking lot when she placed a Marlboro Red between her lips and lit up.  She took a deep, soothing drag that filled her lungs with a warmth that briefly helped her forget about the 60-degree temperature difference from inside.  But as she released her frosty exhale, she heard familiar feminine laughter on the horizon followed by an equally familiar smoker’s cough, and in a split second she knew the source.

With a renewed flair of anger in her eyes, Becky began to encircle the perimeter of the funeral home building, turning the corner to find her daughters standing around the back corner smoking cigarettes just as she was.  Courtney and Haylee bantered lightheartedly as their smoky breath exploded into the night air, but as they realized their mother was encroaching upon them they quickly went silent, knowing they’d been busted.

“What’s the matter with you two?!” Becky sneered.  “Get back in there and pay respect to your grandma!”

Courtney knew enough to hold back, confident that Haylee would put herself in the line of fire.  Through a talking dangle of her half-smoked Camel Pink, Haylee responded, “We’re doing the same thing you are, mom!”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 seconds now.  How long have you two been out here?” she asked, looking to the ground and seeing a half dozen collective cigarette butts under the girl’s feet and pointing at them.

Courtney felt genuinely guilty for not being in there, but pressed her hand onto the stomach of her leather jacket as a reminder why it was best for her to keep as low of profile as possible tonight.  She took a deep drag from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 punctuated by a quick smoker’s cough and responded to her mother through a long-distance talking exhale, “Just not easy to grieve with all these people around asking me about school and boyfriends and telling me how good my hair looks.”

Becky dragged from her Marlboro Red and responded,  “It’s only one night of small talk, Courtney.  If your father and I have to get through it, then there’s no excuse for you two.  Bringing us all together tonight was what your grandma wanted.  It was right there in her will.”

“Geez, mom,” Haylee grumbled indifferently, her mostly smoked cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips.  “I never even really knew grandma.  She’s been a vegetable my whole life.”

A tidal wave of sadness filled Becky’s face listening to her youngest daughter’s abrasive but not entirely untrue historical account.  The anger Becky initially felt at Haylee’s words quickly gave way to the guilt she felt for allowing Haylee to feel that way about her grandmother.  After a couple moments of strained silence where Haylee and Courtney both realized how much Haylee’s words had hurt their mother, Becky broke the silence with a dramatically delivered oratory.  “Your grandmother was a great woman, Haylee.  And I realize that I failed you kids by keeping you away from her these past few years.  You’ll never get a chance to know for yourself what you missed out on, but the least you can do on a night like tonight is pay attention to those who did know her.”  With an angry flourish, Becky took a final drag from her cigarette and added, “So get your asses back inside!” while flipping her spent cigarette to the ground.

Haylee felt guilty, hanging her head as she and Courtney followed their mother back to the funeral home’s front entrance, taking final drags from their respective cigarettes.   Haylee sidled up to her mom and began to apologize, “I’m sorry, mom.  I didn’t mean to–”

Becky held her hand up to cut Haylee off before she said more, with Becky’s body language commanding silence as she was still stinging from the continued indifference of Haylee’s commentary and her own instinct to mostly keep the kids away from their grandmother in recent years.  She didn’t think they could handle seeing her in the state of advanced dementia from which she was suffering, but tonight was gonna be her first step in fixing that oversight.  Becky held the door open for her daughters to re-enter the funeral home, inadvertently subjecting the unsuspecting crowd to a tsunami of cigarette stench to accompany their feminine beauty, and hoping the girls had gotten the message.

—————————-

Two hours later, the McPherson family slinked silently into the remote rural cabin where Becky’s friend was letting the family stay for the night.  Nobody had much to say in the aftermath of the emotionally exhausting wake service, stepping inside the dark cabin with heavy hearts but mostly grateful to have the service behind them.  The dim glow of burning firewood in the fireplace, along with the cherries of the cigarettes between the fingers of the McPherson females, temporarily provided the only illumination until Steve found the light switch and flicked it on.

Cigarette dangling from her lips, Haylee made a shivering motion and exclaimed “Brrr!” through a talking exhale that morphed into a mild smoker’s cough.  “This place is freezing!”

“I’ll put some fresh wood in the fireplace,” Steve volunteered as he proceeded in that direction.  “We’ll get this place warmed up.”

Haylee looked around in the cabin that she only took a passing glance at when unpacking her luggage before the wake service, and trying to get back on her mom’s good side, awkwardly attempted to initiate friendly conversation.  “This is a cool place,” she opened through a talking dangle, “Why doesn’t your friend stay here all the time?”

Becky knew this was Haylee’s way of apologizing for earlier and continued to ease into showing forgiveness, taking a reluctant drag from her Marlboro Red and then coolly responding, “I guess she likes her place in town more.  It’s better suited for raising a family.”

Haylee shrugged, puckering her lips around the filter of her cigarette for another dangling drag and responding, “I’d be here all the time if I had a place like this a few miles out of town.”

Trevor crashed on the living room couch while taking in the dynamics of the room and the family members that occupied it, watching his dad toss wood into the fireplace and observing Haylee trying to undo the hurt she had caused her mother.  But still lurking hesitantly near the doorway not saying a word was Courtney, contemplatively dragging from her cigarette and effortlessly releasing an exhale as long as her arm.  Trevor’s initial instinct was to believe Courtney was just having a moment related to the emotional impact of losing her grandmother on the night of the wake service, but soon figured out there was something else going on with Courtney.

Before Trevor had any additional time to speculate on what that might be, Courtney gave one last nervous sigh, residual smoke spilling from her mouth and nose, and then addressed the room.  “Guys,” Courtney opened in a tone that immediately commanded the attention of everybody.  “I wasn’t planning on laying this on everybody tonight….or until after the holidays for that matter…..but it feels like I should let you all know so you don’t find out somewhere else….”

The room watched with baited breath awaiting Courtney’s revelation as they watched her unzip the leather jacket that she’d covered herself in since leaving home that morning.  With the jacket unzipped, she placed her right hand on the underside of her belly and pushed it slightly upward, making her baby bump unmistakable in the tight black dress.  “I’m 12 weeks along now.  Wade’s the father.  You guys should be grandparents by June. Congratulations!” Courtney broke the news as abruptly as possible, returning the cigarette to her lips for a soothing blast of menthol she knew she would need to prepare for what was coming next.

The oxygen was sucked out of the room as Courtney’s family was taken by genuine surprise at the news, an abrupt smirk emerging on the faces of Trevor and Haylee upon Courtney once again serving up epic, life-changing news with a terse, ripping-off-the-bandage delivery style, bringing back memories to both siblings of when Courtney revealed to her parents that Haylee had started smoking a few years earlier.  But that split second of levity faded quickly as the news fully processed its way through the room.

Courtney’s eyes shifted back and forth between her mother and father in the seconds after the confession, and as she saw the hurt in their eyes as they processed the implications of their 18-year-old daughter about to have a child of her own, it became a painful competition in her mind of who she had hurt more.  She was always much closer with her father than with her mom, and after such a difficult year with her father, it was especially hard to deliver this news years before he wanted to hear it from her.  But watching the anguish fill her mom’s face once again tonight was even harder for Courtney to witness, and the look on Becky’s face struck Courtney as though she felt she’d lost both her mom and her daughter tonight.

The intensely awkward silence that seemed like it had dragged on forever ended after five seconds, as Becky responded, “Oh Courtney, what were you thinking?” the jets of smoke blasting from her nose speaking volumes about the mix of sadness and anger she was feeling.

Courtney shrugged, knowing nothing she could say would make this room any less tough.  “C’mon, mom.  It’s not gonna be that bad.  I have a good guy.  He’s gonna help me through it.”

“Does Wade know?” Steve asked.

Courtney nodded affirmatively, dragging again from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100.

“How about us?  Are we the last to find out?” Becky snapped back angrily.

“You’re the first to find out after Wade,” Courtney replied as disarmingly as possible.

Becky stood in silent disappointment, glaring at her daughter while dragging from her cigarette in deep thought.  “You said 12 weeks, right?  That means you still have options,” Becky offered.

“Becky….” Steve interrupted with a one-word protest, his Catholic upbringing preventing him from even considering what his wife was hinting at.

Courtney shook her head, expecting her mom would suggest it.  “Mom, I’m not going to abort my baby!” she asserted authoritatively with smoke trickling from her nostrils and then quickly turning the tables on the guilt trip.  “I mean, aren’t you even the slightest bit happy for me?”

“Happy for you?!” Becky fired back incredulously.  “I had one year left of nursing school when you were born and I barely got through it.   Consider me skeptical you’re gonna get through a half dozen years of your psychologist fantasy and be a full-time mom at the same time.”

Tempers were rising as the rhetoric escalated, with Steve attempting to temper his wife and daughter’s fury, realizing it was probably not gonna happen as Courtney fired back, “Psychologist fantasy?!  What makes what I’m studying any less serious than what you do?!”

“Oh c’mon Courtney!  What are you gonna do with a psychology degree?” Becky sneered skeptically, months worth of simmering doubts all coming out at once about her daughter’s chosen field, having no idea of the context of the father-daughter incident that eventually led to Courtney’s decision.

“You have no idea, mom!  And apparently no respect for me!” Courtney fired back.  “And I have a plan on how to balance school and motherhood as best as possible.”

“Oh really,” Becky replied skeptically, crushing out one Marlboro Red in the ash can and quickly picking up her pack to pluck out another.  “Let’s hear it!”

Courtney looked at her father to back her up as she asked him, “Didn’t you say there’s free daycare at your office available even to grandchildren of employees?” in reference to the medical device firm where Steve was the IT manager.

Steve nodded affirmatively, quietly pleased with Courtney for having planned out a course of action to balance school and parenthood.

“There you go!” Courtney responded confidently, looking back at Becky.  “I’ll drop my baby at dad’s office and then pick him up after my classes are over for the day.”

Becky rolled her eyes.  “I guess you got it all figured out, huh?”

“Well, I’m trying, mom.  This wasn’t the plan for me any more than it was for you, ya know?!” Courtney responded, following her mom’s lead and firing up another cigarette, their unintentional respiratory theatrics operating like dueling banjos as they feuded.

“Sure,” Becky responded skeptically, dramatically raising the temperature even further in a way that the chilly cabin didn’t seem so cold anymore.  “I bet you were trying to get knocked up so you could keep Wade!” Becky accused in anger, feeling some instant regret immediately after saying it.

Courtney gasped in shock that her mom would make such an accusation, even though she had let the thought cross her mind a number of times in recent weeks that she may have unwittingly did exactly what her mother suggested, missing a birth control pill or two on a couple of mornings as a way of corralling Wade into a long-term commitment.  She was pretty confident that wasn’t the case though, as it was a genuine mystery to her how she got knocked up when she did.  Despite her own lack of clarity, Courtney continued the verbal trench warfare with her mother, with Steve semiregularly interjecting in a futile attempt to calm the tension.

But it was at this point that an equally shell-shocked Trevor and Haylee began to check out of the verbal tug-of-war between parents and daughter.  Having fully absorbed their sister’s news, they were now internalizing how easily her fate could have befallen them.  Haylee scanned her brain once again as she dragged from the cigarette dangling from her lips, trying to pin down exactly what day she had her last period and then exhaling out her smoke with a sigh of relief when she made the mental association necessary to confirm it came well after her inadvisable, alcohol-fueled, unprotected sexual dalliance with Brian Nelson on Halloween night at the family cabin.  She shivered from the cold chill that cascaded down her spine as she looked back up to Courtney in mortal combat with their parents, realizing how easily that could have been her.  Haylee hadn’t let it sink in yet that she was about to be an aunt, but for now, she rested back onto the furniture and puckered her lips around the filter of her dangling cigarette, feeling sweet relief that she dodged the sperm bullet that Courtney had not.

Sitting across the couch from Haylee, Trevor was by this point feeling the introspection creep into his mind on the same matter as his sister.  Half-listening to Courtney vehemently affirm to her skeptical parents that she took her birth control religiously, Trevor mulled how easily it could be Lauren having this conversation with her parents.  He wondered if his mother was right and that Courtney might have tried to induce this outcome to keep hold of Wade, but his instinct was to give Courtney the benefit of the doubt and assume the pregnancy was the kind of accident that could at any time impact him just as easily.

As Trevor shook his attention back to the family feud in front of him in time to hear his father console Courtney, “We both love you Courtney…..we both want what’s best for you…” Trevor decided he’d had enough for tonight.

“I’m going to bed,” Trevor announced as he stood up from the couch, en route to the bedroom where he put his luggage hours earlier.  It took a lot for Trevor to willfully leave a smoke-filled room occupied by his mother and two sisters, but he’d reached his limit tonight.  As he walked to the bedroom without protest from anyone in the family, Trevor couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to drown out the increasingly repetitive shouting or whether he wanted to keep eaves dropping, but either way, he wanted to be by himself right now and process the events of the day and evening which had gone so differently than his original plans of having an early Christmas with Lauren that day.  He sure didn’t feel much spirit of the season as he closed the bedroom door, not planning to open it again until Christmas Eve morning when it was time to attend his grandmother’s service.

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The McPhersons walked into the Pigeon Bend Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve morning for the official funeral service of Ann Gunderson, their collective mood particularly somber after all of the drama the previous evening….but oddly grateful that the mood of the funeral would be such that the previous night’s emotional exhaustion wouldn’t be immediately obvious to family and friends in attendance.  The McPhersons showed final respect to the deceased resting in an open casket near the entry to the church before heading inside to take a seat on the pews near the front of the church designated for close family.

His mind never straying too far from the smoking fetish, Trevor couldn’t help but eyeball the reactions of the crowd sitting in the nearby pews following their immediate exposure to the intense tobacco stench clinging to his mother and sisters who had just recently come in from the cold, their dressy funeral clothing smelling especially ripe.  Unsurprisingly, several of the attendees furrowed their brows as the bitter aroma filled their noses, but the room full of Upper Midwest Lutherans were all far too polite to express their displeasure verbally.

Trevor then gazed over to the downcast look on his mother’s face and admonished himself for not keeping his head in the game, opening up the funeral program he grabbed on his way in to see what was on tap for the service.  Sitting next to him, Haylee leaned his direction to read along from Trevor’s program, the approaching invasion of her tobacco odor again making it a challenge for Trevor to concentrate.  The solemn organ music that began playing reset the mood Trevor needed for a morning of mourning as he continued to pour over the contents of the program, particularly the list of five speakers designated to take the podium and offer eulogies.  Trevor knew his mother was gonna be speaking and his eyes gravitated immediately to “Becky McPherson….Daughter” listed second on the program, but the unfamiliar name ahead of Becky’s intrigued Trevor more.   “John Keech……..Family Friend” stood out as the only name on the list of speakers that Trevor didn’t recognize, and he began looking around the front pews in the church to see if he could identify the mystery man.

Almost immediately, Trevor laid eyes on the same scruffy-looking mid-60s guy who hugged his mom after seeing his grandmother’s casket opened the previous night at the wake.  He was seated on the front row next to a woman his age that Trevor figured was his wife, the mystery deepening as to what this man’s connection was to his grandmother and why he was the very first speaker set to give a eulogy for her.

The organ music grew louder and the casket was rolled into the church, and Trevor knew the service was formally beginning, his first real wave of emotion of the morning hitting him as the congregation sang along to the listed “For All the Saints” song from the hymnal.  The minister ascended the stairs to the altar of the church and waited for the music to end to begin speaking.

Silence filled the church for a brief moment before the vaguely familiar minister who Trevor had remembered from a past family funeral from his boyhood began to speak.  “In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, we gather here today to remember the life of our beloved Ann Gunderson….and what a glorious life it was….”

Trevor listened intently to the words of the minister and he could tell his sisters were paying close attention as well, feeling as though their grandmother’s funeral was serving as something of an introduction to her given their relatively limited exposure to her as children and her inability to communicate for most recent years.  After the pastor’s opening remarks, the congregation read Psalm 23 from the hymnal in unison followed by the Liturgy of the Word and scripture readings.  Trevor never had much patience for the protocols of church services, either Lutheran on his mom’s side or Catholic on his dad’s side and once again this morning, was mentally willing the service along to resolve the mystery of this speaker, and finally, the minister was announcing John Keech to “say a few words about the departed”.

The haggard-looking man at the front row was helped to his feet by his wife and limped up to the podium with a cane.  Trevor was now able to tell he had a prosthetic leg and he briefly made eye contact with Haylee sitting next to him who seemed just as eager as he was to learn this man’s story.

John Keech stood at the podium and let out an emotionally beaten-down sigh before he began speaking through a gruff voice that matched his image, pulling out a crumbled-up piece of notebook paper and putting on a pair of reading glasses.  “Those of you who grew up around Pigeon Bend know me, but for those who don’t my name is John Keech.  I’m not one to make public speeches, well, ever….” he said to subdued laughter before adding, “….but I will make an exception for Ann Gunderson.  I fought for my country in Vietnam and got my leg blown off by an M-14 land mine for my trouble.  I came back from Southeast Asia in 1973 a very angry and defeated man.  I never expected to walk again, and frankly, I didn’t care if I did.  My parents had both recently died, I was two hours away from the nearest VA hospital, and the hospital here in Pigeon Bend had just closed.  I was prepared to just roll over and die…..until a guardian angel came to my doorstep in the form of Ann Gunderson….”

John’s voice was cracking as he got emotional, eventually pressing forward.  “Ann was a second-year nursing student who lived three doors down and heard what happened to me when she came home from summer break that year…..and that girl would not take no for answer no matter how many times I told her I wasn’t worth saving.  She came over every night to push me as hard as I needed to be pushed for my physical therapy.  When summer was over, Ann went back to the Cities for nursing school and found out she was pregnant…..but even with all that responsibility she still came back to Pigeon Bend every Sunday to track to my progress and make sure I was in the right place mentally and physically.  After nursing school she returned to Pigeon Bend and continued to keep tabs on me for another three years, and that was in addition to commuting to La Crosse every night to work the graveyard shift as the rookie nurse on staff…..all to see to it that I was able to carry on with my life as normally as possible.  She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known….and she saved my life.  It seems so unfair that she went before I did, but the least I could do….” he began to close, on the cusp of breaking down, “….was to be there to bid her farewell as she climbed onboard her first-class ticket to heaven.  Thank you.”

As the speaker closed and the tears rolled down his cheek, his wife helped him down off the podium and back to his seat.  Trevor sensed early on that this man’s story in connection with his grandmother was poised to be the marquee moment of the funeral service, and he delivered in spades.  Moisture welling up in his eyes and a lump in his throat, Trevor scanned his family to see Courtney in tears and Haylee fighting back tears of her own.  But oddly at peace was his mother, and it was good that she was remaining strong as it was her turn to speak.

Becky ascended onto the podium and stood behind the mic, picking up where John Keech left off in her husky long-time smoker’s voice.  “When Mr. Keech mentioned that Ann Gunderson was pregnant when she drove back and forth to Pigeon Bend every Sunday to help him with his physical therapy, I was the baby inside her belly at the time.”  The crowd laughed as she formally introduced her.  “I’m Becky McPherson.  I was the oldest of Ann’s two daughters.  I’ll never pretend that I’m capable of being as great of a human being on my best day as my mother was on her worst, but she was an inspiration to me every step of the way.  I wasn’t even born yet and she was volunteering her weekends to help John Keech walk again as consolation for losing his leg for his country.  And that’s the way it was with my mom throughout my childhood.  Even after working 12-hour nursing shifts, she still found time to be a mother to my sister and I, a wife to her husband, a board member fighting to keep the local school district open, and moonlighted her nursing services to the locals of Pigeon Bend just like Mr. Keech…..”

Becky paused for a bit of levity and continued, “….Now it took a few years of teenage rebellion before my mom’s good example set in,” pausing for a bit of laughter as if most of the family and friends were aware of Becky’s wild teenage years, “….but after hearing the gracious words of admiration and respect from Pigeon Bend locals for so many years, I realized what a mark she had left on this community and everyone whose lives she touched.  And I decided to honor her the best way I knew….to follow her career path and become a nurse.  It’s been a rewarding choice, but also a heartbreaking one.  For the last 10 years in particular as I’ve watched my mother decline, I’ve spent every day hoping and praying that modern medicine would come up with a way to save her from this horrible disease that took her from us so many years before she should have just like her mother and sister before her.  I wasn’t able to get it done.  None of us were.  Since we couldn’t save her, the best we can do is continue to be inspired by her example.  I know I will be,” Becky closed, her lips puckering up as she walked off the stage fighting off the cascade of emotions that would erupt as soon as she took her seat.

As much sadness as Trevor felt listening to his mother speak and watching her emotionally charged response, his heart managed to be more overwhelmed by guilt than sorrow.  As Trevor looked at Haylee sitting next to him, he sensed the same feelings rolling through her mind as he watched the first tear of the weekend roll down her cheek.  Becky had told them that her mother was a “great woman” on a few occasions since her death, and as recently as the previous night to Haylee.  Having listened to John Keech and their mother, with subsequent heartfelt speeches by their Aunt Kelly, their grandfather Emmet, and Ann’s best friend afterward, along with the minister’s personalized sermon, it was finally sinking into the siblings how great Ann Gunderson was….and how much she shaped who Becky was and ultimately who they were becoming.  And all they had now, as they listened to the church choir sing “Amazing Grace”, was regret for not realizing that while she was still alive.

——————————

An hour later, a long line of cars emptied out of the Pigeon Bend Lutheran Church down a long, windy bluff valley road to a rural cemetery for Ann Gunderson’s interment, producing a somber image for local onlookers on a Christmas Eve morning.  The cars began to park along the gravel road in front of the cemetery, with the McPherson family sedan towards the front of the line.  Five crestfallen members of the McPherson family quietly stepped out into the bitter late December morning air, with Becky, Courtney, and Haylee all joylessly smoking cigarettes as they slowly progressed with the crowd toward the burial site.

A number of mourners gave the McPherson females the side eye or passive-aggressively waved the smoke away from their faces as they walked, none of which was missed by Becky, Courtney, or Haylee, or by Steve or Trevor for that matter.  But they were resigned to mourning in their own way, and couldn’t care less who objected to their inclusion of cigarettes in the cemetery as part of their coping routine.  The three smokers stopped at the edge of the gravel and finished their cigarettes, with Becky taking the lead and snuffing out her cigarette with her fingers and sticking the butts in her jacket pocket, making sure the girls saw her so as not to defile the hallowed ground of their grandmother’s soon-to-be cemetery with tobacco litter.  Courtney took a final drag and followed her mother’s lead, with Haylee removing the dangling cigarette from her lips and doing the same, raising some eyebrows at such a public display of conventionally inappropriate behavior.

The McPhersons progressed forward to the gravesite where a large crowd was huddling in a makeshift tent, the thin and bitter air intensifying the cigarette stench clinging to Becky, Courtney, and Haylee’s clothes in a way that the odor was unavoidable to pretty much everybody standing there.  The pallbearers approached with the coffin and set it atop the equipment that would soon lower Ann Gunderson’s body into the frozen ground.  Trevor stood there with his smelly sisters on both sides of him, waiting patiently for the remainder of the funeral crowd to gather.  Their teeth chattered as gusts of icy wind whipped through the valley of the surrounding bluffs and pierced through the clothing that was insufficient for the caliber of Upper Midwestern cold befalling them, yet it felt oddly fitting for the rush of emptiness and sadness that, particularly for Trevor and Haylee, filled their hearts in a way that they were also unprepared for.

The minister was the last to arrive, beginning his quick speech amidst a crowd he knew would be anxious to get out of the below-zero wind chills sooner rather than later.  “Having just celebrated the life of our beloved Ann Gunderson, it is now time to send her to her final resting place.  The burden she has carried for so many years is finally being lifted and she can finally spend the rest of eternity at peace….”

Listening to the final words of the minister, the McPherson family collectively felt the rawest pain they had yet about the passing of their matriarch.  Becky’s sobs were met by the inviting arms of her estranged father standing to her left.  Becky gave Emmet a momentary look of apprehension consistent with their strained relationship, but ultimately buried her head in his chest and accepted his embrace, a silent gesture of qualified forgiveness on a day when Becky and Emmet both knew that’s what Ann would have wanted.  Becky would probably go back to resenting her father tomorrow, but today was a day that called for laying down their arms.

The embrace by Becky and her father was contagious as Steve and Courtney looked at each other, Courtney’s emotional dam about to burst just as his father put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her tight.  In addition to helping each other grieve, father and daughter conveyed to one another through this hug that if they were able to get past the gulf that nearly destroyed their relationship in this past year, they could certainly endure whatever laid ahead with Courtney’s pregnancy.

As the minister wrapped up his speech, saying “ashes to ashes, dust into dust” as Ann Gunderson’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Haylee’s tears openly poured from her eyes and she laid her head upon older brother Trevor’s shoulder in a rare cry for emotional support.  Trevor put his arm around Haylee and squeezed her tight as they observed the finality of their grandmother’s time on this Earth in the moments her coffin slowly descended.  As the tears rolled from both of their eyes and their bodies trembled from the fierce and blustery cold, Trevor and Haylee’s lives flashed in front of their eyes in real-time, simultaneously sharing their first vision of their own mortality.

Haylee had largely been sheltered from her grandmother’s condition, but internalized the speeches at the funeral that pointed to Ann’s condition as being passed along through the females on her mom’s side.  Was this the fate that awaited her as well as her mother, sister, and cousins, she thought to herself while coldly recollecting her own indifference toward her grandmother all these years and up until the funeral service this morning.  An ironically sharp smoker’s cough erupted from her respiratory system amidst this extended contemplation.

As his grandmother’s coffin had now descended far enough into the grave that Trevor could no longer see it, he was having some of the same thoughts Haylee was in regards to the vulnerability of the females in his family as well as possibly himself because of the frontotemporal dementia that ended his grandmother’s life early, but Trevor’s vision was even more expansive.  He was under no illusion that the heavy smoking habits of the McPherson females that had been so instrumental in shaping his own identity were also extremely risky in terms of fostering long lives.  Between the dementia and the smoking, Trevor anticipated the odds were good that he’d be around to feel the emptiness of watching his mother and sisters lowered into the ground that he was currently feeling watching his grandmother who he barely knew be lowered into the ground.  The smoking that brought him so much joy and stimulation could very easily come with the ultimate cost.

And Trevor’s mind quickly drifted from the loved ones in his family to the girl he loved at home.  He’d been bummed for weeks knowing that Lauren would be undergoing hypnosis treatments to quit smoking right after Christmas, but right now he couldn’t help but feel that life was sending him a signal.  As horrible as it would be superficially for Trevor if the new year brought about a nonsmoking Lauren, perhaps it would save him from the visceral pain that would come from seeing her coffin lowered into the ground at a similarly young age to his grandmother.  While every part of him had hoped Lauren’s attempt to quit smoking would flop as badly as the previous attempt last summer did, he silently vowed to himself to show her all the unwavering support she would need in her effort to get off of cigarettes.

The McPherson siblings looked over to see their mother and grandfather release from one another’s extended embrace, a warm feeling of thawing icebergs amidst this sea of frozen despair.  Becky then turned to her loving husband and made eyes.  Steve’s empathetic expression sufficiently masked the tremendous guilt he had shared with his priest a few days earlier, and all Becky saw was love in his eyes as she wrapped her arms around him with far more conviction than she had when hugging her father.  Even though Steve had his own dark secrets, Becky correctly assessed in his loving embrace that if the same fate awaited her as befell her mother, that Steve would never abandon her the way Emmet did to her mom.  And right now, that was all that was helping her fight through the pain.

—————————————-

Becky sat behind the wheel of the McPherson family Lexus as she navigated the remote side roads after leaving the cemetery where her mother was buried, confident that she’d be better positioned to find the freeway home than would Steve given that she grew up here.  She took a deep and contemplative drag from her Marlboro Red as she slowly navigated the windy gravel road hugging the river valley bluff, briefly looking into the rearview mirror to see similarly hangdog looks on the faces of her children in the backseat and a rare extended silence filling the car.  Courtney and Haylee dragged from their respective cigarettes with similar thoughts going through their heads, the overwhelming chill from the interment still lingering inside the car with all three smokers cracking their windows to semiregularly ash their cigarettes.

Briefly lost in thought as her lips puckered intensely around the filter of the Camel Pink dangling from her lips, Haylee finally broke the extended silence by asking through a talking exhale the same ominous question that was on everybody’s mind.   “Mom, will what happened to grandma happen to all of us?”

The chill in the air got that much chillier after Haylee asked her question.  Becky looked up into the rearview mirror with a cigarette dangling from own mouth to recognize just how many dots Haylee had connected over the course of the last 24 hours.  After a long pause, Becky took the Marlboro Red out of her mouth and answered with as much motherly calm as she could project.  “I don’t know, baby.  I hope not but the chance is definitely not zero,” pausing briefly and then adding, “We’ll just have to keep a close eye on one another and look for any warning signs of cognitive decline…..and never forget that if the worst happens, we’re family and we’ll get through it all together.”

Haylee looked up, hanging on her mother’s words while continuing to dangle-drag from her cigarette, Becky’s grim lack of sugar-coating not exactly the message she’d hoped to hear.

But as Becky turned the corner onto a crossroads of a paved county road, a snow-covered wooden sign reading “Steidler’s Christmas Tree Farm…2 Miles Ahead” stood out like a shining beacon to her, instantly filling her mind and heart with a rush of warm memories of childhood.  Becky wiped the tears from her eyes with the first hint of a spark anybody had seen since the call revealing her mother’s death.  She took a final drag from her Marlboro Red, flung it out the window and exclaimed passionately to her family members, “Let’s go cut down a Christmas tree!”

Everybody looked up with confusion at their mother’s request and sudden shift in tone until Trevor finally responded, “We already have a Christmas tree.”

“So we’ll have a second one!  We’ll put it up on the other side of the living room tonight….maybe push out one of the recliners if we have to!” Becky replied, her spurt of effervescent nostalgia pressing on in diametric contrast to her dour tone of only moments earlier.  “What do you say?!”

The kids looked confused about their mother’s sudden change of tone, and her sudden passionate interest into visiting this Christmas tree farm, but Trevor finally spoke for the crowd as he mouthed a confused, “Uh…yeah I guess that’d be cool.”

“Great!” Becky said as she approached the turn for the Christmas tree farm, with Steve looking to the backseat nudging the kids to play along as he could instinctively tell this would mean a lot to Becky.

As she turned down the windy road to get to the tree farm, Becky maintained her high energy as she began to unlock the mystery for her passengers.  “Every Christmas, your grandma and I came down here and cut our own tree.  I know you kids are used to the plastic trees but there’s nothing like going into the woods and sawing down your own tree!”

“But we don’t have a saw,” Haylee responded.

“Bud will have saws for us….and plenty of twine to tie up the tree to the top of the car!” Becky continued, plucking another cigarette out of her pack of Marlboro Reds, lighting up and taking a deep draw.  “You’ll see how much fun it is when we get home and put it up and decorate it tonight….before we open presents!” she added with an infectious childlike energy bursting from her pores and filling up the car, taking a second drag from the cigarette and briefly becoming more serious when adding, “We don’t know how many more Christmases we’ll have.  We gotta be sure to make the most of them.”

As Becky approached the parking lot of the tree farm, that message hit home for everyone in the car.  Their mother needed this from them today, and they were all ready, willing, and able to indulge her as much as they could.

Moments later, Becky’s exuberance continued to be a guiding light for the rest of the family as they weaved through the rows of Christmas trees growing alongside the hill, cigarettes in the hands of Becky, Courtney, and Haylee with dense exhalations of carcinogenic cloudbursts casually corrupting the storybook innocence of this image of a family picking out their Christmas tree amidst this scenic snow-capped bluff setting.  With cigarettes dangling from their lips, Haylee and Courtney held onto the limbs of the tree they selected while Becky and Steve were on their knees sawing it.  Trevor once again found himself in the middle of his sisters’ secondhand smoke as he held onto a portion of the tree between them, quickly recovering from his fatalistic feelings on smoking and enjoying the moment.

In a few minutes, the family carried the tree to their Lexus and began to tie it to the top of the car.  With smiles on everybody’s faces, it was starting to feel like Christmas again, and the anguish from the funeral services less than a half hour earlier already feeling like a distant memory.  Becky looked at the tree atop her car and briefly let the memories of her mother fill her mind again.  She took a final drag from her cigarette and realized she found her way to this Christmas tree farm for a reason, and that her mother was smiling down upon them right now because of it.

———————————-

Later that night, the McPhersons kept up that positive energy as they put up and decorated the real tree they cut down outside of Becky’s hometown.  The haze of pervasive cigarette smoke hovered in the living room with a cozy presence befitting of the season, with Becky, Courtney, and Haylee constantly replenishing the supply over the course of their Christmas Eve together.  After decorating the tree and eating their Christmas meal, they settled into the living room to open presents, never letting their mothers words about “not knowing how many more Christmases they’d have together” drift far from their minds.

But it was after Christmas festivities had ended, with the family sitting on the floor looking at their collective haul of gifts in front of their two Christmas trees, that Courtney decided it was the perfect time to address the elephant in the room.  She lit a Marlboro Light Menthol 100 for confidence and asked with the faintest hint of hesitation, “Who wants to feel my baby?”

A briefly awkward silence lurked amidst the haze of tobacco smoke as all family members made eyes at Courtney, identifying the first hint of a motherly glow they’d noticed from her that gleamed extra bright amongst all of these Christmas lights.  One after another, the family took Courtney up on the offer as she lifted her sweatshirt to reveal her bare belly and exposing the unmistakable baby bump of a girl more than 12 weeks pregnant.  Courtney beamed as Haylee, Trevor, and her father respectively placed their hands upon her stomach to feel the life growing inside of her.

But Courtney’s smile briefly retreated to a hint of nervousness as it was her mother’s turn.  Courtney anxiously dragged from her cigarette in tandem with Becky doing the same, until Becky broke into a loving smile and placed her hand on Courtney’s stomach to feel what she had now come to terms with being her first grandchild.  With smoke flowing from their mouths and noses, mother and daughter shared an unspoken bond as they looked into each other’s eyes, the angry words from the night before now a distant memory.  Courtney knew that her mother still wasn’t thrilled about this pregnancy so early in Courtney’s life, but couldn’t help but appreciate the circle of life playing out so unmistakably for them this holiday season.  One life had just ended, but another was about to begin.

———————————

The next night at 6 p.m., the ringing of the doorbell at the McPherson home alerted the residents of a guest only moments after they returned from Christmas on Steve’s side.  Becky was sitting on the living room sofa relaxing for a minute and answered the door, having a pretty good idea who would be on the other side.  Opening the door to a blast of cold air and a gust of recently exhaled cigarette smoke, Becky was not surprised to see Lauren standing there in her leather jacket with a red Santa hat festively resting atop her blond hair, holding a cigarette in her left hand and a giant bag full of gifts in her right hand.

“Merry Christmas Lauren!” Becky exclaimed huskily in the usual perky tone she used when talking to Lauren, loving to see the beaming smile on Lauren’s face.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Mrs. M!” Lauren responded with residual smoke spraying inside from her frosty breath as she stepped into the house.  “Did you guys have a good Christmas?” she asked reflexively, catching herself immediately after asking the rhetorical question and cringing at herself for the poor timing.

Becky just smiled back though as she took a drag from her Marlboro Red, replying “It was a great Christmas, Lauren!  Really great!  The funeral really put things in perspective!”

“I’m so sorry about your mother,” Lauren said heartfully, pulling in to hug Becky with both of them carefully avoiding burning the other with their cigarettes.

“Thanks, honey.  It means a lot,” Becky responded, getting emotional again as they maintained the embrace and reminding herself how lucky Trevor was to have a girl like Lauren.   As they let go of each other, Becky wanted to change the subject and avoid getting emotional in front of her.  “Trevor’s up changing his clothes.  We just got back.  He’ll be down any second.   Can I take your jacket for you?” Becky asked as Lauren removed her leather jacket and handed it to her, revealing a mostly blue Christmas sweater and a pair of utilitarian blue jeans fitting for a casual Christmas evening with her boyfriend.

Haylee walked into the living room and greeted Lauren through a talking dangle of her latest Camel Pink, reminding Lauren that there was more in her grab bag than just gifts for Trevor.  “Oh while we’re waiting….” Lauren opened, placing her half-smoked cigarette into her mouth and dangling it just like Haylee as she reached into the bag of gifts and began pulling four of them out.  “….I got something for all of you!”

“Well that’s so sweet of you, Lauren!” Becky said, taking the gift as Becky handed it to her just as Trevor descended the stairs to walk into the room.

“It’s not really much,” Lauren responded, still dangling her cigarette.  “Just wanted to let you all know how much I love you guys,” she added, locking eyes with Trevor and leaving no doubt through her body language that he was the one she loved the most.

Sensing the sexual tension as the young couple made eye contact, Becky sent them on their way.  “Well, why don’t we all open these before you leave tonight, Lauren.  Right now I think you’re overdue to have your Christmas with my son.”

Lauren liked the sound of that, walking over to Trevor, surprising and briefly intimidating him with the giant bag full of presents she brought.  She finally removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and said, “Merry Christmas, baby!” leaning into Trevor’s face to give him a kiss, knowing that Becky and Haylee were watching and relishing in the fact that it might embarrass Trevor a little.

“Merry Christmas Lauren,” responded a blushing Trevor, taking his girlfriend by the hand and leading her upstairs to his bedroom for their long-awaited gift exchange.

—————————

Twenty minutes later, after a few rounds of gift openings, Lauren began opening a small rectangular-shaped gift that bore the telltale signs of Trevor’s amateur gift-wrapping skills.  Placing her Marlboro Light 100 in her lips as she finished tearing off the paper, Lauren giggled at the sight of a CD with the face of country singer Joe Nichols.   “Aww, ‘Sunny and 75’ is on here,” Lauren muttered through her talking dangle, adding “You have such a great memory baby.”

“As long as you promise not to start bawling on me when you play it,” Trevor teased, in reference to Lauren’s emotional response to hearing the song on their day at the Minnesota State Fair.

Lauren giggled as she removed the cigarette from her mouth, saying “No promises!” with a sweet flourish as the smoke still spewed from her elated face, adding with a playful smirk, “You know I haven’t gotten a CD for Christmas since I was like seven years old!”

Trevor laughed, “I know, I know.  But I saw it in Target and couldn’t resist.  You’re just gonna have to dust off that old CD player.”

Lauren giggled and nodded before exclaiming, “Perfect time for the next gift I have for you!” quickly putting the cigarette back in her mouth and dangling as she foraged through the gifts left and making sure she picked the right one before handing it to Trevor, adding “Your turn!” through another talking dangle followed by a quick smoker’s cough.

Lauren’s endless smoking turned Trevor’s bedroom into a pea soup of stinky chemical fog once again, and as Trevor began unwrapping the box she handed him, his attention was mostly focused on watching his girlfriend lean over to ash her cigarette into the butt can next to her which already had two cigarettes in it just since she arrived.  He opened the package and grinned when he saw a plaid cowboy-style shirt.  “Did you buy this with Wade or something?” Trevor asked sarcastically.

Lauren giggled and responded, “No but I figured you needed to diversify your wardrobe a bit.  Maybe you can wear that instead of another of your Under Armour T-shirts when we go to a Joe Nichols concert later this year.”

Trevor cringed at the idea of going to a country music concert and elicited the giggle he knew would come from Lauren, nonetheless knowing he’d happily go if Lauren wanted him to.  He then reached behind to his stash of gifts and took hold of another small box that he handed to Lauren.

Still brimming with schoolgirl excitement, Lauren took a final drag from her Marlboro Light 100 and crushed it out in the ash can with one hand and grabbed hold of the gift Trevor handed her with the other, tearing off the paper to see a box of Drybar hair spray.  Lauren had more of a mixed internal reaction to this, her connotations with this hair spray taking her right back to Dusty Beaudry’s assault, but she smiled through it, knowing Trevor wasn’t aware she used this hair spray to fend Dusty off and probably didn’t even realize she bought it primarily for the rodeo.   “Oh this stuff is great!” Lauren exclaimed, keeping her game face on.

Trevor was pleased to see her favorable response to the hair spray, knowing it was a bit of a gamble since she wore it to the rodeo but since she’d used it since he didn’t think she made a conscious association with anything from that day.

“Thanks baby!” Lauren said with genuine if complicated gratitude, leaning forward to give him a quick kiss on the lips and then fishing another cigarette out of her pack.  She took out another small package from her bag with the unlit Marlboro Light dangling from her lips and as she handed him the package, she leaned forward to beckon a light from Trevor, making sure to exhale a huge blast into his face off of the light-up.

Trevor opened the next gift and smiled to see a beard comb in a paper package with a plastic window.  “Beard comb huh?” Trevor asked with a smirk.  “You must be pretty confident in the progression of my facial sprouts,” he joked, stroking his chin and reminding her he had a long way to go before he could grow a full beard.

Lauren giggled, adding “Well your scruff has come a long way in the last few months and I figured giving you that comb might will it along a little faster.”  She made seductive eye contact and approached her cigarette to her lips, adding with a sweet vocal flourish “Because I hear some girls really like that,” before taking an intense performative drag and then exhaling a huge stream of smoke into his face.

Trevor could feel a bulge grow in his pants but had to try to rein it in given that his whole family was home and now was not a good time for inappropriate behavior with his girlfriend.  He shook his head playfully at Lauren’s tempting taunts and then added, “One more gift but I do think you’ll like this one,” handing Lauren the final box, admiring how the “excited as a child on Christmas morning” trope lived up its name every time Lauren began opening a new package.

Cigarette dangling adeptly from her lips again as both of her hands unwrapped the wrapping paper and box, Lauren’s eyes lit up again to see a cranberry red pair of leggings inside.  Pulling them out and feeling how good the fabric felt, she exclaimed to Trevor through a talking dangle.  “Ooooooo Lululemon, you bigger spender you!” approaching the fabric to her face and rubbing it on her cheek before adding, “It’s sooooo soft!”

“Glad you like it,” Trevor responded.  “I never saw you in this color and thought you’d look good in them,” adding with a smirk, “….it might even go good with that sweater you’re wearing right now.”

Lauren giggled, briefly taking the cigarette out of her mouth to ash and adding, “I agree!” standing up without further provocation and putting the cigarette back into her mouth.

Trevor watched with restrained lust as Lauren unbuckled her jeans and dropped them off of her hips, impressing Trevor with how casually she was willing to take her pants off in his bedroom with his family home.  Lauren positioned the leggings and then inserted her foot into the right leg hole followed by her left, rolling the leggings up her calves and thighs and then up over her panties until they snugly caressed her hips and ass, a cloud of smoke belching out of her mouth and nose as she dangle-dragged while changing.  Remembering there was a mirror on the inside of Trevor’s closet door, Lauren walked over and checked them out.

Admiring her reflection in the blue Christmas sweater and maroon leggings, Lauren removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and asked “So what do you think?”

“I think my big spending paid off!” Trevor responded, neglecting to mention he ordered them on sale online.

Lauren giggled, squatting a few inches in Trevor’s direction and playfully asking, “Does my ass look as good in them as you hoped?”

Trevor gave her a swift smack on the ass and even though Lauren knew it was coming, she playfully yipped at the welcome grope, which Trevor followed up by grabbing her by the waist and pulling her down to his lap, caressing her lower body in the soft spandex and polyester.

Lauren looked up lovingly at him, making seductive eye contact and exposing Trevor to her unbelievably foul cigarette breath from close range, the intensity of which still managed to surprise Trevor every now and then.  A moment’s sorrow filled his heart knowing that as soon as 24 hours from now, the smoking lifestyle that had come to so thoroughly dominate Lauren’s life this past year might come to an end.  But Trevor had no intention of ruining Christmas by talking about that tonight, and he sensed that Lauren felt the same.

Trevor finally broke the silence saying “If we needed one more example of how perfect we are for each other, baby, these gifts we picked out for each other seals the deal.”

Lauren took a deep drag from her cigarette and then moved into kiss him, exhaling her smoke into his mouth and watching as it flowed out of Trevor’s nose as he exhaled, impressed by how much better he’d gotten at handling her smoky kisses in the past year.  As she pulled away, a mischievous smirk emerged on her face and she added, “You say these gifts as if we’re all done, but I got one more for you.”

Based on her initial tone, Trevor was anticipating something seductive, but instead Lauren immediately began blushing in a way that suggested it was something more innocent.

“Actually,” Lauren continued, “This is more a gift from my mom.  She insisted I show you this even though I’d just as soon forget it.”  With a final giggle, Lauren dug out her phone and started pulling up a video, raising Trevor’s curiosity as she dragged deeply from her cigarette and then added, “Here it is!” before pressing play on the video and remaining seated on Trevor’s lap on his bedroom floor.

Trevor was confused as he saw a small stage full of elementary children wearing costumes that seemed fitting for the holiday season.  He figured she was showing him footage of a Christmas play, but couldn’t figure why until he saw how red Lauren was getting as she dragged from her cigarette at which point he deduced that Lauren must be one of the actors in this Sunday school nativity play.

Lauren confirmed as she giggled through a talking exhale, “I was only in fifth grade so don’t judge!!”

Trevor gently stroked Lauren’s curves in her Christmas leggings as he watched a nervous but determined little blond girl approach the mic in the video.  Trevor had seen a few pics of Lauren from her childhood but was still taken aback to see her clear her throat and begin speaking with striking confidence and a spunky, fully invested stage presence.  “Two thousand years ago in the town of Nazareth lived a young woman named Mary.  She was engaged to be married to Joseph…a carpenter.  One day the angel of the Lord appeared to her….and told her she was going to bear the son of God!”

Trevor had all he could do to restrain his laughter at how much 10-year-old Lauren was getting into this role as Sunday school nativity play narrator while the far less engaged children behind her were playing their respective roles, all while the 16-year-old Lauren sitting on his lap was spraying blasts of cigarette smoke out of her nose laughing at herself and at Trevor’s reaction.

“I said don’t judge!” Lauren teased, trickles of smoke still streaming from her nostrils.

“No, you were really good, baby,” Trevor complimented, running his fingers gently through her long blond hair and adding, “Way better than I’d have been at that age,” before pulling into kiss her on the forehead and then paying attention to the video again.

For the next 10 minutes, Trevor watched Lauren’s video in awe as she landed almost every rehearsed line without missing a beat.  It struck Trevor how much Lauren had changed…and how much she had remained the same.  Six years of maturity and the escalating husk of her smoker’s voice would prevent her from mimicking the same theatrical voice of the girl in the video, but that sparkle of sweetness and innocence on her face was just as unmistakable in her mid-teens even with a cloud of the final exhale from her latest cigarette pouring out of her face.

“There was a whole different Lauren back in those days and I’m gonna need to find out more about her,” Trevor teased, having an epiphany that Lauren never really divulged much about her childhood and he had a feeling there was all kinds of little nuggets just as juicy as this one just waiting to be discovered.

Lauren giggled as she fished another cigarette out of her pack, playfully responding, “I don’t know, Trevor.  A girl’s gotta have some secrets, ya know!” while leaning forward to beckon a light from Trevor and continuing to watch the video amidst an accompanying choir singing “We Three Kings”.

Young Lauren’s final narration pressed forward.  “Baby Jesus would bring the light of love into the world…a love that would touch each one of us.  It would remind us for all eternity of God’s love for us!”  The choir then broke into “Silent Night” and Lauren stood at the front of the stage with a proud smile on her face for her performance.

“You really had a flair for the dramatic, didn’t you?” Trevor teased.

Lauren giggled and replied, “What do you mean ‘had’?” as she took a deep drag from her cigarette and blew the smoke in Trevor’s face.

The crowd erupted into applause as the child actors on the stage took a bow, with Lauren leading the way with an exaggerated curtsy that triggered some laughter from the crowd admiring her moxie.  Trevor knew that Carly was responsible for getting Lauren started smoking, fueled by her rebellion against the bullies at school, but he shook his head unable to believe the sweet little girl from this video would be a three-pack-a-day smoker and an animal in bed only six years later.  As Lauren let out an intense smoker’s cough, her body convulsing in his lap, Trevor wondered to himself if the girl in this video could ever have imagined who she’d be by the time she was a junior in high school.

Trevor squeezed her tight to express his appreciation physically before verbally adding, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me, baby,” kissing her softly and then teasingly adding, “Or maybe I should be thanking your mom.”

Lauren giggled as she took a fresh drag from her cigarette, responding “You definitely need to thank my mom.  If it had been up to me, that video would stay buried forever!” but nonetheless conveying through her body language that she was glad she shared it with him.

Trevor suddenly felt in an overwhelmingly sharing mood of his own, on the cusp of letting Lauren in on a secret he never imagined he would share with anyone.  But as he admired the love in her eyes and how brave she had been to share something like that video with him, his mother’s words from the day before about making the most of however many Christmases we have left echoed through his mind, and he finally gathered up the courage to commit to what he’d been contemplating.

“Actually, I have one more gift waiting for you too,” Trevor muttered apprehensively.

“What?!?” Lauren exclaimed, her face lighting up brighter than a Christmas tree again at the thought of Trevor saving his best gift for last.

“C’mon,” Trevor replied, guiding Lauren off of his lap as he stood up and migrated to the desk in his bedroom.  He pulled out his chair and opened his desk drawer to remove the plastic notebook filled with nearly four months’ worth of his creative writing.

Lauren immediately recognized the notebook and began to quietly panic, realizing Trevor was about to share what she had already read without his permission.  She pulled hard from her cigarette in hopes that it would mask her sudden flash of guilt and anxiety.

“Fair is fair….” Trevor opened.  “I didn’t know you narrated Sunday school Christmas plays….and you didn’t know I wrote poems and short stories.”

Lauren had to dig deep to elicit the acting chops from her brief stage career to try to convince Trevor she hadn’t already read the vast majority of what he’d read in that notebook as she exclaimed, “Really??!?  About what?!”

Trevor shrugged humbly.  “All kinds of stuff.  But most of it inspired by you.”

Lauren fought back the tears to hear Trevor say it, finally formally requesting “I want to see it!”

Trevor sat down on the chair at his desk and beckoned Lauren back onto his lap.  With his girlfriend’s soft body and her tobacco-drenched aroma consuming him, Trevor opened the front flap on the notebook and let Lauren have a look.  Her eyes beamed as she took in the prose she’d already seen, doing her best to pretend she hadn’t as she consumed her boyfriend’s words for a second time.

Turning page after page, Lauren shared the wide range of emotions she had felt reading Trevor’s creative writing two months earlier while she read it again, maintaining the same poker face she’d fooled everybody with at the card table before Thanksgiving and successfully convincing Trevor this was all new to her.  The giggles, tears, and kisses were accompanied with a regular diet of genuine praise as Lauren routinely said “Oh Trevor, this is soooo good!” and “Hmmm….this girl sounds a lot like me, Trevor!” as she worked her way through the notebook, with Trevor smiling with pride and satisfaction that his words were having their intended effect on the girl he loved.  Even as the writing turned darker with the fiction that Trevor had written during the period after Lauren’s sexual assault and their period of estrangement, Trevor could feel Lauren’s emotional connection to the material as she lived it through his perspective, often wiping away the tears without saying a word.

Supplementing the perfect Christmas evening vibe was Lauren’s incessant chain of Marlboro Lights 100s, as she finished off one pack and opened the next while sitting on Trevor’s lap reading his writing.  Trevor felt like she was getting it all in for his benefit tonight, knowing that it could conceivably be the final time they’d have this bond to share.  He was a bit nervous of the degree to which the female protagonists’ smoking dominated his fiction, hoping it wouldn’t reinforce Lauren’s concern that her smoking defined his attraction to her, but as she looked at Trevor lovingly every time she lifted her eyes from the page and let him light up another of her cigarettes, it was clear once again that what they had would persevere even if he never saw her with another cigarette.

More than two hours and 13 cigarettes after Trevor broke out his book of creative writing, Lauren had finally reached the newer stuff that she hadn’t read before, perking up his ego as she complimented, “These just keep getting better as they go along!”  Bursting into laughter at a funny moment, Lauren’s cough morphed into another wicked smoker’s cough, her body once again shaking in his arms, and Trevor allowed himself to get serious for a moment, his mind flashing to watching his grandmother’s coffin lowered into the grave.  He was so conflicted as Lauren’s smoking meant so much to both of them, but he didn’t want to see Lauren follow Ann Gunderson into the frozen ground, which she would likely be heading toward if she kept smoking the way she had been.  As the smoke flowed from her face, he leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek, savoring this moment while for the very first time in his mind wished her success in being able to get the nicotine monkey off of her back.

——————————-

Becky walked through the upstairs hallway, a laundry basket in her hands and her face filled with emotional exhaustion until she broke out of her trance at the sounds of Lauren’s effervescent laughter from within Trevor’s room.  Becky smiled at the sound of Lauren’s voice, having nearly forgotten that her son’s girlfriend was still there after three hours held up in Trevor’s bedroom.  Curiosity got the best of her and she set down the laundry basket and knocked on Trevor’s bedroom door.

“Come in!” Lauren responded cheerfully to the door knock, leading Becky to open the door.

Becky was struck by the mass of stinky chemical fog that completely dominated the room, her eyes burning from the rush of smoke that poured out and taking her by total surprise particularly with as used to heavy tobacco smoke in her presence as she was.  She strained to focus on the occupants of the bedroom until her eyes finally landed on Lauren sitting on Trevor’s lap.  Becky’s heart skipped a beat as she noticed the two of them reading from the same notebook of writing she’d invited Lauren over to read in October when her relationship with Trevor was on the rocks.

“What are you guys up to?  You’ve been up here laughing the night away for like three hours,” Becky asked open-endedly and not volunteering she knew anything about Trevor’s book of writing.

Lauren quickly took the reins, responding “Just exchanging our Christmas gifts!  And Trevor’s showing me a few things he wrote for me,” she added, flashing Becky a quick and knowing wink as she added with a sweet flourish, “Your son is very, very talented, Mrs. M.”

“Oh I better leave you two alone and mind my own business then,” Becky responded, grateful that Trevor had decided to share his writing with Lauren while her secret was still apparently safe, not pushing her luck as she could tell by the look on her son’s face that Trevor had an intended audience of one and one alone.

“Thanks mom,” Trevor responded, as if pushing him mom along, becoming particularly embarrassed as he noticed the jeans Lauren wore into his room were now casually slung on his bedroom floor at the exact moment Becky’s eyes landed upon them with a flair of concern in her eyes.

Lauren leaned forward with another cigarette dangling from her lips, and before Becky walked out, she looked up to watch Trevor light it for her.  She smiled as she remembered that October night only a little over a year ago when a bashful Lauren asked for Becky’s permission to smoke her first cigarette in the McPherson home.  Staring at the tower of all-white butts in Lauren’s ash can, Becky mused that Lauren was at this point probably a heavier smoker than she was.  Becky had been in contact with Lauren’s mom Michelle and knew they were gonna try to quit smoking as a family with hypnotist sessions, but observing the pleasure on Lauren’s face as the explosion of smoke blasted out of her lungs and into her son’s airspace, Becky just couldn’t see it happening.  Just as Trevor was coming to terms with the possibility of Lauren quitting smoking, Becky’s many years working as a nurse had convinced her that there wasn’t a hypnotist in the world capable of exorcising the nicotine beast that lived inside Lauren.

She closed the bedroom door and began to walk away, noticing Haylee climbing to the top of the stairs in her pale pink pajamas with an unlit Camel Pink dangling from her mouth.  Haylee came to a nervous stop at the top of the stairs upon seeing her mother, and Becky took notice.

“Relax Haylee,” Becky chirped playfully.  “I’m not gonna put you to work helping me with laundry on Christmas,” as she began to walk Haylee’s direction en route to the basement laundry room.

Haylee laughed nervously as her mom walked past her.  “That’s fine mom.  I’ll help with some tomorrow though, okay,” she continued, deflecting in hopes of her getting her mom out of the way as quickly as possible.   She looked over her shoulder until her mom got to the bottom of the stairs and walked off, at which point Haylee flicked the cigarette dangling from her lips to life, ingesting a huge snootful of smoke off of the light-up, and then exhaled with continued nervous energy as she approached Courtney’s bedroom door, hesitating for a second and then knocking.

“Come in!” Courtney called out, not knowing who it would be.

Haylee opened Courtney’s bedroom door to see her sitting on her bed in her pajamas, Marlboro Light Menthol 100 between her fingers and a book about motherhood propped up on her waist that she was reading.

Courtney looked up in surprise to see Haylee, a stream of dense cigarette smoke flowing from her mouth several inches in front of her face.  “Hey Hales.  What’s going on?”

Haylee quickly and quietly closed the door behind her, raising alarm bells for Courtney as she watched cigarette smoke belch out of her younger sister’s mouth and nose followed by one of Haylee’s increasingly regular mild smoker’s coughs.

“Well…..” Haylee opened apprehensively, clutching her dangling cigarette with her lips once again and adding, “…it’s about your baby.”

Courtney furrowed her brow curiously.  “What about my baby?”

Haylee responded.  “I’m really excited about being an aunt, Court…..but I don’t want to be a mother anytime soon.”

Courtney’s eyes perked up in nervous anticipation as she took an intense drag from her cigarette waiting for her younger sister to elaborate.

“You know mom will never let me go on birth control,” Haylee continued, “But since you’re 18 I was hoping you could sign on for me to get a prescription to something good.”

Courtney sighed with relief to at least find out Haylee wasn’t pregnant, but was still aghast at the request.  “Well Haylee, I don’t want to burst your bubble but I was on birth control too and you see how much good it did,” she said, using her cigarette to point to her bloated belly.

Haylee nodded while exhaling another burst of smoke from her extended dangle.  “I know, but I still figure the more protection I have the better, right?”

Courtney shook her head with confusion, “Are you having sex, Haylee?”

“No!  I’m not!” Haylee fired back with just a bit too vigorous of a denial for Courtney’s comfort.

A terrified epiphany lit up Courtney’s face as she remembered it was Christmas break.  “Haylee, please tell me you’re not back with Jacob.”

Haylee finally took the cigarette out of her mouth and anxiously motioned Courtney to quiet down with a shooshing gesture before whispering through a talking exhale with as much conviction as she could muster, “No, I swear I haven’t seen him since August and I’m not going to!” her tone successfully putting Courtney’s mind at ease.  “I’m not having sex either, but I want to be ready if I ever do….and not rely on condoms or morning-after pills.”

Courtney continued to be skeptical, taking a hard final drag from her cigarette and then stubbing it out in the overflowing ashtray on her nightstand.  “I don’t know, Haylee.  That’s a pretty big ask,” her words conveying her internal tug-of-war.

“Well consider it the last Christmas gift you give me,” Haylee pleaded, puckering her lips around her dangling cigarette again and adding, “It would really mean a lot to me, Courtney.  You told me last summer that I’d meet someone else someday and it would happen when I least expected.  I want to be ready when it does.”

Courtney smiled at how her sister was manipulating her, but it was working.  With residual streams of smoke still spilling out of her nose, she nodded warmly and approvingly.  “Tomorrow let’s take those ugly sweaters mom gave us back to the store and then we can stop by the drug store.  Deal?”

Haylee laughed and quietly celebrated her sister’s agreed-upon terms, moving in to give Courtney a hug.  “Thanks so much, Courtney!” she offered, removing the cigarette from her lips nanoseconds before their sisterly embrace.

As the sisters looked in on the book about mothering that Courtney was reading, Haylee again touched Courtney’s stomach to feel the life growing inside of her.  Haylee really did have no idea what the coming year would hold for her sexuality….if she’d reconnect with Jacob, if she’d resume her irregular romantic dalliance with Brian Nelson, or if her sister was right and someone new would sweep her off of her feet when she least expected.  But as Haylee recalled the difficult conversation her sister went through with their parents only two nights earlier and knew she faced an equally difficult one in the days ahead with Wade’s parents, Haylee knew that Courtney’s fate was one she was entirely determined to avoid for herself at any cost.

——————————–

The next morning, Becky drove to the front of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in St. Paul and parked her car along the curb across the street at the exact spot her husband did a week earlier when he came for his annual holiday season confession.  A half-smoked Marlboro Red dangling from her lips, Becky stepped out of her car and crossed the street, taking a triple-pump dangling drag as she ascended the church steps.  With smoke blasting from her mouth and nose, Becky was poised to flip the cigarette to the pavement but stopped herself at the last second, not wanting to be disrespectful at this place of worship.  She stubbed out the cigarette with her fingers and opened her pack of Marlboro Reds, dropping the spent butt into the pack before opening the front door of the church and walking inside.

Becky walked inside the empty church on a Tuesday morning and worked her way aimlessly toward the altar and then turning to the hallway leading to the church’s office.  Seeing a young woman sitting alone inside the office, Becky knocked on the office door.  The woman, attending to the church’s financial receipts, was startled by the surprise visitor upon hearing the door and got up to open it.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked warmly, holding her breath as she got inundated by the smell of cigarette smoke clinging to Becky.

“Yes, actually,” Becky responded.  “Is Father Lafferty here today?  I’d really like to see him about something.”

The bookkeeper nodded affirmatively.  “Uh yeah.  I can call him down if you’d like.”

“That would be great,” Becky responded warmly.

The bookkeeper called Father Lafferty’s line on the phone and requested his presence, informing Becky to wait for him in the front of the church where they’d have some privacy.

Becky thanked her and migrated back into the church with a hint of an anxiety, taking a seat on the front pew overseeing the altar as she waited a couple of minutes for Father Lafferty’s arrival.  She felt her anxiety continue to build as she watched the elderly priest approach in plain clothes, a welcoming but confused smile on his face as he couldn’t place the woman who requested his presence this morning after Christmas.  As Father Lafferty smelled the cigarette odor intensify with each step closer he took, he got the sense he knew who she was but couldn’t bring himself to believe it as he extended his hand to greet her.

“Good morning, Father,” Becky responded.  “You don’t know me but name is Becky McPherson.  My husband Steve has been one of your parishioners since he was a boy.”

Father Lafferty nodded warmly, his suspicion confirmed and his own anxiety escalating wondering if Becky’s presence had anything to do with what he and Steve had talked about in his recent confession.  “It’s great to meet you Becky.  Steve has been with St. Mary’s for about 35 years now,” the priest greeted, being careful not to say anything even minimally incriminating from what Steve shared in his confessions.  “What can I help you with today?”

“Well,” Becky responded with a nervous pause.  “I’m actually here to see if you can do me a favor on another matter.  Am I correct that St. Mary’s was the sponsor for Abdullah Guleed, the young Somali man who was recently convicted for tobacco smuggling?”

“Yes,” Father Lafferty responded with escalating concern, knowing that Becky was in some capacity involved with Abdullah’s cigarette smuggling operation and wondering what her angle was here.

“I thought so,” Becky responded.  “I had some dealings with Abdullah and he told me that he was trying to bring his mother over here from Somalia.  Were you in any kind of contact with his mother?”

Really nervous at this point about where Becky was going with this, Father Lafferty hesitantly replied, “Well yes.  He was attempting to get the church’s help to sponsor his mother’s immigration to the States.”

Becky nodded, reaching into her purse and pulling out an envelope.  “Assuming you still have her contact information in Somalia, Father, I’d like you to send this $5,000 money order to her.”

Father Lafferty took the envelope from Becky and inspected its contents, the skepticism on his face palpable as he looked the money order over.  “Mrs. McPherson, with Abdullah Guleed’s recent legal troubles connected to this international terrorist organization, you can understand why St. Mary’s Church would be reluctant to be seen participating in any sort of transaction that could be seen as questionable.”

Becky nodded as if anticipating he would say this.  “I know, Father.  That’s why I want you to send this money anonymously to Ms. Guleed.  I’m entirely confident that she’s not involved in whatever her son was and I want her to have this money.”

Father Lafferty nodded.  “Well I can’t make any promises at this point but I will see what I can do.  May I ask why you’re making such a generous contribution to a stranger?”

The emotion became tangible on Becky’s face.  “I just lost my mother.  Ms. Guleed must feel like she just lost her son.  I’ve known her son for three years now and whatever they’re saying about him on the news, I know he was a good man.  And I know he loved his mother.  I feel partly responsible for the legal trouble he’s gotten himself into and I just couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t pass along some of my blessings to someone I know really needs it.”  Becky paused again, a tear rolling down her cheek as she added, “There’s nothing more I can do to relieve the burden for my mother….but maybe I can make someone else’s mother’s life just a little bit easier, Father.”

Father Lafferty was genuinely moved by Becky’s heartfelt gesture, sitting down on the pew next to her and hugging her, Becky collapsing into the priest’s embrace with her first showing of raw emotion since her mother’s wake service two days earlier.  For the next half hour, Becky sought and received Father Lafferty’s emotional counsel on that empty church pew, quickly understand her husband’s decadeslong connection to the man as she poured her heart out to him about her mother and her guilt about Abdullah.  Although Becky never said it in so many words, she felt that the thousands of dollars that Abdullah had saved her in cigarette taxes over the last few years needed to be passed along, and since there was nothing she could do to help him, she figured this gift to the woman who sacrificed so much on his behalf was the best possible recipient.

—————————

Her conscience cleared and her soul cleansed, Becky walked out the church’s doors and immediately placed a Marlboro Red between her lips, the cold chill of a late December morning in Minnesota immediately cutting through her.  As she descended the steps en route to her car, she lit the cigarette and took an intense dangling drag off of the light-up, filling the inside of her body with enough nicotine warmth to briefly allow her to ignore the biting cold touching the outside of her body.  She took another deep dangling drag to maintain the sensation and replenish her nicotine supply as she crossed the street, pausing as a ferocious smoker’s cough forced its way out of her heavy lungs just as she approached her car door.

Relieving her lungs of the pressure through the cough, Becky looked up to the nativity scene in front of the church, her eyes focusing on the imagery that she’d have ordinarily just walked on by without noticing.  Her son Trevor had been moved by a nativity play narrated by a 10-year-old version of his girlfriend Lauren the night before, and now it was Becky’s turn.  The glowing beauty of Mary picking up the baby Jesus from his manger reminded Becky that a new life was forthcoming in the McPherson family in the coming year and the imagery before her finally helped her fully make peace with that.  Becky had always feared that between her heavy smoking and the frontotemporal dementia that ran rampant among females in her family, she might never get a chance to hold one of her grandchildren.  A rush of relief and joy filled her mind as she realized that, barring some sudden and catastrophic turn, she would now get that chance after all.  Her face beamed as she took a deep drag from her cigarette and was finally able to avert her gaze from the nativity scene and climb inside her car to head home to her family that was soon to grow one member larger.

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Trevor’s Poker Night Royal Flush (Chapter 15)


Lauren Nelson drove her car aimlessly down the streets of the western Minneapolis suburbs after school on a dreary late November Monday.  Sitting in the passenger seat, best friend Haylee McPherson made idle chatter with Lauren as they drove through Haylee’s neighborhood heading nowhere in particular, half-smoked cigarettes between their fingers.  The windows were only open a small crack, the intensity of the dense cigarette smoke filling up the inside of the car being a small sacrifice they were willing to endure to avoid letting the damp and chilly late autumn air into the car.

As she listened to Haylee talk, Lauren took a final drag from her Marlboro Light 100, a steady roll of smoke flowing from her mouth and nose as she reached up to one of two overflowing ash cans in the console’s cupholders to crush her cigarette out atop a couple dozen of its peers.  Lauren tried to empty out the ash cans every time she stopped for gas, but particularly when she rode around with Haylee or Carly after school, it seemed the ashtrays’ capacity exceeded her frequency of fuel fill-ups.

With their ongoing exchange coming to a natural climax, Haylee puckered her lips around the filter of her Camel Pink No. 9 for a finishing drag as she stretched her arms and legs as much as was possible in the car seat, a satisfied grin emerging on her face as she said, “One more day till break,” in reference to the upcoming long weekend for Thanksgiving, adding “Gotta love these two-day weeks at school,” as she removed the cigarette from her mouth and crushed it out into the ash can closest to her in the console.

Lauren wasted little time plucking another cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s, responding “I know….” before pausing to light it up and take the first drag.  A noticeably awkward hesitation emerged on her face before she continued, “And then you get to spend Thanksgiving at my folks’ place this year!”

Haylee nodded, feeling awkwardness of her own about the idea of seeing Brian again following their forbidden copulation after the Halloween dance a few weeks earlier.  She avoided eye contact with Lauren and briefly dodged the topic by opening her purse to take out another Camel Pink No. 9.  Stalling as much as she could to place it in her lips, light it up, and take her first intense dangling drag, Haylee finally responded, “Kind of weird that neither of us get together with extended family for Thanksgiving and we just hang out together,” a cloud of exhaled smoke swirling around her face that was helpful in hiding her apprehension.

Lauren nodded as she took another drag of her own, responding through a talking exhale, “I suppose,” giggling mildly and adding “My family is too disorganized to do anything for Thanksgiving but we do usually have a big get-together for Christmas.”

Haylee nodded, adding “My family’s the same.  My mom’s side doesn’t get along very well but we do get together with my dad’s side for Christmas.”

As Haylee finished her thought, she noticed Lauren seemed increasingly nervous and fidgety, and her trepidation really escalated as Lauren soon spoke words that reflected her unease.

“Haylee, this is really personal and probably none of my business, but I really gotta ask you something….” Lauren opened, looking at Haylee with considerable guilt splashed across her face.

“What??!?” Haylee asked nervously through her continued dangle, her heart racing as she crossed her fingers the topic wasn’t gonna be what she feared it was.

Lauren took a deep drag from her cigarette followed by a long pause as if reconsidering whether she was really gonna ask aloud the question that had been on the tip of her tongue the entire car ride.  “Did you fuck my brother on Halloween?”

Haylee’s face turned a brighter shade of pink than her winter jacket, the look in her eyes immediately giving away the answer to Lauren’s question, and the prolonged pause that came instead of an immediate denial only further confirming that the answer was affirmative.

Sensing Haylee’s deep discomfort, Lauren immediately got ahead of Haylee’s formal response with some damage control.   “Nothing will change between us if you did!  I won’t judge you for it!” pausing before adding through a nervous giggle, “Well, I’ll try my best not to anyway.”

Haylee smirked, removed the cigarette from her mouth to ash and then buried her face in her hands with shame.  “Did he seriously tell you that?”

Seeing that Haylee was taking it as well as could be expected, Lauren replied “He didn’t tell me but the rumor’s been going around school in Maple Grove,” pausing with a giggle and adding, “Seventh-grade boys are usually not that great for keeping secrets when they get laid, you know?”

Grateful to hear that Lauren wasn’t furious about the revelation, Haylee kept the mood as light as possible, but continued to keep her face buried in her hands to playfully hide her shame, “I’m such an idiot, Lauren!”  She finally lifted her face out of her hands and put her cigarette back into her mouth, dangling as she continued, “I had quite a bit to drink that night,” hoping that that might excuse her inadvisable choice.

Lauren giggled again as she took a drag of her own cigarette, trying to put Haylee partially at ease by responding, “Yeah I get it,” pausing as she exhaled and then adding, “Well sort of anyway.  But Brian??!?  Really?!?”

Haylee laughed with a flourish of humiliation, pumping smoke out of her mouth and nose through her laughter.  “You said you weren’t gonna judge!” Haylee responded in a lighthearted tone that only slightly masqueraded her annoyance at getting busted by her best friend.

“Just sayin’, Haylee…..I’m pretty sure you could do better than my pain-in-the-ass little brother,” Lauren said, adding through a giggle, “Just throw a rock at any guy in your school and it would hit a guy better than BRIAN!”

“Oh shut up!” Haylee responded with laughter followed by a nervous smoker’s cough, her embarrassment still elevated but nonetheless expressing her gratitude to Lauren for taking it so well.  “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s always been a little energy between him and I.”

Lauren nodded in mid-drag, responding through a talking exhale, “I’ve noticed but I’m still surprised.  You’re usually pretty uptight when it comes to sex,” pausing and then busting Haylee’s chops again adding, “But maybe that doesn’t apply to boning seventh-graders.”

Haylee once again erupted into humiliated laughter to which Lauren gave a halfhearted apology, saying “Sorry, sorry!  Not judging!” with animated hand motions, ash falling off of her cigarette as she wove her right hand briefly away from the steering wheel.

“The age difference isn’t THAT big of a deal,” Haylee defended herself through another talking dangle, the cigarette bouncing up and down in her lips.  “I mean, you’re a year younger than Trevor and I’m two years older than Brian.”

Lauren gave Haylee a skeptical smirk and responded with wisps of smoke flowing from her face.  “Not quite.  Brian’s not even gonna have his 13th birthday until next month,” wrapping up with a giggle as Haylee blushed and buried her face into her hands with humiliation again.   Lauren again reinforced her original objective that she knew she’d fallen short of, saying “No judgment!  No judgment!  I promise….no more judgment!” even though she knew it was gonna be hard to keep from continuing to bust Haylee’s chops about this.

“I’m definitely gonna hold you to that promise!” Haylee finally got around to saying, lifting her face from her hands and placing her cigarette in her mouth again.

Lauren got serious as she began speaking again, “Well there’s a reason I asked you about this today.  You said you have some ‘energy’ with Brian….does that mean you’d like to see if things go any further with him?”

Haylee resisted her initial urge to respond with an emphatic and declarative no, instead shrugging her shoulders with extreme bashfulness and reluctantly replying, “I don’t know.”

“Well you might have a chance tomorrow night if you want to give it a try.  Remember when I sent you the invite for poker night at my place tomorrow night?” Lauren asked before taking a final drag from her cigarette while awaiting Haylee’s response.

Haylee nodded in continued mid-dangle, vaguely recalling Lauren’s text message request to do a real-deal poker game rather than the online version that Lauren had been sending requests to her friends to play for the last couple of months.

Lauren pressed as she crushed out her cigarette in the overflowing ash can, “I know poker’s not really your thing and didn’t figure you’d want to come just for the game….but Brian’s gonna be there!” she finished with a playful vocal flourish.

Haylee shook her head with a mixture of humiliation and intrigue as she pondered the offer, puckering her lips around her mostly smoked cigarette for a double-pump finishing drag.  “Brian’s gonna be there playing poker?”

Lauren smirked as she replied, “Oh I guarantee you he’ll be playing if you agree to come!”

Haylee laughed with the final entrails of smoke from her spent cigarette spilling from her mouth and nose as she crushed it out into the ash can.  “Who all is coming?”

“Wade and Courtney said they were gonna come….Trevor…..and me of course.  If we can get you and Brian to play that’ll be six which would be perfect,” Lauren responded. “Nick and Lacey aren’t gonna be able to make it and Carly said she didn’t want to come so I doubt it’ll be more than the six of us.”

Haylee froze with the same level of horror and humiliation upon hearing Carly’s name as it did when Lauren first confronted her about having sex with Brian.  “Please tell me Carly doesn’t know about me and Brian!” Haylee exclaimed fearfully.

Lauren shrugged, “I don’t think she does.  I mean, it got back to me from people Brian had bragged to who knew I was his sister.  I doubt Carly would have heard anything from them.  I certainly haven’t told her.”

Haylee could feel herself getting sick to her stomach at the thought of Carly finding out she’d had sexual relations with Brian given her own intimate encounter with Carly that Haylee had rejected.  She knew their friendship would be in permanent jeopardy if Carly were to find out that Haylee had chosen Carly’s seventh-grade cousin Brian over her.  Haylee plucked out another cigarette from her pack as she responded to Lauren, “Well please, please don’t ever let it slip to Carly!” before putting the unlit cigarette to her lips and lighting it.

Taking the cue to have another cigarette of her own, Lauren fished another out of her pack and responded, “Your secret’s safe with me,” with a sweet flourish, pausing to light the cigarette and then adding through a talking dangle, “Well at least until you and Brian have your tongues in each other’s mouths right in front of her,” giggling in response to her own joke and filling the car with a geyser of smoke sprayed out of her face.

“Not gonna happen!” Haylee exclaimed, falling short of convincing Lauren despite her declarative tone.

“And I won’t tell Trevor either obviously,” Lauren assured her.

“You better not!” Haylee responded, blushing a bit once again.  While Trevor didn’t know anything about her and Brian hooking up on Halloween, he did know about their little make out moment last New Year’s, and Haylee still preferred that Lauren didn’t know about that incident.

Lauren removed the cigarette from her mouth and held it between her fingers atop the steering wheel as she redirected the conversation back to the poker night offer, “So what do you think about tomorrow night at my place?  My parents are going to some theater play in Chanhassen so they won’t be home.  You can probably just ride in with Trevor.”

Haylee puckered her lips around her cigarette filter as she considered the offer, still trying to recover from the shock of being busted by Lauren but also curious about what her chemistry with Brian would be like in the aftermath of her stealing his virginity.  After a couple more moments of deliberation, Haylee seemed to be talking herself into the offer as she mused, “Well it’s not like I’m gonna be able to avoid him forever even if I tried since we’ll all be together at your place for Thanksgiving on Thursday.”  Haylee paused, smoke still swirling around her face after her last dangling exhale before she added, “I’m kind of leaning towards coming I guess.”

Lauren dragged from her cigarette again and responded, “Well let me know what you decide after school tomorrow,” smirking and then adding through a talking exhale, “But if you guys can’t keep your hands off of each other at the poker table, I can’t help you with keeping the secret.”

Haylee laughed again, the long ash from her cigarette falling to the upholstery of Lauren’s passenger seat as she playfully admonished her best friend, “You keep saying no judgment but then you keep judging!!!”

Lauren giggled back and replied, “But you just make it soooo easy for me, Haylee!!”  The laughs continued as Lauren took another drag from her cigarette and added, “Seriously though, nobody else has to know.  My lips are sealed.  And if you want to try your luck with Brian, I won’t tell you not to.”

Haylee nodded, still unsure about this situation as her feelings about Brian were complex and she thought it could endanger her friendship with Lauren.  “Well I’m really glad you’re so cool about this, Lauren.”

Lauren looked at Haylee and smiled as she philosophized, “Well I can’t give you too much grief about fucking my brother since I’m fucking your brother!”

Haylee almost lost her oral grip on her cigarette as she cringed, and then responded with halfhearted bemusement, “Okay Lauren whatever happens between me and Brian and you and Trevor, let’s agree right here and now that we’ll never discuss fucking each other’s brothers again!”

The audible soar of the girls’ laughter hung inside the car with almost as much intensity as the tobacco smoke from their lengthy chain of cigarettes.  Both Lauren and Haylee were relieved that this awkward revelation was out in the open now and their friendship appeared to have survived it.  And they were looking forward to tomorrow night, with their extended Thanksgiving weekend break from school beginning and this poker game at Lauren’s place that was bursting at the seams with both potential and risk, especially for Haylee and Brian.

—————————————–

At 7 p.m. the next night, Lauren anxiously encircled the table in her parents’ dining room with a cigarette dangling from her lips, setting up six chairs, six drinking glasses, three ash cans, and a deck of playing cards around the table where she would soon be playing poker.  She peeked out the window to see headlights approaching her driveway and a beaming smile splashed across her face when she recognized the car to be Trevor’s.  She straightened out the black leather jacket she was wearing and looked down to make sure the tight white pants looked as good on her as they did in the mirror a few minutes earlier, eager to make a good impression on Trevor in one of his favorite outfits of hers.  She ashed the cigarette in the ash can closest to her and then put it back in her mouth, knowing the presentation would blow Trevor’s mind when she greeted him with it at their front door.

In seconds, the doorbell rang and Lauren joyfully strutted toward the door to open it and find Trevor and Haylee on the other side.  “Hey guys.  Come on in!” Lauren said through a talking dangle as she observed Trevor consuming her presentation with his eyes.  She flashed him a wink, hoping Haylee wouldn’t see it but not caring if she did.

“Hey baby!” Trevor greeted back, pulling in to hug his girlfriend and press her upper body toward him, the fresh smell of tobacco smoke from the cigarette in her mouth commingling with the smell of tobacco smoke that had embedded itself to her leather jacket intoxicating him before their bodies even touched and continuing to dominate his senses for the duration of the embrace which he ended with a quick kiss on her cheek.  He pulled away and admired the smirk on Lauren’s face, her nonverbal acknowledgment that her outfit was no accident, particularly on Thanksgiving week a year removed from when she wore this same combination of leather jacket and tight white pants to the inaugural Thanksgiving dinner they spent together at the McPhersons.  Particularly as Lauren turned around to walk back into the kitchen allowing him to admire how perfect her ass looked in the white pants, Trevor was grateful that Lauren ignored the “no white after Labor Day” rule for her late November wardrobe selection.

Lauren and Haylee bantered a bit as Haylee followed Trevor into the house, dangling a Camel Pink No. 9 of her own with the inference that the Nelson home was just as amenable to unambiguous smoking freedom as her own home was.  Haylee heard feet rustling toward them from the hallway and she anticipated it would be Brian.  Her suspicion was confirmed in seconds as Brian walked into the kitchen, his eyes immediately locking onto and feasting upon Haylee who was decked out in the same pale pink hoodie and matching pale pink leggings that she wore on their hike through the northern Minnesota woods when they went up to the cabin the prior month.

Brian was the first to avert eye contact with Haylee after their initial unspoken greetings, although Haylee was equally bashful.   They were both able to get lost in the crowd with minimal awkwardness as Lauren jabbered on about her preparations for the poker party.  Lauren finally removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and ashed it into one of the three ash cans on the table, looking to Brian and ordering “Help me with some of these snacks!” as she walked in the direction of the cupboards.

Brian first wrinkled his nose at the sight of the three ash cans on the table and said, “Only if we get rid of the ashtrays on the table!  I’m not sitting there with all you smokers all night!”

With dangling cigarette back in her mouth as she opened the cupboards, Lauren barked back, “Yeah right….we’re gonna have a card game with three smokers and tell them not to smoke?  Just get your ass over here and help me!”

Brian obeyed without further protest, eliciting a smirk from Haylee as he walked away and a sigh of relief from Trevor that Brian wasn’t gonna be able to dictate the terms on smoking at this card table and take away Trevor’s only reason for coming in the first place.  Trevor kept his eyes focused on Lauren’s ass as she reached up into the cupboards to remove two large bowls and a glass dish while Brian got out the bags of Doritos and the Tostitos with a jar of salsa.  They proceeded to fill the bowls with the chips and fill the glass dish with salsa for the next couple of minutes until the headlights of another approaching vehicle drew Trevor’s attention as he looked to the window.

“Looks like Wade and Courtney are here,” Trevor mused while looking at Haylee who stood to his side.

“Yay!  Almost time to play some cards,” Lauren cheered aloud, her childlike enthusiasm standing in sharp contrast to her outfit and the mostly smoked cigarette that still dangled from her lips as she put the finishing touches on the snack preparation, cigarette smoke swirling around her face and flowing down into the bowls of snacks.

Brian noticed his sister’s smoke drifting toward the chips and salsa and he grumbled, “Gross!  I guess next time I need to bring my own chips so they don’t taste like cigarettes!”

Lauren removed the cigarette from her lips and gave him a halfhearted sneer before heading to the front door to greet their latest guests.  Lauren opened the door to welcome in Wade and Courtney.  A beaming smile filled Lauren’s face as she looked at the masculine yet humble Wade standing there in his button-down shirt and tight jeans, cowboy hat in hand, while his girlfriend Courtney stood at his side, cigarette in hand, wearing an unusually casual sweatshirt and loose-fitting sweats that were a world removed from the flashy and sexy attire Courtney usually wore.

“Hey guys!” Lauren greeted.  “You two ready to lose all your money to me tonight?” she continued with a giggle as they exchanged greetings.  Lauren then heard additional footsteps entering the kitchen and looked to see her father walking in, decked out in a sports coat and tie for his upcoming night at the dinner theater with his wife.

“Hey dad,” Lauren called, using her cigarette hand to motion her father over to them.  “I don’t think you’ve met Courtney’s boyfriend Wade.  He decided to come over and donate all his money to me tonight too!” she added with a giggle, then rhetorically asking her father, “Aren’t they cute together?”

Craig teasingly responded to his daughter’s girlish tone saying “Adorable.  Absolutely adorable, Lauren,” as he placed his cigarette in his left hand so that his right hand would be free to shake with Wade.  “Craig Nelson.  Nice to meet you,” he greeted.

“Wade Rosenquist,” Wade returned the introduction as they shook hands.

“Wasn’t it you who took Lauren and Trevor to the rodeo in southern Minnesota a couple of months ago?” Craig asked, unaware the comment brought about an unhappy reminder briefly visible on his daughter’s face as he inquired, a split second of anguish from Lauren that only Trevor picked up on.

“That’s right.  Down in Cannon City,” Wade replied.  “That’s where I grew up.”

“Oh sure.  I think I’ve got a couple of clients down that way,” Craig responded.

The momentum of their conversation was interrupted as a previously silent Courtney inquired, “Excuse me.  Could I use your bathroom?” with wisps of cigarette smoke spilling out of her face in the aftermath of her recent drag.

“Uh sure,” Craig said after a moment of contemplation, adding with a smirk, “As long as you’re okay using the one downstairs.  My wife’s got the upstairs bathroom pretty well occupied right now.”

Laughter filled the room, including Lauren’s familiar giggle knowing how long her mom could take to prepare heading to formal gatherings.

Courtney responded, “No problem,” as Craig briefly explained which direction to go to get to the downstairs bathroom.

Craig looked back to Wade as Courtney walked away, immediately sharing a connection with the young man who seemed to have a blue-collar pedigree similar to his own.  “Not really sure if the dinner theater scene works too well for a plumbing guy but as you can see I’m gonna fake it as best I can,” Craig said pointing to his jacket and coat, overstating his working-class pedigree quite considerably given that the “plumbing guy” owned a very successful and profitable plumbing parts distribution business, but still looking the part with his mildly rugged features, goatee, and close-cropped light brown hair.

Wade laughed, appreciating Craig’s predicament and responding, “I hear that. I bet you’d feel a lot more at home playing cards tonight, huh?”

Craig took a drag from his cigarette and nodded affirmatively, but got a gentle verbal nudge from his daughter as Lauren said through a talking exhale after a drag from her own cigarette, “Don’t give him any ideas, Wade!  I love my dad but I think I’d like to keep these worlds separate!” with a playful flourish in her voice that eased the impact of the generational rejection.

Craig and Wade both laughed just as a booming female voice from down the hall put an end to the conversation.   “Craig, come and help me with this dress!” shouted Michelle from the bathroom.

Craig smirked at Wade and added, “Sounds like both of the Nelson girls have overruled me!” shaking Wade’s hand one more time.  “Nice to meet you Wade.  Don’t let my daughter take all your money.  She’s really gotten to be a card shark!”

“Daaad!” Lauren said with playful embarrassment as she crushed out her cigarette into the ash can while watching him walk out of the room.

In moments, Courtney emerged from the basement bathroom and the six of them all gathered around the dining room table.  Lauren gave Trevor a doe-eyed glance followed by a wink as they were sitting down, tipping him off that she was up to something.  She broke the deck of cards out of their fresh package and began to shuffle them with a jubilant energy on her face, above and beyond what seemed appropriate for a simple game of poker with friends.

Haylee and Courtney simultaneously lit cigarettes from across the table, eliciting a mild grunt from Brian who sat next to Haylee with awkward body language as his airspace began to fill up with secondhand smoke from both Courtney and her younger sister who had stolen Brian’s innocence only a few weeks earlier.

Wade was sitting next to Courtney and couldn’t help but take annoyance at a flickering fluorescent bulb in the light fixture above his head and directly in his line of vision.  “Looks like you got a bulb to replace up there,” Wade muttered, ostensibly for Lauren’s benefit.

“Oh yeah.  That thing’s been flickering for a few days now,” Lauren said as she continued shuffling the fresh deck of cards, teasingly adding, “That light’s gonna be the least of your worries in a bit.  Maybe I’ll use my winnings tonight to buy a whole new light fixture.”

The room laughed at Lauren’s out-of-character exuberance about this poker game, and Courtney who’d largely been quiet up to this point spoke up to return some of the trash talk.  “Lauren, you talk a big game but I don’t think you’re gonna have a very good poker face when you’re playing in person rather than hiding behind your phone playing it online.”

Lauren giggled as she continued to shuffle, responding “We’ll see” with her trademark sweet vocal flourish.

Brian was becoming increasingly annoyed and spoke for everyone at the table when he grumbled, “Are you gonna deal or just spend the whole night shuffling??!?”

Immediately after Brian took the bait, a smug smirk splashed across Lauren’s face as she put the deck of cards back on the table and replied, “Oh I’ll deal….” pausing for dramatic effect and then continuing, “….as soon as I light my cigar.”

Lauren proceeded to reach into the inside pocket of her leather jacket to remove a hulking cigar, massive in both length and girth.  Grumbles of varying degrees of seriousness filled the room while Lauren failed to contain her giggles, holding up the prodigious stick of tobacco that briefly intimidated everybody at the table as it protruded from Lauren’s dainty left hand.  Lauren fed off of her friends’ reaction, but she was primarily interested in observing Trevor’s response to it, darting her eyes to her boyfriend sitting so close by to measure the degree of shock on his face….and it didn’t disappoint as she observed Trevor in a state of blissful astonishment that she only rarely got to see from him.

Lauren briefly put the cigar on the table and reached back into her jacket pocket to pull out a torch lighter and a guillotine cigar cutter.  She continued to make eyes with Trevor and said, “Help me with this would you?” having him hold the cigar as she used the guillotine to chop off the cap of the cigar, struggling for a moment to chop the gigantic circle of tobacco but silently cheering when she saw she was successful.

Wade chimed in, admiring Lauren’s tact.  “Damn you look like you know what you’re doing there, Lauren.  Have you smoked cigars before?”

“Yeah I’ve smoked a couple before,” Lauren responded, not divulging that her cigar experimentation had started in the last couple of weeks when she procured the one she was about to light and a couple of other smaller cigars that she’d tried as dry runs for this “main event” that she’d prepared for Trevor’s benefit after learning from reading Trevor’s fiction that he seemed to have quite a serious fetish for girls smoking cigars.

“Well I like a good cigar once in a while myself,” Wade replied, a bit surprised to see Lauren taking to it, impervious to her hidden agenda.

Lauren handed Trevor her torch lighter and had him ignite it for her, advising him to “Just hold it there for me, baby,” as she began slowly turning the huge cigar, toasting it and very slowly bringing it to life.  Lauren then looked back to Wade, finally getting around to responding to his cigar praise after about 15 seconds of guiding Trevor.  “Sorry Wade.  If I’d have known I’d have gotten one for you for tonight….” pausing momentarily as she continued to slow-roll the foot of the cigar in her hands at the edge of the large flame and then adding, “….but this is the only one I have and this puppy is allll mine.”

Courtney rolled her eyes, understanding the smoking fetish dynamic between Lauren and Trevor and recognizing Lauren was doing this entirely to put on a show for her boyfriend.  She nonetheless dug out her camera and began to record just as she did at the rodeo when Lauren tried wintergreen dip for the first time.  The smell of the smoldering cigar began to fill the room as Lauren continued to slowly turn it at the edge of the flame, finally putting her mouth on the cap and taking her first draw while pulling her long hair behind her ear away from the flame.  She locked eyes with Trevor as the first burst of her cigar smoke officially went airborne before she pulled away to toast it some more.

“Oh God!  That’s disgusting!” Brian shrieked as the first blast of his sister’s cigar smoke migrated into his airspace.  “I didn’t think it was possible for anything to stink more than your cigarettes but you’ve managed to find something even nastier!”

Courtney continued to record as Lauren began taking more regular draws from the cigar as it slowly became fully lit, and as the cigar smoke started filling the airspace at the table, Courtney cringed and waved the smelly smoke away from her face, adding “I gotta agree with Brian on this one.  Cigars are gross!”

Lauren tried to ignore the haters as she continued to lean in and draw from the cigar as Trevor kept holding the flame to it, locking her eyes mostly on her boyfriend but briefly looking up to Haylee to gauge her response to it, and Haylee finally spoke up saying through a talking dangle of her Camel Pink No. 9, “I’ve never tried a cigar before but you got me curious, Lauren.”

“Yeah, you would!” Brian snarked, waving away Lauren’s cigar smoke coming from one direction and Haylee’s cigarette smoke coming from the other.

Courtney chimed in once again and continued to tag team with Brian as she said, “I’ve tried one long enough to know I don’t ever want to smoke another,” dragging from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 and then looking to Lauren and asking with a passive-aggressive annoyance, “Do you realize how long you’re gonna have to smoke that thing, Lauren?”

Lauren darted her eyes at Courtney, who continued to halfheartedly smile as she recorded Lauren lighting the cigar, surprised by how salty Courtney was being and casually responding, “If I’m lucky it’ll last allllll night!”

Courtney shook her head and then turned to Wade as she kept waving the cigar smoke from her face, reinforcing her disapproval as she said, “If you ever smoke of those, let me know so I can stay away for a couple of days.”

Wade laughed, also a little surprised by Courtney’s aggressively negative tone toward the cigar smoke, and he tried to limit the awkwardness by looking at Lauren and asking, “So what kind of cigar is that Lauren?  I might have to get one of my own if I want Courtney to stay away some night.”

Lauren giggled as she watched Courtney slap him playfully on the arm.  She finally pulled the cigar away from the flame, hoping it had sufficient flame time to stay lit and burn evenly, but continued to aggressively draw from it as she began to answer Wade’s question.  Speaking to Wade but making sure Trevor knew it was all for his benefit, Lauren responded in intervals between draws.  “Scorpion!” she exclaimed, enunciating the name brand.   She continued to draw regularly and then added in intervals, “Seven inches long….” and “70 millimeter gauge,” darting her eyes playfully at Trevor as Wade continued to marvel at how much Lauren knew about cigars.  Her draws from the cigar were now bursting massive quantities of dirty and extremely smelly cigar smoke that rapidly began to waft throughout the dining room and eliciting a decidedly mixed reaction from the other five people at the table.

But the one person whose reaction was unequivocally and ecstatically positive was Trevor, who watched in disbelieving awe as his sweet-faced girlfriend plugged away at this monstrous cigar that she had just fully lit with billowing explosions of cigar smoke filling his airspace and the entire dining room at impressive speed.  It was an image he’d only fantasized about up to this point, and to listen to her describe the cigar with the detail of a veteran aficionado escalated his lust to heights he’d never before reached, which was saying something given how intensely Lauren had managed to turn him on multiple times before.  She was now avoiding eye contact, presumably to avoid drawing attention to Trevor’s viscerally lustful response as he watched her with his mouth agape, but as the room bantered with one another and grumbled about the stink of the cigar smoke, Lauren used the opportunity to slide her free hand under the table and inch her fingers toward Trevor’s crotch.  She squeezed near the fly of Trevor’s jeans and could feel one of the stiffest erections she’d ever felt on Trevor, caressing it with her hand one time and then pulling her hand away so she wouldn’t get spotted.

With her hand back above the table and the cigar fully lit, Lauren flashed one final wink at Trevor as if signalling that the cigar tease was just the beginning of her plans for him tonight.  Lauren then proceeded to pick up the deck of cards, commanding the attention of the rest of the table as she said, “NOW it’s time to deal some cards,” placing the giant cigar in her mouth and wrapping her teeth and lips around it as best as she could as she began to deal the cards to herself and the other five players.

Trevor continued to watch on in awe as his sweet girlfriend sported the look of a badass mafia don with that ridiculously large cigar sticking out of her face.  He thought to himself it had to have just been a lucky guess that Lauren figured out how much of a perfect fantasy this image was for him, as it still hadn’t occurred to him that he telegraphed the fantasy in his fictional writings that Lauren had read and fully internalized.  Poker was the last thing on Trevor’s mind, but he nonetheless picked up the five cards in front of him to play along, motivated by an endless and unrelenting wave of new cigar smoke coming from his girlfriend’s mouth every time she breathed.

A couple hands of poker later, the mood at the smoke-filled table was festive with the evening young and already full of surprises.  Trevor rarely diverted his eyes too far from Lauren and the cigar that either hung like a torpedo from her clinched jaw or rested between the fingers of her right hand with persistent blasts of smoke pouring from her mouth.  But Trevor’s attention was briefly detoured down the long hallway of the Nelson home as Lauren’s mom Michelle finally stepped out of the bathroom on the periphery of Trevor’s vantage point.

Decked out in a flashy black cocktail dress with a cigarette dangling from her lips, Michelle focused her attention on latching her left earring into her lobe while walking out of the bathroom.  With her dark blond hair freshly styled and her makeup applied generously, Trevor was struck by how beautiful his girlfriend’s mother looked tonight.  As he looked at her now from this distance, he mused that for the first time he could credibly confuse Lauren for her mother, and Michelle reinforced that epiphany for Trevor as she took a deep dangling drag from her cigarette with a cloudy follow-up exhale.  She was finally satisfied with the placement of her earring and removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth, strutting toward the kitchen with confidence about her presentation and excitement about the night on the town with her husband.

Michelle walked toward the kitchen and wrinkled her nose in mild disgust at the foul odor before stepping inside the dining room and laying her eyes upon the source of that foul odor.  Michelle’s eyes bulged open as she laid eyes upon her daughter with a gigantic cigar hanging out of her mouth.  Staring at Lauren for a couple of moments with her mouth hanging open, Michelle exclaimed and dramatically enunciated, “Whaaat is in your mouth??!?”

Lauren giggled as she pulled the cigar out of her mouth, not fully appreciating how unamused her mother was about this presentation. “I invited them over for a game of real poker and that’s what I’m giving them!” Lauren responded with a sweet flourish that contrasted sharply with her badass image in the leather jacket with the hulking cigar in her hand.

“Make her get rid of it, mom!” Brian grumbled, picking up on his mother’s displeasure even though Lauren hadn’t yet.

Michelle walked right up to the table, waving her daughter’s smelly cigar smoke away from her face and incredulously asking “Where did you get that?!?!”

“I’ve got my sources!” Lauren impishly replied, taking a deep draw from her cigar and then exhaling an explosively messy blast of smoke right over the crowded table, raising her mother’s ire further.

Michelle’s tone went from passive-aggressively polite to unmistakably scolding as she undressed Lauren in front of her friends with the question, “Lauren, how is this helping with our agreement of what we’re doing as a family after Christmas?” followed by an ironic drag from her cigarette.

The smirk quickly vanished from Lauren’s face as it became clear her mother was really putting up a protest about this, to the point of reminding her of the hypnosis treatment Lauren, Michelle, and Craig were all supposed to get to quit smoking during Christmas break, and doing so in front of Trevor and her other friends.

“Not helping!” Brian said with a smug smirk, shaking his head in response to his mother’s rhetorical question.  “Not helping at all!”

“Shut up!” Lauren snapped at Brian, projecting her rage for her mom in Brian’s direction with a blast of cigar smoke gushing from her face into his airspace.

Michelle wrinkled her nose at the stench again and continued grumbling at Lauren.  “I really hope I’m able to get this smell out of the house by Thursday when Steve and Becky come over for Thanksgiving dinner!”

Trevor was getting nervous that this could go sideways and heard Craig enter the kitchen, at which point Michelle turned to him and said, “Look at what your daughter is doing in here?”

Craig walked into the dining room and was unable to suppress a chuckle upon seeing his sweet 16-year-old daughter with a big cigar in her hand.  He walked into the room, quickly overwhelmed by the heavy presence of cigar smoke that Lauren was entirely responsible for.  Craig seemed more laid-back than Michelle did but nonetheless turned to his daughter and gently admonished her through his laughter as he waved her cigar smoke away from his face.  “C’mon Lauren, you don’t want to force your guests to put up with this, do you?”

“That would just be rude!” Brian interjected, stoking the tension in the room even though nobody was paying attention to him beyond passive annoyance.

A hurtful scowl emerged on Lauren’s face, once again in striking contrast to her cigar-chomping bad girl presentation, as she was really becoming concerned about her parents throwing a wet blanket on her well-laid plan for the evening in a way she never anticipated.  “Nobody here cares except you guys,” Lauren whined.

“Oh yeah?  You sure about that?!?” Brian pressed, loving that his sister was getting in trouble and doing everything he could to enflame the situation.

Wade quickly swooped in to Lauren’s defense, confidently saying, “Oh I don’t mind it at all, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson.  And I don’t think any of us are bothered by it,” expressing a sentiment for everyone at the table even though it wasn’t shared by all.  “We all just came here to have a good time and that’s what we’re doing.”

Craig laughed and asked again, “So are you guys all sure you’re fine with it?”

Wade nodded again and Trevor nodded right along with him, not trying to look overeager but also really hoping he was getting this train back on the track.  Haylee nodded with general ambivalence while the mildly annoyed Courtney nodded with much more reluctance.

“Uh, no!  Not fine with it!” Brian continued to protest amidst his parents’ largely deaf ears.  “And not fine with the cigarettes either!  Let’s put ’em all out!” he pressed, hurting his argument with his parents and eliciting a lighthearted punch on the arm from Haylee.

Lauren confidently lifted her cigar back to her lips in hopes that the crisis was averted, drawing from her cigar and pumping another wave of smelly smoke into the room.

Michelle looked at Lauren and shook her head with a combination of exasperation and grudging acceptance.  Michelle then put her hand on Trevor’s shoulder and muttered, “Poor Trevor!” pausing to lightheartedly add “How do you deal with a woman this crazy?”

Put on the spot, Trevor tried to hide his elation that Lauren would be able to continue smoking her cigar, answering Michelle’s question with a sarcastic, “I just gotta take things one day at a time, Mrs. Nelson.  That’s all I can do.”

The room laughed and Lauren giggled with nervous relief, making loving eyes at Trevor as she said, “My baby’s such a selfless martyr,” inadvertently repeating a line she’d picked up from reading Trevor’s notebook of fiction and hoping he wouldn’t put two and two together after she caught herself.  She leaned forward to plant a big wet kiss on his cheek.

Trevor felt his body tingle as he got his first preview of Lauren’s cigar breath upclose as her lips touched his cheek.  The feeling of her lips hung on his cheek and he first wondered if she’d left a big brown nicotine stain on it and then started fantasizing about what might go on between the two of them later in the night.

“Ummm, you asked if anybody had a problem with the cigar smoke,” Brian reminded, legitimately annoyed that nobody seemed to be paying attention to him.  “Hello….I’ve got a big problem with it!”

Haylee looked at him and smirked with her cigarette dangling from her lips, responding “I think you were overruled, Brian!”

As Haylee’s smoke flowed into Brian’s airspace, successfully accomplishing her goal of silencing him, Michelle dismissively ran her hand through Brian’s hair and instead put him to work.  “Brian, why don’t get your friends something to drink.”

“Oh, sorry!” Lauren exclaimed with cigar smoke flowing from her mouth.  “I forgot to get everybody drinks earlier!  Let me help you with that, Brian,” Lauren said, placing her cigar in her mouth and jumping out of her chair.

Trevor was thrilled that the evening was back on track, watching Lauren walk into the kitchen with the big cigar in her mouth and watching a defeated Brian slink his way behind Lauren.  Trevor couldn’t help but appreciate the irony that only a year ago, the three smokers of the Nelson family all went out of their way to accommodate Brian’s disapproval of their habit, but only a year removed from Thanksgiving at the McPherson family and Brian’s objections were dismissed as easily as elevator music.

Lauren removed the cigar from her mouth and announced the beverage options to her guests.

Haylee made brief eyes with Brian and called out “Demon’s punch for me please,” in reference to the spiked punch at the Halloween party.

Brian returned Haylee’s glance and knew this was her way of flirting with him as Lauren giggled and responded, “Sorry Haylee.  Not one of our options tonight.  I want you sober as I kick your ass at cards.”

Michelle once again shook her head watching her daughter put the big cigar back into her mouth as Lauren opened the fridge and pulled out a jug of iced tea and a two-liter of Pepsi, holding the fridge door open for Brian as he took more drinks out. Michelle flashed a quick annoyed look at Craig as he helped her put her coat on.

“Have fun tonight, guys,” Craig announced to the room before walking out the door with Michelle.  “I’m sure we’ll be home long after you’ve all left.”

The room bid the Nelsons adieu and once the door was closed, Lauren gave Brian a victorious glare, the cigar confidently clutched between her jaws as the two of them walked back into the dining room and offered everybody their soft drinks of choice.

————————

A half hour passed and a dominant theme was beginning to take hold.  Lauren was beginning to consolidate everybody else’s nickels, dimes, and quarters after a string of winning hands while offering nothing in return but a relentless tidal wave of cigar smoke for them to choke on.

Haylee was the last remaining player this hand and showed her cards, announcing “Two pairs,” through a talking dangle.

The cigar, which seemed to still be mostly intact, lurked ominously in Lauren’s mouth and made her ensuing smirk all the more intimidating before she announced, “Three ladies!!!” in a muffled tone through the cigar in her mouth, showing her hand and revealing she had three queens.  She reached to the center of the table and once again pulled the money from the pot toward her while belching out more blasts of cigar smoke from her mouth with every breath.

Lauren looked at Haylee and rubbed her nose in it, briefly removing the cigar from her mouth and adding, “Pleaaasure doing business with you!” before grabbing hold of the deck of the cards to deal again.

Trevor looked on with highly elevated sexual energy.  He’d seen Lauren’s competitive side before and she was really starting to lay it on thick tonight, validated after a number of winning hands and starting to become obnoxious about it.  If Trevor cared one bit about the card game, he might be just as annoyed as he sensed the rest of the table was starting to become, but the entirety of his energy was focused on Lauren’s impossibly sexy presentation and how her “sore winner” arrogance was feeding that presentation in the most intense possible way.  Watching her deal out the hand of cards with the giant cigar planted in the center of her mouth and streams of cloudy smoke endlessly spilling out of both corners of her mouth, he said a silent prayer to himself that Lauren had some kind of plan to get some alone time with him later in the night.

Just before picking up the cards Lauren had dealt him, Wade looked up to the lights again, continuing to be annoyed by the flickering fluorescent bulb just overhead.  He leaned down to the side of his chair and began to announce, “Sorry Lauren but I can’t handle that flickering light anymore,” pulling his cowboy hat from the floor and preparing to put it on top of his head.

Lauren observed as Wade spoke, a tidal wave of post-traumatic terror briefly filling her face at the split second Wade’s cowboy hat came into view.  Trevor noticed Lauren’s response out of the corner of his eye and Wade noticed it too.  He was confused as he put the hat on his head and then watched Lauren quickly revert to normal, puckering her mouth around the cigar for another deep draw and a messy follow-up exhale.  Lauren hoped Wade wouldn’t ask about her visceral response to seeing the cowboy hat, and Wade kept his mouth shut.  But he’d done enough EMT training over the years to instinctively recognize an abuse trigger when he saw one.

Lauren kept flashing her eyes Wade’s direction, recognizing the mental gears were grinding in his head and that he may be starting to put two and two together.  She put her arm over Trevor’s shoulder as a way of signalling that Trevor had nothing to do with whatever Wade was currently suspecting.  And then all at once it hit him why Lauren responded the way she did at the sight of his cowboy hat as he remembered that she was alone for a suspiciously long period of time with Dusty Beaudry on the day of the rodeo.  Suddenly things were starting to make sense for Wade, who had his concerns that day, but wrote them off when Lauren returned seemingly no worse for wear.  But knowing what he did about Dusty Beaudry, Wade began to feel his stomach tighten as he speculated again what may have happened to Lauren that day.

“Deuces wild,” Lauren announced in a muffle through her dangling cigar as everybody lifted their cards.

Haylee lit another cigarette and while she was distracted, she sensed Brian was peeking her direction to get a look at her cards.  Pulling her cards to her chest, Haylee half-jokingly exclaimed through her talking dangle “Eyes on your own cards, asshole!”

“I wasn’t looking at your cards, stupid!” Brian snapped back, exaggeratedly waving her cigarette smoke away from his face once again.

“Yeah right!  Nobody believes anything that comes out of your mouth, Brian!” Haylee said with sustained eye contact that let him know her suspicions about him blurting to his friends about their sexual escapades in the hot tub on Halloween.

“Pffft!  The only thing that comes out of your mouth is cancer!” Brian snapped back.

“Oh Christ!” Courtney snapped from across the room, mentholated cigarette smoke spewing from her mouth and nose.  “You two need to just get a room!” she exclaimed with a half-joking annoyance regarding their ongoing bickering.

Haylee and Brian immediately retreated to silence, recognizing that their sexual tension was becoming obvious to everyone in the room.  Trevor and Lauren also gulped awkwardly at Courtney’s astute observation, both knowing juicy little nuggets about Haylee and Brian’s past dalliances but neither knowing that the other knew.

The card players requested the number of cards they wanted for the second round of this hand.  After picking up his hand and seeing a favorable set of cards, Wade announced, “I’m in!”

Clutching her teeth around the cigar, Lauren responded with “Me too, cowboy!”  She then pulled the cigar out of her mouth, blew out another gigantic snootful of smoke for the rest of the table to choke on and added “And I’ll raise you a dollar!” as she dropped the first greenback of the night into the middle of the table along with the pile of change already sitting there.

Wade furrowed his brow, intrigued by Lauren’s aggressive gesture as everybody else at the table folded.  “Getting pretty spendy around here,” he said with a smirk.

Lauren smirked back, playfully but obnoxiously responding, “Awww, well if it’s too rich for you then you better fold your cards,” with a sweet closing flourish before putting her cigar back into the side of her mouth positioning it at a 60-degree rightward angle projecting out of her mouth while continuing to draw from it.

“You don’t scare me!” Wade responded, dropping a dollar bill into the pot and hoping Lauren wasn’t gonna raise him again.  When she didn’t he showed his hand.  “Read ’em and weep.  Jack-high straight!” he announced confidently as he lowered his cards to the table.

Lauren puckered her mouth around her cigar with a smirk that had become all too familiar to everybody at the table.  She removed the cigar from her mouth and belched out another dizzying blast of cigar smoke into the crowd as she showed her hand.  “Not good enough…..full boat!”

Lauren grabbed hold of Trevor’s shoulder with unrestrained jubilation, cigar smoke still flowing from her mouth toward his face, before she looked back at Wade, who was looking over the cards she just dropped.

Wade good-naturedly smiled and congratulated her.  “Good job.  You got me!”

Lauren playfully but obnoxiously quipped  “Nothing personal, my good sir!  Juuuust business!” as she put the cigar back into the corner of her mouth, with Trevor recognizing she was hamming it up to the degree she was entirely for his benefit.

Wade maintained his smile despite finding Lauren’s pluck becoming increasingly annoying, particularly as she was rapidly draining him of the pile of change he brought with him for the evening.

Lauren kept the cigar parked in her mouth and aggressively leaned forward to pull in the money, maintaining her shtick as she muttered through the dangling cigar, “Cooome to mama!” while pulling her winnings toward her.

Courtney, more annoyed than anybody else at the table by Lauren tonight, nonetheless chuckled at that comment, her face turning red as she remembered the last time she heard those words come from Lauren’s mouth when she was getting railed by Trevor at the family cabin last summer.  Courtney took a drag from her cigarette, maintaining an increasingly artificial smile to hide the annoyance and unease in her eyes.

Lauren flashed another smile at Wade, hoping to help him forget the traumatic flashback he witnessed from her a few minutes earlier as she playfully said, “I think I’m gonna need that cowboy hat from you too!”

Wade smirked and teased back, “Girl, everybody knows you don’t touch a cowboy’s hat!”

“You gotta pay off your debts!” Lauren playfully countered.

Wade lifted the hat from his head and set it atop Lauren’s.  Everybody laughed seeing the cowboy hat awkwardly resting atop the head of the cigar-chomping Lauren.  As checked out as Courtney was, she still took another set of pics on her phone as Lauren posed with the hat on her head and the cigar clutched between her jaws, doing her best to suppress her giggles.

Trevor continued to be in awe as he watched her, thinking to himself how uncomfortable it seemed for her to clutch that huge cigar into her mouth all night long, especially when she was used to cigarettes which were only a fraction as stout.  As she pulled the cigar out of her mouth and cut loose another considerable blast of smoke into everybody’s airspace, he couldn’t take his eyes off of the cigar in her hand which she’d now been smoking for nearly an hour but still wasn’t even half gone, a long grey ash hanging on the end with a considerable stream of smoke rising from the lit end and a smaller trickle of smoke escaping the back end.  As he admired the considerable moisture on the cap of the cigar and recognized that Lauren’s saliva was responsible for that wetness, he felt the midsection of his jeans rise again and questioned how long he could physically contain this sexual excitement before he exploded, literally and figuratively.

As she began to deal out a new hand, Lauren looked at Wade and pushed the envelope further, proclaiming “Next I’m coming after your truck!”

Wade chuckled and then responded, “Have mercy on me girl.  I need some money left for Courtney’s Christmas gifts.  Black Friday’s coming up, ya know.”

Courtney’s artificial smile briefly became legitimate when Wade made eye contact with her as she took a final drag from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 and crushed it out into the ash can with the half dozen she’d already smoked since arriving.

Trevor chimed in, teasing his older sister and telling Wade, “You definitely need to change your luck and win big tonight then!  She’s got expensive tastes!”

Wade nodded in teasing agreement as Haylee added through a talking dangle, “Sorry Wade, but I just can’t imagine you fighting your way through the malls on Black Friday with bags of gifts on both arms.”

The room collectively laughed at the image Haylee painted, to which Wade smirked and declaratively responded, “You are absolutely right about that!  Thank goodness for online shopping, huh?” unaware that he’d just opened up a can of worms with his girlfriend with that comeback.

Courtney flicked a new Marlboro Light Menthol 100 to life and gave Wade a disapproving glare, taking a long drag as she gathered her thoughts and finally responded after releasing one of her trademark lengthy exhales that rocketed across the table into Lauren and Trevor’s airspace.  “I guess I’m not surprised but I’m still a little disappointed to hear you’re an online shopper, babe,” Courtney scolded, softening the blow by stroking Wade’s face affectionately with her non-cigarette hand.

Wade looked confused as he responded, “What’s wrong with shopping online?”

Courtney raised her brow as if surprised he needed to ask and then replied as gently as she could. “Uh, hello.  I work at the mall!”

Wade nodded, sort of getting Courtney’s point but nonetheless challenging her as he asked, “Your store has a website for ordering online, right?”

Courtney nodded as she dragged from her cigarette, a slow burn of anger clear in her eyes as she replied, “It does, but leather fits each person’s shape very precisely.  It’s hard enough to get the size right ordering online with regular clothes.  It’s even harder with leather.”  Courtney paused before releasing the long, dense exhale she’d held inside of her while answering Wade’s question and then added with continued restrained annoyance, “And when you have to send all your Christmas gifts back because they don’t fit, the whole concept of gift-giving kind of loses its effect.”

Wade nodded as he listened, recognizing that Courtney had clearly given this some thought while nonetheless identifying some holes in her story.  “Well, I still think the pros will outweigh the cons and I’ll probably take my chances shopping online.”

Courtney briefly lost her cool but restrained her anger as much as was possible as she responded, “Well I hope you plan to support me then because if everybody else shops online for Christmas I won’t have a job much longer.”

The room went briefly silent as the tension between Courtney and Wade came to a head.  Wade briefly turned red but decided to let the argument die.

From the across the table, Lauren finished dealing the latest hand of cards, bulbous cigar still hanging out of her teenage mouth, and she flashed Wade a quick pitying smirk to nonverbally convey a what’s-wrong-with-your-girlfriend-tonight inquiry.  Wade was pondering the same mystery and was not surprised that others at the table were picking up on it as well.

As the hand of cards played out and delivered a rare win for Brian for the evening, Lauren took another deep draw from her cigar, theatrically exhaling another massive cloud of smoke to further reduce the room’s already highly limited visibility.  She looked at the considerable ash hanging on the end of the cigar and for only the second time since she lit it well over an hour ago, she approached it to the ash can in front of her, rolling the edge of the cigar along the perimeter of the undersized ashtray.  She sensed that Trevor was watching every second awaiting the moment when the long grey ash detached from the rest of the cigar and succumbed to gravity, and when it finally did, Lauren looked over to her boyfriend and confirmed her suspicion correct.  She flashed Trevor a sweet smile as she put the cigar back to her mouth for another draw, but was unaware that someone else at the table was watching just as closely.

“Alright, Lauren,” Haylee announced, curiosity having finally gotten the better of her.  “Hand me that cigar for a minute.  I want to try it.”

“Nooooo!” Brian bellyached upon hearing Haylee’s request.

Lauren giggled and used the cigar to point at Haylee’s recently lit Camel Pink No. 9, asking “Trade ya?”

Haylee nodded with a smile as the two girls reached right over Brian, with Haylee passing Lauren her Camel Pink No. 9 and Lauren handing Haylee the cigar, both girls making sure they did so right under Brian’s nose to maximize his annoyance as he grumbled, nonetheless intrigued by the possibility of seeing Haylee smoke the cigar just as Trevor was intrigued by it.

“Hang on a sec, Hales,” Courtney said, recovering quickly from her verbal spat with Wade and readying her camera to once again record Haylee trying her first cigar.

Even half-smoked, the cigar looked huge in Haylee’s hand as she approached it to her lips, but Lauren intervened with a quick warning before it touched her mouth.  “Be sure not to inhale like you do with a cigarette or it’ll knock you on your ass!”  Lauren giggled and then added, “I made that mistake when I tried my first cigar.”

Before Haylee worked up the courage to draw from the cigar, Lauren approached Haylee’s Camel Pink No. 9 to her lips and took an extremely indulgent drag, inhaling the cigarette smoke as deeply as she could to get a more conventional nicotine hit and coughing hard in response.  Haylee’s Camel Pinks were not Lauren’s favorite, but after more than an hour of only occasionally and accidentally inhaling from the cigar, the cigarette smoke in her lungs felt like heaven.

Haylee took her first draw from the cigar, instinctively inhaling the smoke and quickly choking in response, her lungs briefly overwhelmed by the hard-core nicotine delivery of the cigar.

Lauren giggled.  “That’s exactly what I did!  We’re so used to inhaling that we really have to check ourselves not to with a cigar.”

“Or…and hear me out here….” Brian snarked,  “….you could just not smoke either one and not have to worry about coughing up a lung!” trying to hide the cheap thrill he was getting from seeing the cute 15-year-old girl who stole his virginity pulling the giant cigar to her lips for a second attempt.

Trevor kept his eyes trained in two directions, watching Lauren make quick work of the Camel Pink she exchanged with Haylee with one eye while watching Haylee draw from the big cigar and then release a considerable blast of smoke in front of her as she exhaled.  The contrast between Haylee’s pastel pink hoodie and leggings combination with the big brown cigar in her mouth couldn’t have possibly been more dramatic, and Trevor couldn’t help but notice that Brian was having a similar response to seeing it as he was.

“So what do you think of it, Haylee?” Wade asked from across the room.

Haylee smacked her lips inquisitively as she pulled the cigar away following her third draw, a mess of smoke swirling around her face as she replied, “I haven’t decided yet.”

Courtney waved Haylee’s cigar smoke away from her face and chimed in, “Well you already outlasted me by two puffs.  It only took me once to know I didn’t like it!”

Sensing that Brian was watching her with fascination as she approached the wet cigar cap to her lips for another draw, Haylee puffed from it and then extended the cigar Brian’s direction till it was right under his nose, sarcastically asking, “Wanna try it, Brian?”

“Get that thing away from me!” Brian protested, pushing her hand away and doing his best to make everybody think he was disgusted by it and hoping they didn’t look down and notice the throbbing erection he was sporting under the table.

Haylee gave him a mischievous smirk and then proceeded to blow a huge blast of cigar smoke directly into his face.

“Oh you bitch!” Brian continued to mock protest, pretending to launch into a coughing fit from the assault of Haylee’s cigar smoke that was somehow horribly unpleasant and intensely erotic at the same time.

Lauren’s giggles overwhelmed the table but Courtney dressed her younger sister down, snapping at her with “Haylee, now that was just rude!” unaware Haylee was flirting with him.

The shit-eating grin remained on Haylee’s face as she took another puff from the cigar and then turned Brian’s direction to mock apologize.  “Soooorry Brian,” Haylee teased in a tone that was far more flirty than contrite.

Brian just shook his head as he prepared to deal out another hand of cards, unable to come up with a snappy comeback that was worthy of the emasculation he just received from Haylee, watching as Haylee put the large cigar in her mouth attempting to dangle it the way Lauren had been doing much of the night.

For a couple more minutes, Haylee continued to puff from the cigar in her mouth, but kept instinctively inhaling from it and coughing in response.  Finally, Haylee took the cigar from her mouth and looked Lauren’s direction at the very moment Lauren was finishing off the Camel Pink No. 9 she’d handed her earlier.  Haylee reached past Brian to pass the cigar back to Lauren, but during the exchange a small ember of smoldering tobacco went airborne and floated its way right into Brian’s wrist.

“Ouch!” Brian cried.  “What did you do that for!?!”

Haylee seemed genuinely concerned as she reached for Brian’s wrist to investigate the harm, ironically pulling the cigar even closer to Brian while doing so, but was unable to see any burn marks.  “Sorry again, Brian,” Haylee remarked, this time with more sincerity.

“Not only is my life in danger from the smoke from you two, but now I gotta worry about getting burned too!?” Brian grumbled with as much feigned drama as he could muster.

“Pooooor Brian!” Haylee mocked with an emasculating smirk and then looked to Trevor with an evil grin as an old memory came to the forefront.  “I’ve used my smokes as a weapon against guys for a long time now, Brian.  You can ask Trevor about that!  He was my last victim!”

All eyes at the table turned to Trevor, who merrily recalled the moment on the family drive up to the cabin a year and a half earlier.  “You’ve been warned, Brian.  She’s a vicious menace!  And I’ve still got the scar to prove it,” Trevor added, pointing to a small and barely noticeable mark just under his chin.

Lauren giggled as she pulled close to investigate Trevor’s chin, asking “What happened?”

Haylee pulled the cigar up to her mouth for another draw, smiling as she recalled the incident.  “Courtney and I were in a full-on slugfest one day driving up to the cabin and poor Trevor was stuck sitting between us in the backseat.  My cigarette accidentally went right under his chin.”

Courtney nodded along to the story as she dragged from her cigarette, adding “I remember that,” and couldn’t suppress a slightly lustful smile as she added through a talking exhale, “Dad pulled over and whooped your ass for that one, Haylee.”

Lauren giggled and said to Trevor, “Show me!” as she couldn’t see the burn mark until Trevor turned her direction and pointed directly to it.   “Oh yeah!” Lauren finally remarked.  “I see it now!”

Trevor rode the nostalgic wave as he remarked, “That happened on the day I met you,” making eye contact with Lauren and adding, “Remember how I had that bandage under my chin when we first met on the lake?”

“Oh that’s right,” Lauren responded with a nostalgic smile.  “I always wondered what happened there.”

“Collateral damage from Haylee,” Trevor responded, eliciting laughter from the room.

“Oh that’s so cute!” Lauren exclaimed.  “We were brought together because of Haylee’s vicious attack!”

Haylee smirked as she took one final draw from the cigar, looking at Brian mischievously and warning, “So you better stay in line there, kid.  I’m an out-of-control menace!”

“You don’t have remind me about that!” Brian snapped back with a mild air of playfulness as he caressed the wrist where the ember from Haylee’s cigar landed.  “I got the proof right here on my wrist!”

Haylee smiled and then wrinkled her nose at the after taste from the cigar, making a second attempt to hand it back to Lauren and saying, “Well I tried it Lauren but I don’t think it’s for me,” quickly reaching for her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s with her other hand.

Lauren giggled and reclaimed the cigar, confidently exclaiming, “That’s cool.  Just means moooore for meeee!” She fluttered her eyes suggestively at Trevor as she put the cigar back into her mouth, in seconds pumping out a fresh blast of cigar smoke that she would resume to fill the dining room back up with for the remainder of the evening.  A flash of annoyance briefly emerged on Lauren’s face as she took the half-smoked cigar out of her mouth and noticed it was burning unevenly.  She knew this was a common issue with larger cigars from the research she did before putting on this show, but was determined to correct it.

Lauren reached back into the inside pocket of her leather jacket to take her torch lighter back out.  “I gotta fix this thing,” she announced to the room, putting the cigar back into her mouth and applying the flame to the uneven portion of the cigar’s burn line.  She began to aggressively draw on the cigar and Wade watched nervously as the flame enlarged and rose toward the brim of his cowboy hat that was still resting atop Lauren’s head.

“Whoa!” Wade said as the flame rose uncomfortably close to his hat brim.  “Don’t burn up my hat there girl,” reaching over to reclaim his hat from Lauren after the close call.

Lauren took the cigar out of her mouth and quickly determined the burn line was satisfactory again, flashing Wade a guilty look and saying “Sorry.  I didn’t burn it did I?” showing genuine concern as Wade looked over the underside of the hat brim.

“Nah, looks like we’re okay here,” Wade replied, seeing no indication of burn residue on the hat and then putting it back on his head.

“Good!” Lauren exclaimed with relief, giggling and adding, “Because burning guys’ hats is what I do, you know?!?” putting the cigar back in her mouth for an extended dangle and instantly regretting letting slip those last few words.

Wade’s eyes lit up at the awkward comment, staring at Lauren and rhetorically inquiring, “Is that right?” the circuits in his brain suddenly firing on all cylinders as he processed the second odd incident with Lauren tonight involving a cowboy hat.

Lauren quickly tried to deflect the accidental confession, speaking in muffled tones through the big cigar dangling from her mouth as she responded “Just teasing,” and then pausing to add “Now let’s play some poker!” bursts of smoke pouring from her mouth and into everybody else’s airspace with every spoken syllable.

Visually surveying Trevor and Lauren both awkwardly avoiding eye contact with him, Wade’s eyes lit up with the epiphany that fully connected the dots as he recalled Dusty Beaudry was wearing a ball cap when he dropped Lauren off that day in the rodeo.  Wade had asked him why he wasn’t wearing his cowboy hat and Dusty’s story that he sat on it never made a lot of sense.

Wade picked up the hand of cards dealt to him, but his mind was now fully preoccupied with his own unsavory past with Dusty Beaudry, kicking himself at this moment for not trusting his instinct on the day of the rodeo that he had made an unwelcome advance on Lauren.  Darting his eyes occasionally up to Lauren, he could now tell by her awkward avoidance of eye contact that something untoward happened that day, and that somehow Dusty’s cowboy hat had become a casualty of that encounter.   And now Wade figured Lauren knew that he knew it.   Wade flashed an artificial smile to Courtney sitting next to him dragging from her latest menthol cigarette, matching several of the artificial smiles he’d gotten from her this evening.  They were both checked out from the card game at this point, but for very different reasons.

———————————-

A half hour later, her two-thirds-smoked cigar still clutched between her teeth, Lauren once again reached to the center of the table to pull in her winnings after another successful hand.  She plucked the cigar from her mouth and released another overbearing exhale that filled up the airspace of the table, obnoxiously shouting, “How do you like my poker face now, bitches?!?!” before reinserting the moist cigar into the corner of her mouth.

Trevor sat next to her, the volcano of sexual energy percolating inside of him inching that much closer to eruption watching in adoration as his girlfriend successfully worked the room and seized this situation for an evening of performance art dedicated specifically to him.  He expected Lauren’s performance was circling laps around whatever Craig and Michelle paid good money to see at the dinner theater that night.  Eager to show his appreciation as best he could despite the crowd, he reached his hand under the table and squeezed Lauren’s thigh in those tight white pants he’d wanted to get inside all night.  Lauren turned briefly to him with loving eyes that scarcely camouflaged her theatrical mischievousness, her teeth tightly clenched around that slowly shrinking cigar.

But Trevor knew by now that he was definitely alone among his fellow card players at the table in still being amused by Lauren’s histrionics, and a quick scan of their body language reinforced their rising tide of annoyance.   However cute Lauren’s cigar-chomping bravado was an hour and a half ago, it had long ago lost its shine for Wade, Courtney, and Haylee, whose vanishing supply of change that had mostly been donated to Lauren tonight only elevated their frustration.  They all glared at her as the cigar smoke kept pouring out of her mouth with every breath, all in disbelief that the cigar was still going after all this time and that Lauren had not yet gotten sick of it and retired it…..because they certainly were sick of it, as they were reminded of with every wave that drifted toward their noses.

Courtney was done being polite, wrinkling her nose and aggressively waving away the latest burst of Lauren’s cigar smoke, coughing in part due to her own lung congestion but also because of the cigar smoke invasion.  She stood up as she crushed out her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 into the ash can, looking at Wade and muttering, “I gotta go to the bathroom and get away from this cigar smoke.”

Wade nodded as his eyes migrated toward Lauren as did the rest of the table, seeing a childlike frown emerge on Lauren’s face.  As Courtney began to walk away, Lauren called out, “I’m sorry Courtney.  I can put it out if you want me to.”

Trevor held his breath, once again in danger of his fantasy ending too early as he awaited Courtney’s response along with the rest of the table.

Courtney looked back, giving apologetic eyes to Lauren that immediately calmed Lauren and Trevor before Courtney formally responded, “Nahhh it’s okay, Lauren.  I just need to get out of here a couple of minutes,” before she continued en route to the bathroom.

“Maybe she’s okay with it but I’m still gonna ask you to put the cigar out!” Brian snarked.

Lauren took another puff from her cigar as she watched Courtney disappear, only moments later getting around to responding to Brian almost as an afterthought, dismissively barking out, “Nobody cares what you want!” Lauren then looked to Wade to finally ask the question that had been at the tip of everybody’s tongue all night.  “Why is Courtney so crabby tonight?” she asked in a near-whisper, cigar smoke trickling out of her mouth with every breath.

Wade raised his brow as if expecting the question was coming, “Y’all noticed that too, huh?  It’s not just me?”

Haylee then chimed in, musing through a talking dangle, “I thought you guys had a fight on the drive here or something.”

Wade shook his head no and said, “No…nothing like that,” pausing to add, “Maybe something’s going on at work with Black Friday coming up or something.”

The group nodded as Lauren began to deal another hand, at which point Wade announced, “But let’s make this the last hand of the night, Lauren.  I think we should head home.”

“Okay,” Lauren responded through the cigar in her mouth, trying to hide her excitement about the crowd poised to disperse at pretty much the exact time she hoped they would, returning Trevor’s gesture of gently squeezing his thigh under the table as a cue that things were about to heat up.

Wade picked up his cards to look at another disappointing hand, telegraphing his frustration by looking up to Lauren and quipping, “I think the rest of us need to get out of here before we lose our gas money to get home.”

Lauren giggled as she removed the cigar from her mouth and then made a special request directed toward Wade.  “Do you think you could talk Courtney into going out for ice cream afterwards with Haylee and Brian?  I’d kind of like some alone time with Trevor,” she asked with a sweet, apologetic tone as she shifted her eyes toward Trevor while twisting her hair between her fingers, making her intentions abundantly clear.

“Ewwww!” Haylee playfully retorted in the middle of a dangling exhale.

“Nobody wants to hear about that!!!” Brian chirped more boisterously in near unison with Haylee.

Wade smirked to hide his annoyance as he had different plans for the rest of his night, but responded, “I’ll see if I can talk her into it.”

“Thanks.  You’re so sweet!” Lauren responded enthusiastically before putting the moist cigar back in her mouth and then looked at Trevor who was visibly sharing her elation, hoping they could dodge this one final bullet needed to make their desperately needed nightcap happen.

Courtney drifted back into the room as they finished off their final hand, with Trevor scoring a rare win for the night amidst the heckling grumbles of his peers.

“That’s just about as bad as Lauren winning again!  They’re just gonna share all of our money!” Brian sneered.

Courtney smiled and responded, “The rich just keep getting richer,” while offering up a nonverbally apologetic smile to Lauren, who giggled in response.

Wade then looked up to Courtney, hoping her mood had improved as he spoke on Lauren’s behalf, “How do you feel about heading out to Sonic for milkshakes?” guiding his eyes in Trevor and Lauren’s direction to tip her off that they wanted alone time.

Courtney smiled and seemed sincere as she responded, “That sounds fun.  Haylee and Brian coming with?”

“Yeah so my sister can get down your brother’s pants!” Brian crudely interjected, drawing another whack on the arm from Haylee.

Lauren could only a muster a lighthearted “Oh shut it!” to her younger brother, too high-strung about what laid ahead with Trevor to let Brian get to her.

The crowd bid another adieu and thanked Lauren for hosting, slowly migrating in the direction of the door.  As they teased her and Trevor for what they knew was likely on the horizon for them, Trevor smugly advised the crowd, “Go ahead and order the large shakes at Sonic.  The night is young.  There’s no hurry for you guys to come back here.”

Haylee lit a fresh cigarette and let it dangle from her lips, giving Lauren a playful wave that nonverbally conveyed a message of both “have fun” and “thank you” as she turned around for the front door.  Brian followed behind her, eyeballing her ass in those light pink leggings as she walked out just as Haylee was fully confident he would.

Once Courtney, Wade, Brian, and Haylee were all outside en route to Courtney’s car, Wade tapped Courtney on the shoulder.  “Would you mind if I was a party pooper tonight and had you drop me off at my place before you take these two to Sonic?” Wade asked.

Courtney took an intense drag from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 with an inquisitive and upset look on her face.  “Something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Wade responded confidently, adding in a reassuring tone, “Just got a few things I should do before morning.”

A jet of smoke soared out of Courtney’s respiratory system, accidentally drifting into Wade’s face as she nervously asked, “You’re not mad about the Black Friday thing are you?”

Wade shook his head in the negative, reassuring her again with his calm tone as he added, “No…no.  We’re good.  I’ll either see you again tomorrow or back here for Thanksgiving.”

Courtney leaned her head into Wade’s chest and added, “And then Thanksgiving dinner with your family on Saturday.  Can’t wait!” Courtney replied as she felt Wade’s forgiving lips gently kiss her forehead.

“Me neither, baby,” Wade replied.

Sensing the impatience of Brian and Haylee, Courtney unlocked her car and got behind the driver’s seat while Wade slipped into the passenger seat, leaving Brian and Haylee seated next to each other in the backseat.  Haylee knew that Lauren asked for the alone time with Trevor primarily for her own perverted reasons, but it would nonetheless give Haylee the opportunity she needed to get some time with Brian.  And right now, Haylee couldn’t decide if she wanted to lay into him for spilling the beans about their Halloween night hook-up or lay into him in an entirely different way.

————————–

Trevor sat in the same chair he had all night inside the Nelson dining room, watching as Lauren hastily removed all the glassware and snack bowls from the poker table, knowing everything his girlfriend was doing was being done for a reason and just riding it out for a few moments.  He knew it would be obvious when playtime had begun and as Lauren swiveled her hips around, clutching her three-quarters smoked cigar in her mouth, Trevor just sat back and let Lauren take the wheel.

Nobody did raw primal energy like Lauren, as Trevor was reminded of as she grabbed hold of his chair and swiveled it away from the table.  She looked down at his lap to see the bulge of his manhood lifting up the crotch of his jeans just as she suspected to see, and slowly began to wrap her legs around him in those tight white pants.   Facing him frontally, she sat on his lap and pulled herself toward him in slow motion.  Trevor could feel his heart race as he watched his beautiful girlfriend approach, the flickering fluorescent light from above illuminating her golden blond hair as it flowed down onto the sexy black leather jacket covering her upper body.  The normal stench of cigarette smoke that always clung to Lauren, and especially her leather jacket, was now completely overpowered by the smell of cigar.   Lauren’s spectacularly feminine presentation was either complemented or entirely contradicted by the giant stinky cigar jutting out of her mouth as she inched closer and closer to Trevor’s face.

“Hey baby,” Lauren greeted with maximal flirtation through the cigar in her mouth, the bursts of cigar smoke splashing into Trevor’s face from only a couple of inches away for the first time tonight.

“Hey,” Trevor softly responded, still adjusting to the dominating smell of Lauren’s cigar smoke as it flowed directly into his mouth and nose, wrapping one hand around her back to feel her long hair resting upon that black leather jacket and wrapping his other hand around her ass onto those white pants before rhetorically asking, “How’s your stogie?”

“Goooood!” Lauren responded with playful exaggeration while continuing to dangle the cigar and exhale the smoke directly into his face.

“Just a lucky guess that you knew I’d be into you smoking that thing huh?” Trevor mused, not figuring out that Lauren had read about it in his book of fiction as she hoped he wouldn’t.

“Mmmmm…..hmmmm,” Lauren responded while puckering her lips around the circumference of the cigar and blasting him directly in the face with a full exhale.

As the haze of smoke in front of his eyes began to dissipate, Trevor studied the burn line on the cigar and the long grey ash that so beautifully extended an inch or so in front of it.  “Getting pretty close to me with that thing, aren’t you?” Trevor asked provocatively.

As expected, Lauren pulled in even closer until the long ash on the end of the cigar touched Trevor’s nose.  She gambled that the ash wouldn’t be hot and drew on the cigar again, exhaling into Trevor’s face and slowly pulling away to observe the grey ash stain that lingered on the tip of Trevor’s nose.  Pulling back even further, Lauren removed the cigar from her mouth and approached it to the ash can she left on the table.   She maintained eye contact with Trevor while slow-rolling the cigar in a circular pattern on the lip of the butt can as seductively as possible until the ash fell off.

Trevor sat in silent bliss watching Lauren’s every move as she brought the cigar back to her mouth, placing the remaining two inches left on the cigar to her mouth and clutching it with her teeth.  She pulled in close to Trevor again as she puckered her lips around the end of the cigar, and Trevor watched the freshly ashed tobacco light up brightly, its rotund form reminding him of a midsummer sunset complete with the corresponding heat given its close range, the orange sphere quickly giving way to a total eclipse of dirty smoke as Lauren released from her mouth what she had just consumed.

Trevor clutched Lauren’s ass even more tightly to convey his erotic bliss as she began to take rapid-fire draws from the cigar, mercilessly blasting him in the face from close range with every exhale.  Lauren finally removed the cigar from her mouth yet continued to maintain the heavy breathing pattern she had built up amidst the rapid-fire cigar puffing, bursts of smoke still trickling from her face several breaths after taking the cigar out.  She beamed with a smile as she was about to give Trevor the first big reward that more than two hours of foreplay had led up to, leaning forward and aggressively pressing her lips to Trevor’s.

Trevor pulled Lauren close as forcefully as he could, finally getting the chance to taste two hours worth of her cigar breath in the most passionate possible way.   He recalled how aggressively Lauren had kissed him on the Sky Glider at the Minnesota State Fair after he revealed in detail the sex appeal of her smoking, and now it was his turn to kiss her like a beast.  Her cigar breath was every bit the combination of disgusting and inexplicably sensual as he’d hoped, and he felt like he was injecting it into his veins right now, plunging his tongue into her mouth like a dental probe.  He had waited two hours for this moment and he was damn well gonna make it worth his wait, devouring his girlfriend’s mouth and bringing a moment to life that he thought would only ever exist in his fiction.

For her part, Lauren was thrilled that her well-laid plan for tonight was bearing fruit and that Trevor was clearly digging it as much as she hoped he would.  She had even more intimate plans for Trevor before the night was done, but for now she was gonna enjoy the fiery passion she’d unleashed in her boyfriend for as long as he wanted to prolong this make out session.

—————————

Courtney pulled up in front of Wade’s apartment building to drop him off.  She looked lovingly at him but noticed his mind appeared to be elsewhere as it had the entire drive back.  She leaned forward to give him a kiss goodbye, regaining his attention as she pressed her cigarette-flavored lips to his.  “See you tomorrow night,” Courtney offered warmly, before softly muttering her words of contrition, “Sorry I was such a bitch tonight.”

Wade chuckled, and then responded, “No worries.  We’ll make up for it tomorrow.”

Courtney smiled back as Wade climbed out of the car and progressed toward his door.  She took a deep drag from her cigarette as she watched him walk away, releasing her considerable exhale through a troubled sigh before putting the car in reverse and projecting to those in the backseat as she said, “Nowww let’s go get those milkshakes.”

Courtney drowned out the sounds of incessant bickering from Haylee and Brian in the backseat, mostly coming from Brian in reference to Haylee’s secondhand smoke.  Just as Wade’s mind was elsewhere a bit ago, Courtney’s mind was elsewhere as she progressed onto a commercial strip, the neon lighting from the storefronts she passed illuminating the look of concern on her face as she intermittently dragged from her cigarette and exhaled her typically long plumes of smoke that hit the windshield and scattered both directions.  She took a finishing drag from her current Marlboro Light Menthol 100 and then tossed the butt out the cracked window, a smoker’s cough emerging from within her lungs in the ensuing seconds.

Seeing the Walgreen’s sign on the horizon, Courtney briefly opened her purse to take inventory of her cigarette supply.  She flipped the top of the Marlboro Light Menthol 100 box open and despite seeing that the pack was nearly full, she nonetheless called out to her passengers, “Sit tight for a couple of minutes, guys.  I’m out of smokes and am gonna stop at Walgreen’s.”

Haylee and Brian were quiet in the backseat as Courtney turned into the Walgreen’s lot, both nervous and excited about this alone time they were about to get.  Courtney pulled to the side of the store about 50 yards from the main entrance, and Haylee held her breath fearful she’d ask them to come in with her.  Instead, Courtney casually muttered,  “If you two can keep from killing each other for the next few minutes, I’ll be right back,” clearly distracted as she climbed out of the car and walked toward the drug store entrance.

Haylee pulled out a fresh cigarette from her pack and lit up as she watched Courtney wander out of sight, taking immediate advantage of the moment and turning to Brian with accusatory eyes.  “So I’ve been hearing around that you got lucky with some 10th grade girl on Halloween!” she said with an intense anger that matched the fire in her eyes, blasts of cigarette smoke spilling from her mouth and nose to fully authenticate the fury of a dragon.

Brian hoped she was simply being rhetorical but correctly feared from her tone that he’d been busted.  “Yeah, you were the one who pounced on me!” Brian downplayed just in case she was teasing, aggressively waving her smoke from his face as if still to make her feel like the villain.

“We agreed that was gonna be our secret!” Haylee barked through her continued talking dangle.  “What are you doing bragging to all your friends about it!?!  You had to know it was gonna get around?! How would you like it if I told all my friends you lasted like 30 seconds?!?”

“I didn’t tell,” Brian meekly protested in a very obvious fib, but quickly began to process and realize how Haylee found this out.  Hoping he was wrong, he anxiously probed, “Why do you think I told?”

Haylee gave him an obvious glare as she angrily asked, “Guess?!”

Brian lowered his eyes in shame as he replied, “Lauren?”

Haylee puckered her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag, making sure she directed her exhale into Brian’s face as punishment as she snapped back.  “Yeah!  She knows all about it!”

“Shit,” Brian moaned in response, at least for the moment too embarrassed to notice the wave of Haylee’s exhaled smoke crashing into his face.  He shook his head, not knowing how to respond, before quietly offering “I’m sorry,” in a rare moment of contrition.

Haylee couldn’t help but smile as she observed this infrequent occasion where Brian’s softer side was on display, his head hung down in shame and worry.  Haylee took another intense dangling drag from her cigarette and then reached up to pull it out of her mouth, sidling toward Brian and catching him completely off-guard as she flirtatiously offered through her talking exhale, “Well we’re not gonna have long before Courtney’s back so let’s make it count.”

Brian was startled that Haylee had forgiven him so quickly and went from pissed off to frisky in a matter of seconds.  As Haylee’s lips approached his, smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose, Brian was reminded again how little he understood about girls, but at least at this moment he was more than willing to write off his ignorance as more of an asset than a liability as Haylee’s intensely tobacco-flavored tongue slipped into his.

After about 10 seconds of kissing, she pulled back for a split second to warn him through heavy breathing, “You keep your eye open for that door and let me know the second you see Courtney, okay?”

“Yeah,” Brian responded, wrapping his arms around Haylee and pulling her toward him to make out some more, quickly lowering his hand to grab hold of her ass which had been driving him crazy all night into those tight pink leggings.  He caressed her ass cheeks as she reached her hand under his shirt to grab hold of his chest.

The frisky young lovers continued to take full advantage of their limited-time make out opportunity, aggressively thrusting their tongues into each other’s mouths.  Brian was so preoccupied with his lust for Haylee’s body that he was mostly able to block her repulsive tobacco breath out of his mind.  As Haylee’s fingernails gently dug into his chest and stomach under his shirt, Brian reached up her hoodie to unzip it and reveal a tanktop underneath, lowering his mouth to her perky cleavage for the third time in the past year and listening to Haylee purr with pleasure as he orally worked her breasts.  He could feel her turning her head semiregularly to check for Courtney, and quickly smelled exhaled bursts of smoke from Haylee’s cigarette that she was dragging from as he worked her chest over.

Still hung up on those leggings as he mouthed her boobs above the bra line, Brian lowered his hand down her stomach and onto her crotch, gently pinching his fingers as he worked his way to her female parts.  Much as he wanted to venture his hands inside the leggings, and suspected that Haylee wanted it as well as her purring became more intense with the digital pressure he was applying on her vagina outside the pastel pink spandex of her leggings, Brian stopped himself, knowing that time was limited and that the last thing either of them needed was another of their siblings finding out Haylee and Brian were part-time lovers.

Meanwhile, inside the Walgreen’s, Courtney progressed down the aisles with apprehension on her face, as if talking herself into the purchase that she knew she had to make.  Finally arriving at her destination, she stared coldly at the display of home pregnancy tests.  Now more than five weeks late for her period and feeling morning sickness almost every day and at various intervals at other times of the day, Courtney knew it was long past time to get some clarity on this.  At this point, it seemed like an almost certainty that one of her eggs had been fertilized, but it still wasn’t easy to muster up the willpower to make this purchase.  She evaluated the multiple varieties of pregnancy tests for sale in front of her and eventually grabbed hold of the one that seemed most likely to be reliable.  She crossed her fingers for a miracle but knew an even harder call to an OB/GYN was likely on the horizon even if she was lucky enough to avoid two pink lines on this test.  She wondered how it came to this since she was on birth control, scanning her brain to recall if there were any days she might have forgotten to take the pill.

Courtney slow-walked her way toward the front of the store with pregnancy test in hand, deep in thought about how and when she could break the news to Wade.  It was hard enough to even face him and keeping it from him would get increasingly difficult as the days went on, as tonight’s card game proved.  Whether it was making excuses for her frequent trips to the bathroom, getting nauseous from the smell of Lauren’s cigar smoke, or using coded language to try to keep him from buying her clothing for Christmas that would no longer fit her expanding belly, their evening at the Nelsons was a perfect encapsulation of the minefield she’d be working her way through by trying to keep this from him.  And it would only get worse from here with two Thanksgiving dinners with her family and his coming up in the next few days.

Courtney shook her head with dread as she continued toward the checkout lane, thinking of the hell she was gonna catch when she broke the news to her parents.  She cringed even harder imagining breaking the news to Wade’s Norman Rockwell farm family, who she’d have to face in only four days, letting them know their son knocked up his whore of a girlfriend out of wedlock.  She laughed mildly to herself while briefly considering the strong possibility that she may have conceived on the night in September that she met his parents, as she and Wade engaged in some hard-core mattress rodeo when they got back to his place that night.

As she got within the last several yards of the front register, she grabbed a candy bar from one side of the aisle and an air freshener from the other side, hoping to reduce the embarrassment of facing the middle-aged male clerk behind the counter with the centerpiece of her purchase.  She sighed one last time as she stepped up to the checkout lane, setting her three items down and realizing there was no turning back now.  She let a brief smile pass her face as she pondered the possible upside of having a child with the man she fell in love with.  The timing was not right, but it was better than it would have been a year earlier when she recalled her sex partners before Wade came along.  The transaction was soon complete and the clerk put Courtney’s purchases in a bag as she slowly drifted toward the exit.

Back in the car, Haylee and Brian continued their make out session, surprised by how long Courtney’s absence had given them to indulge their forbidden romance, but as Brian looked up to see Courtney stepping out of the store he pulled back quickly, alerting Haylee with a curt “Courtney!”

The two of them spread apart to the opposite sides of the sedan’s backseat, grooming their rustled hair with their hands and smoothing out the wrinkles in their clothes.  Haylee looked up to see Courtney dangling an unlit cigarette as she approached, lighting it up and dangle-dragging as she approached the car, too preoccupied with her own issues to have any suspicions about what Haylee and Brian were up to while she was gone.

Placing her own mostly smoked cigarette back between her lips, Haylee flashed a quick playful smile at Brian and whispered “Play along,” just before Courtney got to the car door.

“The smell of your farts are way worse than whatever is coming from my cigarette!” Haylee snapped as if in mid-argument.

Brian smiled and said “I didn’t fart!”

“Yeah right!” Haylee replied through a talking dangle, smoke swirling in front of her face.

“Oh my God!” Courtney complained with exasperation through a talking dangle of her own, finally removing the cigarette from her mouth and adding,  “Would you two shut up?!  You’re giving me a headache!”

Haylee fluttered her eyebrows playfully at Brian as if to signal “nice work”.

“If you can quit bickering, we’ll still go to Sonic,” Courtney offered as she started the car.

“I’m good with that,” Brian replied.

Courtney backed her car out of the parking stall with plenty weighing on her mind, intending to drown her sorrows in a strawberry milkshake in a few minutes.

——————————–

Back at the Nelson house, Trevor continued to sit on the same chair he spent most of the night seated at, his smelly girlfriend still sitting on his lap with her legs wrapped around him and aggressively making out with him.  Just as had been their pattern for the last 10 minutes, Lauren briefly pulled away from the extended kiss, approaching the stub of the cigar she was still smoking to her lips for another deep draw.  She inched close to Trevor’s face and proceeded to blow smoke rings into his face, the rings larger and thicker than the cigarette smoke rings he was used to having blown in his face by Lauren.  He pulled her close to make out some more, persistently turned on by the prospect of reinforced cigar breath from Lauren’s kiss after every new puff.

Lauren’s breathing became increasingly labored and Trevor knew she’d reached her limit.  She pulled back once again and placed what was left of the wet cigar in her mouth, reaching down to Trevor’s jeans to unfasten the buckle and unzip the fly.  She aggressively pulled his jeans off of him, wrapping her hands around his boxers and stroking his stiff cock for a few moments before looking up with a smile.  She then pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it to the floor, taking him by the hand and lifting him off the chair, and then guiding him toward the dining room table where they’d played cards all night.

With a theatrical flourish, cigar stub still hanging from her mouth, Lauren proceeded to sweep her arm along the surface of the table, knocking all of the remaining change off of it and listening to the metallic rattle of all of her evening’s winnings fall to the dining room floor.  A smile beamed across Trevor’s face as Lauren aggressively pressed her body forward into his, forcing him to climb upon the tabletop and lay back.  Once lying on his back horizontally on the table, Lauren reached up to Trevor’s boxers, the only article of clothing left on him, and yanked them off of his body, excitedly leering at his stiff cock standing erect as it waited for her arrival.

Trevor knew from Lauren’s body language that tonight was gonna be her version of the rough domination he treated her to in the horse trailer at the Minnesota State Fair a few months earlier, and his suspicion was vindicated as Lauren climbed upon the table.  Lauren moved her body with the sleekness of a cat as she slowly approached him, her leather jacket hovering over him and her hips and knees working the fabric of those tight white pants to their limit.  As her body descended upon him with gravity dropping her long blond hair onto his bare chest, Trevor couldn’t help but feel intimidated as though he was the prey of a starving lioness in the final throes of hunting down her meal with a primal, single-minded focus.

Trevor reached up to help her remove her leather jacket, and she moved quickly to detach it from her body before proceeding to rip off the tanktop underneath with an abrupt thrust over her shoulders, somehow managing not to burn it with the cigar still clutched in her mouth.  Puffing copiously from the cigar as she reached back to unfasten her bra, Trevor reached to the crotch of her white pants to remove them as well.  As Lauren tossed the bra to the floor with the rest of her clothing, she quickly shifted the weight of her lower body briefly off of Trevor’s torso just long enough to slide the pants off of her hips, removing her panties along with it.

In seconds, Lauren was as free of her clothing as Trevor, still sporting the look of a lustful lioness as she descended back down upon Trevor, her beautifully naked body pressing atop his and the cigar in her mouth hanging only a few inches above Trevor’s face.  She positioned her hips over Trevor’s throbbing dick and thrust herself onto it, her face filled with passion as she enjoyed her first penetration in more than two months.

Trevor exchanged loving looks as he felt Lauren’s moist female parts warmly engulf his manhood, their mutual nonverbal cues expressing that they never again wanted to go this long without enjoying each other’s sexuality again.  But in the aftermath of that sweet moment, the raging inferno of libidinous lust returned to Lauren’s face, the feeling of having Trevor inside of her reinforcing her surge of carnal adrenaline.  With a raw intensity on her face, Lauren foisted her hips up and down to treat Trevor to the roughest and most ragged penetrations he’d ever experienced from her.

Lauren leaned forward semiregularly to treat him to an assault of cigar smoke into his face every bit as reckless and uninhibited and the assault of primal female sexual aggression she was treating his reproductive parts to.  Trevor looked up to the ever-shrinking stub of the cigar clutched tightly between Lauren’s jaws hanging right over his face, the bright orange glow of what was left on the tobacco terrifying him given how tenuous Lauren’s oral grip on the hot, wet cigar butt had to be at this point.  But whenever he began to bemoan the risk she was exposing him to with the cigar hanging over his face, he was quickly distracted by her violent sexual thrusts, and he could both feel and hear the banging of his bones and muscles onto the hard table as she weaponized her body to repeatedly nail him down.

But as erotically terrifying as Lauren’s incredibly rough sexual presentation was, nothing could match the furious fire in her eyes which burned thousands of watts brighter than the glowing cherry of her cigar or the flickering fluorescent light bulb overhead.  And Trevor knew exactly what it was about as he looked up at those eyes through a persistent haze of cigar smoke.  Tonight was about Lauren avenging the sexual assault that had sidelined her for far too long.  Tonight was about Lauren reclaiming her sexuality and refusing to let a would-be rapist define it for her.  And as Trevor was about to empty his load into her and make that reclamation complete, he was thrilled that he had been patient enough during the hard times to give her this moment entirely on her own terms.

Lauren finally reached to her mouth to take hold of the cigar a split second before she felt Trevor’s seed explode into her, filling the dining room with an ear-splitting scream of fully realized ecstasy.  The cigar in her mouth had restrained Lauren from her usual steady diet of loud sexual screams up until now, but it rung with the sweet sound of a church bell on Christmas morning to Trevor’s ears as he felt her fluids pour out all over him.   Breathless and completely exhausted, Lauren’s naked body collapsed onto Trevor, the young lovers resting their bodies that were pulsating in both pleasure and pain as they laid there.

“Worth the wait, baby?” Lauren asked breathlessly as she rubbed her hand on his chest and took yet another draw on the ridiculously small stub that was left of her cigar.

“Couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Trevor responded, looking down to see a sweet smile splashed across her face that couldn’t have contrasted more completely with the look of the maniacally possessed sex demon he was looking up at only a couple of moments earlier.  Catching his breath, Trevor added “We better enjoy the feeling now because we’re both gonna be covered in bruises tomorrow.”

Lauren giggled, nodding in agreement and shifting her leg to feel the moisture of their sexual fluids on the surface of the table, and then joked, “Thank goodness for disposable tablecloths,” as a reminder to herself to dispose of it before her parents came home.

Noticing that Lauren was struggling with what to do with the cigar, he volunteered to sit up and reach onto the nearby countertop to grab Lauren’s ash can.  She smiled at him as she took one final draw from the cigar that she’d spent the last two and a half hours smoking, a cigar that was so impossibly big at the beginning of the night that was barely big enough to hold between her fingers now.  She squashed the cigar’s remains into the ash can, listening to the slow sizzle as she extinguished it, the final wisps of smoke pouring out of her mouth into Trevor’s face as she bit her lower lip and said, “Thanks baby.”

Trevor nodded, but then remarked,  “I do have one request though.”

“What?” Lauren asked inquisitively.

“Can we please move this cuddle session upstairs to your bed?” Trevor asked with a smirk.

Lauren giggled and added, “Agreed.”

As they began to climb off of the table, Trevor made sure to get off first, using his aching postcoital body to chivalrously grab hold of Lauren and carry her in the direction of the bedroom.  As exhausted as he was, he figured it was time for him to carry some of the load tonight after all the work Lauren had done.

Lauren sweetly smiled and then playfully muttered.  “Now I have one request for you.”

Trevor perked up his eyes, awaiting Lauren’s request without comment.

“Can you grab my cigarettes before we go.  I reeeeeally need one,” Lauren requested.

Trevor smirked, her request music to her ears.  “I think that can be arranged,” he said moving toward the countertop where Lauren’s long-neglected Marlboro Lights 100 pack rested.

Lauren grabbed hold of it and her lighter as Trevor held her naked body in his arms, hungrily plucking one out and sparking it up.  She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes to take in the moment where the inhaled nicotine hit her brain receptors.  With a sigh of sweet relief and a messy exhale to follow, Lauren erotically responded, “Now that’s more like it!” reinforcing that she still preferred her cigarettes to the cigar, and then adding with a sweet flourish, “You can take me upstairs to cuddle now.”

Trevor did as he was asked, heading to the stairway holding Lauren as she nursed the freshly lit cigarette aggressively and cutting loose a mild cough.  The girl that Trevor had been in love with for more than a year seemed to be back to her old self completely now, cleansed as much as was possible from the psychological hardship of the recent past that stole some of her innocence and jeopardized their relationship.  And because of that, Trevor had a whole lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, even if in the back of his head he knew Lauren’s trauma wasn’t entirely in the rearview mirror.

—————————

Wade’s truck came to a slow stop on an isolated gravel back road just outside of his southern Minnesota hometown.  The lights were still on inside the small home that he parked in front of, which he was grateful to see given that it was almost 11 p.m. and he’d spent the last hour and a half impulsively driving here.  Looking at the driveway to see only one vehicle, an all-too-familiar pickup truck, he felt he had the all-clear to make his move.  He took his key out of the ignition of his truck and then looked for another key on the ring, finding it and then leaning over the glove compartment of his truck.  He used the key to open the glove compartment and then rustled his hand through its contents until he found the cold steel object he was looking for.

Wade pulled out the concealed handgun from the glove compartment, staring coldly at it with the dim moonlight providing an eerie gleam on the black steel of the barrel, deliberating the pros and cons of carrying it with him to the front door.  He was confident that he wouldn’t lose his mind to the point of using it in cold blood, but given that he was walking into the home of a hostile second party with confrontation in mind, it might be foolish to be insufficiently positioned to defend himself.  He sighed and then put the gun back into the glove compartment and locking it shut again.  It was a close call, but he decided the risks outweighed the benefits of going in that hot.  He then sighed again as he opened his truck door and walked toward the front door of the remote country home, now fully committed to an encounter he knew would be ugly.

Seconds later, Wade knocked on the home’s front door, checking himself as much as possible to keep his cool as he heard footsteps approaching from inside.  The front door opened and Wade was standing face to face with a very surprised Dusty Beaudry.  An air of fear instinctively filled Dusty’s face as he looked back at his larger-built former classmate Wade whose presence at this hour of the night couldn’t possibly be for any good reason.

Dusty pulled himself together quickly, laying on his faux country charm as he smirked and said, “What the devil brought you down from the city to visit me tonight, cowboy?  I never figured I’d see the day.”

Wade tried to hide his dripping contempt with a smirk and a shrug, replying “Just visiting the folks and thought I’d drop by and clear the air about a couple of things.”

Dusty gulped, suspecting trouble but maintaining his charm, responding “Well come on in.  I’ll grab you a beer.  It’s not every day Minneapolis’s own Wade Rosenquist comes knocking on my door.”

“Alright,” Wade responded, crossing the threshold into the house and watching Dusty closely as he walked to the fridge to make sure beer was all he was going for.  To his relief, Dusty grabbed two longneck bottles out of the fridge and returned to hand him one.

“Here ya go, hoss,” Dusty offered, handing Wade the beer and adding ,”…now what’s on your mind?”

Wade promptly set the beer down next to him without taking a sip, giving Dusty a sinister and intimidating glare as he asked, “Where’s your hat?”

Dusty suspected right away where this was going, nervously chuckling while feigning ignorance as he asked, “Excuse me!”

“I didn’t stutter,” Wade reinforced aggressively and then added, “Your cowboy hat.  The one who said you sat on the day of the rodeo.  Where is it?”

Dusty shrugged, stalling before replying,  “Hmmm….I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.”

“Let’s see it….now!” Wade demanded.

Dusty glared back and tried to do some intimidating of his own as he shot back with “Fuck you!”

Wade nodded as if keeping the momentum going as he continued, “What did you do to Lauren Nelson after that rodeo?”

Dusty feigned confusion and abruptly replied, “Never heard that name before.”

“Sure you haven’t,” Wade pressed.  “Sweet little teenage girl who got into your truck that day after the rodeo and has never been the same since…..just like Cheryl was never the same.”

“Ooooh,” Dusty snorted with contempt.  “Didn’t take long for you to get to the real issue of why you’re here now did it?  At least I know who Cheryl is.  I don’t even know this Lauren you’re going on about.”

“Well I just bet there’s a camera outside the gas station where you stopped to buy her cigarettes that day that can prove you know exactly who she is,” Wade replied, pleased with himself for how quickly he thought of that to pin Dusty down.

Dusty pretended to have an epiphany.  “Oh that’s right.  The smoker girl,” he mused, stroking his chin as if just recalling her.  “She put you up to coming down here from the city to harass me?”

Wade nodded no and replied, “She didn’t say a word.  She didn’t have to and I still figured you out.”

Dusty chuckled, pushing his luck as he pounced.  “Well she is a cute little thing.  I can see why you’d want to lay her down but don’t you already have a girlfriend?”

Wade pretended as though he took complete leave of his temper as he wound his fist back to deliver a brisk blow to Dusty’s jaw, knocking him backward to the floor, his head landing as softly as possible on the bottom of the recliner.  Wade continued to hulk over Dusty, dropping to his knees and feigning as though he’d lost control even though this was entirely part of his plan.

Dusty looked up to Wade as he rubbed his bruised jaw, struggling to control his adrenaline to fight back primarily because he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance against Wade.  After cooling off a second, Dusty looked to Wade and said, “I’m gonna give you one last chance to walk out of here or this ain’t gonna end well for you.”

“Oh is that right?!” Wade barked back, taking full advantage of his physical and psychological advantage.  “Well I’m gonna give you one last chance to tell me what happened to that cowboy hat you loved so much.”

Dusty smirked and sarcastically responded  “Decided it had outlived its usefulness and got rid of it.”

Wade nodded his head to convey he wasn’t buying it for a second and then asked, “It got burned didn’t it?  By Lauren? When you were raping her?”  Dusty’s eyes revealed that Wade had figured it out as Wade added, “And I’ll just bet if we dig around this house or your truck for a couple of minutes, we’ll find it and confirm that, won’t we?”

Dusty sat on the floor making a final attempt at intimidation with a cold, silent stare, but buckled as Wade grabbed his shirt collar and wound his fist back to throw another punch.  “I didn’t rape her!” Dusty shouted before Wade delivered the knuckle sandwich.  “The bitch set my damn hat on fire after we started messing around.”

“After you forced yourself on her?!” Wade shouted, hoping he’d get him to clarify in the heat of the moment.

Dusty smirked and responded with put-on sincerity, “I could never do that to a girl.”

“Right…you do it to every girl who won’t drop her panties for you,” Wade fired back.

“Not too many of those girls around!” Dusty snarked back.

“Well we know of two don’t we?” Wade kept the heat on.  “Lauren Nelson, who for the record is a minor that you just confessed to messing around with, and Cheryl Phillips who you raped back in high school.”

“Pfft!  You’re never gonna quit beating that hobby horse are you?” Dusty snorted.  “We were all friends in high school but somewhere along the line you got jealous.”

“Yeah, we were friends until she left alone with you one night and then moved out of town a few weeks later,” Wade continued.  “She couldn’t live with what you did to her.  None of us could.”

“Whatever I did with Cheryl was exactly what she wanted…just like that other little slut who sent you down here tonight,” Dusty responded, pausing again to smugly quip.  “What was her name again?  Lauren?  What a fine piece of ass she was!”

Wade grabbed him by the shirt collar, this time legitimately starting to lose his cool, but quickly letting him go and then standing up, still towering over Dusty who continued to sit on the floor, his head resting against the recliner as he rubbed his jaw. Wade then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his cell phone, punching in a few digits and seeing legitimate fear in Dusty’s eyes once again as Wade played back a portion of the conversation he had recorded with crystal clear audio of Dusty’s voice repeating words spoken moments earlier.

Nervous laughter erupted from Dusty on the floor.  “You gotta be kidding me.  You come busting into my house to entrap me and think I’m the one who’s get in trouble for it?”

“You invited me in,” Wade reminded him, dramatically pushing an additional button on his phone keyboard and then adding, “And now the Cannon City Police Department just got the entire conversation in their inbox to listen to in the morning.  We’ll let them sort it out, okay?”

Quickly scanning his brain in hope that he didn’t say anything directly incriminating, Dusty nervously fired back, “You assault me in my home? I should be the one contacting the police and filing charges against your ass.”

Wade nodded as if having considered the option, responding, “You could do that, sure.  Of course then maybe I’d make sure the police would do a full investigation on what you did to Lauren Nelson….and Cheryl Phillips.  I might even be able convince them both to testify if you come after me.  Maybe that full investigation will happen now anyway….regardless of how much money your daddy has.”

Dusty gritted his teeth, snapping back, “You ain’t got shit on that recording.”

Wade nodded in agreement.  “Nope.  Nothing that would hold up in court.  But I got enough to let the police around here know exactly who you are.  And it’s a small town…word travels fast.  With all your fast talk, the town forgot about what you did to Cheryl.  Everybody but me anyway.  Maybe now enough people will keep an eye on you so you won’t get away with forcing yourself on anybody’s else little girl.”

Dusty continued to glare at him, but his silence made clear that he knew Wade had won this round.

Wade then tipped his hat and turned to walk away, adding “Now you have yourself a good night.”  He turned to walk to the door, preparing for any sudden moves the cowardly Dusty might try with Wade’s back turned to him, but was relieved that Dusty continued sitting on the floor.  As Wade opened the door and stepped outside, he pointed to the beer Dusty handed him and added, “Thanks for the beer.  But I think I’ll pass tonight.  I got a long ride ahead of me to get back home to my girl.  And I know this is alien to you, but I got her the old-fashioned way.  I didn’t have to rape her.”

Slamming the door behind him, Wade hustled a bit to get to his truck, nervous about any final shots Dusty might take.  Wade knew this was an impulsive and inadvisable move on his part, but his lingering memories of mutual friend Cheryl combined with his burning anger after putting together tonight what Dusty had more recently done to Lauren made Wade realize something had to be done quickly to rein in this dangerous sexual predator.

Wade climbed into his truck and started the engine, breathing a sigh of relief as he prepared to drive off that he was getting out of this no worse for wear despite how many ways it could have gone sideways.  He thought to himself that maybe at some point he’d have the discipline to avoid pushing his luck in situations like this, fighting the good fight on behalf of a righteous cause consequences be damned, but figured he really didn’t have anything to lose either way.  He was completely unaware that an hour and a half up the road, the pending results of Courtney’s pregnancy test would soon mean that he actually had a great deal more to lose than he realized.

 

 

 

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Trevor Takes The Halloween Costumes Off (Chapter 14)


Lauren Nelson sat by herself in the principal’s office of her high school on a late October Tuesday afternoon.  Slouched down in her chair wearing a school-appropriate blue sweatshirt and black leggings, her sunken expression matched the profile one would expect for a girl sitting in the purgatory of the principal’s office awaiting reprimand, particularly for a girl who was not used to spending time there.  She knew she’d been pushing her luck sneaking cigarettes in the girls’ bathroom a couple of times a day, but it was a gamble she’d been willing to take to feed her ferocious nicotine addiction.  Her nicotine patches had helped some, but she discovered that there was more to smoking that she was addicted to than whatever relief those patches provided.  She also discovered that the odor of cigarette smoke was easier for a snooping teacher to indisputably identify than the comparatively odorless vapor emitted by fellow students vaping on their Juul pods in the girls’ bathroom, and she was frog-marched to the principal’s office a half hour ago because of that miscalculation.

Now Lauren awaited the arrival of one of her parents, most likely her mother, to pour additional salt on the latest wound to her fragile soul.  The last month or so had been one of the most difficult of Lauren’s life, overcoming the emotional trauma of a sexual assault without any real support network, all while trying to keep a stiff upper lip in the presence of her family and social circle who she didn’t want to find out about her recent trauma.  The only person who had any idea at all of what happened to Lauren was her boyfriend Trevor, and the challenge in coming to terms with the matter had driven the young couple apart in recent weeks.  Lauren felt as alone and as isolated as she’d ever had right now, in perfect tandem with her present body language as she awaited the scornful judgment of her elders.

But even with all of these dark thoughts rolling through her head, Lauren more than anything else just wanted a cigarette right about now, inadvertently letting loose a mild cough at the mere thought of it.  How had it come to this, she briefly thought to herself before letting her mind drift to the exact moment that it did…..

————————————

On a mid-August day two years earlier, 14-year-old cousins Lauren Nelson and Carly Hansen sat together on lawn chairs behind the garage at Lauren’s folks’ place.  Lauren sat in her dirtied softball uniform while Carly sat next to her in a T-shirt and jean shorts, precociously dragging from a cigarette.

“As soon as you finish that, I’m gonna go in to change out of this damn thing,” Lauren announced in reference to the sweaty softball uniform, peeking nervously over her shoulder to make sure her mom’s car had pulled out of the driveway since dropping Lauren off.

“I don’t blame you,” Carly responded, taking a quick and mild drag, a trickle of smoke spilling from her mouth as she added, “I don’t know how you spend two hours playing in that uniform in this weather.”

“I wish I didn’t have to!” Lauren responded in annoyance.

Carly seemed a bit surprised.  “Really?  I thought you loved softball.”

Lauren shrugged as if conflicted before replying, “I used to.  Getting sick of playing sports though.  My mom keeps insisting I play something new every season but I’m over it.  And I’m especially over all of the girl drama.”

“Bitches gonna bitch,” Carly said before taking another rookie drag, knowing that Lauren’s reference to girl drama involved her tireless tormentors.  “How many of them are fucking with you anyway?”

Lauren shook her head with sadness and responded,  “Like seven….” pausing to add, “….including Queen Bitch Bella Reese.”

Carly’s ears perked up hearing the name of the girl she had the biggest crush on, still fondly recalling the phys. ed. soccer collision they had in seventh grade that was Carly’s first clue that she preferred girls.  “Is Bella really that bad?  She’s always been okay to me,” Carly asked, cynically taking the opportunity to get more dirt on Bella while ashing her cigarette into an empty Pepsi can.

“Oh she’s that bad!” Lauren responded emphatically, unaware of Carly’s crush on Bella.  “And when her friends are around her, they all gang up on me too.  I’m sure they’re writing shit about me on Facebook right now after tripping me in the dugout,” she added, pointing to the deep stain of dirt on her uniform leg that didn’t come from sliding into second base as she’d told her mother on the drive home.

“Don’t let it get to you, Lauren,” Carly consoled.  “They’re just jealous because you’re prettier than them,” considering adding that Lauren’s sweet nature made her vulnerable to bullies but deciding not to because she didn’t want to see Lauren be forced to toughen up and sacrifice that sweet nature.

Lauren furrowed her brow as she looked at Carly skeptically.  “I’m not prettier than Bella Reese.”

Carly smiled and equivocated a bit, hoping to conceal her secret crush but adding playfully, “Well maybe not prettier than Bella but you run circles around most of her follower friends.”

Lauren giggled at Carly’s welcome honesty and Carly laughed back, their long-standing chemistry as cousins having grown stronger despite their differing lifestyles this summer.  Carly took a final drag from her cigarette, dropping the butt into the empty Pepsi can to conceal it as she blew out her final exhale, and then adding “Ready to go in so you can change out of that sweaty uniform.”

Lauren’s eyes were entranced by the wave of cigarette smoke rising through the hole of the Pepsi can it had just been dropped into, taking an increased interest in this habit that Carly had been dabbling in for most of the summer.  Lauren bit her lower lip as she worked up the courage to make a request she’d been flirting with for a few weeks now.  Lauren pointed at the can and asked meekly, “Do you have another one of those?”

“Another cigarette?” Carly asked with genuine surprise.

“Yeah!” Lauren responded excitedly.

“I got another one, yeah.  Why?” Carly asked, holding out for Lauren to vocally confirm the unlikely request she nonetheless expected was coming.

“Because I wanna try one!” Lauren exclaimed as she began to blush.

“Lauren Nelson smoking a cigarette?!?!” Carly teased as she fished her other cigarette out of the sunglasses case where she concealed it.  “I will give up my last cigarette to see this for myself!”

Lauren giggled as she took hold of the Pall Mall Light that Carly had swiped from her mom’s pack as she’d been doing the last few months.  Lauren placed the unlit cigarette in her mouth and posed for a moment, eliciting laughter from Carly. Lauren’s giggle impulse went into overload to the point of barely being able to keep the cigarette in her mouth.   “Light this thing up for me, bitch!” Lauren exclaimed playfully as Carly approached her lighter to the end of Lauren’s cigarette.

Carly did as Lauren asked and gingerly flicked the lighter to ignite the cigarette in Lauren’s mouth.  Lauren quickly pulled the cigarette from her mouth, puffing without inhaling.  Not sure what she thought, she put the cigarette back to her lips to puff again.

“So what do you think?” Carly asked through laughter watching the incredibly unlikely image of cigarette smoke spilling from the mouth of her goody-two-shoes cousin.

Lauren wrinkled her nose, responding “It’s kind of gross!  I guess I don’t get the appeal,” before taking another quick puff and follow-up blow into the late summer air.

A sinister smirk emerged on Carly’s face as she replied, “That’s because you haven’t tried inhaling.”  Carly stretched out her hand to reclaim the cigarette, and once Lauren handed it back to her, Carly added, “Do it like this,” inhaling off of the drag and allowing Lauren to see the process and follow-through exhale.

Lauren reclaimed the cigarette, looking skeptical but eager to discover if Carly’s tutorial would yield more pleasing results.  She took a quick puff and then let the swirl of smoke in her mouth get consumed by her respiration.  Her eyes lit up as her lungs filled up, an overpowering sensation of warm invasion consuming her body leading to an uncontrollably fierce cough.

Carly’s explosive laughter lightened the mood as Lauren briefly gasped for breath.  “I had the same response the first time I inhaled!” Carly reassured.

Lauren finally regained control of her breathing and then choked out, “And you still decided to do it again?”

“I did,” Carly replied, and then added.  “And you’re gonna want to try it again too.”

Lauren shook her head, at this point believing Carly was completely messing with her, yet still feeling enough residual buzz from that first inhale that she was curious enough to heed Carly’s advice one last time.  With a bit more fear in her eyes, Lauren put the cigarette back to her lips and dragged, pausing as if to reconsider but then following through with inhaling the cigarette smoke a second time.  While not entirely without harshness, the sensation was indeed far more pleasing this time, the warmth inside her lungs feeling oddly complimentary to her discomfort inside the sweaty softball uniform on an August afternoon.

“Better this time?” Carly inquired, even though it was obvious from Lauren’s body language that it definitely was better this time.

A sweet smile beamed on Lauren’s face as she nodded affirmatively.  She was quickly beginning to understand what her parents and Carly had found so alluring about this dirty habit that she’d nonetheless been curious about ever since Carly began experimenting.  With Carly looking on to enjoy the show, Lauren approached the cigarette to her lips again, this time with greater eagerness, to see if the third time would really be the charm.  Lauren’s lips wrapped around the filter and she ingested more smoke than the previous times, and it was quickly clear to Carly that the third time was the charm for Lauren.  Carly also thought it looked likely based on the pleasured glow on Lauren’s face that she might have a new smoking buddy moving forward.

——————————-

The sound of the principal’s office door shook Lauren back to a far less pleasant current reality.  Lauren’s mom Michelle made eyes with her daughter that confirmed she was in big trouble seconds after entering the office.  Lauren made a split second interval of eye contact before diverting her eyes back to the floor.

The office secretary then reclaimed Michelle’s attention asking, “Can I help you?”

In her mildly husky voice, Michelle responded, “I’m here about my daughter Lauren Nelson.  I got a call about her earlier.”

The secretary nodded and casually responded, “Right this way,” waving both mother and daughter into the smaller office occupied by the high school principal Ms. Lorenz.

Lauren meekly followed her mother into the office of the middle-aged principal who gave a halfhearted smile at Michelle, not surprised by the aroma of cigarette smoke filling the room as Michelle walked in.  Ms. Lorenz had never met Michelle before, but figured Lauren’s smoking was the byproduct of parental influence, and as she did a quick visual scan of Michelle and appreciated her striking Nordic beauty, she knew Lauren’s beauty was also the byproduct of parental influence.  She extended her hand to greet Michelle and introduced herself, “Rachel Lorenz….how do you do?”

Michelle shook her hand but didn’t waste any time cutting to the chase, “I was doing pretty well until I got a call about my daughter getting in trouble,” darting her eyes at Lauren who continued to avoid eye contact as she sat in one of the two chairs in front of the table.

“I know you’re a busy woman but smoking on school grounds is the kind of thing where we have no choice but to call the parents,” Ms. Lorenz responded.

“I understand,” Michelle replied.  “And I apologize for the disruption Lauren caused here,” darting her eyes frustratedly at Lauren and adding, “I thought she and I had worked this out.”

“It is a disappointment,” Ms. Lorenz commented.  “Lauren has never been a troublemaker around here but there’s been some suspicion among staff for a few weeks now that she’s been smoking in the girls’ bathroom and today we caught her in the act.”  She paused to make eye contact with Michelle and asked her directly, “Were you aware your daughter’s been smoking?”

Michelle nodded with a tangible level of shame before responding, “It’s been an issue for a while now.  Her father and I have been a terrible example.  We tried to quit together as a family this summer but it didn’t stick.”  She paused and then added, “But that’s no excuse.  I tried to let her know before school started she needed to deal with her problem and not bring her cigarettes to school.  Obviously I didn’t preach that gospel loudly enough.”

Lauren felt like an invisible spectator at her own criminal trial as her mom and principal adjudicated the case against her, shame filling her heart and mind in a way that had become all too frequent in the weeks since her sexual assault had drained her of the confidence and self-esteem that she’d slowly built during her relationship with Trevor.  She let her mind stray back to the first time her mom busted her smoking two short years earlier.

———————————-

Two years earlier, Lauren and Carly sat in their favorite spot behind Lauren’s garage on a mid-September afternoon after a day at school, the two ninth-graders decked out in T-shirts and jeans.  Carly sat on the lawn chair smoking one of her Pall Mall Lights while Lauren sat next to her dragging from one of the Marlboro Lights 100s she’d swiped from her mom.  Lauren made a special point of sucking the smoke into her lungs, amazed how every hit of nicotine seemed to feel a little bit more incredible than the last ever since that first cigarette she’d tried a month earlier.  The pleasure on her face couldn’t have been more obvious as she looked Carly’s way and fired out an exhale through her pursed lips.

Carly shook her head with a mix of joy, surprise, and a bit of sadness as she commented “My how the mighty jock girl has fallen!” taking a drag and adding, “Shouldn’t you be at volleyball practice right now?”

“Pfffft….fuck that,” Lauren responded, a wisp of residual smoke slipping from her mouth.  “Volleyball is for middle-school girls…..and girls who can’t grow up from who they were in middle school!” she added, in obvious reference to the same group of mean girls whose bullying had made softball miserable for her in the spring and summer, along with other sports she participated in over the years.

Carly nodded with a continued tone of disappointment in her cousin’s disengagement, responding, “There’s always room for you in the burnout clique,” Carly said with a laugh as she held up her cigarette in the air and took a drag.

Lauren giggled as she approached the cigarette to her mouth for another succulent drag, savoring the feeling of smoke flowing into her lungs as she inhaled again, but wrinkling her nose a bit as Carly’s exhale flowed into her face.  “Here, try mine!” Lauren requested, handing Carly her half-smoked Marlboro Light 100 and giggling again as she added, “No offense but the cigarettes I steal from my mom are way better than the cigarettes you steal from your mom.”

Carly looked skeptically as she took hold of Lauren’s cigarette and took a drag, wrinkling her nose and responding, “Disagree!” while exaggeratedly sputtering as if it was the most awful thing she’d tasted in her life.

The girls laughed and continued chatting, distracted by conversation and not noticing Lauren’s mother slow-walking her way up behind them.  Michelle froze in her tracks while looking around the corner of the garage, her suspicions confirmed as she watched her 14-year-old daughter and niece dragging from their respective cigarettes.  A wave of guilt crashed upon Michelle’s face upon noticing that Lauren was indeed smoking the same brand that she and Craig had long smoked.  Watching Lauren inhale and seeing the pleasured look on her face, Michelle felt even deeper guilt realizing that Lauren was probably predisposed to nicotine addiction given that Michelle had been unable to quit smoking during her pregnancy with Lauren.

Michelle decided it was time for an intervention, purposefully startling the girls as she exclaimed, “Got a cigarette for me, girls?  I’m really craving one right now!”

Carly and Lauren froze, busted with cigarettes in hand and no credible way of explaining their way out of it.  They both gulped, not knowing for sure how aggressive Michelle’s response would be.

Michelle walked up and swiped the cigarette out of Lauren’s hand.  She took a drag from Lauren’s cigarette and then looked at Lauren with a smile and added through a talking exhale, “I remember sneaking behind my parents’ garage to smoke when I was about your age. And just like you I thought my mom was too dumb to notice when cigarettes started showing up missing from her pack.  My mom got a hold of my best friend’s mom who hung out with me all the time and, lo and behold, her cigarettes were disappearing too.  So when all things pointed in the direction of me starting smoking, my hard-working mom decided to cut out of work a little early one day to see what I was up to.  She actually parked on the street where we couldn’t hear her and snuck up on us if you can imagine,” Michelle finished with a sarcastic laugh.

Lauren hung her head down, realizing she’d been a little too obvious and she should have known her mom would be wise to her soon enough.

“How long, girls?” Michelle asked.

“About a month,” Lauren confessed meekly, counting on Carly to bail her out and take more of the blame, which Carly stepped up and did.

“It’s my fault, Aunt Michelle,” Carly fessed up. “I started last spring and let Lauren try one of mine last month.”

Michelle nodded, displeased at Carly’s bad influence but a little proud of her for admitting guilt.  “Your mom figured as much.  I’ll let her deal with you,” Michelle responded to Carly before shifting back to Lauren, “As for you, young lady, explain to me why I got a call from your volleyball coach yesterday and she told me you haven’t showed up to the last four practices?”

“I’m sick of volleyball, mom!”  Lauren responded with surprising passion.  “I’m done!  Done with all of it!  I hate those girls!”

Michelle could see the rebellion in her daughter’s eyes, the battle cry of a teenager who was no longer gonna be boxed in by the life her family had tried to carve out for her.  And she sensed by the fire in Lauren’s eyes that this mustang was gonna run wild no matter how much she tried to rein her in.  Another wave of disappointment filled Michelle’s face, but she took the girls by surprise when she handed the cigarette back to Lauren.

“We’re gonna talk about this more tonight either way, but I’m gonna let this be your choice, Lauren,” Michelle opened.  “Your father and I have tried to put you on a path to where you can have as many choices as you want in this life.  So right now, you get to choose between taking that cigarette or going back to volleyball tomorrow.  When my mom gave me a similar choice 20 years ago, I took the cigarette.  And just so you know, I wish I hadn’t made that choice.”

Michelle’s furrowed brow was intimidating as Lauren sat there holding the half-smoked cigarette which now had a considerable granny ash on it.  Carly and Michelle both waited in nervous anticipation as Lauren eyeballed the cigarette in her hand.  The defiant eye contact she made with her mother confirmed in a split second that Lauren had selected the dark side, approaching the cigarette to her 14-year-old lips and taking the deepest drag she’d ever taken only a few feet in front of her mother’s glare.  Lauren made a spectacle of inhaling the smoke deeply and letting it billow out of her mouth as she exhaled.  Michelle’s heart sunk knowing that her daughter had made her choice, but she also knew that having dangled the proposition in front of her, she had to respect Lauren’s decision.

————————————

“Lauren, as you’re probably aware, Maple Grove High has a policy of suspending for three days any student caught consuming tobacco on school grounds as a first offense,” Mrs. Lorenz addressed Lauren, shaking her out of her daydream and returning her to the present where her mother’s warning about making the wrong choice was really starting to bear fruit.

“Yes, ma’am,” Lauren responded meekly.

“Has something else been bothering you lately, Lauren?” Mrs. Lorenz asked, adding “Some of your teachers have been saying you’re more subdued this year and your grades are slipping.”

Lauren shrugged and replied, “Just going through some stuff I guess,” hoping her cryptic cry for help would get through to her mother that everything was not okay.

“With Trevor?” her mom asked, putting her on the spot while not exactly going in the right direction of getting to the core of Lauren’s recent spiral.  Lauren shrugged mildly as Michelle looked up to her principal and clarified, “That’s her boyfriend.”

Lauren’s lack of verbal response led Michelle to reclaim the conversation and try to wind it down, reassuring Principal Lorenz, “Well Craig and I have been talking about trying something else to quit smoking soon and we’re gonna make sure Lauren is included in that.  Either way, I can promise you this will NEVER happen again,” Michelle added, looking scoldingly to Lauren and asking, “Isn’t that right Lauren?”

Lauren nodded affirmatively, adding “I’m sorry, Ms. Lorenz.  I know I screwed up.”

Principal Lorenz gave a mildly comforting smile and replied, “We’ll see you back in school on Monday, Lauren,” reminding her as gently as possible about the suspension.

Lauren and Michelle got up and began to leave the building, walking through the hallways and then across the front yard of the high school en route to Michelle’s car, an air of awkward silence for the entire long trek.  Michelle used the remote on her key chain to unlock the door, quickly climbing into the driver’s seat while Lauren climbed into the passenger seat, having neither said a word nor made eye contact with one another since exiting the principal’s office.

Michelle reflexively fished around inside her purse and quickly plucked out a Marlboro Light 100 from her purse.  She placed the unlit cigarette in her mouth and fired it up with her lighter, all the while sensing that her daughter was side-eyeing her the whole time.  Michelle exhaled off the light-up and then turned Lauren’s direction, immediately recognizing the look of starving nicotine lust on her daughter’s face.  Lauren squirmed and then daringly held out her hand, adding “They took my whole pack, mom,” to verbally convey what was already evident to Michelle….that Lauren really had the nerve to mooch a cigarette off of her five minutes after getting suspended from school for smoking.

Michelle shook her head but nonetheless complied, removing another cigarette from her pack and handing it to Lauren.  Fielding a nicotine craving so deep that she could feel the hairs on her arm standing up, Lauren placed the cigarette between her lips and allowed her mom to grudgingly light it for her.  Lauren’s face lit up as she took the first drag from a cigarette since two hours earlier when she got busted in the girls’ bathroom, the intensity of her nicotine relief being disturbing for Michelle to witness.

“How terrible of a mother am I that two minutes after insisting to my teenage daughter’s principal that I’m gonna drop the hammer and make her quit…” Michelle inquired rhetorically, pausing to take a drag and then wrapping up her thought, “…..and we can’t even get out of the parking lot without me handing her one of my cigarettes?”

Much as Lauren wanted to burst out singing “Isn’t it Ironic?” by Alanis Morrisette, she held off, smiling mildly and responding “Thanks mom” as she took another intense drag with a cloudy follow-up exhale that reinforced Michelle’s resolve.

“You know I wasn’t playing in there, Lauren.  The vaping didn’t work for us but the three of us are all gonna quit smoking before New Year’s and that’s a promise.  Your father and I have been talking about visiting a hypnotist over your Christmas break from school,” Michelle added, taking a deep and pleasurable drag that didn’t jive with her stated goal of giving up cigarettes.  “I know some people who say it worked for them.  I think we should give it a shot.”

Lauren couldn’t suppress either her skepticism about the hypnotist revelation or keep her mouth from backtalking her mother as she mused, “That should make for a fun Christmas,” and then paused to add, “Whatever happened to you promising me it was my choice to make if I wanted to smoke back when I started?”

“My biggest mistake as a parent, Lauren,” Michelle confessed.  “And what you did today confirmed that.  And for as long as you’re living in my house while suspended from school I will now make your decision for you.  Grounded for the next five days.  Cigarettes go away by the end of the year.  How’s that for an opening bid?”

“I call your bluff,” Lauren responded with a lighthearted metaphor consistent with the online poker she’d recently gotten into during her past several weeks as a homebody.

Michelle smirked mildly at the joke but added, “We’re going back to your dad’s shop to announce why you’re not gonna be in school for the next three days.  I’m pretty confident I got the winning hand on this one, Lauren,” Michelle added, keeping the poker metaphor alive.

As they proceeded to Craig’s plumbing parts supply headquarters, where Michelle also worked, mother and daughter each took indulgent drags from their half-smoked cigarettes, the pleasured aura of their bodies certainly not projecting much confidence in their ability to kick their respective heavy smoking habits only two months into the future.

—————————————

Trevor McPherson sat by himself on the couch in the family living room as late afternoon transitioned to evening later that day.  He watched the TV blankly while savoring the aroma of the lasagna his mother was cooking in the kitchen, mixed in with the odor of the Marlboro Red smoke that was also wafting out of the kitchen.  He’d found himself with a lot more time on his hands in recent weeks as his relationship with Lauren had stalled into an ominous holding pattern that he felt powerless to fix.  He still held out confidence that when Lauren worked out the demons she was going through that she’d come back to him, but at least in the last couple of weeks, contact had grounded to a nearly complete halt, and it was starting to scare him.

The sound of the front door opening diverted Trevor’s attention.  His younger sister Haylee was walking in, Camel Pink No. 9 cigarette dangling from her lips as it almost always was, decked out in her pink hoodie and light blue jeans.  Trevor could tell Haylee had just hung out with a couple of her friends and seemed to be in a good mood, and he took a mental note of the switcheroo as for months after the break-up with Jacob, Haylee had been the one moping around the house while he and Lauren were walking on the clouds.

“Hey!” Haylee casually greeted through a talking dangle as she walked into the living room, a cloud of smoke spewing from her mouth and nose.

Becky poked her head out of the kitchen to take note of Haylee’s arrival, before adding through a talking dangle of her own, “Good timing, Haylee.  We’re having supper in 10 minutes.  Your favorite…lasagna.”

“Sweet!” Haylee responded through her continued talking dangle, smoke swirling around her adorable face.  Looking at Trevor, Haylee then asked him, “Wasn’t that crazy about Lauren?”

Trevor looked up at her and had no idea what she was talking about, asking “Uh, what happened?” with a mixture of confusion and alarm.

“She didn’t tell you?!” Haylee inquired with genuine surprise.

Trevor shook his head gingerly, embarrassed that Lauren revealed news to Haylee that she didn’t pass along to him.

Becky cut to the chase at the edge of the room, asking, “What happened to Lauren, Haylee?” with a concerned look as she dragged deeply from her Marlboro Red.

“She got busted for smoking in the girls’ bathroom at school.  Suspended for three days,” Haylee responded before finally removing the cigarette from her lips to ash into the butt can on the coffee table.

Trevor was partly relieved that it wasn’t anything more serious but hung his head with continued shame that Lauren was intentionally excluding him from news about her life.

Becky sighed.  “Poor Lauren.  I bet Michelle is chewing her ass right now.  I better never have to make that trip to the school to pick you up, young lady,” she said through a talking exhale directed to Haylee.

Haylee shook her head with undue cockiness as she put the half-smoked all-white cigarette back to her lips, replying unconvincingly “Lauren’s an amateur, mom.  They haven’t caught me in over three years and they’re not gonna!”

Becky sneered Haylee’s direction with a hint of playfulness, not thrilled with her daughter’s bluster about avoiding suspension but pleased that their relationship had improved from the depths of late-summer hostility over the Jacob incident.

Trevor stood up from his chair and attempted to sneak off to his bedroom amidst the exchange from Becky and Haylee, but Becky wasn’t gonna let him off that easily.  “Trevor, you want to come in here and help me set the table?”

Trevor cringed, knowing that an uncomfortable conversation was forthcoming, but nonetheless turned around to follow through on his mom’s request.  He shuffled on into the kitchen and hoped to quietly go about setting the table with plates, glasses, and silverware, but as expected, Becky sidled on up to him, invading his space with a wave of secondhand smoke as she whispered through a talking exhale, “What’s going on with you and Lauren, honey?”

Trevor’s instinct was to deny there was a problem at all, but he knew that wouldn’t satisfy his mother’s curiosity.  After a long pause, he finally responded, “We’re going through a bit of a rough patch, that’s all.”

Becky frowned as she took another drag from her Red.  “I’m sorry, Trevor.  I knew something was up.  She hasn’t been over here in weeks.”

Trevor nodded, his mother picking up on the pain in his face.

“I don’t want to pry, but do you think you can get past it?” Becky asked with smoke spewing from her face. “You two are so cute together.”

Trevor blushed, and then added, “I really don’t know, mom.  She’s shut me out for a while.  I get an occasional text but she’s not in a good place right now.  I think I need to give her some space and hope she works through it.”

Becky shook her head in disagreement and said, “If you love her, you’re gonna have to fight for her.”

Trevor nodded back, disagreeing with his mom’s disagreement.  “I’ve thought about that but I just don’t think it’s the right play here, mom.  It would only drive her further away if I pushed too hard right now.”

Becky didn’t protest, trusting Trevor’s instinct and appreciating that it was strong enough to help him land a girl as impressive as Lauren in the first place.  She put her hand lovingly on her son’s shoulder and comforted him with, “Well good luck.  You know I’m rooting for you guys.”

Becky continued to observe Trevor’s solemn body language as he proceeded to set the kitchen table in silence, wishing there was something she could do to mend her son’s broken heart beyond feeding him lasagna.

———————————

A bit later in the evening, Lauren walked into her bedroom after supper and closed the door behind her.  She was technically grounded, but her evening routine was not gonna change much from what had become her new normal as she began to slip out of her clothes and then put her pajamas on, crashing onto her bed and letting out an aggrieved sigh looking up at her phone for new messages.  In only a matter of seconds, she looked to the pack of Marlboro Lights 100s on her nightstand and reached over to pluck one out.  Lying horizontally on her bed, the cigarette stood straight up and she briefly defied gravity applying the flame to the tip.  A blast of smoke erupted upward from her mouth and nose as she continued to lay there, the cigarette continuing to stand erect through Lauren’s cloudy exhale.

Lauren dropped her phone to her bed and focused her eyes on the cigarette protruding from her mouth, a resentment building in her heart about how much this habit had begun to cost her.  After a few moments, she removed the cigarette from her mouth and cut loose a fierce smoker’s cough which only added to her burning resentment.  She’d been feeling angry a lot lately, believing that she’d allowed herself to be manipulated by others into making quite a few poor life choices at an early age.  She resented the bullies at school for leading her into a pattern of rebellion.  She resented Dusty Beaudry for forcing himself upon her at a southern Minnesota wayside rest.  And increasingly, she resented Trevor for compelling her to grow up faster than she was ready for.  In some cases, these resentments didn’t fully make sense to her, but they were nonetheless burning inside of her a little more each day.

Lauren diverted her eyes to the cigarette smoldering between her fingers and realized it was the common denominator that led to most of these questionable choices.  She rebelled against her middle school bullies by taking up smoking.  She was assaulted by Dusty Beaudry because she got into his truck on the promise of buying her cigarettes.   And if not for the fetish-fueled adoration of Trevor McPherson, her smoking habit wouldn’t have catapulted into the untamable beast it had become, complete with a heavy pressure on her chest every morning when she woke up and a permanent smoky stench attaching itself to her that increasingly drew judgmental glares from complete strangers.  A half dozen weeks of escalating distance from Trevor had opened Lauren’s mind to the notion that he’d been manipulating her as much as some of the other negative forces in her life.  Despite her initial positive response to Trevor’s confession on the Minnesota State Fair Sky Glider about the smoldering sex appeal her heavy smoking had for him, it was increasingly sticking out in her mind as a flashing red warning sign of being objectified by the boy she loved.  And that feeling had only become more tangible in the wake of Dusty Beaudry’s sexual assault.  She approached the cigarette to her lips angrily and took a hard, embittered drag.

But as was so often the case, she couldn’t keep her mind trained on Trevor for long before her feelings of resentment morphed into happy memories.  A faint smile flashed upon her face as the exhaled smoke filtered from her mouth and nose above her bed.  They had so many wonderful moments together, and he’d really behaved like a champ since finding out about her assault, accepting that she needed space to deal with her emotions and keeping his promise not to be overbearing or vengeful.  She pondered for a moment as she took another drag and once again came to the conclusion that Trevor was not her enemy through this, despite her near-nightly bedside tug-of-war in recent weeks.

Lauren sat up in her bed and picked up her phone, leaving her half-smoked cigarette dangling from her lips as she logged onto the online poker app that she’d been passing the time playing quite frequently of late.  She puckered up her lips around the cigarette filter and let the smoke roll down her throat as she decided to send Trevor a text invite to play with her.   She waited a couple of moments as the exhaled smoke slowly filtered out of her mouth and nose, anxiously awaiting a response.  Her face lit up with a smile as Trevor accepted the invite.  It was the first time they’d communicated in about 10 days, and she figured he was feeling some of the same mixed emotions about her right now as she was about him.

She continued to dangle the cigarette as she initiated the online poker game, hoping he’d be content for the time being with this gesture of online glasnost.  Until she had a better handle on her feelings, she figured this should be the extent of their communication, and she really hoped that would be sufficient for him.   Lauren puckered her lips together for another dangling drag, the long granny ash she’d completely forgotten about falling onto her bed sheets as she watched Trevor reveal his cards on the game.

——————————–

The next morning, Trevor was running late for school as he sat at the kitchen table shoveling the contents of a bowl full of Honey Nut Cheerios into his mouth.  He’d stayed up late studying for a history test the night before and slept in a bit too late.  Looking at his phone to see it was 8:15, he realized he only had 15 minutes to get to school.  He’d probably make it, but he wouldn’t have a minute to spare.

His mother Becky was clutching a freshly lit Marlboro Red and walked into the kitchen where she quickly began to scold him, “Trevor, I think you better forget about breakfast and get your butt to school.”

Trevor took one final spoonful of cereal and then launched out of his chair, nodding in agreement with his mother and heading toward the door.   “At least my test isn’t until second period!” he commented as he left the kitchen, grabbing his book bag from the living room coffee table and then barreling through the front door while hearing his mom shout good luck to him on the test as he exited.  He was unaware that he’d left a couple of books behind on the coffee table that were hiding underneath his book bag as he headed to his car.

A few moments passed before Becky walked from the kitchen to the living room, sighing in relief as she took a final drag from her cigarette that her work shift didn’t begin until 10 a.m. today, even though that would come with the consequence of not getting off until 6:30.  As she leaned down to the coffee table to crush out her Marlboro Red butt into the butt can while coughing intensely, she noticed Trevor’s history book on the table.  Her first instinct was to pull out her phone to call him, but figured if she called him back he’d definitely be late for school so she held back, hoping he had studied sufficiently the night before that he wouldn’t need the textbook.

Becky lifted up the textbook from the table to deliberate further, but her attention was soon diverted to a plastic-covered notebook that was underneath the history book. She furrowed her brow for a moment, anticipating it was likely handwritten notes that Trevor had taken for history and picking the notebook up to verify.  But Becky was taken aback as she opened the notebook to feast her eyes upon the first of dozens of pages of creative writing her son had spent the last two months writing.  A quick wave of guilt flashed through her mind as she studied the poetic prose of the poem on the first page, but quickly became lost as she read Trevor’s beautiful words.

After finishing reading the first poem, Becky rummaged through a few more pages, casually reading a few more stanzas here and there, realizing the notebook was almost entirely full of poetry and fiction that Trevor had handwritten.  A tear welled up in her eye after a few moments of skimming the contents before she closed the notebook, her guilt getting the best of her after reading her son’s most private thoughts and recognizing it was not her place to read one sentence further without Trevor’s permission.

Becky sat the notebook back on the table and plucked another Marlboro Red out of its pack, lighting it and taking a hard first drag while carefully deliberating her next move.  Her internal struggle was weighing visibly on her weathered face as she tried to balance her son’s privacy with the anguish he was clearly feeling right now, an anguish that had become even more evident to her after reading just a minute’s worth of the darker prose in the back of that notebook.  After several moments of intense deliberation, Becky took another drag from her cigarette and lifted her phone back up.  She dialed up a number saved to the phone, only it wasn’t Trevor’s number as she had originally planned.

Holding up her phone to her ear and nervously taking another drag from her cigarette while awaiting a response, Becky jolted to full alert when the respondent picked up.   “Hey Lauren it’s Becky….Trevor’s mom,” Becky opened in a soft yet husky tone.  After Lauren’s return greeting, Becky continued, “I know you’re grounded but I’m wondering if there’s any way you can come over here before I have to leave for work in an hour.”  Pausing again to hear a confused but cautiously affirmative response, Becky continued,  “Great.  It’s nothing serious but I have something I really need you to see, honey.”

Becky smiled as she ended the phone conversation, knowing Lauren was likely as unprepared as she’d been herself for what was about to be sprung on her.  Another wave of guilt ricocheted through Becky’s mind as she realized there was no turning back now, but she really had to follow her motherly instinct and share her son’s gift in the way she figured it could do the most good, and quite possibly at the most important time.

——————————–

A half hour later, Becky was cutting a slice of leftover lasagna from the pan to take to work for lunch, dangling a cigarette as she transferred the lasagna into the Tupperware.  The ringing of the doorbell alerted Becky to the arrival of the visitor she’d been waiting for, and she hustled to the front door to greet her.  She opened the door and smiled sweetly to see Lauren standing there, cigarette in hand as always, sporting an apprehensive look to go with her casual sweatshirt and leggings.

“Come on in, Lauren.  It’s nice to see you,” Becky graciously invited as Lauren shyly complied, still unclear what was up.

“Is something wrong?” Lauren asked again, feeling a really unusual vibe in person just as she did on the phone.

Becky shook her head, taking a drag from her cigarette and reassuringly responding, “No,” pausing and then continuing through a talking exhale, “Whatever is going on between you and Trevor is none of my business and I don’t expect you to share it with me….but if you promise you can keep a big secret, there’s something I’d like to share with you.”

Lauren’s eyebrow furrowed as she took a drag from her cigarette listening to Becky’s cryptic opening.  “I’m not sure,” Lauren replied with confusion, but definitely connecting with Becky’s request about keeping a big secret.

Becky motioned Lauren toward the coffee table as she lifted up the notebook with Trevor’s writings, asking “Have you ever seen this before?”

Lauren shook her head no, nervously dragging from her cigarette still feeling as though she was in trouble for something.

“Well it’s Trevor’s,” Becky continued.  “He left it here this morning…by accident.  I didn’t know what it was so I took a look at it.”  She dragged from her cigarette and continued, “Lauren, however complicated things are between you two right now, I think you need to have a look at this and find out just how strongly my son feels for you.”

“Is it like a diary?” Lauren asked, dragging nervously from her cigarette once again.

“Of sorts,” Becky responded.  “And he probably wouldn’t want me or you looking at it.  So if you do take my advice and read it, please don’t mention it to him…and please leave it exactly where I found it right here on the coffee table with his history book on top of it.”  Becky dangled her cigarette as she showed Lauren the exact stacking order of where she found it.

Lauren continued to look apprehensive, dealing with enough demons of her own and not being sure she wanted to add more by digging into Trevor’s private writings, deliberating as she leaned forward to ash her cigarette in the coffee table butt can.

“I’ll tell you what, Lauren,” Becky offered.  “I’m gonna take off for work in a few minutes and let you decide if you’re gonna stay here and read this or not.  It’s up to you.”  Leaning over to pick up a box of Kleenexes on the nightstand while dangling her cigarette, Becky held the box in front of Lauren and warned through a talking dangle, “But if you are gonna read, I suggest you have these closeby.”

Becky gave Lauren one last loving smile as she walked away to finish getting ready for work.  Lauren sat down on the couch staring at the colorful plastic cover of that notebook continuing to weigh the pros and cons of taking on whatever was inside of it.  She kept working up the courage but waited until Becky stepped outside the house and started her car before committing to opening the notebook, filling her eyes with the first poem Trevor wrote after their day at the Minnesota State Fair two months prior.  Trevor had opened his heart to her before, but she was about to get a full tidal wave whether she was ready for it or not.

For the next three hours, Lauren studied every page of Trevor’s notebook full of creative writing, bouncing back and forth from poetry to short stories.  Her heart was full as she discovered a side of her boyfriend she never knew existed.  She didn’t know how much Becky had read, but was grateful to see that the ostensibly autobiographical material was seductive and sensuous without being explicit or blatantly erotic.  And while there was no shortage of tobacco use by the female protagonists, she was grateful that his heroines were not defined exclusively by their smoking.  And while it was a mix and match of feel-good stories and darker fare, Lauren noticed as she turned the pages that the material got progressively darker, and she figured that wasn’t a coincidence.  She couldn’t help but feel that this time apart fueled this creative spurt in Trevor, and then felt guilty she had spent their relationship downtime sulking while her boyfriend had found such an incredibly productive way to pass his time.

Lauren took a deep final drag from her cigarette, her messy exhale temporarily clouding up the airspace between her eyes and Trevor’s notebook that she’d been transfixed by for nearly three hours.  She crushed the cigarette out into the butt can, the latest white butt with gold trim deposited into the ashtray that sported a dozen of its predecessors, an intense smoker’s cough capstoning her considerable tobacco output.  She reflexively reached into the pocket of her hoodie and plucked out her pack of cigarettes, removing another from the pack that had been full when she left home this morning but was now two-thirds empty.  She lit another cigarette up and kept reading Trevor’s captivating prose.  She seemed to alternate between giggling and tearing up as she read, sometimes giggling and tearing up at the same time.  But whatever the mood of the moment in his writing, it was clear to Lauren that she was the object of his affection, and she was kicking herself for ever doubting the sincerity of that affection he had for her.  Grateful that she took Becky’s advice, Lauren took another Kleenex out of the box sitting on the coffee table, blowing her nose to drain the bottled-up emotion that all came pouring out at once reading Trevor’s fiction.

Finally, Lauren turned a page toward the back of the notebook and found it blank, her loving boyfriend finally running out of beautiful words to captivate her.  She closed the notebook and sat quietly for a few moments to mentally process it all, dragging intermittently from her cigarette as the first real hint of light was visible in her eyes since mid-September.  Her excitement beginning to escalate, she picked up her phone to text Becky, content that Becky hadn’t seen anything specifically incriminating about her relationship with her son in anything that Trevor had written.

“Thank you so much for letting me come over and read that, Becky!  It was so beautiful!” Lauren texted while dangling the stub of her latest cigarette.  She only had the time to lean forward and crush out the expired cigarette into the ashtray before her phone began ringing.  Lauren had definitely not expected an immediate response, but smiled when she saw the name “Becky” lighting up on her phone.

Lauren took the call, responding “Hey Mrs. M,” with the kind of spunk that Becky knew meant Lauren liked what she’d just seen.

“Hey Lauren,” Becky greeted back in her husky voice, smoking a cigarette as she walked to her car.  “I just stepped out for my lunch so your timing was good.  Pretty eloquent stuff, huh?”

“Oh Becky, Trevor is so talented!  I had no idea!  None at all!” Lauren gleefully responded.

“I’m really glad you liked it,” Becky continued, immediately pivoting to what had been on her mind much of the morning.  “I was just thinking Friday is Halloween.  Our friends up in Bemidji have their annual Halloween dance up by the cabin.  It’s a really fun costume party and maybe we could go up with your family if they can get Friday off for a long weekend.”

Lauren paused, surprised by the invitation and thinking it sounded great, but then remembering one major obstacle in the way of making it happen.  “It sounds great, but remember I’m grounded.  I’m pretty sure my parents are gonna hold me to that.”

Becky had already thought of that and had a quick rejoinder.  “Well maybe I can sweet talk your parents into cutting that grounding short a couple of days.  I can’t make any promises but I would recommend you pick out a costume for Friday night…maybe even something that might get its own poem in that notebook by next week at this time.”

Lauren giggled and responded, “That would be wonderful!  If you’re able to pull this off and convince my mom and dad, you’ll have to let me know your tricks!”

Becky responded with her husky laugh, “Oh I don’t know about that Lauren,” pausing for a cough and then wrapping up the conversation, “…but I’m really glad to hear you’re up to it and I’ll do my best.  I better take off, but don’t forget to clean up before you head back home.”

“I will!” Lauren exclaimed joyfully.  “Bye Becky,” she closed, ending the conversation, not immediately understanding what Becky meant about cleaning up until she looked at the ash can full of her Marlboro Light 100s she’d filled up in the last few hours.  She extracted another cigarette from her pack and lit up before picking up the butt can and carrying it to the kitchen to dump into the waste basket, dangle-dragging from her fresh cigarette while en route.

With a spring in her step, she returned to the coffee table to set the ash can down and then position Trevor’s notebook that she’d spent the last three hours reading exactly where she saw it when she arrived, covering it with his history book.  She decided it was time for her to go, still dangling her cigarette as she headed for the door, locking it before slamming it shut.  As she strutted to her car in the driveway, she felt as though she was walking on the clouds, all of her resentments from the past several weeks a distant memory and her heart as full of love toward Trevor as it had ever been.  She got into the car hoping with all of her heart that Becky could pull off this trip to the cabin she had just suggested.

———————————-

Three hours later, Trevor unlocked the same front door that had unknowingly allowed in his favorite would-be visitor earlier in the day.  He busted on through the door and immediately honed in on the history book he knew he had left on the coffee table, and more importantly the notebook full of creative writing that he hoped was with it.  Trevor lifted the textbook and breathed a sigh of relief seeing the notebook was there, but still felt uneasy about the possibility that his mother had seen it.

After getting to the bottom of the missing textbook and notebook, Trevor sat up and furrowed his brow a bit.  Even in a house that constantly reeked of tobacco, there was a distinct but familiar odor lingering at the end of his nose that immediately reminded him of Lauren.  He tried to shrug it off, but it hadn’t been the first time in their relationship that his mate’s scent innately aroused his senses in the most primal way, and every time in the past that he sensed Lauren’s presence he was later proven right.

The sound of his phone ringing in his bag diverted Trevor’s attention, and when he saw “Mom” lit up on the phone, he cringed, not knowing what Becky had seen in the notebook he left behind.

“Hey,” Trevor answered casually as he picked up the call.

“Trevor, I figured you’d be getting home from school and wanted to ask you something that’s kind of time-sensitive,” Becky initiated while sneaking a cigarette in her secret bathroom hiding spot at the hospital.

“Uh, yeah,” Trevor responded, being sure to take care of old business first as he asked, “Did you see I forgot my history book this morning?”

“I did,” Becky partially confessed, adding “But you were already at school by the time I saw it.  I thought about taking it to you on my way to work but didn’t figure you’d want to be embarrassed by your mommy showing up at school.” She paused for a husky laugh and then asked, “How’d the test go?”

“Uh, fine I think,” Trevor responded, distracted and eager for his mom to get to the point.  “So what did you call to ask?”

“Well, how would you feel about taking off school on Friday to head up to the cabin with the Nelsons for a long weekend?” Becky inquired before taking a deep drag awaiting her son’s answer.

“Huh?” Trevor responded, finding a number of things confusing about the request that had just come out of his mother’s mouth.

“Well the Camdens are having their Halloween dance on Friday night so it would be fun for all of us….plus Craig and Michelle want us to try out that hot tub before winter that they installed outside their cabin,” Becky laid it on thick, telling a different story to every party she’d spent the afternoon calling to try to put this together and give their kids the opportunity to rekindle their flame.  “So what do you say?”

“Uh, yeah….that sounds great.  So…..we’re all going?” Trevor delved, making sure this wasn’t too good to be true and that Lauren was definitely gonna be tagging along despite her suspension from school.

“Well I don’t think Courtney and Wade will be able to give up their work shifts the whole weekend so they probably won’t make it….” Becky teased before getting around to the punchline, “…but as for the person I think you’re most interested in, she’s definitely coming.”

“Wow, uh, yeah that sounds great,” Trevor responded with genuine surprise.  “You and dad really gonna be able to play hooky on such short notice?”

Becky took a final drag from her Marlboro Red and then dropped it in the toilet and coughing mildly, responding, “We’ll figure out a way to make it work.  Just let your dad and I worry about that.  Your job is to figure out what costume you’re gonna wear to the dance on Friday night.”

Trevor smiled, realizing his mom had really put herself out on a limb to make this happen.  “Thanks mom,” he said affectionately.

The call ended and Trevor leaned back on the couch, grinning as he realized his manipulation gene was definitely hereditary.  He hadn’t seen this side of his mom often, and it said a lot to him that she had done this on behalf of him and Lauren, stroking his chin as he pondered how she made this come together so quickly.  He couldn’t help but feel a little a bit suspicious that there was something going on here he didn’t know about, but right now he was too thrilled about the prospect of spending Halloween weekend with Lauren to do any intense critical thinking about it.  As his mind drifted to Lauren, he once again couldn’t shake the feeling of her recent presence, but figured that faint trace of residual Marlboro Light smoke he detected was just his brain playing tricks on him in advance of what he hoped would be a long-awaited reunion.

———————————

Two days later, the McPhersons had just arrived at the family cabin shortly after 1 p.m. Steve, Becky, Haylee, and Trevor were unpacking their luggage and hauling it into the cabin after the four-hour drive, with several hours to unwind before the costume party began that evening.  Lauren had been sending enthusiastic texts back and forth with Trevor for much of the drive up, and he knew the Nelsons weren’t far behind.  He nervously glanced over his shoulder anticipating their arrival, hoping the awkwardness of the last month wouldn’t resume when he finally saw his estranged girlfriend in person.

The suspenseful climax to the interim rapidly approached as Trevor saw the Nelsons’ car approaching.  He stood next to his parents’ car with baited breath while watching Craig come to a stop in front of the next-door cabin.  Trevor’s eyes were laser-focused on the backseat driver’s side door, where he knew Lauren usually sat on family trips.  Through the cracked window, he observed a flicker of light followed by a plume of cigarette smoke escaping from the car, and felt his adrenaline rush as the backseat door opened.

Emerging from the car with freshly lit Marlboro Light 100 in hand, Trevor’s girlfriend was every bit the portrait of tainted innocence that Trevor had prayed would return to him.  The crisp mid-autumn sunshine glistened to create a halo effect hovering over Lauren’s long dark blond hair, her beaming smile authenticating the angelic vision standing 25 yards in front of Trevor.  But the contrast to that angelicism was also on full display with the return of Lauren’s black leather jacket which was making its first appearance, at least for Trevor, so far this fall.  From the waist down, Lauren’s lower body was snugly draped in black leggings that complemented the leather jacket and took Trevor back to New Year’s Eve and so many other of their early encounters as a couple the year before.  As the cigarette approached Lauren’s lips, the image was complete, and the warm reception became instantly mutual as Lauren observed Trevor while completing her drag.

As hard as she tried to restrain herself, Lauren rapidly approached Trevor, quickening her pace with each step and ultimately opening her arms for a full, loving embrace that Trevor emphatically returned.  They both knew they were the center of attention for their families in a way that would normally have embarrassed them, but in this case they figured it would improve everybody’s mood to see this very public reunion from a couple whose relationship had been on the rocks.

As Trevor felt Lauren’s embrace grow ever tighter, he recalled the night of the sexual assault and the eerie feeling he had when she hugged him so tightly before walking away.  That memory made it all the more gratifying to feel her squeezing him even more tightly right now.   She leaned into his ear to whisper, “I’ve missed you so much baby,” continuing to resume the bear hug.

“I’ve missed you too!” Trevor responded, holding back the emotion as much as possible as a sensory overload washed over his body.  In addition to Lauren’s aggressive touch, she was also dominating him with the front-and-center presence of her tobacco odor, an olfactory domination that was greatly enhanced by the way the stale smoke aroma had melded into her leather jacket.  He recalled how thrilling that combination was for him the year before, but the multiple weeks of separation and Lauren’s accelerated smoking habit made it orders of magnitude more intense for him right now.  The oohs and ahhs of their parents and siblings watching this reunion only fueled the couple’s passionate resolve further, and Trevor felt his body tingle as he slid his fingertips up and down Lauren’s back, feeling both the smooth leather of her jacket and her silky blond hair that hung upon it.  Waves of comfort and electricity oozed through his body as if he’d watched an hour’s worth of ASMR videos.

After more than 30 seconds, Lauren finally pulled away, disappointing Trevor for only a split second before he realized the reason as she pulled her cigarette to her lips for a deep drag.  The intoxicating aroma of fresh Marlboro Light smoke spilled from her respiratory system and was the final cue to signal all was well again, complemented by a loving smile and Lauren’s patented lower-lip bite.  Trevor had no idea what turned things around so dramatically in such a short time frame, but he wasn’t about to ask any questions given the favorable outcome.

Meanwhile, a lower voltage of electricity sizzled by two other occupants of the respective cars as Haylee and Lauren’s younger brother Brian exchanged semiregular glances at one another while ostensibly observing their older siblings’ reunion.  With everyone appearing to concentrate fully on Lauren and Trevor, Brian felt confident in his ability to sneak some extended, undetected glances at Haylee, who was giving him plenty to get excited about decked out in her pale pink hoodie and matching form-fitting pale pink leggings, which hugged every curve to visual perfection.  And, as always, he continued to have an inexplicable fascination with the Camel Pink No. 9 cigarette that hung limply from Haylee’s lips as she swooned over the heartfelt reunion of her brother and Lauren.

For her part, Haylee sensed Brian was creeping on her and while part of her pretended to be annoyed by it, another part of her was flattered and intrigued by it, and she darted her eyes his way now and then, unable to shake her continued suppressed fascination by this kid that she’d felt since New Year’s.   Part of it was that it felt really good to be admired in the innocent way that Brian admired her, especially for a girl with a limited social circle who was still recovering from her summertime broken heart.  She puckered her lips around her cigarette and flashed her first smile to Brian since they arrived, knowing he’d pick up on it as the smoke ejected from her mouth and nose.

Steve, Becky, Craig, and Michelle all let Haylee and Brian’s visual cues to one another fly under their radar as their focus was entirely dominated by Trevor and Lauren.  While avoiding broaching the topic of their estrangement, the couple’s parents made small talk on how nice it was to see them back together, with some teasing in the mix designed to make them blush.  The chatter withered away and the families resumed to unpacking their luggage from their respective cars.

But before the four teenagers separated, Lauren quickly herded them to make a request.  Trevor observed a beautiful flurry of cigarette smoke spill from her face as she excitedly suggested, “Hey I got an idea of what we can all do this afternoon!  Let’s walk around the trail we took last summer and enjoy the fall colors!”

The trio of siblings all quickly concurred, liking the sound of Lauren’s suggestion for a quiet walk in the woods away from their parents, although at least for Trevor, Brian, and Haylee, seeing the fall colors were not their biggest motivators.

———————————-

Forty-five minutes later, the four young people were walking on the five-mile trail through the woods as discussed, still navigating through a bit of teen angst fitting for their awkward respective situations.

Lauren broke a few moments of silence by looking up to the mostly bare trees, disappointed by the lack of autumnal foliage and commenting, “I was really hoping to see more color.  I guess it’s past peak up here,” as she plucked her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s from the pocket of her leather jacket.

Waiting for this moment, Trevor extended his hand as a reminder that lighting her cigarettes was his job.  Making loving eye contact, he responded, “Oh yeah.  The leaves start changing color and falling off by late September this far north.  We’re a month too late.”

Lauren gleefully handed him her lighter as she placed the Marlboro Light 100 to her lips, cupping her hand around Trevor’s as he sparked it up for her.  Hoping that Haylee and Brian weren’t watching but not caring if they were, Lauren grinned and exhaled directly into Trevor’s face.  Still a bit unclear about where Lauren’s physical boundaries were, Trevor took a gamble and reached out for her hand, which she merrily took hold of as they proceeded down the trail together.

Walking a few feet ahead of them on the wide trail, Haylee was dangling the stub of her Camel Pink No. 9 and puckered up for a final drag while removing her cigarette pack from the pocket of her pink hoodie and getting another.  Knowing Brian was observing, she figured she’d give him a repeat of the show she gave him on this same trail the prior summer as she used the butt of the original cigarette to light up the new one.  She flung the spent butt past him into the brush on the edge of the trail while dangle-dragging the new one.  Overcome by nicotine overload, she quickly removed the cigarette to cut a loose an intense smoker’s cough and then fired off one of her vintage follow-up lugies and scoring some impressive distance on it.

Brian observed all of this with a fascination that he tried as hard as he could to camouflage while using Haylee’s moment of distraction to check out how incredible her ass looked in those pink leggings.  Sensing his opening for one of his sarcastic quips, Brian snorted, “I see you’re as much of a failure as my sister when it comes to quitting smoking!”

Haylee had secretly been hoping for one of his putdowns and fired back, “Who says I want to quit!?!”

“Anybody with a brain would want to!” Brian responded abrasively.  “It’s just as disgusting as ever!”

“Sucks for you!” Haylee retorted with far more pluck than her usual dismissive tone, raising Brian’s curiosity.

Brian took the opening to address the issue he was most curious about, sneering “Why don’t you get on your phone and call your big stud boyfriend back here.  He’s probably the only one not grossed out by you!”

Lauren, who had largely tuned out Haylee and Brian’s bickering, suddenly intervened to admonish her brother’s insensitivity.  “Brian!  They broke up!” she scolded in a don’t-go-there tone.

Brian pretended to feel guilty as he softly responded, “Oh…sorry” but could barely suppress his excitement a split second before a wave of Haylee’s exhaled smoke drifted into his face amidst the thin October air.

“It’s okay,” Haylee softly reassured through a talking dangle, hiding her own elation at Brian’s awkward attempt to investigate her relationship status.

Swinging their hands together playfully as they walked, Lauren and Trevor could hardly keep their eyes off of each other and neither were picking up on the tension brewing between their siblings.  Lauren locked eyes with Trevor again as she took a drag from her cigarette, hoping it wouldn’t be obvious to Trevor that her renewed energy toward their relationship had largely arisen from her covert reading of his creative writing library.  She released her hand from his and wrapped it around Trevor’s waist, knowing it would give him the green light to do the same to her.

Trevor wasted no time taking the bait, wrapping his left hand around Lauren’s waist as they walked, the electricity ricocheting through his body like starbursts as his fingers explored the tipping point where the bottom of Lauren’s leather jacket transitioned to the spandex of her black leggings.  The movement of Lauren’s hips as she progressed made it that much more real to Trevor that their physical kinship was back on track, and every burst of exhaled cigarette smoke that filled Trevor’s airspace served as yet another reminder that they were once again at one.

Lauren accelerated further as she mischievously bit her lip and made exaggerated eye contact, trotting out another of her old tricks as she grabbed hold of Trevor’s hand caressing her waist and guided it toward her asscheek.  Trevor was a little bashful doing this in front of Haylee and Brian but nonetheless took the opportunity to squeeze tight, and Lauren let out a cute little yip as her boyfriend goosed her, a blast of cigarette smoke shooting out of her mouth with her monosyllabic expression before she retired the cigarette with a flick into the woods.

“Alright I don’t want to see that!” Brian exclaimed, feigning sincerity as best he could upon seeing Trevor and Lauren’s escalating displays of affection.

Haylee quickly chimed in, adding through a talking dangle, “I hate to agree with Brian, but I’m with him on this one!”

Lauren giggled and turned a bit red as she replied, “Sorry.”  She then decided to engage with the group for a bit as they progressed down the trail, musing “I can’t believe it’s already Halloween!  Does everybody have their costumes ready for the party tonight?”

Everybody nodded with varying levels of enthusiasm, but Lauren remained far and away the most excited about keeping the conversation on the costumes.  She fished out another cigarette from the pack in her jacket pocket and fluttered her eyelashes at Trevor as she handed him her lighter.

“I think you’re really gonna like the costume I picked out for you,” Lauren flirted as she accepted Trevor’s light and took in the gleam of light in his eyes as he processed the comment.  Through a talking exhale off of the light-up, she giggled and added, “My dad, on the other hand, is probably not gonna like my costume quite as much.”

Trevor grinned deeply, still reacclimating himself to having breath after breath of Lauren’s secondhand smoke lurking at the tip of his nose, responding “I don’t normally look forward to dances or parties but you’ve definitely got me looking forward to tonight.”

Haylee was looking for an opening to investigate Brian’s willingness to engage, blurting out with an artificial sarcasm through a talking dangle “I’m guessing there won’t be too many hot guys there so I’ll probably be forced to dance with your lame ass at some point!” giving Brian a gentle shove from behind to let him know she was talking about him.

Before Brian could respond, his older sister responded for him as Lauren dashed both of their hopes by interjecting, “Actually, Brian already has a date!”  Haylee jerked her head Lauren’s direction in genuine shock as Lauren giggled, continuing  “Faith Christensen.  She’s the daughter of my parents’ friends up here.  She’s just the cutest.  Can’t wait to see her costume tonight.”

Brian was clearly displeased as he progressed down the trail, and Haylee observed him while puckering her lips around her mostly smoked cigarette for an intense dangling drag, talking through Brian with a comment ostensibly directed at Lauren.

“Jeez Lauren,” Haylee opened, smoke spewing from her mouth and nose.  “I had no idea your brother was such a casanova scoring dates on a day’s notice from 200 miles away!”

Lauren giggled as the entire trio trained their eyes on a humiliated Brian, with Lauren adding, “He’s a real ladies man, for sure!”

“Just shut up!” Brian barked at his sister as the group laughed at his expense.

Haylee took a final dangling drag from her cigarette before removing it from her mouth and tossing it to the ground, feeling oddly disappointed about Brian being accounted for at tonight’s party, but also thoroughly intrigued to lay eyes on his date in a few hours.

Still walking down the trail with their hands on each other’s waists, Lauren’s rising libido was becoming harder for her to contain and she placed her half-smoked cigarette into her mouth and stopped in her tracks for a split second, following directly behind Trevor once he got ahead of her.

“I’m getting tiiiiiired, Trevor!” Lauren whined playfully through a talking dangle, adding  “How about you give me a piggyback for a while?!”

Trevor smirked at Lauren’s frisky seizure of an opportunity for more physical contact, but before he could even fully process Lauren’s request, he felt her grabbing hold of his shoulders, the aroma of her dangling cigarette only inches behind his head encroaching more heavily into his airspace.  He knew this was happening right away and held his arms out to grab hold of Lauren’s thighs as she climbed her body atop his back.   Lauren giggled through her dangling cigarette as her boyfriend carried her body, and Trevor took it all in, the feeling and smell of her leather jacket lurking on his neck and back of his head, her dominating cigarette smoke descending from directly above.

Haylee watched from the side as she proceeded down the trail, unable to kill the urge to piggyback on Lauren’s piggybacking scheme.  She pulled out another cigarette from her pack of Camel Pinks and lit up, belching out her first blast of smoke off of the light-up and then diverting her eyes in Brian’s direction, rhetorically asking “I’m getting a little tired too.  We’ll see if you’re enough of a man to carry me!”

Brian was taken aback by Haylee’s aggressiveness, feigning objection as he halfheartedly grumbled “No….noooo!” as Haylee grabbed hold of his shoulder and leaped up.  Brian attempted to grab hold of her legs but quickly realized he wasn’t well-versed enough in piggyback etiquette to pull this off without a little help.

“You were supposed to grab my legs!” Haylee barked through her talking dangle after sliding down Brian’s back and landing her feet back on the trail.

Brian diverted his eyes toward Trevor to see how he was lugging around his sister and then grumbled, “Well maybe if you weren’t so heavy!”

“Oooooo!” Haylee fired back, appreciating the burn as she grabbed his shoulders for another attempt.   “Well maybe you just need to work out a little more…” Haylee muttered while balancing the dangling cigarette in her mouth and leaping atop Brian’s back, this time landing successfully in his arms. “Consider this practice for sweeping your little girlfriend off her feet tonight,” Haylee added as Brian’s slight seventh-grade body struggled to lug her around.

Lauren and Haylee both laughed as they held on tight to the boys letting them ride piggyback, the cigarettes dangling from their mouths making them look even more in charge of the males subserviently transporting them.  For their part, Trevor and Brian were silently proceeding, their physical discomfort a minor handicap to deal with amidst the otherwise welcome imposition.  As they felt Lauren and Haylee’s tobacco-drenched presence lurking atop their shoulders and their respective black and pink spandex-covered legs wrapped around their ribs as they held them while slowly moving forward down the trail, Trevor and Brian both pondered in amazement how impossible this scenario would have seemed to them just two days earlier.  Halloween was certainly living up to its reputation for surreal surprises this year.

——————————

Several hours later, the McPherson family car pulled into the crowded driveway of the Camden family who was hosting this costume party in their barn which had years ago been retrofitted as a noncommercial social venue.  Trevor quickly climbed out of the backseat, surveying the line of cars to see if Lauren’s family had arrived yet, but didn’t see it in his immediate vantage point.  As he stood up, he straightened out the costume he picked out at his mom’s suggestion, a Prohibition-era gangster costume complete with a fedora hat and suspenders holding up his pinstriped slacks.  It felt a bit silly to him, and the costume dance party scene wasn’t his jam generally, but he was more than willing to go through with it to get back on good graces with Lauren.

Haylee then climbed out of the passenger side backseat, dangling a mostly smoked cigarette from her lips.  Her pose couldn’t have been a starker contrast to her costume, a cheerleader outfit with a pastel pink and white top and a short, all-pink puffy skirt.  Like Trevor, Haylee looked around for the Nelsons’ car but also didn’t see it nearby.  As they began to walk toward the barn with their parents behind them, Haylee took a double-pump final drag off of her Camel Pink No. 9 and then flung the butt into the ditch as she progressed.  A husky smoker’s cough followed with the requisite lugie spit into the same ditch where she pitched the cigarette butt, wisps of smoke still spraying from her mouth and nose.  Trevor smirked at the image of his sister wearing such a feminine cheerleader outfit yet still carrying on with her usual crude smoking theatrics, but was then annoyed at the idea of being stuck in this smoke-free dance hall for hours where he wouldn’t likely see many more of Haylee and Lauren’s smoking antics.

As Trevor and Haylee walked through the crowded rows of cars en route to the barn, they looked up at the bright harvest moon glowing above that seemed so perfect for Halloween night in northern Minnesota.  With the sun having set more than an hour earlier, the already crisp fall air was cooling even further, and Haylee began to feel goose bumps forming on her bare legs, accelerating her pace to get indoors.

Sensing the kids were cold as she and Steve walked behind them, Becky reminded them “We’ll all get a chance to warm up tomorrow night.  Craig and Michelle are gonna have us over to try that new hot tub they just got installed.  They put some panels up around it for this time of year so the water will be nice and toasty.”

Haylee and Trevor listened to their mother in silence as they got within the last several yards of the barn/dance hall’s entrance, but it was the sound that followed their mother’s brief reminder that really captured Trevor and Haylee’s attention.  The flick of a lighter brought to life one of Becky’s Marlboro Reds, immediately leading to Haylee’s head turning.

Haylee pointed to the barn and incredulously asked, “They let you smoke in there?”

Becky nodded affirmatively as she filled her lungs with smoke from her first drag.  “Sure.  The Camdens both smoke.  It’s their barn so it’s not considered a public place.”

“Nice!” Haylee said, immediately reaching into her purse and pulling out a Camel Pink No. 9, preparing to light it just as Trevor held the door open for her and their parents, taking an admiring look at his parents’ cheesy matching costumes of a jack and a queen from a card deck.  Trevor tried his best to camouflage his elation about this dance hall being a smoking-permitted venue while watching his sister christen the place with a blast of smoke off of her light-up seconds after walking inside and turning more than a few heads upon her entrance.

The crowd was about what Trevor had expected when he walked inside, skewing decidedly older, but the venue itself was impressive, clean, nicely decorated, and much larger than it looked on the outside.  A large gathering of chairs and tables encircled an open dance floor with a couple of tables of hors d’eouvres and punch set up in the corner and a sound system cranking out classic rock from the 70s and 80s that seemed to fit the age demographic of the crowd.

Haylee was having the same impression as her brother as she surveyed the dance hall while puckering her lips around her freshly lit cigarette, enjoying looking at the colorful costumes but cringing at how few people under 40 were there.  Still, both siblings took some solace in knowing some guests who would meet with their approval were yet to show up.

The McPhersons migrated to the table of food and punch, and Trevor quickly picked up on the two seasonally appropriate signs differentiating the two punch bowls, with one labeled “Holy Spirit Punch” and the other labeled “Demons’ Punch”.

Haylee looked on with confusion, whispering to Trevor through her dangling cigarette, “What does that mean?” while pointing to the signs.

Trevor smirked and responded, “Pretty sure the Demons’ Punch is spiked.”

“Ohhhh!” Haylee replied as though it should have occurred to her.

Overhearing their conversation as he began to stack up a plate full of hors d’eouvres, Steve kept the two teens on notice.  “Not gonna tell you guys that you can’t sample the spiked stuff but maybe try and stick with the PG-rated drink most of the night.”

“No promises!” Haylee said with an evil smirk, while Trevor simply nodded, having no plans to consume alcohol but eventually smirking himself upon speculating what the alcohol might lead to with the smoking females at the party.

The sound of activity at the entrance diverted Trevor’s attention and he knew the second the door opened that the Nelsons had arrived, with everybody in the McPherson family looking up to watch their dramatic entrance.  The suspense built as he first watched Craig and Michelle walk in, wearing clever and somewhat suggestive matching costumes as a light plug and socket.  Brian came in next wearing a pirate outfit with a leg stump and an eye patch.  And saving the best for last was the final entrant, Lauren, who was decked out in a naughty cop uniform.

Wearing a keystone cop hat atop her head, Lauren’s lower body was draped in a short black leather miniskirt with a pair of handcuffs hanging from a chain around her waist, and a matching pair of knee-high black leather boots and fishnet stockings.  She smirked mischievously as she made eye contact with Trevor, removing her leather jacket to reveal one last surprise.  Steve, Becky, Trevor, and Haylee were all taken aback to see the massive amount of exposed flesh on Lauren’s upper body in her shoulderless and midriff-less leather bustier that matched perfectly with the color scheme of the miniskirt and boots.  Trevor watched in awe as his family hooted and hollered in delight at the arrival of the Nelsons, and specifically Lauren’s sexually charged presentation.

Lauren had kept her eyes trained primarily on Trevor but furrowed her eyebrow briefly upon noticing that Haylee and Becky were smoking.  She then turned around to retrieve the pack of Marlboro Lights 100s still in her jacket pocket, removing one and firing it up before resuming her approach toward Trevor while tucking her cigarette pack in between the waist of her skirt and her bare midriff.

With boisterous laughter from all who were observing, Lauren unfastened the handcuffs from the chain and held them up in front of Trevor as she looked him up and down in his 1920s gangster outfit, cigarette smoke blasting out of her face.  She had all she could do to contain her giggles as she exclaimed, “You’re comin’ with me Capone!  I’m taking your bootleggin’ ass back to the pokey!”  With wisps of residual smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose, she feigned fastening the cuffs onto Trevor’s wrists.

Trevor simultaneously laughed and blushed, while quickly realizing Lauren knew much more about his Halloween costume than he knew about hers based on her rehearsed line.  Lauren was breathless giggling as the rest of the group laughed along, Lauren’s smoked-out lungs gasping for air in the middle of her uncontrollable laughing fit before she finally pulled herself together and approached her cigarette to her lips for another helping of lung suppression.

“Oh you guys all look so great!” Becky opened in her husky voice, addressing the entire Nelson family before looking directly to Lauren and confirming Trevor’s suspicions by adding, “And you and your mom really pulled that thing together nicely given the time crunch,” in reference to Lauren’s sexy cop costume.

Steve smirked as he looked Craig’s direction and asked, “So what does dad think about Lauren’s costume?”

“Ughhhhh!” Craig exaggeratedly responded with an eyeroll, eliciting more laughter from the group who proceeded to compliment each other on their respective costumes as they chatted in front of the punch bowls for a few moments, eventually drifting away to let other partygoers get some food and beverages.

With a freshly lit cigarette dangling from her lips, Haylee scooped up two cups of the spiked punch while in line and then walked over to Trevor, Lauren, and Brian who were all standing together on the edge of the designated dance floor.  Haylee and Brian’s eyes met as she approached, both quietly looking each other up and down in their costumes, with Brian feasting his eyes just a little bit longer on Haylee in her pink cheerleader’s outfit, unable to reconcile the image of the cheerleaders in his middle-school pep rallies under any circumstance smoking a cigarette in their uniform as Haylee was right now.

“I think you’ll like the punch,” Haylee said with a smirk through a talking dangle as she handed a glass to Lauren.

Lauren seemed slightly confused until she took a sip and instantly tasted the vodka, responding  “Whoa!  That’s my kind of punch!” before looking to Trevor and holding up the cup to his face and asking, “Want a sip, baby?”

Trevor nodded no with a grin as Lauren dragged from her cigarette, cleverly adding “I just move the moonshine. I don’t drink it,” in reference to his costume.

Lauren almost did a spit take as she burst into laughter at Trevor’s joke, spraying him instead with a face full of cigarette smoke, and then stroking his scruffy chin and saying, “My little teetotaler!”

Haylee then darted her eyes to Brian, recollecting their shared bottle of wine on New Year’s Eve and teased through an extended talking dangle, “I was gonna bring a glass for you too but I decided my New Year’s resolution was to stop serving alcohol to minors.”

Brian sneered, unable to come up with a good comeback before the opening of the entryway led to the emergence of the person who was poised to blow up Brian’s plans for the night.

“Brian, your date’s here!” Lauren announced affectionately as she noticed the arrival of Bruce and Judy Christensen with their preteen daughter Faith, who was wearing a pink Cinderella gown, her face glowing with a bashful smile as she laid eyes on Brian.   “Awww, look how adorable she is!” Lauren added upon recognizing Faith’s ensemble.

Haylee and Trevor both looked on in surprise to notice that the 12-year-old Faith had Down’s Syndrome and neither was able to contain their smiles to see the sweet girl approach Brian with wonderment in her eyes.  Both Faith and her parents cringed as they walked through the cloud of smoke from Lauren and Haylee’s cigarettes, but smiled on as Faith took Brian’s hand and pulled him toward the dance floor.

“Awww!” Lauren continued to rhapsodize, placing her cigarette between her lips and dangling it as she readied her phone to take some photos of her brother with Faith as they posed, and then sharing a few admiring comments with Faith’s parents.  Bruce and Judy soon followed Faith and Brian as they continued to the dance floor.

Haylee’s curiosity got the better of her as she looked to Lauren and asked through her talking dangle, “How do you guys know them?”

Lauren finished her drag and then added, “Bruce is the contractor who my dad hired to build that hot tub we’ll all be soaking in at this time tomorrow.  When he heard we were coming up, he asked if Brian would be Faith’s date for the dance.  Isn’t that sweet?”

Haylee nodded, trying her best to hide her disappointment before responding, “Yeah, they’re really cute together,” with sincerity as she observed them together, puckering her lips around the filter of her Camel Pink No. 9 for a final drag before dropping the butt into her empty glass of punch.

The opening chords of “Eye of the Tiger” began blasting from the sound system from across the room when Lauren grabbed Trevor’s arm.  “I think I know this song!  Let’s dance!”

Trevor briefly cringed as he usually did when Lauren wanted to dance but didn’t protest when she led him onto the dance floor with her free hand, a mostly expired cigarette and her half empty glass of spiked punch in the other hand.  Trevor tried his best to move to the music but was mostly transfixed by Lauren’s gyrating hips as she shifted back and forth to the beat of the Survivor rock classic in that leather policewoman outfit that left so little to the imagination.  He reached out to grab her by the waist, knowing that the only thing better than looking at her body moving was to feel her hips as it moved, his fingers caressing both the bare skin of her midriff and the buttery leather of her miniskirt.

Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette and then slammed back what was left of her glass of punch, dropping the cigarette butt into the glass and putting her arms over Trevor’s shoulders as they pulled each other closer.  As the final exhale of smoke from Lauren’s cigarette crashed into Trevor’s face, he could already smell the hint of alcohol on her breath and his mind flashed back to New Year’s Eve, the only time he’d ever seen Lauren drink.  He smirked remembering how silly–and horny–she got after just a few glasses of wine, guiding his hand to the pack of Marlboro Lights 100s tucked into the waistline of Lauren’s leather skirt, plucking out a cigarette and her lighter.  Lauren smiled sweetly as he placed the cigarette between her lips and lit it for her.

“Whewwww!” Lauren screamed off the dangling light-up, startling Trevor and confirming his suspicion that the alcohol was already having an impact on her.  He then proceeded to shift his eyes to the other side of the dance floor and made immediate eye contact with his own parents and Lauren’s father.  Craig kept a gentlemanly smile but it was abundantly clear to Trevor he was not thrilled seeing his daughter dress or behave this way, and served as a good reminder to Trevor that he needed to try hard to rein in Lauren’s likely excesses in the hours to come.

Meanwhile, sitting down at a table all by herself after refilling her glass of spiked punch, Haylee lit another cigarette and disappointedly looked ahead to what she now expected would be another night whose festivities would bypass her.  She looked at Lauren rocking Trevor’s world on the dance floor and then darted her eyes across the room to her parents mingling with other middle-aged partygoers.  It was annoying enough that all of them were having a better time than her, but as she then looked to Faith talking softly to her date, Haylee’s spirit really crashed, particularly as it became clear how uncharacteristically good of a sport Brian was being with his date.  Brian briefly diverted his eyes in Haylee’s direction as she belched out a cloud of cigarette smoke, but she failed to notice due to the tornado of smoke obstructing her view.

———————————

An hour and a half later, Lauren and Trevor still dominated the dance floor as The Cars’ “You Might Think” was the latest retro rock song booming through the speakers that, combined with the spiked punch, served as rocket fuel to Lauren’s hips.   A cigarette in one hand and her fourth glass of Demons’ Punch in the other, Lauren stood directly in front of Trevor grinding her leather-draped ass into his crotch in a way that drew uncomfortable guffaws from this older-skewing crowd.  His male member stiff as a battering ram as Lauren grinded into him with zero inhibition, Trevor could feel his face turn a candy apple shade of red as his eyes scanned the room, semiregularly landing on his own parents and Lauren’s father who seemed less and less amused by Lauren’s dance floor antics as the night went on.  Making uncomfortable eye contact with Craig, Trevor gave him a nothing-I-can-do-about-it shrug and Craig responded with a grudging thumbs-up as if he knew Trevor was doing his best to keep a cool head about himself.

As The Cars song came to an end, Lauren finally pulled her ass away from Trevor’s crotch, swinging around and struggling to catch her breath from the intense dance floor workout.  She took a swig of her drink and then an intense drag from her cigarette, looking lovingly into Trevor’s eyes as the smoke spilled from her face.  Recalling the similar look he saw on New Year’s Eve, Trevor could tell Lauren had crossed a line where she was no longer in control of her behavior.  And just as he assured himself this couldn’t end well given the venue, Lauren pulled her face up to his and mumbled, “I gotta show you the Halloween pumpkin, Trevor,” before turning around, hiking up her skirt and bending over to give him a direct frontal view of her panties.

Trevor quickly reached down to cover her up, hearing more uncomfortable laughter and nervously looking up to his parents and Lauren’s parents, relieved to notice they’d missed that little stunt.  Lauren stood back up to face Trevor, giggling mercilessly as she took another drag from her cigarette.  It was now painfully clear to Trevor he needed to get Lauren away from that punch bowl, and ideally away from this entire venue, before she spiraled even further out of control.

“I think we should find someplace else to go on Halloween,” Trevor shouted as the next classic rock song began cranking.  “Or you’re gonna get us all thrown out of here.”

Lauren laughed loudly as she took another drag from her cigarette, shaking her hips again as the music resumed and blowing the smoke directly into Trevor’s face.  “Where else would we go up here?” she asked in reference to the rural northern Minnesota outpost.

Trevor thought it over for only a split second when a light bulb went off in his head.  “Hang on a second and I’ll let you know,” Trevor replied cryptically as he dug into the pocket of his gangster slacks and checked his phone, punching in some digits for a quick search as Lauren waited patiently, dragging from her cigarette with a bemused smirk.  Even tipsy with alcohol, she could tell by the look on Trevor’s face that he was up to something.

Trevor’s smug smirk intensified as he got the news he was hoping for from his internet phone search.  “Time for me to hold an officer of the law like yourself to her oath…” he opened and then added, “….and keep you honest about what we agreed to at the Minnesota State Fair.”

Lauren looked more confused as she took another drag from her cigarette.  “What’s that?” she inquired.

“Haunted…house….” Trevor replied, accentuating both words for dramatic effect.

Lauren’s playful demeanor immediately turned anxious upon realizing the haunted house was Trevor’s great escape plan.  “Ughhhhh!” she softly shrieked,  “….you know what a scaredy-cat I am, Trevor.”

“I gotta hold you to your promise, Lauren.  This is above you and me,” Trevor responded playfully, adding, “And there won’t be anything at that haunted house that’s as scary as your dad if he catches you showing me the ‘Halloween pumpkin’.”

Lauren giggled and then decided to play along.  “Oh what the hell!  Let’s go to your haunted house,” she exclaimed through a mild slur.

Trevor smiled.  “Thanks babe,” before grabbing her by the waist and guiding her off the dance floor, making eyes with Haylee as she continued to sit by herself smoking a cigarette and sipping another glass of spiked punch.  “Why don’t you talk to Haylee for a minute while I get the car keys from my dad?” Trevor advised as he led Lauren in Haylee’s direction and then headed off to make the aforementioned request to his dad.

Lauren made excited, semi-inebriated eyes at Haylee and then plodded over and sat down next to her.  Haylee, who had consumed her alcohol at a slower pace than Lauren and was able to hold her liquor a little better anyway, welcomed Lauren and bantered halfheartedly with her, but Haylee let Lauren do most of the talking as she kept her eyes focused on the dance floor where Brian and Faith were both beaming with smiles dancing to the beat of “Karma Chameleon”.  Haylee continued to treat Lauren’s alcohol-fueled chatter like elevator music while her mind swooned at seeing a side of Brian she didn’t know existed in the company of his developmentally challenged date who he had been so loyal to the entire night.  Haylee plucked another cigarette out of her pack and Lauren did the same, both lighting up at the same time as Lauren kept the largely one-sided interaction alive.

Meanwhile, Trevor walked up to Steve and Craig who were likely talking old cars once again in a huddle of middle-aged people away from the dance floor.  “Hey Trevor…what’s going on?” Steve called out upon seeing his son approach.

Trevor cut right to the chase, steathly pointing his thumb over his shoulder in Lauren’s direction and saying, “I think I need to get her away from that spiked punch.  If I can have the car, I’ll take her into town to the haunted house.”

Steve and Craig both laughed, both careful not to speak out of turn given that they both suspected Trevor had additional motives but didn’t want to address those motives in front of the other.  “That sounds okay to me if it’s okay with Craig,” Steve responded, looking to Craig who gave a not particularly convincing nod of approval when put on the spot.  “Just as long as you haven’t been doing any drinking,” Steve added halfheartedly as he fished out his car keys from his pocket.

Trevor gave his father a sarcastic look as if signifying his father should know he didn’t drink.  He looked at his phone to see it was 9:15 and added “I should have the car back by 11,” then shifting his eyes toward Becky who was holding court in a lively conversation with a few other women, appearing to be considerably more plastered even than Lauren.  “Looks like you may need me to drive you all home,” Trevor added with a smile as he took his dad’s car keys and turned around.

Trevor walked back toward Haylee and Lauren who continued to sit on the side of the dance floor, a toxic brew of air pollution hovering in their presence as they continued to smoke their endless chain of cigarettes.  Lauren got excited upon seeing Trevor returning and stood up, heading toward the front entryway where she hung up her jacket.  As Lauren walked away, Trevor turned to Haylee and asked, “We’re going to the haunted house in Bemidji.  Wanna come along?”

“Ummm…” Haylee stalled, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag to give her a couple of seconds to think of a good excuse to not tag along, “Actually I think I’ll stick around here….give you two some privacy.”

“Seriously?” Trevor responded with genuine surprise until he followed Haylee’s eyes to the dance floor just in time to see Faith walk away from Brian in the direction of the bathroom, at which point Haylee’s motives had become clear.  He smirked at her as nonjudgmentally as possible and softly said, “Gotcha,” as he tapped her on the shoulder and then walked toward the exit to help Lauren slip into her smelly leather jacket.

Haylee blushed that her brother had figured her out but it didn’t surprise her that he did.  Seeing Brian standing alone for a moment, she realized this was her moment to pounce, standing up and nervously straightening the ruffled skirt on her pink cheerleader outfit and pumping a giant blast of nicotine into her lungs before progressing through the crowd of dancers toward Brian.

Brian froze as he saw Haylee approach.  Never had a moment passed this evening that he hadn’t thought about her, but was still taken aback now that she was approaching, especially as it became very clear she wanted to dance.

Through a talking dangle, Haylee opened, “You’re a pretty popular guy tonight so I better steal a dance while I have a chance.”

Brian awkwardly accepted Haylee’s embrace as she approached, his body tingling at the feel of her touch on his arm and waist as they danced to Foreigner’s slower-paced “I Want to Know What Love Is”.  Brian took advantage of his moment of empowerment and fired back, “You really wanted to dance with me bad, didn’t ya?”

“Oh please!” Haylee curtly replied through a talking dangle, unpersuasively adding  “You’re the only guy younger than my parents out here.  You’re literally the only option I have!”

Just as they were both getting into the dance and their usual bickering banter, Haylee took an intense drag and recklessly exhaled a cloud of smoke into the airspace between them. Brian pulled his face back, repelled by the close proximity of Haylee’s dangling cigarette to the front of his face.  “Ugghhh,” Brian exasperatedly protested.  “Maybe you’d have more people to dance with if guys didn’t have to get cancer from being around you!”

Haylee shook her head in playful frustration and barked back, “Just enjoy the dance, would you?” a long ash falling from her cigarette to the dance floor as she spoke.

They spent the next couple minutes in silence, exchanging a few awkward smiles as they gingerly worked the dance floor with an unmistakable chemistry that had followed them since the night they met, a chemistry that neither of them really understood.  They finally got around to sustained eye contact while swaying to the Foreigner song and its lyrics which were just a little too on the nose for both teenage dancers in this moment.

Haylee never let her eyes drift too far from the bathroom, knowing that Faith would be coming out at any time, and Haylee was ready for it when she did.  A frightened and angry look lurked on Faith’s face as she stepped out to see Brian in another girl’s arms, but she never said anything, greatly intimidated by the hot older girl Haylee in the cute cheerleader outfit and the endless chain of cigarettes in her mouth.  But Haylee backed off immediately, guiding Faith back to Brian’s arms as she said in a husky yet disarming tone, “Here you go Faith.  I was just making sure no other girl started dancing with your date while you were in the bathroom.  He’s all yours!”

Faith flashed an innocent smile to Haylee and proceeded back into Brian’s arms on the dance floor.  As the young couple resumed dancing, Brian nonetheless couldn’t take his eyes off of Haylee as she went back to her chair on the other side of the dance floor with an extra spring in her step that kept her cheerleader skirt bouncing.  Haylee sat back down and dropped her expired cigarette into her empty punch glass, the latest in a dozen pink and white butts that were sponging up the red color of the punch left in the bottom of the glass.  She locked eyes with Brian as he danced with his date, popping another Camel Pink No. 9 between her lips and lighting up, confident that Brian had already had his favorite dance of the night.

————————————

Twenty minutes later,  Trevor and Lauren stood in a line about 50 people deep outside the haunted house, waiting their turn to get inside after paying their admission.  Even a half hour removed from her last swallow of alcohol, Lauren was still very much enjoying life, dancing to the piped-in “Ghostbusters” theme music booming out of the haunted house’s sound system with a mostly smoked cigarette in hand.  She resumed grinding her ass into Trevor’s crotch for a couple of moments and then fell back into his chest, turning her face to up to him as she took a deep drag from her cigarette with a performative French inhale and then exhaling the smoke slowly into his face from close range.

A mid-20s couple stood directly behind Trevor and Lauren in line, the girl flashing her boyfriend a what’s-going-on-here smirk that Trevor picked up on.  He figured the couple knew Lauren was drunk but was likely taken aback by the smoking dynamic where she was aggressively teasing him with her secondhand smoke.  Lauren quickly bounced back to her feet and began dancing suggestively to the “Ghostbusters” music once again while flicking her spent cigarette butt toward the curb.  Only a couple moments passed before Lauren wasted little time extracting another Marlboro Light 100 from the pack in her jacket pocket.

As she handed Trevor her lighter, he stole a quick glance at the couple behind them and observed their restrained annoyance at having to smell another of Lauren’s cigarettes.  After flicking her cigarette to life, Lauren took a hard double-pump drag and recklessly exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that drifted right into the faces of the unamused couple, the girl this time raising her hand to wave away the smoke.  Trevor looked at them and whispered “Sorry,” both for the secondhand smoke assault and Lauren’s general drunken obnoxiousness.    They both responded with passive grins.

Having briefly picked up on the exchange, Lauren stopped dancing and looked at the couple to specifically address them.  “Sorry you got stuck in line behind a crazy girl,” Lauren apologized with a giggle an a slurred speech pattern that morphed into a mild smoker’s cough.

“No it’s fine,” the girl said on behalf of herself and her boyfriend, adding “You guys are really cute together.”

“Thank you!!!” Lauren said with animation that was half because of the vodka and the other half her general spunky personality.   She took another drag from her cigarette and added, “It’s a big night actually because I am fiiiiinally gonna get laid tonight!”

The couple chuckled awkwardly at Lauren’s frank admission and the guy responded, “Is that right?”

“Yeeess!” Lauren replied with continued passion, continuing to slur her words as she continued, “It has been, like, more than a month since I last got laid…..and I need it sooo fucking bad tonight.  My boyfriend has been such a saint and I’ve been a total diva lately!”

The couple continued to grin and nod through the awkward confession as the girl responded, “Well I’m really happy for you guys.”

Pulling her cigarette to her lips for another drag, Lauren smiled at them and teasingly remarked, “I bet you guys are gonna get some a little later too huh?”

The couple turned instantly red and Trevor grabbed Lauren by the shoulder, pulling her away from the conversation and responding “Whoa!  Way too personal there, Lauren!” then looking up to the couple apologetically and reaffirming with a more audible, “Sorry” than he gave them the previous time he apologized for Lauren.

The couple looked on with an understanding smile, but Trevor couldn’t help but detect a bit of judgment in their eyes, recognizing it was not a good look for this intoxicated girl in the presence of her sober boyfriend.  They probably thought he was taking advantage of her, and the sillier Lauren became, Trevor began to feel the same misgivings himself.  But as soon as his conscience began to get the best of him, Lauren began to dance suggestively again, hip-checking her leather-clad ass into Trevor’s crotch.  Erect as a missile again in these gangster slacks that weren’t hiding anything, Trevor was overcome with sexual attraction watching Lauren’s hips work that costume.  And as he watched that leather skirt shimmy around with her dance moves, a mental picture of the aggressive sexual encounter he foreshadowed began to form in his mind.

Lauren stopped grinding and hip-checking for a moment, taking a few steps forward moving slowly with the line, and took out her phone.  She placed her half-smoked cigarette in her mouth, gave Trevor a playful smirk and then began texting.   Trevor heard his own phone’s dial tone go off and he took it out to look at it, his face blushing as he opened the message Lauren had just sent him to discover an eggplant emoji on his phone.  He looked at Lauren who smirked suggestively at him through her dangling drag, belching out another blast of smoke, punching away digits on her phone again and setting off Trevor’s text message alert multiple times.  He looked again to see multiple additional eggplant emojis lighting up his phone.  Lauren giggled amidst another dangling drag, plucking the cigarette from her mouth and leaning in to him to exhale three perfect smoke rings directly into his face from close range.  Trevor couldn’t help but avert his eyes back at the couple behind him, who had again noticed Lauren teasing Trevor’s smoking fetish, and he wondered what could possibly be going through their heads right now.

As they approached the end of the line to get into the haunted house, Trevor and Lauren turned a corner at the base of a small set of stairs leading to the haunted house’s entrance that had a cement structure with landscaping atop it that gave the couple a moment of relative privacy.  Trevor leaned back on the cement and Lauren leaned back into him, taking a final drag from her cigarette, her apprehension about the haunted house only now reemerging as she asked “Where are we going after this if I make it out of here tonight?” as she flicked her spent cigarette butt into the night.

Trevor reached down to her thigh and rubbed his fingers along the netting of her fishnet stockings, slowly working his way up her thigh under her leather skirt.  He leaned down and began whispering into her ear, eager to convey the naughty thoughts he’d been developing while standing in line, being very confident that Lauren shared his preference for a very aggressive sexual encounter tonight.   “I was thinking we could drive my dad’s car down some remote dirt road in the woods…..park it miles away from anybody else….and I could bend that Halloween pumpkin of yours over the car hood….hike your little skirt up….and show you how a real gangster loves his woman,” Trevor muttered softly with a sultry, dominating air, his fingers beginning to penetrate Lauren’s panties onto her ass as they kept encroaching northward on her body.

Lauren breathed hard and passionately as she listened, more than a month’s worth of suppressed sexual frustration coming to a head as she turned to Trevor, demanding “Oh baby take me there now!” with small wisps of smoke still trickling out of her nose nearly 20 seconds removed from finishing her last cigarette, her breath absolutely reeking of vodka and cigarettes only a couple of inches from Trevor’s face.

“Well, I mean, after the haunted house,” Trevor clarified.

“Oh, c’mon, baby, I don’t want to wait!  I want you inside of me, Trevor!” Lauren responded, snapping his suspenders playfully while biting her lip, hoping she could still get out of this haunted house that she really didn’t want to go inside.

Trevor wasn’t fully picking up on the cues, joking “I’m not letting you off that easy!” and then adding, “Plus we already paid and we’re almost inside.”

Right on cue, the line moved up the stairs and it was time for Trevor and Lauren to enter the haunted house.  Trevor fluttered his eyebrows excitedly at Lauren as they reached the threshold to step inside while Lauren grinned through her anxiety as she followed him inside, realizing there was no turning back now.

Trevor began to feel the anxiety in Lauren’s hand as he led the way.  A flash of green light illuminated a live-action actress in a witch’s costume, stirring a giant bowl full of witch’s brew.  Lauren allowed herself to relax, thinking she might be able to handle this as they proceeded down the next hallway.

Moments later, Lauren screamed as another live actor in a zombie costume jumped out in front of them, the first of a litany of moments of escalating disquiet for Lauren that Trevor quickly picked up on.  As he observed the look of terror in her eyes accompanied by childlike moans of despair, he rapidly began to realize taking her to this haunted house was a big mistake, particularly in the aftermath of whatever personal terror she had gone through at the hands of Dusty Beaudry a month earlier.

The teenage couple arrived at a small glass tunnel that they’d have to crawl through to proceed and Lauren grabbed Trevor’s arm with full-scale horror on her face.  “Trevor, I don’t want to go through here!  Let’s go back!”

Trevor considered the request but didn’t even know if that was an option.  “I’m not sure we can, Lauren,” he paused, really wishing he’d had the presence of mind to not put his girlfriend in this situation especially when she was drunk, but then added, “Just hang on tight to me and we’ll get through it.  I’m pretty sure we’re almost done.”

“But I don’t want to!” Lauren cried, on the edge of tears as she nonetheless clutched Trevor’s arm and proceeded into the glass tunnel.  They crawled through the 50-foot, aquarium-like tunnel, observing coffins full of dead bodies underneath them with the lights flickering on and off.  Much as he hated seeing Lauren in so much emotional pain, Trevor couldn’t help but find it kind of cute as she closed her eyes tightly so she wouldn’t have to see anything, whimpering as she let him drag her through the tunnel with her leather policewoman costume absolutely reeking of cigarette smoke.

Trevor and Lauren climbed out the other side of the tunnel and turned a corner to find a narrow corridor with jail cells on both sides, the arms of live-action zombies and chainsaw-wielding killers hanging between the bars as if ready to reach out and grab the haunted house patrons.  Lauren was screaming in tearful agony and Trevor knew this was going to be a huge problem for her to get past as they stood at the edge of the corridor.  One of the actors in the closest jail cell decided to give Lauren an early spook, leaping her direction and reaching out with a monstrous scream, his arm coming only a few inches short of Lauren’s shoulder.

Lauren let out a piercing scream that came from deep within her tortured soul.  She dropped to her knees and clutched Trevor’s leg like a young child would her parent in a moment of deep distress, seeking physical and emotional refuge in the boy she loved as she broke down into a steady drumbeat of boisterous sobs.  The entire cohort of actors portraying monsters inside their cells ceased with their performances momentarily, with the actor who had just scared Lauren making apologetic eyes at Trevor, both of them recognizing that there was a lot more going on with Lauren right now than getting spooked by an actor in a haunted house.

Trevor softly stroked Lauren’s shoulder as her inconsolable sobs continued, and he had a feeling this post-traumatic breakdown was perhaps the first full-blown showing of raw emotion that Lauren had let slip out since the day of her assault.  He helped her off the floor and guided her forward through the cells, filled with regret for subjecting her to this and not anticipating her visceral response.  Whatever the evening had in store for them moving forward would definitely not include backdoor copulation on the hood on his father’s car, and Trevor quickly realized looking at his traumatized girlfriend that that was never a good idea for them tonight in the first place.

——————————

“It’s been a great night but I think we better get this sleepy head home.  She’s usually in bed before 9,” Bruce Christensen told Craig and Michelle Nelson in reference to his daughter Faith, who was hanging on his arm, barely able to keep her eyes open.

“Awww!” Michelle exclaimed, channeling her daughter’s emotional reaction as she looked at Faith.  “Well thank you guys so much for coming, and especially you Faith.  You kept Brian on his toes all night.”

“Your welcome,” Faith responded sleepily, looking to Brian standing to her right one last time and smiling, exchanging thank you’s with Brian over their evening dancing.

As the Christensens drifted to the door, Brian was scanning the room, puzzled and alarmed that Haylee was nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, inside the women’s bathroom, Haylee washed her hands at the sink after emptying her bladder of the handful of glasses of spiked punch that she’d nursed over the course of the evening.  She dried her hands and lit a cigarette, looking at her reflection in the mirror, admiring her reflection in silence for a few moments believing she had plenty of time to kill.  With her cigarette dangling from her lips, she vainly feathered her wavy light brown hair and puckered up for a dangling drag, noticing that her lips were becoming fuller and not immediately recognizing that her endless cigarette dangling probably contributed to that.   With smoke pouring out of her face, Haylee took several steps back to see her full profile in the bathroom mirror, making minor tweaks to the top and the skirt of her cheerleader costume.  She smiled for a moment thinking to herself how much her ex-boyfriend Jacob would have loved seeing her wearing it, then quickly shook herself out of it, realizing she’d only bring herself further down reminiscing about love lost.

Haylee slow-walked her way to the bathroom door and opened it, an eerie quiet filling the dance floor during what was apparently a brief intermission.  Just as she was about to turn the corner into the dance floor area, Haylee spotted Brian talking to his father with a tired and defeated look on his face.

“Dad, I think I’m gonna head home,” Brian opened.

Craig looked a bit saddened that his son was gonna cut the evening short, asking with a bit of surprise “What are you gonna walk?”

Brian nodded affirmatively.  “It’s a nice night.  A little walk would feel good.”

Craig shrugged, “Well it’s probably a mile walk but if you want to take off, we’ll see you when we get home.”

“Thanks dad,” Brian replied, plodding toward the door and grabbing his coat, still confused about where Haylee had gone given that he’d seen her less than 10 minutes ago.

Haylee hung back as she watched Brian leave, standing around the corner of the bathroom and scheming as she dragged from her dangling cigarette.   A middle-aged woman surprised Haylee as she walked past en route to the bathroom, giving the teenager a confused and annoyed look as she walked through a cloud of Haylee’s exhaled smoke and wondered why the girl was lurking in the doorway of the bathroom so creepily.

Haylee continued to stand there for the next couple of minutes, plotting her next move and waiting for Brian to get enough of a head start that she’d have some deniability to both him and their parents if she took off in his aftermath.  When the music started back up and the dance floor filled up again, Haylee took the opportunity to high-tail it to the exit, deciding not to inform her parents she was leaving and hoping they wouldn’t see her leave.  She slipped out the front door, cigarette never leaving her lips the entire time.  She had no idea where the night would go from here as she got outside and began walking the direction of her parents’ cabin.  She just knew she didn’t want Brian to spend the rest of the evening alone.

———————————-

Trevor sat on the passenger seat of his parents’ car with Lauren on his lap, still parked in the lot for the haunted house more than 20 minutes after Lauren’s humiliating encounter.

“What does this remind you of?” Lauren asked playfully, dragging from her cigarette and ashing it out the cracked window, her eyes still swollen from the tears but her speech starting to improve as the buzz from the earlier drinks was wearing off some.

A smile beamed across Trevor’s face, adoring his girlfriend’s great memory and flair for romanticism as he responded, “I bet you’re thinking of last year around this time in the grocery store parking lot on the night you met my family.”

Lauren giggled with smoke still wafting from her mouth and nose, energetically responding, “Yep!” before her demeanor quickly became melancholy and she added, “Sometimes I wish we could go back to that time when we were a little more innocent.”

“Well I wouldn’t describe what you did to me that night as innocent,” Trevor replied, reminding her that that was the night she gave him his first blowjob.

Lauren giggled again and then responded, “Yeah, but you know what I mean,” pausing to take another drag from her cigarette and collect her thoughts before she continued. “I just wonder if maybe we grew up too fast and became a little too much about sex.”   She paused again to gauge Trevor’s response, backing off a bit as she clarified, “Not that it hasn’t been really great!”

Trevor put his hand to Lauren’s face and started gently stroking her hair over her right ear, watching thin plumes of smoke continuing to trickle out of her nose and dominate the cramped airspace in the car as he attempted to articulate a response to her somewhat confusing proclamation.  “Well, you know I’m willing to give you as much space as you need.  I have in the past and I’ll continue to.”

Hedging against defensiveness on Trevor’s part, Lauren erupted into apologies.  “Oh Trevor, I know you must think I’m nuts with all these mixed messages.  It’s hard to take a girl too seriously when she complains about too much sex only a few minutes after she sent you a bunch of eggplant texts!” Lauren giggled at herself again, taking a final drag from her cigarette and then pitching the butt out the cracked window.

Trevor struggled with his words and his displays of affection amidst Lauren’s confusing message, caressing her thigh with one hand and stroking her leather-draped asscheek with the other and hoping she didn’t think either was out of bounds as he responded, “We can have a good time without sex.  We have before and we certainly can again,” mostly sincere in his words but a bit disappointed at the prospect of continued celibacy even now that he and Lauren were back together.

Lauren smiled at his understanding and then qualified her comments a little further, saying “Pretty sure based on the way I behaved tonight I won’t be able to keep it in my pants THAT long…..but maybe let’s take things slow again for a little while, okay?”

Trevor nodded agreeably and responded with a smile, “Sure…no problem.  I’m just happy to have you back, sex or no sex.”

Lauren smiled back as she plucked another Marlboro Light 100 from her pack and put it between her lips, with Trevor immediately taking hold of her lighter and sparking her up.  As she took a deep opening drag, Lauren’s earlier insecurities rushed back again while observing Trevor’s lustful response to her smoking.

She made a point of blowing her smoke away from Trevor’s face this time and cautiously proceeded, “Trevor…..would you still want me if I didn’t smoke?”

“Of course,” Trevor snapped back, trying to hide his displeasure with Lauren’s continued doubts about them and adding, “I thought I made that clear last summer when you quit for a while.”

Lauren took another drag, nodding affirmatively and then responding, “I know, but that was before what you said to me at the state fair,” she said in reference to Trevor’s fetish-fueled confession on the Sky Glider that originally drove her out of her mind with lust.  “I mean that was really sexy to hear but I’m not gonna smoke forever.  My mom told me the other day she scheduled sessions with a hypnotist during Christmas break week for all three of us.  She’s not messing around, especially after my suspension.”

Trevor chuckled and responded, “Hypnotist, huh?” doing everything he could to hide his disappointment at the news that Lauren’s mom’s attempt to get her to quit smoking wasn’t over, thinking he’d dodged a bullet when the vaping didn’t stick last summer.  “That actually sounds like it might be kind of fun to see.”

Lauren giggled again, her voice raising to a playful flourish as she replied, “I know.  It should be interesting,” taking another drag and this time exhaling the smoke into his face again.

Trevor looked her in the eyes to make sure she got the message as he proclaimed, “Lauren, I didn’t love you any less when you quit smoking last summer and I haven’t loved you any less during the time we were separated.  I’m here for you, baby, and I’m so happy to have you back with me now.”

Lauren fought back the tears, his words reminding her of some of the sentiments expressed in Trevor’s book of poetry and short stories that had her swooning only a few days earlier.  She pulled in for a kiss, the alcohol that was so prevalent on her breath an hour ago now overpowered by the pure flavor of tobacco smoke Trevor loved so much as they made out for a few moments.  Lauren eventually pulled back, stroking her hand on Trevor’s cheek to feel his stubble and knowing he didn’t shave in the last few days for her benefit.

“You know what mama likes,” Lauren said playfully, getting more serious while taking another drag from her cigarette and adding, “You always have.  I’ll try not to let myself forget that again, Trevor.”

Trevor smiled as he realized all was well again, looking into Lauren’s eyes lovingly as she bit her lower lip and then put her cigarette in her mouth and dangled while eliciting Trevor’s help to get her leather jacket off.  Trevor didn’t know what she was up to but didn’t protest as he pulled the leather jacket off her arms to reveal the leather bustier concealing her chest and a lot whole of bare skin elsewhere on her torso.

Lauren gave him one more loving smile as she reached for the back of his head and lowered his face to her chest.  She wasn’t ready for sex, but she was ready for Trevor’s loving touch in other intimate ways.  She sighed with pleasure at the feel of Trevor’s stubble brushing against her chest followed by his soft lips.   She recalled hiding her chest from him the night of the sexual assault, knowing Dusty had left a hickey and bruise on her breast.  But that bruise had faded now, and it was time to let her loving boyfriend see and touch it again.

Trevor buried his face up and down her chest, loving the feeling of both her tender bosom and the smooth leather covering her breast as he worked it over with his mouth and chin.  And every few moments, Lauren added to the sensation by blowing a dense plume of smoke downward straight into his face as a reward for the oral caress she so desperately needed tonight….and a nonverbal conveyance of gratitude for Trevor’s standing by her and keeping his promise to not push the issue with Dusty per her request.

——————————

Brian approached the hot tub in the backyard of his parents’ cabin, the late October air feeling cool on his bare chest and legs as he flipped the switch to fire up the jets.  He took a whiff of the fresh pine paneling of the small hot tub room that had only been constructed in late summer, and then dipped his toe into the water that had been heating up since his family arrived that afternoon, finding the water temperature to his satisfaction.

The heated water felt good as Brian immersed his lower body into the tub, his muscles feeling a bit stiff following an afternoon of walking and an evening of dancing.  He sat down in the hot water, saturating his swim trunks and tossing the towel slung over his shoulder to the side, breathing a sigh of satisfaction as he enjoyed this moment of decompression.  He continued to relax for the next several moments until the surprising sound of the door opening startled him.  He only had a split second to wonder who was interrupting his soak until a shivering Haylee revealed herself, her lower body concealed in a towel while her upper body was covered only by her hot pink bikini top.

“Brrrr!  It’s a lot colder tonight than I figured it was,” Haylee announced matter-of-factly as she approached the tub, removing her towel to reveal in full the same sultry hot pink bikini that turned Brian on so much when she wore it to the water park that previous June.

“What are you doing here?  I’m trying to relax!” Brian protested insincerely, pretending he wasn’t thrilled at the sight of Haylee’s bikini body preparing to climb into the hot tub with him.

Haylee sat down her towel and a cluster of other items Brian couldn’t really see in the very dimly lit hot tub room, plucking a cigarette out of her pack of Camel Pink No. 9’s and growling back through a talking dangle of her unlit cigarette, “Your dad told us we were all welcome to try out this tub.  I’m just taking him up on his offer!”  She sparked up the cigarette and continued to let it dangle from her lips as she slowly descended her legs into the tub a few feet away from Brian.

“Perfect!  Perfect!   Now I gotta choke on cigarette smoke too!” Brian continued to grumble.

Haylee smiled with relaxation filling her face as she sat down in the hot water, smugly responding, “I guess you do, don’t ya!” a blast of smoke spilling from her mouth and nose and drifting in Brian’s general direction.

They continued to soak and bicker for a couple of moments until Haylee warmed herself enough to sit back up on the edge of the pool, Brian’s eyes following her body with a mix of hormonal attraction and confusion about what she was up to.  A whirring sound from a can Haylee held in her hand only confused Brian further until he saw her applying a lather of shaving cream on her right leg.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Brian exclaimed.  “You’re shaving your legs here?!?”

“I sure am!” Haylee confirmed, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag and feeling a bit of a moist taste to her cigarette in this humid setting while finishing up the lather on her right leg.

Brian was wondering if this was Haylee’s odd way of flirting because given the situation he couldn’t imagine her motives being sincere.  “You’re such a weirdo!  I mean, who does that at a hot tub in front of their neighbors?!?!”

Stretching her leg out and breaking her shaving cream lather with a stroke of her razor, Haylee looked at Brian friskily and inquired “That’s what you think of me as?  Your neighbor?”

Unable to take his eyes off of Haylee stripping away the shaving cream from her leg with one stroke after another of her razor, Brian eventually thought of a worthy burn and responded with a playful sneer, “I don’t think enough about you to even have an opinion!”

A deep and flattered smile spread across Haylee’s face before she reined it in by dangle-dragging from her cigarette again and then responding to Brian.  “You know, I don’t think you’re nearly as much of a jerk as you want everybody to think you are.”

Brian was a bit taken aback at her comment as her latest expulsion of smoke drifted into his face.  “Oh yeah!  Why is that?” he eventually barked back.

“I saw you dancing with Faith tonight.  You were really sweet,” Haylee replied, pausing and then adding with a flirty smile, “I’m betting that’s the real you when you’re not trying to annoy everyone with your snarky little middle-school act.”

Brian was speechless for quite a few moments in the aftermath of Haylee’s heartfelt compliment, and as Haylee moved her razor from her lower leg to her thigh, he was too distracted to come up with anything.  Haylee maintained eye contact with him as she approached her shaving cream-covered razor to the edge of the hot tub and used the hot water to rinse it off as she tapped it off.

Brian finally found his moment and grumbled, “Gross!  Nobody wants your leg hair in the tub!”

Haylee shook her head playfully at Brian’s continued bratty act, realizing it was the only defense mechanism he knew when it came to interacting with girls.  She ran with that as she took another drag from her cigarette and then put the can of shaving cream on the edge of the tub next to him.   “You got a lot to learn about girls.  You can start by helping me shave my other leg.”

Brian’s discomfort accelerated as it became clear Haylee had a strategy all along for coming in here to shave her legs, and all he was able to articulate for a response was “You are crazy!”

Haylee then proceeded to extend her left leg over his shoulder and said, “Here, I’ll get you started,” spraying a handful of shaving cream and then applying it to her left leg.

Brian watched in silence with his jaw hanging open as Haylee spread the shaving cream all over her leg directly in front of his face as it dangled over his shoulder, cresting the surface of the water.  “Are you trying to give me rug burn or something?!” Brian grumbled as her leg shifted a little on his shoulder.

Haylee laughed aloud and then Brian laughed too, the sexual tension easing and transforming into a more intimate encounter comparable to what they shared in the closet of the McPherson home on New Year’s Eve when they were sneaking a bottle of wine.  Haylee spent the next few moments guiding Brian along as he took her razor and began cutting away at the shaving cream lather on her leg.  As he was really getting into the pattern, Haylee playfully shifted her leg so that a mound of shaving cream smeared onto Brian’s face.

Brian pulled back, his mouth and nose covered in shaving cream as Haylee laughed.  “You…” Brian opened, restraining himself at the last second from finishing that sentence with “bitch” and simply wiping the shaving cream off his face with a bemused smirk.

“Go ahead and say it.  I deserve it after that.  Just be careful not to cut me!” Haylee teased through the stub of her dangling cigarette as Brian finished shaving her thigh.   She took the spent cigarette out of her mouth and approached the cherry to the surface of the tub water, attempting to provoke a response from Brian.

“Don’t even think about it!” Brian exclaimed as Haylee pushed forward with a mischievous smirk, continuing to slowly lower the butt until the sound of the cherry reached the water, a soft sizzle audible as the burnt tobacco was extinguished.  “I’m serious!” Brian continued to protest.  “We don’t want your nasty cigarettes in our tub!”

Haylee pulled the extinguished butt out of the water and dropped it on the edge of the surface with a continued smirk, twisting her left leg that was still hanging over Brian’s shoulder and playfully wrapping it around Brian’s neck as if feigning to choke him with it before finally removing her leg from his body and putting it back in the water in front of her.

“Relax before you have a heart attack!” Haylee eventually responded and then plucked another cigarette out of her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s and lighting it up.  Dangle-dragging deeply off the light-up and then giving Brian an extended seductive glare that Brian seemed to recognize was the prelude to a more aggressive courtship.

Just as Brian was fully processing the moment, Haylee climbed back into the water and then stepped closer to him, removing the cigarette from her mouth and sitting down on his lap, tucking her legs around his side and around his back to face him and then pressing her lips to his.  Just like 10 months prior when Haylee last made out with him, Brian was  taken aback and modestly repelled by the intense flavor of tobacco on Haylee’s breath as she began aggressively kissing him.  But as unbearable as he instinctively found her ashtray mouth to be, he didn’t even consider pushing her away and ending this moment of passion, the intensity of which continued to escalate as she slipped her tongue into his mouth.  Brian allowed himself to get into it more, grabbing hold of her back and loving the feel of her hot, moist skin on his fingers.  He lowered his hands down her shapely waist and then under the surface of the water line, and then kept going as he descended her hips and eventually found his way to the fabric of that hot pink bikini covering her ass.  She teased him by letting him touch her bikini butt at the water park in June, but now he was getting an extended and much more intimate follow-up as he caressed her asscheeks in his hands.

Haylee pulled away from the kiss, hyperventilating for a moment and then turning her head to spare Brian from her smoker’s cough.  After a split second of repulsion on Brian’s part, he was quickly back in the game as Haylee turned back to him with a heightened lust in her eyes, taking a deep drag from her cigarette before standing up in the tub.  Brian was temporarily confused until he saw her reaching for her bikini bottom, his eyes growing as big as saucers as she then began to slide it off her waist.  Hovering over him with her lower body fully exposed and then plopping the soaked bikini bottom to the edge of the tub with a wet thud, Brian had a direct view of her glistening female parts.  And even though he’d only seen naked women before on forbidden websites while hanging with his curious male friends, Brian was still able to immediately recognize that Haylee had already shaved under that bikini before she got around to shaving her legs tonight.

Haylee placed the cigarette between her lips as she leaned down to help Brian take his swim trunks off and then plopped them on top of her own bikini bottom, the same wet thud made as they hit the surface.  Haylee guided Brian out of the tub and sat him on the edge, lustfully proceeding her hand to his male parts and wrapping her hand around the rock-hard stem of his penis for the first time since New Year’s.  Just as was the case then, it was at this moment that things became real and second thoughts began to creep in about stealing the virginity of this boy three years her junior who just happened to be her best friend’s kid brother.   A moment of further reflection reminded her of her sister Courtney’s confession from the summer that she stole the virginity of Haylee’s ex-boyfriend Grant who was three years younger than her, and a chill worthy of Halloween night began to fill Haylee’s heart as she began viewing herself as a sexual predator.  After typically being so guarded about her sexuality, was she losing control of it in the same way Courtney did and spent months in therapy for, she thought to herself.

Brian sat in confusion during Haylee’s extended period of second-guessing, correctly fearing that he might be losing the moment as he watched Haylee dangle-drag contemplatively as she hovered over him.  He seized the moment by reaching up to her bikini top and slowly unfastening the string holding it together on her upper back, allowing it to fall down on top of him and expose Haylee’s breasts.  He leaned forward and began kissing her left breast, listening to Haylee’s smoked-out lungs begin a more labored breathing routine again, complete with explosions of smoke coming from her mouth and nose, and hoped he had compelled her back to the precipice of unrestrained lust.  He got his answer as he felt Haylee’s hips rise from his lap and then lower into his waist, officially hijacking his virginity as her moist vagina engulfed his manhood.

Haylee looked into her lover’s eyes to visually take in the moment she deflowered him.   Her plan was always to lose her virginity to another virgin, but it didn’t work out that way as she gave her virginity to Jacob.  She didn’t regret that for a moment, but still thought sharing her sexuality with a virginal boy was an experience she wanted.  As she began to slowly thrust her body for additional penetrations and felt the heat of having Brian inside of her, she resigned herself to not turning back on this decision.  It was not a decision she would have likely made if she wasn’t under the influence of alcohol, but the void in her soul after losing Jacob needed something to fill it, and despite a long list of reasons why it was a terrible idea, it sure felt right at this moment as her internal purring indicated. Looking through the cloud of smoke filling the airspace between them as she continued to ride, the rapturously blissful look on Brian’s face let Haylee know it felt right for him too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

Trevor’s Ride At The Rodeo (Chapter 13)


Standing near the curb at the edge of a downtown sidewalk in front of their parked cars on a mid-September Wednesday afternoon, mid-teen friends Lauren Nelson, Haylee McPherson, and Carly Hansen enthusiastically traded stories of the new school year with one another as they puffed away on their half-smoked cigarettes.

“I’m so bad at math!” Lauren exclaimed before taking a quick but intense drag from her Marlboro Light 100 and then continued through a talking exhale, “I barely got through Algebra I and I’m already in way over my head only two weeks into Algebra II!”

“You’re lucky that you have Miss Thorstad.  She’s actually good,” Carly responded in reference to a teacher from their mutual high school that she knew Lauren would be aware of.  “I have Mr. Glynn and he can’t teach math worth shit.”

“Geometry for me,” replied the sophomore Haylee who attended a different high school than the two cousins who were both juniors, her Camel Pink No. 9 dangling lazily from her lips as it usually did.  She puckered up for a dangling drag and then added, “I’m not bad at math but geometry still seems really hard so far.”

Carly took a drag from her cigarette and then looked Haylee’s direction to respond, “I wasn’t great at geometry but I can definitely try to help any time you’re stuck.”

Haylee nodded appreciatively taking another dangling drag and responding “I will probably take you up on that,” with a mess of smoke spraying out of her mouth, noticing that her cigarette was nearing its end.

Lauren looked at Carly with bewilderment as she took an intense double-pump final drag from her cigarette and then teased Carly by saying, “You never helped me a damn bit with geometry and I could have used it!”

The girls laughed at Lauren’s bluntness as Lauren flicked her spent cigarette butt to the curb and Haylee removed hers from her mouth and littered it on the sidewalk beneath her feet before both girls instinctively reached into their purses to grab another from their respective packs.  Carly looked down to her cigarette to see there was still a third left, not surprised she was lagging behind the much harder-core smokers Lauren and Haylee, but approached her cigarette to her mouth for an intense closing drag in a desperate attempt to seem as though she was capable of keeping up with them.

As Lauren and Haylee both lit up their new cigarettes and began to put their respective packs back in their purses, Carly called out, “Mind if I bum one more?”

“Sure,” Lauren responded through a talking dangle of the fresh cigarette she had just lit, preparing to pluck out another cigarette for Carly.

“I was actually talking to Haylee,” Carly responded with a sarcastic flair, eliciting more giggles from the trio before she added,  “I have to smoke your awful Marlboro Lights at school, but if I have literally any other option I’m going with that!”

Haylee beamed with a smile as she plucked out another Camel Pink No. 9 from her pack, smoke spewing from her face off of her latest endless dangle as she handed it to Carly.

“If my cigarettes are that bad, you don’t have to bum them from me at school anymore!” Lauren responded with her playful, teasing vocal flourish, smoke spewing from her mouth and nose after every syllable.

Carly aggressively nodded in the negative as she placed Haylee’s Camel Pink in her mouth and prepared her lighter, “Yours are still better than no nicotine at all!”

Carly flicked her lighter in attempt to fire up her cigarette, but repeated attempts all failed to ignite as the lighter was dysfunctionally low on butane.  Lauren began to fish her lighter out of her purse and teasingly asked Carly, “My lighter is still good enough for you I hope?” extending her hand for Carly to take hold.

A light went off in Carly’s head as she looked at Haylee and Lauren, excitedly requesting, “No….let’s monkey fuck!”

“Oh good idea!” Lauren responded, placing her cigarette in her mouth and squeezing forward along with Haylee and Carly.  Lauren couldn’t resist giggling as the three of them pressed the ends of their cigarettes together, with Lauren and Haylee’s lit cherries slowly bringing to life Carly’s unlit cigarette over the course of about 15 seconds.  A geyser of smoke erupted in the center of this circle with all three girls’ cigarettes being consumed at a faster-than-normal clip during the light-up effort. The girls then broke apart, a chemical fog between them so thick they could barely see each other for a few seconds.

“That was fun!” Lauren exclaimed, removing the dangling cigarette from her mouth.

Haylee kept her cigarette parked between her lips as she resumed the conversation where it left off based on Carly’s comment that intrigued her.  “So you give her cigarettes at school?” Haylee asked through a talking dangle.

“During lunch,” Lauren corrected.  “We go out to my car and smoke together during lunch.  When you get your license, you’ll get to do that too.”

Haylee smirked through her cigarette and quipped,  “Who says I have to wait till I get my license to smoke during lunch?”

Carly’s eyes got big as she pressed, “You smoke on school grounds?”

Haylee responded with a smug affirmative nod, smoke billowing from her face as she exhaled with pride and then responded, “I got a secret place in the ventilation ducts where I sneak some cigarettes during lunch,” pausing to belch out a residual exhale and adding, “Never got caught last year and still pulling it off this year.”

Lauren laughed.  “Oh that’s right….you told me about that last spring.  You’re really lucky to have a spot like that.  I’m usually dying for a cigarette all morning and afternoon.  Got used to smoking all the time over the summer and it’s not a fun adjustment!”  She placed her half-smoked cigarette in her lips and dangled as she lifted the arm of her T-shirt to show the tan line from where a nicotine patch was fastened to her upper arm for much of the daytime hours of school days, then following up through a talking dangle, “I use a patch during school.  It helps some but not the same as a cig.”

Carly dragged from her cigarette while listening, struck once again that it was her who corrupted Lauren into trying smoking two years earlier, but Lauren’s habit had now become a full-blown addiction that totally eclipsed Carly’s.

The jangle of a bell in the direction of the nearby tack and western storefront drew Lauren’s attention as its front door opened, particularly since she’d be going in there as soon as she finished her cigarette.  Two late teen or early 20s guys stepped outside, duded up in cowboy attire with hats, shirts, and tight Wranglers that looked like they came straight off of the ranch…or at least the line dance floor.  Lauren could feel her female hormones instinctively rage as she looked at the two guys walking in her direction.  Even with the risk of being busted, she gave two abrupt nudges in the direction of her friends, nudging Carly first with her left elbow and then Haylee with her right elbow, alerting them to look up for the emerging matinee of rugged masculinity coming their way and flashing a smile to the guys on her friends’ behalf.

Haylee and Carly both made a flash of eye contact with the young cowboys as they approached, the guys struck by the unusual vision of three mid-teen girls publicly smoking cigarettes.  The cowboys’ eyes darted from one girl to the next admiringly, taking in the group’s apparent alpha female Lauren decked out in her white T-shirt and pale blue denim miniskirt, then drifting to the younger-looking Haylee wearing a pink blouse and pale blue jeans with the out-of-place cigarette dangling from her lips, and finally moving to Carly, dressed in her more utilitarian sweatshirt and dark jeans.

Lauren could feel her heartbeat accelerate as the cowboys approached, their eyes mostly focused on her since she was the only one looking at them.  She flashed a friendly smile, but didn’t want to give them the wrong idea since she was taken, quickly realizing the guys were losing interest based on the apathetic responses of Lauren’s friends.

“Hey girls,” the two guys said, one of them tipping his hat with a friendly but harmless greeting as they proceeded on past.

“Hi guys,” Lauren replied sweetly, still hoping Carly and Haylee would follow her lead and start flirting.

Instead, the shy Carly looked to the ground, unwilling to make additional eye contact and feeling inferior next to her much prettier friends who she knew the cowboys would have gravitated to instead of her if they did stop for conversation.  And Haylee removed the cigarette from her mouth and cut loose a fierce smoker’s cough, following it up with a loud lugie she hocked up from deep in her lungs and then spit out onto the sidewalk oblivious to the response from the cowboys as they passed.  Lauren put her hand over her face in embarrassment of Haylee’s crude and tone-deaf gesture.

Once the cowboys were out of hearing range, an apoplectic Lauren looked at her friend and cousin and emphatically inquired, “Are you two out of your minds??!?!  They were sooo into us!” followed by an ironic smoker’s cough of her own.

Haylee and Carly looked up to Lauren, both searching for a response but not immediately finding one, instead tending to their cigarettes for respective drags while considering their alibis.

“You know flirting with guys is not my thing,” Carly finally retorted.

With the stub of her Camel Pink puckered between her lips for a final dangling drag, Haylee responded, “I probably did them a favor.  They’re both probably over 18 so my parents would have had them thrown in jail if they smiled at me!”

Lauren didn’t immediately know how to respond to that, taking a final drag from her Marlboro Light 100 and flicking the butt to the curb, before shaking her head in frustration and finally saying, “You two soooo need to get yourself some boyfriends,” knowing that for their own distinct reasons, neither was probably ready for one any time soon.

After another couple of moments of awkward silence, Lauren pressed ahead, “There will probably be all kinds of cowboys like them at the rodeo on Saturday.  You two should come with.  It’ll be so much fun!” referencing her weekend plans to go to a rodeo in southern Minnesota in Wade Rosenquist’s hometown, with Wade, Courtney, and Trevor all going for the drive to see his cousin Shane compete in the regional rodeo.

“Don’t look at me.  I gotta babysit,” Haylee responded, taking advantage of the convenient excuse to remain socially checked out and in her comfort zone, distanced from any pressure to mingle with boys who weren’t named Jacob Roth.

Carly took a drag from her nearly expired cigarette and said, “Sorry Lauren.  Just doesn’t sound like my thing.  I think I’ll just have a quiet weekend at home.”

Lauren seemed disappointed at her friends’ lack of interest as she watched Carly take a final drag from the cigarette and then drop it to the curb.

“But I want you to have fun!” Carly added in hopes of redirecting the conversation back to Lauren.  “Should we go inside and pick out your outfit?” she asked pointing in the direction of the tack and western wear store that the cowboys exited only moments earlier.

Lauren’s frown quickly morphed back into a smile as she took Carly’s advice and led the way to the store entrance with Carly and Haylee following her inside.  The girls took in the pleasing smell of the leather and oils that filled the western store, as everybody inside the store took in the smell of fresh tobacco clinging to the unlikely teenage girls who just walked in.

A half hour passed with Haylee and Carly standing outside the dressing room awaiting Lauren’s repeated exits trying on the multiple country girl outfits that caught her eye, and the girls were starting to lose interest.  But it was worth the wait for all when Lauren emerged from the dressing room decked out in the outfit they all knew was right.  Lauren beamed as she posed and twirled around for her friends decked out in a low-cut, button-down plaid blouse tucked into a pair of tight medium-blue jeans with a button fly, both of which fit Lauren’s shapely body to perfection.

“Oh Lauren, it looks so good on you!” Haylee complimented.

“Thanks!” Lauren responded, pleased that her best friend concurred that this was the best outfit she’d tried on.

“Trevor’s gonna love seeing you in that!” Carly added.

“That’s what I’m hoping!” Lauren said with a sweet flourish, before drifting toward the cowboy hats, curious if she should try to add to her ensemble.  She lifted a hat off the display and placed it on top of her head, turning to Carly and Haylee and asking “Think I can pull this off?”

Haylee and Carly both looked skeptical as they looked Lauren over, the hat not fully winning them over as being compatible with Lauren’s milieu.  Carly shook her head and gave her a so-so hand gesture accompanied by a verbal “Meh!”

Lauren hung her head and began to try on other hats, hoping she’d find one that her friends would think looked right for her, but Haylee’s attention was soon directed at another display featuring hair products.  Haylee smiled as she walked over to the display and took one down, announcing to Lauren, “I’ve got a better idea.”

Lauren walked over to see what Haylee was holding as Haylee read the logo aloud.  “Drybar Texas Tea Volumizing Hair Spray,” Haylee announced, fluttering her eyebrows and continuing to read the logo before adding, “Fuck the cowgirl hat.  This will give you that big Texas hair look!  It would be perfect for a Saturday at the rodeo!”

Lauren once again beamed as she looked it over and was quickly won over.  “You’re right!  I’m picking this up!”

The girls were giddy as Lauren went back to the dressing room to change into her regular clothes before coming back out to buy the plaid blouse, tight jeans, and hair spray.  Lauren took out her credit card and had some brief friendly banter with the middle-aged male clerk as he bagged her purchase.  He thought he smelled cigarette smoke on the girls when they walked in and was surprised by it, and was surprised again as Lauren and Haylee reached into their purses and plucked out their respective cigarette packs as they drifted toward the exit.  Lauren placed an unlit cigarette between her lips as she began to open the door while Haylee fished out a cigarette for herself and one for Carly.  They stepped outside and seconds later flicked their lighters to satisfy the mid-level cravings that had built during their half hour in this store.

Lauren looked at her phone to see it was 4:35 as she pulled hard off of her freshly lit cigarette, and then announced to her friends, “I gotta get going and meet Wade by 5,” looking to Carly and asking, “Can you take Haylee home in your car?”

Confused looks emerged on Haylee and Carly’s faces as Carly nodded affirmatively in response to Lauren’s request, with Haylee then asking through a talking dangle off of her own freshly lit cigarette the obvious question on both of their minds.  “Why do you have to meet Wade?”

A mischievous smirk emerged on Lauren’s face as she took another deep drag from the cigarette and eventually answered, “He’s got something to teach me for Saturday.”

————————————-

Trevor McPherson sat on the front steps of his parents’ house Saturday morning awaiting the arrival of Lauren as well as Wade and Courtney to make the one and a half hour drive southeast to Wade’s hometown for the rodeo, looking at his phone to see it was 8:03 a.m. and knowing they’d be arriving any time now. Trevor wasn’t particularly thrilled about the idea of spending his Saturday at this rodeo, but Lauren wanted to go when Wade and Courtney asked and Trevor knew they’d make the most of whatever time they spent together.  He looked up to see Wade’s long-in-the-tooth extended-cab truck driving down the block toward his house and waved as Wade pulled into the driveway.

Trevor’s older sister Courtney was sitting in the passenger side and opened the door to briefly step outside.  Courtney had a shit-eating smirk on her face that raised Trevor’s suspicion until he was distracted checking out her outfit, a cowgirl hat atop her head along with a white button-down blouse paired with a pair of black leather pants with fringes that managed to be consistent with her preferred wardrobe mainstays yet suitable for an early fall day at the rodeo.

“We better get going,” Courtney called out to Trevor, motioning him toward the truck with that suspicious grin still smeared all over her face.  “The rodeo starts at 11 and we want a good seat.”

A confused look formed on Trevor’s face as he responded, “Well I have to wait for Lauren.  We’re all riding together, right?”

Wade then chimed in from behind the wheel of the driver’s seat, a shit-eating smirk of his own as he stuck his hand out the rolled-down window to motion Trevor their direction.  “C’mon, Trevor.  You can squeeze on in to my tight little backseat here and wait for Lauren to get here.  Then we gotta split.”

Wade and Courtney’s tones were incredibly odd and their request didn’t make sense, but Trevor nonetheless started walking toward the truck, realizing he was about to get pranked and trying to figure out what it was all about as he slowly progressed forward.  A burst of cigarette smoke going airborne from the truck bed tipped Trevor off seconds before the moment of revelation as his girlfriend began standing up from her crouched position where she’d been hiding out of sight for the last couple of blocks.

Lauren flashed a mischievous smirk as she emerged in full view of Trevor decked out like he’d never seen her before in sexy cowgirl duds.   The top button of her plaid blouse was left unbuttoned, showing off an appetizer of cleavage, while her tight Wrangler jeans hugged her hourglass figure like an extra layer of skin, the button fly snugly showing off the curvature of her lower waist and crotch.  And most strikingly, her dark blond hair was puffed up like a vintage Dallas debutante.  Her masterpiece was official and complete as she placed her cigarette to her lips and let it dangle, then surprising Trevor yet again when she unveiled her hand that she’d been holding behind her back since she stood up and revealed a lasso rope.

Lauren couldn’t refrain from giggling through the extended dangle of her cigarette as she began twirling around the lasso rope just as Wade had showed her a few nights earlier.  Trevor smiled as he figured out the prank, listening to Wade and Courtney laugh in the background but unwilling to take his eyes off of his impossibly sexy girlfriend for even a second as she concentrated on the lasso rope while twirling it and then released it Trevor’s direction.  Wade and Courtney cheered as the airborne lasso landed perfectly over Trevor’s shoulders.  He held his breath anticipating discomfort as Lauren yanked the rope at just the right moment to corral Trevor’s upper body.  She pulled it tight and Trevor played along, moving forward with his arms and chest fully contained within the rope until he was pulled to the edge of the truck bed.

Trevor was turned on beyond words at the sight of his girlfriend reeling him in, a steady haze of cigarette smoke hovering around her beautiful face as she dangle-dragged the half-smoked cigarette, ultimately kneeling back down to the truck bed so that she was face to face with the ensnared Trevor.  She finally removed the cigarette from her mouth and listened to the cheers from Courtney and Wade as she leaned in to plant a passionate kiss on Trevor’s lips, still pulling on the lasso rope with her free hand knowing that Trevor was getting off on being her captive as she forced her ashtray mouth upon him in this vulnerable position.  The extreme aroma of the cigarette smoke on her breath blended nicely with the fresh aroma of the hair spray that added to the intoxicating presence she was imposing upon him.

After several seconds of intense kissing, Lauren pulled away and softly muttered, “Really got the power over you this morning,” winking at him to make sure he knew she had remembered and continued to internalize his confession to her on the Sky Glider at the Minnesota State Fair regarding the sexiness of her smoking and the power it had on him.  She stared at him with intense affection as she placed the cigarette back to her lips for another deep drag, and Trevor kept his eyes locked on her for every nanosecond of it until she broke the silence by adding, “Now let’s get going to a real rodeo.”

Lauren climbed over the edge of the truck bed, revealing to Trevor the sexy black boots that had been the hidden portion of her ensemble up until this point, dangling her cigarette as she pushed off the edge of the truck bed and landed on her feet on Trevor’s driveway.  In the moments after his lust for Lauren’s sexy outfit started to scale down a tick, he looked up to Courtney’s leather cowgirl outfit and Wade’s more traditional country boy look, complete with cowboy hat and boots, and became self-conscious about being insufficiently duded up himself.  As he looked down to his conventional T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, he was about to request to go back into the house to see if he could find something else in his wardrobe that might be more appropriate for the occasion, until Wade verbally reminded the group about the timeline.

“Well….we better take off,” Wade announced, briefly pulling up the seat in his extended cab truck allowing access to the diminutive backseat.  He looked into the relatively small space in the truck and then looked at Trevor and Lauren to reaffirm the stated plans.  “It’s gonna be kinda tight back there.  I’ll be happy to take you with if you want to ride with us but I can’t promise your legs won’t get cramped.”

“That’s okay!” Lauren answered for both of them perkily, smoke spraying from her mouth and nose as she gave a brief flirty side-eye to Trevor and then added, “We won’t mind being cozy together for a couple of hours.”

“Oooooh!” Courtney said, high-fiving Lauren for the aggressive gesture while expelling a long stream of mentholated smoke that drifted toward Trevor and Lauren’s faces.

Trevor still wanted to change clothes but didn’t want to hold up the show as Lauren waved him inside, saying “After you, sir!” and then adding, “I should take the window seat behind Courtney so I can ash out of it,” before looking to Wade to make sure he didn’t mind, “…if you don’t mind me smoking in your truck.”

Wade nodded reassuringly, adding “With the way this girl smokes, I better be okay with smoking in my truck,” in reference to Courtney.

Lauren giggled and then climbed into the cramped backseat of the extended cab truck next to Trevor, heeding Wade’s warning as he warned them to watch their knees as he pushed the seat back.  Lauren smiled sweetly as Trevor and said, “Not too bad back here,” even though both of them slid their legs to the right to squeeze into the tight seat.

“Good to hear but we’ll see if you still feel that way an hour and a half down the road,” Wade mused, climbing into the driver’s seat as Courtney climbed into the passenger seat.  Courtney took a final drag from her cigarette just as Lauren took a final drag from hers, dual streams of exhaled smoke flowing out the opened passenger side window as Courtney tossed her butt into her parents’ driveway a split second before Lauren flicked hers in the same general direction.

Lauren looked at Courtney’s reflection in the rearview mirror and began to socialize.  “How do you like college, Courtney?”

Lauren picked up on Courtney’s mixed feelings from the look on her face in the rearview mirror before she started talking.  “Ugh….” Courtney began with mild frustration, “…I’m trying not think about it until tomorrow night when I get back to my mountain of homework.”

“That bad?” Lauren probed.

“Well…” Courtney began to qualify, “…it’s certainly an adjustment.  I’m sure I’ll settle in as I get used to my classes and the campus culture more.  But for now, I’m really glad I get to come home to my comfort zone at night,” she closed, darting her eyes briefly in Wade’s direction in acknowledgment of how much easier Wade was making this transition for her.

Wade began to pull out of the McPherson’s driveway as Courtney looked over her shoulder into the backseat, bantering with Lauren for a couple more minutes about the start of their respective school years.  As the conversation began to wind down, Courtney noticed Lauren taking her Marlboro Lights 100s pack out of her purse and plucking one out, inserting it in her lips and handing her lighter to Trevor.  Watching Lauren dangle the unlit cigarette from her lips while conversing with her and casually beckoning a light from a smitten Trevor, Courtney was mentally processing the dynamic and reaching some obvious conclusions.  As the smoke blasted from Lauren’s mouth and nose after Trevor lit her up, Courtney’s mind flashed back to that first time Lauren came over to have dinner with the McPherson family almost a year earlier.  She remembered being shocked that the unlikely girl-next-door Lauren was a smoker, and recalled the moment Becky insisted Trevor light up his girlfriend’s cigarette.  Yet here they all were again embarking on a road trip to southern Minnesota and quite a few things that didn’t make sense to Courtney then did now….

It wasn’t until her sex therapy sessions and fledgling interest in psychology that Courtney began to connect the dots on the complicated connection of smoking in her father’s relationship with her mother, and in her response to her own inappropriate feelings toward her father.  Looking at Trevor so dutifully attend to Lauren’s nicotine needs right here in front of her, it was painfully obvious to Courtney now that Steve wasn’t the only male member of the McPherson family who had a sexualized association with female smoking.  In one respect, she found it cute that Lauren’s smoking was such an obvious primal cue for Trevor, but she was a little more unsettled as she reminded herself how complicated the smoking fetish had made her own situation with her family, and she couldn’t help but feel Trevor might find himself with complications of his own one day because of it as well.

As Lauren and Courtney’s conversation reached its natural end, Courtney looked to Wade as she plucked out another Marlboro Light Menthol 100 of her own.  She tried to test his body language as she worked her eye contact suggestively while lighting the cigarette.  Wade’s measured response to her mild theatrics reinforced what she already expected to be the case.  Wade didn’t have any problem with her smoking, but he didn’t have the smoking fetish.  She’d seen from her father and her brother what a male with a smoking fetish acted like in the presence of a female smoker, and Wade was in the clear.  She grabbed hold of his hand, correctly reading a bit of confusion from him in regards to her calculatedly flirtatious behavior, but as she exhaled the first stream of smoke from her freshly lit cigarette, it also served as a sigh of relief that this relationship was unlikely to face the inevitable complication that would come if Wade had a smoking fetish.

As the brief moment between Wade and Courtney passed, Wade decided to engage with his passengers again, asking “Anybody up for some music?”

“Yeah, sure!” Lauren responded through a talking exhale.

“All I got is a radio in my old truck so what station would you like me to turn it to?” Wade asked.

Lauren looked at Trevor mischievously and answered, “Oh I think we gotta listen to country on the way to a rodeo!”

Trevor’s audible groan could be heard by everybody in the truck, eliciting a giggle from Lauren and more measured laughter from Wade and Courtney.  Wade turned to Courtney and said, “Looks like you get to break the tie, Courtney.”

Courtney took a deep drag from her cigarette, cutting loose a modest smoker’s cough while deliberating for a moment before responding through a talking exhale, “Sorry Trevor, but I think I’m with the crowd on this one.”

“Yaayyyy!” Lauren exclaimed, mostly to needle Trevor who cringed once again about being overruled.

Wade turned on his radio, the twangy sounds of the oldies country station he’d left the radio dial turned to when last in his truck booming out of the speakers.  While this kind of “country” was his preference, he figured when Lauren requested country music, she meant modern country-pop, so he turned the dial until he came upon a station broadcasting the familiar modern country beats.  He quickly became a little annoyed with himself for suggesting music in the first place knowing he’d have to listen to this racket for the next hour and a half, and Courtney leaned over to gently tease him about it.

Lauren was swaying back and forth as much as possible in the limited backseat space she had to work with, exaggeratedly moving to the music with cigarette in hand to taunt Trevor.  Looking up to see Courtney and Wade were distracted in their own conversation, Lauren bit her lower lip and then softly asked Trevor, “So how do you like being lassoed, baby?”

Before Trevor figured out the context of her double entendre, Lauren took an intense drag from her cigarette and then leaned forward toward him, forming a circle with her lips and blowing perfect smoke rings straight into his face that lassoed his nose and quickly broke apart upon touching his face.  With the intoxicating aroma of Lauren’s smoke hovering near his nose and eyes coupled with the aroma of the high-end hair spray she had liberally applied, Trevor’s sexual energy was beginning to crescendo and he instinctively placed his hand on her thigh to feel for himself how the tight denim of those Wranglers fit her.  Looking at the sweet but mischievous look on the face of his girlfriend with her big hair and cowgirl profile, residual cigarette smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose on subsequent breaths, he decided the musical backdrop to this moment coming out of Wade’s radio was kind of fitting after all.

————————————

An hour and a half later, Wade drove past the highway sign reading “Cannon City…Population 4,276” and progressed slowly into town, becoming unusually animated as he waved to familiar faces and pointed out local landmarks and businesses that held memories from his upbringing.  Trevor and Lauren were listening fondly to Wade’s descriptions of everything from the meat market and bakery downtown to his old high school as they made their way through the town, finding Wade’s energy contagious and thinking this seemed like a pretty nice place to have grown up.

Courtney’s reaction was a bit more complicated, as she smiled through Wade’s running narration and took intermittent drags from her latest cigarette as he enthusiastically ad-libbed his background in Cannon City.  But the prospect of someday living in this town was more real for Courtney than it was for Trevor and Lauren, and she found herself trying to picture herself here.  She’d never seen Wade this animated in the city, which was her world.  Would he be okay staying in the city if they decided to make a life together?  Or would he insist on coming back to Cannon City?  She figured there was a good chance it would become clear after spending the day here with him today, and she tried to keep from overthinking things and refocused on listening to Wade’s stories as they kept heading east through town.  She took another intense drag from her cigarette and smiled as she exhaled a long stream of smoke in Wade’s general direction as he was pointing out his boyhood best friend’s home to his left on a residential street.

Wade drove east on the highway out of city limits, heading to the track where the rodeo was held a couple miles out of town.  Courtney, Lauren, and Trevor were all struck at the packed parking lot when Wade got there as Wade had to parallel park his truck on the edge of the road a good quarter mile from the track.  Courtney and Wade climbed out of the truck cab, pulling up the seat to allow Trevor and Lauren to climb out.  Both were ready to get out of that compressed back seat, stretching out their legs and upper body in the moments after exiting.  Lauren quickly reached for her purse to pull out another cigarette, handing Trevor her lighter to let him fire her up.  This time, Wade took note of Trevor’s chivalrous gesture and decided to run with it seconds later as Courtney was fishing out a Marlboro Light Menthol 100 from her own pack and placing it between her lips.

Wade took hold of her lighter and said with a smile, “Don’t want your brother to make me look bad,” as he flicked the lighter and approached the flame to the end of Courtney’s cigarette.

Lauren giggled in the background and added through a talking exhale, “Keep that cowboy in line, Courtney!  Make sure he lights you EVERY time!”

Courtney smiled as she pumped out the first eruptions of smoke off of the light-up, appreciating Wade’s gesture but still hoping Wade didn’t take Lauren’s words to heart permanently because of Courtney’s complicated past with the smoking fetish she had just recently mused about early in the drive.

The two young couples made the long walk to the gate surrounding the rodeo track with Lauren and Courtney intermittently dragging from their cigarettes as they held hands with their respective boyfriends.  Trevor felt increasingly out of place as he scanned the dozens of other attendees in his line of vision, all of whom dressed for the occasion in some degree of western attire.  He kicked himself for not anticipating this and could feel his anticipation build as he progressed closer to the gate.  Wade paid the admission for the four of them and they proceeded into the crowd, with Wade keeping his eye open for his cousin Shane who was competing in today’s event.

The group spent the next few moments weaving through the mass of humanity in the general proximity of the track until Wade finally spotted his cousin amongst a huddle of cowboys all chatting it up.  Wade smiled upon seeing Shane’s face and began to approach the huddle, but the smile was quickly wiped from his face as he laid eyes upon another cowboy in the crowd.  Wade froze for a moment and stared disdainfully at the cowboy in the group doing most of the talking, charming the crowd with his latest tale of woe.

Courtney immediately sensed Wade’s sudden reluctance and decided to broach the topic as she asked, “Who’s he?”

“Dusty Beaudry,” Wade responded, not even attempting to disguise his contempt.  “I graduated high school with him.  Not one of my favorite people in the world.”

But before Courtney could get Wade to elaborate, Shane looked up and spotted Wade, smiling as he approached with his hand extended out.  “Hey cousin!” Shane greeted, shaking Wade’s hand affectionately before adding, “Glad you could make it.”

“I’d never miss a chance to see my older cousin win regionals,” Wade responded with a broad smile.  A few brief exchanges ensued before a familiar voice decided to interject.

“Well what do you know,” Dusty Beaudry greeted with a sarcastic tone and a theatrically exaggerated cowboy accent that seemed entirely put-on for someone born and raised in Minnesota.  “Look who decided to come down from the big city to hang out with us bumpkins for the day.”

Wade nodded through gritted teeth.  “Dusty…always nice to see you.  Running off at the mouth like always, I see.”

“Always, city boy….always!” Dusty responded with an aggravating smirk, gazing past Wade to see Courtney and Lauren sizing him up, taking the final drags from their respective cigarettes and crushing them to the dirt, immediately redirecting Dusty’s attention before adding, “But I gotta say, if they got more ladies like this up in the city, I might just come back with ya!”

Dusty tipped his hat to Lauren and Courtney and greeted “Howdy ladies.  This your first rodeo….so to speak?”

Lauren giggled, fully taken by Dusty’s country charm as she thanked him and introduced herself to him and Shane.  Wade grudgingly pointed to Courtney and flippantly said, “Dusty, this is my girlfriend Courtney,” before looking to Shane and giving him a more formal introduction.  Wade and Shane continued to catch up, with unwelcome interjections from Dusty punctuating their exchange for the next few moments.

Dusty’s eyes drifted again to Courtney, sizing her up and finding it hard to avoid a lustful facial expression admiring her shapely form in that white blouse and leather pants.  Dusty’s eyes drifted next to Lauren standing beside her, and he began undressing her with his eyes even more shamelessly, stunned by how sexy this teenage temptress looked in her drugstore cowgirl get-up.  Lauren smiled awkwardly as she knew he was aggressively checking her out, appreciating the attention just as she did from the cowboys coming out of the western store earlier in the week, but also wanting him to know she was accounted for.  She grabbed hold of Trevor’s hand and then fished in her purse for her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s, pulling one out and placing it in her mouth.  She handed Trevor her lighter and smiled sweetly at him as he dutifully lit her up, making brief eye contact with Dusty once again to notice he seemed to be admiring her more than ever now.

But Lauren’s doting on her boyfriend finally led Dusty to look over Trevor, the smile vanishing from his face faster than Lauren’s cigarette smoke vanished into the early autumn sunshine.  He did a brief visual scan of Trevor and made sure the sour expression on his face was perfectly obvious to both of them before he turned back to Wade and Shane to continue interjecting in their chat.

And while Dusty may not have liked what he saw in Trevor, the feeling was mutual by orders of magnitude as Trevor looked on at Dusty with maximal disgust, feeling his blood pressure rise as he eyeballed this obnoxious oaf.  Trevor had picked up right away on Wade’s unsavory opinion of this showboating big-mouth, but if his first impression was any indication, Trevor was thinking he might already detest Dusty more than Wade.  Trevor’s attention was finally redirected back to Lauren as she sneaked in a French inhale, exhaling it into his face as slyly as possible.  A smile returned to Trevor’s face, but with Dusty’s voice in the background, he couldn’t quite devote his usual attention to Lauren as she smoked.

“This guy right here….” Dusty carried on to Wade in reference to Shane, “….he’s gonna be the real deal rodeo champ around these parts.  He’s gonna be what you could have been if you hadn’t chased those big city lights.  Think you might throw your hat in the ring one last time or have you gone too soft after just one year in the city?”

Wade’s annoyance level was visibly rising as he responded, “I think my riding days are in the past.  Are you gonna show me how it’s done today?”

“Nah,” Dusty replied, his eyes distracted by Courtney lighting up a cigarette next to Wade.  “I’m just a spectator today.”

“That’s what I figured,” Wade responded, rather effortlessly exposing Dusty for failing to live up to his big talk.

Dusty stood there making continued awkward eye contact, attempting to intimidate him with a smarmy smirk before Wade had finally had enough.

“So Dusty, do you suppose you could let me have a few minutes to catch up with my cousin before he has to ride?” Wade asked, pointedly requesting him to go away.

“Yeah, yeah, sure.  Sorry to get in the way of your family reunion,” Dusty responded.  “Maybe I’ll see y’all again later.”  As he began to walk off, Dusty tipped his hat once again at the cigarette-wielding Courtney and Lauren, sustaining eye contact with Lauren for a couple of seconds to make sure she knew he was into her before walking away.

A reflexive smirk remained on Lauren’s face from the male attention, but she tried to hide it when she realized Trevor was looking.  She took a deep drag from her cigarette before reassuring him by putting her arm around his waist and saying, “Isn’t this exciting??! Can’t wait to see how Shane does today!”

The group continued to chatter for the next few minutes, with Wade formally introducing Shane to everybody else he rode up with.  Trevor definitely found Shane more humble and approachable than the cowboy he was unofficially introduced to moments earlier, and the group mingled until Courtney and Lauren finished their cigarettes and Shane needed to prepare for the competition, which was now only 15 minutes away.

Wade, Courtney, Trevor, and Lauren picked up concessions from the various food vendors surrounding the track and then settled onto the rows of aluminum bleachers surrounding the track.  They weaved through the crowds until they found a row of bleachers that supported multiple people, taking a seat on a nearly empty row, and settling in to eat and watch the rodeo.

A couple of minutes passed before an unpleasantly familiar face approached from the right.  Trevor could feel his heart sink as Dusty Beaudry sat right next to him on the empty bleacher space, immediately laying on his pseudo-charm as he announced, “Well it looks like I was spot-on about seeing you later.  Mind if I take a seat there, shooter?” Dusty asked of Trevor, sitting down next to him before Trevor had any chance to respond.

Even with Courtney, Lauren, and Trevor as a buffer sitting between him and Dusty, Wade grunted and rolled his eyes at the thought of Dusty annoying them for the entire duration of the rodeo.

As the group put the finishing touches on the respective burgers, hot dogs, and pulled pork sandwiches they’d purchased moments earlier, Dusty held out his platter for all to sample.  “You guys gotta try these cheese fries.  They’re the best I’ve found in five years of rodeo riding.”

Courtney and Lauren didn’t hesitate to take hold of a couple on his platter to taste them, while Wade and Trevor more reluctantly took a couple, treating Dusty’s offering like a bite from the serpent’s apple.

“Wow, these are delicious!” Lauren exclaimed with her usual exuberance.

“You like huh?” Dusty quickly responded, looking right over Trevor to make eyes with his girlfriend.  “Well you just go right ahead and have another if you want to little lady.”

Lauren smiled at him and accepted the offer, thanking him and taking a couple more cheese fries off the platter and then eating them, nodding again about how tasty they were.  Her lunchtime meal complete, Lauren instinctively opened her purse and plucked out a Marlboro Light 100 from the pack, placing it between her lips and handing Trevor her lighter.

Courtney spotted Lauren beckoning a light from Trevor before he had the chance to light her up and then gave Lauren the bad news.  “Oh no…you can’t smoke here,” Courtney warned.

“Really?!??!” Lauren responded with legitimate surprise that the open-air venue full of country boys and girls didn’t allow smoking.

“If you want to smoke you gotta stand over there,” Courtney corrected her, pointing to a designated smoking area about 50 yards away that didn’t have a good vantage point of the track.

“Damn!” Lauren responded in annoyance, removing the cigarette from her mouth and putting it back in the pack, her enthusiasm for this two-hour rodeo suddenly plummeting.

Trevor had spotted the designated smoking area signs when they got there, but he’d hoped Courtney and Lauren would ignore it or be oblivious to it, so his already diminished enthusiasm for this day at the rodeo had really taken a nosedive.

“Nobody gonna bust your chops for some redneck caviar though,” Dusty commented, pulling open a can of Grizzly Wintergreen dip from his pocket and putting a plug under his lip.  He then made eye contact with Lauren and said, “If you need some nicotine sitting at the rodeo, girl, this is the way to do it.”

Lauren giggled, not taking the offer seriously until Dusty extended the can of dip over Trevor’s lap to within reach of Lauren, “Take a plug if you like.”

Lauren wrinkled her nose, skeptical at first but then realizing it couldn’t possibly be worse than two hours of fidgeting through a rodeo on aluminum bleachers with no nicotine.  She flashed a sweet smile, breaking the suspense of everybody awaiting her decision and saying, “What the hell!  I’ll try anything once!”

“Wait a second!” Courtney requested gleefully.  “I gotta record this!” readying her phone to capture Lauren’s reaction to tasting her first plug of dip.

Trevor’s tobacco fetish did not extend to dip, but he was nonetheless just as elated as everyone else at the novelty of seeing his sweet girlfriend dabble in this foreign product, and he watched as she reached into the can of Grizzly Wintergreen that Dusty continued holding in front of her, plucking out a pinch between her thumb and forefinger, and then slowly and apprehensively approached it to her mouth.

“Stick it under your lower lip like this,” Dusty instructed, pointing to the plug under his own lower lip.

Lauren did as instructed, stuffing the plug of moist, minty tobacco awkwardly between her lower lip and teeth, trying hard to suppress her giggle with everyone watching her and Courtney’s recording phone trained on her.  A few quiet seconds passed as Lauren decided what she thought of the smokeless tobacco sample in her mouth.

“Like it?” Trevor finally asked anticipating it would be a no.

Lauren’s eyes lit up as the juices began to fully filter through her mouth and she responded, “Kind of!”

“Ughhhh!” Courtney responded, keeping her camera on her and continuing, “Well sorry Lauren, but I’m afraid I’ll just have to fight through my cigarette cravings for the next couple hours rather than join you on this one.”

Lauren giggled and responded, “No I totally get it.”

Trevor was experiencing an odd mix of arousal and repulsion at Lauren’s inaugural dipping experiment, and Lauren was all too familiar with Trevor’s body language when he was getting a little turned on.  She decided to run with it, puckering up her lips and approaching her mouth to his, saying “How ’bout a kiss, baby?” making smooching noises as her face got within a few inches of his, enough for him to smell her minty tobacco breath.

The group collectively laughed at Trevor’s awkward response to Lauren’s kissing tease, with Wade responding, “You’re okay with her smoking, but do you think you’ll be good with this too, Trevor?”

An embarrassed Trevor could feel his face turn red, hating being on the spot as he responded, “Definitely hoping the habit doesn’t stick.”

Dusty sensed weakness and decided to pounce, looking past Trevor and directly at Lauren again as he said, “Actually, you know, I think if you want to find out if you have a real man, you need to see if he can handle a little tobacco juice in his kisses,” aggressively nodding and successfully whipping up the momentum in the group.

Sensing consent in his eyes, partly with the hope of making the moment end, Lauren gave in to the peer pressure and leaned over to Trevor, who cupped his hand over his crotch to hide his erection as Lauren planted a big, juicy kiss on his lips.  He was repulsed by her breath and the taste of chew passing from her saliva to his, but just as he found it sexy when she overpowered him with her smoking, he couldn’t help but feeling some sexual stimulation from this dynamic as well.  Lauren pulled away, her swollen lower lip full of tobacco looking oddly out of place amidst her sweet smile and body language that read “sorry” and “you’re welcome” at the same time.

The crowd cheered at the kiss and took one final look at Trevor’s response before letting the moment pass.  Dusty picked up an empty bottle of Mountain Dew and spit into it, passing it over Trevor’s lap yet again to beckon Lauren.

“When you need to spit, just reach over and you can use this,” Dusty advised, watching Lauren’s nose wrinkle again at the sight of a disgusting spittoon, and then adding  “I suppose you can spit on the ground in front of you but you might mess up these pretty little shoes here,” in emasculating reference to the tennis shoes Trevor wore to the rodeo.

Lauren giggled and took hold of the empty bottle.  Trevor couldn’t help but watch in fascination as she let loose a juicy black dribble into the bottle, eliciting another complex bodily response of disgust and attraction for him.   His eyes then followed as Lauren handed the Mountain Dew bottle back to Dusty, flashing him a quick but harmless smile that was met with a much more intense and lustful smile on Dusty’s part.  As the announcer took the mic to draw the crowd’s attention for the rodeo’s opening bell beginning momentarily, Trevor was now fully aware that this was going to be a long and excruciatingly awkward sit.

———————————————-

Haylee McPherson sat with her legs folded up on her family’s living room couch looking at her phone.  She was decked out in a casual pink tanktop and white shorts with a matching half-smoked pink and white Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips, a long granny ash barely hanging on with jets of smoke blasting from her nose.  The excited chant from six-year-old Jarrod Wagner sitting on the floor with a video game controller in his hand briefly directed Haylee’s attention toward Jarrod and his three-year-old brother Joshua sitting next to him.

“I conquered Level 6, Haylee!” Jarrod breathlessly exclaimed in reference to the Super Mario Galaxy game he regularly played in the past few weeks while staying at Haylee’s place.

“Good job,” Haylee half-heartedly congratulated through her talking dangle, continuing to direct her attention to her phone, unaware that Jarrod was staring up at her in admiration at another round of nasal jets streaming out of her nostrils following her latest dangling drag.

Jarrod was so distracted that he allowed Mario from his video game to get hit by one of the Goombas, followed by a familiar note of music alerting him the game was over.  “Noooo!” Jarrod loudly groaned with the agony of defeat brought upon by his own lack of concentration.

“My turn!” his patient younger brother Joshua cried in immediate response to Jarrod’s game ending.

“Not yet.  I want to play one more time!” Jarrod insisted, restarting the game.

“No!!!” Joshua whined, immediately triggering an intervention from their 15-year-old babysitter.

“Jarrod!” Haylee scolded through a talking dangle.  “Let Joshua play.  It’s his turn.”

Jarrod looked up at her again, knowing that if he only misbehaved a little longer it would bring about a more forceful punishment, which he welcomed.  With a smug smirk, Jarrod insisted, “Just let me play one more time, okay?”

The loud sound of Joshua’s cries began to fill the living room, springing Haylee off the couch to discipline Jarrod just as Jarrod hoped she would.  With the stub of her cigarette still dangling from her mouth, Haylee hovered right over Jarrod and began to aggressively scold him.

“Your brother has been waiting for you to finish!” Haylee asserted, the cigarette doing a dance in front of Jarrod’s captivated eyes as smoke spilled from her face and drifted into his with every syllable.  “He gets to play just like you do!”

Pushing his luck to coax Haylee even further, Jarrod whined, “But he’s terrible at this game!”

On cue, Haylee fired back through a continued scolding dangle, “I don’t care!  It’s his turn!  If he’s that bad, you won’t have to wait long and it’ll be your turn to play again!” Haylee concluded, the long granny ash finally detaching from the rest of the cigarette as Jarrod hoped it would, going airborne briefly from the movement of Haylee’s speaking.  Jarrod’s eyes followed as gravity brought the ash to the floor in front of him, a final blast of Haylee’s exhaled smoke invading his airspace a second before Haylee pulled away and sat back on the couch.

“Here you go, Joshua!  It’s your turn,” Jarrod responded, feigning sadness as he handed his younger brother the Nintendo controller to have his turn with the game.  A split second later, a smile reflexively spread across Jarrod’s face as he got the response he wanted from his teenage babysitter, and now he was enjoying the fruits of his labors as his nose still burned from the smoke Haylee had inadvertently blown into his face.  Seconds later, he got a nice little dessert as Haylee leaned forward and crushed out her Camel Pink No. 9 into an ash can overflowing with a pack’s worth of pink and white butts she’d already smoked.

A ding on her phone redirected Haylee’s attention and she smiled as she saw the text was from Carly, reading “Whatcha doing?”

Haylee texted back, “Babysitting.”

Haylee awaited Carly’s response and got one a moment later reading, “That sucks.  Want some company?  I’m in your neighborhood.”

A bored Haylee smiled at the thought of Carly visiting and immediately texted back, “Sounds great.  Hope you like Mario Galaxy because that’s been my world for the last three hours!”

Carly texted back, “LOL love it!  See you in a few minutes.”

An excited Haylee stood up off the couch and looked down to Jarrod.  “My friend Carly’s coming over and I gotta pee before she gets here.  You better not mess with your brother’s game while I’m away, okay?” she said in a scolding tone.

“I won’t Haylee.  I promise,” Jarrod said reassuringly, eliciting a disarming smile from her as she hustled to the bathroom that filled his heart with joy.  With Haylee briefly out of the room and Joshua distracted playing the game, Jarrod eyeballed Haylee’s ash can.  As he’d done many times in the past year, he took the opportunity to seize some souvenirs, standing up and keeping his back to his brother so Joshua wouldn’t notice Jarrod plucking a half dozen of Haylee’s Camel Pink butts from the ashtray.  He briefly held them to his nose, struck by the offensive smell but nonetheless full of respect for Haylee for smoking them so routinely.  He then opened his jeans pocket and put the cigarette butts inside, confident that the stench of cigarettes that filled the house already would keep the odor of what was in his pocket from standing out until he got to his own bedroom at home and stored them with the dozens of other Haylee’s butts he’d collected in the past year.  Jarrod sat down next to his brother with a guilty look on his face and resumed watching Joshua play the game.

Moments later, Haylee emerged from the bathroom and immediately reached for her pack of Camel Pinks and her lighter as she returned to the couch, placing a fresh cigarette in her lips and firing up.  After taking a deep drag off of the light-up, her respiratory system was overloaded and a fierce smoker’s cough was forthcoming.  In the aftermath of the cough, she lifted the ash can from the coffee table and let a lugie drip from her mouth into the ash can.  Jarrod was watching from the corner of his eye and he could tell Haylee sensed there were fewer cigarette butts in it than before she left.

Haylee only had a split second to speculate on the missing butts in her ashtray, however, before her attention was redirected to the ringing doorbell.  “Come in!” Haylee shouted through her freshly lit dangling cigarette.

As expected, Carly walked in and headed toward her and the boys, a bit struck upon first sight seeing Haylee smoking in front of the young boys but quickly rolling with, her acceptance threshold for smoking having grown since her cousin Lauren’s habit had escalated and especially since she became friends with Haylee.   Decked out in a sweatshirt and a frumpy pair of jeans with her dark blond hair disheveled, Carly crashed on the couch next to Haylee and made small talk with her for a moment while eyeballing the pack of Camel Pinks on the table.

“Mind if I have one?” Carly asked.

“Sure…knock yourself out,” Haylee responded.

Jarrod looked up in Carly’s direction to size her up as she removed a cigarette from the pack and used Haylee’s lighter to spark herself up.  Jarrod always welcomed the opportunity to see a girl smoking a cigarette, but Carly’s lack of glamour wasn’t doing much for him and her pedestrian smoking style paled in comparison to the theatrics he was used to with Haylee, so he quickly lost interest.

But having already noticed the boy looking up at her, Carly asked Haylee why she’s babysitting on a Saturday morning when she usually does evenings when the boys’ parents work, to which Haylee responded that one Saturday a month this time of year she babysits while the Wagners run a stand at the farmer’s market. Carly nodded, and then nudged Haylee to introduce her to the boys.

Haylee formally introduced Carly to the bashful Jarrod and the even more bashful Joshua just in time for Joshua’s game to end.  Carly seized the moment to bond with the boys as she said, “That looks like Super Mario Galaxy.  I have that at home and I’ve conquered all the levels,” she said to the boys, smoke spewing from her face as she spoke.

“Really??!?!” Jarrod exclaimed, his inhibitions quickly vanishing thanks to the mutual interest and Carly’s inviting tone.  “That’s awesome!  How did you do it?!”

Carly smiled as Jarrod seized control of the controller from Joshua and leaned forward.  “I bet I can show you a few tricks,” she responded reassuringly as Jarrod excitedly started the game.

Carly looked to Haylee and smiled, pleased she was able to hang with her friend and help pass the time with the boys for a while.  Carly took a modest drag from the Camel Pink as Haylee upstaged her with a much more intense dangling drag, the disparity of their tobacco consumption obvious based on the considerably larger volume of smoke spilling out of Haylee’s face compared to Carly’s set to the musical backdrop of Super Mario Galaxy resetting.

————————————-

The crowd was beginning to disperse at the completion of the rodeo just after 2 p.m.  Wade was heading to the edge of the track to congratulate his cousin Shane who had finished second place, but Courtney and Lauren were walking toward the smoking area with even more determination.  Trevor was just happy to be getting off of the highly uncomfortable bleachers and away from Dusty Beaudry, but also had plenty of motivation to follow his sister and girlfriend to the smoking area.

Wade spotted Shane near the track and waved to Courtney, assuring her that he’d catch up to them in a bit after talking rodeo with Shane.  Courtney and Lauren determinedly proceeded to their smoking-permitted destination to fight their fierce cravings, plucking their respective packs of cigarettes out of their purses.

Lauren placed her cigarette between her lips and passionately announced to both Trevor and Courtney through an unlit talking dangle, “I’m DYING for a cigarette!”

Courtney smiled in agreement placing her own cigarette between her lips with only a few yards to go till they reached the smoking area.  Courtney readied her lighter and Lauren handed Trevor her lighter.  Trevor braced himself for a visual reward he expected to be just as gratifying as Courtney and Lauren’s physical reward, and got it as Courtney lit herself up a split second before Trevor applied the flame to the end of Lauren’s cigarette, watching as both girls’ cheeks went concave ingesting as much tobacco as they could into their nicotine-deprived bloodstreams.  The relief on Lauren’s face was especially irresistible to behold as she smiled and exhaled the first giant stream of smoke from her lungs, even though her exhale still managed to be overshadowed distance and volume-wise by Courtney’s typically monstrous smoke deposit.

Trevor stood back and enjoyed the show as the girls bantered about the rodeo for the next few moments, consuming their cigarettes at a faster pace than usual trying to make up for two hours of nicotine deprivation.  The ringing of Lauren’s cell phone broke up the casual conversation and Lauren smiled upon hearing the ring, adding “This has to be my dad.  He always calls rather than texts,” as she picked up the phone and responded to it.

With Lauren conversing with her dad in the background, Courtney chatted with Trevor a bit until Wade and Shane started approaching, and it was clear by the look on his face that Wade had news of his own, looking at Courtney as if preparing her to brace herself.

“Well I didn’t figure this was gonna happen today but apparently my folks are over at the horse barn over there…” Wade said pointing to the adjacent shed on the other side of the fence from the rodeo, “…and they’d like to meet you.”

A look of trepidation filled Courtney’s face in mid-drag, her eyes lighting up for reasons that didn’t include the nicotine hit.  “Like right now?!??!” Courtney responded, a split second before the smoke streamed from her mouth and nose.

Wade nodded with a smile with which he attempted to project calm despite his intimidating words, “And knowing my folks I’m guessing they’ll want us all over for dinner afterwards.”

“Oh wow!” Courtney responded with residual smoke still flowing from her face, unprepared for this finally being the day she was introduced to Wade’s dairy farmer parents, a meeting she figured she had a couple more weeks to mentally prepare herself for based on what Wade had told her up until now.  “This shit’s about to get real I guess!”

Wade and Shane seemed to be steering the crowd in the direction of Wade’s family, and Courtney was triple-pumping smoke into her lungs knowing her cigarette would have to be expired early as she began to exit the smoking area to follow the cowboys.  She cut loose an intense smoker’s cough after expelling the contents of the heavy dragging from her lungs and was feeling particularly insecure about meeting Wade’s parents reeking of fresh cigarette smoke and hacking up a lung from the heavy smoking, dropping the two-thirds-smoked cigarette to the grass.

Trevor looked up with annoyance at the three of them walking away given that Lauren was still on the phone with her father, and spoke on both his and Lauren’s behalf.  “You guys go on ahead.  We’ll catch up with you after Lauren gets off the phone.”

Wade nodded that that sounded fine, pointing in the direction of the horse barn to assure Trevor knew where they’d be as he, Shane, and Courtney walked away.  Trevor happily turned back to his girlfriend, admiring how cute she looked chatting with her father about her day while intermittently dragging from her cigarette.  He stood there admiring her for a few moments and Lauren eventually picked up on it, a bit bashful about Trevor overhearing the conversation and playfully blowing a stream of smoke into his face as her father was speaking.

The conversation quickly ended as Lauren sweetly said, “Love you too, daddy,” before putting away the phone and dragging from her mostly smoked cigarette and smiled back at Trevor, knowing that Trevor enjoyed Lauren’s banter with her father as much as Lauren enjoyed Trevor’s banter with his mother Becky.

Trevor explained where the rest of their group went and Lauren nodded distractedly while placing the stub of her cigarette in her mouth and dangling it, rummaging through her purse with a look of escalating concern emerging on her face.  The concerned look quickly morphed into panic which Lauren verbalized with a loud and emphatic, “Shit!” that drew the looks of several in the general area who were already a little unsettled to see a girl Lauren’s age smoking.

“What’s wrong?” Trevor replied, having a feeling he knew what the issue was.

“I thought I brought another pack of cigarettes but I must have forgotten them!” she asserted, taking a peek in her open pack and then adding in a panic,  “And I only have one left!”

“Well I’m sure Wade can give you a ride to the nearest store and pick up a pack for you,” Trevor responded, trying to cool Lauren’s fire as she took the final drag from the cigarette stub in her mouth, and then removed it and flicked the butt several feet into the dirt.

“I don’t want to take him away from his family on the day they’re meeting Courtney!” Lauren replied through a final talking exhale, her level of concern remaining elevated.

Trevor was thinking of what he could say next but the words came to an abrupt stop as he looked up to see the worst possible person he could think of had heard their conversation and was approaching.

A smirking Dusty Beaudry briefly lifted his cowboy hat to wipe away the sweat on his forehead just as Lauren looked up, the sun shining on his shortly cropped light brown hair and rugged face that cut an image of a hero descending upon this damsel in distress at the exact moment she needed one.  His words echoed the visual as he smiled at Lauren and asked in his synthetic cowboy accent, “Did I hear you say you’re out of cigarettes?”

“Yes!  You heard right!” Lauren responded vigorously, hoping an offer was forthcoming.

Dusty gave her a no-big-deal shrug and then followed through on his offer.  “I can give you a ride to the store only a few minutes up the road and buy you a pack,” he offered, pointing first in the direction of the store and then to his nearby truck, adding.  “That’s my truck right there.”

“Omigod, thanks!” Lauren exclaimed.  “I hope it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” Dusty responded, motioning Lauren to follow him.

Trevor’s annoyance at not being able to get rid of this guy was causing his blood pressure to soar as he began following Dusty and Lauren to Dusty’s truck, but his annoyance turned to genuine terror as Lauren held him off.

“Oh Trevor, you don’t have to come with,” Lauren offered.  “Wade and Courtney will be waiting for us.  You should head up there and let ’em know I went for cigarettes and will be back in a bit.”

Trevor froze in terror, realizing this made sense generally but was tremendously uneasy about seeing his girlfriend get in this truck with this unsavory cowboy.

“I’ll have her back in 10 minutes tops, friend,” Dusty insisted with a smirking flourish that fell far short of convincing Trevor.  “You just head up there and let the others know and I’ll get your girl back as fast as you can walk up to that barn.”

Trevor made eye contact with Lauren, who didn’t seem to fully pick up on the depth of Trevor’s apprehension, but nodded affirmatively so as not to make a scene.  Lauren waved sweetly as she followed Dusty to his truck near the front of the parking lot.  He could feel the pit of his stomach drop as he watched Lauren walk away and eventually climb into the passenger seat of Dusty’s truck.  He tried to shake it off and began slow-walking his way to the barn where Wade and Courtney went.  As he watched Dusty begin to drive off en route to the gas station, the unsettled feeling only grew deeper and he just knew this couldn’t possibly end well.

———————————–

Dusty turned onto the highway en route to the convenience store as Lauren beamed from the passenger seat, saying “Thank you so much for this.  You saved my life!”

Dusty smirked at the irony of her characterization of buying her cigarettes being a “lifesaving” gesture as he watched her open up her purse and extract the last cigarette from the pack of Marlboro Lights 100s.

Lauren looked his direction, sweetly asking, “Mind if I smoke?” while placing her unlit cigarette into her mouth, presuming consent before it was officially granted.

“I better not mind if you smoke if I’m going to buy you cigarettes,” Dusty responded charmingly as Lauren giggled, flicking her lighter and igniting her cigarette.  She drug hard off of the light-up, still deeply craving nicotine after going two hours without a cigarette during the rodeo.

Dusty watched with escalating lust upon seeing how much pleasure Lauren was getting from the cigarette and as she exhaled the first blast of smoke he spoke up about it in his cowboy drawl.  “I have NEVER seen a girl your age smoke like you do!  What are you, like, 16?”

Lauren giggled and nodded affirmatively in response.  “Yeah my habit’s gotten a little out of control in the past few months…” giggling again and trying to keep Dusty’s flirtation in check, adding, “….but I think my boyfriend likes it when I smoke.”

Dusty maintained his aggressive charm but began shaking his head with exasperation.  “You sure must not have much to pick from up in the Cities if a girl like you is willing to settle for that fella.”

Lauren gave him an unamused side-eye as she took another intense drag from her cigarette.

Dusty resumed, “I mean don’t get me wrong….I’m sure he’s a good chap and all, but I have never seen a guy come to a rodeo in an Under Armour T-shirt and tennis shoes before today!”

Lauren couldn’t help but giggle, expelling extra bursts of smoke from her mouth and nose as she did, and responded, “Fashion is definitely not his strong suit!!” pausing and then adding, “But we’re good for each other in other ways.”

Dusty shook his head again and said, “I think the problem is you’ve never been with a real cowboy so you don’t know how much better you can have it.”

Lauren wasn’t liking the direction this conversation was going and was beginning to understand the apprehension she saw in Trevor’s eyes just before she climbed into Dusty’s truck.  She sat silent and began dragging from her cigarette.

Dusty pressed on but realized he might have overshot the runway.  “Don’t mean to disrespect your boyfriend though.  It takes all kinds to make a world,” he said reaching in to his jeans pocket and pulling out the can of Grizzly Wintergreen and extending it Lauren’s way, “…but if you ever want to try some redneck caviar again, it’s probably now or never.”

Lauren feigned a halfhearted smile, with cigarette smoke flowing from her mouth and nose, responding.  “Nah, I’m good.  I did like it though.”

“Aw c’mon,” Dusty pressed.  “Surprise that loverboy of yours with a mouthful of dip again the next time you kiss him!”

Maintaining her strained smile, Lauren decided to give in, taking a small pinch and placing it under her lip as Dusty watched in continued lustful fascination.  As the aggressive compliments and flirting continued, she was becoming very eager for this ride to the store for cigarettes to be over.

———————–

After a couple of minutes of walking to get there, Trevor entered the large horse shed and stopped at a gate blocking off the small riding area in the middle of the barn.  He may have missed the formal introductions of Courtney and Wade’s parents, but it clearly didn’t take them long to connect as Wade and his parents were already guiding Courtney onto the top of a horse.  With one foot in a stirrup, Wade guided her onto the saddle, getting his hands on her thighs in those tight leather pants that Trevor was pretty sure Wade was enjoying.  Courtney looked like a fish out of water but was clearly having a good time as Wade’s father climbed onto the horse next to Courtney’s, grabbing the reins of Courtney’s horse and clearly preparing to give Courtney her first lesson in horseback riding.

Trevor smiled as he watched this playing out a few yards in front of him, but was unable to enjoy the moment as much as he otherwise would have as he couldn’t get Lauren out of his mind.  He looked at his phone to see it had been nine minutes, and all he could do was say a silent prayer that Dusty would bring Lauren back to him any moment now as promised.

—————————————

Dusty exited the store after purchasing Lauren’s cigarettes, returning to the truck and holding up the gold and white pack of Marlboro Lights 100s she requested.  He opened the truck door and verbally confirmed.  “So I got Marlboro….in the gold pack…..100s,” he charmed, tossing Lauren the pack and continuing, “Will that suit ya?”

“Perfect!” Lauren said with a giggle, grabbing her cigarettes and immediately starting to pack the fresh pack against her wrist.  “Again, thank you soooo much!”

“My pleasure, young lady!” Dusty replied.

Before Lauren ripped the cellophane off the unopened back, she began to dig into her purse, asking, “Will ten cover it?”

Dusty shook his head in the negative.  “Not necessary.  This pack’s on me!”

“Awww…you’re so sweet.  Thanks again,” Lauren responded, opening the box top and beginning to fish out her first cigarette from the pack.

“Oh you are absolutely right about that, miss.  I am very, very sweet,” Dusty responded, pulling out of the gas station lot.

Lauren giggled, still not liking Dusty’s tone but starting to figure he was harmless as she placed the cigarette in her mouth and lit it, but she became unsettled again as Dusty turned right instead of left out of the parking lot.  She looked at him with concern in her eyes as she asked, “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” with smoke spilling out of her mouth and nose.

“Nah, I know a shortcut back,” Dusty responded unconvincingly.  “Plus I wanna show ya a nice little spot I like to come and visit sometimes.”

Lauren was officially becoming terrified as Dusty sped down the highway in the wrong direction for a minute or so and then turned down an obscure dirt trail leading to a small park along the banks of the Cannon River.   “Where are we going?” Lauren asked, with fear in her voice.

“I already told ya, darlin,” Dusty responded, looking over and admiring her adorable face, big hair, and sexy cowgirl outfit, licking his lips and adding, “You sure are a sexy little thing, you know that?”

“I think I want to go back to my boyfriend now,” Lauren asserted with genuine alarm in her voice for the first time.

Dusty slammed on the brakes in response, stopping the truck in complete isolation out of view from the highway, an insatiable lust in his eyes as he rhetorically asked Lauren in a sinister voice, “Now why would you want to go back to that little pussy when you’re in the company of a real deal cowboy who wants down those Wranglers of yours so bad that he’s about to burst?”

Lauren’s alarm shifted to terror as it became clear what she feared could happen was about to.  “Nooooo!” she whined with an innocence that briefly gave Dusty pause, reminding her she was indeed a 16-year-old girl.   But as Lauren swung around to open the passenger side door, Dusty’s primal instincts again won him over, sliding across his seat and chasing Lauren out the truck door in the way he would typically chase a steer with a lasso rope.

Lauren fumbled out the truck door and fell backward on the ground, her cigarette going airborne and her purse slung off of her shoulder just out of her reach as an out-of-control Dusty bore down on her.  “Please stop!” she screamed, watching the unbridled sexual lust on his face completely getting the better of him as he hunkered down over her.

“I think you know you want it!” he exclaimed before Lauren launched a lugie full of tobacco juice into his face.  But as he felt the remnants of the Grizzly Wintergreen he gave her touch his skin coupled with the aroma of tobacco on her breath both from the dip and the cigarettes, it only served to escalate his passion level higher.

Lauren’s desperate and repeated screams for him to stop fell on deaf ears and he used his right arm to hold her down by her shoulders while pinning her lower body to the ground with his own body, using his free hand to unbutton the second button of her plaid blouse, exposing another couple inches of cleavage as well as the top of her bra.  Dusty lowered his face onto her left breast and began aggressively devouring it with his lips and pressing his teeth into it.

Lauren briefly took a mental note that her attacker was the only guy besides Trevor to ever touch her breast, and she decided then and there she wasn’t gonna take any more of it.  With Dusty’s face buried in her cleavage, she stretched her free arm out in desperate attempt to grab hold of her purse.  It was a real stretch but she managed to get a couple of fingers on the purse strap, enough to pull it slightly toward her and reach inside.

Dusty mistook her sudden silence and discontinued attempts to fight him off as consent and pulled himself off of her to say, “If you liked that, baby, let me assure you…we’re just getting started!”  He slid his body down to expose her waist at which point he began to unbutton the half dozen buttons on the fly of her Wranglers.  The time it took for him to unlatch each button gave Lauren a few extra seconds to get her hands on what she needed from her purse.

She could feel Dusty yanking down on her jeans and exposing her lower body, and as she felt his fingertips begin to tuck under her panty line, a split second before pulling them down and fully violating her, Lauren knew it was now or never to make her move.  She held up her cigarette lighter about halfway between her own face and Dusty’s.

“What the hell are you doing?” Dusty asked with sudden concern as Lauren flicked the flint on the lighter and ignited a flame.  He looked down to see the Drybar logo on the bottle of hair spray held in her other hand and had a split second to experience terror similar to what he had subjected Lauren to before she squeezed the trigger on the hair spray bottle and send a squirt of it right into the flame from her lighter, emitting a fireball straight up into Dusty’s face.  She continued to depress the button on the hair spray bottle and feed the flame until Dusty climbed entirely off of her.

“You bitch!” he screamed as the fireball was mostly absorbed by his cowboy hat, but some of it sticking to his forehead.  “You fucking bitch!” he shouted again, rolling around on the ground to put the fire out that was singing his hair, the front of his cowboy hat still burning.

Lauren stood up and picked up her purse, knowing her phone was in it and that she’d need it to call 9-1-1.  She slung it over her shoulder and attempted to pull up her jeans and run toward the highway.  But the button fly on her jeans that served her well in delaying Dusty’s access was now working to her disadvantage as she couldn’t run away with them pulled down and would have to stop to button them.  As she worked her way toward a park pavilion about 100 yards from Dusty’s truck, she decided she had to stop and button up the jeans.  With terror visible all over her face, she hid behind the pavilion wall and began buttoning her pants, reaching into her purse and pulling out her phone to call 9-1-1.

But before Lauren could punch the digits in, Dusty emerged from around the corner, a horrifically sinister intensity about him even more terrifying to Lauren than when he pinned her to the ground.  “No…..no….no!” Lauren pleaded as her approached her with ferocity in his eyes, the tips of his hair scalded and his forehead burned raw from the fireball Lauren sprayed at him.

“Drop the phone!” Dusty demanded with maximal intimidation.

Lauren obeyed but continued to plead for herself as Dusty backed her into the pavilion wall, preparing to grab her by the throat but realizing that would make an obvious mark on her neck, instead using his arm to pin her by the chest into the pavilion.

“Let me tell ya how this is gonna go….” Dusty asserted authoritatively, “….you’re gonna get in that truck and ride back to the rodeo with me.  You’re gonna go back to your little boyfriend and the rest of the group with a smile on your face and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day…..never to mention anything that happened with me ever again.”  He paused to let that sink in before inquiring.  “That sound okay to you?”

A terrified Lauren nodded affirmatively, desperate for this moment to end.

“That’s really good to hear, little girl,” Dusty responded, following it up with a threat.  “Now should you decide that as soon as I drive off into the sunset you’re gonna make that phone call you were just about to make, I think you should remember this here is MY TOWN!”  He paused again for dramatic effect before adding, “Who do you think they’ll believe if you cry rape?  Some little slut from the city who comes down here shaking her ass and climbing into a cowboy’s truck?  Or the good ol’ boy they all grew up with?”  He paused again and then pointed to his forehead and added, “The good ol’ boy who the city girl so viciously assaulted?”

Dusty continued to pin her to the wall as Lauren stood there hoping her silence would effectively convey that she wasn’t gonna say anything.

“So how ’bout it?  Are we good here?” Dusty inquired.

Lauren nodded yes, trying her best not to break down.

A smug smirk re-emerged on Dusty’s face as he removed his arm from Lauren’s chest.  She sighed in relief until she saw his hands approaching her blouse again and she bristled in terror.

“No worries, darlin’….” Dusty said as he buttoned the second button on her blouse which he had unbuttoned earlier, and then moving up to the top button which hadn’t been fastened yet today, making sure to cover up whatever bruises and hickeys he had left behind on her chest.  “Just making sure you’re all covered up in that slutty little blouse of yours.  I mean, we wouldn’t any guys getting the wrong idea, would we?”

Lauren looked to the ground with equal parts relief that the worst of it was over, and continued terror as she only began to wrap her mind around the implications of this violent encounter.

“Let’s go then…” Dusty beckoned her, waving her back to his truck as she bent down to pick her phone off the ground.  “I’m sure you got some people missin’ the devil out of you back at the track.”  They walked back to the truck and Dusty opened his driver’s side door, stuffing his half-burned cowboy hat under the seat out of sight, then looked up to Lauren as she climbed into the passenger seat, holding her head down and avoiding eye contact before he got one last dig in at her.  “Oh, and to answer your question from before, I actually do mind if you smoke in my truck.”

Dusty slammed the door and started his truck.  It would be a five-minute drive back to the rodeo track and horse barn, but for Lauren it was poised to be the most uncomfortable five minutes of her life directly following the most menacing five minutes of her life.

—————————————–

Trevor stood at the gate inside the horse barn continuing to watch his older sister joyously encircle the track riding horseback, Courtney’s positive energy dramatically contrasting with his own growing fears.  He looked down to his phone to see it had now been more than 20 minutes since Lauren left with Dusty.  He put his game face on as he saw Wade waving at him, smiling widely as he approached him.

“You been seeing this?  I think your sister’s a natural,” Wade mused, electric about Courtney’s successful immersion into the world he grew up in.

“Yeah she looks like she’s having fun,” Trevor said, trying to hide that he was definitely not having fun.

“Where’s Lauren?” Wade inquired.

Trevor gulped before responding, “She ran out of cigarettes so she went with that Dusty guy to the store to pick up more.”

The smile was quickly wiped off of Wade’s face, replaced by imminent concern as he clarified, “Lauren went with Dusty Beaudry?”

Trevor didn’t like Wade’s tone at all but kept his cool as he responded, “Yeah, they should be back by now.  I’m gonna text her to see what the hold-up is.”

Wade nodded in agreement, “Good idea.”

Trevor could feel his hand shaking as he lifted his phone, texting “Everything okay?” and patiently waiting for Lauren’s response.

Trevor stood waiting for about a minute, and could tell Wade was waiting with baited breath for Trevor’s phone to ding as well, before it finally did.   Trevor opened the message delivered from Lauren’s phone reading, “Of course.  Why wouldn’t it be?  We’re on the way back and should be there in like two minutes.  Missed ya, baby!”

Trevor exhaled with relief upon reading the message, looking up to Wade to pass the good news along.  Wade nodded with relief in his own eyes after hearing they were almost back.  Wade’s body language nonetheless sent a chill through Trevor as it was blatantly obvious that Wade’s misgivings for Dusty Beaudry went far beyond his being an obnoxious blowhard.

Trevor and Wade both watched as Dusty’s truck approached and came to a stop at a parking spot about 10 yards away.  Trevor still waited with anticipation to see Lauren hoping she was no worse for wear, but as she climbed out of the passenger seat of the truck, it was painfully obvious to Trevor that something was off.  Lauren reached into purse and pulled out a cigarette, her hands trembling as she approached the flame of her lighter to the cigarette’s tip, a pleasureless blast of smoke erupting from her mouth and nose off of the first exhale.

From there, Lauren approached and the anguished look on her face quickly morphed into a compelling put-on smile.  Dusty began following her, as if to intimidate her into keeping their deal, wearing a baseball cap that covered up his burned forehead.  Lauren hustled on up to Trevor and took hold of her boyfriend’s hand, taking safety being in the company of the boy she loved even though she didn’t want to convey the full story behind it.

Trevor looked up to Dusty with anger in his eyes as he walked closer.  “What took you so long??!?” Trevor snapped.

Dusty was caught a little off-guard by Trevor’s aggressiveness and paused a moment before he responded, “Cool off there, tough guy!  The rodeo just got out so there was a long line at the gas station.  Your old lady wasn’t the only one picking up cigarettes after the rodeo.”

Trevor stared at him with skepticism even though the story was believable on the surface.

Dusty looked at Lauren to back him up, asking “With as many gas stations as you have up in the city I’m sure you’re not used to a crowd like we have at our little station after a rodeo, huh?”

Lauren paused to take a deep drag from her cigarette before nodding, validating Dusty’s story and trying to stay in her normal character as she verbalized, “Yeah it was definitely a lot of people,” with her hand inadvertently tightening with tension which Trevor could feel as he held it.

Wade stared at Dusty with just as much hostility as Trevor was, thinking the story was a bit too perfect before asking, “What happened to your hat, Dusty?  You don’t ever take that damn thing off.”

Once again, Dusty had a prepared response he thought up on the drive back, shaking his head and replying, “Craziest thing…..I sat on the damn thing in my truck.  I’ll have to work on punching the dents out of him at home tonight,” wrapping up his response with another put-on laugh.

Dusty could tell he had pushed his luck but felt secure in his alibi and that he had intimidated Lauren enough to keep her quiet to bid the crowd adieu amidst the frosty reception he was getting from Wade and Trevor.  “Anyway,” Dusty offered, “It was a pleasure to spend the afternoon with you fine people, but I better take off.”  He then looked at Wade to twist the knife one last time, adding “Those of us who stay on the farm still got our chores to do,” pausing for dramatic effect.  “Sure was nice meeting y’all though…especially you, Lauren,” he said with a final intimidating smile as Lauren made sure to avoid him with the exhale from her cigarette.

Trevor could finally feel the tension in Lauren’s grip start to dissipate as Dusty walked away and climbed into his truck.  Trevor looked at her to try to measure her body language, but she was soldiering through, smiling and keeping what resembled her usual energy level enough to convince Wade everything was normal.  Trevor could still tell something was off, but now was not the time or place to confront her about it.  As soon as Wade turned away, she flirtatiously took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled into Trevor’s face with a feigned mischievous smile, selling normalcy as best she could.  But Trevor hadn’t failed to notice that the top button of her low-cut plaid blouse was now fastened in a way it wasn’t before she left, and he didn’t figure that was a coincidence.

The awkwardness and tension of the moment were broken up as Courtney emerged from the stable, beaming after her first ride on horseback.  The excited look on her face was quite a contrast to the dour looks coming from her traveling buddies, but they all put on their game faces so as not to rain on Courtney’s moment.

“So how awesome was your girlfriend on that horse?” Courtney asked Wade, fishing into her purse for her cigarette pack as Wade smiled to affirm his enjoyment of seeing her riding the horse.

Wade’s parents soon followed Courtney, and tried to keep their poker face as they saw underage Lauren smoking first, and then noticed Courtney pulling out her cigarette and lighting it.  Wade had warned them that Courtney was a heavy smoker and they didn’t make a fuss about it, but he could still see some doubt in their eyes watching her light up in the aftermath of an otherwise impressive introduction teaching her how to ride horse.

Wade formally introduced his parents Glen and Louise Rosenquist to Trevor and Lauren.  His parents sensed nervousness in the young couple but had no idea of the context.  Glen broke the ice asking them if they wanted to ride horses as well.

Trevor simply shook his head, but Lauren was in mid-drag of her two-thirds-smoked cigarette and verbally responded through a talking exhale, “I don’t think today but maybe the next time I come visit I’ll take you up on it,” her sweet tone throwing Glen and Louise given the cigarette between her fingers.  Lauren nonetheless was quite certain she would never be coming to Cannon City again for the rest of her life.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Louise warmly replied.  “But I am gonna have to insist on you guys all coming back to the farm with us.  I got a beef roast cooking in the crock pot and there should be more than enough for everybody.”

Courtney spoke on behalf of everyone, responding, “That sounds great!” through a talking exhale, with genuine positive energy about Wade’s parents despite just meeting them.  She looked back at Trevor and Lauren, not identifying anything amiss as she rhetorically asked them, “You guys don’t mind staying for supper, do you?”

Lauren enthusiastically replied, taking a final drag from her cigarette and flicking the butt to the ground as she let loose a mild smoker’s cough.  She could tell Trevor knew something had happened, and she began avoiding eye contact as a result, despite continuing to hold his hand.  The tension in Lauren’s grip was gone ever since Dusty left, but Trevor still noticed that same tremble in her hand he identified the second she got out of Dusty’s truck and lit her cigarette.  Trevor had felt a tremble in Lauren’s hand before, but usually it was a result of an unfulfilled cigarette craving.  He was pretty sure the source of her tremble was something more ominous this time.

—————————————–

Haylee was really getting into the Super Mario Galaxy video game, despite her general indifference toward video games, as she worked the control to move the Mario character, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from her mouth with smoke expelling from her mouth and nose after every breath.  Carly cheered her on sitting next to her on the couch, the boys picked up by their parents nearly an hour earlier.

“You’re gonna want to jump here!” Carly warned.  “There will be like 10 Goombas coming at you from out of nowhere.”

Haylee did as Carly suggested, punching the button on the controller to make Mario jump and barely dodging the villains swarming toward her.  “Yes!” Haylee exclaimed with uncharacteristic competitiveness.  “Thanks for warning me!” she added, her cigarette bouncing up and down from her lips as she spoke while keeping her eyes trained on the screen until she reached the flagpole that marked her destination for this level of the game.

“And just like that….” Carly congratulated,  “…you conquered level 1.”

“Oh wow I’m good!” Haylee said sarcastically and adding  “It only took me a half hour!” before using the level break in the game as an opportunity to remove the cigarette from her mouth and tap her long ash into the ash can on the coffee table.

“You’re doing fine!” Carly responded with matching enthusiasm, patting Haylee on the upper arm in a way that compelled Haylee to make eye contact with her, detecting an odd energy in Carly that briefly made her feel off-balance.  Haylee put the cigarette back in her mouth, which triggered another craving in Carly.

“Mind if I have another one?” Carly asked, pointing to Haylee’s pack on the table just as Haylee was starting the next level of the game.

“Go for it!” Haylee responded as Carly leaned forward to mooch another of Haylee’s Camel Pinks.

After taking a nervous glance at Haylee, Carly reached into her pocket for her lighter, lifting it toward the dangling cigarette between her lips.  Just as was the case three days earlier outside the western store, Carly’s empty lighter was failing to light again, as she expected.  “Damn broken lighter!!” Carly exclaimed theatrically.

Haylee gave her a quick side-eye, puckering up her lips for another dangling drag from her mostly expired cigarette and then responding, “Sucks for you.  Just use mine on the table.”

Carly paused as if trying to muster up the courage before responding, “I got a better idea.  Why don’t we monkey fuck again.”

Haylee was briefly annoyed as she paused her game to play along with Carly’s request, but as she looked Carly’s way, it was immediately obvious that Carly was after more than just a light from her cigarette.  Haylee was drawn to the continued electric energy in Carly’s eyes that she’d never seen before, and pulled forward to touch the stub of her smoldering cigarette to the end of Carly’s unlit cigarette.  A simmering passion filled Carly’s face as her cigarette slowly came to life, locking eyes with Haylee as both girls pumped tobacco smoke into their lungs.  It was a moment Haylee never saw coming, but that she could tell Carly had probably been fantasizing about for quite some time.

Haylee finally pulled away, at which point Carly removed the cigarette from her mouth and exhaled, but with neither taking their eyes off of the other.  Haylee had never really noticed tangible beauty in Carly’s rather plain appearance, but had to concede she looked very pretty at this moment with that beaming smile radiating electric energy right at her from only a few inches away.  Haylee knew something big was probably about to happen unless she stopped it, and even though her brain was telling her that she absolutely needed to put a stop to it, she couldn’t resist going with her gut at this moment as Carly’s hand approached Haylee’s face to gently touch it.

“You’re so pretty, Haylee!” Carly muttered softly while taking a second drag from her cigarette.

Haylee responded with a warm and accepting smile that Carly correctly accepted as consent, leaning forward with smoke flowing out of her face to lock lips with her friend.  Haylee had never given a moment’s thought to a romantic encounter with another girl before, but as Carly’s soft lips pressed onto hers, she found herself completely at peace in a way she hadn’t felt since the last time she was making out with her ex-boyfriend Jacob.  Being on the receiving end of a kissing partner’s smoky breath was also a new experience for Haylee, and one that she was really enjoying.

Carly began kissing Haylee more aggressively, slipping some tongue into Haylee’s mouth and feeling the passion escalate.  The normally shy Carly was at this point so taken in the moment she had created that she pushed the envelope further, slipping her hand on Haylee’s stomach underneath her tanktop and sliding it up her belly toward her bra.  Haylee continued to accept the advances, the soft caress of Carly’s fingertips on her breasts filling a void in Haylee’s empty soul that had been vacant for two months now.

The kissing and breast-stroking continued for several moments, with Carly feeling empowered and fulfilled for taking this huge risk, and Haylee shocked that she had yet to feel out of her comfort zone even in this most unlikely situation…right up until the point where she did feel outside her comfort zone.  As Carly began lowering her hand from Haylee’s chest down her stomach toward her shorts, Haylee began to freeze up as the encounter was becoming a bit too real.  And when Carly unfastened the top button on Haylee’s white shorts, Haylee decided it was time to put a stop to it.

Pulling away from the kiss, Haylee didn’t know quite what to say or how to say it, but a startled Carly asked breathlessly, with disappointment smeared across her face, “What’s the matter?!”

Haylee paused and then gulped before speaking, trying to find the words that wouldn’t offend.  “It’s just….I’m not into girls,” Haylee responded with anguish knowing she was probably gonna break Carly’s heart.

The light that had been beaming in Carly’s eyes quickly flickered out as Carly fully pulled away from Haylee, lowering her eyes to the ground to avoid eye contact and taking a nervous drag from her neglected cigarette.  She shook her head in humiliation before exasperatedly responding “Oh my God….I’m so sorry, Haylee!” standing up from the couch and beginning to pace the floor as though she wanted to crawl out of her skin.

“No, no!  It’s okay!” Haylee forcefully retorted, desperately trying to comfort her.

Continuing to pace the floor and nervously drag from her cigarette, Carly put her hand in her face and bellowed, “You’re like my only real friend and now I’ve gone and fucked everything up!”

“No you haven’t!” Haylee responded, not knowing quite what to say but trying her best to calm Carly down as she seemed on the cusp of a breakdown.

“I think I’m gonna go!” Carly exclaimed, walking toward the door.

“Please don’t go!” Haylee pleaded, even as Carly began walking toward the door in agony.

“No, no….I really need to leave!” Carly replied, taking another nervous drag from her cigarette, but feeling Haylee grab her by the wrist before she could walk away.

“Carly….” Haylee opened authoritatively, demanding and getting Carly’s undivided attention.  “….there’s no reason anything has to change between us.  But I need you to settle down and have a seat here.”

Carly paused and then nodded in agreement, returning to the couch with tears welling up in her eyes.  Haylee plucked out another cigarette from the pack of Camel Pinks on the table and lit up.   Haylee took an intense dangling drag off of the light-up as Carly took a shallower and more calming drag of her own.  Through a messy talking exhale that drifted into Carly’s airspace, Haylee helped Carly calm down a little more as she softly said, “Now let’s just sit here and talk this out.”

Carly smiled, grateful that she hadn’t scared Haylee away from a continued friendship and welcoming the opportunity to bare her soul about the long-held secret life she’d been hiding from everybody.

—————————————–

Standing next to Wade and his parents inside his parents’ dairy barn, Trevor watched the surreal spectacle unfolding in front of his eyes as his girlfriend and older sister crouched down in front of a dairy cow.  With cigarettes dangling from their lips and obvious trepidation on their faces, city girls Lauren and Courtney anxiously reached forward to grab hold of one of the cow’s udders.  Both girls clearly felt far outside their comfort zones as they placed their hands on the cow’s teat and squeezed.  Neither girl drew any milk upon their first squeeze, dragging from their dangling cigarettes and cringing not at the smoke clouds their own respiratory systems produced but at the awkwardness of touching the cow’s mammary.

“Pull down,” Glen advised the girls with a familiar smirk, recognizing the usual rookie mistake of novices trying to milk dairy cows.

The girls took his advice and Lauren was having some success, a trickle of milk squirting out of the cow’s udder into a bucket.  Courtney was still struggling, however, and jokingly asked, “Wade, will your parents even let me back here if I’m not any more useful on the farm than this?”

Glen, Louise, and Wade all laughed, with Wade joking back, “I think she smells those pants of yours and is a little intimidated about what comes next” in reference to Courtney’s leather pants which seemed all the more out of place crouched down in a dairy barn that reeked of manure.

Lauren giggled at Wade’s joke and Trevor got a chuckle too, but Courtney was too frustrated to play along.  Finally, Glen crouched down next to her, right into the haze of her freshly exhaled cigarette smoke, and showed her the downward wrist pressure necessary to generate the milk stream.  Courtney finally succeeded and quietly celebrated as she did.

With as straight of a face as possible, Glen looked at Courtney and said, “And after this one, just 239 more cows and then we can go eat some supper.”

Courtney and Lauren both hoped he was joking but couldn’t tell as they looked at him, cigarettes still dangling from their mouths.

“Really?” Lauren finally asked through a talking exhale of the three-quarters-smoked cigarette she’d been dangling for the last two or three minutes while milking the cow.

Glen couldn’t keep a straight face any longer and let loose a chuckle.  Louise laughed in the background but then placed her hand affectionately on Lauren’s shoulder and said, “Ignore him, dear.  No dairy farm has done it by hand for over 50 years.  We use milking machines now.”

Lauren giggled and Courtney sighed in relief, with Trevor smirking in the background unsurprised that the girls fell for it having never set foot on a farm in their lives.  But as they finished off their cigarettes and crushed them out on the dirt floor of the barn, Glen got more serious as he explained, “Even with the machines though, it’s hard work.  Two milkings of 240 cows every day…up before the sun every morning and out in the barn again every afternoon…seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Just Louise and I, our one hired hand, and Wade’s brother Kevin now that he’s back.”

Trevor, Lauren, and especially Courtney listened intently to Glen’s description, with Courtney thinking it sounded intimidating but not closing her mind to the lifestyle.

Louise picked up where her husband left off, adding, “It’s not an easy life but it’s what we know, what we love, and what we’re good at,” making eye contact with Courtney, a hint of skepticism about Courtney visible on her face but a willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Wade helped Courtney up from her crouched position in front of the cow and added, “Speaking of Kevin, when is he gonna be here?”

Glen looked at his watch to see it was now 4:40, then added, “He’s supposed to be here by 5:00 and we’ll be eating by 5:30.  I suppose we should get back to the house so Louise can have the roast ready.”

The group began to exit the barn with Courtney continuing to chat with Wade and his parents.  Hovering behind them were Trevor and Lauren, as Lauren fought through a smile, pinching her nose playfully as if grossed out the manure odor in the dairy barn while fishing around in her purse for her cigarettes.  Just as they stepped outside, Lauren had a new cigarette in her mouth and beckoned a light from Trevor.  Trevor was impressed how well she was masking her pain, but he still knew his girlfriend enough to know something was very wrong as she took her first exhale from the cigarette, a slightly aggrieved release of smoke spilling from her face as they walked in the direction of the Rosenquists’ country home.

—————————————

Carly and Haylee were nearly in tears laughing, sitting on the couch in the McPherson living room as Carly relayed the details of her epiphanous seventh-grade phys. ed. soccer game, with Haylee hanging on her every word with a cigarette dangling from her lips.

“So here I am, trying to be the goalie, and I got Bella Reese plowing right into me and falling on top of me!” Carly elaborated.  “I’m laying there looking up at her and feeling her boobs pressing into me, and it was at that moment that it was TOTALLY clear I preferred girls!”

Haylee could barely contain herself listening to the animation in Carly’s voice as she told her story, struggling to keep from laughing the dangling cigarette right out of her mouth, and Carly fed off of Haylee’s energy, laughing at Haylee’s response.  When Haylee got her composure in a few seconds, she inquired, “So only girls?  You’re not into guys at all?” with a swirl of exhaled smoke surrounding her face.

Carly’s demeanor got a bit more serious and perplexed again as she shrugged and then responded, “Some I guess,” pausing before adding, “I mean those cowboys Lauren was pointing out the other day got me a little excited….”

Haylee laughed again, puckering up her lips for another dangling drag as she continued listening as Carly continued, “I’m still trying to figure things out I guess.  Guys are way more intimidating,” and then added with a hint of sadness, “I don’t exactly have guys or girls standing in line for me so I should have all the time I need.”

With smoke jets rocketing out of her nose, Haylee replied “Do any of your family or friends know?  Does Lauren know?”

Carly shook her head.  “You’re the first person I’ve ever told….and I’d appreciate it if you kept this conversation between us.”

“Oh definitely!  I won’t say anything to anybody!” Haylee reassured.

“You hadn’t figured it out though, huh?” Carly asked, adding “I thought you had me pegged when I was standing there drooling over you at your birthday party last spring,” fluttering her eyebrows as she jokingly added, “Bella Reese took an immediate backseat in my fantasies when you bummed me that first Camel Pink!”

Haylee laughed again, seeing a vibrant and unfiltered side of the usually insecure Carly who had recovered so well after the initial humiliation and was already able to joke with Haylee about it.  Haylee finally removed her cigarette from her mouth and tapped her long granny ash into the ash can, giving Carly another visual of the pose that so excited her back in April at the birthday party.  Haylee interrupted her laughter with a hearty cough and then responded, “Well you did a good job of not tipping me off that you were into me as more than a potential friend,” bringing her cigarette back to her lips for another extended dangle.

Carly couldn’t help but once again admire Haylee’s gorgeous face as she sat there and how the white and pink cigarette hanging from her lips was such a badass complement to the pretty face.  Carly teasingly and animatedly responded, “So just to clarify, are you totally sure you’re not gay?”

Haylee almost laughed the cigarette out of her mouth again and responded, “Yeah pretty sure.”

Carly shrugged with passive defeat and added, “Can’t blame a girl for trying!  I figured my chances were about 50-50 when I pulled in for the kiss.”

Haylee laughed but quickly became more serious as she added through a haze of smoke, “But I’d definitely have been better off if I’d kept hanging out with you at my birthday party rather than ditch it and meet up with Jacob.”

Carly nodded, seeing in Haylee’s eyes that she still wasn’t over Jacob and was still hurting deeply about the breakup.  “I’ve never been in a relationship so I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you.”

Haylee took a final dangling drag from her cigarette, paused to get a minor cough out, and then leaned forward to crush the cigarette out in the ash can, giving her time to gather her thoughts and then respond.  “I was kind of looking forward to going back to school….thought it might help distract me from thinking about him all the time.  It hasn’t worked….” she shook her head in sadness, smoke still trickling out of her mouth and nose several moments after her final drag.  “Everything reminds me of him.  You know the vent area in the janitor’s closet where I told you I go to smoke during lunch?”

Carly nodded affirmatively.

“Jacob used to meet me there most days last spring after we started seeing each other,” Haylee continued.  “Now when I go there to smoke at lunch, it just feels so empty.”

Carly could see Haylee was getting more emotional and leaned forward to give her a platonic hug, both of them realizing they were sharing things with one another they’d never shared with anyone else, and Carly was really pleased that Haylee held her back when she wanted to leave earlier so they could talk things out.  Carly pulled away from the hug and put things in perspective.  “Sounds like we both have different things to figure out, but more than ever we’ll have each other to talk to as we do.”

Haylee nodded, liking the sound of that and appreciating that her own struggles to find herself after the Jacob breakup paled in comparison to Carly’s struggles with her identity and the social isolation that’s emerged from it.  And Haylee genuinely wanted to help in any way that she could.  Haylee reached to the coffee table to pluck out another Camel Pink No. 9 from the pack when Carly’s eyes lit up with a familiar request.  “Can I have another one?”

Haylee lit up her cigarette and dangled off the drag, filling Carly’s airspace up with a tempting explosion of secondhand smoke and then teasingly responding, “I got a whole carton in the fridge.  Why don’t you just go up there and grab a full pack?”

“Really?!?” Carly asked with enthusiasm.

“Better than draining my pack!” Haylee teased, smoke still spraying from her face before she took her second dangling drag.

Carly headed into the kitchen as Haylee dug out her phone, scanning through her photos and feeling her heart melt as she admired a few of them of her and Jacob that she’d saved on a secret folder.  Thumbing through the photos one by one, a nostalgic smile returned to her face, ultimately distracted as Carly shouted out from the kitchen.  “How much do I owe you?”

A startled Haylee looked over her shoulder and asked “For what?”

“For the Pinks, silly,” Carly responded as she held up the Camel Pink pack she just took out of the refrigerator.

“Oh…just leave a couple of bucks on the counter.  My mom will pick it up,” Haylee replied, belching out a blast of exhaled smoke and putting her phone back into her white shorts to hide the evidence of her retro photo gallery with the guy she couldn’t forget.

Carly returned to the couch, packing the Camel Pink pack against her wrist and opening it up, extracting the first cigarette.  She looked at Haylee’s lighter on the table and asked, “Mind if I use that?” Haylee gave her the affirmative consent and Carly reached over jokingly adding, “Good…because I’m guessing you don’t want to test what happens if we monkey fuck again.  You got in for quite a bit more than you bargained for last time!”

Haylee laughed again, once again admiring how pretty Carly was when she smiled and lit her cigarette.  It was a look that she knew would win over whatever lucky girl–or guy–that Carly chose to pursue if only she could up that confidence level to go with the personality, and doing everything she could to boost Carly’s confidence was gonna be Haylee’s pet project moving forward, and she began by inquiring, “So Bella Reese fell for you in 7th grade class.  Tell me about the next hot girl you got to feel up.”

Carly laughed, bending her elbow on the top of the couch and holding the cigarette close to her face between drags.  It was the most confident pose she’d ever seen Carly take while smoking, and as Carly began relaying more stories from her personal archives, Haylee couldn’t help but feel the first corner on Carly’s journey had already been turned this afternoon.

———————————-

The front porch of the Rosenquist farm house was bustling with activity with two tables of patio furniture pressed together and seven people seated in chairs encircling the table.

“…..it was the steamiest July night you can imagine and this older lady just collapses.  It was so scary to see!” Courtney recalled aloud, describing a scene to Glen, Louise, and Kevin from one of her early dates with Wade at the fair, her elbow resting on the table with her freshly lit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 held inches from her face  “And then Wade comes swooping in like a hero from a Western movie to help her out, even taking off his hat to let her rest on it.”

Wade’s brother grinned listening to Courtney’s description while his parents beamed with pride listening to Courtney rhapsodize about their son’s heroics at the county fair.

“It only took him about two minutes and the woman was coming around.  The medics arrived but if Wade hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened to her,” Courtney continued, pausing to give an affectionate smile to a humbled Wade and then took a deep drag from her cigarette, wrapping up her story through a talking exhale as she added, “And that was when I knew I couldn’t let this cowboy slip away!”

The Rosenquists laughed, simultaneously annoyed at the incessant waves of cigarette smoke coming from Courtney and moved by the crackling chemistry they were seeing between Courtney and their son.  They knew he’d found someone special and were enjoying her company.

Seated behind them and listening to their interactions were Trevor and Lauren, who had never heard Courtney tell this story before and both began to connect the dots that it happened the same night they were at the fair, right around the time Haylee’s boyfriend Jacob was arrested.  Lauren was smoking a cigarette of her own, using an empty Coke can for an ashtray as Courtney was at the table in front of her, laughing along but with a decidedly more subdued presence than usual.

“I better make sure that roast isn’t burning,” Louise announced, getting up from her chair to tend to the meal she was preparing.  “It should be ready in the next 10 minutes.  As beautiful of a night as it is, I think we should all just eat out here if that sounds okay,” she added looking to her guests to see if they’d concur.

“That sounds great!” Lauren responded warmly through a talking exhale.

“I’d love that!” Courtney responded with even more energy, mentally checking herself to tilt her head skyward to exhale her big stream of cigarette smoke, doing her best to be mindful of her manners in front of Wade’s parents despite the culture of the McPherson home where ill-mannered smoking had been the backdrop of her upbringing.

Louise smiled warmly back before turning to head into the house, and both Trevor and Courtney could tell by Louise’s body language and eye movement that despite the very positive energy she was feeling toward Courtney and how good she seemed to be for Wade, the incessant smoking was a red flag that would be no small challenge for her to get past.

Minutes later, Louise brought her roast out to the patio tables along with the side dishes she’d prepared, and Courtney had to check herself to keep from lighting up during the meal as she usually did at home.  During and after the meal, as the laughs and easygoing banter flowed generously with minimal awkwardness, Courtney was struck that her chemistry with Wade’s parents and brother was just as solid as her chemistry with Wade, her nervous anticipation of the first impression drifting away as effortlessly as the continued exhales from her litany of post-meal cigarettes as the night went on.  She looked affectionately at Wade every few minutes, conveying without words how ecstatic she was that everybody seemed to like each other so much.

Yet while the Rosenquists attempted to include Trevor and Lauren in their conversation, the young couple was largely spectators for the hour and a half after dinner, drawing the attention of Wade’s brother and parents primarily when Lauren beckoned Trevor to light one of her seemingly endless chain of Marlboro Light 100s, or when they heard one of her intermittent coughs.  Trevor knew that this was Courtney and Wade’s moment and was content to be a spectator, but as Lauren got increasingly quiet as the night went on, he became increasingly impatient to find a moment to get to the bottom of whatever was going on that was making Lauren so introverted and detached this evening.  He increasingly felt like he knew the answer, but couldn’t bring himself to accept what his imagination kept returning him to.

———————————

“You guys have fun today?  You’re awfully quiet back there,” Courtney asked from the passenger seat of Wade’s truck as they made the long drive back to the Minneapolis suburbs after dark.

Trevor paused for a moment to let Lauren respond first as she usually did, but decided to avert the awkwardness of Lauren’s atypical silence when he responded, “Yeah it was a good time.  Might not want to go to a rodeo every weekend but it was something new.”

Wade looked up to the rearview mirror, still sensing something wasn’t right with Lauren but barely able to see her face in the darkness of the backseat of his truck, adding “Sorry if you got in for more than you bargained for going to my family’s place for supper.  Hope you didn’t have any big Saturday night plans that fell apart.”

Lauren giggled and responded, “Not at all.  This was a really fun day, Wade.  Thanks for inviting us and introducing us to your family!” still doing her best to convey her usual level of bubbliness.  She handed Trevor her lighter and beckoned him to light yet another cigarette for her, and Wade tried to use the brief gleam of light to study Lauren’s face, still feeling a nagging suspicion of the same thing Trevor feared but unable to get the clarity he needed from studying her expressions.

“Your family is so great!” Courtney exclaimed, beckoning Wade’s attention as she lit another cigarette of her own.  “You guys are like out of a storybook of what I always imagined a farm family would be like.  It’s so sweet!”

Wade beamed a brighter-than-usual smile and then responded, “Glad you had a good time,” pausing as a cloud of her exhaled smoke nailed him in the face and then continued playfully, “Since you liked them so much, now might be a good time to make a little confession.”

Courtney furrowed her brow and responded, “What??!” with wisps of smoke still pouring out of her mouth and nose in Wade’s direction.

“I’d set it all up with my parents and brother to meet you today as soon as I invited you to come to the rodeo.  I didn’t want you to stress about meeting them so I kept it on the down-low until the rodeo ended,” Wade confessed.

“Oh you asshole!” Courtney replied whimsically, shaking her head in faux frustration and taking another fierce drag from her cigarette.  “Honestly though, it was a good idea….because you’re right I’d have been freaking if you’d told me.”

Wade nodded in agreement, “And I knew you’d have nothing to worry about.”

Courtney was turned on looking and listening to her boyfriend, especially with the context of the successful meeting of his parents, and decided to unbuckle her seat belt and sidle on up to him, loving that his truck didn’t have bucket seats and allowed her to do this.  Putting her chin on his shoulder, her minty tobacco breath aggressively invading his space as she rhetorically inquired, “Bet you never figured last year at this time you’d be bringing a leather-wearing, chain-smoking bad bitch from the city home to meet your parents huh?”

Wade laughed and teasingly deadpanned, “Well you’re actually the fourth girl fitting that description I’ve brought home to mom and dad.”

Courtney took a fresh drag from her cigarette, her laughter felt on his shoulder that she continued to rest her chin on as she kept on bantering with him in an extended foreplay that both knew would soon enough come to a head at his apartment when they got back to Eden Prairie.

Watching from the cramped backseat, Trevor felt a contagious energy from his sister and Wade as he observed them flirt, and then turned to his increasingly quiet girlfriend who stared blankly out the window dragging from her cigarette.  He reached his hand to her thigh and began to lovingly touch her, unprepared as Lauren jolted back in abject terror from the touch of Trevor’s hand, pulling away with a petrified and maximally traumatized response.  Trevor’s mouth hung open helplessly as Lauren, after her initial reaction, feigned a smile at him and took hold of his hand.  She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek, the intense flavor of tobacco on her breath being the only thing familiar about Lauren’s energy tonight, her hand still trembling as she held Trevor’s hand.  There was no longer any mystery in Trevor’s mind that something terrible happened to Lauren in Dusty Beaudry’s truck.  It was just a matter of how and when he’d have the opportunity to address the issue with her.

For the next 45 minutes, Wade continued driving home, with both couples eager to get back to their home addresses for entirely different reasons.  As Wade was finally heading down the block en route to the McPherson home, he was hoping Trevor would be willing to agree to the terms of his pending request.

“So Trevor,” Wade opened, “Lauren rode up with us and she needs a ride home to Maple Grove.  I’d kind of like to get your sister home as fast as possible so would you mind taking care of that?”

“Sure, that’ll work,” Trevor replied immediately, eager for the opportunity to finally be alone with Lauren.

“Thanks Trevor!” Courtney responded, looking into the backseat with a fiery libido raging in her eyes that left no doubt she and Wade were gonna be having white-hot sex when they got back to his place.

Wade looked into the rearview mirror as he pulled into the driveway of the McPherson home.  “Thanks a lot for spending the day with us, guys.  Lauren, you want me to pick up a can of Grizzly Wintergreen for you the next time we hang out?”

Lauren giggled, trying to mask the viscerally negative connotation she now had to that after the Dusty encounter, but responded, “Thanks but I think I’ll stick to my cigarettes.  It was my pleasure to meet your nice family, Wade!”

The two couples soon parted ways as Trevor and Lauren climbed out of the back of Wade’s truck, both happy for and a bit jealous of Wade and Courtney as they admired their electric chemistry which would soon be consummated with a passionate physical display of their love for one another.  As Wade’s truck pulled out of the driveway en route to his place and Lauren and Trevor headed for Trevor’s car, they both knew it would be a much different drive for the two of them.

Lauren fished out a cigarette from her pack as soon as she sat down, avoiding eye contact with Trevor as she handed her lighter to him and invited his flame to the end of her cigarette.  She finally looked up, smoke spewing from her face, and feigned another smile for the umptieth time since mid-afternoon, saying “Aren’t they just the cutest?!?  I’m so happy for them.”

Trevor started his car and backed it out of the driveway, eager to broach the difficult topic but willing to buy some time for himself as he tried to find a good opportunity to pivot the conversation, playing along with the topic at hand for the time being saying, “Yep….kind of reminded me of when I brought you home to meet the family for the first time last fall.”

Lauren smirked as she exhaled after a second deep drag, “I hadn’t thought of that but you’re right.  It would have been a lot less nerve-wracking for me if I’d only found out I was meeting them two minutes ahead of time like Courtney did.”

The conversation continued as they got onto the freeway for the 15-minute drive to Maple Grove, with Lauren keeping the small talk up at all costs in an attempt to filibuster the drive home away.  She was determined not to allow a moment of silence to creep in for Trevor to address the topic she so desperately wanted to avoid.

As they got off the freeway and had only a few minutes of drive time before getting to Lauren’s place, Trevor knew he needed to force this pivot by whatever means necessary.  Lauren fished another cigarette out of the pack in her purse and kept jabbering as Trevor stopped for a red light, guiding his hand toward her for a light.

Trevor took the moment of silence when Lauren was taking her first drag off the light-up to awkwardly interject with a solemn, “What happened today, Lauren?”

As the smoke emptied out of Lauren’s face, a moment’s silence filled the car as Lauren realized the gig was up, yet still feigned ignorance as she eventually responded, “What do you mean?”

Trevor made direct eye contact to confirm she wasn’t fooling him and then assertively responded, “You know what I mean….with Dusty!  In his truck!  On the cigarette run!”

Lauren looked straight forward out the windshield, taking a deep drag from her cigarette and continuing to stall as she replied emphatically, “Nothing happened, Trevor!”

Trevor was growing increasingly frustrated knowing he only had a couple of minutes drive time left to get to the bottom of this, cutting to the chase and asking directly, “Did that bastard rape you?”

Lauren began to look his way but avoided direct eye contact, nonetheless responding with a forceful “Noo!” with smoke spraying from her face.

Trevor could feel the rage build as he could tell she wasn’t being honest.  “If he raped you I swear to you I’ll kill him!”

“Noooo!” Lauren whined in a voice similar what Dusty heard moments before he forced himself upon her.  This time she made direct eye contact and her words were slightly more convincing as she added, “He didn’t rape me, Trevor.  I promise!” technically speaking the truth given that she set him on fire before he penetrated her.

Trevor nodded, his worst fears slightly assuaged, but he was unconvinced, “Something happened though, didn’t it?”

A few moments of silence that seemed like agonizing hours filled the car as Lauren filled her lungs with a deep drag and slowly let the smoke empty out of her lungs and mouth, coughing and then matter-of-factly responding.  “Something did happen.  But I don’t want to talk about it.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.”

Trevor pulled onto Lauren’s street and the clock was working against him for getting any kind of satisfactory confirmation, “You expect me to just forget about the fact that that son of a bitch came after my girl?”

“Yes!” Lauren exclaimed, residual smoke continuing to trickle out of her mouth and nose several breaths after her last drag.  “I do expect you to forget it Trevor!  And I expect you to let me forget it too!”

Trevor stewed in silence till he reached the driveway of Lauren’s parents’ place.  As he pulled in, Lauren tried to calm things down by affectionately grabbing his arm and saying, “I’ll be fine, baby.  I promise you I wasn’t raped.  But now I need you to make a promise too.”

Trevor sat silently awaiting her next words as she took a drag from her cigarette while collecting her thoughts.

“I need you to promise me that you won’t ever talk about this again….and that you won’t say or do anything to Dusty…or tell anyone else.  Okay baby?” Lauren requested.

Trevor sat there in silence, the volcanic rage in his face tipping off Lauren that this promise wouldn’t come easily for him.

“Promise me!!” Lauren exclaimed, continuing to fight back the tears she’d been suppressing all afternoon and evening.

“Okay,” Trevor muttered softly.

“I mean it, Trevor!” Lauren continued, her tone more aggressive than Trevor could ever remember seeing from her.  “Neither of us will ever speak of this day again!  I want to hear you promise me!”

Trevor nodded, his love for her leading him to agree to terms that he knew he shouldn’t agree to.  “I promise,” he said with as much conviction as he could muster.

Lauren’s stern face broke a halfhearted smile as she slid on up to him behind the steering wheel and hugged him aggressively.  “I love you so much, Trevor!” she passionately asserted.

The tone of Lauren’s voice along with the length and tightness of her hug spooked Trevor as it felt a bit like a hug goodbye.  He savored the feel of her touch and the dense aroma of cigarettes clinging to her hair and blouse over the duration of this hug, finally responding “I love you too.  More than you’ll ever know.”

When Lauren finally pulled away, Trevor took a close look at her beautiful face and admired the sexy cowgirl outfit she’d prepared for him that day even though it would be forever etched in his memory as the outfit that represented by far the most difficult day of their relationship, that top button on her blouse still buttoned up tight and undoubtedly concealing some evidence of what happened to her.  He kept waiting for the typically emotional Lauren to break down, but was instead met with a loving smile as she said, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay, baby,” helping to ease Trevor’s mind if only for a moment as she took another drag from her cigarette and blew it into his face before climbing out of the car en route to her parents’ home at the other end of the driveway.

A tidal wave of negative emotions rushed into Trevor’s heart as he watched Lauren walk away.  He lamented again as he had for hours the decision to let Lauren get in Dusty’s truck in the first place, and knew that Lauren had undoubtedly been playing the day back in her mind wishing she’d made different choices every step of the way as well, any one of which would have allowed her to avoid the moment of reckoning and every awkward and unpleasant moment since.

Trevor continued to watch her progress toward her front door, dragging from her cigarette as always, and expecting her to break down, but she never did.  Instead, the tears started rolling down Trevor’s cheeks, particularly as he pondered the typically sweet father-daughter moment Lauren shared on the phone with her father just before she got into the truck with Dusty….and now she had to walk into her home and face her father carrying the burden of a likely sexual assault on her shoulders.  It broke Trevor’s heart, but as he watched her cigarette glow one last time as she dragged before walking in the door, he realized that was why she’d been able to avoid an emotional breakdown.  Just as she put on a show of herculean strength for him in the face of such a dark secret, she had to keep that game face for everybody else.  He knew that maintaining this facade of normalcy would be the most difficult thing she’d ever done, and he suspected she might never be the same because of it.

As Lauren stepped inside her home, completely out of Trevor’s view and undoubtedly giving a sugar-coated account of her day to her parents, Trevor backed out of her driveway to head back home.  There was nothing more he could do tonight, and if he was to hold to the promise he made Lauren, there was nothing more he could do period.

————————–

Becky McPherson poured a glass of iced tea from a jug in the refrigerator and noticed three $1 bills sitting on the counter next to the refrigerator.  She furrowed her brow and took a deep drag from her Marlboro Red, shouting into the living room to her daughter Haylee sitting on the couch.

“Haylee, did you have company today?” Becky asked.

Cigarette dangling from her lips and a flash of paranoia on her face, Haylee abruptly responded, “No”, the cigarette bouncing up and down in her lips as she added, “Just the boys,” in reference to Jarrod and Joshua.

“Well who left these three dollars next to the fridge?” Becky inquired with suspicion.  “I know it wasn’t you!”

Haylee panicked for a split second before responding in a talking dangle with messy bursts of smoke spilling from her face, “Oh I forgot.  Carly came by for a bit and she took a pack of cigarettes.  She said she left some money behind to pay for them.”

Becky was confused by Haylee’s evasiveness, knowing there was more to the story but simply answering, “Oh…okay,” while taking a deep and introspective drag from her cigarette.

But Becky’s attention was quickly diverted to the front door when Trevor walked in.  She smiled upon seeing him, but could tell by his red and swollen eyes that there was trouble in paradise.  She nonetheless tried to remain chipper as she said, “Hi honey.  How was your day at the rodeo?”

Trevor tried to bulldoze his way to the stairs en route to his bedroom without his mother seeing that he’d been crying, but knew it was already too late for that.  “It was good,” he answered unpersuasively.

“Well tell me about it!” Becky exclaimed in her husky voice, wisps of smoke still coming out of her mouth and nose.

Trevor was in no mood for story time and had no problem telling his mom that, responding “I’ll tell you more tomorrow.  Right now I just want to get to bed.  It was a long day in the sun.”

Becky watched Trevor head upstairs and softly responded, “Tomorrow it is.”  She watched Trevor disappear upstairs and then looked over to Haylee in front of the TV, a swirl of smoke around her face as always, and correctly deduced that both of her children had far more going on today than they were willing to share.  That was nothing new, but her maternal instinct told her today had been a particularly eventful day of secrets for both Trevor and Haylee.

Meanwhile, Trevor walked into his bedroom and then closed and locked his door behind him.  He sat on his bed and briefly buried his face in his hands after an emotionally exhausting day.  After a few seconds, he looked up and his eyes landed on his desk, and in particular the notebook he’d used to write poems and short stories in the final days of summer after his storybook day at the Minnesota State Fair with Lauren.  For several days, Trevor had been full of inspiration and filled up a couple dozen pages of notebook paper with his creative writing, but after school started on Labor Day, he’d drifted from that creative spurt of late summer and let the notebook sit idle.

Trevor stood up and walked toward the desk, opening the notebook and thumbing through the pages of inspired, upbeat writing that transferred so effortlessly from his imagination to the page only a few short weeks ago.  He sat down at the desk and flipped the notebook to the first blank page, his mind suddenly brimming with a new spurt of creativity that he once again felt emotionally obligated to put in writing.  Only this time, the words coming off of his pen were coming from a much darker place than anything he’d written on those earlier pages.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Trevor Winds Down Summer At The Ozarks (Chapter 12)


Becky McPherson turned her tan Buick into the same suburban Minneapolis alley as she had been doing at least two times monthly for the past few years on an early August Thursday afternoon.  She spotted the familiar black van parked in the empty alley and smiled, pleased to see her long-time bartering partner was reliably waiting for her as always at the agreed-upon time.  Becky dragged hard from her Marlboro Red, not entirely free of the anxious feeling she usually gets when meeting with her contact in this alley, but the routine nature of these black market cigarette transactions had certainly led to a diminished tension over time.

Becky put her car in park and honked, taking a final drag from her cigarette while opening her car door and stepping outside, tossing the spent butt into the alley and watching as her Somali immigrant contact Abdullah stepped out of the driver’s seat of the van and greeted her with his usual warm smile.

“Out of cigarettes so soon, Becky?” Abdullah asked with a thick East African accent while walking to the back of the van and opening it.

“Ugh,” Becky said with mild exasperation.  “My girls can’t go back to school quickly enough as far as I’m concerned.  They burn through the cigarettes I buy them faster each week during summer break.”

Abdullah laughed as he retrieved the bag containing Becky’s usual order of nine cigarette cartons, three each of the preferred brands of herself, Courtney, and Haylee.  “I hope they appreciate how much you’re spending on them.  Even with my North Dakota discount, cigarettes ain’t cheap!”

Becky took the bag of cigarettes from Abdullah, fishing out the $500 in cash from the envelope in her purse she just retrieved from her ATM, responding “Not sure they’ll appreciate it enough until the day comes that they have to pay for their own cigarettes,” handing Abdullah the envelope full of cash.

Becky was about to ask Abdullah how his mother in Somalia was doing when the casual nature of their transaction was abruptly interrupted by squealing tires coming from both directions in the alley.  Two unmarked black SUVs with flashing police lights sped up to the scene, braking suddenly just behind Becky and Abdullah’s vehicles.  Agents dressed in black Kevlar burst out of the SUVs, guns drawn, as one agent parked behind Abdullah’s van shouted through a megaphone, “Hands up!”

Becky and Abdullah cooperated, both quickly putting their hands up in the air and looking at each other realizing the jig was up for both of them.  Abdullah quickly sized up the look on Becky’s face to try to determine if she had betrayed him and was in on this, but could tell by the stunned terror in her eyes that she was taken completely by surprise by this.  Becky looked at Abdullah and saw something entirely different in his eyes….a look of inevitability and defeat as if he knew this moment would come eventually but that his world was about to come crashing down on him now that it was officially here.

Five law enforcement agents swooped in from both directions, guiding Becky and Abdullah to stand against the wall to be frisked as one agent picked up the bag of black market cigarettes that Becky had just purchased and began looking them over.  Another agent plucked the envelope of cash out of Abdullah’s pocket before finally verbally addressing him.

“We are agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  We’ve been investigating your cigarette smuggling operation for years.  We got this transaction recorded,” he said, pointing up to a small camera mounted on a nearby fire escape that Abdullah and Becky could barely notice upon looking in the direction the officer pointed to.  “Expect more arrests in the days to come, but Abdullah Guleed, you are the first in your organization that I am placing under arrest.  You have the right to remain silent….” the officer continued, slapping a pair of handcuffs on the wrists of Abdullah as he proceeded to read him the rest of his Miranda rights.

Becky was overcome with feelings of sadness, remorse, and regret as she watched the officer lead Abdullah to the back of the ATF truck, feeling the pain of this well-mannered immigrant she’d come to know so well in the past few years and realizing his freedom and his dreams of a better life for his mother back in Africa had likely come to a grinding halt.  Only when Abdullah was out of sight did Becky begin to wonder why a pair of handcuffs was not yet being put on her wrists.

No sooner did the thought enter her head before she was startled by the voice of another ATF agent approaching her from the other direction.  Becky listened intently as he began to speak.  “Ma’am, you’re not under arrest and you’re free to go.  However, we will be confiscating the black market cigarette purchase you made and give you a warning to never do business with Mr. Guleed or anybody from his organization again.   We know who you are and have all of your information.  If in the future you’re ever caught in possession of cigarettes without the proper tax stamp data, you will be sent a bill from the Minnesota Department of Revenue for unpaid tobacco taxes.”  He paused to let that all sink in to a stunned Becky before adding, “Any questions?”

Becky nodded in the negative, still at a loss for words in the midst of such a harrowing encounter.   While she felt a small measure of relief that she was being let go without legal consequences, she continued to struggle to mentally process what led up to this armed encounter with federal agents, climbing back into her car and reflexively lighting up a cigarette to provide herself some desperately needed nicotine relief.  The ATF officer waved her around the law enforcement SUV and she proceeded down the alley, mental gears grinding away trying to put the pieces together of what just happened and what would come next.  It never occurred to her that the series of events that led to this moment came when her daughter Haylee’s cigarettes were seized by a fairgrounds cop a few weeks earlier.

———————————————

Three weeks later, Becky was riding in the passenger seat of her husband’s Lexus, with Steve behind the wheel and 15-year-old daughter Haylee in the backseat, driving northward in the first hour of a long drive home following a family vacation to Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri.  With a Marlboro Red between the fingers of her right hand, Becky carefully studied the stack of printouts she held in her left hand that documented her purchase plans for the drive home with the detail of a military operation.  She looked at the map on her phone for a definitive reading on their location.

“Looks like 33 miles north till Boonville,” Becky informed Steve in her sandpapery smoker’s voice, pausing to take a nervous drag from her cigarette before continuing.  “We’ll be stopping at Al’s Tobacco Outlet just off of Highway 87 to pick up my Reds.”  She pushed a couple more buttons on her phone before adding “Only $45.99 a carton!” looking up from her phone to give Steve a “not bad” facial gesture with wisps of smoke spilling out of her mouth and nose.

Steve smiled back, enjoying witnessing Becky’s passion about turning this “vacation” to the Ozarks into an elaborate run for discount cigarettes, this time from an ostensibly legal source.  “Wow, that’s like half what they sell for in Minnesota,” Steve finally verbalized in an understated tone that contrasted sharply with Becky’s mile-a-minute intensity.

“Cheapest cigarettes in the country,” Becky responded proudly, looking at her printouts again for the store names, street addresses, and cigarette sticker prices where she wanted the rest of her vacation entourage to stop on their way home.  “If you don’t count the cost of the gas, I’ll be paying even less per carton here than what I was paying to Abdullah.  We’re definitely gonna be coming here two or three times a year to buy in bulk.  I’ll be damned if I’m paying those Minnesota prices.”

After saying his name, Becky became quiet and contemplative a moment, dragging from her cigarette and feeling the surge of sorrow and guilt that always came when she thought of Abdullah.  Even though Becky knew Steve didn’t like when the subject came up, she nonetheless felt compelled to add, “And I think whatever money I end up saving I’ll use to hire a better lawyer for Abdullah. His mother in Somalia must be just sick about her son.”

Steve shook his head disapprovingly before responding, “Becky, you have no idea what Abdullah was involved with.  The others arrested in the smuggling ring had links to a terrorist organization.  Be glad you got off with a warning and cut your losses.  You don’t need any more encounters with the ATF!”

Becky sat silently, listening to her husband’s words and knowing they made sense but still feeling as though she had betrayed Abdullah and owed him something. She took a final drag from her cigarette, tossed it out the passenger window, and then shrugged, acknowledging Steve’s comment with an abrupt “You’re right,” hoping it would close the topic for now even though they both doubted it would be the last time Becky would bring it up.

Becky cut the brief interval of tension by turning to the backseat to acknowledge their quiet passenger.  “Haylee, we’ll be stopping 30 miles up the road if you need to go to the bathroom.”

Becky was not surprised to look back and see her sullen and moody 15-year-old daughter looking down at her phone while dangle-dragging her Camel Pink No. 9 in silence, refusing to acknowledge her mother’s comment and emanating maximal attitude without even making eye contact.  Becky refused to be ignored and raised her voice to reinforce her earlier comment as she added  “Haylee, did you hear me?!?”

“I heard you,” Haylee fired back with dripping contempt, still refusing to look up from her phone and make eye contact while puckering her lips around the filter of her cigarette, the force of Haylee’s latest nasal exhale by itself making the granny ash wobbly but ultimately hanging on to the rest of the cigarette which hadn’t been removed from Haylee’s mouth for at least two minutes.

A look of mild defeat filled Becky’s face as she looked her youngest daughter up and down, noticing by the white tanktop and black shorts combination Haylee was wearing that she still wasn’t her old self.  Becky could never have imagined a wardrobe combination from Haylee that didn’t include something pink until the last month.  Ever since the chain of events that led to her 18-year-old former boyfriend Jacob Roth’s arrest, and the parental response that followed, Haylee had reverted to her old self and then some, shutting down the lines of communication completely and making it clear in no uncertain terms that she was angry at the world…and even angrier with her parents.  Haylee finally removed the cigarette from her mouth and ashed it out the cracked rear window before placing it between her lips for another long-distance dangle, never taking her eyes off of her phone even though she could sense her mother was still looking at her.

Becky knew a confrontation with Haylee was inevitable before school started again in less than two weeks, but right now she wanted to focus on the issue at hand that prompted this trip to Missouri in the first place.  She looked briefly to Steve and casually muttered, “I think I’m gonna touch base with the kids and make sure we’re all on the same page,” before proceeding to scroll through the contacts on her phone, about to press the button to call oldest daughter Courtney.

——————————–

Driving parallel to Becky and Steve about 30 miles to the west, Wade Rosenquist fit right in on the rural Missouri two-lane driving his old Ford truck with his arm hanging out the open window.  He looked over to the passenger seat and smiled as his passenger and six-week girlfriend Courtney McPherson placed a Marlboro Light Menthol 100 between her lips and lit up, fitting in with her surroundings just as much as Wade was, dragging deeply from her all-white cigarette and decked out in a tanktop and daisy dukes.  Courtney flashed her eyes flirtatiously at Wade while wrapping her lips tightly around the cigarette for a drag, maintaining eye contact for as long as possible until Wade had to look back toward the road.

Courtney’s summer had tracked inversely to her sister Haylee’s, starting slowly but coming alive these last several weeks to become one of the most unexpectedly satisfying stretches of Courtney’s life….and the country boy behind the wheel of this Ford truck was responsible for all of it.  Courtney began to muse how bored she’d have been sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car on a typical vacation or weekend trip up to the cabin, her earbuds in her ears the entire time, but she was loving mile after mile of blissful silence in the company of the man of few words driving her around this Wednesday morning in the dog days of August.

But just as Courtney was musing about the pleasing silence, her train of thought was broken by the sound of her cell phone ringing.  Looking down to see “Mom” on her caller ID, Courtney gave Wade a bemused and slightly annoyed smirk before placing the phone to her ear.  “Yes mother?” Courtney responded, knowing she’d be getting another update about Becky’s elaborate cigarette purchase plan, taking another drag from her own cigarette knowing she’d have plenty of time to enjoy it as her mother rambled on.

“Yeah Courtney….” responded the gravelly voiced Becky, getting right down to business just as Courtney expected, “….just reminding you to look for the Discount Smoke Shop when you get to Marshall.  It’s on South 4th Street just south of downtown.  According to their website they have your Marlboro Light Menthols on sale for $47.99 a carton.”

“Right,” Courtney responded matter-of-factly, remembering the details from only a couple hours earlier when they discussed before leaving the hotel at Lake of the Ozarks.

“And remember to wait for your brother to meet you there.  We’re gonna have you buy 15 cartons of your menthols to fill the back of Wade’s truck….and then have Wade buy 15 cartons of Lauren’s Marlboro Lights to put in Trevor’s car.  And then stop at Trenton before you hit the Iowa state line to get 14 more cartons.  Don’t buy more than 29 cartons or else we’ll go over the legal limit when we cross the state line though, okay?”

“Yes mom, I remember,” Courtney said as gently as possible while still trying to make her mild annoyance known, flashing her eyes back at Wade with an expressive grin that he picked up on immediately, knowing Courtney couldn’t wait to be done with this conversation.

“How far are you from Marshall now?  I think you guys are well ahead of Trevor,” Becky inquired.

“I don’t know…like a half hour maybe,” Courtney responded.

“Hmmm,” Becky said while taking a contemplative drag from her cigarette, knowing Trevor and Lauren were dragging their feet leaving the hotel and were probably still trailing well behind.  “Well I better get in touch with your brother and find out how far behind he is.  I hope you don’t have to wait too long for them at Marshall.”

“Well we’re in no real hurry I guess,” Courtney responded through a talking exhale in the aftermath of a deep drag, adding with no attempt at subtlety, “But could you do me a favor and text back next time?”

Courtney held the phone a few inches away from her ear as Becky’s husky voice raised to a dim shout, “I’m not trying to pester you Courtney, but we really need to have our ducks in a row on this!  I’ll call your brother and text you back how far behind he is.”

“Got it mom.  Talk later.  Love you,” Courtney closed the conversation as quickly as possible, ending the call as she looked Wade’s direction.

“Your mom sounds pretty wound up,” Wade said as Courtney rolled her eyes, dragging again from her cigarette in an attempt to maintain the chill vibe of the quiet country ride.

Looking up to see a sign showing it was still 26 miles to Marshall, Courtney let the smoke flow slowly from her mouth to get back in the mood, unbuckling her seat belt and sliding across the seat to put her left arm around Wade’s broad shoulders and her right hand on his lap, the aroma of her cigarette smoke enveloping his presence more directly than it had when she was in the passenger seat.  She leaned forward toward him to further enhance the tobacco stimulus that Wade had become increasingly familiar with in the past month.

“I think they got seat belt laws even in Podunk, Missouri,” Wade said with as playful of a smirk as he was capable of.

Courtney laughed as she took a drag from her cigarette, exhaling right past his face as she responded, “Can’t imagine we’d even be noticed out here unless I was riding on the tailgate.”

Wade smiled back as Courtney buried her chin on his right shoulder, loving the feeling of his deeply masculine build as she ran her left hand through his close-cropped blond hair.  It was a long ride back to Minneapolis, but that was just fine by her.

—————————————

Twenty miles behind Wade and Courtney on Highway 65, Trevor McPherson was not yet to Sedalia as he sped northward in his own vehicle.  He looked admiringly to the passenger seat where a display of supercharged feminine energy was expelling a force field of pheromones his direction, even though the source of this pheromonal onslaught wasn’t remotely aware of her power at the moment.  Trevor’s 16-year-old girlfriend Lauren sat in the passenger seat, her right hand texting away on her phone while her left hand held a half-smoked Marlboro Light 100.  With her window fully down, she leaned back in her seat with her bare legs tucked just outside the window, relaxed and taking in the easygoing summer vibe while she still could in the season’s final couple of weeks.

Trevor strained to focus on the road as he looked her over top to bottom, her dark blond hair gently whipping with the wind from the open window, a pair of badass aviator sunglasses covering her eyes that were distracted by the cell phone she was texting into.  Below the neck, her sparkly silver tanktop glistened over her curvy chest and onto her flat stomach, ending just north of her belly button.  The journey south from there was as curvy as any Ozark back road as Lauren’s waist was draped in a pair of skin-tight white shorts with a lace-up fly that perfectly framed her crotch, and those long tan legs extended at a slightly upward angle all the way out the passenger window where her bare feet were hugging the passenger side mirror.

There was only one thing that could make this image more perfect for Trevor, and Lauren was about to help him with that as she approached her cigarette to her lips and took an intense drag, the airborne smoke produced from the drag immediately getting sucked into the car by all of the air streaming inside from the open window.  Trevor couldn’t have been more pleased when the blast of smoke went right into his face in a hurry, and continued coming as Lauren exhaled, still texting away.  As Trevor looked at the long ash on the end of Lauren’s cigarette, he had a feeling what was coming next and his suspicion was soon confirmed as an unthinking Lauren extended her left hand toward the cupholder in his console, flicking her ash into a nonexistent ashtray without realizing she did it.

Trevor raised his voice to be heard through the open windows as he playfully scolded, “That’s the third time you’ve done that this weekend!”

A startled Lauren let a brief flash of guilt burst from her face after realizing what she’d done.  “Oh gosh, I’m sorry!  I’m so used to my ash can being there in my car!” she said leaning down to scoop up what she could of the ash she had spilled into the console.

“That’s what you said the last two times!” Trevor exclaimed, feigning anger.  “I think I’m gonna have to get an upholstery guy clean up the mess you made and then send you the bill!”

Lauren stuck out her tongue playfully at Trevor, taking a double-pump final drag from her cigarette and then flicking the spent butt out the car window with the giant exhale of smoke following the butt in the same direction.  “I was just texting Haylee,” Lauren explained.  “I feel so bad for her.  She’s still not over Jacob.  She was just asking me if I’d heard anything from him.”

Trevor nodded, pretending to be interested but being sick of hearing about Haylee and Jacob after a month in which the two of them had been pretty much all his parents had talked about.  Hoping to change the conversation without saying so, Trevor took hold of Lauren’s left hand and brought it to his face.  He made a special point of looking over her fingertips as they approached, noticing the yellow and black nicotine stains near the fingernails that accompanied the smell of fresh tobacco that had become omnipresent on Lauren’s fingers, especially since her midsummer experiment with vaping had ended and a Marlboro Light 100 had become an almost permanent fixture in her hand.  She caressed his face as he kissed her fingertips, her eyebrows raising with peaked interest as she felt some rough stubble on his chin.

“How often do you shave these days?” Lauren asked.

“Couple times a week.  Getting to be more often.  Why?” Trevor asked, hoping her response would be favorable.

Lauren fulfilled his expectations when she playfully replied, “Just feeling more whiskers there than I had before.  That’s all,” before slowly pulling her hand away from his face.  As her hand then approached her purse, Trevor knew what was coming next and dutifully waited for her to hand him her lighter as she fished yet another Marlboro Light 100 from its pack.  Trevor flicked the cigarette to life for her and maintained eye contact as she briefly dangled off the exhale, pulling the cigarette from her face and smiling while performing another of her now-routine performative French inhales and then blowing the smoke straight into his face.

Trevor was now fully turned on and couldn’t resist keeping the momentum going as he looked at Lauren’s smoldering body all sprawled out in his passenger seat, his eyes particularly focused on those white shorts and how the drawstring tying her crotch together was nearly bursting at the seam and straining the eyelets to their breaking points.  He migrated his hand to the bow of the shorts and started to unfasten it, asking “How about you?  How often are you shaving these days?”

Lauren erupted in a louder laugh than usual, her voice hitting an octave huskier than what he’d been used to, almost certainly a result of her heavy smoking.  “The usual,” she responded, biting her lip as Trevor began working his finger under the loosening lace holding together the fly of her shorts.

Another ding from Lauren’s phone annoyed Trevor, try as he may have to not express that annoyance.  But as Lauren pulled her phone up to take a look at the incoming message while dragging from her cigarette, Trevor was concerned he was losing the moment.  The smoke poured from Lauren’s mouth and nose as she began responding to the text, not seeming to respond as dramatically as Trevor was used to as he trickled his index finger one by one down the eyelets of her shorts to loosen the drawstring a bit more.  Normally Trevor didn’t have to vie for Lauren’s attention but passive-aggressively conveyed his frustration by asking, “So are you into this or not?”

Lauren placed her cigarette in her mouth and responded, “I’m certainly not gonna tell you to stop,” through a talking dangle while continuing to text, still far too detached to match the moment Trevor was trying to create.

The moment suffered an even more fatal setback as the phone rang on the bluetooth device on Trevor’s car, the caller ID unsurprisingly reading “Mom”.  Trevor had no choice but to retreat his free hand from Lauren’s crotch and redirect it to the phone call from his mother.  Lauren finally looked up from her own phone, her shorts untied and her cigarette still hanging limply from her mouth, excited as she looked through the cloud of her own exhaled smoke to see that Trevor’s mom was touching base with him as the mother-son relationship was adorable to Lauren.

“Hey mom,” Trevor responded, knowing another familiar update was on the way.

“Hey Trevor.  Where are you?” Becky asked.

“Just pulling into Sedalia,” Trevor responded as he passed the city limit sign.

“That’s what I figured,” Becky replied.  “Your sister is about 25 miles ahead of you.  Remember you’re meeting at the Discount Smoke Shop south of downtown Marshall.”

“Yes, mother.  You mentioned it before,” Trevor said with a mild tease, making playful eye contact with Lauren who was trying to suppress a giggle.

“Just want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Becky reassured.  “And don’t forget.  Hide the cigarettes under the blanket in the trunk.  Do not drive over the speed limit and if a cop pulls you over and asks to search, tell him he has to show you a warrant!” Becky insisted, knowing that there could be some potential issues with two juveniles in possession of 15 cartons of cigarettes but still willing to take the risk.

“Yep.  I remember,” Trevor responded, using his free hand to make a chatterbox motion for Lauren’s benefit, to which Lauren once again had to fight to restrain an audible giggle.

“Remind Courtney of that too!  It’s an even bigger deal for Wade since he’ll be only one carton short of the legal limit….” pausing to add, “…and be sure to tell Lauren to remind her parents of that too.  You there, Lauren, sweetie?”

“Right here Mrs. M,” Lauren responded sweetly in response to her name being called.  “I’ll be sure to tell them,” she reinforced before dragging, knowing her parents were driving home in their own separate car and stopping to pick up multiple cartons of Marlboro Lights 100s as well, the preferred brand of all three smokers in the Nelson home.

Becky’s tone always perked up whenever she talked to Lauren and did once again here as she asked, “How are your folks doing?  I hope they didn’t mind taking a weekend off from the cabin and tagging along with us down here for the weekend?”

“They had a great time!” Lauren reassured her.  “It was good timing since they’re having that hot tub built outside my parents’ cabin this weekend.”

“Oh that’s great to hear,” Becky replied, maintaining her more tender tone chatting with Lauren, wrapping the conversation up with, “So you kids doing anything special on the drive home?”

“Not really,” Lauren responded through a talking exhale.

Trevor decided to give Lauren the first clue of his scheme for later in the day, responding to his mother while eyeballing Lauren as he said, “Just going for lunch up the road after stopping in Marshall.  Got a place picked out.”

“Sounds good,” Becky concluded.  “See you guys at home tonight.”

After the call ended, Lauren looked at Trevor with mild confusion, wrapping her lips inquisitively around the filter of the Marlboro Light and pumping her lungs full of smoke before asking, “What kind of place to eat do you have picked out for us way down here?”

Trevor smirked as he watched the smoke lazily exit Lauren’s respiratory system, responding, “Oh it’s a small-town diner I’ve heard some really good things about…” pausing for dramatic effect before adding, “…I think you’re gonna like it.”

Lauren’s confusion transitioned to a responsive smirk as she picked up on Trevor’s body language and knew he was setting her up for something.  “Treeevor!” she playfully scolded.  “What are you up to??”

Trevor smirked back and responded, “You’ll find out about an hour up the road.”

Lauren beamed as she took a final drag from her cigarette, flicking it out the window as she already had so many others in the less than two hours they’d been on the road, knowing that whatever Trevor had up his sleeve would keep things fun on this long drive back to Minnesota.

————————————-

Courtney continued to sit in the middle of the seat of Wade’s truck, her arm around Wade as he drove, the mild discomfort of their bodies pressed together in the August humidity being more than worth it for both of them.  Courtney took a drag from her latest cigarette before reaching over Wade’s body to ash out the driver’s side window.

“Grrrr!” Courtney exaggeratedly growled upon hearing her phone buzz with yet another text message.  She took a look and, as expected, it was from her mother.  She then looked up to the road to see a sign for a remote wayside rest one mile ahead.

“Good news, babe,” Courtney said, looking at Wade.  “My brother just pulled out of Sedalia….so we’ll have some time to kill before he meets us at Marshall.”

Wade nodded as she leaned up to kiss him on the earlobe, not instinctively loving the idea of having to wait for Trevor to catch up to them but knowing Courtney might make it worth his while.

“Why don’t you pull over into this wayside rest,” Courtney playfully requested.

Wade couldn’t miss that unmistakable fire in her eyes as he wistfully asked, “You gotta to go to the bathroom?”

Courtney gave him a prolonged googly-eyed stare before curtly responding, “Nope.”

Wade began pulling off the highway, steering his truck into the isolated foliage of this vacant wayside rest as Courtney made her agenda official reaching for his crotch and unbuckling his belt.  As he pulled the truck to a complete stop, Courtney continued to undo his jeans and then offered with escalating passion in her voice, “I think you need a reward for driving me around Missouri the last few days!”

Courtney slid her body over Wade’s lap, squeezing herself in between the steering wheel and the stiffening male body part that she had just let out of its denim lair, emerging on the other side where she opened the driver’s side door of Wade’s truck and quickly exited.  Wade sat on the edge of the seat, his exposed manhood hidden from possible traffic on the adjacent highway but exposed outside the driver’s side door of this truck as Courtney crouched down so it was pointed straight toward her face.  Intimidated for a split second as if looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun pointed at her face, Courtney opened her mouth as wide as she could, knowing that wrapping her mouth around this male reproductive part would require all of the real estate available between her upper and lower jaws.

Courtney sucked on the head of Wade’s penis for a few moments, listening to his rising moans of passion as she let it slide deeper into her mouth.  She hadn’t had too many moments of privacy with him at the hotel but was making up for it now, devouring as much as she physically could of the most enormous cock she’d ever seen let alone touched.  Wade did his best to thrust himself into her mouth while still being careful of not hurting her or himself with the heavy equipment.  Courtney wrapped her hands around what her mouth was unable to consume, jerking it back and forth to maximize the intensity of the experience for both of them, but especially Wade.  She was so grateful for him being in her life right now that she couldn’t possibly convey the extent of her appreciation, but figured this was one of the best ways she could deliver that message.

Wade could feel Courtney laboring to breathe, her hot breath heating up the portion of his dick immersed in his mouth one intense oral thrust after the next.  “I’m gonna come!” he finally exclaimed in about as boisterous of a tone as Courtney had ever heard from her laconic boyfriend.

Courtney knew she’d be unprepared for the moment that was fast arriving, choosing to close her eyes as if not wanting see the pending wreckage.  Like a pressurized steam pipe reaching its bursting point, an eruption of hot male fluids rocketed out of Wade’s dick and Courtney felt like she had an oversized garden hose in her mouth, the overflow of his cumshot squirting out of the circumference of her mouth and spraying all directions onto her face while she gulped down the plentiful amount that remained in her mouth.  Wade continued to moan with pleasure as Courtney was willing to delay dealing with the aftermath of the mess he made all over her face as she wanted to suck him off just a few moments longer.

Suddenly, both of them came back to reality very quickly upon hearing the sound of a car pulling up behind theirs at the wayside rest.  The driver’s side door blocked Courtney’s vision but she abruptly let loose her oral grip of Wade’s male equipment while Wade nervously looked through his windshield to see an elderly couple park behind them.  They made nervous eyes with him as he worked fast to put his dick back into his pants, figuring that even this wholesome-looking elderly couple would be able to figure out what was going on here after eyeballing the lower half of Courtney’s body crouched down below the bottom of the driver’s door.

Courtney dug into her pocket looking for a tissue but couldn’t find any.  “Hand me my purse!” she exclaimed urgently but still unable to restrain nervous laughter as Wade handed her the purse, from which she pulled out a couple of Kleenex, hearing the strangers’ car door open and footsteps coming outside.

“Excuse me, sir” came the voice of the kindly old man behind the wheel directed at Wade.

“What can I do for ya?” Wade responded, laying on the country boy charm in hopes of disarming the incredible awkwardness.

“I was wondering if you could tell me how to get to Boonville.  My wife and I aren’t from around here and we’re kind of lost,” he replied.

Realizing the encounter wasn’t gonna end particularly quickly, Courtney had no choice but to stand up, somewhat startling the elderly couple as she continued to use her Kleenex to wipe the shower of ejaculate Wade had left on her face.

“Boonville’s where your parents are going, right?” Wade asked Courtney.

“Yeah,” Courtney responded, remembering from the map she looked at before she left.  “We’re not from around here either but I think if you just keep going north on 65 here and then turn right on Interstate 70, it’ll take you right to it.”  Courtney then began fishing out a cigarette from her purse.  Considering this old couple had already effectively seen her sucking off her boyfriend at a wayside rest, she didn’t feel particularly embarrassed about the notion of them knowing she was a smoker.

“Okay, so it’s east of here,” the older man said, stroking his chin as if realizing he should have thought of that as he looked up to see Courtney lighting up her Marlboro Light Menthol 100.  “Thank you….” he said, pausing with a wry smirk as he climbed back into his car and continued, “…now I’ll let you get back to what you were doing.”

Wade laughed nervously and waved as the couple pulled away, with Courtney burying her face in her hand in rosy-cheeked humiliation.  She peeked between her fingers to get Wade’s reaction as he shook his head in a playfully scolding manner.

“Don’t say it!” Courtney teased, pulling her hand from her face and then taking a drag from her cigarette, beginning to walk around back to the passenger seat so they could leave.

“I wasn’t gonna say a thing,” Wade replied with a continued playful tone, watching as Courtney’s exhaled smoke drifted into the humid early afternoon sky and then got lost in the foliage from the overhead trees.

Courtney climbed into the passenger seat, her youthful body looking both refreshing and refreshed to Wade in the tanktop and jean shorts, fastening her seat belt and content to ride shotgun again for the near future having had her fun.  As Wade pulled away, Courtney settled into her seat, a goofy smile lurking on her face that was nonetheless masking a new wave of insecurities as she pondered her continued battle with sexual sobriety.  Having put herself into a situation of getting busted by a sweet elderly couple for public copulation at an out-of-state wayside rest, Courtney couldn’t help but feel it was the latest reminder of the issue she sought treatment for only a few months earlier.  The current circumstance was comparatively innocent and done amidst a committed relationship, so she refused to beat herself up too much over it, but still made a mental note of the continued need to view her sexuality through the prism of an addict.  She brought her all-white cigarette to her lips for another deep drag, darting her eyes over to Wade and hoping he’d be able to put up with some conflicting messages he’ll probably continue to get from her about sex as she keeps dealing with this issue.

—————————————————

Haylee sat in the backseat of her parents’ Lexus with another cigarette dangling from her mouth, leering up from her phone just long enough to see them walking out of the tobacco shop in Boonville with bags full of cigarettes, but she pretended not to be paying attention to them.  After Steve and Becky finished concealing the multiple cartons of Marlboro Reds in the trunk, they returned to the front seat of the car and climbed inside.

Becky looked back to see Haylee slouching as she texted into her phone, her lips puckering up around the dangling cigarette and contributing further to the haze of secondhand smoke surrounding her in the backseat.  Trying in vain to make conversation once again, Becky excitedly offered, “About an hour up the road in Moberly, we’re gonna hit the motherlode of your Pinks, Haylee,” in reference to her daughter’s Camel Pink No. 9s.

Haylee looked up briefly to give her mom the stink eye, shrugging as if to project a what-do-you-want-me-to-say-to-that response conveyed through a verbal, “Okay?”

As Steve began to drive away, Becky sighed, exhaling a burst of her Marlboro Red smoke to drift into the airspace currently dominated by Haylee’s Camel Pink smoke, and then exasperatedly intervened with, “Haylee, your cigarettes are not easy to find.  It would be nice if you could show just a little appreciation.”

“Pfffft….” Haylee fired back, “…..yeah there’s just so much to appreciate these days!” as she continued tending to her phone.

Steve had by now had enough, “Haylee, do you know how many kids your age would kill to spend time in a place like you just did the last four days?  We’re so sick of this attitude from you all the time.”

“Leave me alone!” Haylee fired back angrily, the dangling cigarette stiffening tight in her lips in the way a cat hisses to warn its tormentor to back off.

Becky resisted Haylee’s warning, finally going there and broaching the festering Jacob topic as she said, “Maybe when you go back to school you’ll finally forget about romanticizing your rapist!”

“He’s not a rapist!” Haylee shouted, speaking with enough animation that she nearly lost her oral grip on the dangling cigarette.  “He was the only good thing that’s ever happened to me!”

“What a drama queen!” Becky responded with an angry laugh, escalating the tense conversation.  “He’s 18 and you’re 15, Haylee!  That’s statutory rape!  That’s why he was arrested!” she pressed, flashing back to that ugly night the previous month when she got the call to pick up Haylee at the police station.

“They dropped the charges so I guess they didn’t consider him Jack the Ripper like you do!” Haylee fired back, the conversation finally becoming heated enough that she removed the cigarette from her mouth and leaned up in her seat, ready to do verbal battle for the umptieth time since that night.

“Just because your friends changed their stories to get him out of trouble doesn’t mean he didn’t violate you, Haylee!” Becky fired back.

“Oh yeah!  Chloe Mays is really my friend!  She ruined my life and Jacob’s!” Haylee responded, quietly pleased that Chloe, Madison, and Taylor at least recanted their witness statements about seeing Jacob fondle her on the ferris wheel and prevented him from being tried for statutory rape.

Steve pleaded for calm, raising his hand to interject and adding, “Let’s not rehash this again.  Nothing good can come of it,” pausing but then realizing he needed to reinforce he and Becky’s mutual position.  “But I see you texting away on that phone back there Haylee and God help me, you better not be contacting him.”

Haylee cut short the final drag from her cigarette, a blast of smoke spraying from her face as she emphatically exclaimed, “Well you have nothing to worry about there!  Thanks to you trying to put him in prison he’s never gonna speak to me again!”

Not fully buying Haylee’s word, Becky doubled down.  “We mean it Haylee.  We put a restraining order on that kid.  If he contacts you in any way, it’s a probation violation and he WILL BE locked up.  If you really care about him, you better leave him alone!”

“Jesus Christ, mom!” Haylee shouted at the top of her lungs, wisps of residual smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose.  “I’m texting Lauren!  Is it okay with you if I still talk to my one friend left??!?” she guilted them, failing to pass along that while she was texting Lauren, she was texting her trying to get Lauren to contact Jacob.  Getting one final jab in, Haylee lowered her voice to deliver the finishing blow, “So can the person buying cigarettes from terrorists maybe quit lecturing me on what a criminal Jacob is?!?!”

Becky and Steve finally took their own advice and relented, knowing the argument would continue to go in unhelpful circles if it persisted.  They allowed awkward silence to again fill the car, a silence that was nonetheless a sweet relief from the shouting.  Neither Becky nor Haylee needed an excuse to smoke another cigarette, but reaching into their respective purses for another one was nonetheless the only thing they could agree on in their heightened state of agitation.  Both mother and daughter’s lighters fired up another cigarette in the tobacco-drenched sedan, marking the last audible sound heard in the car for quite a few miles to come.  It was gonna be a very long drive home for this trio of travelers.

————————————–

“There they are,” Trevor announced as he pulled up to the Discount Smoke Shop in Marshall, Missouri, and noticed Wade’s truck parked in the lot.

Lauren pulled the drawstrings tight again on her lace-up white shorts, preparing to step out of the car for a stretch break and chat with Wade and Courtney for a bit as Trevor pulled the car into the lot behind their truck.

Both couples stepped out of their respective vehicles, with Trevor and Lauren stretching their road-weary muscles and making a point of eyeballing each other as they did, getting a little turned on at seeing the other flexing their bodies.

“How are you two lovebirds doing?” Courtney called out, hoping to get a rise out of Trevor while not coming across as awkward, still reeling a bit having heard Trevor and Lauren having sex in the family cabin a couple of months earlier.

“Doing good,” Lauren volunteered, pulling out a cigarette and lighting up.

“I’m guessing quite a bit better than Haylee’s doing stuck in the backseat with mom and dad,” Trevor said to change the subject, eliciting uncomfortable laughter from all.

Wade was eager to head inside to the tobacco store to make the second purchase, with Courtney having already bought her own Marlboro Light Menthol 100s when they got there.  Wade looked to Lauren and inquired for clarification, “Marlboro Lights 100s…nonmenthol?  Right?”

“Yup!” Lauren responded with a youthful flair, the residual smoke spraying from her mouth and nose in a way that brought a smile to Wade’s face, reminding him of the hundreds of times a day when Courtney sported the same look.

As Wade walked toward the tobacco shop’s entryway, Lauren gave Courtney a gleeful and approving smile, verbally conveying her approval as she said, “I’m sooo happy for you Courtney!  He seems like such a great guy!” before pulling her cigarette to her lips for a satisfied drag as if briefly fantasizing about having her own way with him.

“Thanks Lauren.  He really is,” pausing contemplatively while dragging from her cigarette before adding, “….I’ve been looking for a long time but I think I finally found Mr. Right.”

“Well you deserve it, Courtney.  I bet it’s less scary to start college in a couple of weeks when you have his shoulder to rest on at the end of the day,” Lauren responded, impressing both Courtney and Trevor with her eloquent insight.

Courtney nodded and added, “It’ll certainly help,” unable to completely hide her butterflies about starting college in 10 days.

As he so often did, Trevor just hung back and quietly took in this rare conversation between his girlfriend and his older sister as they commiserated mostly about the pending transition from the dog days of summer to the beginning of the school year, with Lauren about to start her junior year of high school and Courtney going to college.  While Lauren’s connection had become more natural and persistent with Haylee, Trevor was glad to see her finding common ground with Courtney as well, with both girls casually dragging from their respective cigarettes as they continued to converse.  Trevor was enjoying the stretch break generally, but found himself hoping Wade’s departure from the tobacco store would be delayed so he could watch Lauren and Courtney connect even longer, their smoky exhales intersecting between them as they spoke, perfectly commemorating the fusing of these worlds.

Moments later, Wade came out with three plastic bags filled with cigarette cartons, handing them to Lauren who proceeded to put her two-thirds-smoked Marlboro Light 100 to her lips to take hold of plastic bags in each hand.  Trevor popped open the trunk of his car for Lauren who looked up to Wade to thank him mid-dangle, Haylee-style.  Lauren added with a touch of nervous apprehension, “My parents are taking care of paying you back….” cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips as she spoke, “…..you know that right?” hoping Wade didn’t think he’d be reimbursed by her right now.

“Oh I know,” Wade responded, adding  “Mrs. McPherson spelled out all of those details this morning.”  Laughter ensued as they all recalled Becky’s lectures about withdrawing cash from ATM machines rather than buying the discount cigarettes on credit card and then transporting them out of state.

As Lauren lifted her three bags of cigarettes to put them in Trevor’s trunk, she took a triple-pump finishing drag from the cigarette still dangling from her mouth, her inadvertent audience all quietly impressed by the aggressive stunt as an explosion of smoke surrounded her face as her lungs expelled all of that smoke.  Lauren pulled the spent cigarette from her lips and flicked it into the parking lot as she closed the trunk, unable to stop a fierce smoker’s cough that bellowed from deep within her lungs and momentarily rattled the others.

“Whoa girl!” Courtney responded with a nervous laugh, attempting to downplay her genuine concern over what she heard.  “Probably time to cut back on those cigarettes a little!”

Lauren nodded with a shared moment of serious contemplation before succinctly responding, “I know.”

The two couples chatted for a couple more minutes before preparing to part ways.  Courtney smiled appreciatively at Lauren as she watched her climb back into Trevor’s passenger seat, their bonding moment helping to remind Courtney that overhearing Lauren’s intimate moment with her brother helped motivate her to get back into dating life.  She then looked to Wade as he started his truck and her gratitude accelerated for the timing of that epiphany that Trevor and Lauren helped inspire.

Driving north out of Marshall, Lauren quickly spaced out her casual vow to “cut back on the smokes” to Courtney as she plucked another Marlboro Light 100 out of her pack.  Trevor smiled and leaned over to light it for her, then pointed up to the highway sign showing it was 45 miles to Carroll Springs.

“Carroll Springs,” Trevor directed Lauren’s attention.  “That’s the town where they have that GREAT restaurant I was telling you about.”  He paused with a smirk and added, “Hope you’re hungry.”

A bemused smirk re-emerged on Lauren’s face in response as she replied, “Forty-five miles from now I will definitely be starving!” eager to get the resolution on what was so special about this restaurant and having no idea what the surprise might be.

————————————————

Nearly an hour later, Trevor drove past the city limits sign that read “Carroll Springs, Population 1,368”, taking in the downscale rural atmosphere of the residential streets of this most typical-looking northern Missouri town.  Trevor seemed to know where he was going as he made a couple of turns to the town’s main street, eventually pulling into a parking stall in front of a dingy downtown storefront with a sign reading “Main Street Diner”.  Trevor smirked at Lauren as he turned to her and simply asked, “Ready?” looking at his car’s digital clock reading 1:47 and adding, “I know I’m starving.”

A confused Lauren dragged from her cigarette as she studied the unassuming storefront profile and asked, “This is it?” with an exaggeratedly skeptical tone.

“Oh you’ll like it,” Trevor reassured with a mischievous smirk, opening his car door and stepping outside, adding, “This place is known all over the area for its excellent food.”

Lauren smirked back, a little nervous about Trevor’s odd fascination with luring her to this clunky-looking diner, taking a final drag from her cigarette as she opened her passenger side car door and then flicked the spent butt to the curb and followed Trevor to the front entryway.

The teenage couple stepped inside to see the final throes of a diminishing lunch crowd of locals and a very homespun diner environment the likes of which neither of them had really experienced outside of a couple small towns near their families’ northern Minnesota cabins.  Lauren began to migrate to the booths in front of her, but Trevor tugged gently on her arm, his smirk splashed across his face wider than ever as he made his alternative suggestion.  “Why don’t we sit over here?” he suggested, pausing for dramatic effect before adding, “….in the smoking section.”

Trevor wished he had his camera recording as he took in Lauren’s startled response as she mouthed back, “The smoking section?” with genuine surprise.  Trevor found an open booth to his left and sat down, maintaining his smirk as he pointed to the ashtray on the table to confirm to Lauren that he wasn’t messing with her.

Lauren shook her head as she looked at the ashtray, vocalizing her elated energy.  “I didn’t know there were any restaurants anywhere that still allowed smoking!” briefly recollecting memories and adding, “I remember when I was like six I sat in a smoking section with my parents but that was like forever ago!  What kind of place have you taken me to, Trevor McPherson?!”

Trevor grinned smugly, taking a figurative victory lap for pulling off the pleasant surprise, adding, “I did a little digging before we left and found out Missouri doesn’t have any statewide laws against smoking in public places.  Not every restaurant in every town allows it, but I sent a couple of emails last week to make sure I could find one that does allow it.”

Lauren shook her head playfully, adding “You’re crazy, you know that!!!”

“Of course I know that.  You wouldn’t want me other way,” he responded, eliciting a childlike giggle from Lauren.  Trevor then reached for the pack of Marlboro Lights 100s poking out of her purse, plucked it out, and set it on the table, asking “So since we’re here…can I interest you in a cigarette, m’lady?”

Lauren’s uncontrollable giggling streak continued, finally getting her bearings and responding, “Don’t mind if I do!” removing a cigarette from the pack and dangling it from her lips as Trevor reached across the table with her lighter and fired her up.  For the first time in her life, Lauren was enjoying a cigarette in the smoking section of a restaurant, resting her elbow on the table and holding the cigarette near her face in one of Trevor’s favorite poses.  He had no idea what the food would be like at this greasy spoon, but even if it was nasty, he knew he’d still made the right choice as he stared lovingly at Lauren as she took her second drag, her exhale clouding up the uncirculated air above their booth.

Their moment was interrupted by the middle-aged waitress approaching their booth with menus.  In a husky but perky voice set on autopilot, the waitress announced her presence in a slight twang with “And how are you two doing today?” before setting the menus down in front of the young couple, a bit startled to see the clearly underage Lauren holding a cigarette.

The waitress regained her composure quickly as Trevor responded with an abrupt “good” while Lauren delivered a more emphatic, “Really good!  Isn’t it a beautiful day?”  The waitress smiled at Lauren’s sweet and perky demeanor as she asked them if they wanted something to drink.  Writing down their beverage orders and informing them she’d be back in a few minutes to take their food orders, she kept her eyes trained on Lauren as she took a drag from her cigarette, the teenager’s natural poise assuring her that this girl was no novice at this habit.

In the next few minutes, the couple looked over the menus filled with typical small-town diner offerings. Lauren dragged repeatedly from her cigarette while studying the potential selections until she realized she had already burned through her first cigarette, crushing it out in the ashtray in front of her.  She waited no more than a minute before reaching for her next, eliciting a light from Trevor at the exact moment their waitress returned to take their orders.

“Have you decided yet hun?” the waitress asked Lauren, still intrigued by the dynamics of this wholesome-looking teen couple whose female participant was so shamelessly smoking.

“I think so!” Lauren responded, looking up to the waitress and confirming, “I think I’d like the hot beef sandwich, please” through a cloudy talking exhale.

Trevor cringed a bit from across the table, not at all liking the sound of her selection and mentally checking that he was gonna go with a safer selection for himself, ultimately responding “Bacon cheeseburger and fries for me,” when the waitress turned to him.

“Alright, we’ll get that out to you guys in about 15 minutes,” she replied with a smile, turning away to leave the young couple to their smoke-filled booth once again.

Trevor and Lauren bantered about vacation memories from the past few days as they waited for their food to arrive, with Lauren casually smoking her cigarette as they spoke and at least a trickle of smoke escaping from her mouth and nose with every breath she took.  Her second cigarette was crushed out in the ashtray and before the meal arrived, a third was lit, inadvertently pushing the tolerance threshold for smoke in this smoker-friendly venue.

In moments, the waitress arrived with their plates of food, setting Trevor’s bacon cheeseburger and fries in front of him followed by Lauren’s hot beef sandwich in front of her.  Trevor wrinkled his nose again upon officially seeing Lauren’s entree, a mash of potatoes, beef with gravy, and soggy bread that looked absolutely disgusting to him, but which brought a hungry smile to Lauren’s face as they both thanked the waitress.

Trevor took a bite from his burger and decided the diner he sought out from two states away made a pretty good bacon cheeseburger.  Lauren, meanwhile, was ravenously shoveling in spoons full of her own sandwich, her smoldering half-smoked cigarette resting in the ashtray next to her.  It was a strangely enticing image for Trevor to behold, although he hoped by the time they kissed later on that her tobacco breath would overpower whatever residual taste was left from the hot beef monstrosity in front of her.  He allowed a broad smile to splash across his face as he looked adoringly at Lauren.

Lauren, picking up her cigarette for a drag in between bites of food, made eye contact with him, smirking back and playfully responding, “Why are you grinning at me?” as she simultaneously swallowed her food and exhaled her cigarette smoke.

“The small-town Missouri diner culture suits you,” he responded, beholding her enjoyment of both the food and the smoking permissiveness, as well as her general girl-next-door image that seemed to fit right in at the establishment.

After a startlingly husky laugh, Lauren replied, “Thanks.  I agree,” before returning to her food.

The couple finished their lunch and their waitress returned, asking if they had room for dessert to which Lauren patted her mostly full belly but then looked to Trevor and asked, “Should we split a piece of pie?”

Trevor wasn’t necessarily craving pie but shrugged in agreement, welcoming the idea of sticking around a bit longer and asking  “What kind?”

Lauren meekly cowered as if asking permission when she responded, “Apple?” knowing that Trevor preferred cream pies.

Trevor shrugged with passive indifference once again, agreeing to the terms and responding, “Why not?”

“Slice of apple pie coming right up,” the waitress responded, thoroughly enjoying the positive energy of this teenage couple, peeking again at the ashtray with three of Lauren’s cigarette butts in it and feeling even more intrigued due to the contradicting images.  At nearly 2:30, the diner was entirely empty by now save for Lauren and Trevor, so the waitress returned with their pie very quickly, not surprised to see Lauren smoking yet another cigarette when she got there.

“Here you are, loves,” she offered, setting the plate with the slice of apple pie between them and getting thanked graciously by Trevor and Lauren as they dug in.  The waitress smiled and surveyed them, her curiosity getting the better of her as she gave the couple a vaguely scolding look and inquired, “Shouldn’t you two be in school right now?”

Lauren shook her head no, stalling for a second to swallow her pie and then responding, “No we’re from out of state.  Just passing through on our way home.  School hasn’t started yet where we live.”

“Oh,” the waitress responded disarmingly, “Where are you from?”

“Minnesota,” Trevor replied, looking up to the waitress’ name tag and seeing her name was Joyce.  “Spent a few days at Lake of the Ozarks.”

“Well that must have been fun,” Joyce said.  “So when do y’all start school up there?”

“The day after Labor Day,” Lauren responded, picking up her cigarette for a drag in between bites of pie, looking a bit surprised that that wasn’t the time schools reopened everywhere.

“Oh gracious,” Joyce replied.  “They started school already last week here.”

Wide-eyed surprise filled Lauren’s face and Trevor seemed surprised too as Lauren said through a talking exhale, “That’s crazy!  I would hate to be stuck in school in summer weather this nice.”

Joyce smiled at the continued mismatch of contradictions coming from Lauren and decided to prolong the encounter, asking, “Hey do you mind if I sit down and have a smoke with ya?  Things have finally slowed down around here.”

“No we don’t mind at all,” Lauren spoke for both of them with an inviting energy.

Trevor was a little more conflicted, hoping to enjoy this moment with Lauren but also intrigued with Joyce’s interest in them and finally giving her a thorough inspection as she sat down next to Lauren, pulling her pack of generic Exeter cigarettes from her apron and lighting one up.  She sighed as if this smoke break was long overdue, and her face matched the strain and exhaustion of her tone.  Trevor figured she was in her early 50s and had probably lived a tough life working on her feet since high school, her demeanor and long-time heavy smoker’s look vaguely resembling that of his own hard-working mother.  An intense smoker’s cough immediately followed Joyce’s light-up that reinforced Trevor’s comparison to his mother.

After a couple of relaxing drags from the cork-filter cigarette, Joyce continued the conversation.  “So how old are you two?”

Lauren again got the jump on the response, firing back with “We’re both 16…” pausing a second before adding, “Well for a couple more days anyway.  Trevor’s got a birthday coming up on Friday!”

Joyce smiled, flashing her yellow-stained teeth briefly at Trevor and offering, “Happy birthday.  Seventeen huh?  Any big plans?”

Before Trevor could answer, Lauren gleefully interjected, “Oh I have some plans for this birthday boy!” pausing to drag from her cigarette and then directing a question to Trevor through a talking exhale.  “You cleared your schedule for Friday right?”

Trevor nodded affirmatively and Lauren continued, “That’s good because I’ve made big plans,” her pitch getting higher as it often did when she was being playful, although struggling to reach the high pitch she did a year earlier, likely a result of her voice changing from the much heavier smoking.

“Oh you two are so cute,” Joyce said, introducing herself formally and conversing with the young couple as they finished their pie.  In moments, Joyce was reaching into her Exeter pack for a follow-up cigarette, triggering Lauren to reach for her own Marlboro Lights 100s pack for another, popping open the box to see that it was empty and then casually crushing the box with her left hand while chatting and dropping it into the ashtray.

“Would you like one of mine?” Joyce offered upon seeing Lauren’s pack was empty.

“No that’s okay.  I got more,” Lauren responded, her hand already in her purse pulling out a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights 100s that she was soon packing against her wrist while continuing to make casual conversation about her family.  Trevor listened to Lauren talk Joyce’s ear off, musing that he saw Lauren open a pack before they left the hotel that morning, making this the second fresh pack she was already opening today and it was only mid-afternoon.  Briefly lost in the daydream, Trevor was quickly brought back to full consciousness as Lauren plucked out her first cigarette from the fresh pack, reflexively handing him her lighter.

Trevor silently cheered as he watched Joyce’s eyes follow the scene, the unlit cigarette bouncing up and down between Lauren’s lips as Trevor reached across the table to light it for her.  Lauren paused from talking as she took a deep drag off the dangle, her exhale pumping out far more smoke into the airspace of the booth than what Joyce’s airy generic brand was capable of.

Joyce looked to Trevor during the break in conversation, smirking as she commented, “She’s got you pretty whipped, huh?”

Trevor appeared to grudgingly concede, nodding as if slightly annoyed as he responded, “You could say that.”

Joyce laughed, then pressed further.  “You don’t smoke?”

Trevor shook his head no, at which point Joyce pointed to Lauren’s messy ashtray and rhetorically added, “You mean she smokes like this and you don’t smoke at all?  You two are quite a pair aren’t you?” and following it up with a deeply husky laugh that both Trevor and Lauren saw as a bit of a foreshadowing of what Lauren’s laugh would likely become in another 30 years.

The conversation continued for another 20 minutes, with Joyce showing Trevor and Lauren photos of her three young grandchildren and talking more about the life she had made in Carroll Springs, burning through two more cigarettes with Lauren who showed Joyce some vacation pics and family pics of her own.  Lauren went so far as adding Joyce as a Facebook friend and vowed to stop back if they ever came down that way again, with Trevor getting fewer words in but still enjoying the experience.  The lunch was fine, but the diner experience was everything he dreamed of and more.  They were behind schedule after spending more than an hour here but it was easily worth it.  As far as Trevor was concerned, he’d already gotten his birthday gift this year.

As they climbed out of the booth, Joyce hugged Lauren as if she was a long-lost niece when they bid each other farewell, the latest example to Trevor of how quickly Lauren was capable of making friends with adults of their parents’ vintage.  Joyce pulled in to hug Trevor as well, reaffirming her desire for them to stop by again if they ever returned to town.  “Have a great birthday.  Don’t let this little lady get you into too much trouble,” Joyce advised Trevor with a wink.

Lauren giggled as Joyce looked her way one last time en route to the exit.  “Don’t let this one slip away, darlin’,” were Joyce’s parting words to Lauren in reference to Trevor before final farewells.

Trevor held the door open for Lauren, who walked out into the fresh air and cut loose another fierce smoker’s cough comparable to what Trevor heard from her outside the tobacco store, unsurprising to Trevor after seven cigarettes in an hour at the diner but still a little startling as Lauren’s cough was starting to match his sisters and mother.  Trevor was progressing toward his car parked in the street but soon felt a presence approaching from behind before he got to the car door.  He began to turn around to investigate but before he fully made the pivot, Lauren swooped in, using her body to pin him to the car and aggressively approaching his mouth for a passionate kiss.

Trevor was happy to be on the receiving end of this unexpected burst of passion from Lauren on this nearly empty small-town street, feeling the front of her body squeeze into him with his back pressed firmly into the car door.  He peeked down to see her cleavage poking out of the sparkly silver tanktop, peeking further down to see her hips in those white shorts digging into his lower body.  He was pleased that her breath tasted like an afternoon of cigarettes with no trace of the unappealing meal she finished eating not long earlier.

Lauren finally pulled her lips from Trevor’s after about a minute of heavy making out, her smoky breath still fresh in Trevor’s grill when Trevor asked, “What got into you?”

Still breathing heavily, Lauren responded, “I just think you’re a really hot guy and wanted to show my appreciation for lunch!” she continued before proceeding to suck on Trevor’s chin with a few repeated strokes of her lips.

“You’re really liking that stubble aren’t you?” Trevor responded, reminded of Lauren’s favorable comment about his accelerating facial hair growth earlier.

“It’s a nice change,” Lauren responded through continued heavy breathing.  “Do me a favor and don’t shave before Friday….for your big birthday surprise.”

“About that…” Trevor replied, hoping to charm some details out of Lauren, but quickly realizing she had other priorities as she reached into his shorts pocket and pulled out his car keys.

Lauren pulled her body off of Trevor’s and playfully teased, “You’ll just have to wait till Friday and find out….but you’re gonna like it” shaking Trevor’s car keys in front of his face and then heading to the driver’s seat, ready to let Trevor ride shotgun for awhile.  Trevor slipped into the passenger seat as Lauren started the car up, placing a cigarette between her lips and letting Trevor light it for her before she aggressively exhaled into his face.  He could tell by the look in her eyes that they’d be making a detour in the first empty parking lot or vacant wayside rest.  As he peeked down at the snug bowstring holding Lauren’s white shorts together as she pulled away, he was confident he’d have better luck getting them completely off on his next attempt than he was the last.

————————————

————————————

Two days later, Trevor was driving up to Lauren’s place in Maple Grove as instructed on the morning of his 17th birthday.  He had packed in a full day worth of work for his neighborhood lawn mowing service the previous day so he could clear his schedule for Lauren’s birthday surprise.  As he pulled onto the block of the Nelsons’ home, he looked at the digital clock on his car reading 10:30, right on schedule as he approached the house and saw Lauren’s eyes peeking out of the gate in the yard that surrounded the pool which she so often did when she knew Trevor was on the way.

Trevor stopped his car in front of her house and immediately got a text message from Lauren.  He smiled knowing she was setting him up for something, opening up the text that read, “Look in the mailbox for your birthday gift!!!”

Trevor got out of the car and walked to the mailbox, opening it up and seeing two tickets to the Minnesota State Fair, which ran the last 11 days of summer up to Labor Day.  Trevor had only a couple of seconds to look over the two tickets before the sound of the gate on the pool fence opening drew his attention behind him.  He turned around to find the extra ingredient of his birthday gift, watching Lauren approach him dressed in the same outfit that drove him crazy at the county fair the previous month.  Her hair was once again braided into schoolgirl pigtails that hung onto her bare shoulders, with the same bare-midriffed white lacy tube top and the same buttery-smooth black leather shorts below the waist, this time accompanied with a chain along the waistline that made it look even more badass.

Trevor beamed with delight as Lauren approached him, cigarette in hand, taking an intense drag with a shit-eating smirk on her face.  He wasn’t surprised that Lauren decided to take him to the Minnesota State Fair on his birthday as they were both big fans of the state fair, but her memory for detail and sentimental associations for impactful moments in their relationship really validated how perfect she was for him, and her willingness to recreate this iconic image as a birthday gift hit him right where he lived.

Lauren walked up to Trevor and kissed him on the lips with breath that tasted like it had already consumed a half pack of cigarettes since she woke up.  Pulling her lips away from his for a second, Lauren muttered, “Happy birthday baby,” then kissed him again and added, “I figured I owed you a do-over after things went south at the county fair last month,” as she rubbed her hand on his maroon T-shirt and then lowered it to the waist of his tan cargo shorts.

Trevor showed his appreciation without words as he wrapped his arms and hands around her body and savored her tobacco-drenched aroma, continuing to kiss her.  Lauren again rubbed her chin against Trevor’s, becoming excited as she added, “Your scruff feels amazing.  Thanks for not shaving!” before plunging in for a little more of his rookie stubble on her face.

When they pulled apart, Trevor put his hands on her pigtails, remembering that Haylee and Lacey braided them for her last time and asked her, “Did Haylee come over to braid these for you?”

“Nope,” Lauren responded.  “My mom did it for me before she left for work,” pausing before adding with fluttering eyelashes, “And she’s going out to a movie with my dad and brother tonight so I’ll be able to give you your other present when we get home!”

Trevor was elated at the sound of it, letting Lauren lead him by the hand into the house to pick up her stuff and lock the place up before they left for the state fair, a trail of her exhaled smoke flowing into his face as he followed her inside.  Stepping indoors, he was again struck how the Nelsons’ house at this point smelled just as intensely of tobacco as his parents’ place, which was no small thing for a home where just a year earlier, Lauren and her parents both typically went outside every time they wanted a cigarette to spare younger brother Brian.

Lauren’s open pack of Marlboro Lights 100s sat on the countertop in the kitchen.  She placed her two-thirds-smoked cigarette in her mouth and dangled it as she picked up the pack, looking outrageously badass to Trevor in her tube top and leather shorts as she took inventory of the open pack to find a half dozen cigarettes left in it.  She stuffed the pack into the back pocket of her leather shorts and then walked to the refrigerator, dangle-dragging as she opened the fridge and took out two additional packs of Marlboro Lights 100s.  She made frisky eye contact with Trevor, cigarette stub still dangling from her lips as she theatrically opened her purse and dropped each unopened pack inside individually, all for Trevor’s benefit, and then saying in a tone just as frisky as her body language, “NOW I’m ready to spend the day at the Minnesota State Fair.  How about you?”  She took a double-pump final drag from the cigarette before finally removing it from her lips and crushing it out in the nearby ash can on the counter, letting out a minor smoker’s cough.

Trevor shrugged approvingly, asking “your car or mine?” to let his readiness be known.

“Oh let’s take mine,” Lauren said.  “The birthday boy shouldn’t have to deal with fair traffic!”

In moments, Trevor was in the passenger seat of Lauren’s car, his girlfriend behind the wheel en route to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on the north side of St. Paul.  She was in a particularly perky mood, her stereo blasting with a preset chain of pop and country-pop songs, mostly breezy summer party songs, with Lauren singing along and swerving her shoulders and hips to the music as she drove, and all with a steady chain of cigarettes between her fingers on the steering wheel.

“Sing along, Trevor!” Lauren playfully instructed as she looked over to see Trevor stiffly sitting in his seat watching her with a smile as the car stereo blasted one overproduced pop trifle after another.  Just as Trevor never felt at home on the dance floor, it didn’t come naturally for him to sing and swing in the car, but he played along a bit for Lauren’s benefit, moving his shoulders exaggeratedly and eliciting the intended giggles from Lauren, residual smoke constantly spilling from her mouth and nose.

Over the course of the 25-minute drive, the soundtrack bounced from Demi Lovato to Carrie Underwood to Katy Perry to Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift to Jason Derulo, with Lauren singing and shimmying around to each of them with the energy typical of a teenage girl in a really good mood, and it was as infectious to Trevor’s eyes as the music was to Lauren’s ears.  And it was even more intoxicating for Trevor to see in the accompaniment of her endless smoking, ashing her multiple cigarettes into what was now two cup holders in the console filled with ash cans, both overflowing with all-white cigarette butts.  The ashtrays told a story of a summer as loose and carefree as her body language was right now in response to the music.

After a block-long traffic bottleneck leading to the fairgrounds parking lot, Lauren paid the parking lot attendant her parking fee with cigarette in hand and then proceeded into the lot, following the multiple fair workers pointing her in the direction of where to park.  Ultimately settling on a spot, the excitement in her eyes was more tangible than ever as she prepared to walk to the fair gate, looking at Trevor and rhetorically asking, “Ready?”

But before Trevor could answer, the melancholy opening notes of a song from her stereo led Lauren to request a brief delay.  “Oh wait.  I love this song!” she exclaimed, looking to Trevor intensely as if he should listen along.  As the tempo started to pick up, Trevor recognized it as the country-pop song “Sunny and 75”, and quickly realized Lauren was having a much more visceral response to this song than those that preceded it.  Rather than moving to the beat, she dug into her seat softly swooning, hanging intently on the smooth baritone of the vocalist and listening closely to the midtempo lyrics relaying love and beautiful summer weather.   She approached the cigarette to her lips, drawing in a giant snootful of smoke while swaying her head, ultimately closing her eyes with a slow trickle of smoke spilling lazily from her nose.

Trevor was moved by Lauren’s extremely emotional response to the song as it continued to play out.  He’d seen her like this before, but never quite so entranced, and as the song soared to its closing instrumental crescendo, Trevor was really taken aback to see a tear welling up in Lauren’s eye and beginning to trickle down her cheek.  She took one final drag as the song reached its final note, before opening her watery eyes and seeing Trevor looking at her lovingly.  “I really love that song,” Lauren confessed with an understated passion that matched her nonverbal response when the song was playing.

“You’re crying,” Trevor said as nonjudgmentally as possible while raising his hand to her cheek to wipe away the tear.

Lauren nodded that she was and then added with a vocal flourish, “You know I’m an emotional girrrl!”

“You’re crying from “Sunny and 75″?!” Trevor added with a hint of good-natured ridicule that he hoped Lauren would be cool with.  “I don’t know if I can walk around the fair with you after this sorry spectacle!”

Lauren quickly transitioned from tears to a giggle as she playfully batted him on the arm and said, “Oh shut up!!”  She paused for a second while they both laughed a bit more, and then got serious again as she added, “The words just really hit me as I thought about what a great summer we had together and that we’ll always remember it.  And then I got sad thinking about how Haylee and Jacob’s summer blew up on them….” pausing again and then adding, “…if you’re gonna be in a relationship with me, buddy, you better expect some waterworks.”

Trevor smiled, genuinely appreciating Lauren’s sensitivity and letting it be known as he responded, “No, I totally get it.  I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette, leaned over and kissed Trevor on the cheek as she crushed out the cigarette in the ash can, and then decided it was time to make even more summer memories.  As they got out of the car and made the walk through the parking lot to the ticket gate, Trevor and Lauren both internalized the “Sunny and 75” lyrics as they beheld the perfect late summer weather they walked into, with blue skies as far as the eye could see and low humidity.  Everything was in place for a perfect birthday at the fair as they clasped their hands together and proceeded, with Lauren pulling down on those tight leather shorts that were already giving her a wedgie before they even got inside the gate.

——————————–

Haylee sat on the couch alone in her parents’ living room, still wearing her pink pajamas with her light brown hair an unkempt rat’s nest even as noon approached.  She stared at the TV, the vacant look on her face somewhere between indifference and depression as she extracted another Camel Pink No. 9 from its pack and lit up.  Smoke belched out of her mouth and nose as she dragged off of the light-up, letting it hang from her lips as always but with just a little more pout than usual.

The bustle of footsteps from upstairs diverted Haylee’s attention briefly.  Either Courtney was running late for work or she had plans for the day that didn’t include work, Haylee thought to herself, and was curious which it was as another burst of smoke escaped her face.  Seconds later, Courtney descended the steps wearing a bare-midriff black leather top and skin-tight pale blue jeans, freshly lit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 in hand as she frantically looked around for her purse.

Haylee’s curiosity got the better of her and when Courtney wandered into the living room within earshot, Haylee asked through a talking dangle, “You late for work?”

Courtney didn’t respond immediately, placing her own cigarette in her mouth while keeping her mind laser-focused on finding her purse, finally looking up to Haylee and responding, “No, I’m hanging out with Wade today.  We’re having a picnic lunch and then going to a Twins game.”

Haylee retreated deeper into the couch cushion, sorry she asked only to find out her sister had romantic plans with her lover just as Trevor did.

“Damn, have you seen my purse?” Courtney asked, continuing her dangle.

“I think maybe I saw it in the bathroom,” Haylee replied without trying to hide the melancholy in her voice, hoping her cry for help would be heard without having to actually make it.

Courtney proceeded into the bathroom on the ground floor and found her purse sitting near the sink just as Haylee predicted.  She took a look at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, admiring the mix and match of colors and curves from her long blond hair, her tanned shoulders and midriff, with the tight jeans and the black leather top.  She was thrilled that the peak humid