Breanna Tries On A New Hat


Breanna Dirks sat confidently at the head of the board room of her father’s company, Dirks Financial, a large and freshly lit Maduro cigar clenched between her jaws as she surveyed a dozen of her employees from the collections department seated in front of her, apprehension in their eyes as they awaited their mercurial boss’s latest moment of judgment. Breanna tussled her long dark brown hair and drifted her eyes from one employee to the next as she usually did at these quarterly department meetings, getting off at her ability to project maximal intimidation with a moment of uncomfortable eye contact and a puff of thick cigar smoke. She may have been working through her own long-standing insecurities, but she wanted to make sure nobody in the room knew that but her, and judging by their darting eyes and sweaty palms, she was pretty sure she had everybody fooled.

Breanna then turned her eyes to admire the spoils of her most impressive project done in the name of Dirks Financial, watching as 12-year-old Hannah Sampson encircled the boardroom desk passing out sales report printouts and looking exactly like a miniature Breanna down to the long dark brown hair, the short black leather skirt, and the bulbous cigar projecting from her mouth. Hannah was on her brief mid-October fall break from sixth grade and Breanna invited her to spend today and tomorrow in the office as she had every day the previous summer. Not a day went by the previous summer where Breanna didn’t get off on her corruption of young Hannah, and watching her protege work the room like a natural right now was a great reminder of how much she’d missed it the last couple of months when Hannah’s been back in school.

Hannah strutted like a peacock as she handed out the printouts to the collections staff, making sure to produce an individual burst of cigar smoke for every employee to choke on as she slow-walked her way past them and really getting off on the power dynamic. She looked 50-something collections employee Keith Schultz directly in the eyes for a moment and walked right past him without handing him a sales report printout, just as Breanna had instructed, confusing Keith as she continued down the line handing everybody else printouts.

Hannah proceeded into the space of her own mother Alexis, who couldn’t conceal her frown of despair seeing what had been done to her recently innocent young daughter who was now dressed like a promiscuous coed with the filthy Churchillian cigar continuing to be a permanent fixture in her mouth. The sensation hit Alexis even deeper as the dominating smell of her sixth-grade daughter’s cigar smoke invaded her airspace.

Hannah completed her rounds and climbed into the assistant board chairperson seat right next to Breanna, their cigars remaining perched intimidatingly between the young ladies’ lips as they looked over their underlings. It had been a while since Hannah had this kind of audience for her performance art and the thrill of the previous summer rushed back into her heart. She maintained her cigar habit outside of school, much to her mother’s eternal chagrin, but nothing was as rewarding to her as spending her days in this office setting with Breanna where her cigar felt like such a natural extension of her body….a symbol of power that she quickly came to understand after working with Breanna even before it was directly spelled out to her.

Speaking through her cigar, Breanna called the meeting to order. “As you all read in the email, today is our quarterly meeting. Hannah has just handed out a spreadsheet documenting everyone’s performance numbers in the last three months. It’s been a strong quarter for Dirks Financial, for the most part,” she added, quickly darting her eyes toward Keith, the one department employee who didn’t get a report printout. “Now it’s time to address these numbers person by person and get an update on where you see things going for the coming quarter.”

Breanna stood up out of her chair, as expected, and began slow-walking around the desk, prowling the room and building up suspense about who was gonna be singled out first. Breanna’s inaugural prowl came to an end at the chair of Stephanie Eaton, and Breanna leaned against the edge of the desk next to Stephanie’s chair, her physical dominance and her dripping sexuality on full display as she lurked awkwardly above her.

“Stephanie Eaton,” Breanna opened, speaking through her cigar and making sure a giant cloud of it enveloped Stephanie’s personal space as she spoke to her. After a couple moments of awkward anticipation, Breanna continued. “Excellent job all around, but especially with the Freddy’s Steakburgers account. They’ve been on a rocket ship lately and we’ve been riding it out with them thanks to your steady hand. I couldn’t be more pleased with your performance. Keep up the good work.”

“Thank you,” Stephanie responded sheepishly through the haze of Breanna’s cigar smoke hovering in front of her face, grateful for the favorable performance review but disgusted in every way possible by the dehumanizing approach. “Revenues look to continue being brisk in the quarter ahead, with Freddy’s Steakburgers and several of my other accounts. We’re in a good place right now,” she added, turning away in a futile attempt to spare herself from the overwhelming imposition of cigar smoke in her space that kept getting reinforced with every breath Breanna took from such close proximity.

Breanna smirked and then congratulated Stephanie again before standing up to repeat the routine, encircling the room and then invading the space of her staff, males and females alike, with mostly complementary reviews after such a strong quarter. One after another, she leaned her ass against the desk in front of them, showcasing her smooth bare legs, black leather miniskirt, and cleavage-bearing red blouse and then browbeat them with stilted praise while forcing them to choke on her cigar smoke at close range. Breanna knew that the staff detested her and her approach, but the power trip made it worth every second, and given that the department’s revenues were soaring since she took over, bringing staff salaries into the stratosphere with them, she was confident she could get away with whatever tactics she wanted and retain her staff, however grudgingly.

Breanna gave her up-close and personal performance review to nearly all of the employees but saved Alexis Sampson, Hannah’s mother, until nearly the end. She leaned against the table, removed the cigar from her mouth and exhaled directly into Alexis’s face as she tapped the long grey ash hanging onto the end of her cigar into the ashtray teeming with cigar butts in the center of the board room table.

As Alexis winced at Breanna’s cigar smoke flowing into her face, she couldn’t help but look shamefully in the direction of her daughter Hannah, mortified that Hannah was not only witnessing her mother being disrespected this way but that Breanna’s toxic example was being internalized as the new normal. Breanna had become her daughter’s role model and best friend since last spring, and Alexis gradually felt the shift at home of losing her daughter’s respect and any semblance of being an authority figure for her. Just as Breanna allowed Hannah to run roughshod over her mother’s example in the office, that dynamic ultimately took over at home, most notably with her daughter’s chronic cigar habit but also with the general power dynamic in the home.

But Alexis had to continually remind herself that much as she hated Breanna for everything she’d done to her and her daughter, their household income was poised to double this year. Not only was Breanna’s presence extremely lucrative to Dirks Financial’s collections department, but Hannah was getting lavished with money from Breanna personally. At least for the time being, Alexis justified her continued presence here as a means to a financial end, confident that once she put enough money away, she could make a clean break from this poisonous environment, ideally before it was too late to save her daughter from this monster’s lair. But as she made eye contact with Hannah once again while awaiting Breanna’s review, her ability to save her daughter quickly enough was in question, observing Hannah watch Breanna’s every move with doe-eyed schoolgirl adoration as puffs of smoke continued to burst out of her mouth on both sides of the large half-smoked cigar clutched between her jaws.

“I know we’ve had our differences in the past, Alexis….” Breanna opened, redirecting Alexis’s attention her way. “….but there isn’t one bad thing I could possibly say about your performance this quarter.” Checking out Alexis’s numbers on the spreadsheet, Breanna continued. “You have a lot of great stuff going on here but I’m most pleased with the way you got Carol’s Cosmetics back on track. They were a frequent delinquent a couple of years ago but you pulled them back from the ledge. Revenues are up 32% year-to-year from their account. Very good job, Alexis.”

Alexis gave Breanna a mousy and intimidated smile, ostensibly pleased at the favorable review but still mortified about the example she was setting for herself and her daughter, catching another blast of Breanna’s cigar smoke in her face. “Glad to have been able to step up my game around here,” she offered, adding “Pretty sure Carol’s Cosmetics is fully on track now.”

Breanna smiled and stood up, walking in Hannah’s direction and putting her hand on Hannah’s head. “I’ll just bet this girl right here helped you find your inspiration,” Breanna responded to Alexis, affectionately stroking the cigar-chomping sixth-grader’s hair and knowing Alexis was reflexively gritting her teeth at the sight of it.

Alexis gave a reluctant, Stepford wife smile and replied, “Absolutely true!”, failing to disclose that her performance was primarily inspired as a means of getting both of them away from Breanna at the first opportunity.

Breanna only had one performance review left, and she saved her best spectacle for last as she made eyes with Keith Schultz before walking his direction, surprising him by pulling his chair away from the table and sitting on his lap, her cigar only inches from his face pumping out disgusting smoke. She rubbed her hands on the chest of the mid-50s Keith’s sports jacket and then began speaking. “I see you didn’t get a copy of this quarter’s report, Keith,” she opened, guiding her hand toward the hemline of her leather miniskirt and continuing, “…..but I’ll let you have one if you dig for it.”

Keith squirmed in a combination of humiliation and fury, instinctively wanting to spit in this girl’s face and dump her forcefully out of his lap, but knowing that if he wanted to hang around Dirks Financial long enough to have the retirement he dreamed of in a few more years, he had to play along. With a mortified grimace on his face, Keith hiked his hand up Breanna’s skirt, his fingers progressing up her leg until he felt her moist panties, knowing his coworkers were observing this despicable performance feeling the deepest pity for him. He listened to Breanna’s gentle moans of pleasure as he progressed his fingers around her panty line, feeling her fluids on the tips of his fingers but not finding anything resembling a stack of papers.

Breanna smirked, a pleasured look on her face as she removed the cigar from her mouth, exhaled smoke into Keith’s face, and then whimsically interjected, “Oops…..you’re digging on the wrong end of the tunnel,” before guiding Keith’s other hand to the back of her skirt.

An unamused Keith began to unzip the leather skirt at Breanna’s rear waist, quickly discovering the sales report spreadsheet tucked into Breanna’s panties and jerking it out, hoping he’d give her a paper cut on her ass. Keith then looked at the numbers on the previously withheld spreadsheet, anticipating that the numbers weren’t good and quickly confirming it as he saw his numbers down double digits from the previous quarter, with a 40% decline from the Tompkins Consulting account.

“Not such a good report for you Keith,” Breanna scolded, still seated on his lap and now putting her arm around his shoulder to pull him closer and even more thoroughly engulf him in her cigar smoke. “What do you got to say for yourself?”

“The Tompkins Consulting numbers were what really drug me down…and you know what happened there,” Keith attempted to explain, gently reminding Breanna that after stories got out about her public humiliation of founder and CEO Craig Tompkins a year earlier, clients lost confidence in his stewardship and started bailing, leaving the company in a death spiral.

Breanna nodded in partial understanding, cigar smoke continuing to billow from her face and scatter about as her head nodded. “Well it’s partly your job to help restore confidence in his clients and keep the trains running on time but you make a reasonable point about Tompkins Consulting.” She paused to look again at the spreadsheet numbers and send another blast of cigar smoke gushing into Keith’s face. “But that’s not your only account lagging the rest of the office this quarter is it? And as I recall, you had disappointing numbers the previous quarter as well, Keith. What’s going on?”

Keith shook his head in frustration as if not fully understanding it himself, desperate to find the words that could make this emasculating scene come to an end. “I caught a few unlucky breaks….had some clients request to defer an extra month because of weaker-than-expected summer sales. I’d expect those numbers to roll in and perk up my numbers for the next quarter.” He shrugged, looking for the vaguest measure of understanding as he added, “Sometimes the deck is just stacked against you some quarters. You know how it goes….”

Breanna’s eyes perked up at the closing flourish of excuses. “It doesn’t go that way with me Keith. If the rest of the office was slumping this quarter the way you are, I might be willing to give you a pass but everybody else’s numbers are booming. It’s only you pulling up the rear, Keith,” she added, guiding his hand to pull up the zipper to refasten her leather skirt, then smirking at him to made sure he connected the dots of her crude metaphor. “You’re under a microscope Keith. Do better next time, okay?” she closed, another burst of cigar smoke exploding into his face as she prepared to climb off of his lap.

Keith gasped for fresh air after the haze of pollution began to drift away once Breanna dispersed from his airspace, and only then was he able to respond. “I’ll get on the phone with Tompkins Consulting this afternoon and start busting some chops,” a chastened Keith announced, feeling the pity of the room as his coworkers overlooked him, hoping that this groveling plea would be enough to pacify Breanna until he could right the ship.

“That sounds like a really good idea, Keith” Breanna replied condescendingly as she walked away, straightening her leather skirt and undoing the wedgie created by her “financial report tucked in her underwear” stunt. As Breanna emerged back at the chairperson seat in the front of the boardroom sitting next to Hannah, she proceeded to announce, “That’ll do it for this meeting. You’re all free to get back out there and keep doing what you’ve been doing,” darting her eyes to Keith and adding, “…or maybe a little more than what you’ve been doing. Let’s keep the momentum rolling, guys!”

The employees quickly rose to their feet to disperse from the boardroom that was hazy with smelly cigar smoke, and from the general dehumanizing vibe of the room, eager to return to the relative coziness of their cubicles where Breanna was more likely to leave them alone. Once the room was empty, Breanna looked to Hannah and they exchanged jubilant eyes, both of them getting off on the way Breanna shamelessly owned the room and the way both of them used their cigars as props to facilitate the culture of human ownership in this department.

Breanna was about to burst with sexual excitement and wanted to get back to the isolation of her office to pleasure herself thinking about, giving Hannah a chore to do to keep her distracted for a bit. “Hannah, would you mind gathering these reports and filing them away in the backroom?” she asked. “Just put them all in the file cabinet for the 2nd quarter, okay?”

“No problem, Breanna,” Hannah muttered adoringly through the cigar clutched in her mouth, eager to please her mentor in any possible way and piecing together that Breanna was probably looking for a moment of privacy in her office to rub one out.

Breanna and Hannah made their way to the boardroom door at a brisk pace, having differing motivations to leave the room. Breanna turned left and Hannah turned right at the boardroom door, with Breanna determined to tend to her carnal needs. Ever since she was forced to fire personal assistant Antonio back in April, Breanna’s sexuality had atrophied. She directed her energy toward grooming Hannah as her mini-me for the past several months and was only occasionally reminded, usually at moments like now, that her sexual needs had gone neglected. As she approached the doorway to enter her office, she speculated that a strong trigger of some sort would likely regenerate her libido at its previous raging level, and no sooner did that thought cross her mind than she set foot in her office and was startled by a familiar face who took it upon himself to sit in her office chair in a way very few would dare to do.

Breanna coughed for a moment, so startled by the vision of rugged masculinity in her office that she inadvertently inhaled a puff of her cigar smoke. Seated in the hallowed ground of her office chair like he owned the place was a guy who in some ways did.

“Breanna Dirks, how the heck have you been?” greeted the mid-50s office occupant in an authoritative Texas accent that matched his image, decked out in a cowboy hat with a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, a gray sports coat with a bolo tie below his neck paired with boot-cut blue jeans and cowboy boots.

“Edwin Bennett?!” Breanna inquired rhetorically as if making sure her eyes weren’t tricking her, having not seen him in a good 10 years.

“In the flesh!” Edwin responded, smiling back at Breanna with a robust grin that made her swoon.

Breanna tried to gather herself and not give away her schoolgirl fantasies, finding herself ceding the whip hand in an office setting for the first time in recent memory. She didn’t like the moment of weakness, but she certainly understood it as she surveyed the man who inspired her professional trajectory more than anyone else alive. After an extended moment attempting to regain her composure, Breanna continued. “Haven’t seen you around here for a while. Too damn long in fact!”

Edwin laughed and shrugged. “I had a business deal with your dad that left some egos bruised so I decided to walk away for a while.” With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “But today seemed like a good time to let bygones be bygones,” a mischievous tone in his drawl.

Breanna smirked as she flexed the cigar between her teeth. “It’s a new day here at Dirks Financial in case you haven’t heard.”

Edwin laughed again. “Yeah I’ve been hearing some things…..including how that sweet little girl I used to see playing in the corner of her daddy’s office is all grown up now and running a pretty tight ship in her role in the company.”

Breanna beamed with pride, removing the cigar from her mouth and leaning forward to ash it on the ashtray on her desk in front of Edwin. “Well I did learn from the best,” she responded, fluttering her eyebrows flirtatiously as she leaned her body Edwin’s way, hoping he’d be rendered powerless from leering at her suggestive pose. As she pulled back and put the cigar back in her mouth, she recommended, “The humidor next to you is full of cigars. Go ahead and grab whichever one calls out to you.”

Edwin smirked. “I’m not so young anymore and neither is my heart. But Margot would kill me before my heart went if I picked up another cigar after all these years,” referencing his wife. “But it looks like you’re gonna keep those Cubans and Dominicans working those tobacco fields just fine without me,” he added, pointing to the pyramid of expired cigars in Breanna’s ashtray.

Breanna tried to restrain her disappointment that her childhood hero had given up the cigars that so thoroughly inspired her as a girl, but decided to take the opportunity to make a power move. “It’s kinda sad to find out your hero has been thrown off the saddle,” she mused, leaning forward to pluck the territorial Texan’s cowboy hat off of his head and put it on top of her own head, “…but I guess every hero has to know when to pass on the spurs to the next generation.”

After getting past the initial shock of this college girl taking his hat off of his head and claiming it as her own, Edwin grinned again, appreciating the analogy and admiring that Breanna’s chutzpah was exactly what he was looking for and what led him to her office today. “It just so happens I came by today to check on the truth of that,” Edwin responded, getting down to business.

Breanna admired that Edwin’s hairline was intact now that the hat was off his head, a mix of dark and gray hair that made him even more attractive than she remembered him being when she was a young girl. “What can I help you with Edwin?” Breanna finally got around to asking after a few moments of admiring him, the deliberate burst of cigar smoke belching out of her face dripping with sexual innuendo.

“Close the door,” Edwin advised, foreshadowing that the news he was about to share needed to remain a well-kept secret. When Breanna did as he asked and closed her office door, Edwin continued. “One of your clients…..Tompkins Consulting. My firm has some big plans we’re about to spring on those ol’ boys.”

Breanna grinned again, performatively clutching her cigar firmly between her teeth. “Hostile takeover huh?”

“You could say that,” Edwin responded cryptically. “They’re kind of soft right now…” he added with a grin, eluding to Breanna’s emasculation of their CEO the year before that led to the company’s recent spiral. “…and it’s a buyer’s market.”

Breanna smiled again. “You heard about that, huh?” she asked in reference to her cock-stroking public takedown of Craig Tompkins in front of his staff.

Edwin chortled. “Oh everyone in the business community within a thousand miles of here heard about that. But his loss could be my opportunity….or should I say our opportunity.” He paused and then continued. “I’m prepared to make a deal in the next 48 hours…..but only if I can get a few favors from some old friends along the way.”

Breanna raised her eyebrow. “Whatcha got in mind, cowboy?”

“I’m gonna want to install some allies into some key positions at some key places,” Edwin replied. “Starting right here at your collections department.”

Breanna was startled by the timely exchange, occurring only moments after her staff meeting discussing the disappointing recent revenues coming out of Tompkins Consulting. She smooched the fast-shrinking cigar butt still smoldering between her lips, letting out a burst of smoke and open-endedly inquiring “Is that right?”

Edwin nodded. “I have a full proposal drawn up if you’re interested. It’s not on me but give me a call and I’ll just bet we can work things out,” he said, handing Breanna his business card with a cell phone number that she could contact at him with. “I’ll be staying here in St. Louis for the next two days. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’ll assume you guys aren’t as into making money as you used to be here at Dirks Financial.”

As Breanna looked over Edwin’s business card with a smirk, they were both startled by the abrupt sound of her office door opening. Stepping inside without thinking, the stub of a cigar in her mouth, Hannah joyfully erupted into her news. “Breanna, my friends are coming to visit. I just had the limo sent their way–” Hannah opened, abruptly stopping as she made eye contact with Edwin and briefly lost in the authoritative presence that Edwin commanded sitting in Breanna’s chair, effectively filling the role as Breanna’s masculine equivalent if only temporarily.

Breanna smiled as she observed Hannah and Edwin stunned at the sight of each other. “Hannah, I’m so glad you dropped in. I’d like to introduce you to a man who taught me everything I knew when I was about your age. He’s a colleague named Edwin Bennett…and I think we’re gonna be seeing quite a bit of him from now on,” she teased, winking at Edwin to let him know she was inclined to work with him on the Tompkins deal. She then continued her introduction. “And Edwin, this is my assistant Hannah. She worked with me all summer and she has a couple days off of school and decided to come help me again for today’s staff meeting.”

“Hello, young lady,” Edwin greeted, awkwardly making eye contact with the cigar-chomping 12-year-old dressed identically to Breanna and quickly connecting some dots, aghast at the sight of cigar smoke wafting from the face of this otherwise innocent-looking child.

“Hello,” Hannah replied bashfully, avoiding direct eye contact as much as possible but nonetheless trying to visually take in the image of the man who she suspected was as much of an inspiration to Breanna as Breanna was to her, and as she observed the cowboy hat on top of Breanna’s head that she suspected belonged to Edwin, she was quickly able to put together that there was some sexual chemistry going on between the two of them.

“Good news about your friends coming over though Hannah!” Breanna exclaimed joyfully both to show Edwin how strong her relationship was with her child intern and to nudge Hannah along so she could continue doing business with Edwin. “I’ll let you have the rest of the afternoon off so you can hang out with them at the restaurant. Maybe I’ll come down and visit with them myself a little later.”

Hannah looked to Breanna and smiled, her excitement about her pending company returning. “Thanks,” she said, walking out and closing the door behind her but leaving a trail of her cigar smoke lingering at the entrance.

Edwin shook his head as if disappointed in the extent of Breanna’s shamelessness, which he now realized was even worse than he was warned about. “Seriously?! You’re corrupting elementary girls?”

Breanna flashed him an evil smile as she took the final puff from her cigar, leaning forward once again to show off her feminine form as she crushed out her cigar in the giant, disgusting ashtray. She proceeded to take the cowboy hat off the top of her head and put it back on Edwin’s head as she responded, “You know how it is with little girls. They always want to be like their heroes.”

Edwin chuckled again, recalling that Breanna looked at him admiringly when he was in her father’s office for all those years when she was a girl, but never imagined he was capable of leaving the kind of impression on her that he clearly had, watching her pluck out another cigar and begin to light it. He began to rise to his feet. “Well, I’ll let you get to back to your work. You know where to reach me. And I sure hope you will.”

Edwin tipped his hat to Breanna as he bid her adieu, and she sent a blast of cigar smoke drifting Edwin’s way, both to remind him what he was missing and to let him know she was in charge. She grinned as she watched Edwin step out of the office, giddy as the schoolgirl that she was when she last saw him. After reclaiming her chair that Edwin had briefly occupied behind her desk, Breanna rested her head back, puckering her lips around the freshly lit cigar in her mouth and savoring the rich smoke as it filled her mouth.

The surge of libido that occupied the foremost center of Breanna’s brain when she left the board meeting was now surging back ever stronger as her body processed the encounter with Edwin and everything it stood for. She wanted to take the time to contemplate his business offer and figure out the way to best make it work for her own personal and professional needs, but right now, she just needed to release the beast raging inside her panties. She hiked up her leather skirt and began to touch her fingers to her moist genitals, tightening her jaws against the cigar as she stroked herself, confident that she was poised to get gratification above and beyond what her fingers were capable of producing in the very near future.

————————

A couple of hours later, Breanna walked down the corridors of Dirks Financial with a new determination on her face and another freshly lit Churchill cigar in her mouth. She had spent the last hour or so putting together a plan for how to secure the deal with Edwin, determined to force a situation where her preteen fantasies could be realized. Her plan was still a work in progress and she didn’t know exactly how it would play out, but she knew she wanted Hannah to be a part of it, both because she wanted an audience and because of her need to continue grooming Hannah as a successor. And right now, she was en route to Dirks Financial’s in-house restaurant to figure out a way to connect all of these dots.

She approached the hallway window overlooking the inside of the restaurant, almost empty at this mid-afternoon hour except for Hannah and her three girlfriends, who looked as though they were about ready to take off. Breanna smiled broadly looking inside the restaurant and admired her work as Hannah puffed on her cigar. Hannah was mingling with her trio of friends just like any normal group of sixth-grade girls, but she looked as though she was from another planet with her hair professionally styled, her designer blouse and Italian leather miniskirt, and most of all, the recently lit Churchill cigar perched in her mouth so naturally. Breanna’s excitement escalated over the course of the observation, her vision for Hannah being realized in only a handful of months beyond what she could ever have imagined possible when she first made the choice to groom her. And watching Hannah begin to hug her friends goodbye one by one, holding her big cigar behind their backs as they embraced and seeing the friends hold their breath in a fruitless attempt to evade Hannah’s cigar stench, Breanna felt confident that Hannah was past the point of no return and completely under her spell.

The three sixth-grade girls then left the restaurant through the main entrance, likely en route to the same company limo that picked them up and was now waiting to take them back home. Breanna continued to observe from afar as Hannah sat down at her table in the empty restaurant, her body language clearly evoking a moment of lament as she pondered the exchange with her friends. Breanna couldn’t help but laugh at the adorable sight of Hannah putting her elbow on the table and leaning her cheek into her right palm, a standard downcast expression of a moody adolescent girl, only in this case with a huge cigar sticking out of her face. Breanna knew moments of potential setback like these were inevitable during her grooming process of Hannah and tried to remain vigilant to put these fires out when they arose, as she was about to do now.

Breanna opened the inside door and stepped into the restaurant, approaching Hannah and greeting her before sitting down across from her at the table, the booth that was already filled with cigar smoke about to get twice as smoky.

“Have a good time with your friends?” Breanna opened.

“Yeah!” Hannah responded with easily transparent melancholy in her voice through the cigar in her mouth. “We had fun catching up on stuff!”

“I bet they love having that limo driver at their beck and call driving them home,” Breanna responded with a devious grin.

Hannah nodded affirmatively, but something was very clearly weighing on her mind and Breanna wasn’t gonna waste another moment getting to the bottom of it.

“What’s wrooong?” Breanna asked in a tone somewhere between big sister and best friend, knowing that Hannah would open up.

“Oh nothing really,” Hannah opened before getting to the point. “I just sometimes wish I was a little more normal!”

“Like your friends?” Breanna asked, to which Hannah nodded halfheartedly, explosions of cigar smoke erupting from both of their faces simultaneously.

“You’re too special to be normal, Hannah,” Breanna replied. “If you went back to your friends’ lives, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself after a week tops!”

Hannah wrinkled her nose semi-skeptically as she took a puff from the dangling cigar. “You think so?”

Breanna nodded approvingly and then added, “Hannah, when I was your age, I spent every day dreaming of having the life you have now. And now that I have it for myself, I’m never looking back. You’ve had to grow up faster than your friends and I know that can be a mixed bag but I can promise you that all three of your friends that were just here as well as everybody at your school would give anything to have your life!”

Hannah smiled, acknowledging that Breanna was probably right. “I know, but it feels like things that happen normally for my friends will be weird for me because of who I am now.”

Breanna knew Hannah was eluding to a specific example that likely came from the recent conversation with her friends. “What are we talking about here?” she asked, clenching her cigar in her teeth in a way that projected dominance as though she had Hannah figured out.

“Well…..” Hannah opened with hesitation. “My friend Callista was just telling us about her first kiss with this cute guy from school. It felt like the sort of thing that could happen to me if boys didn’t see me as the ‘scary girl’ at school.”

Breanna laughed out loud at Hannah’s characterization. “Chances are, Callista won’t even remember her first kiss 10 years from now. Nor will the boy she kissed. But I can promise you that we can make your first kiss completely unforgettable for you and whoever the lucky boy is……and being the ‘scary girl’ is what will be the difference!”

Hannah puffed from the cigar with an inquisitive expression. “How do you mean?”

Breanna was a little disappointed that the answer didn’t come naturally to Hannah after all of her training but realized Hannah probably just wanted the lesson reinforced in Breanna’s words. “The power imbalance that your presentation gives you will leave the boy at your mercy and will leave you feeling on top of the world when he succumbs to it. You remember what I’ve told you. Our vaginas give us power…..”

Hannah smiled and she puckered her lips around her cigar with a renewed confidence and then finished Breanna’s sentence. “….but our cigars give us even more power.”

Breanna nodded approvingly, clenching her cigar in her mouth accordingly as a visual aid to their pathway to social supremacy.

“So what boy do you want to kiss?” Breanna inquired, prepared to accelerate the timeline in a way that might be useful to her own ends.

Hannah shrugged. “I mean, there’s not anybody who’s really at the top of my list.”

“How about Caleb? From the ice cream parlor last spring? You got his number at the time. Have you stayed in touch?” Breanna asked.

Hannah’s face lit up remembering her encounter with Caleb and his friend Nick back in May. “Not for a few months,” Hannah responded. “He goes to another school.”

Breanna looked confused as she took another puff from her cigar. “Am I remembering wrong or didn’t you already kiss Caleb?”

Hannah giggled. “That wasn’t a kiss! I’m talking about a REAL kiss! Anyway, Caleb’s in eighth grade so he’s not gonna be interested in me!”

Breanna shook her head. “Whatever Caleb’s got going on with any 14-year-old girls at his school, I can assure you he’d drop everything tomorrow to have another chance with you. What do you say we give him a chance?” she added, fluttering her eyebrows as she swiped Hannah’s phone.

“What are you doing??!” Hannah asked with a nervous laugh.

“Caleb’s school is off for fall break just like yours tomorrow right?” Breanna asked rhetorically as she scrolled through the contacts on Hannah’s phone.

“Well, yeah….” Hannah responded, puffing nervously on her cigar.

Breanna puckered the cigar between her lips mischievously as she punched the call button on Hannah’s phone, putting the phone on speaker and listening to a couple of dial tones, watching as Hannah was becoming mortified with preteen angst. “Hey Caleb, this is Breanna…..Hannah’s older sister. Remember me?” she finally answered through a haze of cigar smoke. Breanna watched Hannah become animated with half-sincere embarrassment knowing that Breanna was about to make a date for her with Caleb. “Well Hannah was just talking about how much she misses you and I got to thinking if you both have the day off school tomorrow, it would be a perfect time for you to drop by our office and spend some time together.”

Hannah’s face was turning a bright shade of red listening to Breanna set this date up, her childish facial hue contrasting sharply with the brown of the big, smelly cigar in her mouth. She nervously awaited what Breanna would say next in the moment of pause as Caleb responded.

“I’ll tell you what, we can have the Dirks Financial company limo pick you up at your place at noon tomorrow….so you won’t have to worry about getting a ride here,” Breanna responded to Caleb’s inquiry about access before resuming the con from last May about them being sisters. “My sister can’t quit talking about you and I think she’ll make it worth your while if you come by,” Breanna added temptingly.

The back and forth continued for a few more exchanges, with Breanna making the sale as she hit all the right cues with the 14-year-old boy on the other end of the line. Hannah’s attempts to camouflage her excitement became increasingly disingenuous as her body language made clear she was thrilled about Breanna doing the leg work to make this encounter happen. Breanna ashed her cigar into the ashtray between them and reinserted it between her lips as the conversation was closing, the giant sphere of red on the freshly ashed cigar representing a glowing beacon of victory as Breanna dragged from it just as she finished the call.

“See how easy it is?” Breanna asked Hannah, puffing again on her cigar.

“Omigod, you’re horrible!” Hannah responded teasingly, cigar smoke spilling from her face.

“Nah, I’m a just a romantic!” Breanna replied, preparing for a pivot. “Nice to get some practice setting up a date with the man of your dreams because I’m about to set up another,” fluttering her eyebrows and puffing on her cigar with a devious gesture.

“With who?” Hannah asked in temporary confusion, having already forgotten about walking in on Breanna with Edwin Bennett earlier.

“With that silver fox you saw me with in my office a couple of hours ago!” Breanna responded.

Hannah giggled, attempting to disguise her continued confusion but having a hard time as she replied, “But he’s…..so old!” unable to reconcile why a young woman as gorgeous as Breanna would chase after a man older than her father.

Breanna smirked, getting the response she expected. “Oh Hannah!” Breanna began to respond, the passion obvious in her voice. “I don’t expect you to understand but I have a history of crushing on Edwin Bennett since I was younger than you. Edwin was the cigar-chomping titan of Texas oil while I was still in diapers. I haven’t seen him since I was a girl, but I’m gonna make sure he knows that I’m a woman now,” she said seductively, clenching her cigar suggestively in her mouth.

Hannah giggled again, happy for Breanna but still not getting it. “Well I’ll wish you luck with your guy if you wish me luck with mine.”

Hannah’s comment reminded Breanna of the double-standard disclaimer she again felt the need to issue. “Just be sure you don’t have too much luck with Caleb, though, okay?”

Hannah blushed again as she took a deep puff from her cigar, releasing a tornado of airborne smoke as she responded, “Breaaannnna!”

“Well, I’m serious Hannah,” Breanna clarified, her tone matching her words. “Particularly with as much power as you and I have, it makes it that much important for us to occasionally defer gratification on some of the big stuff.” She then cynically invoked her own story as a clunky example. “I mean, look at Edwin. I’ve been waiting for 10 years to make my move on him. I want it to be worth the wait when it happens. Be sure to make Caleb wait a while too.”

“But I really wanna kiss him!” Hannah pleaded, her childlike tone continuing to serve as an unthinkable contrast to the bursts of cigar smoke exploding from her face.

“Kissing him is perfectly fine if you’re ready for it,” Breanna replied. “But the power that our vaginas and our cigars give us is weakened if we don’t use them in the right way. Caleb’s probably used to getting what he wants from girls in his school. It’ll end up meaning a lot more to both of you if show him you’re not like those other girls in any way,” she concluded, seeing Hannah nod in vague agreement even though Breanna realized the celibacy message she’d been hammering home to Hannah for months now ultimately rang hollow, but she found Hannah to be a more useful ally at this stage of the game if her motivations remained as pure and uncomplicated as possible.

Watching as Hannah removed her cigar from her mouth for the first time since they sat down and tapping the long grey ash into the ashtray, Breanna beamed with pride at what she saw, thrilled with being able to relive her childhood fantasy vicariously through her protege. As Hannah observed Breanna’s prideful grin, Hannah playfully inquired “Whaaat?” before placing the half-smoked cigar back into her mouth for another extended stay.

“I’m just so happy for both of us that we get to sweep the guys off of their feet tomorrow,” Breanna responded, keeping Hannah in the dark about her larger agenda even though she was about to segue toward it whether Hannah knew it or not.

Hannah laughed. “I know what you mean. I’m sooo nervous!”

Breanna took a deep and sinister draw from her cigar and then leaned forward as if telegraphing to Hannah she was about to get an extensive crash course. “Well that’s what big sisters are for,” Breanna responded, fully divested in maintaining the sisterly narrative. “You won’t be surprised to find out I have all kinds of advice on how to calm those nerves of yours,” Breanna added.

Hannah’s eyes widened as she drew from her cigar, listening intently to Breanna’s manipulative advice, unaware she was being used to pave the way for Breanna’s sinful secret agenda.

———————-

The next afternoon, Hannah stood by herself at the ground floor of the parking garage just outside Dirks Financial headquarters, pacing back and forth with a long trail of cigar smoke surrounding her as she awaited the arrival of her suitor. She would have been nervous right now even under ideal circumstances, but after all the advice Breanna pumped into her head the previous afternoon, she felt as though the stakes had elevated to an unreasonable degree and she wasn’t entirely sure why. But her heart skipped a beat as she looked up to the see the company limo entering the front gate and rapidly approach her. Knowing that Caleb was inside that limo, she gulped upon realizing the moment of reckoning had arrived, accidentally swallowing a bit of cigar smoke and fighting the urge to cough in response.

Caleb was every bit as nervous if not more so, following through on the odd request to take this limo ride to Dirks Financial to see Hannah. Even though Breanna’s instinct was right and Caleb had girls in his middle school hanging all over him, he couldn’t get Hannah out of his mind after that day in May when they met, even though they didn’t see each other again after that. Whenever Hannah had crossed his mind in the five months since, the first thing that popped into his head was that big cigar she was smoking on the day they met and the oddly erotic effect that image had on him. Ever since Breanna made the date with him and Hannah the previous day, Caleb fantasized about the prospect of seeing Hannah smoking another cigar today, but he dismissed that as unlikely and figured, despite Hannah’s insistence otherwise in May, that the springtime cigar she smoked was just a gimmick.

Caleb could feel the blood rushing to his reproductive equipment as his limo approached the waiting Hannah and he saw her standing there, her designer red blouse and Italian black leather miniskirt evoking the image of a much older girl, and the unlikely presence of another hulking cigar extending several inches out of Hannah’s face. Caleb was breathless with excitement and intimidation as the limo came to a stop, knowing that the Hannah who presented herself to him last spring was indeed who she said she was, and he wasn’t sure he was man enough to handle that right now, particularly as he set foot into her world.

Caleb stepped out of the limo, the dominating smell of Hannah’s cigar smoke filling the air as he stepped toward her. He held a single red rose in hand that he had briefly forgotten about until the moment he worked up the nerve to greet the girl in front of him. “Nice to see you, Hannah. Been a long time,” he opened nervously, a tremble in his hand as he extended it to give her the red rose.

“Thank you Caleb!” Hannah exclaimed adoringly through the cigar clutched in her jaws, another burst of smoke going airborne into the parking garage. She removed the cigar from her mouth and reflexively pulled in to hug him.

Caleb’s complicated feelings on Hannah’s cigar smoking got even more confused as she enveloped him with her body, the cigar briefly held behind his neck as she hugged him. He found the cigar odor vaguely offensive but knowing that it was coming from Hannah made it oddly alluring. While held in the split second of embrace, Caleb’s senses were boomeranging in every direction as his nose overloaded on the dominant stench of cigar that fully consumed him, realizing that his afternoon date always smelled like this and didn’t seem to care how odd or conventionally unflattering that it was.

As the hug broke apart, Hannah put the cigar back in her mouth and broke up the awkward silence with the speechless Caleb. “Roses are really romantic. You know the way to a girl’s heart,” taking his hand and guiding him toward the building. “Follow me and I’ll give you a tour of my family’s company,” running with the ongoing con that Breanna was her sister and they both had a family connection to Dirks Financial.

As they progressed, Caleb was helpless from staring at Hannah sporting this giant cigar so naturally, almost as a fashion accessory, in a way he never could have imagined a young girl doing. Since he couldn’t think of anything else to say at the moment, he decided to investigate, throwing it out there with a blanket comment. “I still can’t believe you smoke cigars.”

Hannah darted her eyes toward Caleb’s crotch, unsurprised to see he was pitching a tent in his jeans before shifting her gaze upward to make eye contact with him, feigning surprise. “Didn’t I tell you before that I was a cigar smoker?” she asked, the prodigious stick of tobacco bouncing in her mouth as she spoke.

Caleb nodded with continued intimidation looking back at the sixth-grade girl awaiting his response. “Yeah you mentioned it. Guess I thought you were exaggerating.”

Hannah laughed, then adding with pride “Oh no! I got a stogie in my mouth all day long!”

She used her security badge to open the door and held it open for Caleb, further emasculating him as he entered the Dirks Financial building with Hannah following. “Follow me to the elevator and then I’ll take you up to the restaurant up on the top floor. Hope you haven’t eaten lunch.”

Caleb was aghast watching Hannah strut through the building like she owned the place, cigar remaining clutched in her jaws and regularly expelling bursts of dirty smoke. As they stopped in front of the elevator waiting for a car, Caleb again pressed. “They let you smoke inside the building too?”

“Heh!” Hannah chuckled with bravado. “I’d like to see someone try and stop me!”, she added, riding every bit as high on this power trip as Breanna told her she would.

Caleb’s already soaring libido was elevated higher than ever now, the ding of the elevator briefly distracting him as the door opened and Hannah led him inside. The surreal experience was that much more intense for him trapped inside the elevator car as it rapidly filled up with Hannah’s cigar smoke, and he couldn’t control himself from digging deeper.

“How long have been you smoking anyway?” Caleb asked as the elevator slowly ascended the floors of the skyscraper.

Hannah shrugged. “I don’t know. A while,” she responded casually, not wanting to get into specifics and tip off that she’d just started around the time she first met Caleb in the spring.

“Why’d you decide to start?” Caleb pressed, his curiosity preventing him from pushing his luck, inadvertently pushing the very buttons Hannah hoped he would.

“My sister got me started,” Hannah responded with a half-truth. “She wanted both of us to smoke cigars.”

“Why though?” Caleb continued, riding out the wave in the increasingly stinky and congested elevator car.

Hannah shrugged nonchalantly once again. “Just the image we wanted for ourselves in this company to always have cigars in our mouths,” she responded, looking his way while sending a blast of smoke wafting directly into his airspace before following up with the rehearsed punchline. “She thinks it helps us get respect. And I agree.”

The elevator reached the top floor and the door opened, Caleb again speechless and ineffectually attempting to hide his bulging erection behind the placement of his hand. As Hannah led him into the hallway en route to the in-house restaurant, Caleb tried in vain to assert his masculinity, responding “Well maybe you could let me try one and see how it works for me.”

“Oh no!” Hannah fired back dismissively. “You don’t want to smoke cigars, Caleb. Take it from me. It’s a nasty habit,” she added, cringing her nose toward him and making him feel about two inches tall as he watched the explosion of smoke escape her face as she shot down his request.

The young duo entered the restaurant, more than half full of diners at the 1:00 hour, and Hannah led Caleb to a reserved booth, employees of Dirks Financial giving a casual glance toward the cigar-chomping 12-year-old girl and either rolling their eyes or ignoring it completely having been seeing it for months and knowing there was nothing they could do about it given that the girl was the pet project of the CEO’s terrifying daughter.

As they sat in the booth, Caleb pressed one last time as he asked, “You smoke while you eat too?”

Hannah giggled. “Are you gonna spend the whole afternoon asking about my cigars? I want to hear about how you’re doing since we last talked. I hear you just turned 14 last week.”

Caleb pulled himself together, realizing he’d overstepped but still not able to concentrate on anything else but the omnipresent supersized cigar lurking so pervasively in Hannah’s mouth as she awaited his answer. Just as he was about to respond, a perky young waitress approached them and interrupted his train of thought.

“Good afternoon, Hannah,” greeted the waitress. “Is this the friend you said you were bringing over today?”

Hannah greeted the waitress back and responded that he was.

The waitress winked at her. “Well you got good taste. He’s cute,” the waitress responded, ignoring completely, at Breanna’s direction, the presence of Hannah’s cigar to normalize it as much as possible for Caleb, who was blushing at the waitress’s greeting and the two of them giggled at his expense. After an awkward moment, the waitress added, “So what can I get you two today? The usual for you, Hannah?”

Hannah nodded approvingly and then looked to Caleb, her cigar animatedly bouncing up and down as she spoke. “Order whatever you want, but the bacon cheeseburgers here are incredible! That’s what I’m having.”

“Um, yeah,” Caleb responded, thinking that sounded good. “I’ll have a bacon cheeseburger and a Mountain Dew.”

As the waitress took their order, the adoring look in Hannah’s eyes spoke volumes as he got lost in them. He couldn’t help but feel he was being used or set up for something with this lunch date invite, but the greatness he’d spent the last 24 hours anticipating would come from meeting her today had already exceeded his wildest expectations, and he was pretty sure the dramatics had only just begun.

———————

An hour later, Hannah and Caleb remained at their table in the restaurant, wrapping up the dessert they were sharing after their meal. About a third of their banana split remained uneaten in the dish, the young couple clearly having reached a wall between their main course and their ice cream dessert. Meanwhile, Hannah continued to work down her Churchill cigar, now just a stub held between the fingers of her left hand while she approached a final spoonful of chocolate ice cream to her mouth with her right hand.

“Ugh! I think that’s gonna be it for me!” Hannah announced, setting down her spoon and noticing Caleb continued to be unable to take his eyes off of her cigar.

“Yeah me too,” Caleb agreed, the combination of his full belly and Hannah’s incessant assault of cigar smoke making him slightly nauseous. He stared at the remaining inch or so of the cigar between her fingers, the foot soaked with more than an hour’s worth of her saliva. Disgusting as it was to have looked at as she alternated between bites of food and puffs of the cigar for the last hour, he couldn’t help himself from being turned on.

The waitress emerged again, seeing that they had abandoned the banana split, but before she had a chance to comment, Hannah drew attention to her top priority, holding up her nearly expired cigar and casually requesting, “Could you get me another cigar?”

Caleb’s ears perked up, in disbelief that she may immediately have another one, but listened as the waitress casually responded, “Oh certainly. Would you like another Davidoff Commander?” she asked, in reference to the cigar Hannah was currently smoking.

“Ummm….” Hannah pondered. “Actually let’s go with an Ashton Maduro this time.”

“Coming right up,” the waitress said with a perky smile, running to fetch Hannah her latest cigar.

Hannah made frisky eyes at a stunned Caleb, who was resigned to being speechless as he watched her put the stub of her cigar in her mouth, still producing a dirty cloud of smoke with almost every breath that continued to make him slightly nauseous. He finally found some words as he asked, “Do you eat like this every day?”

Hannah laughed. “No, I’m not here every day but I have a pretty good appetite when I do.”

“You’re not here every day?” Caleb inquired. “Everybody seems to treat you like you are.”

Hannah realized she stepped in it and was caught in a fib, searching for a good response but realizing she was about to be saved by the intervening waitress, who approached her with a steel tray that Hannah knew was carrying her next cigar.

The waitress lifted the lid off the tray, revealing the cigar, a guillotine, and a torch lighter, and then proceeded to snip the foot off the cigar and then approach the torch to the end of the cigar. “Have this ready for you in a moment, Hannah,” the waitress politely informed.

“Mmmmm…looking forward to it!” Hannah responded, watching as the torch lighter slowly brought the giant Maduro cigar to life, drifting her eyes to Caleb who was also watching in awe as the waitress lit the cigar, which somehow managed to be longer, fatter, and darker than the one Hannah had just smoked.

Hannah decided to really mess with him at this point, directing his attention by announcing, “Watch this!” and then removed the stub of her current Churchill from her mouth and then smother it out into the remaining untouched scoop of ice cream on the banana split tray in front of them.

Caleb cringed mildly at the crudeness but still found himself getting turned on, making eyes with Hannah to identify another mischievous smirk.

“Here you go, sweetie!” the waitress announced, handing Hannah the cigar. Hannah took hold of it and held it in her mouth as the waitress applied the flame to it for another 30 seconds or so, Hannah’s draws fully igniting the dark Maduro cigar that looked even more jarringly out of place in Hannah’s young mouth than the one she just finished. The waitress noticed the intimidation in Caleb’s eyes and felt pity for him for having to endure Hannah’s spectacle which was clearly engineered by Breanna, but she kept a stiff upper lip as she knew her job depended upon her playing along.

After the cigar was fully lit, Hannah thanked the waitress and then another few moments passed of idle conversation between Hannah and Caleb. But looking at her phone to see it was now 2:15, Hannah knew it was only a matter of time until her phone lit up with an important text. And no sooner did that thought cross her mind before her phone dinged with a text coming from Breanna.

Hannah opened the text, gigantic cigar lurking ominously from her face as she read it, and Caleb could tell by her body language that the date was about to take another wild detour.

“That’s my sister,” Hannah disingenuously announced. “I gotta go take care of something in the office. But you can come with me and see what I do at work,” she welcomed, crossing her fingers that Caleb would say yes and step right into her trap.

“Uhh sure,” Caleb responded, having a feeling this was all leading up to something and too thoroughly intrigued by this absurd situation to ever dream of shutting it down early.

“Great!” Hannah replied through the cigar in her mouth. “Follow me back to the elevator. I’m on the eighth floor.”

Caleb rose to his feet, following Hannah and the smelly trail of cigar smoke in her path, taking advantage of the opportunity to walk behind her and admire her ass draped in that sultry leather miniskirt, hoping against hope that he’d get the opportunity to put his hands on it before the day was over. As the elevator door opened, Caleb knew he’d have another nauseating ride with Hannah in close quarters, but he was confident she was gonna make it worth his while, although still unprepared for the magnitude of the show that was coming.

——————-

Moments later, Breanna met Hannah and Caleb at the elevator door on the eighth floor, her own cigar perched in her mouth as she smiled at Caleb. “Well hey Caleb. Haven’t seen you in a while. Hannah said you were coming over today. Remember me?”

Caleb gulped, at least as intimidated by the sight of the even more confident–and shapely–Breanna as he was by “younger sister” Hannah. “Breanna right?” Caleb responded, feigning as though he was unsure even though there was no way he could have ever forgotten about her after that impactful day on the patio last spring.

“Good memory!” Breanna responded cheerfully through the cigar clutched in her mouth. “You’re about to see your little girlfriend kick some serious ass!”

“Breaaaannnna!” Hannah reacted with halfhearted embarrassment, making eye contact with Breanna.

“I’ll meet you in your office in a couple of minutes. I’ll follow Keith in there after you call him,” Breanna said with a wink that she hoped would be out of Caleb’s vantage point, nudging Hannah to keep playing along.

Hannah strutted through the corridor of the collections department like a peacock with her still-fresh cigar looking like a battering ram to remind anyone standing near her to get out of her way. As Caleb followed, he kept waiting for someone to jump out and tell him he was being scammed for a TV show, but it kept not happening and continued to be all too real as he walked into “Hannah’s office.”

“Go ahead and sit in that chair in the corner if you would. I gotta take care of some business but we’ll pick up where we left off afterward,” Hannah authoritatively instructed.

Caleb dutifully obeyed sitting in the corner as Hannah sat in Breanna’s throne. As Caleb surveyed the room, he first noticed the giant glass ashtray with dozens of cigar butts piled up and then saw the nameplate reading “Hannah Sampson” put at the front of the desk by Breanna to successfully sell the con that this was indeed Hannah’s office.

Hannah picked up the landline phone next to the ashtray and followed Breanna’s instructions, dialing Keith Schultz’s office number as she held the phone next to her ear waiting for Keith’s response. “Keith, could you come to my office immediately,” she muttered hauntingly through her dangling cigar and then hung up before Keith had time to respond.

Hannah and Caleb listened for the rustle of footsteps in the direction of the office, their hearts pumping in anxiety over the scene that was about to unfold. In seconds, Keith walked into the office, the anxiety on his face surpassing that of anyone else as Breanna followed him in. As Keith surveyed the room, with Hannah seated in Breanna’s chair and another young boy sitting in the corner with Breanna sitting in the chair next to the boy, Keith’s lurking suspicion grew even darker. “I hope this is important,” Keith muttered while choking on the thick cigar smoke in the room. “I got quite a bit of work to do.”

Hannah clutched her teeth around the cigar and pointed to the chair across the desk from her. “Have a seat, Keith,” she instructed, before proceeding to her feet upon the desk, showing off her high-heeled shoes and long bare legs for Caleb while projecting an air of maximal intimidation to Keith. Taking a page from Breanna’s playbook at the meeting yesterday, Hannah proceeded to make extended eye contact with Keith while repeatedly puckering her lips around the cigar and filling the room with as much dirty smoke as was possible.

“Keith, Dirks Financial appreciates your nearly 30 years of service with this company,” Hannah finally opened, “….so much so that we’re gonna offer you the opportunity to take a position within our sister organization Lestrud Capital Funding right here in St. Louis. All of your seniority will transfer and you will keep your existing vacation, health, and retirement benefits. But I’m afraid your services are no longer needed here,” she added, carefully remembering the lines that she rehearsed with Breanna for much of the last 24 hours even though she didn’t really understand them.

Keith looked at Hannah in stunned disbelief, unable to get over how ridiculous she looked with that cigar in her mouth doing Breanna’s dirty work for her, and then turned to look at Breanna. “You’re firing me?! After everything I’ve done for this company for all these years?!? I have kids in college!”

Breanna smirked as Keith addressed his comments to her. “I’m not doing anything to you, Keith. But I would recommend you showing some respect to the young lady talking to you right now,” she warned, pointing to Hannah.

A look of power-hungry fury filled Hannah’s face, a look that even frightened Breanna a bit. Hannah proceeded to pull her feet off of the top of Breanna’s desk and then stand up, intimidatingly encircling the desk until she was standing directly over Keith in the chair. Just as Breanna did in the boardroom the day before, Hannah proceeded to lean her ass into the edge of the desk’s surface and hover in Keith’s airspace with her cigar pointed at his face like a cannon. “Don’t you ever interrupt me when I’m talking to you!” Hannah exclaimed, her smoke rolling from her mouth and the end of the cigar as Keith’s eyes wandered up to her face with a combination of fear and disgust.

Hannah proceeded to remove the cigar from her mouth for the first time since she stepped into the office and then exhaled a huge stink bomb of smoke directly into Keith’s face. “As I was about to explain to you, a position is waiting for you at Lestrud Capital Funding. If you agree to take it, your supervisor Breanna will write you a letter of recommendation and you will retain 75% of your current salary,” she explained, pointing out the need for the degree of separation leading to his employment being terminated by a 12-year-old. Hannah took another deep draw on her cigar and then added, “Do you understand the terms I have described?” as she blew smoke directly into Keith’s face again.

Keith made no attempt to camouflage his indignance as he maintained eye contact the sixth-grader standing in judgment of his three-decade career, unable to discern whether the moisture forming in his eyes were tears or a negative bodily response from having Hannah’s cigar smoke blown into his face. “Do I have any options to appeal this decision?” he asked, fighting to control his instinct to smack this entitled child even though he knew she was just a puppet doing Breanna’s heavy lifting.

Hannah put the cigar back into her mouth and responded. “If you decide to appeal, then the offers gets withdrawn for the position at Lestrud Capital. So it would be a costly choice if you decide to appeal.”

Keith clenched his teeth in disgust just as Hannah clenched her teeth on the cigar. He darted his eyes to a smirking Breanna, chomping on a cigar of her own, observing the bemused indifference in Breanna’s eyes toward him and the glowing admiration in witnessing Hannah’s performance. Keith then darted his eyes back to Hannah, the proximity of her cigar to his face becoming too unbearable to endure. “I guess I have no choice but to take the deal. Maybe a pay cut would be worthwhile to go to a less toxic office environment.”

Hannah smirked wickedly, puckering her lips around the cigar and belching out one final cloud of “toxic” before he left this office environment. “Very well. We will miss your presence here Keith but maybe a change will be best for everyone. If you would kindly return to your cubicle, security is waiting for you and you’ll have 15 minutes to clear your desk and remove yourself from the premises. Do I make myself clear?” she ordered sternly.

Keith gave one final look of abject disgust at both Hannah and Breanna as he stood up, beginning to walk away as instructed but unable to leave the room before being smacked on the ass by Hannah’s palm. Breanna had sexually harassed Keith many times over the two years he worked under her, but this was the first time he had been demeaned by the hand of Hannah, making him feel just a little bit more dirty walking out of the office than he was a few seconds earlier.

Breanna continued to smirk as her eyes followed Keith’s departure from the room. She then looked up to Hannah, brought nearly to tears with pride that Hannah had landed every rehearsed line and successfully ad-libbed when needed. There was no question in her mind right now that she had chosen her protege well because Hannah was a natural for this unusual career track. Looking at the drunk-with-power Hannah strut back to Breanna’s chair and take a seat, Breanna even found herself feeling a bit jealous that Hannah was being afforded the opportunities that Breanna had merely been able to fantasize about at Hannah’s tender age. But that jealousy tempered when she reminded herself that Hannah’s rise was made possible through the thumb Breanna put on the scale for her….and that Breanna had a childhood fantasy of her own to hopefully bring to life in the very near future, the thought of which led to Breanna puckering her lips intensely on her cigar.

With the first step completed of Breanna’s plan to secure the business deal with Edwin Bennett, Breanna gave a wink and nod of approval to Hannah. “Well I should hang out with security for a bit and make sure Keith doesn’t try anything before he’s escorted out,” Breanna opened, looking to Hannah and winking again as she added, “And I think I need to leave you two alone again.”

Hannah giggled and responded “Thanks Breanna. Close the door, please,” through her cigar.

Caleb looked up through the haze of cigar smoke, a passionate new fire in Hannah’s eyes that both frightened him and turned him on, his heart racing after just watching her take command of the life of a man old enough to be her grandfather and bring him to his knees. And now, this same girl was springing out of her chair and approaching him with a primal energy.

In seconds, Hannah fully invaded Caleb’s space just as she had Keith’s, plopping herself down on his lap and instantly getting a chance to feel his erect manhood tentpoling his jeans that she’d been observing from a distance for most of the afternoon. She put her arm around Caleb’s neck and pulled herself in close, her cigar only a couple of inches from his nose and a come-hither energy on her face unlike Caleb had ever seen from any girl, let alone Hannah. She clearly got herself all worked up firing Keith, and much as she hoped to be able to restrain herself, felt like she was capable of anything right now.

For his part, Caleb felt a cascade of mix emotions as Hannah sat on his lap, fully immersing him with her unbearably stinky presence in a way that felt completely overwhelming to Caleb. But despite the olfactory assault that was again bringing Caleb to the brink of being nauseous, Hannah’s beauty and friskiness was impossible to look away from as he rested his hands on her lap, the buttery softness of her leather miniskirt causing his body to tingle.

“Breanna’s right you know,” Hannah opened, her cigar smoke sputtering directly into Caleb’s eyes as she spoke. “I really like you. I have since that day we met in the spring.”

Oppressive cigar smoke drifting the short distance from the hot smoldering tobacco into Caleb’s eyes, Caleb struggled to vocalize his response. “I really like you too Hannah!” he replied with clear sincerity, bringing a smile to Hannah’s face. But then Caleb winced as another burst of cigar smoke got into his eyes and decided he needed to make an ill-advised plea. “But would you mind moving your cigar away from my face a bit?”

The romantic tension came to a screeching halt as Hannah’s flirtatious smirk immediately pivoted to a dejected frown, refusing to accept Caleb’s request and keeping the cigar in its current position inches from his face. “Caleb, I don’t know if this will work for us if you can’t handle my cigars.”

Caleb looked stunned that his simple request for a basic gesture of courtesy had killed their momentum. He tried to qualify his earlier request but only dug his hole deeper. “No, no….I don’t mind that you smoke the cigars. I’d just prefer to not have them right up in my face.”

Hannah’s frown shifted to anger as she took a tone similar to what she did with Keith moments earlier, albeit with an erotic tension as she enunciated her words as deliberately as possible. “Listen here, Caleb. The only way we’re gonna get along is if you can accept that my cigars aren’t going away. I’m gonna have one of these big, FAT stogies in my mouth at all times and I’m gonna need you to be able to handle that. It’s not just a habit for me. It’s a lifestyle. You understand?”

Caleb was petrified as the younger girl sitting on his lap told him how it was so shamelessly, incessant bursts of new cigar smoke directly violating his airspace with every syllable she spoke. “I’m sorry! I”m sorry!” he pleaded, not entirely sure he could handle the terms that Hannah was spelling out for him but feeling as though it was worth a try given their obvious chemistry. “I think I can learn to live with it if you’ll just be a little patient with me.”

Hannah smiled again, feeling secure that she had the boy successfully leashed and that she was in full control of the situation. The friskiness now entirely returned in her eyes, she flirtatiously responded. “I’ll take the cigar out of my mouth for one reason and one reason only right now, Caleb. Can you guess what that might be?”

Caleb gulped, realizing this was about to happen. “I think I have a pretty good idea,” he responded with a nervous smile.

Hannah smiled back and responded, “Good!” removing the cigar from her mouth as promised and leaning in further toward Caleb’s face. She took a passionate breath that reeked of cigar, giving Caleb a quick preview in the split second before she grabbed him by the back of his head and pressed her open mouth to his. Hannah was at this point not even all that nervous about her first kiss, her confidence having been so elevated by the series of events that led up to this. And the feeling of upper-hand that defined the afternoon persisted through the kiss as Hannah aggressively munched on Caleb’s lips and tongue while just as aggressively forcing her own lips and tongue into his mouth, all while her firm grip on the back of his head grew increasingly forceful.

Much as Caleb hoped he’d be prepared for Hannah’s disgusting breath, the flavor of several hours worth of uninterrupted cigar smoking was thoroughly dominating, and he struggled to both maintain his passion for the kiss and avoid losing his lunch. After about 30 seconds of making out, Caleb felt as thought the vomit impulse had passed and began to enjoy himself more. He also felt confident that he had a mandate to explore Hannah’s body beyond just her mouth and proceeded to stroke her upper thigh and her ass in the leather skirt, getting no protest as he checked off the box from earlier of getting his hands on Hannah’s ass in that skirt.

As the makeout session continued and Caleb was as at peace as he could be by her nasty cigar breath, he decided to get even more adventurous, placing one hand on her blouse and the other hand at the hemline of her skirt, both progressing toward bare skin. Hannah paused as she felt his finger touch her bare breast, part of her wanting to follow her primal instincts and keep the moment alive but ultimately taking Breanna’s warning from yesterday to heart. As she felt Caleb’s other hand begin to penetrate the skirt’s hemline and proceed up her thigh, she decided she had enough and more aggressively moved to put a stop to it. She clamped her hand atop his like a vice and pulled away from the kiss. “I’m not that kind of girl, Caleb. Maybe the girls at your school are, but you’re gonna have to earn that with me, okay?”

Caleb looked petrified and emasculated at the shocking rejection of his advance. He began pleading, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean go further than you were ready for–“

Hannah put her finger to his lips and shooshed him in mid-sentence, taking a deep draw from her cigar at close range and responding. “You’re fine. Just letting you know my terms. I’d love to see where things go with us down the road Caleb but let’s just stick to kissing for the time being. Deal?”

Caleb was a little disappointed, convinced only moments earlier that he had Hannah right where he wanted her, but as he watched Hannah continue to puff on that nasty cigar as he looked into her deceptively innocent eyes, he decided he could accept these terms. Hannah was just too exotic of a romantic conquest to give up. “Deal,” Caleb agreed with a smile.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Hannah replied through her cigar, taking one additional puff and then pulling into resume their kiss, subjecting Caleb to freshly reinforced cigar breath. As the young couple continued to make out, Hannah beamed with happiness. She instinctively knew that the manipulative Breanna had led her to make a number of bad choices, but she decided that Breanna was unequivocally right on not giving up her sexuality too easily even if her instinct made her want to. It only then hit her that her mother Alexis was sitting in the cubicle on the other side of the office, and she blushed at the idea of doing anything sexual with her mom listening. Perhaps Breanna knew that would be a preventive barrier to keep Hannah from potentially going too far, Hannah thought to herself as she continued to lock lips with Caleb. After all, Breanna always seemed to think of everything.

——————

A few hours later, Breanna sat back in her chair, her head leaning back with her two-thirds-smoked cigar pointing straight up in the air from her mouth. She was the only one in the office that Friday evening, putting the final touches on her plan for the deal with Edwin Bennett that would enable the hostile takeover of Tompkins Consulting. As she looked to the digital clock in her office reading 8:15, she let out another billow of cigar smoke skyward and decided it was time to make her move. She punched the digits from Edwin’s business card into her cell phone, making sure it wouldn’t be part of the official phone record from the office landline, and waited nervously for a response.

After the fourth dial, the call pivoted to Edwin’s voicemail, just as Breanna hoped it would, giving Edwin less opportunity to wheel and deal on the phone and compromise Breanna’s plan. After the sound of the beep, Breanna leaned forward, cigar clutched between her jaws as she articulated her message. “Edwin, it’s your future business partner Breanna Dirks. I know you’re heading back to Fort Worth tomorrow but before you do, I think we can work out an agreement on Tompkins Consulting. As a showing of good faith, I just fired our current collections consultant Keith Schultz this afternoon and I’ll be ready to install whoever you want in his position if we can work out this deal. But since time is of the essence, why don’t you meet here tonight at the office. We got the place to ourselves so we can speak freely,” she paused, puffing intently from her cigar before friskily adding “I’ll be waiting here for you, but be warned, I drive a hard bargain. See you soon.”

Breanna ended the call and leaned back into her chair, smirking as she sent more bursts of cigar smoke airborne toward her office ceiling. She couldn’t have been more confident that she was about to land the “deal” with Edwin Bennett that she’d fantasized about most of her young life.

—————

Less than an hour later, Breanna listened to eager footsteps hustling down the corridor of the Dirks Financial collections department toward her office. Freshly lit Maduro cigar parked in her mouth like a torpedo moments from launching, Breanna braced herself for the moment of reckoning with Edwin.

Edwin walked into Breanna’s office, suspicious about her motives ever since the previous day’s suggestive encounter but committed to landing this lucrative deal. Breanna put her feet up on the desk, advertising her feminine form in the red blouse and leather miniskirt just as Hannah did earlier when she fired Keith, setting the tone for the evening’s negotiation. “You know, Edwin, I had a feeling I’d be seeing you in here tonight,” she opened playfully.

Edwin shook his head at the spectacle Breanna was making, hoping she would remain at least marginally professional about this deal. “I like what I heard so far about the new opening in your collections department. I think I can work with that,” he responded, getting right down to business. “And maybe you can work with a $30 million, 10-year deal for our account. I can have the paperwork drawn up in an hour.”

Breanna nodded, liking the sound of Edwin’s offer as she looked him over wearing a similar outfit as the day before with the ten-gallon hat, sports jacket, bolo tie, jeans and cowboy boots, his handlebar mustache perked up on both sides just as she remembered it so many years ago. “Throw in a five percent stock dividend bonus and we’re getting close to a deal.”

Edwin stroked his chin, briefly pondering if her offer was worth it before responding, “Done.”

Breanna clenched her cigar in her mouth and took her feet off the desk, making even more intense eye contact with Edwin than she had been already. “But I’m also gonna need some more private concessions from you before I sign on the dotted line.”

Edwin knew Breanna was about to cross the line he feared she would, but nonetheless played along. “Oh yeah? And what might those be?”

Breanna smirked. “I’m a girl who gets what she wants, Edwin. I always have been. Always!” she accentuated, conveying the extent to which her passion for him began running even before she was sexualized. “So if you want me to do you a personal favor and make this deal happen, I’m gonna need you to make a little girl’s dream come true.” She paused for effect, filling the room with an explosion of cigar smoke. “I’m gonna need you inside of me.”

Edwin chuckled dismissively. “You just keep on daydreaming about that, little girl. I haven’t stayed married for 30 years by giving in to every mid-level business associate who shakes her ass at me.”

“Completely faithful to your wife for 30 years huh?” Breanna asked with skepticism. “I’m not buying that.”

Edwin shook his head. “I strayed from my vows a few times many years ago. But then I gave my soul to Jesus Christ and made the decision then and there to confess my sins, and then to stay faithful to my wife for the rest of our marriage.”

Breanna took a moment to gather her thoughts, at this point realizing that Edwin might be a tougher foil for her than she anticipated. She racked her brain trying to come up with the best strategy to force out the beast of sin that she knew still raged inside Edwin. “Well I guess it’s a matter of how much this deal matters to you then, doesn’t it?” Breanna threatened.

Edwin shook his head. “Is your crotch really so on fire that you’d throw away a multi-million dollar deal if I don’t agree to put that fire out?” he asked, hoping to put in perspective how immature she was being.

“Yes it is,” Breanna replied honestly, drawing from her cigar and sending another burst of smoke airborne.

“Well then maybe I share this little exchange with your father and let him know how in over her head his little girl is in this position,” Edwin threatened.

Particularly now, facing off against the paragon of masculine power from her childhood memories, Breanna’s instinct was to plead with him to make her fantasies come to life, but she knew this situation called for a different approach, and she was about to lay it on as thick as she possibly could. She climbed on to her desk and started crawling toward Edwin on her hands and knees, hoisting her face up as close to his as possible and then belching out a burst of cigar smoke.

“You could tell my daddy that. Sure,” Breanna opened. “And I could tell everyone in our mutual business contact list that you were too soft to finish this Tompkins Consulting deal. That you ain’t the titan of business you used to be. Maybe you never were.”

Edwin bristled as his business acumen was called into his question, his fragile ego susceptible to Breanna’s approach.

Sensing weakness, Breanna removed the cigar from her mouth briefly and exhaled another dense stream of smoke directly into his face. “Smells good, doesn’t it?” Breanna taunted, observing Edwin’s body language as his face filled with temptation from the odor of cigar that he’d been denying himself for several years now. “Of course, Edwin Bennett isn’t the man he used to be, so he can’t handle cigars anymore. Just like he can’t handle the business world anymore. A deal like Tompkins Consulting that would have been a lay-up for him in the past is now just too much for him to handle. So somebody else is gonna get the deal instead. Edwin’s just not up to it.”

Edwin’s annoyance was escalating to barely contained fury as he gritted his teeth and responded, “You bitch!”

Breanna cackled like a hyena, blasting Edwin in the face with another irresistible assault of cigar smoke. “Makes a girl wonder…..is Edwin up to the job for….anything…these days,” she taunted, her eyes gravitating to his crotch. “Maybe he no longer accepts the advances of ‘mid-level business associates who shake their ass at him anymore’….because he CAN’T accept their advances….”

“Shut up!” Edwin barked, his aggravation reaching the point of eruption.

“Maybe Edwin is just is hiding behind ‘faithfulness to his wife’ because he can’t even get it up anymore!” Breanna raised her voice, clearly getting to Edwin. “Talk about crushing a little girl’s dreams!” she exclaimed, maintaining her loud delivery. “When she finally asks her hero to make love to her and she finds out he can’t!”

“Shut up you little….” Edwin raged through gritted teeth.

Breanna knew she had him on the ropes, reaching her hand towards his crotch. “Nothing but a wet noodle down there huh Edwin?” she tormented, extending her hand as if she was about to touch him there, the bulge in his jeans negating her provocative language to the contrary.

“Don’t you even think about touching me,” Edwin warned sternly enough that it gave Breanna pause.

But Breanna smirked, drawing from her cigar and reaching over to his jeans to squeeze his manhood.

“I said don’t!!!” Edwin thundered, forcefully grabbing her wrist with one hand and then lunging for her throat with his other hand.

Breanna remained knelt down on her desk, legitimate terror on her face as she felt Edwin’s firm hands clutching her wrist and neck. Edwin released his grip on her wrist but maintained the grip on her throat as he began to unzip his fly. In seconds, he released the anaconda, giving Breanna a look at his Texas-sized manhood standing at full erection and living up to her wildest expectations. “You have any other doubts about what Edwin Bennett is capable of?” he barked at her through continued gritted teeth.

Breanna swooned as she looked down to the length and girth of Edwin’s penis, more committed than ever to having her way with it. Her voice muffled because of the cigar continuing to lurk in her mouth and Edwin’s hand continuing to grasp her throat, Breanna struggled to make her final offer. “If you want that Tompkins deal, I’m gonna need you to put that thing inside of me.”

Edwin’s nostrils flared as he realized that not only was he gonna have to do this, but that he was at this point looking forward to it, the devil having won in the tug-of-war with the message of Jesus he thought he had resigned himself to. “Alright,” he officially succumbed, releasing his grip on Breanna’s throat. “Maybe I can make one little girl’s fantasy come true tonight,” his hands migrating to Breanna’s skirt and hiking it up.

“Be rough with me, Edwin! Be as rough with me as you can!” Breanna pleaded, a submissiveness in her eyes that Edwin would never have imagined possible given the image she had cut for herself.

It became immediately clear to Edwin that Breanna was desperate for a moment of power reversal….a moment where she wasn’t in control. And after the emasculation she just treated him to, he was only too happy to give it to her. “You want it rough little girl. I can give you rough!” he projected, grabbing her leather-draped ass and preparing to spin her around on the desk surface. “Think I’ll take you from behind tonight!”

Breanna squealed with delight as Edwin forcefully pressed her onto the surface of her desk, her legs flailing over the edge as Edwin grabbed hold of her panties. He paused to look around the desk for a moment and then spotted her collection of cigar cutters. He grabbed one and approached it to Breanna’s bright red panties, stretching the waistband out and proceeding to snap the guillotine back and forth, whittling away at the fabric of her designer underwear until they were fully sheared. He then tossed the tattered panties in front of Breanna’s face to show her what he had done before putting his hands on her bare ass and pulling her toward him.

Breanna held her breath in nervous anticipation as Edwin’s hands squeezed her asscheeks tight and then thrust himself inside of her. Breanna howled at the feeling of Edwin’s penetration, almost losing her oral grip on her cigar as her long-held fantasy was now officially being realized. It had been years since Breanna had been so thoroughly dominated by another human being, and she couldn’t get enough of it even as Edwin’s penetrations got ever-more ragged and reckless.

“Rougher, Edwin!” Breanna pleaded, the foot of her cigar as wet with her saliva as the tip of Edwin’s cock was with her vaginal fluids. “Be even more rough with me!”

Edwin struggled to come up with a way to fulfill Breanna’s request to be even more with her, but then looked up the giant ashtray full of cigars and a light bulb went off in his head. He grabbed her long dark brown hair and yanked it back, before shoving her face into the ashtray full of Breanna’s own smelly cigar butts.

Breanna screamed, her current cigar snapping from the pressure of Edwin’s hand as he pressed her face into the overflowing ashtray while continuing to penetrate her from behind. Even though she was struggling to breathe with her face being squished into the pile of stinky, stale tobacco, her continued pleasured moans let Edwin know she was enjoying every second of it.

Edwin stepped it up further, vocalizing the reversal of power and Breanna’s moment of helplessness. “Every employee in this office who’s dealt with your shit for the last year has dreamed of doing this to you,” he asserted, continuing to hold the back of her head firmly and press her face into the ashtray, cigar butts surrounding her. “Maybe I should get out my phone and record this and let them all take a look at their big, powerful bitch boss wearing a face full of her own filthy cigars that she makes them choke on all day! A little girl like you has no business smoking cigars anyway!”

Breanna’s moans grew all the more passionate as she gasped for breath, her body quaking with satisfaction as the intercourse progressed. Her extended celibate stretch and her decade of absence from direct fantasies of Edwin Bennett were both being rewarded right now. Moments later, Edwin’s load erupted in coordination with Breanna’s release of fluid, their intense physical union nearing its completion, with Breanna ready for it be over only because she was entirely unable to breathe with her face buried in that ashtray.

Edwin released his hand from the back of Breanna’s head and she pulled herself up, gasping for her first breath in several moments and choking on the loose ash that her respiratory system consumed. She sat up on the table, grey ash smeared all over her face with the stub of her most recent cigar still clutched in her mouth, snapped in half and battered beyond recognition. Edwin did as he promised and took a photo of Breanna at what he knew was the most vulnerable and compromised state she’d likely ever been in.

“Maybe I should send this to every member of your staff. And to your daddy,” Edwin threatened, still hyperventilating himself after taking complete bodily ownership of Breanna’s person.

After gasping for breath for an additional several seconds, Breanna finally articulated her comeback. “Doesn’t sound like a very good way to get that Tompkins deal finalized.”

Edwin reasserted eye contact with her in a business posture. “I did what you asked, Breanna. I want to make that damn deal.”

Breanna smirked, her brief submissive detour having come to an end as she responded,. “You did part of what I asked. But my list of demands isn’t over just yet,” she said with a smirk. “Maybe we can go back to my place and really put this deal to bed.”

Edwin scowled as she looked at the visually compromised Breanna, her face covered in cigar ash but still unable to fully disguise her sinister intentions. Edwin suspected the second he put his hands on Breanna that there would be consequences for making a deal with the devil. But it was only now that he began to fully understand how serious those consequences would be.

————————–

An hour later, Breanna laid peacefully in her bed, her face buried in Edwin’s chest with his arm wrapped around her in the aftermath of a more traditional round of intercourse. Her Churchillian cigar extended at a diagonal right angle out of her mouth to avoid Edwin’s chest hairs, until she moved the cigar in her mouth and drew from it, watching as the hot cherry singed those chest hairs until Edwin felt the burn and reached up to lift Breanna’s cigar back to its original position. She laughed as a burst of her smoke drifted straight up into Edwin’s face.

Edwin kissed her tenderly on the forehead, hoping he’d done enough to make the sale and then attempting to finalize it. “I’ll make that call to draw up the contract then.”

Breanna darted her eyes his direction. “Not so fast cowboy. I really enjoyed tonight…..and I want to be sure there’s more of this to come.”

“What?” Edwin pleaded, wondering how far Breanna could possibly milk this.

“With your new business partner in St. Louis, you’re gonna be needing to make a lot more trips up here to check out how your investment’s doing,” Breanna responded, cigar clutched in her mouth as she maintained eye contact with him. “At least twice a month I want you to continue making my childhood fantasies come true.”

“Now wait just a minute….” Edwin began to plead.

“How bad do you want this deal, Edwin?” Breanna reminded.

Edwin sighed, the cigar smoke continuing to both annoy and tempt him. “Alright,” he grudgingly agreed. “Anything else?” he asked half-jokingly.

Breanna gave him a mischievous smirk and responded “Yes actually,” removing the cigar from her mouth and approaching the moist foot to Edwin’s lips. “Edwin Bennett just isn’t Edwin Bennett without the cigar. I want one of these in your mouth every second we’re together.”

Edwin shook his head in disbelief at how insane Breanna was, never having imagined he left this much of an impression on her just being himself back in his high-rolling days doing business with her father. Nonetheless, the tempting aroma of the cigar made this request an easier sell than the unfaithfulness to his marital vows. He responded without words, extending his lips to take hold of the big blond cigar that Breanna held in front of his face.

Breanna watched in erotic bliss seeing the pairing of Edwin’s handlebar mustache on top of that big authoritative cigar for the first time in a decade. She spent many nights gratifying herself laying frontally on a pillow seeing this image as a young girl, and she swooned with schoolgirl gratification observing it again at such close range. She bit her lower lip and grabbed hold of Edwin’s free hand, guiding it toward her vagina. She moaned with gentle erotic delight as he fondled her, her eyes transfixed as he continued to work the cigar just as she remembered.

Breanna leaned up and put her mouth on the whiskers of his perfectly groomed handlebar mustache, sucking on it with the indulgent aroma of fresh cigar smoke on his breath and moaning with even more passion, forcing Edwin’s hand to stroke her privates more aggressively. After a few moments, she paused, removing her lips from Edwin’s mustache and giving him another evil smirk.

“One more demand. I promise that’ll be all,” Breanna teased.

“Now what?” Edwin inquired, with Breanna’s cigar now comfortably resting in his own mouth.

Breanna reached up to his mouth to reclaim her cigar, clutching it in her mouth and replying “I’m gonna need that mustache of yours where it’s gonna feel….most gratifying.”

Edwin snorted. “Well you got a problem then girl because I ain’t ever gone down on any woman and I never will.”

Breanna laughed loudly. “Really? That’s gonna be your line in the sand? You’re gonna throw away a $30 million deal because you’re too much of a chauvinist to pleasure me? Guess you won’t have to make that call after all.”

Edwin paused, agonized about the prospect of ceding autonomy to any female enough to munch her muffin. He attempted to ease his way out of it with a dismissive “Go to hell,” hoping she’d just let this one go and call it a victory, but no such luck.

Cigar confidently clinched in her mouth, Breanna stood her ground. “Dirks Financial is already rocking, Edwin. This deal is just icing on the cake for us. But I get the feeling you need this deal a lot more than me, amirite?”

Edwin glared at her, his silent gaze confirming Breanna’s assessment.

Breanna knew he was on the ropes and went in for the kill. “The next time I nibble on this mustache, it better smell like pussy.”

Edwin paused for a moment of soul-searching, detesting being at this girl’s mercy to this dehumanizing degree but also taking to heart her earlier comment about throwing away this deal over a mundane matter of male pride, especially after already demeaning himself this much. Edwin made a final visual appeal to Breanna hoping she’d let him off the hook but immediately recognizing that wasn’t gonna happen. He began to slide underneath Breanna’s bedsheets, surrendering to her final demand.

“Atta boy!” Breanna muttered condescendingly through the cigar in her mouth, waiting in breathless anticipation for the world’s most perfect mustache to find its way to her reproductive parts.

Breanna grunted with audible pleasure as Edwin ventured to a place he’d never ventured before, on her or any woman, the facial hair on his upper lip, instantly driving her to a heightened state of titillation. Her grunts shifted to impassioned moans as Edwin reluctantly worked her female plumbing, but she kept her mind in the game long enough to reach for her phone on the nightstand. Raising her voice to distract Edwin with louder screams of pleasure, she proceeded to type “Now!” onto her cell phone keypad before setting it down and waiting patiently for a planned interruption.

About 20 seconds passed before Breanna’s bedroom door burst open, pajama-clad 12-year-old Hannah walking in with a cigar sticking out of her face and cell phone extended in front of her, recording the image of Breanna’s bed. Breanna tossed the covers off the bed with an aggressive flip, allowing Hannah to capture the image of Edwin Bennett plunging his face into Breanna’s genitals.

“Oh Hannah, hey!” Breanna announced theatrically, just in case Edwin wasn’t aware what was going on.

His face and mustache covered in Breanna’s fluids, a diminished Edwin looked straight into the camera for a split second before reaching to the bedsheets to cover them both up again. “Shit!” he snarled, feeling like even less of a man hiding under Breanna’s covers to keep from being filmed by a 12-year-old. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!??” he asked rhetorically.

Breanna winked at Hannah, giving her the cue to leave the room before pulling up the covers and peeking inside, looking at a cowering Edwin, her cigar smoke filling up the limited space under the covers. “You know Edwin, I trust that you’re a man of your word….to a degree. But now I guess we know for sure that you’re gonna keep your end of the deal aren’t we?” After pausing for a moment, she continued. “I hope you find my mattress comfortable, Edwin….because you’re gonna be spending a lot of time on it.”

Edwin remained speechless, his airspace dominated by the intense duel odors of Breanna’s cigar smoke and her vaginal fluids as he now fully realized the life sentence he was poised to serve for having made a deal with the devil.

Breanna removed her head from beneath the bedsheets and grabbed Edwin by the back of head, pushing it back down toward her crotch. “Now why don’t you go ahead and finish what you were doing and I will be happy to complete that Tompkins contract.”

Breanna screamed with an extra spurt of euphoria as Edwin’s mustache returned to her pussy. With business all taken care of, it was officially gonna be all pleasure from this point forward.

———————

Hannah giggled as she heard Breanna’s sexual screams while walking down the hallway back to the guest room where she was staying tonight. The giant cherry of Hannah’s cigar provided the only illumination in the dark hallway as she drew from it, a flurry of haunting smoke soon occupying the darkness. She couldn’t get that wink Breanna gave her on her way out the door out of her head, presumably serving as both a “thanks for playing along” and as some sort of incoherent life lesson about the rewards of “deferred gratification” that Breanna was now experiencing the rewards from.

None of it made any real sense to Hannah, and she had long ago figured out that Breanna was not only full of shit, but a terrible influence generally. Having just witnessed the extent Breanna was willing to go to ensnare Edwin Bennett, a man she claimed was her childhood inspiration, Hannah felt genuine concern about what would ever become of her if she ever decided to cross Breanna or put their friendship on hold. She then removed the cigar from her mouth to yawn, a reminder that she was getting sleepy. Whatever hard choices may or may not lie ahead with Breanna, they would have to wait for another day.

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

2021 Minnesota State Fair, Day 2


Uff da! That’s the term that seems most fitting after a truly dreadful day of sightings at the Minnesota State Fair on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Now there’s important pretext here that 2021 is an off year all around for the Minnesota State Fair and attendance has been down significantly day after day. In addition to COVID paranoia, the park-and-ride shuttle bus system that’s been the fair’s attendance lifeline for a generation cut back seven out of 10 routes this year. That’s left a mark. The Minnesota State Fair has packed as much of a punch as it has sightings-wise for so long because of robust attendance. A really good weekend day at the Iowa State Fair will have 130,000 attendees. A really good weekend day at the Minnesota State Fair will have double that crowd. Not this year. Two years ago, there were 266,000 attendees at the MNSF on Labor Day weekend Saturday. Yesterday, that number was down to 153,000.

Ultimately, I think that’s the biggest reason that the borrowed time I’ve been living on with Minnesota State Fair sightings came to an end on September 4, 2021. The prior week, I thought I held up respectably with 110 sightings, but this week I crash-landed with only 78 sightings. Few of them were memorable and very few of them genuinely impressed. It was right down there with that dumpster fire of a day I had for Day 1 of this year’s Iowa State Fair, although perhaps a bit less devastating since I didn’t yet know how bad the new normal for smoking was yet when I got that ISF reality check. Either way, I got zero early evening bounce from last night’s grandstand crowd like I got last weekend for TLC’s show, and I didn’t really expect one with geriatric rockers George Thorogood and Night Ranger performing. My expectations yesterday weren’t great, but it sure ended an already abysmal 2021 fair season on an even more sour note.

I got to the fairgrounds about 8:45, nearly an hour later than the previous week as I convinced my parents with the smaller crowds we didn’t need to get to the fairgrounds as early to get a parking spot. This would help take the edge off of my feet at the end of the evening….not that it really mattered that much. I stumbled around the grounds for more than an hour before my first sighting, buying food and going through some of the buildings to kill some time knowing that sightings would be scarce. Of course, go back even five years and sightings at the MNSF weren’t THIS scarce before 10 a.m. The first smoker worth mentioning yesterday was a familiar face. Unlikely as it was, she was the same girl who was the first smoker worth mentioning the previous Sunday. The late 20s blond smoker who was Sighting #4 last week was the second girl I saw smoking this week, albeit at a different post. The smoking area near the Heritage Center on the northwest side of the grounds, often bustling with tobacco users in the past, was all too often a ghost town this fair season. The one noteworthy exception was when this blond was standing by the community ashtray once again smoking a cigarette in the company of her nonsmoking boyfriend. Considering the boyfriend seemed on to me the week before, I didn’t bother with any photo attempts this time, but did take an open bench to watch her smoke. She had a pretty decent style, and frankly after an hour and a half I welcomed any young female face inserting a cigarette into her lips.

Since I counted the blond as a sighting last week, I didn’t count her again this week, but as it happened another younger gal stepped into the smoking area near her and lit up a cigarette of her own to become Sighting #2. She was a light brunette who looked early 30s and was moderately attractive. I noticed that like the blond, she was in the company of nonsmokers as a couple of family or friends waited on a bench outside the smoking area for her to finish her cigarette. By the standards of yesterday morning, this situation passed for a success story as two young women were smoking in the same place at the same time.

It was almost noon before I’d get another sighting worth mentioning. The primary smoking section in the midway is only about 50 yards deep into the midway so I often wandered in there when in the general area, given that it had been relatively productive the previous week. And sure enough, Sighting #7 awaited there, in the back of the smoking area where I found my blond beauty at the end of the night the previous week. This week’s girl was nowhere near that girl’s league but was a decently attractive late 20s blond in a black T-shirt and black leggings, smoking in the company of a smoking boyfriend and a nonsmoking friend. Her drags were deep and her exhales very cloudy, and she really proved her mettle with a long-distance dangle that lasted a good 20 seconds as she rummaged through her bag. Unfortunately, she always seemed to be on the left side of her boyfriend to where my photo attempts were obstructed. Thankfully, she eventually sat down on his right and I managed a single dragging pic. It’s not great though as her hair was in her eyes. I was finally on the board with something memorable and was hoping the fast-approaching afternoon hours would give me some momentum, but that proved incredibly elusive yesterday.

Another hour passed before the next sighting I got worth mentioning. I was perusing the smoking area on the west side of the grandstand and found a couple who looked to be in their early 30s preparing to have a cigarette. I took a seat on the cement steps of the grandstand entrance for a decent if slightly distant vantage point. The blond gal in the couple had an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips and was approaching her lighter to the tip of the cigarette to light herself up and officially become Sighting #15. I figured she’d be too fast for me to get the light-up on camera but I caught a break in the form of a broken lighter. With no butane in the lighter to deliver that desperately needed nicotine to her lungs, she made her husband live up to his marital vows and take care of her in sickness and in health. He had a working lighter and approached his flame to her cigarette, her cheeks hollowing as she consumed her inaugural blast of nicotine from her 100 mm slave master….and I got it on camera, albeit from more of a distance than I’d have preferred. I wasn’t noticed by the couple, but comically, some middle-aged guy in a wheelchair eyeballed me as I took the pic, and he proceeded to move his wheelchair several yards over as if thinking maybe he was the one getting photographed. I was nervous at this point but lingered for another minute or so, impressed enough by this blond to see what other guns she had in her arsenal. She was definitely in her 30s and definitely looked like a smoker, her hair in a ponytail, wearing sunglasses, a blue tanktop, and jeans. I stuck around for a couple of her intense drags and got one of them on camera as well, but given that the guy in the wheelchair continued glancing my direction, I decided it was in my interest to split rather than watch her smoke the whole cigarette as I’d planned to. It had been a pretty dull day up to this point and in years past this gal would have been older than my usual preferences for extra-base hit sightings, but with the slim pickings of 2021, she certainly made me sit back and take notice.

A shorter but moderately rewarding sighting came next at the bathroom area leading up to the north side of the fairgrounds. Walking toward the bathroom was one of the younger smokers I saw yesterday, a ponytailed brunette who was probably 21 or 22 and had a hint of a Gothic look with her black blouse and black shorts and fake long eyelashes, but she was still cute and really stood out yesterday by proceeding through the fairgrounds with a cigarette between her fingers. Sighting #17 was not likely the homecoming queen, but she had an alternative cuteness to her. I tried to maneuver myself to her side and get some pics but always had people walking in between us when I attempted to snap the shutter. I only managed one mediocre holding pic just before she walked up to the front of the women’s bathroom. Things got briefly interesting when I saw this wholesome 19ish blond beauty step out of the bathroom at the exact moment my brunette smoker approached, and as they made eye contact I thought for a split second that maybe they knew each other, unlikely as it seemed that they’d be hanging out. But the blond gave her a friendly but ultimately dismissive smile as she observed the brunette taking the final drag from her cigarette, just before the presumed mother and sister of the smoker came out of the bathroom and they walked away together. This was never gonna be a sighting worthy of any end-of-year lists as the Goth look isn’t my thing, but it had a lot of potential and I really wish I’d gotten to see more smoking before she surrendered that cigarette to the pavement.

Nearly an hour later at almost the exact same spot, another brunette caught my attention walking past me with cigarette in hand, ignoring smoking restrictions on the grounds and choosing not to limit herself to designated smoking areas. The dynamic here was also a bit complicated as the mid-20s brunette was the only smoker in the trio, with another 20-something woman in the mix as well as a guy pushing a stroller with a toddler inside. Sighting #25 didn’t have a glamorous presentation, her dark brown hair up in a ponytail and decked out in a white T-shirt and black leggings, but her shamelessness in publicly smoking intrigued me, as did her dialogue with this guy. She was having a low-intensity, passive-aggressive, Minnesota-style argument with the guy pushing the stroller, and while I didn’t hear anything specific she said, his counterargument caught my ear as he responded, “But that’s where your story falls apart.” Things didn’t seem to get heated even after that sucker punch, but the cherry of her cigarette remained heated as she pulled it to her lips for intermittent drags. I got a few photos, including one of her in mid-drag, and while it seemed more likely than not that she was the mother of the child in the stroller, it still seemed possible that other woman in the group, walking quietly with the bickering smoker girl and guy, was the mother. Ten years ago, this sighting wouldn’t have merited five minutes of my time, but by yesterday’s standards it was fascinating enough to follow the sighting through to its completion.

The smoking area on the east side of the grandstand has traditionally been the most productive of all the smoking areas. That was certainly the case a week ago, but yesterday it was just as uneventful as most of the other smoking areas, with almost no pretty faces to be found and startlingly few smokers at all there at times for a Saturday afternoon at the Minnesota State Fair, where it’s been shoulder to shoulder in this smoking area only a few short years ago. The closest thing I’d get to something memorable yesterday was Sighting #30, a woman who appeared to be of South Asian descent lighting up with her white husband. I’d guess she was mid-30s, wearing a white ball cap over her black hair with a green sweatshirt and black leggings below the neck. Once again, a decent percentage of my sightings yesterday were Asian women, and even though this gal wasn’t really doing it for me beyond counting her as a sighting, I was standing right there and went for a pic as the cigarette approached her lips. The pic turned out and I walked away. But yesterday’s standards, that had to be counted as a minor victory.

It was now 3:30 and I was behind schedule even from the previous Sunday, desperate for a dose of smoking glamour. I’d come as close as I’d get to getting it yesterday on the benches just east of the beer gardens when I came upon Sighting #32, my best sighting of the day. It was the kind of sighting where optics and location really sold it as I approached the bench to find this very sexy early 30s light brunette decked out in a black tanktop and jean shorts smoking an all-white. Once I got past the tattoo on her arm, I licked my lips at her presentation, those long and smooth legs folded right in front of my eyes coming out of those daisy dukes and matching perfectly with her too-cool-for-school sunglasses and general demeanor. Best of all, an open space on the bench right next to her that would be perfect for a close-up view of her performance and scoring some pics. She cooperated beautifully with the pics, taking a very steady diet of intense and wildly smoky drags, polluting the air quality to the point that I didn’t want to crop the photos too closely and cut out all the smoke that was being produced by her blackened respiratory system. Now it should be said that her boyfriend/husband was seated to her left and he was smoking as well, undoubtedly contributing to this gigantic haze of secondhand smoke lurking in her presence, but it was easy to see the size of her drags and the amount of smoke pumping out of her mouth and nose that the majority of that pollution was coming from her. She was talking to a nonsmoking female Asian friend, herself quite cute, and doing so helped her pivot her face in my general direction enough to where I got multiple dragging shots from her, where her concave cheeks gave away how intensely she was attacking that cylinder of tobacco. She made quick work of the cigarette, as you might expect, and I was close enough to tell that it was a Marlboro Light, still my favorite brand being a guy who came of age in the 90s when the majority of girls smoked them. When she finished the cigarette, she casually flung it to the ground and let it smolder without crushing it out, my favorite way a girl can dispose of a cigarette. As “best sightings of the day” go, this was pretty thin gruel I suppose, but damn did I ever need that moment at this point on a highly lackluster day. And unlike so many other sightings where I just couldn’t get the timing or location right, the stars were aligned for a bombastic show and some solid pics for this one.

I had a boomlet of momentum for the next few minutes and when I walked north of these beer gardens I ticked off a couple more sightings, including Sighting #34, a late 20s blond in a blue dress who didn’t really look like a smoker, yet was nonetheless wielding a cigarette while walking with a nonsmoking brunette friend outside of a designated smoking area near this display of hammocks. My problem was she kept wandering around aimlessly and, unlike the previous girl, her drags were few and far between. This was a frustrating combination, and the best I could manage was a holding pic as I never did pin her down enough to be directly in her line of vision for a drag. Ten years ago, this sighting wouldn’t have been impressive enough to mention, but in a sad sign of the times, she was good enough to warrant one in 2021 simply because nothing about her profile fit the mold of a smoker.

At around 4:30, I took my usual mid-afternoon stroll up to the north side of the grounds, coming up empty much like the previous week. I remember having 43 sightings on the day last week when I went up to the north side and I was very close to that number yesterday as well. At that point in the day, it seemed possible I’d do no worse than the previous week in overall numbers, but the previous week my early evening numbers surged when the crowd for TLC and Shaggy congregated around the grandstand for the evening concert. I was pessimistic that this Saturday’s performers–George Thorogood (“Bad to the Bone”) and Night Ranger (“Sister Christian”), neither of whom has had a hit in the last 35 years–would draw the same demographic. And unfortunately I was all too correct…and it was clear quite early that the crowds for this show would be microscopic and consist of virtually nobody under 50. I feared my early evening sightings prospects would be dim….and was I ever right. Never in two decades of fetishing have the 5:00 and 6:00 hours at the MNSF yielded this few sightings.

With that said, there was one moment of potential greatness at the smoking area in the midway, surprisingly my best performer on Saturday, shortly after 5:00. A pretty large assortment of people were lurking in the area, and one of them was by far the prettiest and most glamorous young female face I’d see all day (or night!) in possession of a burning cigarette. Sighting #46 was a truly gorgeous early 20s blond wearing sunglasses, a black top, and jean shorts, regrettably with a sweater tied around her waist that hid what I presumed to be a body as excellent as her face. As I encircled the awkwardly laid-out lineup of benches in the midway smoking area, I first laid eyes on this girl’s Asian friend who was vaping, and thought my sightings-deprived brain was playing tricks on me when I looked past the friend to see this beautiful blond with an analog cigarette. But right off the bat, logistics were a problem. The girls were standing behind the first row of benches while the back row of benches were full giving me no place to observe. Then it managed to get even worse from there. A couple little girls were running back and forth to their grandmother on another set of benches to the side with granny shouting, “1…2…3….go” and my smoker girl felt like she was standing in the way and decided to crouch down behind the first row of benches, almost completely inaccessible even for me to see let alone get pics of. This was a disaster!

I got creative though and took a risk, reaching my hands behind the bench and snapping a photo from an angle I couldn’t even see from where I sat. Considering anybody could have seen it, including the granny thinking I was taking a pic of her grandkids, the move wasn’t without risk, but it paid off in that I was at least able to get a solid holding pic of this very attractive smoker crouched down with a cigarette in hand. I hoped to get another when I saw that she was about to take a drag, but she was an incredibly slow smoker and before she even got around to taking the first drag in a good two minutes, she stood up with the friend and headed to the back row of benches once they opened up and she could take a seat. This left completely out of luck for additional photos and given the layout of the smoking area, only able to watch the rest of her show from a horrifically awkward standing position. She didn’t disappoint in what I was able to see though, sitting at the bench and propping her elbow on the top of it, her wrist cocked with smoldering cigarette in hand. Streams of smoke rose from her elegantly held cigarette, indicating she’d taken a drag that I had just missed. I waited around another 90 seconds or so before the next one came, her elegant form persisting as she took a deep drag and exhaled it. Unfortunately, the girls’ respective boyfriends were now walking out of the bathroom and meeting with them, standing in my line of vision and further diminishing an already lackluster vantage point. I had no choice but to walk away, drawing attention to myself standing there and glaring at the back of the smoking area and at this point getting no reward from it. She was by far the most rewarding find of the day, and would have been fast-tracked to a year-end favorites list if I had seen more than one drag from her. I was so frustrated walking away from that sighting, but a couple of moments later was at least grateful for the consolation prize that my long shot photo attempt turned out and I can at least show readers what she looked like. I really hoped this opening teaser would yield a follow-up from this same beauty later in the night, but that didn’t happen. Once again, yesterday was just a really bad day for sightings.

The next two hours would confirm just how historically bad September 4, 2021, would be in the annals of Minnesota State Fair fetishing. During the dinner hour when my sightings numbers spiked last week (and just about every week I’ve ever been at the MNSF), they were coming no faster than they had been in the lackluster hours that preceded it. The numbers trickled in and I was heading to the beer gardens area for a quick look-sie just before 7:00 when I was supposed to meet with my parents, and I ran into a sighting that I knew would delay me. A trio of three mid-20s females was sprawled out on the sidewalk with adult beverages in front of them, and two of them holding cigarettes in their hand. Easily the cutest of the two was Sighting #58, sporting long auburn hair and wearing a loose-fitting tanktop and jean cutoffs. She was far from being in the league of the last girl profiled who I saw in the midway, but she was cute and a smoker, and had an infectious energy about her that made her fun to watch. Sighting #59, on the other hand, was an overweight blond with braided pigtails who was good enough to qualify as a sighting but easy to ignore in the presence of the cuter friend. There was also a guy in the mix–smoking himself but standing while the girls sat–who seemed as though he was the auburn-haired girl’s boyfriend as he stood behind her and she kept looking up to him. Unfortunately, she was another slow smoker and every time she took a drag, she turned toward the boyfriend’s leg where I couldn’t get the drag on camera. I got several shots, some of them relatively clear but others with a bit of a blur given that sunset was now approaching. The better of the pics captured her upbeat energy, but none of them caught her directly in mid-drag. I stuck around for most of the cigarette, even though doing so was gonna make me late meeting my parents, but as it became clear she was gonna turn toward the boyfriend’s leg for every drag, I took off, once again frustrated that the few opportunities I was getting for something memorable were getting messed up by logistics.

I was five minutes late arriving at the information booth area to meet my parents. My recent baseline preference was at least 110 sightings by the 7:00 hour. Last Sunday I was lagging badly enough with only 83 sightings. But tonight I met the parents with only 59 sightings, a disastrous showing, my morale in the gutter despite a picture-perfect day at the fair with sunshine, temps in the mid-70s, and low humidity. I had to grit my teeth and agree with my mom as she rhapsodized about what a perfect day it was at the fair. Now the one thing I had going for me compared to last week as I was about to begin the evening shift was that this was a Saturday night on a holiday weekend as opposed to a Sunday evening on a workweek. This meant I at least had a chance of better and more prolific evening sightings than the lackluster haul I got last week. How’d that work out for me? Not so good.

The usual hotspots near the beer gardens and the grandstand were alarmingly dead while most pretty faces continued to have glowing flash drives rather than cigarettes approaching their lips. I was now resigned to the fact that 95% of females under 30 consuming nicotine were doing so through vape devices, but it sure didn’t make it easier every time I saw a gorgeous girl exhaling water vapor and knowing that not that many years ago she’d have had a cigarette in her hand. I was also prepared for the even worse indignity of walking through an endless haze of marijuana smoke near the beer gardens and midway, and while there was some of that, there was decidedly less of it going on than the previous weekend, even though that was a Sunday.

The midway was incredibly crowded and all signs pointed to my best course of action being to visit that midway smoking area and visit it often during those evening hours. This was a departure from a few years earlier when the midway was proving to be one of the least productive places on the grounds for sightings. At this point, it wasn’t that the midway had gotten that much more awesome though. It was more a matter of the rest of the grounds–including the beer gardens area–becoming just as unproductive as the midway was three or four years ago. With that said, the midway delivered a very unusual sighting around the 9:00 hour that would end up being my best sighting of the evening hours last night. I sat down on an open bench in the midway smoking area to rest my aching feet for a bit, not finding much of anything to my liking in the immediate vicinity, but raising my eyebrow shortly after sitting down when an ethnic-looking girl walked in front of me and lit a cigarette before sitting on the bench next to mine and beginning to consume it. And consume it she did……

Sighting #65 was a dark-complected girl who was about 30 years old and looked like she was from South Asia, possibly India but not necessarily, sporting long dark hair but an otherwise very Americanized presentation, decked out in a black ball cap, a black blouse, and tight camouflage leggings. Only in Minnesota! The community ashtray obstructed part of her image but most of her was still in open view of my camera as she began to ingest the bejeezus out of that cigarette, taking an incredibly intense drag that left that cherry glowing for a good seven seconds as she pumped the cancerous content into her lungs. I was lucky enough to get two pics of that lengthy drag, both of them relatively clear for this hour of the night. The next couple of moments were delightful as she continued attacking that cigarette with mercilessly long drags, releasing tight plumes of smoke straight ahead through pursed lips when she exhaled. At one point, she carried on with a no-purpose dangle for about 10 seconds, still desperately feeding her lungs with nicotine she’d clearly deprived herself of for too long prior to this beloved cigarette. I didn’t want to risk getting busted at such close range so I put my camera away after the successful duo of dragging shots, but now I wished I’d kept the camera out to have gotten this dangle. The performance’s high points came early, as she apparently satisfied her basest bodily urges with those first few drags and turned the histrionics down a notch for the rest of the cigarette….

It seemed odd for this girl to be sitting by herself at this location, and I’d soon discover she was not alone, as another South Asian guy emerged from the bathroom in the company of a son who looked about seven years old. The husband was also smoking but it seemed odd that the couple hardly spoke and didn’t even really acknowledge one another as they finished their cigarettes and then got up and walked away together, evoking stereotypical thoughts of a loveless arranged marriage that probably had no real-world basis. I couldn’t directly see the butt she dropped in the community ashtray between her bench and mine, but every indication by the filter was that it was a Newport. Looking at the photos today, it’s striking to me how women of color, particularly those with darker complexions, often have even more obvious signs of being heavy smokers than white women, and that was the case with this gal. Her skin tone around her cheekbones along with the color of her lips really gives away that she’s a pretty heavy smoker, despite an ethnic pedigree that likely puts her in rare company. I wouldn’t say she was entirely my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the sighting and especially the bravado she put into that smoking performance, which was exactly what I needed on such a ho-hum night.

And speaking of women of color, the next sighting of significance I got was another Asian woman who I came across toward the east side of the grounds after making the rounds from the midway over on the west side. Sighting #70 was an East Asian gal, the stereotype that comes to mind with generic racial designation of “Asian”, but she had a sexy Americanized presentation decked out with a white blouse and pale blue jean short cutoffs that looked really sexy on her. Her long dark hair had considerable blond highlights and her face looked youthful. It’s really hard to tell age on a lot of Asian women but considering this girl had a child in a stroller in front of her, my guess is she was mid-to-late 20s, which certainly fit her presentation. Incorporating a cigarette into this milieu made for a sexy image and I found a bench pretty close to her group to observe the show, which was nice. She didn’t smoke with the bombast of the South Asian girl on the midway but her soft image really sold the cigarette consumption from the drag to the exhale. Unfortunately there would only be a couple of drags before the cigarette reached its end and even more unfortunately I managed an otherwise decent up-close photo that would have turned out well if not for the bright lights of The Garden beer stand shining directly into her face and obstructing visibility of her cigarette touching her lips, At least the photo successfully sells the image of his wholesome young Asian gal standing there polluting her lungs, but as I watched her drop her all-white to the pavement I wished I could have gotten more from this one.

With about an hour and 15 minutes fetish time left, the 13 hours I’d been walking were starting to catch up to me, the pedorthic pain being all the more noticeable given the scant rewards that the hard work of my feet was producing. Since my day started an hour later than it did the previous week, they held up better a little longer into the evening, but by about 9:30 they were becoming noticeably hobbled as I desperately tried to organize a game plan on how to squeeze out whatever sightings I could on an evening that was likely too late to salvage. This would of course wrap up a day that was destined to be a historic flop in the first place. It wasn’t until the last 15 minutes when I started putting a button on the day with a couple of sightings that were at least modestly memorable.

The beer gardens area had been a complete bust all day, and the previous week for that matter as well, in stark contrast to years past when I could be counted on to miss a half dozen sightings if I blinked near this beer gardens area. But finally, after 10 p.m., I got a decent duo of cigarette-wielding 20-somethings with Sightings #74 and #75 hovering in the street a few yards away from where the band was playing. The blond on the left was mediocre, but the brunette to the right was more my style, decked out in a Minnesota Twins jersey and a pair of medium-blue jean shorts. She wasn’t flashy or glamorous, at least not tonight at the fair, but was nonetheless the prettiest face I’d seen in quite a while approaching a cigarette to her lips. She was a better smoker than the blond too, with more frequent and more skillful drags, engaged in conversation with a nonsmoking guy. Rather than attempt any doomed-to-fail photos in this poor evening lighting, I just stood back and enjoyed several drags as she smoked, enjoying it but also lamenting how far we’ve fallen that it had taken me from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. to get my first worthwhile sighting of a pretty girl smoking in close proximity to the beer gardens on a Saturday.

I was down to my last 15 minutes or so of fetish time and my feet were reaching their breaking point, but after scoring a bottom-of-the-ninth save in the midway smoking area the previous week, it was a no-brainer to wrap my evening by checking out that same area. There were no Gwen Stefani lookalikes lighting up this week like there was last, but one bench had an intriguing family mix with mother, father, grandma, and kids. The grandma already had a cigarette going, but the blond mid-30s daughter next to her had such an unmistakable smoker look to her that I couldn’t imagine she would not take her mom’s lead sooner or later. I waited a couple of minutes and my instinct was confirmed when I looked up to see a long cigarette dangling from the lips of the blond daughter just as the lighter flicked to bring it to life. My first instinct was that Sighting #76 was in the process of lighting up a 120 but I soon dismissed that as a mirage of the modern-era, where 100s are the new 120s as fewer women smoke 100s and almost none smoke 120s, making the 100s appear artificially longer when you see one. She reinforced my instinct on her smoker’s look as she took her first drag, indulging in that cylinder of tobacco she just fired up with obvious signs of physical pleasure and bodily need. Unfortunately, her kids began standing in her way from there and it was hard to see much after the second drag, and I wasn’t gonna attempt any photos with this lighting at this point in the night. As I got up to leave, there was no question that the midway was the MVP for smoking on September 4, 2021, insofar that anyplace on the grounds was deserving of that designation yesterday.

I had a few more minutes to painfully meander through the south side of the grounds and pick up a couple more mediocre sightings en route to meeting my parents. Much as my body was ready for this day to be over, my head was not ready to let go. I’d spent a lot of mental energy toward seeing this fair season happen in 2021 when it was no sure thing given the recent COVID spike, and the day that statistically should have been my most productive of the fair season was pretty close to a disaster. The whole fair season mostly lived down to my worst fears, confirming that missing 2020 was a huge loss because smoking was beginning a trajectory of accelerated decline, leaving a landscape in Minnesota and Iowa that was barely recognizable even compared to 2019.

Well over 90% of females under 25 who consumed nicotine did so through vaping devices this fair season. While 2019 was nobody’s idea of paradise as far as attractive young females smoking was concerned, the nearly unanimous consolidation of vaping over analog cigarettes was nowhere near this far along 24 months ago. I recalled my evening on Labor Day weekend at the 2019 Minnesota State Fair and it was a decidedly different affair, with a half-dozen extra-base hits, and two sightings that made my year-end top-25. Even that evening seemed like a generation ago based on what I was finding last night. As I said, attendance was down nearly 40% from this same weekend in 2019 as well, but I’m not convinced my sightings numbers would have grown proportionally even if there had been the usual 250,000+ people there yesterday.

Over the past decade, I’ve added venues and additional evenings at my fairgrounds to compensate for the slow-motion slumping of sightings playing out over the 2010s. In 2019, I wrapped up the fair season with 712 sightings, which was consistent with the baseline of sightings I’d scored in years of the recent past. In 2021, after investing nearly the same amount of fetish time at fairgrounds, I end the fair season with 445 sightings, an astonishing 38% decline. I was in the dark going into this fair season about what the state of vaping would be among young females, having not been plugged in for any real way about its trajectory. I was a little surprised to see just how popular it was at every venue I attended, and just how much it’s stuck in the current 18-24 generation after its inaugural run in the 2010s, further reducing the likelihood of youth cigarette initiation anytime soon.

So while it’s always sad to leave the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for the final night of the year knowing another fair season is (if I’m lucky!) another year away, it’s even more depressing when contemplating the very real possibility that with smoking’s current rate of attrition, my sightings are probably gonna decline another 38% next year.

Posted in Real-Time Fair Sightings Reports | 1 Comment

2021 Minnesota State Fair, Day 1


I’m glad I had the high of the August 21st visit to the Missouri State Fair to coast on because the days leading up to my first visit to the 2021 Minnesota State Fair were dreadful.  I visited my parents’ place in southern Minnesota for a long weekend and was met with three days of endless heavy rain over the opening days of the Minnesota State Fair.  As usual, my plan was to attend the MNSF on Saturday, but with wave upon wave of thunderstorms passing through, Sunday became the only option for opening weekend.

It was the last thing the Minnesota State Fair needed this year.  Every other Midwestern fair came and went without controversy in August but in true Minnesota fashion the virtue-signalers made an example of it, going ape-shit about its potential as a super-spreader event and co-opting local media to bad mouth the fair.  It struck me as likely that fair organizers would impose a long list of mitigation measures but surprisingly took no steps at all, not even an indoor mask mandate that seemed like a certainty, presumably because they were already short-staffed and expected to lose a good chunk of their workforce if they were mandated to mask up.  All the bad publicity coupled with the terrible weather has led to a serious decline in attendance in the first days of the fair, compared to years past.  Considering the ranks of smokers has been cratering at my other fairs, this seemed likely to be a bad combination for preserving my long-held robust sightings numbers at the usually well-attended Minnesota State Fair.

So how did I do on August 29, 2021?  Over 14 long hours, I got 110 sightings.  This was a number consistent with the eight or nine daytime-only hours of fetish time I got at the fair 20 years ago before I started staying in the evenings. But the decline was less than I expected going in, particularly since the crowd was noticeably thin for a weekend day at the Minnesota State Fair.  And while I got a number of extra-base hits over the course of the day, the exceptionalism of the Missouri State Fair a week earlier was nowhere to be found.  I’m used to the demographics of smoking growing older and less attractive, but scarier yet was to be walking by the “designated smoking areas” to find nobody at all far too many times during the day.  It’s easy to see why with cigarettes at $10 a pack or more in Minnesota.  With all that said, the day wasn’t as horrific as Day 1 of the Iowa State Fair two weeks earlier, but there were none of the “adrenaline surge” moments I so crave at any day fetishing at the fair. 

The uncertainty that always comes with finding a parking space on the weekend was amplified this year with seven out of 10 park-and-ride buses not going to the fair, so the folks and I arrived before 8 a.m., far earlier than I’d prefer, just to be safe.  Turns out we got there far earlier than needed which led to considerably more sightingless dead time in the morning where all I accomplished was straining my feet earlier than needed.  Sightings were very slow to roll in and the first one of consequence I’d get was Sighting #4, a late 20s blond in a conservative green T-shirt and leggings puffing away in the smoking area at the edge of the beer gardens in the company of her nonsmoking boyfriend.  Even though she was only modestly attractive, the contrast was stark with this blond being the smoker given how macho her burly, bearded boyfriend was.  I was able to sneak in a trio of holding pics but my vantage point was very exposed and I didn’t want to tangle with that boyfriend who seemed to be wise to me.  I got to see three drags from her before she tossed the butt into the nearby community ashtray, which still had a bunch of standing water in it after the heavy rains from Saturday night.  It was nice to be on the board with something vaguely memorable as patience was certainly a virtue in these sparse morning hours.

Over the course of the day, I’d say a good 20% of my sightings were Asian women.  I’ve always scratched my head at reports that Asian women have the lowest incidence of smoking of any demographic as they punch well above their weight in Minnesota and have for some time.  Sightings #9, #12, and #14, which I scored in the late morning or early afternoon, were all younger Asian women.  None of them were extra-base hits but I enjoyed seeing them.  The best of the bunch was Sighting #12, a mid-20s grandstand worker who seemed very paranoid about being identified as a smoker, which made it awkward for both of us since I wanted to see her smoking.  She made nervous eyes with me as I approached, sitting on the far end of a bench and trying to hide her cigarette.  The more I tried to get a closer look, the more paranoid she seemed, not necessarily because she feared me but I suspect because she didn’t want to be seen as a smoker.  She took one final drag and sprung off the bench, crushing the cigarette out against the pavement and then approaching a trash can before walking back under the grandstand with the vendors.  It’s sad that it’s come to this, but interesting in this specific example that she’s this nervous about being seen as a smoker yet still chooses to step outside and smoke on her break anyway.

It was a long time coming but I finally got my first extra-base hit of the day around the 1:00 hour when I stumbled upon a duo of 20-something smoker gals in the smoking area near the beer gardens.  Sightings #16 and #17 consisted of one blond and one brunette, but it became instantly clear that the blond was gonna dominate my attention for this one.  Decked out in a flattering blue and white sundress with sunglasses, considerable exposed cleavage, and considerable bare leg, she left an incredible first impression and that impression was compounded by what she did next, sticking the cigarette in her mouth for what I figured to be a final drag but instead carrying on with a lengthy talking dangle.  I would have loved to have gotten this on camera but didn’t figure I’d have time and was too transfixed by the imagery of this cigarette stub bouncing up and down in her lips as she spoke.  Much as I love talking dangles generally, seeing a girl this adeptly talking through the stub of her cigarette was an extremely enticing image.  Unfortunately, that was it.  She disposed of the cigarette in the community ashtray and resumed talking with the less attractive brunette friend.   I got a few post-cigarette pics and as I studied her a little more closely, I was struck by how familiar she looked.  I’d known this girl from somewhere before, and I was pretty sure it was from a designated smoking area of the Minnesota State Fair. 

With little else going on, I stuck around a bit, expecting there was a decent chance she’d go for another cigarette.  My instinct was right as a pack of American Spirits came out of her purse and she plucked two more cigarettes, one for herself and one for the brunette friend.  I should have figured her out then but it took me a few more hours before I put the pieces together.  This was actually my #1 sighting of the 2016 fair season!  Back then, she smoked three American Spirits in a row, with considerable no-purpose dangling throughout the show that year, along with a very exotic pair of shorts covering her bottom.  She was still attractive, still smoking American Spirits, and still dangling five years later!  There would be fewer histrionics on this second cigarette as the girls just chatted and smoked.  I’d get a double-dragging pic but there was an issue in that another girl in white shorts stood in the background and the white from her shorts obstructed the image of my dragging blond.  Much as I love white shorts generally, this isn’t the only time during fair season 2021 where cigarettes have blended into them!  I continued to enjoy the show until the cigarette’s rather unceremonious end at which point both girls got up and wandered off. 

Later that afternoon, I’d see the same duo take a bench just outside the beer gardens and smoke another round.  I was not in any position to watch let alone take pics of this beyond just a passing image, but by this point I put together that the blond was repeat smoker girl royalty from the top of my 2016 pyramid.  She was holding up well, still attractive and still very much looking like a smoker.  Had I seen more of that opening image of the talking stub dangle, she’d probably make it into my year-end list for 2021 as well, but unfortunately the trajectory of the sighting lost its spark as it went on.  Logistics weren’t on her side here, but I was nonetheless thrilled to have seen what I got to see and knowing that five years after her spectacular show, she was still addicted to cigarettes and was still capable of smoking them like a beast.  Even more interesting that supposedly additive-free American Spirits are her cigarette of choice given that she seems to be so addicted.

Another extra-base hit came in the next hour at the smoking area in front of the dairy building.  I’ve had some great success with sightings here in years past but it was the most depressingly vacant of the prominent smoking areas yesterday, with the notable exception being Sighting #21.  A slender mid-20s blond in a black tube top and black jeans stood in the middle of the smoking area with a boyfriend unzipping a backpack strapped to her back.  It didn’t take long to notice his fingers fumbling around between two packs of cigarettes, Marlboro Lights and cork-filter Camels.  The Camel pack was the one that came out and he produced two cigarettes, one for himself and one for the blond.  I had an open bench behind them to score some decent pics of this farrow-to-finish sighting, starting with her unlit dangle and following up with the light-up, even though the light-up pic was partially obstructed by her shoulder.  As you might expect from a girl with two different brands of cigarettes in her backpack, she was a solid smoker, taking a steady string of no-handlebars dangling drags while conversing with the boyfriend.  She was quite attractive as well, her long blond hair held up in a ponytail that fully showed off her well-toned shoulders in the tube top.  I snapped a number of photos and while her back was to me in most of them, I got a number of good holding pics and, toward the end, a decent profile shot of her in the middle of one of her dangling drags.  It was a solid show and the best extended smoking show I had seen up to that point yesterday.  She flipped the cork-filter butt into the community ashtray and walked off with the boyfriend, leaving the dairy building’s smoking area vacant once again in her absence.  There was a girl-next-door quality to this blond that’s been hard to come by with smokers all fair season and especially so at the Minnesota State Fair.  It felt good to know there was at least one girl of her pedigree who had multiple packs of cigarettes in her backpack for a day at the fair.

A short while longer I had another strong find with a late 20s husband and wife duo east of the grandstand.  The son wandering in the background looked like he was about eight years old, waiting for mom and dad to fill their lungs with carcinogens.  Sighting #23 was not going for anything particularly glamorous, a dark brunette with a long ponytail decked out in a black tanktop and utilitarian medium-blue jean shorts, but she had a cute mom look about her with a pair of glasses that not only made her seem studious but also reminded me of my ex-girlfriend Courtney, herself a heavy smoker.  Her back was to me for most of the sighting, but she helpfully turned her head leftward when she took a drag so I scored a couple of decent dragging shots with her face in profile.  She knelt down and stubbed out the cigarette on the pavement before I was ready for the sighting to be over, but she was a welcome pretty face with a cigarette sticking out of it in the first half of the afternoon yesterday.

I’ve gotten quite a few decent sightings in front of the free stage at the International Bazaar over the years, and while it generally disappointed yesterday, there was one memorable moment in the mid-afternoon when I came across two late 20s couples relaxing with a drink, and one member of the party very much relaxing with a cigarette.  Sighting #31 was nothing extraordinary to look at, a light brunette in a tanktop and jeans who was too chubby for my taste, but she deserved a quick paragraph of recognition for her indulgent smoking style.  After every drag, a look of primal satisfaction filled her face and was followed by exhales entirely through her nose.  When I saw her the first time, I wondered if I was just seeing the exception, but I stuck around for five drags and every one of them exited her face through her nostrils.  She was clearly really enjoying that cigarette, and I wonder if anyone else in her nonsmoking group was picking up on how much she was loving it or if I was the only one.

And while there were genuinely few electric moments yesterday, one of my favorites came next at the smoking area east of the grandstand, which was my most productive yesterday and, for that matter, for the duration of years that the MNSF has had designated smoking areas.  Sitting on a bench in the middle of the smoking area was the face of an attractive mid-to-late 20s dark blond who was the most surprising girl of the day to see smoking a cigarette.  Once again, there was a boyfriend/husband lurking in the background with a cigarette of his own, making me wonder if he was the bad influence on Sighting #33, or maybe she was the bad influence on him!   Her very wholesome face had just a hint of badass cover with a pair of sunglasses that for whatever reason put an exclamation point on her overall look.  Below the neck was where she really stood out though, wearing a white T-shirt with just a little exposed midriff and a pair of skin-tight black leggings that perfectly framed her lower body, hugging every feminine curve with the kind of precision only polyester and spandex are capable of.  Sitting there on the bench with her legs crossed, she casually looked over a fairgrounds map with a cigarette perched between her fingers, pondering at considerable length where she was gonna go next at the fair after she finished blackening her lungs.  I got some delightful photos of her in that pose, including a mid-drag photo, an “about to drag” photo, and an adorable holding photo where she’s lost in her analysis of the map….. 

I got to watch her smoke the majority of the cigarette from a safe vantage point, in awe every time the cigarette approached her lips and in even greater awe as she contaminated the area with slow-churn exhales that lazily spilled from her face in a way that suited her look.  The boyfriend had wandered off for a bit, giving me a little extra cover to watch her closely right up until the point she stood up and approached the community ashtray with the cigarette I would sadly be unable to identify.  As she stood near the ashtray waiting for him, I took the opportunity to snap a final standing pic of her decked out in the T-shirt and leggings, just to authenticate her girl-next-door look and its crazy contrast to the cigarettes she’s addicted to. 

This sighting solidified its standing as one of my favorites of the day when, a couple of hours later, I saw her again at another smoking area sitting next to the boyfriend, puffing on another cigarette.  My positioning was not conducive to photos here so I just stood back from a distance and watched, her impressive drags and breezy exhales consistent with what I loved about the first sighting.  Unfortunately, I was a little too exposed this time and I sensed she knew I was watching.  Much as I wanted to stick around until her cigarette’s completion, after the second time she made eye contact with me in mid-drag, I decided it would be in my interest to split before she nudged in the burly boyfriend’s direction and pointed my way.  The second sighting confirmed to me that this cutie was a committed smoker, and the wholesomeness she brought to two different smoking areas at two different points in the day felt like I was on a time warp to 20 years earlier when it wasn’t so unusual to see a girl like her smoking.  Couple that with her great presentation in those tight leggings and she was my second-best sighting of the day.

I said earlier that Asian women made up about 20% of my sightings on the day, and easily the most memorable of those sightings was a trio of 20-something Asian women seated at a table near the beer gardens, each with cigarettes between their fingers. Sightings #35, #36, and #37 provided a pretty stunning visual as I approached that table, my eyes processing one cigarette after another after another in the early stages of consumption by this trio, all of whom had pretty distinctive looks about them. On the left was a girl in sunglasses, who I got to see the most smoking from given the angle from the seat I was able to take at a nearby bench. In the middle was the most wholesome-looking girl of the three, who held her cigarette behind her, even though I couldn’t understand who she was trying to spare from the smoke given that all three girls were smoking. On the right was the most glamorous of the three, a long-haired blond in a gray tanktop, who I got to see the least smoking from because of where I sat. I maneuvered my camera and managed to get all three in a single shot, with the girl on the left in mid-drag but no cigarettes visible from the other two. I sat and watched a few minutes of the show from my vantage point but was so close I dared not take any additional photos. It was the second half of the afternoon by now and I was behind schedule, but I had hope that my vaguely accelerating pace was positioning me for some momentum.

That didn’t really happen though as I would soon take my late afternoon trek to the sparser north side of the fairgrounds. Some years this yields quality sightings but yesterday wasn’t one of them. I stopped for lunch along the way and probably wasted a half hour of prime late afternoon fetish time before I got back to the core part of the fairgrounds. Then again, maybe I didn’t waste too much time because pickings continued to be slim. Luckily, another three-for-the-price-of-one sighting would save me in the usual spot….the smoking area east of the grandstand. A trio of gals who all looked about 30 hovered either on or near the bench decked out in leggings with freshly lit cigarettes between their fingers. Sightings #52, #53, and #54 presented an image I didn’t see much of at my other fairs….a group of young women reinforcing each other’s habits as they chatted amongst each other with cigarettes in hand. The brunette who was seated interested me most, with chin-length dark brown hair, sunglasses, and a black T-shirt with her leggings, giving off a chill vibe as she plugged away on her cigarette. I got two photos, one of which features her about to take a drag. The other two girls were standing, with a blond in the mix who interested me least and another brunette who was also attractive but who I got to see the least of because of her position. Both of my photos are okay, with cigarettes visible in both shots, but neither are awesome. For that matter, the smoker girls’ performance itself wasn’t particularly awesome either, with long waits between drags as they were more interested in the conversation than their cigarettes which were treated like an afterthought, but I’m more than willing to deal with distracted smoking shows if it means trios of young women are smoking…..

But what would ultimately make this sighting an extra-base hit was the second act. After walking away from them, I decided I was gonna grab a Dr. Pepper at a nearby stand and then double back and resume with the pattern I was going. I didn’t even have this trio in mind when I charted that course, but when I returned about five minutes later, I’ll be damned if all three girls weren’t at the same spot smoking another round of cigarettes. Moments like that kept yesterday from being as disappointing as it occasionally seemed at various points. Several of my better finds of the day had encore acts….and in some cases such as this one, they ended up being my better finds of the day because of the encore acts.

Afternoon was transitioning to evening and the grandstand crowd started to form as it usually does. Sunday evening’s performers were TLC and Shaggy, and while they drew a crowd that largely came of age in the 90s, that’s probably a pretty good demographic for boosting numbers because even though that group is aging out of its peak attractiveness years, they’re more likely to smoke than girls 10 years younger. And so it went last night as I scored a larger harvest of sightings in the 6:00 hour than any other hour of the day, and by no small amount. Most of these sightings took place in close proximity of the grandstand, and one of the more interesting among them was Sighting #62 at the smoking area west of the grandstand. where an early 20s, ponytailed light brunette with glasses (and unfortunately tattoos) was sitting next to her nonsmoking mother smoking a cigarette. The smoking daughter was only average on the attractiveness scale and mom wasn’t attractive at all, but it’s such a rare dynamic these days to see a daughter smoking in the presence of mom, in this case with casual jocularity ensuing between them as the daughter continued smoking. A seat was open right next to the daughter and I was able to get three photos, including two of her dragging. The daughter was decked out in a pretty plain red tanktop with plain jean shorts on the bottom so the presentation was by no means glamorous, but it was still nice to see this unlikely moment of bonding before a TLC show. The daughter finished her cigarette and then they both got up and stood in line for the concert.

By contrast, my next sighting of note did have an air of glamour to it, even though it was short-lived. A trio of mid-to-late 20s gals were standing around drinking beers and only one of them had a cigarette, but lucky for me it was the best of the three. Sighting #65 was a long-haired blond in a cleavage-bearing red top with very tight pale blue jean shorts on the bottom and long, smooth legs coming out of them. Even though there was quite a bit of cigarette left, I could tell by her body language that it was not long for this world, so I had to move fast if I wanted a photo. I only had one shot but I made it count, snapping the shutter just as she was beginning to close her lips around the final double-pump drag. She knelt down and stubbed the half-smoked cigarette down on the pavement after that, smoke spewing from her mouth and nose as she descended. She and her friends then wandered for a bit en route to a nearby barbecue restaurant for dinner. Her ass was absolutely incredible in those tight pale blue jean shorts, probably the nicest one of the day on a smoker girl. But given how quickly she put that cigarette to bed, I suspected she may only be a social smoker indulging a cigarette while having a beer. Perhaps not though given that neither of the friends were smoking and you’d think a young woman of her fashion consciousness wouldn’t want to deviate from the group unless she was guided by addiction. Either way, I was very lucky I didn’t come upon this sighting 30 seconds later or there wouldn’t have been a sighting at all let alone a great photo.

I stayed relatively close to the grandstand area in the 6:00 hour but wandered a couple of blocks to the east down Dan Patch Avenue at some point, stumbling upon a separate duo of women smokers sitting down on benches outside the designated smoking areas to indulge a cigarette. The more interesting was Sighting #72, a mid-to-late 30s brunette who wasn’t entirely my cup of tea but won me over with a verifiable smoker’s look and shameless flaunting of smoking rules. She was a long-haired brunette with a green sweatshirt and black shorts, sporting the lips and cheekbones that are instantly identifiable as a long-time smoker even though she was definitely past her peak attractiveness years. There was an open seat right next to her and I got a trio of pics, including one dragging pic. Unfortunately the pic cut off the top of her head but it’s close-up enough that you can appreciate her general profile and you can tell just by her lips that she was very much used to having a cigarette between them many times a day.

Heading back to the grandstand area where the line for the TLC and Shaggy concert was really starting to grow, I came upon an early 30s trio of gals where two of them were smoking, briefly interacting with an older couple and talking about “planning ahead”, and I suspect the context involved having a cigarette before the show. Sightings #75 and #76 at first struck me as unremarkable, but something about the tall, long-haired light brunette of the duo kept me interested enough to stand there to observe a little bit. Decked out in a black tanktop and shredded blue jeans, she was modestly attractive but I had a feeling she’d impress as a smoker, and when she let rip a dangling drag for about 10 seconds when the cigarette approached her lips, I was glad I trusted my instinct. I changed positions to get a better vantage point of her where I could attempt some risky photos. It was even riskier since I was struggling to work the camera again for whatever reason and kept having to retry, but I’d get the money shot when it counted. The half-smoked cigarette went into her mouth and she carried on with an extensive dangle that must have run for 30 seconds. I got a half dozen pics of it, and lucked out because it was late enough in the night where photos start to get blurry. In this case, a couple of the pics were blurry but a couple are perfectly clear, the cigarette positioned at an upward 45-degree angle from her lips as she began digging for something in her bag. When the dangle ended, I put the phone away and enjoyed the rest of the show from a distance, effectively forgetting about the dark blond across from her who was also smoking. It was a nice show and all these sightings leading up to the grandstand concert was getting me as close as I’d get to an adrenaline moment yesterday.

The last sighting of note before the concert crowd was allowed inside came at the smoking area west of the grandstand where a fresh-faced blond in a wholesome blue T-shirt and jeans was sitting on the pavement near a community ashtray, cigarette in hand. Sighting #79 was likely the youngest smoker I saw yesterday, quite possibly younger than 21, but unfortunately she made eye contact with me the second I approached. When I took a seat on the paved steps about 10 yards away from her, she had immediate suspicion in her eyes and I knew I had to tread very carefully. It’s crazy how you can be lurking in the immediate presence of some girls for an extended period and they seem to have no idea while others sense instantly that they have an admirer. Anyway, as I said it was close enough to dusk that my photos were hit and miss and the only dragging shot I got of her was a blur. I did manage two distant holding shots, but she was posing for a selfie in one of them and flashed the most adorable smile, one of the most innocent-looking poses for a smoker girl of the summer. Standing on his feet behind her was a boyfriend who was also smoking, and unfortunately he seemed to be picking up on my presence as well. Much as I wanted to maintain my vantage point of this sighting, I left my post and tried to wander around to a more obscure spot where I’d at least be able to watch. The blond was distracted by her phone but the boyfriend seemed to notice me lurking again. It was time to go. I wish I could have seen more of this one but it wasn’t worth the risk. A couple of hours later on the midway, I almost got my chance as the same couple walked past me, but unfortunately only the boyfriend was smoking this time.

I met with my parents briefly at 7 p.m., our long-running routine to touch base and eat a few chocolate chip cookies. It’s a good 15-minute respite for my feet but I don’t like missing that period for sightings. I prefer to have 110-125 sightings at this intermission, but I’m afraid those days are probably over forever. By 7:00 last night, I only had 83 sightings, and even that was quite a bit better than I’d have guessed I’d have two hours earlier before the pre-concert surge. Unfortunately, I had low expectations for the evening. It was a Sunday night and not the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, meaning the party crowd would be sparse and that the outstate visitors to the fair would likely have gone home. This meant a disproportionate circle of metro area kids who come from places with smoking rates near zero. Twenty years ago, the evening hours were when the smoker girls could be counted upon to be out in full force, but nowadays, especially on a Sunday night, the demographics that used to be able to be counted upon no longer can be. I expected to see a bunch of vaping as day turned to night, and of course I did, but what I saw and smelled in addition to the vaping made the vaping seem like the more favorable option.

But before the evening took a nosedive, it would reach its crescendo moment as I left my parents and drifted back to the smoking area east of the grandstand. The same bench already responsible for greatness on two occasions yesterday had plenty of potential again as four late teen girls sat there chatting, with older smoking ladies sitting near them on the other side of the bench. As I scanned the crowd, one girl in particular tickled my fancy, a dark brunette with shoulder-length hair falling onto her bare shoulders, her chest held together with a sparse black leather top with an exposed midriff and some loose-fitting jeans below the waist. She had a pretty intense IT factor. But she also had a Juul pod in her hand. I shook my head as I encircled the bench to get a better look at the others in the group, also taking a shine to the blond next to her in a white tanktop and jeans. The other two were also attractive, but not in the same league as the main two. It struck me as a bit odd that these girls were sitting here in the smoking area since none appeared to be smoking, but I’d get some clarification on that when I suddenly saw an all-white placed between the lips of the dark brunette in the leather top who intrigued me most, followed by an adept light-up. Sighting #88 was officially my youngest sighting of the day, but her style immediately took on a glamorous air as she put her left elbow on the table with her wrist fully cocked holding the cigarette like a pro from an old film noir.

It was approaching dark and this point and I knew my pics would be blurry but I was circling her trying to find a good angle and got a semi-respectable rear shot of her holding the cigarette with the cocked wrist. I was now prepared to take a seat from a nearby bench and watch this show of this very attractive 18ish brunette smoking a cigarette, but I was quickly detoured from that original plan when I then noticed another cigarette approaching the lips of the blond sitting next to her. Just that quickly, Sighting #89 was added to this mix, and she came aboard memorably and colorfully with the help of the brunette. I had to look up the term for a Trevor story last year but the brunette brought the blond’s cigarette to life by “monkey fucking”, leaning into her with a lit cigarette in her mouth while the blond was inhaling from her unlit cigarette trying to get a flame. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use the brunette’s lighter but I certainly wasn’t complaining, and their cigarettes were pressed together long enough that I managed a photo, albeit a blurry one…my first photo ever of two girls monkey fucking. Apparently the blond’s cigarette still wasn’t fully lit and they pulled together again this time making sure that both of them had sufficient means for an analog nicotine hit. Once both girls were lit, I took that bench across from them to enjoy the show, my eyes mostly concentrated on that adorable brunette who was now adding even more color to the sighting by stretching her hand out with a dollar bill to a middle-aged smoker gal sitting across the table from them. I had missed the full context but it seemed pretty likely that the brunette poached a cigarette for herself and her friend from this middle-aged woman and was now paying her back, expressing her gratitude for nicotine satisfaction that came from a higher-quality source than the glowing flash drive she had been relying on up to that point. Perhaps this was the reason she and her friends sat down in the smoking area in the first place, waiting for the first adult generous enough to supply them with a real cigarette.

I continued to settle in for this exciting show, taking my clearest photo of the bunch capturing the brunette and blond’s faces. It’s still blurry and no smoking is visible, but it’s a better shot than the others. The brunette continued to dominate the show with a spectacle of lugies that followed most of her drags. I’ve always found it cute when teen girls feel the need to spit after every drag and back when teen girls smoked with greater frequency I got a number of sightings that involved chronic spitting, but this girl was the first example I’ve seen of this in quite some time and once she got to releasing salivary discharges, she couldn’t quit, leaning over to spit four times as she continued to work the cigarette. It started as an unfortunate distraction when the fourth friend of the group, another late-teen blond in a white tanktop and slacks stood up directly in my line of vision of the brunette, but ultimately she added to the storyline when the brunette handed her the cigarette for a couple of drags, turning this sighting that involved two teenage girls into a sighting of three teenage girls with Sighting #90 now onboard. I took one final photo of the standing blond dragging, but it’s a rear shot and you can barely see anything.

The sighting came to a fairly unceremonious close as the brunette and seated blond finished off their respective cigarettes and dropped them to the ground. I had a sighting with a somewhat similar storyline two years ago as well, taken on the midway where a teenage brunette poached a Newport from a stranger and then gave her hot friends a couple of drags. This sighting was about on par with that one quality-wise, full of surprises along the way where I wasn’t expecting even one girl in this group of teens to smoke and ended up seeing three, with a rising tide of triggers getting tripped along the way. It was a great way to start the evening shift and gave me some hope that maybe the final three hours of the fair would go better than I anticipated. Unfortunately, this was not a harbinger of great times to come.

As darkness set in, the vaping pods became more visible, which was expected.  There seemed to be fewer of them among Minnesota State Fair girls than the other fairs I attended, but they were still plentiful compared to cigarettes in those evening hours.  More ominous was a trend I started picking up on in 2018 and 2019 at this fair, and that was the lurking skunk smell of marijuana in the air.  I certainly noticed it on the midway, the beer gardens, and the teen hangouts a couple of years ago and was less than thrilled with the trend, but it was wide-open reefer madness last night.  Young people, in particular black males but certainly not exclusively them, were openly standing there with lighters firing up giant blunts….and on a Sunday night no less.  The offensive and overpowering odor was at times unavoidable and there appeared to be absolutely zero efforts toward enforcement.  I didn’t run into this at any of my other fair venues and marijuana is not legal in any capacity in Minnesota, so I was taken aback by the culture shift toward full acceptance, and the contrast between that acceptance and the hyperbolic obsession to condemn cigarettes.  I was probably giving off more fumes than the doobies being lit as I stewed about this, although my fumes certainly didn’t stink as bad as theirs!

Quality evening sightings would be few and far between, and making matters worse, the early start to the day meant my feet were reaching their limit earlier than was needed, with every step beginning to hurt and more rest breaks being needed.  Being a Sunday night, the beer gardens area was sparser than usual so I spent a fair amount of time in the midway, particularly the smoking area of the midway near the bathrooms.  This would produce a couple of rewarding finds.  There was a line for the women’s bathroom and I was surprised when I took note of an attractive early 20s brunette standing in that line with a freshly lit cigarette.  Sighting #93 had a glamorous presentation as well, her light brown hair slung over her bare shoulder in a braid, a skimpy black tanktop, and tight blue jeans featuring the late 80s-era shredding that’s back in style again now.  Another more moderately attractive young lady stood in line with her and at one point got hold of the cigarette for a single drag to become Sighting #94.  I managed a blurry holding photo as the primary girl stood in line for the bathroom, but the pic wasn’t worthy of her.  I only got to see a couple of drags and while I wasn’t convinced she was a daily smoker, it was impressive that she was one of the few young ladies indulging a cigarette rather than a vaping pod or a blunt, and doing so while standing in line for the bathroom no less.  Unfortunately, her turn to enter the bathroom arrived before the cigarette ended, so she stomped it out only half-smoked and went inside.  I sure would have liked to have gotten a full sighting from her as that stylish feminine glamour was hard to come by last night.

And so it went for the next hour and a half, the pace of sightings slowing to a crawl during the very hours where it inevitably spiked 10 years ago.  9:30 came and then 10 and my fetish time was quickly running out, but not as quickly as my feet were.  Every step was agonizingly painful after 14 1/2 hours of mostly uninterrupted walking, and I was beginning to mentally check out just as my body was.  After my final pass around fairgrounds hotspots, I decided I’d make one more visit to the midway smoking area before I met with my parents at 10:30, and was prematurely congratulating myself on getting through another fairgrounds day without a confrontation with one of my photograph subjects, not expecting the evening was likely to produce anyone else worthy of any risky photos in these last 10 minutes.  I would end up being wrong about that though….

As I arrived at the designated smoking area near the midway bathroom, my cursory glance yielded nothing, but then I took one gander behind the front tier of benches and was struck to see an extremely flashy and glamorous mid-20s blond standing there with cigarette in hand, immersed in conversation with a nonsmoking friend.  After more than 14 hours of time invested at this fair, I waited for the last 10 minutes of the day for my first 150-proof dose of smoking glamour, and my third-best sighting of the day.  Sighting #108 looked like a 90s version of Gwen Stefani, her platinum blond hair held back in a tight ponytail that really helped her attractive yet cigarette-shopworn facial features stand out.  A nice-fitting white tanktop tightly compressed her boobs and flattered the rest of her upper body while an even nicer pair of button-fly pale blue jean shorts accentuated her lower body.  And best of all, her left hand was cocked with a fairly fresh cigarette between her fingers.  This incredible presentation and an open bench right next to her would allow me to enjoy the whole show.   Everything was in place except for one complication…..

The bench wasn’t entirely open as there was a young male midway worker sitting between where I sat and the blond smoker, his head directly in the path of my vantage point, particularly for my camera.  I was pessimistic photos would turn out anyway given the lighting so I was content to sit back and watch.  But when I saw how deep her drags were and how she continued to hold that cigarette in a sexy, cock-wristed position, I decided I just had to take the risk and snap a couple of shots.  Amazingly, a couple of them turned out, including a holding shot where she briefly leaned forward and I was able to photograph her frontally without the midway worker’s head in the way, and then another solid dragging pic, both of which were vastly better than I imagined possible at this time of the night with this kind of lighting.  Not only was she a stunning find with a cigarette in the modern age, she was a quality smoker as well.  While I personally tend to go more for the soft and innocent type, there was no question at all I found the right girl to end the night on, reinforced as I watched her take her final drag from the cigarette that was every bit as indulgent as those that preceded it before tossing the butt into the community ashtray, sadly denying me the brand ID once again.

It was 10:25 now and time to head to the Coliseum to meet my parents, my hobbled feet less of a distraction now that I was riding high in the aftermath of that midway sighting.  My parents nonetheless noticed the hitch in my step as I approached and knew it was time for me to get off of those feet, likely scratching their head why I ended up walking so much more of the day than they did.  Unfortunately, my final sighting of the night was cockblocked by my parents’ presence as we walked along the perimeter of the Coliseum and I laid eyes on a girl and her boyfriend that I had noticed earlier in the evening and had a suspicion about.  Sure enough, sitting on a bench along the perimeter of the Coliseum, the cute late 20s blond with the long braided hair was now smoking a cigarette as I suspected her of regularly doing when I first spotted her….while the boyfriend next to her wasn’t smoking.  Sighting #110 would have been a much better find if I had more time to observe her in detail, but all I could do was sneak a glance as I walked past while in mid-conversation with my dad. 

From there it was a shorter walk than usual to the car since we were able to park closer to the gate having arrived so early, and that was great news since I was desperate to get off of those feet.  While nobody will accuse yesterday of being a particularly great day for sightings, it was less awful than I feared was possible going in having suffered through that first day of the Iowa State Fair two weeks earlier which truly was a dumpster fire.  The moments of surging adrenaline I experienced in Missouri were few and far between but on balance I had a number of good finds, got some decent photos of them, and saw repeat performances from others.  

Still, I’m only a few years removed from the baseline of a good day at the Minnesota State Fair being almost 200 sightings, and it’s unlikely 110 sightings will even be a new baseline because of the lack of replacement smokers, meaning today could easily seem like “the good old day” in the near future.  Could I have done better if I went on Saturday instead of Sunday?  Or if the grandstand act had been different?  Or if attendance was higher than the COVID-adjusted 149,000 I had yesterday compared to the usual 200,000 per day on opening weekend?  Maybe a bit, and that gives me some hope for a stronger second day when I return for Labor Day weekend, likely on Saturday.  If I do no better or worse then than I did today, I’ll have to consider it at least a minor victory in comparison to as badly as this fair season started.

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2021 Missouri State Fair


After taking an unplanned year off from fairgrounds fetishing in 2020, I made my triumphant return in 2021 to discover a frightening new world of rapidly diminishing female tobacco use. I anticipated it coming but through my first few fairgrounds venues this season, I discovered things were even a bit worse than expected. Heading to Sedalia, Missouri, bright and early on Saturday, August 21, 2021, I was wondering if a “good day” of sightings as I had previously defined it was even possible anymore. I’m happy to report that a good day of sightings is still possible because I had one at the Missouri State Fair.

It was a day that had multiple adrenaline-charging moments, a long list of extra-base hits and a couple of all-out stunners, including the frontrunner for my top sighting of 2021. Overall, I finished the day with 74 sightings. Now that’s not in the same league as the 98 sightings I got here on my peak year of 2018, but it’s actually up from the 68 sightings I got in 2019. Considering I was down by nearly half compared to 2019 at my county fair and the Iowa State Fair, to be up from 2019 at Missouri was quite an accomplishment. To be sure, this has been an inconsistent venue the five times I’ve visited, but the common denominator seems to be a popular musical act bringing larger crowds with more smokers. I had mixed feelings whether Hank Williams, Jr. would be a good fit for my demographic preference, but I can’t complain with the results compared to 2019’s Brothers Osborne who didn’t draw nearly as large of a crowd. I’ll get to the not-so-great news later in the writeup and focus on the positive of when this inspired day began.

Whenever I go to Sedalia, I eat lunch at this barbecue place that used to have a franchise where I live but closed down several years ago. It’s a much better deal and more to my liking than anything I’ll get at the fair, plus the day doesn’t really get rolling until after noon at the Missouri State Fair anyway. I rolled into the fairgrounds around 12:30, my excitement building as I pulled into the lot to park my car. Before I was even parked, I saw Sighting #1, an early 30s blond in skin-tight black leggings with a cigarette in hand in the company of a college-age girl who must have been a younger sister or acquaintance. The girl was too old to be the smoker gal’s daughter. She approached the parking attendant and asked in a semi-southern Missouri drawl, “What’s the best way into this park?” to which the attendant pointed her toward the gate. It was actually a good question because they sent me to a totally different spot in the parking lot than I was used to in my previous visits. Anyway, I wouldn’t see anything else from that encounter, but only about 20 minutes after I entered the “park” I’d see this same blond in the tight leggings smoking again just outside a crafts building. You usually get a pretty good feeling about a day based on the first impression, and yesterday’s first impression was very strong.

It’s a rush entering the gates of all three of my state fairs every time, a full day of sightings bliss (hopefully) ahead of me, but there’s something about this Missouri fair that is hallowed ground for me, producing two of my all-time best sightings in 2015 and 2018, and I was tickled to be making my first lap around the grounds yesterday. It’s the only fair I attend that still sells tobacco, with cigarettes for sale at the “General Store” and a specific cigar stand that yielded my best MOSF sighting of 2019. With that said, it was a slow start before sightings started rolling in, but I was prepared for that and didn’t panic.

On my first trip through the midway, I came across Sighting #3, a decently attractive blond in sunglasses standing by herself smoking a cigarette in front of a carnival ride. She was a dark blond who looked mid-30s and I suspected she was a mother waiting for her kids to get off the tilt-a-whirl. I snapped a couple of lackluster pics from a nearby bench while observing the show, and then confirmed my suspicion that she was a mother when her kids got off of the ride and approached mom. But I was nonetheless surprised that the “kids” were two teenage girls. It would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago that the women I would count as “sightings” at my fairs would be mothers of teenagers…..yet here we are. I stand by her attractiveness though and was grateful for the sighting opportunity in those marginal early afternoon hours.

Sighting #4 was also a good find for early in the day. I was on the relatively sparse south side of the grounds when I spotted a blond with a cigarette standing behind the bleachers for this aquatic show. Her rear presentation was a bit frumpy in a black tanktop and loose-fitting jean shorts, and I anticipated when I got there she’d either be middle-aged or the kind of genetic misfire that is pretty common in rural Missouri, but I was pleasantly surprised to see was she pretty cute. I’d guess she was about 30 and not bashful about indulging in the pleasures that cigarette offered her. I was standing in a good spot for photos and got two great ones….one in mid-drag and the other in mid-exhale, with both shots speaking volumes about her quality smoking style. I don’t know if she sensed I was watching or if she just walked away because she wanted to be closer to that aquatic show, but she soon walked in front of the bleachers with her cigarette still going. A couple of hours later, I saw the same blond smoking again sitting in front of one of the buildings.

I’d outdo that one a bit later near the center of the grounds when I came upon Sighting #5, a mid-20s light brunette whose hair was bunched up in a ponytail, decked out in a light green tanktop and a flattering pair of dark blue daisy dukes with a button fly, an outfit that really showed off her well-toned arms and legs. But with as nice as her general presentation was, the half-smoked cigarette between her fingers was what interested me most. Hard as it was to believe with as perfect as her body was, she appeared to be a mother, the guy with her lugging around a wagon with two young sons in it as mom attended to her own selfish nicotine needs. Unfortunately the cigarette only had a couple of drags left in it and I didn’t get a great chance to study her style. I snapped a single holding pic just before her final drag, regretfully watching her crush out her cigarette on the pavement and then toss the butt in the nearby trash can. The boyfriend parked the wagon at the edge of the sidewalk for a bit, presumably going to get something to eat, leaving mom with the two boys. I took one final pic for a visual aid of her nice body before walking away, satisfied with my finds in the first hour of the day.

The next couple of hours wouldn’t be as productive, with only a slow roll of mediocre finds. This pattern used to be unique to Missouri but I experienced it last week in Iowa too, so I wasn’t panicking yet and instead used the opportunity to take some mental notes of young ladies I came across who had potential. The gal at the top of this list showed up at the south side of the grounds, wheeling a stroller out of a fairgrounds building with mixed company following her. I’ve found that I’ve been extremely adept this year at identifying smokers by their features, and my radar was buzzing all over the place as I visually consumed this badass-looking ponytailed dark brunette wearing sunglasses, a lavender tanktop, and dark blue jean shorts that matched up beautifully with her tanned skin. She looked about 26 and I approached to get a closer look, and as my eyes zoomed in on her incredible ass, I saw a rectangular box stuffed in the left back pocket of her shorts, a telltale sign of cigarette possession. In addition to the young son in the stroller, she appeared to be there in the company of a wholesome-looking boyfriend/husband and an older couple that seemed like her parents, even though mom was not at all attractive. Especially after seeing that cigarette pack in her back pocket, I decided to hang close for a bit, watching as mom and daughter chatted extensively while slow-rolling through the fairgrounds. Unfortunately, they disappeared into the DNR building a few minutes later and since I had no idea how long they’d be in there, I decided to move on. But the beauty part of the Missouri fair’s comparatively lower attendance is that the odds are quite good I’d run into people again. Who knows….maybe that would be the case here….

It was the second half of the afternoon when I took the best-timed midway run in fair history, being surprised how sparse the back portion of the midway was as I turned the corner to loop back around. My eyes almost bugged out of my head when I saw a trio of cigarette-wielding smokers standing in between the Tilt-a-Whirl and the octopus ride. Front and center was this incredibly shapely long-haired blond in a pink tie-dye tanktop and white shorts with her back to me, shockingly without a single defiling tattoo in sight. I said a quick prayer as I hustled on up to get a closer look, desperately hoping the frontal view would be as good as the rear view and that this blond wasn’t either an unusually shapely 50-year-old or a horse-faced genetic deviant. As I arrived on the scene, I’d soon discover Sighting #14 was very much as attractive as her presentation indicated. She looked about 24 with a tanned face that looked like an avatar of Midwestern wholesomeness while still sporting the features of a heavy smoker. Her very long blond hair hung all the way down her back in a loose ponytail, adding one more dimension of femininity to the incredible presentation. The only thing that didn’t fit was that cigarette that kept approaching her lips as she consumed its carcinogens with solid and timely drags, the majority of which I got to witness.

The trio also consisted of a young guy who appeared to be her boyfriend as well as a middle-aged guy who was either her father or the boyfriend’s father. Their location for this cigarette break was isolated and difficult, so I wouldn’t have much opportunity for quality pics, and of course my early efforts were failures. I moved back to the edge of the nearest ride and managed one lackluster holding pic in a pose that didn’t flatter her. No sooner did I get that only pic before watching her lean down to crush out the cigarette in the grass. She held on to the butt until her group vacated, at which point she tossed it into the nearest garbage can, denying me butt identification. I looked in the trash can to see if it was resting on top but it had apparently rolled on down there out of sight. I was frustrated that I didn’t have more to take away from this epic sighting and committed to at least getting some nonsmoking pics of her as she and her group progressed deeper into the midway. I hustled on up to an empty bench and snapped a shot that pretty much said it all about this girl and her electric life-of-the-party energy, which I was only now picking up on as she walked next to her boyfriend with a beaming smile on her face. Below the neck, the frontal presentation was breathtaking, her pink tanktop showing off an impressive chest and just a bit of midriff, and her highly stylized white shorts gorgeously encasing an amazing lower body. The absolute perfect summertime presentation to me is a beautiful young woman in a pink top and white shorts, and I never would have imagined in the year 2021 that the kind of girl who’d present herself that way at a fair would be a cigarette smoker. If I got nothing else from this sighting, I was thrilled to realize there was still at least one out there who was.

I walked out of the midway feeling pretty good, but still a little disappointed I didn’t get more or better pictures. But I wouldn’t be out of the midway long before I saw my favorite blond in pink and white on the main block of food vendors trying to decide what to have to eat. Some carnival barker type passed them trying to interest them in his low-rent sideshow, and the blond briefly and playfully engaged with him, reinforcing my first impression of her relentlessly positive energy. Her pastel look very much evoked the image of Haylee McPherson from my Trevor stories, but her personality was much more in tune with the sweetheart Lauren Nelson character from the series. I decided to keep close tabs on them as the afternoon progressed. They sat down to eat their meal but I reconnected with them when they were done about 15 minutes later, again heading into the midway. I had a pretty good feeling I was gonna get to see more from her, and about 100 yards into the central part of the carnival she stopped with her boyfriend and presumed father, and in a couple of minutes, the boyfriend produced a cigarette, apparently from the pocket of his shorts, and lit it up.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the blond wasn’t gonna get a cigarette of her own, and I was briefly bummed contemplating that maybe she wasn’t as heavy of a smoker as her features indicated, but I held out hope she’d at least get to sample some of the boyfriend’s cigarette. After only two drags from the cigarette, my wish would come true as she held out her hand and claimed the cork filter cigarette as her own, the couple proceeding down the midway as she took nicely timed drags from it. My photos wouldn’t fail me this time as I nailed a number of holding and dragging shots, and those shots continued when the couple got in the back of the line for the most extreme ride on the midway. I found a bench in the shade right across from them that enabled me to watch the smoking show and tick off multiple pics as she exposed a line of kids to her noxious secondhand smoke for the next couple of moments. I didn’t think things could get any better, but somehow they did.

Her father was sitting on the next bench over, and she apparently had to convey a message to him. She proceeded to walk right towards me, cigarette approaching her lips, and I scored a perfect pic of the moment. She put that cigarette stub in her mouth and dangled it as she walked right past me to her father, dangle-dragging the stub in a way that made clear this girl was an adept and well-practiced smoker. The dangle lasted about 10 seconds before she began talking to her dad. I couldn’t hear what she was saying to dad and somebody was sitting between us preventing me from getting more pics, but it was adorable watching her talk to him with that stub now between her fingers for the next couple of moments. She took a final drag and exhaled it straight down to the ground as she stepped on the butt with her flip-flop. It was at this point I noticed a pack of Newports sitting on the bench next to dad, and as I got up to walk past I could tell by the green ring on the cork filter that her cigarette was a Newport just as her litter indicated. With the show over, I zipped on out of there to take a look at how well my pics turned out, and I was thrilled to see there were several good ones.

My adrenaline was now surging and the second act I’d hoped for from this incredible girl delivered beyond my wildest expectations only about a half hour after the first act. I was on my way out of the midway, but even though I knew she and the boyfriend would still be in line for that extreme ride, something just called me back to that spot. Suffice it to say my intuition delivered for me again, albeit from an entirely different source. Only about 50 yards from the ride blondie was in line for, I took at a gander at the midway ticket line and saw a familiar female face from before in possession of a cigarette. It was the homely and overweight mother of that badass brunette in the dark jean shorts with the cigarette pack stuffed inside. At the exact moment I took note of mom taking a drag, it hit me that her daughter was standing right next to her. And just as I laid eyes on the attractive daughter, an expulsion of carcinogenic filth spewed from her mouth and nose. I changed positions to get on the other side of the ticket line and, sure enough, the sighting I was holding out for an hour or so earlier had officially become Sighting #15 for me, the hot brunette mommy standing right next to her mother with half-smoked cigarette in hand, both obnoxiously smoking in the close presence of kids in the ticket line for the midway.

Neither of the men nor the young boy in their party were present for this stinky wait in line. I didn’t get a good look at the boy earlier so I don’t know how old he was, but small enough to be pushed in a stroller and I suspect the black-lunged women were buying tickets for whatever kiddie rides he could go on, but as of now nobody else from their party was in sight so I had full clearance to snap some pics. Mother and daughter continued to smoke shamelessly in this line, the daughter’s style compatible with her look as a long-time heavy smoker who was addicted enough to be smoking in this setting, with nice long drags and messy exhales only barely directed away from the children in line with them. While I managed a handful of pics from different vantage points to effectively convey the brunette’s milieu, all were holding pics as my dragging shots didn’t turn out. Plus it was the time of day where I was beginning to fight the afternoon sun. So ultimately I got good pics but not great pics, and I could tell as the cigarette approached her lips it was poised to be the final drag. I took it all in one last time and watched her lips consume a snootful of tobacco, a final messy burst of smoke escaping her face as she dropped the cork filter to the ground and crushed it out. Once they were out of line, I approached that butt for a closer look and discovered the pack concealed in the pocket of those tight-fitting dark blue jean shorts was Marlboro Reds. Not bad, mama! Unfortunately, I wouldn’t see her again yesterday, but it was massively rewarding to have my original intuition vindicated once again this fair season and being able to follow through on that nice opening teaser earlier in the afternoon and I’d ultimately rank this among my elite five sightings of the day.

Now it was time to check up on my blond sexpot just down the midway block and see if she was off of the extreme ride yet. In a couple of minutes, I caught up with her and her boyfriend. Her pink top and white shorts made her impossible to miss, which came in handy for me multiple times yesterday, and her vivacious perkiness that she wore as well as those tight shorts also made her stand out like a beacon of positivity in this large crowd. The girl and her boyfriend were wandering aimlessly between souvenir vendors and carnival games, and the boyfriend decided to play this “can you hang on for two minutes” game that tested upper-body strength. Now I gotta say that it’s at times depressing to see these hot girls in the company of lowlife boyfriends like I saw with that Iowa State Fair girl last week, but that was not the case with blondie’s boyfriend, who looked like a solid guy, and was well-built enough to endure the two minutes on this bar to win the prize. They proceeded to get lemonade from there and slow-walk their way through the midway a bit more, but given what I’d seen in the past hour I suspected they would soon have another pressing priority, and sure enough the couple began to migrate to the far end of the midway. I thought they were gonna take a bench by the ferris wheel, but to my concern, they just kept walking to this exit tunnel that led to the parking lot. But I’d get one more lucky break as they stopped right before getting to the tunnel, a cigarette once again appearing between the boyfriend’s fingers….

There was no way I could get a closer look at this one given their isolation, so I moved on back to the pig barn across the street to watch what I could from afar. The boyfriend held serve on the cigarette for three drags after lighting it, but having seen blondie take command of the last one, there was precedent for her getting her grubby hands on it before long. And sure enough, history repeated itself as my favorite blond took hold of the cigarette and proceeded to pump more carcinogens into her greedy lungs for the majority of the cigarette’s duration, her third of the last hour or so. I was totally immersed in the show from my comfortable distance, so much so that I was startled when two young girls approached me and asked if they could “pet the piglet”. I didn’t know what they were talking about at first until I realized they thought I was the caretaker of the pig at the exhibit behind me in this livestock barn. I conveyed this to them and they just walked away, blissfully unaware the best exhibit at the Missouri State Fair was going on across the street at this tunnel entrance where smoke that smelled worse than pig manure was blasting out of the face of this beautiful blond. I watched her smoke the cigarette to its completion, stubbing it out on the cement railing of the tunnel before progressing down into the tunnel and into the parking lot, presumably to leave for the day. I looked for the butt she left behind but as she held onto the first one to toss it into the trash, I suspect she did the same with this one rather than litter it as it was nowhere to be found.

What a ride! There’s no guarantee of greatness at the sparsely attended daytime hours of the Missouri State Fair, but I had just experienced it with a full-blown adrenaline rush consuming my body that helped cool down the sunburn. It was hard to believe I could top what I just saw, but I still had more than six hours of fetish time left and it’s usually the early evening, when the grandstand crowd for the evening concert begins to roll in, that the Missouri State Fair typically starts to really get good. So there was cause for optimism that more greatness awaited.

Almost exactly at 6 p.m. I got my last pre-concert sighting of note. Two girls and a guy were walking toward the south side of the grounds with one of the girls being the only person of the group in possession of a cigarette. Sighting #20 cut a different profile than most at the Missouri State Fair, a cute early 20s brunette with her hair down to her shoulders wearing a conventional tanktop and jean shorts but covering herself in a kimono that seemed like an odd choice for a hot Saturday at the fair. A freshly lit cigarette protruded from her fingers as I walked past. At the first opportunity, I turned around and doubled-back hoping to follow and get a better look, but she had turned toward one of the buildings and made eye contact with me in a way that I knew I couldn’t follow without telling on myself. She was now hand in hand with the other less attractive girl in their group. It’s pretty rare to see a lesbian couple where the cute one is smoking and the unattractive one isn’t. I admired a couple of drags from the rear as she walked on and then walked away, eager to see how that line for the grandstand was coming along.

The crowd size was living up to expectations, with long lines waiting outside the grandstand to see Hank Williams, Jr. The crowd skewed a bit older as I suspected, but as I hoped to see, there were plenty of scantily clad younger gals attending with boyfriends and parents. Hank had the potential to draw a politically incorrect demographic that could disproportionately include smoker girls, and I kept walking further from the grandstand gate to see a line that never seemed to come to an end, I was increasingly optimistic that Bocephus was gonna be my friend tonight.

When I finally got toward the end of that line, I got my first of many Hank-inspired gifts of the night as I came upon a duo of blond 20-somethings standing there, dressed identically in sunglasses, gray-striped tanktops, jean shorts, and cowgirl boots. One was average height and the other was very tall, and the tall one was the smoker. Sighting #23 stood there with freshly lit cigarette in hand, the length of her cigarette feeling oddly compatible between the fingers of such a tall gal. The crowd and location was such that photos were very difficult, but I managed one holding pic and another that gives a pretty good look at her face. The girls seemed frustrated, presumably about the presence of their men in this crowd, and eventually got on the phone to investigate. I’d only see a couple of drags from the tall blond because she was smoking so slowly, her mental energy centered around the location of whoever was on the other end of the phone line. Since it was very awkward to be standing where I was in this crowd and she’d only taken a couple of drags in three minutes or so, I decided there was too much else going on to stand here investing a ton of time on this one the way I would have a few hours earlier.

The midway had been very good to me in the afternoon, so I decided to make one more pass while awaiting the Hank Williams. Jr. crowd to be let into the grandstand. Once again, it came through. Toward the back of the midway, my first find was this petite long-haired blond in a camouflage T-shirt and tight-fitting jean shorts with a cigarette between her fingers standing amidst what I expect was her family. Sighting #26 was so petite that she looked like an early teen girl from afar, but upclose it was clear from her face that she was in her 20s. She wasn’t a classic beauty but her size and outfit gave her a cuteness factor that was accentuated by the cigarette in her hand and her willingness to smoke in the immediate proximity of her family. Considering there were people on all sides of her, it was a struggle to get photos, but I managed three pics, two of them with the cigarette visible in her hand. I didn’t get any pics of her drags, but I did manage to see the final three and they were nice, particularly with the aforementioned context of the surrounding family inadvertently consuming her exhales. She dropped the cigarette to the pavement and crushed it out before I walked away, taking one last look at her from a distance and appreciating how nice her ass looked in those jean shorts.

I looped around the back of the midway planning to return to the grandstand area to see what was going on with the Hank Williams Jr. crowd, but would discover the midway wasn’t quite done with me yet. I’d mentioned how I spent much of the early afternoon taking mental notes of potential smokers, including that brunette in the dark jean shorts. I was about to be vindicated on another young mother as I came upon Sighting #27 with freshly lit cigarette in hand. She was one of the most glamorous girls of the day, a long-haired platinum blond in a pink bare-midriff top and a pair of tight white pants. I’d seen her in the company of two young children a couple of hours earlier and thought she looked like a smoker, and now here she was barking mildly at the kids with cigarette in hand as the young boy and young girl ran from one ride to the next. She cut such a striking and impressive profile, a knockout beauty who dressed for the occasion, in most ways yesterday’s glamorous equivalent to my girl-next-door smoker in the pink top and white shorts. Unfortunately, there was one problem for me. As perfect as this girl’s presentation was, she managed to mess it up with visible tattoos, both on her arms and her midriff. She was hot enough that this wasn’t disqualifying, but it took some power away from it….for me at least. Those who don’t mind tattoos would undoubtedly be thrilled with her. And lucky me, I had a bench overlooking her at close range that was gonna be perfect. And it almost was…..

The sighting was playing out a few yards away, with blondie smoking as fashionably as her look suggested, all while she was playing mom attempting in vain to lay down the law with the kids, smiling in the presence of the nonsmoking observers near her at they took in her interaction with the kids in between drags from her cigarette. But there was a problem that went beyond the tattoos as I tried to take photos. The early evening sun was shining directly into my camera and I had my doubts whether the pics would turn out at all given the impossible sun angle. I got a half dozen photos and hoped I’d be able to mess around with the filters enough to salvage something from them, but unfortunately I couldn’t get much. Her general beauty shone through and those white pants definitely made the cut showing off her figure, but the image of her cigarette wasn’t salvageable at all. And thus, I won’t be able to share with readers the pleasure of seeing her smoke that I got to enjoy, but not for lack of trying. I sat there through her entire cigarette and watched her drop her cigarette to the ground and crush it out. I wanted to ID the butt, but since she wasn’t going anywhere for the immediate future, I decided to split, believing more treasures awaited with that Hank Williams, Jr. crowd….and boy was I right.

When I returned to the grandstand, the first wave of the Hank Jr. crowd was inside. I’m not familiar enough with how these concerts work but it was the same way at the Iowa State Fair where the first wave got in an hour or so before the next wave. Maybe it’s a matter of prepaid tickets versus same-day ticket sales. No idea. Whatever the case, Missouri has a sweet set-up with a huge caged-in area under the grandstand where smokers can go for a smoke break, and it’s entirely visible to would-be onlookers, such as myself, from the other side of the fence. On several occasions in years past, it’s been like shooting fish in a barrel walking from one side of that grandstand area to the other picking off attractive female smokers, and that was gonna be the case again last night.

The first sighting to kick off my second adrenaline surge of the day was Sighting #29. Standing just inside the grandstand fence was a long-haired early 20s platinum blond with a glamorous presentation, decked out in a black tanktop and pale blue jean shorts, the tanktop having glossy fringes hanging onto the shorts and giving her a really distinctive presence. Most distinctive of all about her presentation, however, was the unlit cigarette dangling from her lips coupled with the pack of Camel Menthols in her hand. As she lit her cigarette, it became clear that the boyfriend standing next to her was a nonsmoker, which made the show that much more endearing. The bars of the grandstand fence would prevent me from getting great photos but I nonetheless was hard at work trying to get pics. Sadly, all I’d get was one shot when her cigarette was still not yet lit, but the image of it dangling from her lips is still a wonderful look. It was a solid show of steadily timed drags and nice exhaling as she conversed with her nonsmoking boyfriend as she smoked. In the middle of the show, she turned toward him and put her left leg up on the top of the asphalt berm next to her. The bad news was that she now had her back to me so I didn’t get a great view of her drags, but the good news was her incredible booty was front and center, and the pose she put forth with one leg elevated on that berm really sold the unintentional display of her spectacular ass in those pale blue jean shorts. She turned in a way that I could see her face again briefly toward the end of her cigarette, so I got to enjoy the visual of her last couple of drags before she dropped the cork filter cigarette to the pavement and crushed it out with her cowgirl boot, heading back to the grandstand seating with the nonsmoking male accompanying her. Less than half an hour later, I’d briefly see this hottie out smoking again at the same spot under the grandstand, only this time without her boyfriend. Unfortunately, I was only able to see the final drag before she crushed this one out in close proximity to the previous one she littered. This sighting was definitely one of my more memorable extra-base hits of the day and I wish I could have gotten better pics to document it. Thankfully, she would prove to be merely the first of many extra-base hits made possible by the Hank Williams, Jr. crowd.

Only a few minutes later, I’d get another great one when I walked near the indoor bathroom area about 50 yards north of the grandstand, a fairly common destination for concertgoers at this fair who want to empty their bladders and enjoy a cigarette in the moments before they head to the show, where only port-a-johns are available under the grandstand. Just beyond the bathrooms stood two young couples with one smoker amongst them, but it was definitely the right person. Sighting #31 stood there with a freshly lit all-white between her fingers, a country girl presentation arguably even more striking than the previous girl. Her long blond hair hung in curls over her shoulders, with a black tanktop, cowgirl boots, and a tight-fitting denim miniskirt below the neck. She was in her early-to-mid-20s and looked very wholesome and sweet, definitely not compatible with being the only smoker in her group. Unfortunately, their isolation meant I only had one shot at a passing pic before I’d have to retreat, and the pic didn’t turn out. I nonetheless observed from afar as she plugged away at the cigarette skillfully with nicely paced drags and skyward-directed exhales that spared the nonsmokers in the group. I witnessed the show from beginning to end before she lifted her cowgirl boot up and stubbed the cigarette out on the heel, then walking over to the nearest trash can to toss the butt into. I was really intrigued with this girl and watched as she headed to the nearby bathroom right after finishing her cigarette. I really wanted a photo of this girl even if it was a nonsmoking pic so I sat outside the bathroom with my camera ready, waiting for a shot when she came out. I got a pretty solid pic of her in profile when she walked out, although her arms look odd as she was reaching up to adjust her bra under her tanktop at the moment I snapped the shutter. I’d have liked to have seen more from this girl, and even though what I’d end up seeing later was brief, it was profound.

And while I was sitting outside the bathroom to get that pic of #31, a new girl would surface in the same general area. Another attractive blond in her late 20s wearing a black T-shirt and jean shorts would become Sighting #32, lighting up a cork filter along with her boyfriend/husband. In mid-cigarette, they stood up and began to walk toward the grandstand, the blond recognizing another couple walking by and greeting them with a cigarette between her fingers. A half hour or so later, I’d see the same couple standing under the grandstand smoking another cigarette before the concert started and I enjoyed another solid smoking show from her.

A second line was forming to get in to the Hank Williams Jr. concert, again possibly same-day ticket purchasers who didn’t get in with the first bunch. Standing in line was my #31 blond in the miniskirt who so intrigued me, chatting with some older people who she may have just met in line but felt like extended family. I didn’t stick around but made a mental note that she was heading into the concert. About 15 minutes later, after that line was allowed inside, I was slow-walking past the fence to look in under the grandstand for the umptieth time and once again caught the cute blond in the miniskirt with another cigarette in hand as she waited in line for a souvenir. I could tell she only had a couple of drags left on the cigarette and kicked myself for not getting there a couple of minutes earlier, but I was still able to see the last couple of beautiful drags in that dense line of nonsmokers forced to choke on her smoke. Once again, she raised her cowgirl boot and leaned down to crush her cigarette out on the heel just as she did with the last one a half hour earlier. I was lost in the moment watching this beautiful display when she looked my general direction outside the fence and shouted out “Hey!” I was stunned, nervous that I had been busted for stalking her, but quickly noticed she was instead making eye contact with another couple of guys hovering a few feet to my left. For a split second, I figured she knew them until she made a simple but substantial request. She walked toward the guys and held out her cigarette butt through the bars of the fence, asking “Would you mind throwing this away for me?”

So here this cutie was, asking a complete stranger to grab hold of the cigarette butt she’d spent the last few minutes slobbering all over and throw it in the trash. This would be a big ask in normal times, but seemed especially ballsy in the middle of a pandemic. Nonetheless, one of the guys near me accepted her request, as most guys would in the presence of a pretty girl, and grabbed hold of her cigarette to throw it in the trash. She smiled sweetly and thanked them before casually getting back in line. The only thing better than witnessing this would have been to be the guy on the receiving end of her indecent request, having the opportunity to take hold of her cigarette even at the risk of getting COVID. If her gaze had been directed only a few feet over, perhaps I’d have gotten that chance, but it was damn exciting to get to see it play out between two strangers even if I was just a spectator. This girl was definitely in my top-five sightings of the day and I really hoped to see more of her after two great sightings thus far on the night, but that would be it for her story.

Fortunately, it wouldn’t be it for my extended adrenaline surge moment picking off more smokers in the grandstand area leading up to the Bocephus concert. My next stunner would also come from that fenced-in area under the grandstand when a very stylish and truly gorgeous brunette in her mid-20s walked out by herself with a pack of Marlboro Black Menthols in hand. She lit herself up to become Sighting #39 and I was in awe at her presentation, her mane of dark brown hair flowing onto her bare shoulders with a tasteful yet sexy white dress with a brown pattern that crested below her knees, and a pair of cowboy boots completing the ensemble. She was absolutely beautiful, the prettiest face I’d seen all day, and the face was that much adorable as she attacked that cigarette with urgency, a litany of frequent and aggressive drags ensuing that sent my poor little heart fluttering. I snapped a few photos and, unfortunately, it was close enough to sunset that they were blurry. I caught her in mid-drag and the photo manages to give a general sense of her epicness but unfortunately doesn’t convey her gorgeous features with detail. It was also a quicker show than I’d hoped for because I got busted halfway through the cigarette attempting to snap another pic, her eyes looking up to me with smoke flowing through her lips just as I was about to snap the shutter. I was lucky at that moment to have the fence between us as I was able to turn around and slip away without confrontation, my latest reminder of how risky my little game is….but not the last reminder. To be continued on this one.

The evening sightings surge continued as I drifted northward to find a trio of two females and one male drifting toward the exit to leave the fair for the day. Only one of the three had a cigarette and it was the early 20s girl in the middle. Sighting #41 was a redhead with very long hair going down to her waist in a loosely held ponytail. She wasn’t one of the most beautiful girls of the day, sporting a bit of that Missouri backwater look, but her presentation rocked. She wore a bare-midriff lavender tanktop and a pair of dark blue jean shorts, both of which flattered her slender body very nicely. Nobody from that trio looked like a smoker, yet here she was casually indulging a cigarette as they walked toward the exit, her nicely timed drags and exhales being wonderful to witness as I followed. Despite sunset’s fast approach, I managed one more clear and solid pic the split second before her cigarette touched her lips. I followed them to the exit as she walked outside the group with her friends, cigarette still in hand. I continued to walk on the clouds as my early evening sightings surge pressed forward.

I’d head back southward down the grandstand block and, as I always do at the Missouri State Fair, I kept close tabs on that cigar vendor (previously advertised as Weston Tobacco in years past but going without a banner this time) just in case any cute girls were buying as was the case in 2019. Every year at the Missouri fair, that stand has produced a cigar sighting and 2021 would continue that streak. It started disappointingly as I came upon a group of six in their mid-20s, three guys and three girls. All three of the guys had large freshly lit cigars in hand, but none of the girls did. I nonetheless figured it would be worth my time to stick around a moment just in case there was some sharing going on, and I’d soon discover there would be. The light brunette female in the group of six held out her hand, curious to try the cigar. Sighting #42 was the least attractive of the three young women in the group, a light brunette in a lime green tanktop and modest-fitting jean shorts, but she was still gonna be exciting to see with a large cigar touching her lips. In one sense she didn’t disappoint, drawing from the cigar….and then drawing from it again….and then drawing from it again, wrinkling her nose a bit in mild disgust and shrugging her shoulders to the guy who handed it to her as though she didn’t get the appeal. Nonetheless, she beckoned him to hand it to her again two more times for subsequent draws. It was too dark by now, especially at this spot, to get a good photo of her with cigar in hand but I did snap a distance shot of the group of six. I was hoping to see one of the two prettier brunettes in the group to get hold of the cigar, and at one point I thought it was gonna happen as another of the cigar-wielding guys held out the cigar to her, peer-pressuring her to take a draw. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and wanted no part of it, at which point the guy proceeded to blow smoke directly at her face. She wrinkled her nose again and pulled back in an adorable way. It was a dick move on the guy’s part, but it was fun to witness. Damn would it have been a trip to see this hottie trying a cigar.

About a half hour later, now well after dark, I’d come across this same group of six, with plenty of cigar left. I was heartened to see that the light brunette in the green tanktop who gave the cigar a chance earlier now had the cigar in her hand again as I approached. I found an open bench in a dining vendor’s seating area and watched her plug away at that cigar for a few minutes before handing it back to the guy. I was hoping by now that the other two brunettes would be inspired to try the cigars as well, but it appeared as though they never did.

I picked off a few more modest sightings in general proximity of the grandstand in the moments between the opening act and Hank Jr. taking the stage, but the last marquee moment under the grandstand would be a familiarly gorgeous face. That exquisite brunette in the white and brown dress who busted me taking a pic of her earlier was back outside, walking to the corner of the fenced-in area with her cell phone to her ear and her pack of Marlboro Black Menthols in hand. I had to be very careful here, standing far enough back to where I figured she wouldn’t see me, waiting out her phone call’s completion when I was confident another cigarette would be forthcoming. I admired her beauty from afar, particularly struck by the fact that not only was this pretty girl a smoker, but that she was likely the only smoker in the party she came with. I doubt she came to the concert alone and this was the second time in the last hour she came out by herself to reward herself with a toxic nicotine fix from a cigarette. I was giddy when the phone call ended and the cigarette was placed between her lips, a flame quickly bringing the cigarette to life. That cherry glowed bright as she pulled the smoke into her body with the same frequency and level of urgency as I’d witnessed less than an hour earlier. I was hovering in the distant background pretending to be checking out merchandise at this T-shirt stand, with others in general proximity giving me some measure of anonymity. I never sensed that she made direct eye contact with me again, but I was confused when she moved around and drifted out of my sight. I’d soon discover she was wise to me….

I changed positions again, wanting to see more, finding a clearing with a vantage point of where she had moved. This time she looked over her shoulder to land her eyes directly on me just as her cigarette approached her lips. She had a bit of a smirk on her face as if thinking it was kind of amusing, and I began to pull away, doing my best to pretend I hadn’t been thoroughly busted. But as I attempted to glance over my shoulder one last time walking away, she was craning her neck with that same smirk on her face continuing to make eye contact and forcing me to completely abandon my post. For better or worse, I felt better that she seemed to be having a little fun with it and was possibly even flattered having an admirer, but I was still grateful for that fence separating us as I didn’t know what she might have reported to either a fairgrounds police officer or a jealous boyfriend when she returned to her seat smelling like an ashtray. I didn’t run into her again for the rest of the night, which was probably for the best, but something about being the Elmer Fudd to her Bugs Bunny was exciting, enhancing the storyline of a sighting that already featured one of the prettiest smoker girls of the 2021 fair season. She’ll go down as one of the best inadvertent “rivals” I’ve ever had in my more than two decades of fairgrounds fetishing.

The early evening adrenaline surge had now ended with the Hank Williams Jr. crowd now hidden out of view in the grandstand and surprisingly little smoking going on in the overflow crowd outside the grandstand. In fact, that overflow crowd presented another bummer for me in that two gorgeous mid-teen identical brunettes I’d seen at various points in the day were standing there in the presence of their parents, both of whom were smoking but there girls were not. I get that expecting mid-teen brunettes to be smoking in the presence of their parents in the Tobacco 21 era is a lot to expect, but it would have really put a cherry on top of my huge night if I had seen it. Unfortunately, what I was seeing elsewhere on the grounds was plenty of vaping by the young ladies and girls hovering on the block of bars stretching from the grandstand to the midway. For years, this spot has been where the cool kids hung out after dark at the Missouri State Fair, and in 2021 the cool kids were all vaping. And it wasn’t a matter of some attractive late teen and early 20s girls pulling in nicotine-infused water vapor from their flash drives….almost all of them were. One after another pretty young face was cupping their black flash drive in their left hand while holding their beer in the right. Even with so much smoking greatness going on generally yesterday, some of the day’s power was taken away seeing all this damn vaping among the key demographic of hotties who’d have all been smoking five years ago.

Considering that vaping had very little presence at the Missouri State Fair in 2018 when it had already begun to take over my other fair venues, it had certainly surged in the three years since, again raising doubts about whether there willl be enough replacement smokers to keep cigarettes in stock on store shelves at the end of the decade. There was also a mystery element here about seeing dozens and dozens of girls vaping, above and beyond the number who used to smoke at any point in the last 15 years. A lot of girls used to be social smokers, indulging a cigarette only when they went out for a drink or hung with friends. Is the same phenomenon in place with vaping nowadays? It would seem like it would almost have to be because it was unfathomable to believe this many girls were as addicted to nicotine from vaping pods as appeared to be the case weaving my way through this crowd. But if all of these girls are as hopelessly addicted as they appeared to be, then the potential exists for a mass shift to cigarettes in the event of another 2019-style puritanical vaping purge where we were right on the cusp of seeing it outlawed. I doubt that will happen now though, as the past two years seem to have solidified the narrative of harm reduction for vaping compared to cigarettes.

Anyway, as cigarette sighting numbers stalled and vaping numbers surged in the mid-evening hours, the day hit its lowest point, but I was still riding high from all the greatness I’d already experienced in the last several hours. My next big find would come from the Chuck and Dee’s bar and live music venue, which was the source of the majority of my great original “12-hour sighting” at the 2015 Missouri State Fair. I remembered an attractive late 30s blond singer performing inside Chuck and Dee’s two years ago with a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table in front of her. The same gal was onstage singing yesterday with the same pack of Marlboro Lights within arm’s reach of the stage. She was now done performing for the night and was mingling at a table with friends, one of her Marlboro Lights now between her fingers. Sighting #55 had a glamorous presentation with chin-length blond hair and decked out in a black tanktop and tight black shorts that really showed off her impressively toned legs that flowed into knee-high black boots. She was older than most girls I count as official sightings but I was impressed enough that I wanted to watch the show, and luckily for me there an open bench just outside the entry to the open-air bar where I could watch it. It was well after dark now but the lighting inside the bar might make a couple of the pics salvageable, so I took advantage of my wide-open spot to snap some modest pics, capturing a couple of holding pics along with one blurry dragging pic. Her smoking style was solid if a bit slower than I’d prefer, but I was able to observe until she finished the cigarette, pleased that Chuck and Dee’s was able to produce at least one decent sighting again this year in keeping with the legendary reputation it attained for itself in my maiden MOSF voyage.

It was around 9:30 when I decided to make another trip down the still-bustling midway. The midway had been extremely good to me in the daytime hours but I’ve grown cynical about its sightings potential in the evening hours in recent years, at this fair and others. Suffice it to say I made the right choice to make that evening midway voyage as it would produce my second-best sighting of the day. There’s a tent on the east side of the midway with several tables providing a shaded place for families to take a rest during an exhausting day on the midway. I hadn’t seen any young female smokers occupying any of these tables thus far today, but that was about to change in the most bombastic way as I laid eyes upon Sighting #59, a very pregnant dark brunette in her mid-20s wearing a flattering purple dress with a freshly lit cigarette dangling from her lips. She was walking toward a trash can in mid-dangle to deposit whatever container she and her family had just eaten their fair food on. It was an explosively inappropriate image to see this unmistakably pregnant brunette beauty strutting around so shamelessly with that cigarette parked in her mouth. After she walked back to her table, she removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and it was clear she was there with a pretty big family group that included her parents and a couple other kids I suspected were hers. Luckily for me, a bench was open across from theirs and I was gonna get the opportunity to watch this entire show.

As I settled in, I was struck by how attractive she was, easily the most attractive visibly pregnant smoker I’ve ever seen, defying the stereotype I had in my mind of what a pregnant smoker in central Missouri would look like. Her long, dark brown hair hung in curls onto this exotic purple dress that made me think I was at church on Easter Sunday, the dress fitting snugly enough to reveal to all that she was no more than two months away from giving birth to what appeared to be her third child. The Easter analogy worked in so many given that this day of robust sightings in Missouri felt like a resurrection after weeks of crucifixion-like suffering that preceded it at the FCF and ISF. She stood in front of her two kids for a bit, cigarette in hand as she sent a couple of messages on her phone and occasionally redirected her attention to the kids. The location also presented me a golden opportunity for photos as I was seated at the bench and was able to position my phone underneath the table and take snapshots out of sight. I had to deal with a tablecloth that was a bit in my way, but my subject was not cut off by it in most pics. If this were the daytime, my pics would have been otherworldly. But of course it wasn’t daytime…it was almost 10 p.m. so the background carnival lighting made the images blurry. Some were better than others though and you can make out her holding shots, dragging shots, and swollen belly. As one would expect from a girl publicly smoking in her seventh month of smoking, she was very skilled at her trade, her drags and exhales matching her generally attractive presentation.

About halfway through the cigarette, she migrated to the back of the tent but was still in range for my photo-taking. This was a good news/bad news situation. The good news was she was now standing in between her smoking mother and her nonsmoking father, adding incredible narrative dimensions to this wild sighting. The bad news is the brunette was standing directly behind the tent pole and I didn’t get her entirely on camera for a couple of my pics. Still, the visual was surreal, this mom-to-be looking so glamorous while casually conversing and smoking with her mother, all while dad stood on the other side neither bashful nor visibly disturbed in the immediate public presence of a smoking display from his daughter that would horrify most. The daughter briefly stepped away from behind the tentpole, allowing me one final holding photo. In mid-conversation, she took a closing drag on her cigarette, smoke flowing from her beautiful face as she flung her smoldering cigarette to the grass without bothering to crush it out. I desperately wanted to identify her brand but since they didn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, I couldn’t walk up there to check it out. With her cigarette complete, I got up to depart, my third adrenaline surge of the day now underway after my most incredible pregnant smoker sighting in memory.

As I left the midway, the waves of people coming from all directions made it obvious that the Hank Williams, Jr. concert had ended, which surprised me a bit as it was only 10 p.m. and I figured he’d go long as so many other concerts had at the Iowa State Fair last week. The deluge of humanity made me both excited and nervous….excited by the prospect of additional female tobacco use from the departing crowd….and nervous about the possibility of an awkward face-to-face encounter with that beautiful brunette who had twice busted me. I wouldn’t see the brunette again though, so my anticipation was unwarranted. Instead, I kept my sightings surge alive as I found myself heading in the direction of the main fairgrounds exit with the departing crowd and found myself walking behind an attractive young smoker.

Sighting #61 was a long-haired blond who looked about 22, very attractive with a killer presentation decked out in a black tanktop and tight-fitting pale blue jean shorts that perfectly contained a spectacular ass, her smooth legs flowing into a pair of cowgirl boots. She was in the company of what I presumed to be a smoking boyfriend and a nonsmoking male friend. The density of the crowd was gonna make photo-taking a challenge on top of the usual after-dark lighting challenges, but I managed a couple pics walking behind her, including one holding shot that turned out pretty damn good for after 10 p.m. It was a simple but great show, her drags being timely and relative intense, and of course taken amidst this shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of fairgoers leaving the concert. The crowd worked to my advantage as well, as I was able to walk close enough to consume her cloudy exhales. On three occasions, I saw her drag and moved directly behind her, watching the smoke pour out of her face and then stepping through it, savoring that tobacco aroma that had just been inside female lungs. Yesterday was not my day for butt IDs though as, yet again, she walked outside the fairgrounds gate en route to the parking lot with cigarette still in hand. I didn’t want to head outside the gate and then try to get back inside with this crowd so I just let her go, thrilled at having seen what I did and thrilled for another extra-base hit under my belt.

I turned around at the gate in hopes of seeing more smokers, and I wouldn’t get 20 yards before I came upon a duo of female smokers, one blond and one brunette, headed in the exact same direction as my previous blond did, also with smoldering cigarettes in hand. Neither Sighting #62 or Sighting #63 was as attractive as the last blond, but the blond of this duo came fairly close and was hotter than the brunette. They were in the company of the nonsmoking parents of one or both young 20-something women, and it was again enjoyable watching them converse with elders with cigarettes in hand. This would be a shorter-lived sighting than the last but would end the same way, with both girls exiting the fairgrounds gate with their lit cigarettes still between their fingers. It was starting to feel like Groundhog Day as I turned back around, heading in the direction of the crowd once again to see if I could run into even more attractive ladies smoking an after-concert cigarette.

I wouldn’t get any additional memorable sightings of concert girls as I trekked back to the grandstand area, but I’d get something even better…..something genuinely shocking. Across the street from the grandstand nibbling on snacks on the block of restaurants and bars was the day’s most familiar face and familiar wardrobe presentation. My late afternoon blond in the hot pink bare-midriff top and stylish white shorts was back! It’s not unprecedented to see people leave the Missouri State Fair in the afternoon and return at night. My 12-hour sighting trio appeared to do that back in 2015, resurfacing at night hours after I thought they left. In the back of my mind, I’d hoped this blond would return that evening, but by 10:30 I had let that thought drift from my mind. Yet here she was, beaming smile and all, wearing the same clothes but now with her long blond hair hanging loose rather than in the ponytail that it was earlier in the afternoon. Her boyfriend was still with her as they finished eating fair food, and her mostly male group of friends seemed to have gotten larger as well. I was in a bit of a conundrum as I desperately wanted to see another act from her but also didn’t want to waste any of my last hour and a half on a possible wild goose chase when so much potential smoking was going on throughout the grounds. But as I remembered the frequency of her smoking in the afternoon, I decided she was worth the risk to hang close to for a while.

Her group began to proceed back toward their favorite destination–the midway–busting through the heavy crowd of teen vapers that represented the primary demographic on this densely-packed block. Luckily, her ass served as something of a flare in those neon white shorts that kept me from losing her as I followed from a comfortable distance. Along the way, she joyously interacted with a couple of random people, continuing to be as friendly and personable as any pretty girl I’ve come across. spreading positive energy to everyone in her path. They entered the crowded midway and slowly proceeded, still nibbling on caramel corn she was sharing with her boyfriend, starting and stopping as they chatted with the friends group and checking out various rides and games. I’d invested about 10 minutes in her now and was crossing my fingers that there’d be a reward. She hadn’t let me down yet on August 21, 2021, and she was about to deliver again….

As had happened the last two times, the boyfriend was the first to produce a cigarette. By now I knew the routine and was comfortable with the idea that he wouldn’t be in possession of that cigarette for long, his girlfriend poised to hijack it from him with extreme prejudice. Jealous as I was of this guy, I also felt a little bit sorry for him. He has nicotine needs of his own, but never seemed to get more than two or three drags from his cigarette before being forced to surrender it to his gorgeous lover who would under no circumstances be giving it back to him. It was an odd and unique arrangement they had going, and perhaps she requests he maintain possession of their cigarettes because she knows she’d otherwise be powerless to control herself from smoking three packs a day! Anyway, the couple’s attention was quickly directed to a ring toss game, the location of which worked perfectly for me as it was a square stand with people on all sides of it, meaning I could stand directly across from them for a front-row seat. Sure enough, blondie stretched her hand out after the boyfriend’s third drag demanding he hand over the cigarette. Needless to say, he complied…..and I was about to get one final explosive chapter to my astounding day of fairgrounds sightings.

Just as she claimed the cigarette and began to smoke it, it was the couple’s turn to be handed a bucket of rings to try their luck at the ring toss game. They were surrounded on all sides by young children, and here blondie was holding a cigarette in one hand while tossing rings onto empty bottles with the other hand. Blondie’s face was as full of puerile excitement as ever, her long hair now hanging loose over her shoulders as she tried to concentrate tossing the rings. This overweight male guy in their friends group stood to the left of her watching, and after blondie took a deep drag, she briefly stood up and began chatting to him, nailing him in the face with an entirely thoughtless and obnoxious talking exhale from about three or four inches away. Sweet Jesus! A moment passed before her next drag, this one directed straight ahead into the ring toss stand for the carnival operator and the surrounding kids to choke on. Meanwhile, I’m considering whether it’s worth the risk to go for one clean photo given that the lighting was probably good enough to moderately pull it off. I stood there with my camera and held it up, snapping the shutter once for a holding shot that turned out very well given the circumstances, and then putting away the camera and standing back to enjoy the final couple of drags.

She wasn’t having much luck with the ring toss, at least not as much luck as I was watching her play the ring toss, her ample cleavage briefly exposed as she leaned forward to toss the rings and those stylish white shorts so perfectly framing her hips and crotch. She took two final drags, the exhale of the last one directed straight to the ground as she leaned down to stub the cigarette out on the base of the carnival stand, once again denying the boyfriend any additional nicotine beyond those first two or three drags. The show was likely over, and I walked around to her back side to confirm what I already suspected, the cork filter butt of her Newport remaining in her left hand where she probably planned to dispose of it in a trash can rather than litter as she had the previous. It really struck me as I took one final look at this handsome couple that they couldn’t be more perfect role models for smoking, especially in the modern era where most attractive people don’t smoke. Here were these kids surrounding this stand watching this beauty and her stud boyfriend smoking while playing the ring toss, and I hope at least one of them was as moved by their power couple presentation as I was….as well as their unashamed consumption of cigarettes that seemed like it came from a bygone era. It’s incredible that young adults like these two still smoke at all this day and age, but even more incredible that they do so in the wide open on the state fair midway while their similarly aged peers were up the block sipping beers and cupping vaping devices in their hands.

The adrenaline surge from this final act of my best sighting of the day kept me going for the remainder of my time at the fair, which is good because I wouldn’t see anything else of particular note in the last hour and a quarter of the night. I went into the 2021 fair season skeptical I’d get any sightings worthy of some of the epic #1’s I’ve pulled off in previous fair seasons, but I managed this year because of Sedalia, Missouri. Fair season isn’t officially over yet with two days of the Minnesota State Fair ahead, but damn if this one isn’t gonna be near impossible to dislodge as it tripped so many different triggers for me at once. It was as if fate decided I was worthy of one more spectacular, comprehensive fairgrounds sighting that touched upon so many of my favorite elements of a “perfect smoker girl” at the same time despite the odds being so stacked against it. I’m humbled and eternally grateful to the Missouri State Fair for making her possible.

As I said, the last hour or so of the fair was a pretty unproductive slog. I continued to nudge my numbers upward over the 2019 total of 68 sightings but most of what I saw was unmemorable. Most of the young party girls continued to vape, and while that would have brought me down at this point on any evening at the Iowa State Fair, it was gonna be hard to dethrone me from the high I was on last night.

Fittingly, my final sighting of the night came from a hot blond who mixed and matched her nicotine delivery devices of choice. Two young couples stood in the street behind a live music stage. The two guys were smoking and on first glance it appeared the two girls were vaping. This was all too common of an observation this fair season, but as I looked again, I saw a cigarette in the hands of the attractive blond. Sighting #74 was a very attractive blond in the first half of her 20s wearing a black dress. She was engaged in conversation with her brunette vaping friend and clearly under the influence of the alcoholic beverages she’d likely been consuming for much of the evening. She took a deeply indulgent drag from her cigarette, the kind of drag that usually comes from a girl who’s drunk and for whom the feeling of cigarette smoke represents euphoric sexualized bliss. She pursed her lips and released an intensely satisfied drag into the sky as she continued to chat with the friend. A moment later, she took another drag that was just as indulgent as the previous one if not more so. That smoke clearly felt like heaven inside her body. As I got a closer look, I noticed that in the same hand she held the cigarette was the Juul pod that I thought I had seen in her hand on my original passing. Unfortunately there would be no third drag as she handed the cigarette back to the boyfriend. Disappointing as it was to see her surrender the cigarette, I was gratified that even with a Juul pod in hand, she still felt the need to poach her boyfriend’s cigarette for a nicotine hit that genuinely satisfied her.

It was almost midnight and while the crowds were still substantial, it was time for me to go. I turned this trip into a three-day vacation and had a ton of driving ahead of me the next couple of days, so I needed to get some sleep. At any point up until this year, I’d have thought 74 sightings at the Missouri State Fair was a below-average day, but I walked away last night absolutely walking on the clouds. My expectations bar had been lowered after those disappointing nights at my county fair and the Iowa State Fair, so a genuinely great day at the Missouri State Fair wasn’t even really in the realm of possible scenarios I had seriously entertained. Even discounting my downwardly adjusted expectations, August 21, 2021, was incredible. I only wish I could have experienced the Missouri State Fair in the comparative smoking heyday of 10-15 years ago, where I bet a 200-sighting day was entirely common.

The dearth of youth smoking was the only place I fell far short. Only one of my 74 sightings was a teenage girl, and she was one of the ugliest teenage girls I’ve ever seen in my life. This probably portends a steep rate of sightings attrition ahead even for Missouri, but right now I think this venue is second only to Minnesota for me moving forward. Minnesota will always be first because their daily attendance numbers assures a better chance of sightings even with overall smoking rates way down there. I’ve been to Missouri five times and it’s been extremely uneven, but the fact that it produced my #1 sighting of the year twice in the previous four visits and has an excellent chance of being the source of this year’s #1 as well, it’s clear that the demographics and culture are holding up better than elsewhere for producing the moments I spend so much time and energy looking for. So I will continue to work my August vacation around a visit to the Missouri State Fair in the years to come. Of course, a day like yesterday threatens to overshadow anything else I have planned for a given vacation. That was certainly the case this year. No matter what I was doing or where I was going for the remainder of the three-day road trip I recently got home from, I wasn’t able to wipe that smile off my face thinking of my favorite moments at the Missouri State Fair.

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2021 Iowa State Fair, Day 3


My third and final visit to the 2021 Iowa State Fair on Thursday was another mostly disappointing affair. There was a juncture mid-evening where things were getting downright exciting but I was at a crossroads and made the wrong choice, wasting a bunch of time in pursuit of what was poised to be the best sighting of 2021. Numbers-wise I got 55 sightings, which as lackluster as it sounds was actually the most I got on any of my three visits to the fair, getting four more than Saturday even though I was at the fair for four hours longer on Saturday. There were flashes of potential throughout the day but I had absolutely disastrous luck with photos for most of the best sightings of the day, a sadly consistent theme in 2021.

I rode my shuttle bus in and arrived around 3:15 on Thursday, recognizing I was not likely missing much in the morning and early afternoon hours of a weekday. The crowds were indeed modest, but I suspected they would begin to increase quickly enough as the afternoon went on with a Chris Stapleton concert at the grandstand that seemed poised to be a big draw. And even with sightings, the day got off to a surprisingly strong start compared to the previous two days. I made my usual loop opening loop down the concourse and then to the south side, and near the talent show stage I noticed a duo of 20-something women where one had a cigarette. Sighting #1 was late 20s and modestly attractive, a long-haired light brunette wearing sunglasses, a red and white tie-dye blouse and dark jean shorts, and it soon became clear her boyfriend was also smoking. The other female friend was not smoking, nor were the older couple in their midst who I presume were the smoker girl’s parents. She was a quality smoker, taking nice long drags and releasing cloudy exhales, on one occasion walking toward the older nonsmoking parents with cigarette in hand. There was one problem though and it was the usual one. Her back was to me and there was no way to get a closer view for good pictures. The best I’d get was a holding pic from the rear where at least her face was turned my way in profile. She finished the cigarette and crushed it out on the grass, leaving me with a sighting that wasn’t an extra-base hit but a solid start to the day by 2021 standards. I’d see her again on the midway a couple of hours later but she was no longer smoking.

Things really got rolling a few minutes later when I was divinely inspired to make a detour from my usual route and go down this alley near a set of bathrooms. The alley was nearly empty but on the horizon I saw a modestly attractive petite mid-20s redhead and with each step closer it was clear she had an unlit cigarette between her fingers. It was also clear there was somebody just out of my view behind a barrier seated in front of this girl. I figured it would be a husband or boyfriend, but as I got past the barrier obstructing my view, I realized it was an attractive mid-20s blond in sunglasses who was quite a bit hotter than the redheaded friend and also had an unlit cigarette she was preparing to light. Their isolation in this alley was going to be a huge problem, but I hoped to time my passing just right to sneak in a photo of their mutual light-ups, but of course I failed to get it. The cigarettes were nonetheless soon lit, officially making this duo Sightings #3 and #4, but my struggles would not go away in terms of where the hell I was gonna be able to even watch the rest of this setting play out let alone get pictures of it. I scrambled throughout the sighting, in direct sunlight on a hot and humid afternoon and covered in sweat, but managed to at least see most of what there was to see…..

And it was impressive. The vast majority of my attention went to that blond in the sunglasses, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail and decked out in a gray T-shirt and dark jean shorts as she took a steady diet of drags with a natural style and cloudy exhales. From one of two faraway vantage points I settled upon, I snapped a dozen or so photos. I was able to enlarge them enough to salvage some modest holding shots but there’s nothing incredible there. Interestingly though, two additional players would soon join the show as this shaggy-haired brunette guy with a beard joined them in the company of a young boy who looked about six. The boy was probably the son of one of the smoker women, and judging by his features and the body language it was more likely the petite redhead. But what was best about the male adult addition was…he didn’t smoke, which I would confirm later in the day. In a fair season where the far more common couples mix included smoking males and either nonsmoking or vaping females, it was wonderful to see a situation where only the guy maintained pink lungs in the company of stinky females. It was a nice farrow-to-finish sighting, and while I wished I’d gotten better photos, I still felt momentum early in the day that I hadn’t felt yet this season as the dark blond finished her cigarette first and the redhead followed about 30 seconds later, crushing them out and leaving them in the alley. As they walked away, I went down to inspect. The blond had smoked a Marlboro Light and the redhead smoked a Marlboro Red, which also brought a smile to my face in that they both came with their own respective packs. I already hinted that I’d see this duo again…and it wouldn’t be that long.

My early momentum came to a dead stop in the next couple of hours, with sightings coming slow and mostly being profoundly unmemorable. In fact the next memorable find would be the same as the last memorable find as I encircled the seating area of The Depot and found a familiar foursome that included an adult male and a young boy who were not smoking, and two 20-something females who were. Unfortunately, they were sitting on an isolated curb across the street from The Depot seating area, complete with The Depot fence in my way. It would have been hard for these two to find a more isolated spot to smoke their next round of cigarettes than where they smoked their first round, but they managed! The best I could do was stand up and snap one pic from above the fence, which after considerable enlargement is vaguely identifiable but far from great. Now it was time to sit back and watch the show. When I first got there both girls were smoking, but after a minute or so I noticed the blond had stopped and only the redhead continued to take drags. The blond was highly distracted on her phone and I wondered if she put the cigarette out early. Never fear though as about three minutes later, she picked up the less-than-half smoked Marlboro Light from the pavement near her feet and put it back in her mouth. Now it was an endless pursuit to find her lighter while dangling the unlit all-white. As frustrating as it is for me to watch girls dig and dig and dig into their purse in search of their lighter (or anything!), I can only imagine how annoying it is for them! Thankfully the redhead would deliver as a wingwoman….

The redhead was almost finished with her cigarette but still had enough of a cherry going to hold it to the tip of the blond’s cigarette. Damn do I wish I got this on camera as the blond brought her all-white back to life with the help of the redhead’s Marlboro Red. From there she continued to smoke the cigarette to its demise with the usual litany of nice drags and cloudy exhales. I sure needed these two to inject some excitement into the daytime hours because it would have been a miserable slog without them. They got up and left a few minutes later, leaving their respective Marlboro Light and Marlboro Red butts littered behind in their midst.

Now the bad news is I wouldn’t see them smoking again, but the good news is I would see them again on the concourse and it enabled me to snap a couple of pics in passing. I didn’t get a great angle on the redhead, but I got two shots that very nicely capture the blond, who was by far the hotter of the two as well as the better smoker. They’re not as good as smoking pics, but at least I’ll be able to put faces with the girls when the time comes to post them on my Tumblr page.

It was around 5:30 when I got Sighting #10, a decently rewarding sighting on the south side of an early-to-mid-30s blond in a gray T-shirt and black shorts. She was smoking while her husband wasn’t. She was modestly pretty if not necessarily my cup of tea, but she was a good smoker with a steady drumbeat of nice drags and well-practiced exhales. I also managed to score the bench next to her and got the only set of quality pics I’d get all day of a smoker girl before she finished it off. Again though, the average age of these smoking ladies keeps going up and up, and considering she was the best sighting I’d gotten in two hours, I walked away from this one with mixed feelings.

As afternoon turned to evening, I was ticking off an accelerating pace of sightings as the crowds grew much larger, but they were all mediocrities. It was clear that the Chris Stapleton crowd was gonna be extremely large as lines started to form in all directions heading to the grandstand entrance. I knew a coworker of mine had tickets for this concert and was somewhere in this crowd so I was really pushing my luck wandering through the masses looking for smokers. The best I’d find before the show started was Sighting #24, a dark brunette in a maroon tanktop and nicely fitting jean shorts in a mixed-gender group that included other smokers. She looked like she was in her late 20s and had a very attractive face with an innocence that defied the pack of Marlboro Menthols she was pulling out of her purse as I laid eyes on her. I was holding an ice cream cone in my hand at this moment that prevented me from getting a pic. It was approaching dusk so there’s no guarantee the photos would have turned out anyway, but I was kicking myself for my bad timing and had to try to snap a couple of pics one-handed, which did not end well. I got a couple blurry mess pics not even worth saving but at least got to watch some smoking, and it was refreshing to see toxic smoke flow from the lips of this innocent face. Unfortunately, before she even finished her cigarette she left this location and hustled on up to her spot in line for the concert where I’d have no chance of getting pics and was barely able to see one more drag from her at my awkward vantage point. A great sighting, but one that could have been much greater.

As the crowd finally settled into the grandstand before the show started, I explored the rest of the grounds, unfortunately discovering not much worth mentioning. The east side of the grounds generally and the Bud Tent area specifically were huge disappointments in 2021 but I would salvage a small reward from there around 8:30 p.m. I saw a late 20s guy sitting next to a brunette with interesting if not necessarily gorgeous features wearing a glamorous yellow dress seated on a bench. The guy was smoking a cigarette but the girl wasn’t, but since the bench next to them (and on her side) was open, I thought I’d take a seat just in case they were sharing it. My intuition was correct and she got her hands on the cigarette and became Sighting #29, taking a few drags before passing it back to the boyfriend. I got a couple of modest pics but none in mid-drag because of her angle.

I finally got some glamour with Sightings #33 and #34 outside the grandstand, where two couples in their mid-20s were all standing out there smoking cigarettes. The prettier of the girls was a light brunette in a green flower-print blouse and matching skirt. She was very attractive, but regrettably had a number of tattoos on her arms. The other girl was also attractive, a shorter-haired blond in a black and white plaid top with jean shorts, and no visible tattoos. Along with their respective boyfriends, both girls had freshly lit cigarettes between their fingers. Once again, however, they stood in complete isolation in a spot that made me stand out like a sore thumb trying to even watch let alone take pics. I didn’t even make an attempt with the camera because they seemed to be keenly aware of me hovering in the background trying to find a good spot to watch as inconspicuously as possible. There was a thick cloud of smoke hovering amongst them with four smokers standing in a semicircle dragging with frequency. I saw the most smoking by the blond as the brunette mostly had her back to me, but I guess the upside was I didn’t have to look at those disruptive tattoos as much. The girls were quality smokers and I wish I could have watched the whole show, but after a handful of drags by both, I was just too exposed to stick around and decided to wander off.

The Chris Stapleton concert was just getting underway and I was gonna settle in at that clearing outside the grandstand where crowds settle in to listen to the concert, the same spot where I was treated to my two great finds on Monday night. And the spot would come through again this time…..

Standing out in the crowd was this bleach blond who looked about mid-30s. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous but her presentation was extraordinary, decked out in a white crop top with a pair of pale blue jean daisy dukes that sculpted her crotch and fit her ass and hips like a glove. Very nicely toned legs and a pair of cowgirl boots complemented the image below the waist. She looked very familiar and I immediately decided where I thought I’d seen her before, but since no smoking was going on when I laid eyes upon her, I ventured through the crowd. There were very few smokers, but I couldn’t help take note of a family tucked away in the corner where a nondescript 40ish mom stood with three daughters, the oldest about 14, and what looked like a transgender guy. Mom was lighting a cigarette and I did a quick scan of the daughters, all of whom looked too young to be smoking, so I moved on.

I weaved my way through this crowd and came upon that bleach blond again just as she was digging in her purse. As she pulled something dark out, I despaired expecting it was another vape device, but as I connected the dots of this girl’s air of familiarity with the plastic wrapper that seemed to be covering what came out of her purse, it hit me that this was a cigar! At this point, let’s just say I have a history with this girl and leave it at that for now, and the dots were fully connected when I saw her mid-30s husband/boyfriend standing behind her with a large cigar in his hand. The plastic wrapper came off of the girl’s smaller cigar and she beckoned him for a light to officially become Sighting #36. The crowd was such that my attempts to get a pic of the light-up came up short, but I’d soon settle into a clearing to her left and was better-positioned to watch her show. The cigar was lit and dangling from her lips, standing out in how much it contrasted with her image. I wished her cigar was as large as her husband’s, but damn it was nice to see tobacco touch those lips and stink up the entire area.

They were with another set of friends who appeared to be in their early 30s and were not smoking, and this blond was really letting herself loose, swooning to the sounds of Chris Stapleton and at one point grinding her incredible ass into the cigar-chomping boyfriend’s crotch. I stood there with my phone snapping pics whenever I felt I had an opening, especially when that cigar went into her mouth and she dangled-dragged from it, undoubtedly stunning some in the crowd at both the look and the smell of her concert activity. I knew given the background lighting I’d struggle to get great pics at this hour, but at one point she used the torch lighter to touch up the cigar and I snapped the shutter, scoring about as perfect of a pic as is possible at this hour of the night, showing off the cigar in her mouth, her face in an attractive pose, and her entire wardrobe ensemble where everything below the neck was the picture of feminine perfection. I was about 15 minutes into this show and had a half a mind to stand here and take it in until she finished off the cigar…..but the other half of my mind was distracted elsewhere.

As I took note of the nondescript mom in that isolated spot to my right lighting up another cigarette, I also noticed a cloud of smoke coming from the oldest daughter. Unfortunately, it was from a vaping pod, but from where I stood this daughter looked 14 at the absolute oldest. It was too dark where they stood to tell for sure but given her body shape and the general way she was carrying herself, it would have been astounding if she was much older than that. I watched her hit that vape pod a few more times as mom kept smoking the cigarette. I kept one eye on her and the other on the cigar girl for the next several minutes, and I couldn’t get over how much this girl reminded of the 13ish Slipknot girl smoking with mom in 2019. This mother looked completely different as did the siblings so I didn’t figure it was her, but the vibe was similar enough that it convinced me this girl might not limit her nicotine consumption to vaping, just like the 2019 Slipknot girl didn’t. The family would soon walk to the bathroom and emptied their bladders before coming outside and drifting away from the grandstand area and toward the concourse. I decided I absolutely had to follow.

Once in the light, I could tell this was definitively a different girl than the 2019 Slipknot girl even though everything about her build and energy was similar, and she couldn’t have been older than 14. And then I took a note at her pale black jean shorts pocket. Despite her phone being in one hand and her vape pod tucked into her front pocket, there was a rectangular box tucked just out of sight in the back pocket of her shorts. I know the shape of a box of cigarettes, and this was absolutely that shape. Just as I suspected, this young teen was using a vaping device to camouflage her smoking habit while at the fairgrounds. That was problematic for me, unless I could wait out a situation where she found the necessary isolation to light one up. It was a risk, but it was worth trying given the payoff.

I maintained a comfortable distance as this family moved east on the concourse about to buy food. They stood in various lines for a seemingly endless stretch and then went to a common seating area where I took a distant bench to wait them out. They ate slowly and I kept telling myself if she never does light up I’ll have wasted a tremendous amount of time on her. When they finished eating, girlie got out her vape pod again and hit that thing repeatedly, enough to prove how fiercely addicted she was to nicotine. She exhaled recklessly and I watched the vapor gush right into the faces of the younger sisters and whoever this transgender father-figure was. I was hoping mom would break out her cigarettes and the girl would believe she had enough isolation to smoke one with her. But eventually, they all got up to leave. I got up as well and walked ahead of them for a bit, hoping to not tell on myself for following. Big mistake. When I looked behind me after only about 10 seconds with them out of my sight, they were nowhere to be found. It was baffling and I hustled in every possible direction, unable to find them. I still don’t know what happened but was devastated that I had spent a good 45 minutes on this girl only to lose her in the crowd. Moral of the story: 2021 sucks!

It was now 10:45 and I moved back in the direction of the concert as it was about to wrap up. I walked back into the clearing just outside the grandstand and my cigar-chomping power couple was still there, but unfortunately the guy was down to the end of his cigar and his better half had already finished hers. She was still the best sighting of the night by no small amount, but I didn’t get to see as much of it as I should have because I was pursuing what I hoped would be the best sighting of the night. Still, there were hordes of people just leaving the Chris Stapleton concert and I was determined to salvage what I could.

Quite a few people were coming out of the concert lighting up cigarettes, but not many of the preferred demographic. Ultimately though, one would as I took note of this wholesome and attractive late 20s blond with long hair running over her shoulder in a braid as she stepped out of the women’s bathroom and placed a cork filter cigarette between her lips to become Sighting #39. She certainly didn’t fit the profile of the others lighting up as they left the concert, and I was gonna make sure I enjoyed this show as she stood against the grandstand wall ingesting carcinogens into her shapely body decked out in a maroon tanktop and jean shorts. She was an understated beauty who was nonetheless a beauty, somehow looking at home with that cigarette between her lips despite not looking at all like a smoker. She changed locations and moved to the back stairs of Jalapeno Pete’s. I’d follow and watch her smoke the rest of her cigarette, assisted by her cell phone distraction that kept her oblivious to my enjoyment of her show. I got a few pics, including one in mid-drag, but between the distance and the lighting the pics are mediocre at best, but was pleased to be able to smoke her cigarette to its completion.

I ticked off a few more sightings before I’d get the last one of the night to impress. Standing between two food stands near the grandstand were two couples, with both males and both females smoking. A blond and brunette technically made up Sightings #43 and #44, but as far I was concerned, this show belonged entirely to the ponytailed blond, in her mid-to-late 20s with an expressive face full of character decked out in a plain gray tanktop and dark jean shorts. She didn’t look like a smoker and was fun to watch generally as she talked mostly with the brunette smoking friend, but she was really fun to watch when she smoked. After every drag, she placed that cigarette to her lips at a 45-degree upward angle, breathing in the smoke at the same time as she expelled the smoke from her nose. I always love the image of a girl breathing in and breathing out smoke at the same time, and it was really a stunning visual coming from this girl’s face. The stage was set in this unusually well-lit spot to score some amazing pics….and I thought I was. But for whatever reason I wasn’t. I readied the camera three different times thinking I was getting pics but for whatever inexplicable reason the settings were screwed up and nothing was happening. I did manage one pic, but neither girl had the cigarette in view for the pic. I was so frustrated, and I couldn’t correct it quickly enough before the blond was dropping her cigarette to the pavement and crushing it out, putting her arm around the lucky boyfriend’s waist and walking off not to be seen again. I was already frustrated before this sighting began after losing the 14-year-old, and now I was really beside myself.

With less than an hour to go on the night, I’d tick up my numbers as I perused the still-impressive late evening crowd but I wouldn’t get any other particularly memorable sightings. I kept hoping I’d run into the family with the 14-year-old again but that ship had sailed. I could have easily walked the grounds another hour but the last shuttle bus leaves the grounds at midnight and I’d be up a creek if I missed it. It’s a shame I couldn’t have had at least five more minutes though because on the way out in front of The Depot, a cluster that including two attractive late 20s brunettes smoking freshly lit 100s bantered together. Of Sightings #54 and #55, the younger-looking brunette in a black top and black shorts impressed most and didn’t look like a smoker. I tried to get a couple of pics but with the darkness and neon backlighting, I knew it would be hopeless, and it was as the pics were completely unsalvageable. I fled a few minutes before I’d have preferred to and made my shuttle bus with less than two minutes to spare.

It was the easily the worst Iowa State Fair of the 16 years I’ve attended, yielding only 135 sightings over three nights. For perspective, on Slipknot day in 2019, I got 130 sightings in only one day…..and 247 sightings in three days. That’s an astonishing 45% decline in just two years, a pace of decline that I didn’t anticipate even though I was pessimistic going in this year. In retrospect, it’s amazing that smoking held on to its cultural relevance as long as it did considering how aggressively antismoking measures were beginning to take hold more than 15 years ago, but its relative slow-motion erasure up to this point gave me a false sense of security that it would never fall completely off a cliff in a short time period. But at least in Iowa, it appears that is has, so much so that I doubt I’ll spend nearly as much time at the Iowa State Fair (maybe just one day) in 2022 unless there’s any evidence of a tobacco turnaround by this time next year, which seems highly unlikely with Tobacco 21 wiping out nearly all potential for replacement smokers. It’s just too depressing to see only vape devices touch the lips of the youngest and prettiest faces while cigarettes mostly touch the lips of Patty and Selma on “The Simpsons” types.

By tomorrow at this time I’ll be in Sedalia, Missouri, in hopes that the vaping craze might be less dominating than it is in Iowa. It might be possible with cheaper cigarettes available in Missouri, but I noticed vaping boomed quite a bit between 2018, when it had a light footprint in the state, to 2019 where the kinds of girls who would have been smoking the year before traded in their cigarettes for glowing flash drives. And I’ll never dismiss the potential of the Minnesota State Fair coming through for me the following two weekends, as it almost always has despite the antismoking culture in Minnesota. It could well be that smoking retains its relevance in the northern and western parts of the state, which seemed to be somewhat the case as recently as last September when I last visited northern Minnesota. I’m not taking that for granted by any means though and am right now anticipating more of the steep decline I’ve seen at my county fair and the Iowa State Fair.

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2021 Iowa State Fair, Day 2


I set a new precedent on August 16, 2021, by going to the Iowa State Fair for the first time ever on a Monday. Specifically, I rode the shuttle bus to the fairgrounds Monday after work for reduced-price tickets after 5:00, and the primary reason I chose Monday to make my stand was another duo of pop-country chart-toppers for the evening’s grandstand act that I figured would bring out the preferred demographic in big numbers. Or as it pertains to smokers, what WAS the preferred demographic not that many years ago. Anyway, the pop-country duo consisted of Dustin Lynch, one of the foremost vacuous pretty boys of modern country music, along with Cole Swindell, who actually has a few songs I like. I have quite a history with Swindell, who brought about an excellent young smoking crowd to the 2018 Missouri State Fair, complete with the legendary 18-year-old heavy-smoking blond who looked like Lucy Camden from TV’s “7th Heaven”, my best fairgrounds sighting of the last five years. Based on that track record alone, Swindell earned the benefit of the doubt for me to be sure I was in attendance at this year’s Iowa State Fair on the night of his concert.

But after Saturday’s wake-up call of the depleted ranks of attractive young female smokers, I entered the gates last night humbled and bearish in my expectations. I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. What I’d get was somewhere in between. While I only pulled off 29 sightings in seven hours, which was pitiful given the size of the Monday night crowd that would have likely been worthy of 100 sightings a decade ago, a couple of those sightings were stunners, above and beyond anything I came across on Saturday. I’d be investing a lot of soul-crushing time drudging through mediocrity before I’d hit the jackpot though.

I followed my usual course around the grounds after I got there, and about 15 minutes into the night I was at the beer gardens/live music stage on the south side of the fairgrounds, which is close to the livestock buildings and always draws a disproportionately farmy demographic and hasn’t been a particularly fruitful location for worthwhile sightings in several years now. It got my night rolling last night though as I came upon a trio of women and a young boy standing near the sheep building on the far side of the music stage. I saw a couple of cigarettes and was briefly excited until I got a closer look and discovered that the two women I spotted with cigarettes were in the second half of their 40s or 50s, which despite my encroaching on that age myself, is a demographic that does nothing for me. The younger woman in the crowd, a strawberry blond in a tan tanktop and dark jeans, who looked about 30, did not appear on first glance to be smoking. But lo and behold, as I got closer, I discovered she too had a cigarette between her fingers, briefly hidden from view in her hand until she lifted it to her lips. Sighting #1 was decent if unspectacular to look at, and her smoking was just okay as well, but it was a pleasant surprise to come upon her smoking, especially in the presence of these older women and a boy I figured was likely her son. I stuck around and watched a few drags before moving on, figuring there was a decent chance I’d go a long time before I saw another sighting even this good last night. I was right.

The best I would get after that first sighting and before the concert began was the intermittent back and forth of Sightings #4 and #6, two early 30s blonds of modest attractiveness who were both with boyfriends. Sighting #4 was prettier but chubbier, decked out in a pair of frumpy yellow shorts and the only one currently smoking in front of the horse barn entrance when I first spotted her. A half hour or so later, I’d see the other blond, who had a nicer body but a mediocre face, smoking by Jalapeno Pete’s on the other side of the grounds. As the night went on, I’d see them both smoke together on one occasion, without the guys around, and the skinnier blond smoking with the boyfriend on another occasion. The frequency of their smoking was the only thing that made them worthy of a writeup on a night where I welcomed their presence at times.

There were huge crowds of country girls in daisy dukes and cowgirl boots hanging around outside the grandstand in line for the concert…..and it was absolutely nightmarish to see almost zero smoking among them. Worse yet, the same dynamic from Saturday was playing out where I saw a lot of young and pretty faces drawing from wildly unglamorous vaping pods, compared to the old and haggard faces I saw dragging from cigarettes. On more than one occasion, I’d see a mother smoking a cigarette and an early 20s daughter standing next to her drawing from the Juul pod she wore around her neck like a necklace. Words can’t express how demoralized I was by around 7:30, when the crowd was in the grandstand and Dustin Lynch was singing, coming to terms with the real possibility that the few sightings I’d get all night could be mediocrities.

Sighting #10 lifted my spirits a little. A pair of attractive mid-to-late-20s gals were outside Jalapeno Pete’s and one of them had just lit a cigarette. The smoker was a slender, short-haired blond in a black tanktop and jeans, but unfortunately the more attractive brunette (or possibly lover…I got that vibe) was not smoking. At this point I was satisfied with going one-for-two though, observing the blond as she smoked, an extended dangle drag in the mix early on. I’d see this blond smoking again after 11 p.m., and once again saw her doing the lengthy dangle drag not long after the light-up. I’d see less of the second cigarette than the first though, because by that point in the evening I had other priorities. To be continued on that.

With the concert underway and the crowd all settled inside the grandstand, I believe with a no reentry rule, I tried my luck on the south side again. There’s a food and beer vendor with an open lawn that’s a bit off the beaten path, but I venture in there once in a while to see if there were any girls out smoking. And last night there were as I came upon a mid-to-late 20s couple where both were smoking. The girl, an attractive long-haired blond with a freshly lit cork filter between her fingers, was the prettiest smoker I’d seen so far on the evening. Unfortunately, Sighting #14 had a big, obnoxious tattoo on her right arm, but I solved that problem by moving to the clearing on the other side of her and sitting down on a large rock to watch the show from her left side. And it was a pretty good show as she handled the cigarette nicely, with well-practiced drags and generous exhales. It was right at the point of dusk and I knew the window was fast closing for decent snapshots. As is often the case with that lighting, some of the shots turned out and others didn’t. In the ones that did, it’s clear that she’s a pretty girl with a nice body framed in a white tanktop and tight dark blue jeans. A couple of other guy friends joined the couple about halfway through her cigarette and she playfully bantered with the three of them. They eventually walked off and it seemed as though her cigarette just vanished as I never saw her dispose of it, but she nonetheless had a pretty solid run with it. I never thought I’d be so thrilled at the sight of a girl with a full-sleeve tattoo smoking, but up to that point she was easily the top prize of the night. Thankfully that wouldn’t last much longer as my drought was about to break.

The Dustin Lynch portion of the concert was underway and I decided to make a run through the midway. Earlier in the night, I’d seen a trio of college girls that included a brunette with an extraordinary ass. I knew the odds were long that they’d be smokers, and I’ll kill the suspense right now and confirm that I never saw her light up, but I was still giddy running into her again on the midway, checking out that backside and keeping hope alive that she was addicted to cigarettes. But about five minutes into the midway tour, I’d see another attractive young hottie who was addicted to cigarettes….

A duo of blonds in their mid-to-late 20s were strutting northward toward the midway exit and the more attractive of the two had a half-smoked cigarette between her fingers. Sighting #16 was the first genuinely glamorous smoker girl presentation I’d come across last night, a black tanktop showing off her midriff paired with a pair of pale blue jean shorts showing off her sculpted lower body and smooth legs. The specific midway location of this sighting made it feel that much more rewarding since the midway is so populated with the current generation of antismoking snowflakes, yet this beauty was confidently strutting between the rides and carnival games looking all glamorous as she dragged and exhaled from her cigarette completely without guilt. From the second I laid eyes on this girl, there was an air of familiarity about her, but I was focused on salvaging a visual aid with my camera at this point, even though the combination of the darkness and the carnival backlighting made that a long shot. I successfully captured her strut with lit cigarette in hand, all while standing next to the less attractive (but still decently attractive) blond friend who at least at the time wasn’t smoking, but the image is blurry. That was the only pic I’d get that would turn out, but as she left the midway I was hoping to still get a couple more drags from her before the cigarette expired. Unfortunately, she dropped the all-white to the pavement without crushing it out and resumed her strut to the concourse. I watched her cigarette roll into a crack in the pavement and was able to identify it as a Marlboro Light. Given how long I’d waited for a glamorous smoking moment, this sighting left me wanting for more. But you never know, maybe I’d get it before the night was through.

Dustin Lynch wrapped up his set at a little after 9 p.m. and there was an intermission before Cole Swindell followed him up. Unfortunately the sightings continued to be few and far between, and with the limited supply of sightings generally, I found myself more willing to follow a hunch. During this intermission, I followed one that unfortunately led nowhere. This attractive 30-something woman was with a cute redheaded early teen girl I assumed was her daughter, and mom was foraging and foraging through her bag in the open area between the grandstand and the midway, looking a bit nervous while the daughter seemed fidgety waiting. Eventually she pulled something out of the purse that I could have sworn was a cigarette lighter. They continued to give off nervous energy for a moment and then they just….walked off. And walked…and walked. They did a full circle through the midway and then down the east side of the concourse and into some extremely remote areas on the east side of the grounds where there was no one else around. I probably spent 10 minutes on them before mom went to the bathroom, came back out, and still didn’t light a cigarette. It was an unproductive detour but at least it was well-timed, as I returned to the grandstand area having not missed anything as Swindell still hadn’t taken the stage.

I continued to wander aimlessly around the concourse in relative proximity to the grandstand when Swindell started singing, and doing so gave me a quick gander at Sighting #19, a decently attractive young mother with a daughter who looked about 10 sitting next to her. Mom was bespectacled with very long hair, but fit nicely into a pair of jean shorts. She didn’t look much like a smoker, but the cherry on that cigarette glowing in the dark as she sat next to the east side outer wall of the grandstand was unmistakable. Unfortunately, I walked toward her to get a closer look and she crushed it out before it was even half gone and then got up and walked toward Jalapeno Pete’s. The light helped me appreciate her features and figure more than the darkness, but I’d have given that up to see more of her smoking. Fortunately though, the timing for this short-circuited moment was useful for getting me back to the grandstand area a couple minutes later which is exactly where I needed to be…..

I took note of a nicely adorned dark blond walking out the clearing east of the grandstand where the concert could be seen over the fence, fresh beer in her hand and digging through her purse. My first impression of this youthful and feminine presentation gave me a flash of hope for what she might be digging for in that purse, even though those flashes of hope when I laid eyes on girls like her have usually fizzled out without a favorable resolution so far this fair season. But this time was gonna be different as seconds later, an unlit cigarette was inserted between her lips while still in transit. Now it was a matter of seeing if the face matched the presentation and trying to pull off a rare light-up photo of the instant she officially became Sighting #20. My luck was holding up with the first objective as she was very attractive, about 25 with dark blond hair running all the way down her back past her waist. She was wearing a white tanktop and black shorts, both of which suited her form. But the most striking part of her presentation was her amazingly buxom breasts, all natural and filling out that tanktop like a Dolly Parton album cover. I’m more of an ass and leg man personally, but never fail to notice a standout pair of tits, and this girl’s chest easily qualified. Now for that cigarette…..

My camera was ready as she approached her lighter to the tip of the cigarette, and I snapped the shutter as she sparked up. It was well after dark now and an open question whether the photo would turn out, but my top priority now that she was lit was seeing if her smoking would live up to the opening impression….and this girl came through again, the cigarette parked in her mouth after the light-up and all aglow and she ingested its poisons into her bloodstream. I was giddy when I realized she was gonna stand there by herself listening to the concert and smoking her cigarette in a location where I’d be able to sneak multiple photos and watch her smoke the entire cigarette. As a bonus, the Cole Swindell song that’s probably my favorite started booming out of the grandstand at this moment, and I listened to the music and tapped my phone shutter every time the cigarette approached her lips for a sweet litany of intense drags with long hold times and cloudy exhales, occasionally even no-handlebars dangling drags. While this was playing out, she kept looking at her phone and seemed to be a little agitated, as if waiting for a boyfriend or husband to make an appearance, but whatever measure of mild agitation she was conveying never failed to mask her striking presentation, her lips wrestling that cigarette to its demise before she dropped it to the pavement and crushed the cigarette (which I’d later identify as a Marlboro Red) out with her sneaker….

Now it was time to take a look at my photos and I’d be greatly disappointed. I figured I got as many as two dozen but, as happens sometimes, my trigger finger aim on that shutter wasn’t very centered and I only ended up with a handful, most of them with her back toward me and with devastating lighting from the grandstand fence that hid her face. The setting I thought would be so rewarding for pics ended up being hopeless for evening shots as the background lighting was almost entirely unavoidable. The one mild exception was the light-up shot. Her face was still blurred, but it was the best pic of the bunch. This was also the time she began walking away, presumably to meet whoever it was she was trying to contact on her phone. In years past, I’d have probably walked away, my focus shifting to the next frontier of female smoking bliss, but with as few and far between as attractive 20-something smokers are in 2021, I decided to follow. She traveled down the concourse with her beer and eventually settled in front of the extreme rides in a fairly isolated corner on the northwest side of the grounds, and I strongly suspected her significant other was going on one of these rides. I was a bit exposed standing in this area keeping one eye on her while pretending to observe these extreme rides, but it was a risk I was willing to take.

I hovered there for about 10 minutes, still able to hear the Cole Swindell concert in the background and noticing my long-haired dark blond looking up in the sky with her camera out taking photos of the extreme ride in motion. They began unloading the ride and she walked over to the passenger exit area, rummaging through her purse again and quickly producing another cigarette. She lit up and sent to me heaven a second time in the last 20 minutes. My vantage point wasn’t as close this time but I was still able to stand back and enjoy those long-distance drags, the longest drags I’ve seen from any addicted girl this fair season and that bosomy chest of her expanding whenever she got around to exhaling the smoke out. I got a distance shot here that has way too much background light to see anything smoking-related, but it was the best pic I got in terms of showing off her chest. About halfway through this second cigarette, it was clear based on her body language that her boyfriend/husband was walking toward her after exiting the ride, and my nose almost hit my eyebrow with as hard as I cringed seeing who this girl chose to bed down with….

This sleazy, trashy looking blond guy with a redneck mullet and a red beard approached her, and he couldn’t have been more of an unworthy mismatch for this very attractive and shapely smoker. The mullet is making a comeback with a certain demographic of rural, downscale males and this guy fit the profile completely. He’d eventually light a cigarette himself, and temporarily cheapened the moment for me knowing this beautiful girl was with him, but after I got over the initial shock, the mystery factor of why these two were a couple intrigued me. She crushed out her cigarette and they proceeded back to the concourse, and after I identified her second Marlboro Red of the last half hour, I decided to follow a bit more.

It didn’t last long though as she got in line for cookies and I knew that even after she got out of the line, she’d be eating for a while and it would likely be a while till she would smoke again. I walked away en route to the grandstand area to see if the concert could salvage any more sightings, but maybe this blond wasn’t done with me yet.

After a fruitless cursory loop around the grandstand perimeter and then the midway, I walked back out in front of Jalapeno Pete’s when another set of familiar faces entered my line of vision. The sexy mid-20s blond in the bare-midriff tanktop and pale blue jean shorts who I saw smoking on the midway an hour earlier was walking past me with her blond friend. She wasn’t smoking, but seeing her face in the well-lit location, it hit me as to why she looked familiar. I’m reasonably confident she was the same beautiful blond who I saw smoking a full 10 cigarettes (!!!) one night at the casino in 2019, who I distinctly remember being carded at the door upon entry. That girl had a very distinguished look about her and this blond matched my memory of that distinguished look completely, as did the cigarette habit. The scene then went from weird to absurd when this blond smoker suddenly called out “Hey. How are you doing?” in passing to what was clearly an acquaintance of moderate familiarity. I looked up to see who she was talking to…..and it was the buxom blond and her boyfriend who just emerged from the extreme rides and the cookie stand! It was the most surreal colliding of worlds I can ever recall seeing at a state fair (as opposed to the county fair where such an encounter would be far less surprising). The two smoker girls who had thus far made my night had greeted one another in passing, and while that would be the end of their interactions, it would not be the end of the smoking for either of them.

I chose to follow the bare-midriffed glam blond next since my previous sighting from her on the midway was brief and didn’t fully satisfy my hunger. I also wanted to get better pics of her, but unfortunately, the best I’d do is an ass shot of her and her friend. Still, as they stood outside the grandstand listening to Cole Swindell’s concert with beers in hand, I had a strong feeling additional tobacco consumption was pending, and my confidence grew as I studied the rectangular package in the back pocket of her jean shorts and knew it was what had supplied her with her tobacco wares when I saw her before on the midway. I only had to wait about three minutes before she reached her hand into her right rear jean shorts pocket and opened the box of Marlboro Lights, plucking one out for herself and one out for her friend. The mid-to-late 20s friend was modestly attractive, and certainly good enough to qualify as Sighting #23 with her long, ponytailed blond hair, black tanktop, and brown and white striped pants, but my attention was laser-focused on the OG midway girl about to give me the farrow-to-finish second sighting that I craved.

Between 2018 in Missouri and the Iowa State Fairgrounds tonight, I was at this point convinced that Cole Swindell’s music triggers an irresistible urge for females to consume tobacco, and the moment that followed her light-up was my most electric of the night. My assist of the night came from a middle-aged couple who decided to dance outside the grandstand to the song Cole Swindell was currently singing. For whatever reason, my blond smoker took an interest in this and pointed her phone to record the couple’s dance. But as she recorded, she parked the cigarette in her mouth and kept it there for a long-distance tenure I was totally unprepared for. The cigarette must have been perched in her lips for 90 seconds, but what was striking was that the cherry was glowing most of the duration of the dangle, with trickles of smoke coming out of her nose with most of her breaths as she focused her gaze on the dancing couple. It was killing me that I wasn’t able to get her dangle recorded onto my own mobile device, but once again, she was standing right in front of the backlit grandstand stage where her face was a blur. Photo evidence or not, it was one of the most luxurious dangles I’d ever seen, and I was curious if the dancing couple was as creeped out by her recording them and she’d have been if she caught me recording her! When her long dangle finally came to an end, she and her friend resumed traditional smoking, and it continued to be a treat to see them smoke together, with the original girl being far and away my favorite of the two. For whatever reason, the second girl parted with her briefly and my preferred blond finished the cigarette standing by herself, dropping her Marlboro Light to the pavement and crushing it out.

And just as she finished her cigarette, up comes the buxom long-haired dark blond in the company of her boyfriend, the two of them standing there listening to more of the concert. Neither were smoking at the moment, but it was surreal yet again to have my two top finds of the night standing about 15 feet apart. I was hoping for them both to be smoking at the same time, but the period of them standing near each other was short-lived before the buxom blond and her boyfriend drifted off. This time I chose to follow them, suspecting another cigarette would soon be forthcoming….and my instinct guided me correctly once again. As she walked past Jalapeno Pete’s, an unlit cigarette suddenly appeared between her fingers, and I caught up as best I could before she lit it, not wanting to get too close at this point thinking I might look too familiar to one or both of them. It was hard to keep too much distance once she was smoking again though because she did it so well, taking such natural extended drags and exhaling with a carefree swagger, often tilting her head and blowing the smoke skyward. The boyfriend wasn’t smoking with her, at least thus far, and it continued to be a little depressing seeing what a lowlife he appeared to be walking hand in hand with a girl that seemed so stunning in so many ways.

I stayed close for the duration of her cigarette as she and the boyfriend stood at a juncture near the center of the fairgrounds, clearly waiting to meet someone. Right around the time the girl was putting the finishing touches up on her cigarette, the boyfriend lit one up. I got one last quality glance in at blondie’s final drag, as she leaned forward and dropped her third cigarette of the last hour to the pavement and crushed it out. I never saw her official pack of Marlboro Reds but had seen two butts with that logo and knew it was indeed that hard-core brand that she smoked. I drifted away at that point, content at this point that I’d seen the last of her for the evening.

The concert was just ending and I wanted to get to the grandstand area in case any young hotties with cigarettes were departing. There had to be at least some! And I would run into a couple but once again my attention was dominated by the glam blond and her friend, now sitting on the steps on the side entrance of Jalapeno Pete’s both smoking another round of Marlboro Lights that came from my favorite girl’s jean shorts pocket. Just my luck….I got a decent photo of the two of them….and I ended up pocket-deleting that shot and a couple of other late evening shots. It was my night for sightings, at least by 2021 standards….but definitely not my night for photos! Seeing the glamorous blond in such good light, I was more convinced than ever that she was the same blond I saw smoking at the casino two years ago, making her what I presume to be the first girl who I’ve counted as a year-end casino sighting favorite and a year-end fairgrounds sighting favorite. I wouldn’t see these two smoking again but I nonetheless kept running into them right up until the time I boarded the shuttle bus just before midnight.

The duo of blonds were in front of the Depot just before I left, and that’s the last stop on the concourse before I arrived at the shuttle bus. There I’d get a duo of modestly attractive Hispanic ladies in their late 20s, padding my numbers with Sightings #28 and #29. I was amazed that after 13 hours of walking on Saturday and another seven hours last night, my feet were not particularly sore as I boarded that bus, en route home for a very short night of sleep before heading back to work on Tuesday morning.

There’s no question that even five years ago, I’d have considered this an unsuccessful night, but after Saturday’s reality check about the state of affairs for smoking in 2021, I was tickled to have gotten two sightings of impressive 20-something beauties with solid storylines and multiple cigarettes each. I keep going back and forth on who I liked more. I’m leaning toward the buxom blond, but that glam blond who I believe was the 2019 casino girl might end up nudging ahead in the end because of that incredible 90-second dangle. Hopefully I carry this modest measure of momentum with me for the rest of fair season, which begins with a final trip to the Iowa State Fair mid-afternoon on Thursday. I decided to go three times this year to make up for zero times in 2020, unprepared for just how rough the sightings landscape had gotten. But I’m at the point where any day or evening with sightings like I got last night, which we were so easy to take for granted in the very recent past, has to be considered a really good night.

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2021 Iowa State Fair, Day 1


All the ingredients were in place for as good of a Saturday at the Iowa State Fair as one could expect as I boarded my shuttle bus around 10:45 a.m. en route to the fairgrounds. Blue skies, highs in the mid-80s and low humidity….exactly the formula you want. It promised to be a large Saturday crowd and the evening grandstand entertainment was a duo of pop-country stars (Sam Hunt and Kip Moore) that promised to bring out the right demographic. I certainly wasn’t expecting a smoker girl culture resembling that of 10 years ago, but today would be the test if it would even resemble two years ago when I was last at the Iowa State Fair and had an excellent day. Cigarettes are not cheap in Iowa, but are less expensive than the national average, and the state’s demographics are disproportionately rural where I expected a bit of a legacy cigarette culture to persist. I was reasonably confident things wouldn’t backslide as aggressively as they did at my county fair the previous week. How’d that work out?

If anything, my county fair painted an artificially sunny portrait of how horrific the smoking culture has gotten in the Midwest. It would be easier to find a California condor in the wild than a woman under 25 smoking in Iowa these days. I went into this fair season prepared for things to be bad, but nothing could have prepared me for how terrible of a day I was poised to have on August 14, 2021. Being two years removed from my fair last season, I had no sense on where things were with vaping among younger people, but I officially got my answer yesterday……EVERYWHERE! Tobacco 21 probably served to push up the average vaping age from where it was three years ago, but the bottom line was…..virtually every female who was attractive and consuming nicotine was vaping…..and virtually every female with a cigarette was old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers.

Over the course of 13 hours, I got 51 sightings. The vast majority of them were mediocrities with only a few extra-base hits sprinkled amongst them. By contrast, on my Saturday visit to the 2019 Iowa State Fair, I got 130 sightings. Now that was an excellent day with rock group Slipknot bringing a very favorable crowd to the fairgrounds, but the 130 sightings I got that day was only a tick or two above the 10-year average for Saturdays at the Iowa State Fair. Every year since 2008, I’ve gotten more than 100 sightings here. This year, even with a big crowd, I only did half that well, and with a sightings selection that skewed decisively older and less glamorous than any year in the past.

About 15 minutes after my arrival, I saw a modestly attractive mid-30s woman smoking in front of one of the south side bars, good enough to count as Sighting #1. Over the course of the next three hours or so, I’d slowly stack up more modest sightings unworthy of a writeup. I suppose the best of them was Sighting #8, a tall and decently attractive late 20s brunette smoking a cigarette while standing in line at the Bud Tent next to her nonsmoking boyfriend. Nothing inspiring enough to dig out my camera and take a risk going for pics.

That wouldn’t happen until Sighting #10, a mid-20s girl-next-door light brunette sitting near the port-a-johns at the rear of the Jalapeno Pete’s bar. She was sitting there looking at her phone and smoking a cigarette….as in one made of tobacco! She had a pair of glasses that gave her a very bookish look, reminding me a bit of my ex-girlfriend Courtney, herself a heavy smoker. She was wearing a white tanktop and gray shorts, a look that also fit her wholesome general image. I got some nice, clear pics of her dragging, but the highlight of the sighting was watching the blur of smoke hover in front of her face after every drag before she inhaled it. I got to see most of the cigarette as she smoked it before she leaned down to crush it out on the pavement, leaving behind a Marlboro Lights butt before she stood up and reentered Jalapeno Pete’s. Not sure if she was an employee or a customer. Either way, I wouldn’t see her again. It was now 2:30 and she was the only sighting of the day so far worth mentioning. I could tell I was in big trouble in terms of overall numbers but still held out hope that the evening would bring about a 20-something smoking crowd.

On a few occasions during the day, I took a several-minute detour keeping tabs on this family with three kids….an infant boy, an early-teen daughter, and a really cute mid-teen blond. The late 30s/early 40s parents were smoking every time I saw them, and I kept crossing my fingers that that wholesome mid-teen blond daughter was part of the family culture as well. It seemed like a long shot, but there certainly wasn’t anything else going on that I was missing, and if this mid-teen blond did light up along with her parents at some point, it would have unquestionably been the big story of the 2021 fair season. But I probably kept tabs on them a combined hour in the early afternoon, mid-afternoon, and late afternoon when I kept running into them, and there was no indication that either of the girls was smoking.

It wouldn’t be until after 5:00, six hours after my arrival, when I’d get my first extra-base hit sighting of the day. I walked right into Sighting #15 near the farm equipment displays as a tall late 20s blond with long, straight hair hanging onto her black T-shirt opened her purse and took out a pack of Marlboro Menthols, handing one to her boyfriend and lighting up one for herself. Her short jean shorts accentuated her height and her sunglasses accentuated her glam factor. I was ready with the camera to get pics of my first glamorous sighting of the day. I didn’t get the light-up but I got a huge swirl of smoke bursting from her face following the first drag. From there, I was able to find a quasi-bench where I took a seat and dug in for the show from a few feet away, snapping a number of pics of her dragging while messing around on her phone and conversing with her boyfriend/husband. It was a decent show and she would eventually drop the cigarette the ground and walk away, as always giving me some false confidence that my luck might be changing. A couple of hours later, I saw the same couple with a drink in their hands in front of Jalapeno Pete’s, and both smoking another round of cigarettes. With as few smokers as were on hand Saturday, getting the chance for a repeat showing from the few that were was certainly welcome.

I’d also get repeat sightings from a duo of smoking women hanging out amongst a cluster of five 20-somethings in front of Jalapeno Pete’s. Sighting #19 was a dark brunette in sunglasses, a blue blouse and white daisy dukes who was the more attractive and the better smoker of the two, frequently taking deep drags on her all-white and then turning her head away from the crowd to exhale. Sighting #20 was the light brunette friend who was chubbier, but not disqualifyingly so, decked out in a feminine white and blue tanktop with jean shorts. None of the three friends were smokers. It’s the kind of sighting that would have been a dime a dozen outside of the fairgrounds bars at any of my favorite venues in recent past, but last night it felt like something special. An hour or so later, I’d see the same group of young women near the Depot, with the same two smokers indulging a cigarette. I was kind of exposed as I attempted a photo. While I did a good job of capturing the women in the group in the one shot I took, especially with the sun shining directly into them from my angle, the cigarette hands of both girls was just out of view. It was a nice show once again though, with the dark brunette winning on presentation and style points when she turned her head to exhale away from the crowd.

I was down by the sheep barns when I was surprised by the arrival of the hottest smoker girl of the day. Sighting #23 was a gorgeous dark brunette in her late 20s with a badass look about her, eyes covered in sunglasses, decked out in a green tanktop and a nice-fitting pair of jean shorts with long, tan legs coming out the bottom. I was bummed when I saw the male in her company with a cigarette in his hand as they approached but not the girl, unfortunately an image I saw too many times yesterday. But my frown turned upside down when her man handed her the cigarette. This was as close as I’d get to adrenaline moment on August 14, 2021, watching the cigarette approach her lips for a clean and gratifying drag, a burst of exhaled smoke blasting from her face as she walked toward the sun. Her drags were nicely timed and her exhales were visually perfect as I frantically followed, hoping to get a photo despite the nagging sun angle and my relative isolation raising my risk of getting caught. I also figured she’d be handing that cigarette back to the boyfriend, which she did before getting it back once again. It seemed like she got the majority of the cigarette, and seeing that cigarette approach such glamorous female lips on a day like yesterday was pure ecstasy given how scarce it was. Unfortunately, I thought I nailed a dragging pic or two but the setting on my phone was off. The best I do could was a nonsmoking rear shot, which doesn’t give much information besides a general sense of how hot this girl was. The girl got the final two drags from the cigarette, dropping it to the pavement and crushing it out with her sandal. I identified is a Marlboro Red before slinking away, having a nagging suspicion that I probably wouldn’t see any girls better than her in my six remaining hours of fetishing.

With the 7:00 hour fast approaching, I was spending the majority of my time near the grandstand hoping to see the crowd gather for the Sam Hunt concert. In years past, the cowgirls mingling near the grandstand usually meant plenty of “final cigarettes before the concert started”. There would be some of that last night, although the smokers would be a bit older and less conventionally flashy than what I was looking for. Sighting #26 was a long-haired dark blond in her mid-30s who certainly wore the kind of outfit I liked, with a zipped leather crop top showing off lots of bare flesh coupled with jean shorts. She had just lit a cigarette when I laid eyes on her. I liked the presentation but she definitely had a harder look than I prefer. A few minutes later I got a very similar vibe from another late 20s dark blond smoking while walking toward the grandstand. I only saw one drag from Sighting #27, but it was memorable because she proceeded to spike her cigarette like a football on the pavement after that drag, hustling on up to the gate to get inside the grandstand.

Not much else from the grandstand area before the concert. I traversed an extremely long line leading up to the entrance and the only smoker I spotted was a 40-something woman lighting up. She had a cute teenage daughter standing next to her and I hovered for a bit just in case the daughter lit up too, but I was quickly dispelled of that fantasy when the daughter waved mom’s smoke out of her face and the mom then offered to go smoke by the nearby wall if the daughter held her place.

The biggest disappointment of the day was the Bud Tent on the east side of the grounds, which has long been a useful location to boost sightings numbers and good for a number of extra-base hits most years. But this year, as with everywhere else, vaping, older-skewing smoking women, and a gender gap favoring male smokers was the big story. The best I would do yesterday was Sighting #31, a 30ish short-haired blond with kind of a retro 80s look who was clearly quite drunk and indulging in what was probably a social cigarette that she was nonetheless really enjoying with a couple of succulent finishing drags before she crushed it out. In a yellow blouse and nicely fitting jean shorts, she was the only smoker from outside the Bud Tent whose performance was worth mentioning on August 14, 2021.

Presentation and timing made Sighting #32 one of my more memorable of the day, even though I got screwed out of a perfect location where I could have gotten pics. There’s a half-circle of benches just south of the grandstand and as I walked past after dark, I laid eyes on this wholesome-looking early 30s blond digging through her bag, my eyes trained on her long bare legs coming out of a pair of perfectly fitting daisy dukes as I approached. She was sitting next to one guy when another guy, presumably a mutual friend, was approaching and sat down next to her. The first guy sitting there responded, “why don’t you sit on the opposite side of her….” with words to follow that I didn’t hear. This was lining up to be interesting, and I sat down on the next bench over waiting to see if it would play out as expected. Sure enough, a pack of Marlboro Light Menthols came out of her bag. Weirdly though, she saved one for herself and handed the other to her presumed boyfriend/husband. It would have made more sense if the boyfriend didn’t smoke given his advice to the friend to sit on the other side of her to be spared from her smoke, but with both of them smoking I didn’t get the point. Either way, blondie lit up the cigarette and made official what was the most unlikely girl of the day to light up a cigarette…..

Unfortunately, there was a middle-aged guy next to me on the bench in between us. As his wife approached, I was giddy at the prospect of them leaving together and freeing up the space in between. But that didn’t happen. The wife sat down in between us, meaning I now had two people obstructing my view and no chance of getting pics at this time of night. I got up and wandered around, trying to find the least conspicuous possible vantage point. But this girl seemed to realize she didn’t fit the type to be a smoker, and proceeded to hold her cigarette hand behind the boyfriend’s back, hiding it from everybody but me. It was fascinating to see the extended glow of the cherry every time she took a drag, but she sure was doing everything she could to camouflage her skilled consumption. I got to see several drags before the cigarette just disappeared. Perhaps she dropped it behind the bench behind where they were sitting, but the boyfriend made no attempt to hide his smoking. At this point, I just wanted to see her stand up and observe how tall she was and how well those jean shorts fit her sculpted body from a vertical position. But I wouldn’t even get that chance because they kept sitting there after finishing the cigarette, giving me no choice but to walk away. I eventually did walk away, and by the time I returned, they were gone. Even the moments with potential for greatness yesterday didn’t play out right.

By a little after 10, the Sam Hunt concert was dismissing and I hoped to get a ninth-inning rally going. There was no rally but I did get what would be my best sighting of the day with Sighting #39. As the crowd began to spill out of the grandstand, I saw the kind of rear presentation I’d invested 11 hours to see as this petite firecracker of a light brunette in a gold tanktop and dark jean shorts brought an unlit cigarette to her lips and fired it up. She was in the company of a male significant other but I didn’t even look at him as I approached, having not seen her face yet and wanting to keep hope alive that I was finally about to see a glamorous college-aged girl openly smoking. When I did lay eyes on her, it was clear she was older than she looked from behind, her face dating her at about 30 years old, consistent with the look of her boyfriend/husband. She was still very attractive though and had done an incredible job of maintaining a tight package of a body that evoked the energy of a teenager. And it didn’t take long to realize she was an excellent smoker, taking intense drags that turned that cigarette cherry into a scalding hot torch. But the best was yet to come…..

A middle-aged couple began approaching them, likely either her parents or the boyfriend’s parents. Neither of them were smoking nor would they, but my ashtray-mouthed brunette wasn’t the least bit bashful of smoking around them. They began to converse and the parents asked them how the concert was. I only heard snippets but there was a reference to the Blake Shelton concert the night before. The consistent theme in these chats was talking exhales from the cutie. As nice as her drags were, the exhales were easily the best feature of this sighting, with smoke slowly escaping this chatterbox’s respiratory system with each muttered word. At one point, she was right in her mother (or mother-in-law’s!) grill speaking to her, beautiful wisps of smoke gushing straight into my mom’s face with every spoken word for what seemed like 20 seconds. I was scrambling for photos here but knew the odds of anything turning out this late at night with such a large crowd weaving in and out of my way was not great. What I did get was blurry and not particularly illuminating, but I pulled off a modest frontal shot and a rear shot where her cigarette was glowing bright red. The older and younger couples ended up parting ways before my girl finished her cigarette, and by the time I caught up the cigarette was gone, denying me a butt identification. I’d already decided this was my best sighting of an abysmal day, but I’d get a bonus act from her only about a half hour later.

I was making my late evening journey through the south side of the fairgrounds after 11 and there stood the power couple just beyond the line for the gyros. It seemed as though they were scrapping a bit and I noticed the boyfriend had a freshly lit cigarette. As his petite girlfriend began to forage in her bag, I knew she was about to produce her own, and in seconds she did, lighting up (at least) her second cigarette of that last half hour. I found a good seat to watch from a comfortable distance, but was too far away to attempt pics at this hour of the night. Their demeanor continued to evoke an argumentative posture as they both stood there smoking, and I wished I was close enough as I was before to see the smoking spilling from her face with “angry talking exhales”. Looking at her here, it was pretty clear she was at least 30 and I continued to be impressed by the extent to which she cut the profile of an 18-year-old. Her diminutive size certainly helped on that front, and I think the complete lack of girls of that pedigree who were smoking yesterday really made me feel grateful that this girl was doing her best to get me the kind of sighting that moves me the most. About halfway through their cigarettes they began to walk away and I followed them to a crowded south side beer gardens area and managed to again miss the disposal of her cigarette. Not sure what my year-end best sightings list will look like this year, but the only sighting of yesterday that has a chance of making it is this one.

That last hour and a half of the day was the best stretch that August 14th had to offer, grading on a curve with that south side loop producing a couple more sightings worth mentioning. The first was Sighting #44, where I saw two couples that were a curious mix of Hispanic and Black. I immediately smelled cigar smoke and took note of a Black ‘N’ Mild in the hand of the cute early 20s Hispanic girl in a blue tanktop and tight jeans. But as I saw her take a drag from the cigar, I also took note that there was a cigarette in her other hand. After that first drag, she surrendered the cigar to the Black boyfriend. It wasn’t for her and she decided to stick with the cigarette. I followed them for a distance hoping to hear a spattering of their conversation but it was unfortunately drowned out by the music. I followed them to see her take a couple of drags from the cigarette as she walked, hoping the boyfriend realized how lucky he was to be kissing a girlfriend who had both cigarettes and cigar on her breath.

Sighting #45 came next, just a few benches out of sight from the south side beer gardens where two early 20s girls sat together. I saw a cigarette in the hands one of them from afar and I approached. The light brunette smoker had a bit of a nerdy presentation with glasses and all, but she was cute and didn’t look like one of the few girls under 25 I’d see yesterday with a cigarette. I sat on the empty bench next to her and noticed that she had a vaping pod in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I was grateful that, at least for the moment, she had chosen an analog cigarette as I watched her take multiple drags while chatting with the nonsmoking friend. And at some point, another nonsmoking female friend approached and started chatting with the two of them, the bespectacled light brunette smoker continue to chip away at that cigarette in her right hand. I walked by one last time to get a closer look at her face in this dark spot. If it had been daytime, I’d have taken more of a risk to get a photo of her, but not in this dark, isolated area, so I moved on.

In the last half hour or so, I’d stack up a few more mediocre sightings. The best of them came in the rapidly depopulated area just east of the grandstand, which had cleared out significantly after the Sam Hunt concert ended. But still lurking there was a mixed-gender cluster that included a couple of hotties I’d kept my eyes on for a couple of hours now. And as I watched the late 20s blond in the cowgirl hat, black tanktop, and daisy dukes place a cigarette to her lips and light up and become Sighting #49, I got my payoff. I definitely sensed that she was a social smoker, and that her blood-alcohol content was above .08, but it was nice seeing her smoke. She and her group began walking toward the rear entrance of Jalapeno Pete’s as the blond handed her cigarette to a decently attractive brunette friend who took a drag of her own and became Sighting #50.

After so many disappointing hours and very sore feet by that point in the evening, I was a bit checked out and too grumpy to fully appreciate some of those late evening sightings that helped turn the tide at least a little. I boarded the shuttle bus home a little before midnight, and the closest I’d come to finding an upside to the evening was that my feet were merely extremely sore and not blistered. The first day at the Iowa State Fair is always the biggest test for my feet with the biggest potential consequences as I typically go to multiple additional fair venues in the next eight days. I wear unforgiving Rockport shoes with little padding but good support. Little padding means sore feet that recover quickly. More padding means blistered feet that recover slowly. But as was the case most of the miserable day, I really began to question how much all these days in the sun with sore feet and the elevated risk of a confrontation was worth it anymore….

I already began to question that 2-3 years ago when my sightings numbers were downright plentiful by comparison. Now I’m really eyeing a sunset for fairgrounds fetishing on the near-term horizon. The basic framework of my prediction about what laid ahead this year (no replacement smokers, the hangers-on aging out of peak attractiveness years) very much came to fruition in the most frightening possible way. But the reality is even a bit worse than expected as it appears most of the 20-something smoking culture than existed in 2018 and 2019 has either quit or made the transition to vaping, and it’s easy to see why. Most apartments ban smoking on the entirety of the property now, meaning you don’t even get to be a smoker on the patio of your own home without an eviction risk. Most young women live in rental properties, so if they get their nicotine fix through vaping, they can do so in the comfort of their home without telling on themselves with the smell. And it’s astounding how stealth these things are, with a girl capable of taking a draw through the device cupped in her hand, and slip it back into her pocket out of sight before she even exhales. In the era of outrageous cigarette prices and smoking bans absolutely everywhere, how can cigarettes compete with this?

For whatever variety of reasons, demand for cigarettes appears to be entirely dead among young women in the Midwest and sightings numbers have fallen off a cliff in a way they never did year to year in the 2010s. But as I alluded to earlier, the same cannot necessarily be said for young men. Most of them were vaping as well, but if my cigarette count had been for young males instead of females, I suspect I’d have gotten to a higher number than 51. The smoking age gap seems to favor males more than females right now more than any other time in my memory, and I saw this at my county fair two weeks ago as well. This sucks in the short-term, but any means of keeping cigarettes relevant will work to fetishist’s advantage long-term.

Now is it possible I just had a really unproductive and nonrepresentative day? Sure….but I doubt it. I’m heading back to the Iowa State Fair Monday night after work and by mid-afternoon on Thursday, with pop country concerts that are likely to be heavily attended both nights, to see if Saturday’s trainwreck was predictive. Beyond that, I can only hope for regional differences saving me to whatever limited degree in Missouri and Minnesota in the weeks to come. I’ll refrain from saying more until I get a more complete geographic picture, but right now, I can’t imagine coming up with 25 sightings from this year’s fairgrounds haul worthy of the top-25 annual sightings lists I’ve put together in previous years. Only the one sighting from yesterday has any chance at all of being worthy of a year-end top-25. Last year was likely an important pivotal year for the decline of smoking and losing it entirely kept me in the dark about how bad things had gotten. I figured the Iowa State Fair was poised to be the venue that changed the least from 2019, but did I ever get a rude awakening. I’ll have a better handle four days from now, after two additional visits, if the venue is still capable of making it worth my time to spend the day there.

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2021 Local County Fair


Tuesday Night

I technically started the 2021 fair season at the Appanoose County Fair in southern Iowa a week and a half ago but the official 2021 fair season got underway at my hometown county fair the first Tuesday night in August. I’ve become so resigned to this venue’s fast pace of decline that it felt almost anti-climactic to walk into the fairgrounds around 6 p.m. As fast as the pace of smoking’s disappearing act has been across the board, it’s been even faster in my home county than I’ve seen elsewhere, as has been evident going back at least three years. Pretty much everything that could go against me logistically and demographically has in this county fair in recent years and I had absolutely no reason to expect a different outcome this year after going without a fair in 2020. This fair had actually canceled in April but then rescheduled only weeks later when COVID restrictions began to rapidly lift. I’m glad they got to do it, but if only one fair on my roster was to be canceled this year, I would have preferred this to be the one.

I ended up getting nine sightings on the night, which is pretty bad, but until a flourish in the last half hour I was expecting to get half that many. Not so many years ago, I had opening nights getting more than 30 sightings at this fair, if that gives you any idea on how steep the rate of attrition is. Curiously, my experiment in recent years has been how long it would take me to get my first sighting of the night at this fair, but I pulled that off within five minutes of arrival when I saw a tall early 30s brunette mother in a tanktop and jeans light one up in the presence of a son who looked about seven years old. She looked vaguely familiar and only modestly attractive, and later in the night it hit me that I suspect she was the same tall young mom I saw smoking two years in a row outside the main bathroom structure on the fairgrounds. I remembered her being cuter back then. Whatever the case, another 30-something woman and two guys caught up with her and they started walking together with the boy, the mother being the only smoker of the four. Her style was average and the sighting wouldn’t have been memorable at all if it hadn’t happened only moments after my arrival.

I had serious doubts that this was gonna be a harbinger of a bountiful sightings harvest all evening long and my doubts were unfortunately proven correct as I perused for nearly two more hours and didn’t come across any women smokers younger than middle-age. I came across an old high school friend and a cousin and her husband, but those detours didn’t set me back too long. It’s always a treat to admire the young female bodies draped in summer attire, but there simply wasn’t any smoking to be found among them. Worse yet, it seemed to be a scaled-down version of the county fair with sparsely occupied corners of the grounds from Machinery Hill to the midway, presumably because of the short notice they had to secure vendors and a midway. Everything was pointing in the direction of a new record low for sightings at this county fair, a record that seemingly gets broken every year I go there in the present era.

The night would get much weirder as I attempted to get inside the grandstand right around 8:00 for 80s and 90s country band Sawyer Brown, the evening’s entertainment. Security measures have been escalating at many of my fairs in recent years, but in its infinite wisdom my county fair decided to have multiple police officers conducting the most invasive and comprehensive person-to-person weapons check at the two entry gates for the grandstand rather the front gate of the fairgrounds….presumably based on the premise that those most likely to bring weapons to the fair are those attending a Sawyer Brown concert. Every single person had to put all of their belongings in a plastic basket for inspection by one officer while the next spent 30 seconds thoroughly wanding every entrant with a metal director…..everyone from six-year-old kids to 90-year-old grannies.

The woman ahead of me had already been checked going in the first time but came out for a snack expecting she could go back in after having already been checked. Nope….she was told she had to get in line and wait another 15-20 minutes to get in a second time. Word was passing along that everything from pocket knives to fingernail clippers to bottle caps (WTF?) were considered weapons and the occupant would be denied entry. When it was my turn I asked the cop if they were doing this every night. When he said yes, I said “this is gonna absolutely kill attendance”. I was most frustrated as I recognized that any smokers would be unable to come out for a cigarette without getting in a line that would probably never end. It was 8:15 and I had no idea how they expected to get people in for the 8:30 show. And then they just….gave up. Somebody high up the food chain apparently came to the same conclusion I did about attendance suffering with such aggressive and time-consuming security checks….and they just started letting everyone in. Not sure how they didn’t see this coming a mile away but hopefully they refrain from doing something so stupid again.

Now that the biggest distraction was resolved, I focused my attention to the beer gardens on the other side of the fence, which had a pretty good-sized crowd that included some younger and attractive females. But I quickly dismissed the early 20s clusters in the center of the beer gardens as nonsmokers and would be vindicated save for one gorgeous long-haired blond who was vaping. And while the beer gardens certainly didn’t deliver the way it would have any given night 10 years ago, it was by no means a washout. In fact the most prolific smoker of the night would show up just before the concert began…..

A middle-aged mother and what I presumed were two blond daughters in their early-to-mid 30s approached the fence to watch the show, and the two daughters were both wielding cigarettes. One daughter was overweight and didn’t interest me, but the tall long-haired blond in the blue jeans was a more interesting find. I’d have guessed she was early 30s, but given that she seemed to know the words to every song by Sawyer Brown–whose most recent hit on the charts was in 1999–she may have been 35 or older. Either way she was the only game in town for most of this concert and thankfully she lit up three times, along with the heavier sister. There was nothing particularly memorable about her style but she was still enjoyable to watch smoke from my comfortable vantage point in the grandstand where she helpfully stood in the best-lit area of the grandstand. My morale would certainly have been worse at the end of this concert if she hadn’t been there smoking three times.

The concert itself was very good. Sawyer Brown has been at my county fair three times going back to 1986 (!!!!) when I was in third grade. They’ve always put on high-energy shows and their country music is above average. As I said though, their last hit was 1999, so the crowd mostly skewed older. With all of the musical festivals gobbling up big-name current talent and even medium-name current talent, the fairs are at an increasing disadvantage and have to settle for washed-up acts who haven’t had a hit this millennium. It’s becoming a real problem and I think most county fairs’ business plan is poised to collapse the way things are going given that the “main events” are now the acts who’d have barely made the cut for the free stage a decade ago. It’s a mixed bag for me because I preferred the music of the 80s and 90s and like concerts where I know most of the songs. On the other hand, I prefer a younger-skewing crowd at the concerts, but this mattered more when young people smoked. Since they don’t now, that might be a moot point so maybe there’s no upside to have clunky up-and-comer singers. Anyway, I digress….

It wouldn’t be until about halfway through the show before the beer gardens yielded another sighting. Since it was well after dark, only a portion of the adjacent beer gardens was lit enough to where I could see much. So when the silhouette of a fetching-looking blond with a freshly lit cigarette in her hand appeared in a very dark part of the beer gardens, it was frustrating. Certainly from a distance, this shapely long-haired blond in a summer dress looked like my kind of girl, but if it wasn’t from the nicely paced cherries that emerged every time she took a drag from her cigarette, there would have been no lighting at all from my vantage point. After she finished smoking, she headed inside and I knew I’d need a lucky break to be able to get a better look at her. I’d get that lucky break moments later when she and a friend exited the beer gardens completely and migrated to the grandstand entrance to head inside the concert. I was able to determine the blond was decently attractive and in her early to mid-30s, not quite as promising as her distant silhouette suggested but I still felt fortunate to get a closer look as she and the friend migrated into the front-tier of seats for the rest of the concert.

Late in the show, a new arrival emerged in the beer gardens who dominated my attention for the end of the concert. A trio of two guys and a girl appeared out of nowhere in the beer gardens and drifted toward the fence with a vantage point of the stage. The girl was an attractive early 20s blond with long, straight hair wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. After taking note of how nicely the jeans framed her ass, I looked up a few inches to see she was wearing a backpack. Backpacks always pique my curiosity as they mean girls are carrying something…like possibly cigarettes. When she quickly pulled the backpack off to fetch something, I was getting increasingly optimistic. As the guy next to her who I presumed to be her boyfriend lit a cigarette, all signs were pointing to fourth-quarter touchdown at this concert. And sure enough, a cigarette was soon placed in her lips. It took her a couple of minutes to getting around to lighting it, but she sure made it worth my while when she did. Up to that point, this blond seemed pretty mild-mannered but the ignition of that cigarette seemed to instantly turn her into a wild woman….

She began dancing and jumping around to the final set of Sawyer Brown songs, her arms flailing with cigarette in hand in a way that jeopardized the safety of anyone near her. Looking at her expressive and youthful face as she sang along, I’d have sworn she was only about 16 but I saw her closer-up in better lighting a bit earlier and could tell she was more like 23. At its best, this beer gardens presents a good opportunity to shoot fish in a barrel with sightings, but after dark, the lighting prevents me from seeing all I should be. And unfortunately, a sighting that had the great potential to be my best of the night was pretty short-lived. The concert ended and so did the presence of the blond, who turned around with half-smoked cigarette in hand and drifted deeper and deeper into the crowd out of sight, presumably heading for the port-a-johns on the opposite side of the beer gardens. Some years I consider the option of going into this fenced-in beer gardens in hopes of getting closer and more prolonged sightings of girls like her, who I was pretty sure would be producing more cigarettes before she left the fairgrounds that night, but the area is small and I know so many people in this small county. I wouldn’t have an answer if they saw me there and was asked why a teetotaling Mark was sitting by himself at the beer gardens, so I always take a pass.

This is another reason why this fairgrounds has become such a slog for sightings. In the not so recent past I could spend the next two hours after the concert encircling the grounds seeing smoking from the mostly teenage crowd that lingers after the concert ends, but now no teens smoke anymore. Pretty much all the smoking going on in those fairgrounds is happening at those beer gardens where my attendance would be a risk not worth taking. Worse yet, they start shutting the midway down at least an hour earlier than usual these days as well, meaning I have at most an hour for realistic chances at sightings before the place effectively goes dark. With only four sightings on the night thus far, I didn’t have high hopes for much more, especially with as quickly as the crowd was thinning down. But I did piece together a couple of modest entries of 30-something women, one presumably the blond daughter of a biker guy and the other a modestly attractive brunette outside the BINGO pavilion.

The 11:00 hour was here and the crowd was already as thin as I’d ever seen it. The cluster of 4-H teens who typically dance near the livestock buildings till midnight was long gone tonight. I had no expectation of any additional sightings and planned to take only one more lap around the grounds. But over the course of that lap, I saw a trio of two young women and a guy who caught my eye because the brunette girl was carrying two large pizza boxes. The trio was clearly headed for the nearby north side exit and I looked them over in passing, finding the ponytailed redhead in a black tanktop and jean shorts next to her more attractive. As I laid eyes on the redhead, she was eating a slice of the pizza from the boxes, but then I happened to take a look at her right hand which was not directly in my line of vision. Well holy shit…..there was a cigarette in that right hand. Almost at that exact moment, the fourth member of their party walked out of the nearby port-a-john and approached the existing trio. It was a 20-something male who was the obvious boyfriend of the redheaded smoker girl. The foursome began heading for the exit and that was just fine by me because it allowed me to follow, where I could get an extended sighting of the redhead in relative isolation….

I took advantage of the last bit of fairgrounds lighting to get a good look at her face, which was very pretty and youthful. I’d have guessed she was not yet 25. For the first 100 yards or so, I got to see two instances where she alternated between taking a bite of pizza and taking a drag from her cigarette, the filthy exhales flowing from her face clearly the work of a regular smoker. I wasn’t quite close enough to walk through those exhales but I could still smell them lingering in the air as I followed. The two couples parted ways not long after exiting the gate, with the nonsmoking couple headed for a parking lot and the smoker girl and her boyfriend continuing down the sidewalk toward the residential neighborhood as they clearly lived closeby. I was hoping to see the sighting out to its completion as we progressed into the darkness past the apartment complex where my grandma used to live, the cherry from the redhead’s cigarette glowing like a beacon with small showers of ash falling to the pavement whenever she touched the cigarette. I was a bit concerned those smooth legs of hers would get touched by the shower of embers but thankfully they appeared to be spared. Unfortunately, this intersection was a messy construction site and as they crossed the street it wasn’t credible for me to continue following to see her finish the cigarette, so I backed off, satisfied at that point that I would likely end the evening with a flourish. Nonetheless, I felt a burning desire to re-enter that fairgrounds and finish up with that one final lap that I never got to complete earlier, and boy was I glad I did….

The evening’s festivities were rapidly winding down and whatever semblance of crowds existed even 15 minutes earlier were dispersing. I know the Bingo pavilion closes for the night at 11 so I made a final pass in that area, and before I even got there, a young blond in a white Tom Thumb Donuts-logo sweatshirt and zebra-striped pants was milling around with an unlit cigarette in her hand. The ponytailed blond looked to about 22 which was already a stunner as frankly I didn’t expect to see a single girl that young smoking at this year’s county fair. This girl was lurking in the presence of two boys about her age but then drifted further in the direction of a mini-donut stand where she led me right toward another cute girl about her age who was smoking a cigarette! Once the two of them were face to face just outside this mini-donut stand, the original blond lit her cigarette and suddenly a night I thought was dead featured two girls who were around 21 both smoking cigarettes….

The closed BINGO pavilion gave me a perfect opportunity to sit down on the empty seat and observe from a close distance. The second girl was also blond, wearing a red T-shirt and black shorts. If anything, she was even cuter than the other blond but also had tattoos on her upper arms that took away from her beauty some. At this point though, it’s just impossible to discriminate against tattoos when given the rare opportunity to see girls their age publicly smoking, and I even got a few pics that aren’t terrible given the after-dark carnival lighting backdrop. The show was good, although most of the observable smoking theatrics belonged to the second girl since her face was in my line of vision while the original blond had her back turned to me. Both of them took regular drags from their respective all-whites, releasing cloudy exhales that sometimes drifted straight into the mini-donut stand where they were talking to an older couple inside. And that conversation is what made the sighting most exotic. Both the girls and the older couple inside were speaking in a foreign language. I’m guessing it was central or eastern European, belonging to a family whose origins were from a country where smoking still has a cultural footprint. It’s possible the older couple was the girls’ parents, standing inside that nonsmoking booth and choking on their daughters’ secondhand smoke after the mini-donut stand that they all worked in likely closed for the night. Much as it would have made sense that this was a family working for a traveling carnival, I was struck that one of the blond girls was wearing a visor advertising a local business, suggesting that she probably did have some local ties.

I got a good five minutes of viewing time in and hoped to get an opportunity to identify the all-white butts that the girls wrapped their lips around, but they leaned down to crush the cigarettes out and held onto them, likely waiting to drop them into a garbage can out of my sight. Nonetheless, what a wild and unexpected detour at the end of the night. And needless to say I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled on this mini-donut stand at closing time for the next four nights to see if I might run into subsequent smoking performances from these two, which is very possible. I left the grounds feeling pretty good, having fared better than expected on opening night despite the alarmingly low overall number of sightings.

As I said, my grandma has gone to the nursing home so her garage across the street that served me so well for so many years is no longer an option, so I parked a couple blocks out of the grounds on a side street, and last night as every night will be crossing my fingers on the walk back that my catalytic converter wasn’t sawed off as that is a very common crime in the white trash hometown of late. So far so good and I suspect my car lies too low to the ground to be a tempting target for thieves. Anyway, nine sightings is not much of a start and doesn’t even set me up to keep pace with 2019’s previous record low of 74 sightings (I got 144 sightings on my peak year of 2010) but I figured as much going in. Wednesday will be “senior day” with The Oak Ridge Boys of all people as the grandstand entertainment. I really hope the fair has wised up and will dispense with their original security measures the rest of the week, especially on Wednesday night as it applied to thoroughly wanding the senior set attending an Oak Ridge Boys concert. Said senior set gives me very limited hope of a successful evening of sightings on Wednesday, but you never know.

Wednesday Night

I expected Tuesday at my county fair to be a lackluster night of sightings but it exceeded expectations at least a bit. I expected Wednesday at my county fair to be a lackluster night of sightings at it matched expectations. Any day officially designated as “senior day” with the Oak Ridge Boys as the evening grandstand show is not likely to produce a bountiful harvest of young women smoker sightings, but then again having the place teeming with young women would at this point not be likely to produce a bountiful harvest of young women smoker sightings either. I got to the fairgrounds a little later tonight….around 6:30. I didn’t expect I’d be missing much and I wasn’t, but just like the night before, within my first five minutes I came across my first sighting of the evening, a slender long-haired brunette who appeared to be the mother of a young boy around six. I suspect she was still in her 20s and was kind of cute. It’s the kind of sighting that wouldn’t have warranted more than a blink a decade ago, but in 2021 passes as a decent start to the night.

I’d get a whopping six sightings on the night, none of which was better than a barely-qualifying single-base hit. The best part of the night was that I got further context about the two young blonds smoking in front of the mini-donuts stand the night before. I happened to be sitting in an isolated spot looking at my phone on the south side of the grounds early in the evening when the first of the two blonds from Tuesday night walked past me towards the women’s bathroom wearing a similar outfit to the night before, with a Tom Thumb Mini-Donuts sweatshirt. She wasn’t smoking, but I immediately recognized that vaguely ethnic beauty I enjoyed that previous evening. Later I’d see her working inside the Tom Thumb stand, while I’d see the other blond working in another food booth not too far away. Apparently there’s a family of bilingual fair vendors with a franchise of food stands on this fair circuit with two young blond smokers as part of the family tree. Unfortunately, even though I kept close tabs on them at closing time, they never did venture to the presumed patriarch’s mini-donut stand for a cigarette at the end of Wednesday evening at they did on Tuesday. They just…..vanished.

I’d see one more modest 30-something blond before going in for the grandstand concert. The security line farce from the night before persisted almost identically, with moronically intensive weapons checks on every passerby until 8:15, and then giving up and letting everybody through without any check at all at 8:16. It was almost like a parody of an incompetent law enforcement unit trying to run a security operation…..seriously believing that nobody would possibly dare to bring a weapon into a concert if they came really close to the starting time! Anyway, I suppose you could say it worked as nobody who attended the…..Oak Ridge Boys concert…..opened fire during the hour and a half show. Unfortunately, the number of people who fired up cigarettes was almost as nonexistent.

Most galling was that there was some potential in that beer gardens. In fact, one of the young women inside was a blond who in 2018 and 2019, held out as one of the few teen smokers I saw puffing just about every night with her dark brunette friend. Fast forward to 2021 when she’s now old enough to be inside the beer gardens….and she’s vaping from a Juul pod. She hung around at the same general spot inside the beer gardens for the majority of the concert….and I kept hoping that in time her Juul pod would disappear and her Old Reliable cigarettes would make a surprise appearance from her purse. But even this girl has apparently kicked the cigarette habit. What a miserable time it is to be alive. She had an early 20s blond friend I’d never seen before who was cute and shapely…but she was vaping as well. I took partial solace on Tuesday night that even with cigarettes in retreat, vaping didn’t have a particularly strong presence either, especially among the teen set. But on Wednesday vaping appeared to be at least a bit more prolific.

The other girl who had the most potential in the beer gardens was a light brunette in a white blouse and tight jeans. She looked about 25 with the face of an angel and was in the company of a very tall and lanky boyfriend who was a full head taller than her. The first time I laid eyes on them, he was smoking….and she wasn’t. I hadn’t written her off though and kept close tabs on her over the course of the concert. I began to get more hopeful about 20 minutes later when a couple of other young women in her group migrated toward the fence and lit up cigarettes. Both of the friends looked to be late 20s or early 30s and modestly attractive but sporting unsavory tattoos on their arms and upper body. It was nice to see them light up but the reward was modest, yet allowed me to build my hopes up that this group’s pedigree was such that the wholesome brunette would light up as well. Her tall boyfriend reemerged outside amidst the group of smokers and produced a cigarette for himself. I knew it was now or never for my adorable light brunette….but unfortunately it was never. She couldn’t keep her hands or lips off of this guy, including moments after he lit up the second cigarette when they smooched, but she never shared anything more than secondhand smoke with him. My most promising prospect for the night was a bust.

Unfortunately, even after the concert ended, the theme persisted where the few younger smokers I saw were guys. In the abstract, I don’t consider this a bad thing as if more young guys take to smoking, more young ladies are likely to eventually take up smoking and maybe we can possibly turn this death spiral around at least a little. But in the meantime, seeing a night where my “young guy” smoker count was more than double the six sightings I got of young females was an additional gut punch.

I left the Oak Ridge Boys concert just before it ended at 10 p.m. and took in the departing crowd. Nothing. Within a half hour of the concert ending, the midway began to go dark and the crowds thinned down to near zero. I still stuck around another 45 minutes hoping to see those two European blonds working the food stands, but didn’t see anything from them either. A Hispanic couple where both parties, including the modestly attractive 30ish female of the duo, was smoking, represented the extent of my post-concert bounty.

I left the grounds at about 11:15 with low morale, considerably lower than the night before which ended with a comparative flourish. Things are really dark out there for smoking, and in my home county worse than most…..or at least hopefully. If things are this bleak at the Iowa State Fair or the Minnesota State Fair, I might decide to call it a career early for fairgrounds sightings. Anyway, the Thursday evening grandstand act is Darcie Lynn, the teenage ventriloquist from TV’s “America’s Got Talent”. That’s another prime example of how hard it’s gotten for county fairs to book entertainment these days. I doubt anybody under 60 watches “America’s Got Talent”, so I’m not hopeful that Thursday’s demographic mix will be any better than “senior night” with the Oak Ridge Boys on Wednesday. The fact that it’s a dreary day with rain in the forecast for Thursday evening certainly doesn’t help matters either. Sigh….

Thursday Night

I guess if there’s a silver lining to spending yet another night at the county fair and getting very few sightings it’s that when I return home at nearly midnight, I don’t have a very long writeup to take care of. Such was the story once again on the third night of my county fair, which produced a whopping five sightings over the course of the evening. This puts me at a running total of 20 sightings over three nights thus far. For context, 20 sightings would have been considered a below-average single night of sightings even five years ago. Now it takes me three nights to put together as many sightings as what a below-average single night used to produce.

I got to the fairgrounds just before 7 p.m., not in nearly as much of a hurry to get there as I used to be. Once again, I got my first sighting of the night in the first several minutes after arrival, but like the previous nights, it was mediocre. I walked around the grounds for more than an hour after before it was time to get into the grandstand for the evening entertainment. As I stood in line for the moronic nightly “security screening” that abruptly ends at 8:15 at which point everybody is allowed in without a screening, I once again saw the tall dark blond from the evening before heading into the beer gardens. In 2018 and 2019, she was one of the few teen smokers I saw regularly lighting up at the county fair, but tonight as the night before, she was walking in with a clearly visible Juul pod in her hand. It was especially depressing tonight because she was wearing this combination of a white sweatshirt (it was a cool night) and pale blue jean shorts, an outfit that exemplified her girl-next-door look that was so surprising to see belonged to a teen smoker a couple short years earlier.

Teenage ventriloquist Darcie Lynn, winner of “America’s Got Talent” a few years ago, was tonight’s main event. She was without question talented but the show was pretty corny for my taste. I didn’t anticipate she’d draw a huge crowd of attractive young smokers to the beer gardens and, while I was right, there were still some potential targets out there that I perpetually eyeballed. Front and center like the night before was my wholesome dark blond with a different duo of friends, including one guy. Unlike the night before, I didn’t even entertain the possibility that she might smoke having seen her walk in there with that Juul pod. So imagine my surprise when I looked up from my phone to see her placing an unlit cigarette to her lips and sparking it up.

This girl is not some kind of stunning beauty, but she really doesn’t look the part of a smoker in the year 2021. She looks like a college student studying elementary education. I had feared she quit smoking through vaping, and maybe she’s trying, but she was nonetheless gonna have one tonight, and decked out in that white sweatshirt and very nicely fitting pale blue jean shorts, she played perfectly to type. It appeared to have been the blond friend who corrupted her, because a black and green pack of Marlboros was then handed back to the friend who put the pack back into her purse. The friend was pretty cute too, a long-haired platinum blond in a long T-shirt with jean shorts. She was just a tick chubby but made up for it with her beauty. I studied every drag from that dark blond who was probably enjoying the hell out of a real cigarette after apparently settling for that damn Juul pod for her nicotine fix in the recent past. At one point, she handed the cigarette to the platinum blond who gave her the cigarette, and the platinum blond took three consecutive nicely timed drags and then handed it back to the main event dark blond.

The cutest part of the sighting was that the guy friend in their presence was the only one who didn’t get his hands on the cigarette. The closest he’d get was when the dark blond smoker put her nicotine-stained fingers on his forehead for some reason while in between drags. My county fair has this nightly ritual of playing the national anthem while the color guard walks the American flags past and tonight that happened to coincide with the dark blond putting the final touches on her cigarette. She was determined not to waste one morsel of tobacco inside that cigarette and I watched it shrink to its filter as she took one extra drag after another to the backdrop of the national anthem before finally surrendering it to the ground inside the beer gardens.

So was this gonna be a pattern tonight? Would the platinum blond break out that pack of Marlboros and distribute one to the friend for the duration of the show? Nope. After finishing that cigarette, they went to get another drink and then wandered back to a poorly lit distant part of the beer gardens where I had a harder time keeping tabs on them. But I was still paying close enough to attention to where I’d know if she lit up another cigarette, and she didn’t for the next 45 minutes before leaving the beer gardens. I’d see her again outside the grandstand after the show, eating with the two friends but not lighting up again. Much as I’d liked to have seen more from her comparable to her body of work in 2018 and 2019, I considered myself lucky to see her smoking even once considering her obvious pivot to vaping.

I’d get one more sighting of note inside the beer gardens. In a poorly lit area, I took note of a cigarette being sparked up in front of the silhouetted face of a long-haired dark brunette in a bright flower-patterned blouse with a pair of jeans that were shredded as appears to be the fashion again among younger females. It was hard to get a good look at her face but between the wardrobe and the way she carried herself I figured she was under 25. Most of what I saw of her performance was bringing the cigarette to her lips and making the cherry glow as she stood in too much darkness to pick up on more than that. She cooperated a bit when she walked back to the main building of the beer gardens and walked through a better lit area, confirming she was a younger and reasonably attractive Hispanic girl in the first half of her 20s.

The concert was getting old by about 9:30 so I left, seeing a cluster of 40-something smoker women in the company of one gal in her 30s who was attractive enough to count as a sighting. Leaving the concert didn’t change my luck though as the next hour and a half was a sightingless toxic waste dump. My favorite blonds with the European accents were still working their respective food booths but at 11 p.m. closing time, they just kind of slinked out of there and didn’t gather in the same spot to light up again as they did on Tuesday and as I’d hoped they do all week.

But just before I left, I would get one more encore act from a girl who deserved one. The long-haired Hispanic brunette in the flower-print blouse and shredded blue jeans was so drunk she could barely walk, her more sober friend helping her to a common area full of tables where she could sit down and have something to eat. I got the close look I was hoping for and, even shit-faced, she looked good and looked pretty young….I’d guess less than 25. I suspected that after she finished eating her portion of the funnel cake that was purchased, a cigarette might make an appearance, and sure enough it did. I wasn’t able to see the brand but I have a hunch it was Newports as she lit it up and then proceeded to treat the same sober friend who walked her over to the table like she was her bartender, going on and on about mild relationship drama with her boyfriend while semiregularly taking drags from her cigarette. I was seated at the table in front of her in the aforementioned commons area so I had nothing but time, which was good since she was more interested in jabbering than in smoking. Still, I got some nice drags with impressive cloudburst exhales that gave me the much-needed odor of tobacco filling my palate at relatively close range, an odor that was way more scarce than I’d hoped it would be this week.

I made a straight line for the exit after this sighting ended, disappointed at another lackluster sightings harvest yet still being modestly satisfied from the two sightings of the night that stood out and were better than anything I got on Wednesday night. I’m down to two more nights at the fair with problematic weather forecast for Saturday. I’m seeing Friday as likely to be my last chance to run up the sightings score in a meaningful way. It’s obviously no sure thing that will come to pass, but the 90s rock group the Gin Blossoms is the evening’s grandstand entertainment and while I doubt too many people under 35 will have any idea who they are, they do seem like the act most likely to fill up that beer gardens area with girls of my preferred demographic who might cotton to a cigarette just like today’s dark blond did. I’m really hoping to get at least one night of impressive sightings to make this weeklong fair visit nominally worthwhile. Having not gotten a good day or night of fairgrounds sightings since August 2019, I feel like I deserve one! I’d even settle for a conditional one that qualifies as “great” only in the modern era where standards have been lowered compared to a more smoker-friendly past.

Friday Night

I certainly didn’t have expectations of greatness Friday night at my county fair, but with the combination of 90s rock band the Gin Blossoms and the typically enlarged beer gardens crowd of Friday evening, I knew it was almost likely my last chance for any sort of sightings breakthrough. Unfortunately, I largely got more of the same, with only seven sightings on the evening. I saw a number of silhouettes in the beer gardens with cigarettes after dark but couldn’t get a close enough look at some of them to count as actual sightings. If they were wrinkled-up 50-somethings, they wouldn’t have been a sighting I’d have counted on the street, so I couldn’t simply give them the benefit of the doubt as counting for the purposes of my documentation. So while I will concede that I saw more actual smoking tonight than the previous nights, the number count is still depressingly low and the demographics of smokers are horrific.

I met with an old friend from my high school when I got there, even though I only got to talk for 10 minutes before he departed for the evening (he has young boys who wanted to leave). This friend is the only person outside of the girls I’ve dated who knows of my smoking fetish so I got in a little grumbling about how terrible the sightings have been. After he left, I tracked the nonexistent lines for the grandstand and began to get very nervous that the Gin Blossoms wasn’t the speed of my county fair crowd. This concern would be validated as they produced what was easily the smallest grandstand crowd of the four shows thus far this week. They didn’t even bother with the security screening last night, presumably since there were so few asses in the stands that they didn’t want to disincentivize attendance even further. Luckily, the adjacent beer gardens saw a larger crowd than the previous nights but it was still a disappointment.

I saw some familiar faces wandering either into the beer gardens or into the show. The dark blond who got a cigarette from her friend the night before was back with a couple new friends, including one really hot one in tight daisy dukes. Unfortunately, the dark blond was vaping all night again. I actually saw the other blond–the one who supplied the dark blond with the cigarette the night before–and she and her boyfriend/husband were both smoking, making it clear that the second girl was the supplier of the cigarette that the dark blond smoked the night before….and that the dark blond otherwise only vapes and doesn’t regularly smoke anymore as she did as a teenager in 2018 and 2019. It was just a fluke that I got to see her smoke at all in 2021.

Beyond that, there’s a genuinely gorgeous platinum blond singer named Angel from near where I grew up. She’s a friend of a friend, and I had a brief exchange with her several years ago at one of my extremely rare visits to a bar. She’s probably around 30 by now but still without question the most beautiful girl at the county fair, decked out in a tight white and red sundress last night that really flattered her figure. I had my doubts that she smoked and didn’t see any indication that she did. It would have been the sighting of the year if she had. First I saw her go into the beer gardens with friends and later came into the grandstand and settled in with family about a dozen empty rows in front of me.

As for the smoking, before the grandstand show I saw a younger tatted-up Hispanic woman smoking while desperately searching the grass for something she apparently dropped or lost. Later in the evening, I’d see a more attractive (and without visible tats!) late 20s Hispanic gal sitting on a bench smoking. At the end of the evening as I was leaving the fair, I saw the two of them walking together in the company of one of their boyfriends/husbands, and the more attractive girl was smoking again. I walked behind her and savored the rare aroma of secondhand smoke from a younger woman this year. Now she wasn’t a bombshell by any means and isn’t destined for any end-of-year lists but she was one of the best things going Friday night.

During the concert, as I eluded to, I saw a number of smokers inside the grandstand but only a few of them were close enough to the fence that I was able to get a good enough look at to sufficiently identify as a worthy sighting. One was a 30-something light brunette in the company of older women who sucked down a cigarette pretty quickly. Another was a dark brunette who also looked 30-something who smoked two in a row in about 15 minutes. But the best of the beer gardens sightings was a late 20s long-haired blond in tight pale blue jeans who lit one up along with her boyfriend/husband. It was toward the end of the concert so it was hard to discern exactly how gorgeous she was from my distance, but hers sure seemed like the prettiest face of the night, and it was especially pretty when she brought the cigarette to her lips and watched that cherry glow bright in a beer gardens area in desperate need of more tobacco cherries in front of pretty young female faces. I got to see her smoke the entire cigarette and while I’d have loved to be in a position to get a better look at her features, she was nonetheless the high point of the evening.

The concert itself was better than I expected. I was not very plugged into the pop or rock music scene of the mid-90s so I didn’t connect the name Gin Blossoms with the songs. But they sounded pretty good to me, with a lighter sound and none of the ear-splitting grunge-era racket I was expecting. I recognized at least three of their songs from radio and determined I thought they sounded better than most of the modern pop-country acts that played at this fair in the not-so-recent past. The original performer scheduled to be at this fair was modern country singer Michael Ray, whose work I’m moderately familiar with. I think he’d have drawn a younger crowd but I’m guessing the concert wouldn’t have been as good as the Gin Blossoms.

Back to smoking, I’d have one more sighting after the concert ended but it was bungled because of the kind of third-party distractions that are a cost of doing business at this county fair where I know so many people. In this case, I was walking through the midway and ran into this guy named Chris I used to ride the school bus with. He’s a nice guy who means well but I don’t connect with him very well and don’t converse with him comfortably. He was waiting for his girlfriend to meet him there and I got cornered into an extended conversation. As we’re talking, I look to the side of the bumper cars to see a blond in a pink top and a pair of jean shorts smoking a cigarette while talking on the phone. I was about to jump out of my skin thinking she cut the profile of a teenage girl and that this might be the moment I’d been waiting so long for at the county fair, yet I was stuck talking to this doofus and could do no better than look at her silhouette 25 yards away. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been there at that moment to see her smoke at all if I wasn’t talking to Chris, but at the same time, I would have sold my soul to break away and see her upclose. When Chris got a call from his girlfriend, I tried to use that moment to cut away, but he insisted “you don’t have to leave just because I got a call”. Grrrr…..

Anyway, I slow-stepped my way a little closer and was able to see her face a little through the moonlight as she kept smoking the cigarette. She was decently attractive but it was clear she was definitely not a teenage girl and was likely the mother of one of the kids riding the bumper cars, which made sense given her location. I still wished I could have gotten a better look but I was at least able to see her smoke the whole thing, her presumed husband and a girl who looked about seven years old eventually meeting up with mom as she finished the cigarette. I never did get that closer look but had the good fortune of being saddled with Chris, and ultimately his girlfriend, for another 20 minutes or so. Finally, they decided they were going to the beer gardens and I was able to break away. I felt like they were a little insulted when I did but wanted no part of any more of that so I took the opportunity to split. I still had about 20 minutes to walk through the grounds, hoping to see those eastern European girls running the food stands for another post-closing time smoke, but once again they disappeared without a trace.

Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did…..and that includes a few accidental stumbles into youth vaping. These vape devices are so stealth and the kids are so deliberate about hiding them that I can be walking right next to these girls and only know they’re vaping when I see the big burst of vape spill from their mouth and nose. And then I can look to their hands and see nothing in them to indicate the source of the vape cloud they just produced. Last night, in those final 15 minutes, I saw this twice…..including a pretty dark brunette in a tight-fitting white and brown sundress who looked about 18…..and a gorgeous long-haired Hispanic girl in an incredibly tight-fitting pair of white pants who had one of the most stunning presentations of the night…..until she defiled that presentation vaping from her “alternative nicotine device” in the company of her friends as they walked back to the car at the end of the night. I’d guess she was about 20 or 21.

Heading into Saturday evening, there’s a fairly substantial chance of rain and the evening grandstand show is the Christian group The Newsboys, which I have very little hope of bringing out the preferred demographic in any meaningful way. I’ve been surprised before with attendance for various acts but I’m not confident at all that this one turns the tide and brings out hordes of women under 30 smoking. Not sure there’s any act in existence for whom that may be the case in the year 2021. After that, I’ll probably go to the demo derby on Sunday afternoon just to size up the crowd, but I currently stand at 27 sightings over four nights. Even in the worst-case scenarios that floated through my head at the outset of this year’s county fair, I didn’t think things would be this bad. Keep in mind that my sightings attrition has been gradual throughout the 2010s. Right now it feels like I’m going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Saturday Night

I’ve been waiting all week for a moment of genuine adrenaline surge at my county fair, and I finally got it tonight. From an overall sightings standpoint, it was another clunker of an evening with only seven sightings, but one girl dominated the night and kept this entire week from being a dumpster fire. I got to the fair after 5:00 to meet up with old buddy Corey, a long-time wingman at this county fair who has both delivered and taken away a number of quality sightings going back more than 20 years now. He was there with his wife and sons and we had a good two-hour chat before they left for the evening with very convenient timing for my agenda. I picked up a gyro around 7:00 and began exploring.

My first sighting of the evening came before I even finished the gyro, and for once, the first sighting of the night was better than a barely-qualifying mediocrity. I spotted a young couple pushing a stroller with two very young children inside, both three years or younger. I looked up to see dad stopped by the horse barn smoking a cigarette, and then I glanced over at mom to see a cigarette between her fingers as well. She was an attractive mid-20s dark brunette with very pretty features decked out in a black tanktop and nicely fitting medium blue jean shorts. Her skin was both toned and tanned to perfection, but of course, she had to mess that up with an obnoxious tattoo on her upper arm. Even so, it was refreshing to see and smell an attractive young mother dragging repeatedly from her cork filter before carrying on with any additional fair activity with the kids, and I was able to stand near her finishing off my food as she finished off her cigarette. She dropped it to the grass with one final exhale and then wheeled the stroller into the horse barn with dad following. This was the kind of sighting that would have been a mild detour for me a decade ago yet seemed poised to go down as the best sighting of my Saturday night in 2021. Fortunately, that would not be the case.

I saw a couple other mediocre sightings of moms in the next hour as I perused the grounds, not particularly thrilled with what I was seeing for crowds either for the grandstand show, the Christian group The Newsboys, or the beer gardens on the other side of fence. But I did see a lot of return players from earlier in the week–some smokers, some vapers–who all seemed to unify and hang out together near the fence where I had the best vantage point. This included the elusive dark blond who sneaked a single cigarette from a friend on Thursday but has otherwise only been a chronic vaper from her Juul pod (or whatever the latest non-Juul vaping fad might be).

But in the final moments before I even got to the grandstand to sit for the concert, I noticed a young couple in the first half of the 20s enter the fairgrounds, and right from the get-go my radar was cranked up to 10 watching this blond beauty make her presence known to everyone with the ability to check her out. In particular, however, a certain sightings-starved fetishist couldn’t take his eyes off of her, thinking her features cut an undeniable resemblance to a heavy smoker. She looked about 22 or 23 and had a distinguished beauty which felt familiar….but could the familiarity be because my blond looked quite a bit like actress Ali Larter or had I seen this girl smoking at a recent past county fair? It was annoying that I didn’t know for sure because this girl looked so familiar but she didn’t fit the same profile as the other recent legends from this county fair. Anyway, between the magnetic appeal of her face and her outfit, a strappy black tanktop with a tasteful, knee-length leopard print skirt, she really projected the good girl gone bad vibe she seemed to be going for. I almost wanted to skip the Newsboys concert and follow this girl around a while to see if she smoked, but it turned out I’d be able to kill two birds with the same stone.

I climbed into my usual spot on the unforgiving aluminum bench at the grandstand and prepared for nearly two hours of discomfort that may well have gone without sightings based on the previous nights’ mediocrities. Within about two minutes of sitting down, my pessimism about the beer gardens was proven wrong as the aforementioned fusion of worlds was bringing different subgroups together that included the dark blond vaper (who was a teen smoker in 2018 and 2019) and a handful of her friends, along with some new friends. One of those new friends would identify herself seconds later when the gorgeous and petite blond in the leopard print skirt appeared, holding a half-full tub of cheese curds while chatting with a modest late 20s brunette smoking a cigarette in the most visually accessible part of the beer gardens. It was the first I’d seen this brunette all week and while she didn’t do much for me, the presence of that cigarette seemed like a great potential trigger for the blond. And for the next couple of minutes, everything was going according to script as the blond tossed her half-eaten tub of cheese curds into the garbage while still ingesting the secondhand smoke from the brunette. It took another minute or so but blondie’s purse would open and a pack of Marlboro Menthols was produced. And so was born a legend…..

My new favorite girl of the 2021 county fair handled the light-up and first drag adeptly, casually conversing with the friends as she smoked her cigarette, holding it near her face as she smoked. Every drag was a varying degree of indulgent, the cherry glowing bright even thought it wasn’t yet dark. Best yet, she for whatever reason backed up so that her feet were on the cement, technically inside the shed where the alcohol was officially served and thus smoking “inside”. And for the next few drags, her windswept exhales journeyed out of her mouth and into the densely populated building, with presumably a dozen or so people choking on the secondhand exhaust of the hottest smoker girl at the fair. Things got a bit complicated two-thirds way through the cigarette though when she and her boyfriend walked away from the other group of 20-something women and toward another group more in the center of the beer gardens, greeting them with elated hugs holding cigarette in hand. I was able to see her wrap up her cigarette at this location but only because it was not yet fully dark. If she stayed at this spot and smoked additional cigarettes, it would be a problem for me.

In the meantime though, a modestly attractive tall blond in jean shorts who looked like she was in her late 20s was in the new group and she lit up a cigarette too. She paled in comparison to the main event but she was a nice addendum to the sighting, and would smoke two more times that evening. But after that initial meet-and-greet, my leopard print-skirted hottie required me to keep a very close eye on her. She weaved her way in and out of the shed to get more drinks, often finding new people to sit and chat with in the crowded building. Even between cigarettes, this girl was a treat to watch, as she had this infectious gallop when she walked, clearly full of life and enjoying her Saturday evening at the fair. At some point about 15-20 minutes after the first cigarette, she retreated outside with the boyfriend to that center table in the beer gardens to smoke another. But it was a frustrating watch as she was not only a full head shorter than her boyfriend, but she was the shortest one in that specific group who she seemed to be hovering in the middle of. I was only able to capture a few passing glances of her dragging as it was now completely dark and somebody was always standing in my way. I took a measure of relief when I saw her exhales go airborne, but I still felt a little robbed by the logistics….and her diminutive size! If this was the last I’d see of her smoking tonight, I’d have been bummed. But because of some initiative and quite a bit of luck on my part, it wouldn’t be the last I’d see her smoking tonight!

About 10 minutes later, I took note of a combination of these 20-something damsels, a mix and match from at least two different friends’ groups that included a number of faces I’d been seeing most of the week, make a beeline for the exit out of the beer gardens. As I watched my blond in the leopard print skirt trot out of there with a half dozen others, I made the executive decision to leave that Newsboys concert and see where she went. It would be the best decision I’d make the entire week.

As I wandered out of the grandstand hoping to catch up to this group, I saw them walking into the midway, and specifically to the ticket line. They were gonna go on rides, or at least one of them, perhaps as some kind of throwback to their childhoods, only now with a few drinks in them. I kept a comfortable distance as I watched them buy the tickets and then wander to the fairly long line of teens and preteens to ride the airborne swings midway ride. I watched vape clouds emerge from a couple of the girls, including that dark blond I’ve talked about all week who smoked that one fluke cigarette on Thursday night, and I could feel my adrenaline rise as I entertained the possibility that my favorite petite blond in the leopard print skirt would light up a cigarette in this line full of kids. It only took a minute or so before I got my answer, with the line parting just a bit to give me the visual of an unlit cigarette dangling from blondie’s lips, followed a few seconds later by the flicker of a lighter and an expulsion of real-world tobacco smoke into the air from the lips of this angel.

Again, her height occasionally worked against me whenever someone stepped in front of her, but hovering from about five yards away pretending to watch the ride take off, the odor of cigarette smoke filled the air and it hit me that she may well have been the only person–or at least the only attractive young female–to smoke a cigarette in line for a midway ride all week at this fair. And I was lucky enough to witness and smell it! Her drags were every bit as aggressive as they were in the beer gardens, with exhales often sent airborne even though her height meant any attempt to spare anyone near her in line from her poisonous exhaust was futile. She made pretty quick work of the cigarette too, taking it down in about three or four minutes and acting like smoking in line for a carnival ride with a bunch of 13-year-olds was the most normal thing in the world in the year 2021. She crushed the cigarette out under her feet and I walked away, briefly, having experienced my first genuine thrill of the fair season. But I wouldn’t stay away for long because I knew this girl was likely the only game in town and I didn’t want to miss any other tricks she had up her sleeves.

I returned to the midway less than 10 minutes later just in time for blondie and her friends to get off the swing ride. She led the way with that adorable gallop out of the midway, clearly having quenched their appetite for rides and eager to venture elsewhere, presumably back to the beer gardens. I followed from a comfortable distance and watched them all head into the women’s bathroom at the primary central bathroom structure at the fairgrounds. I found an open spot to sit on the perimeter of a food stand with a perfect vantage point of this bathroom. And as luck would have it, the first of the group to depart from relieving herself was the blond in the leopard-print skirt. I had a feeling it was coming and I felt my heart race as she reached for her purse, plucking out another cigarette and sparking it up, the visual of that lighter bringing a cigarette to life in front of such a pretty face seeming like a downright alien experience in the miserable tobacco-free era we live in. This would have been my chance to race up and snap a pic, but it was too risky to justify the limited reward of a dark photo given her relative isolation, so I just remained where I was and enjoyed that cigarette remaining horizontal between her lips for several seconds after she lit it, clouds of airborne smoke surrounding her gorgeous face after being evicted from her respiratory system.

One by one, her nonsmoking friends began to exit the women’s bathroom and once they all left, they began heading back in the direction of the beer gardens, a lit cigarette remaining perched in the left hand of my favorite girl in the group. She dragged a few more times from it and then crushed it out on the pavement in front of the dumpster before re-entering the beer gardens. I stealthly walked up to the half-smoked remains, not surprised to see it was a Marlboro Menthol just as advertised by that pack revealed when she opened her purse more than an hour ago. With my favorite girl back in the beer gardens, it was time for me to reclaim my seat in the grandstand for the last 15 minutes of that Newsboys concert!

I’m sure plenty of people in the grandstand know I’m up to no good when they see my glance permanently pivoted in the direction of the beer gardens scanning the crowd, rather than the stage, but I’m often not the only one more interested in people-watching than taking in the show. In this case, my eyes were lapping circles around that crowded beer gardens to identify my petite blond sexpot, knowing she was an elusive moving target who often bounces from group to group. Never fear though as after a few moments, she resurfaced in the closest and best-lit area of the beer gardens with a new mixed drink in hand. I was relatively confident I’d get at least one more sighting before the concert ended, and I’d only have to wait about five more minutes before she came through.

A couple of other women in the cluster, including one I’d seen smoking before and another new gal who I hadn’t seen smoking, lit up first. Neither of these two made the detour to the midway. And alas, a fifth cigarette of the last hour and a half was soon perched between the lips of the petite blond who looked like Ali Larter’s kid sister. She was even talking to friends for a bit with the unlit cigarette bouncing between her lips, and perhaps the most telling feature of her style was that after she lit up, the cigarette remained perched in the same position dangling from her lips as it was before she lit it. It was the last marquee visual of the evening from her, smoke spilling from her face with that recently lit cigarette hanging out of it. Thank goodness she came around on Saturday night to salvage a moribund county fair, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, not even halfway through the cigarette, she once again drifted along with the boyfriend back to that damn center of the beer gardens to reconnect with the other friends’ group. I got to see most of her last cigarette but would have preferred it from the original vantage point.

The concert was over in about 10 more minutes and she never lit up again. There was one more sighting that took place in that beer gardens though. This tall blond in her late 20s wearing a blue tanktop and a nice tight-fitting pair of jean shorts beckoned a cigarette from her boyfriend after he pulled out his pack, and I got to see her smoke it beginning to end at a pretty well-lit spot in the otherwise dark beer gardens. After the concert, I’d see this same girl again in the midway, and it was nice to see her close-up and confirm she was a good find with a cigarette a half hour earlier. Unfortunately, both guys in her company stopped for another cigarette before leaving the midway but she didn’t partake, leading me to believe she was just a social smoker who decided to bum one off the boyfriend while drinking a beer earlier.

Back to the end of the Newsboys show, I stayed in the grandstand until the last of the crowd cleared once the concert ended, just in case I could catch my sighting-of-the-year blond in the leopard-print skirt smoking one more time, but it would be the last I’d see of her. I kept tabs on the parting crowd of the beer gardens for the rest of the night but she was apparently either well-hidden in the crowd or she slipped out under my nose at some point. I didn’t see any additional smoking in the last hour before I left for the evening, but I was riding so high after that main event blond that I couldn’t be bothered to fret about it. I went into this fair thinking I’d be very lucky to get any sightings at all of a girl of her caliber, so the fact that she delivered in the clutch with a multi-cigarette performance felt like an unexpected victory. I still felt a twinge of deja vu with her…almost as if she could be the younger sister of my all-time best county fair sighting, the 14-year-old cowgirl from 2005 who I’d continue to see smoking heavily at the fair as she progressed into young adulthood, but I’m not gonna assume that to be the case. Still, I was extremely pleased with myself for so quickly identifying her as a likely smoker the second I laid eyes on her, and for leaving the beer gardens when necessary to take this sighting to a completely different level on the midway.

I wrapped up Saturday night with a measly 34 sightings, a figure that’s closer to what a single-night haul would have been 10 years ago than an accumulation of five nights. I’ve started going to the fair on Sunday afternoons for the demolition derby in hopes of picking off a few more sightings. The demo derby draws a large crowd that’s demographically compatible for the final throes of cigarette smokers, so it’s possible I could still find some success, but I’m nonetheless pretty close to the point where I can put a button on a mostly dissatisfying 2021 county fair.

Sunday

Suffice it to say I’m never gonna shrug off the demo derby at the county fair again! Overall I saw more smoking today than any other day. That’s not to say it came from my target demographic, but smoking generally had a much larger degree of relevance with today’s crowd than any of the previous five evenings. Did that translate to attractive young women? Yes and no. I only got six additional sightings from girls I hadn’t seen earlier in the week, but I saw a few repeaters, as well as one sighting that completely lit up my day.

I got to the fair at 3:00. The demo derby started at 4 so I figured that would give me a good amount of time for the smoking pregame, and it paid off as I meandered back and forth between the outdoor area on the north side of the grandstand and he south side area, scoring a couple of sightings at each spot. On the south side entrance, an attractive and slender late 30s blond was out smoking with her husband or boyfriend. The husband looked older and more haggard so I was impressed that his wife/girlfriend was still holding up well, with no clear age lines on her face despite being a smoker holding a pack of Marlboro Light Menthol 100s in her hand. Some random guy walked past her and greeted “Hey Rachel”. It’s not often I get a name to go with the face. Opposite “Rachel” was the kind of person you only see at the county fair…..a very obvious young lesbian who couldn’t have been more redneck save for her Black Lives Matter ball cap. She was a modestly pretty brunette though, and I’ll take any 20-something smoker I can get this day and age. Later I’d see her out smoking again with what I presumed to be her girlfriend, who was much heavier and not attractive.

The north side grandstand gate also delivered with two sightings playing out simultaneously, both of which from young smokers who I’m certain I saw at the demo derby two years earlier. I worked my way briefly into the grandstand seating to get a better look at this. The first girl was a long-haired late 20s light brunette out smoking with mom. You could tell she was a country girl but she had a much more innocent look than the average 20-something contemporary smoker, decked out in a blue tanktop and black leggings. This was my only mother-daughter sighting of the fair this year. A visual that has been such a mainstay in sightings past now seemed exotic, and I savored it watching mom and daughter puff away in each other’s company. The other smoker was a young blond mother in a T-shirt and jean shorts. She wasn’t a classic beauty but was attractive enough that I’d date…and I recognized this same late 20s blond at this demo derby two years ago, only last time her young son was sitting in the grandstand with extended family and she was waving up to him as she smoked. Now he was standing next to her as she finished off her cigarette. Both the mother-daughter smoking team and the blond and her son finished smoking at almost exactly the same time. Even though they weren’t in the same party, they walked back into the grandstand together each holding their respective packs…..Camel Crushes for the brunette and Marlboro Blacks for the blond mother. I had no interest in staying for the demo derby so I cut and ran after that pleasing duo of sightings, and let’s just say I got the timing right.

On Saturday evening, I instinctively recognized greatness when that petite blond in the leopard-print skirt walked into the grounds, immediately identifying her a smoker and getting vindicated repeatedly over the course of the night. On Sunday afternoon, I hit the jackpot again when a duo of 20-something couples stepped out of a commercial exhibit building in front of me. One girl was average, but the other was this striking ponytailed blond with a very slender figure decked out in a gray tanktop and this webbed pair of black leggings, the latter of which really jumped out at me as a sexy look. I got a gander at her face expecting her to be a kid based on her body type but instead getting a smoker vibe immediately. I took a strong mental note of her as I watched the two couples wandering around the edge of the grandstand to a fence with a close vantage point of the pit where the demo derby was being held. My instinct was so strong that I went back to that fence a couple more times before the derby started. Just the way she held her purse on top of the fence led me to believe there was something in there that she eventually planned to tap into. I determined that once the derby started, I would stand in her general proximity for a while as she was by far my most promising prospect of the afternoon, despite no evidence of any kind that she smoked. And did I ever get a rewarding payoff for my investment….

Shortly after the derby was underway, she whispered into her boyfriend’s ear and seemed to be feeling a little preemptive guilt about what she was about to do as she reached for her purse. A young boy and his father were standing to the blond’s right so she traded places with her boyfriend briefly as she plucked an all-white cigarette from a pack in her purse. My heart raced with excitement that, for the second time in two days, my instinct was vindicated. She lit the cigarette and I settled in for a farrow to finish sighting where, if my luck held, I could get some photographic evidence of. I got plenty of pics but since she was leaning forward into the fence, I struggled to get her face on camera, but nonetheless got a couple dragging pics. Ultimately though I just enjoyed the show, with some succulent cheek-hollowing drags from this petite blond face as she worked her way through this naughty cigarette due to the sheer force of addiction, exhaling straight ahead and probably avoiding the notice of everyone else in her proximity except the guy photographing the moment! If ever there was a time I took moments like this for granted, those days are over now as I was enraptured observing every single drag to the cigarette’s completion, when she bent down and crushed out the cigarette into the grass, ultimately leaving the all-white butt in the grass.

I was elated, and suddenly determined to stay at this demolition derby until the end, figuring the odds were good she’d smoke again. Adding to the storyline, the other male in the foursome was repeatedly vaping throughout the show and her own boyfriend took a couple of hits from his vape as well, but the petite blond cutie of the bunch was only gonna settle for the hard stuff! In the moments to come, she endlessly bit her fingernails, adding to the general vibe of this girl appearing to be a 26-year-old in a 14-year-old’s body. And I’m talking incessant nail-biting….the kind of chronic tick a girl like her could only resolve by making sure she constantly had a cigarette to gratify her oral fixation!

I spent another hour at this demo derby awaiting her to open that purse again and send both of us to heaven. While I waited, I saw repeat sightings from two of the younger Hispanic gals I’d seen smoking earlier in the week at this fair. And I even got a second sighting of the dark brunette mother and her boyfriend/husband with the two young children who started my day of sightings on Saturday, as both came out of the grandstand during the intermission with a pack of Marlboro Reds. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t see this petite blond firecracker smoke again. During said intermission, I got a couple of modest frontal pics of her in a way I was unable to while she was smoking, but especially when their group just upped and left in the middle of a derby run, I was confident she’d be smoking again. Instead, I followed them to their final food purchase right out to their truck in the parking lot. Much as I loved this sighting as it happened, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t get to see her smoke again given how promising things seemed when we were all settling in for this derby as it began.

Anyway, it was 6 p.m. now and I’d already stayed an hour later than expected. I decided it was time to wrap up the 2021 county fair on a high note and walked out of the gates for a final time. I had three pretty solid sightings over the course of six days, all of which I REALLY had to work for, and the two best moments came on the final couple days of the fair, salvaging to a degree a week that had been wretched up to that point. Interestingly, only two of my county fair sightings in 2019 were good enough for my year-end top-25, but I think I’m likely to include three from this year. Before Saturday, I was resigning myself to cutting this fair out of my yearly sightings schedule because the sightings bounty no longer justified the six-day investment and all those hours sitting through sightingless grandstand shows. I may yet decide to do that, particularly since my long-time job that affords me such ample time off in the summer is on shaky ground right now and there’s no guarantee I’ll have such latitude next year at this time.

Ultimately, I wrapped up this county fair with an abysmal 40 sightings. For context, in my peak year of 2010, I got 144. And in 2019, which had been a record low, I got 74. So this year I barely got half the number of sightings I got in 2019, and keep in mind that I counted a number of women who were “on the bubble” in terms of being attractive enough. Probably half of the 40 smokers I counted this year would have struggled to qualify based on my 2010 metrics. I predicted at the time that Tobacco 21 would be our Hiroshima and that when the point of dramatically diminishing returns hit, I’d have to reassess whether it was worth my time pursuing all of these sightings. I may have hit that wall with this fair.

I’m really hoping that my state fairs don’t see a rate of attrition quite this steep, and I honestly don’t expect it to be quite this bad since the sample here is very localized and indications have been obvious going back years that tobacco use was falling off a cliff in this county faster than the Midwestern average. I’m only days away from discovering for myself with my first of three days at the Iowa State Fair coming this weekend. It seems unlikely at this point that either Iowa or Missouri’s fair will be canceled or will have stringent COVID mitigation protocols. I’m quite a bit more nervous about Minnesota’s fair though which begins later in the month. Considering that’s the big enchilada with the highest attendance and the most smokers just as a function of arithmetic, it’s the fair I’m most worried about missing out on. At this point, however, I just need to be grateful for whatever fairs I’m able to salvage….and whatever sightings I can continue to eke out as the number of smokers plummets.

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Trevor And The Family’s Temptation, Retribution, And Redemption (Chapter 19)


The contagious sound of teenage laughter at the beginning of peak mating season filled the air in late May, combined with the odors of sunscreen and cigarette smoke as six friends sat poolside in Lauren Nelson’s backyard enjoying each other’s company. At the apex of this circle was Lauren sitting upright in a beach chair taking in the rays in her tie-dye pattern bikini with cotton candy colors of light blue and pink fusing together, her cusp-of-womanhood figure both accentuated and contradicted by the half-smoked cigarette held between her fingers only inches from her face with her elbow propped on the armrest of the beach chair. Seated to Lauren’s right on patio furniture, also smoking but fully clothed, were best friend Haylee McPherson and cousin Carly Hansen. And seated to Lauren’s left was boyfriend Trevor McPherson, who attempted to stay focused on the conversation but couldn’t control himself from stealing a glance at his bikini-clad girlfriend once in a while, particularly when he sensed that cigarette was approaching her lips.

Sitting across from Trevor and Lauren were long-time friends Nick and Lacey, who stopped by for a surprise visit after school this Tuesday afternoon. Nick was currently commanding the attention of the group as he read aloud from the copy of Minnesota Great Outdoors magazine he held in front of him, relaying the contents of the article featuring Trevor and Lauren’s interview from a couple of months earlier.

“….but it was immediately clear as soon as 17-year-old Trevor began to tell his story that it was no ordinary suburban high school boy living inside the walls of this seemingly ordinary Eden Prairie home,” Nick projected with restrained amusement, relaying reporter Stewart Hawkins’ prose to the crowd. “Trevor’s preternatural eloquence, august knowledge of his video subject, and earnest good nature quickly made it clear that while Mother Nature was responsible for the unlikely delivery of the majestic moose back to northwestern Minnesota, an equally powerful force of fate was responsible for delivering the rest of us the news and video proof. Whoever said the age of the North American explorer had passed never got around to delivering that message to Trevor McPherson. The source of the Mississippi River may have been discovered by Henry Schoolcraft more than 180 years ago, but the most momentous find in Bemidji area zip codes since the 1830s was just bestowed upon us by a high school junior from the Twin Cities….”

Trevor sat there blushing as Nick read aloud the words he’d already consumed in print a few times since the article was published, attempting but failing to conceal his chuckles at the author’s histrionics while listening to the guffaws of his friends who also found Stewart Hawkins’ characterization to be flatteringly over the top.

“My God!” Nick exclaimed with a smirk, briefly pausing from reading the article to rib his friend. He then looked at Lauren as she took a final drag from her cigarette and asked, “Lauren, does your dad have a shovel in that garage because it is really getting deep out here?” his eyes telling on him if only for a split second as he admired Lauren’s sexy bikini body already fairly tanned and glistening with the oil of recently applied sunscreen.

Lauren giggled as bursts of exhaled smoke spilled from her mouth and nose and drifted toward Trevor’s airspace, rhetorically answering “Pretty sure he does” as she crushed out her cigarette in an ash can on the patio terrace and then rubbed her hand affectionately on Trevor’s upper back.

Trevor took in Lauren’s secondhand exhaust as well as her subtle gesture of support, letting him know that she was proud of the article’s characterization even if his friends were teasing him about it. But Trevor also correctly felt a hint of disappointment in Lauren’s touch that she was treated mostly as background noise in the reporter’s story just as she feared would be the case based on the interview during spring break week. Trevor made a point of pressing Nick, “Keep reading. It gets better,” knowing that Lauren was finally getting some props in the paragraphs ahead.

As Nick began to read, Trevor found it impossible to miss the fawning gaze of Nick’s girlfriend Lacey, who theatrically swept her lustrous brown hair over her shoulders and smiled at Trevor sweetly, crossing her legs with maximal flirtation and making sure the tempting curves she was advertising in her tanktop and jean shorts would not be ignored.

Trevor bashfully smiled back, only maintaining eye contact for a couple of seconds before Lacey’s piercing blue eyes were making him feel awkward with their prolonged stare. He was a bit confused as he’d never picked up on any hints of attraction from Lacey before but right now she was basically shouting it to him through a megaphone in a very inappropriate setting. As Lauren opened up her pack of Marlboro Light 100s and plucked out another cigarette, Trevor made it clear who continued to command his devotion as he took hold of her lighter and dutifully lit her up as he always did.

Lauren was glad she was hiding behind the lenses of her aviator sunglasses as she brought the cigarette to life with her first drag, both to camouflage her disappointment about the public reading of the article as well as to suppress her jealousy about the looks Lacey was flashing to her man. “Thanks baby,” she whispered through a talking exhale, after Trevor pulled the lighter away and Nick continued reading.

“Trevor was not alone in his discovery of the moose along the Chisholm River trail nor was he alone for this interview,” Nick read. “His amiable girlfriend Lauren Nelson was responsible for capturing most of the cell phone video of the moose and Trevor credits her with helping him write the accompanying poem. Lauren and Trevor in some ways seemed like an odd couple, but their affection for one another was impossible to miss, along with their appreciation of the momentous event they captured together on their leisurely hike through the woods in January. This interviewer couldn’t help but chuckle as the two high school juniors mused about needing to study for their upcoming ACT exams over spring break, a decidedly routine rite of passage for young people their age given the local media spotlight they’ve enjoyed in recent months.”

Nick looked up to see both Trevor and Lauren blushing at the writer’s characterization, with Lauren dragging from her cigarette uncomfortably.

“Awwww!” Carly responded with a good-natured chuckle from afar, approaching her own half-smoked cigarette to her lips, genuinely happy for Trevor and her cousin and the fawning coverage they were receiving, but quickly changing the subject based on the reference in the article. “By the way, did you guys get your ACT scores in yet?” she asked, looking at fellow juniors Trevor and Lauren.

Trevor tried to suppress a cringe at what he knew would be another sore subject for Lauren, who quietly took another drag from her cigarette. After a lengthy pause, Trevor replied, “Yeah we got our scores a couple of weeks ago.”

“So how’d you do?” Carly asked impatiently, not picking up on Trevor’s reluctance to share. “I got a 23. I guess that’s right about average. I wasn’t super thrilled about it but at least I didn’t bomb.”

Nick and Lacey then volunteered their respective scores of 22 and 25, leaving the onus on Trevor and Lauren to share with the crowd as sophomore Haylee remained silent and detached.

“I did pretty well I guess,” Trevor hesitantly and humbly volunteered under duress. “I got a 30.”

“Damn, son!” Nick erupted with praise, extending his hand to shake with Trevor. “I guess it’s not a big surprise. You’ve been the smartest kid in the room since we were in kindergarten.”

Trevor shrugged silently, shaking Nick’s hand, once again noticing out of the corner of his eye as Lacey sent unmistakably seductive body language Trevor’s way, fluttering her eyelashes at him. Not so long ago, Trevor would have figured he was being taunted getting this kind of reception from a girl his age, still harboring some emotional scars from mean girls in his adolescence.

Lacey then darted her eyes past Trevor and focused her gaze on Lauren, sensing weakness as she asked, “How about you Lauren? How’d you do?”

Lauren hid her solemn body language behind her sunglasses and a fake smirk as she dragged again from her cigarette, pausing and then responding through a talking exhale, “Let’s just say I’m gonna be taking the test again this summer in hopes of getting a better score.”

“Ouch! That bad huh?” Carly asked with no malice intended, clearly sorry she had broached the subject.

Lauren struggled to hide her glum demeanor as she so often did when overcome with sadness, but eventually responded, “Yeah it definitely wasn’t great.”

Trevor looked at his girlfriend and then reached his arm around her, choosing his words carefully to project confidence while not being condescending. “She’ll do fine next time. That’s why they let us take these tests again if we’re having an off day.”

Lauren smiled at her boyfriend’s positivity on her behalf as she took the final drag from her cigarette, once again catching Nick taking a stealth gander at her comely bikini body as she reached over to the ash can to crush out the cigarette.

Haylee plucked out a Camel Pink No. 9 from her pack and lit it, detached from the conversation about the ACTs among her slightly older friends and disinterested in the public reading of Trevor’s magazine article, taking advantage of the moment of silence to change the subject. Through a talking dangle, she rhapsodized “Doesn’t this remind you of last summer? The six of us hung out together all the time last year,” neglecting to mention the member of their party no longer in their company, her ex-boyfriend Jacob Roth. “The gang is back together, baby!”

Lauren’s mood abruptly reversed based on Haylee’s nostalgic reminder of the good times their group shared the previous year and she joyfully added, “I sure remember! We had so much fun together last year!” She looked up to Nick and Lacey, hoping to reverse the weird energy they were having today. “We haven’t been seeing you guys nearly enough lately. With summer coming let’s try to get together more okay?”

“Absolutely!” Nick responded with conviction. “That’s actually why we came over here today. We’re gonna kick off Memorial Day weekend in style with the junior class party at Lacey’s house Friday night….and you guys are invited,” he added with emphasis pointing and Trevor and Lauren. He then looked over to Haylee and Carly as if to ostensibly invite them as well. “You guys are welcome to come too. You might not know many of us but we’re definitely a fun bunch.” He paused and then made eye contact with Trevor and Lauren again to make sure they knew he was more invested in their presence than Haylee or Carly’s, energetically adding “It’s gonna be the party of the year!”

Trevor and Lauren both nodded cordially and expressed a tempered interest in Nick’s invitation, their latest reminder of why they had drifted apart from Nick and Lacey in recent months with the two couples’ ideas of a fun Friday night having diverged considerably after Nick and Lacey made some new friends.

Haylee and Carly stammered a bit as well, neither too enthused about disrupting their lazy Friday night plans to go to a house party full of strangers. Haylee halfheartedly responded through a talking dangle, “I’ll try Nick, but I think I have to pick up Keegan after work Friday night.” She paused and looked at her phone and then added. “In fact I gotta head out of here and pick him up for work tonight. He starts at 5.”

“Mmmmmm Keegan huh?” Lacey asked with a frisky interest. “Can I see a picture of this stud?”

Haylee smiled as she pulled up a pic on her phone and passed it to Lacey.

Lacey raised her brows as she looked over some pics of Keegan, including some of him and Haylee together. “Damn he’s hot. How long have you been going out with him?”

Haylee puckered her lips around her half-smoked cigarette for a dangling drag and then responded, “Like six weeks now,” with a bit less enthusiasm than Lacey expected given the couple’s body language in the pics.

Nick then clarified what he thought he had correctly heard. “And you have to drive him to work?”

Haylee nodded as if a little embarrassed for Keegan about their arrangement. “I have a car. His parents are making him work to buy his own. So on nights when his parents need the car, I have to drive him to Rollerdrome.” She then stood up and added “Like tonight,” preparing herself to leave and picking up her pack of cigarettes and her purse.

“He works at Chesley Rollerdrome?” Lacey asked, in reference to the familiar teen hangout in the western suburbs with skating, arcades, laser tag, and a pizza and ice cream bar. “I wouldn’t mind working there this summer. Why don’t you see if Keegan can set us all up with summer jobs there!”

Haylee laughed cordially, smoke trickling from her mouth and nose as she responded in a talking dangle, “Maybe next year. I’m still on babysitting duty all summer.”

Carly finished her cigarette and then stood up while crushing it out in the ash can, as if planning to leave with Haylee. “Drop me off on your way to pick up Keegan?” she gently nudged, also trying to dodge any talk of summer jobs.

Lauren volunteered her own sob story as she plucked out another Marlboro Light 100 from her pack, beckoning a light from Trevor, and then changing positions on her beach chair so that she was facing the crowd while laying flat on her stomach as she began to speak. “I’d give anything to work someplace fun like Chesley Rollerdrome this summer,” she groused through a talking exhale off of her opening drag. “Instead, my mom’s making me a get a job at the same restaurant where she worked her first job.”

Lauren made eye contact with Nick and Lacey to gauge their reaction and she once again busted Nick powerlessly glaring at her cleavage which was suddenly right in his line of vision as she changed positions. Meanwhile, Lacey gave Lauren a look of barely restrained annoyance, waving the fresh stream of Lauren’s secondhand smoke out of her face aggressively in a way she’d never done when Lauren smoked in front of her before.

Nick finally broke out of the hypnotic trance of Lauren’s bikini body and responded, “That sucks. What restaurant is that?”

“Lakeside Bistro,” Lauren responded, smoke still pouring out of her mouth and nose. “My mom is good friends with the owner and thinks she’s doing me a big favor getting me in.” She shrugged and added, “She says the tips will be really good at least.”

Nick replied, “Sounds like a lot less time in the sun for you this summer,” bringing about an eye roll from Lacey next to him that neither Trevor nor Lauren missed.

Lauren took another deep drag from her cigarette and then lamented, “Oh I’ve already thought of that. That’s why I’m out here working on my tan right now!” She giggled and added, “I had to twist my dad’s arm to get him to fill up the pool a couple of weeks early,” pointing behind her to the filled-up swimming pool, inadvertently giving Nick another excuse to admire her ass in that cotton candy tie-dye bikini as he pretended to look past her to the pool.

The awkward energy and break in the conversation reinforced Haylee and Carly’s desire to split, with Haylee walking toward her car and adding through her usual talking dangle, “I don’t think you’ll even miss us, Lauren, because we’re gonna be coming over to eat so much…..assuming we get a nice friends’ discount of course!”

Lauren giggled. “Can’t make any promises but I’m gonna hold you to that. Be sure to tip generously,” she added with a sweet flourish.

Haylee and Carly bid adieu to Nick and Lacey, reinforcing their stated desire to hang out more in the summer months. Trevor, Lauren, Nick, and Lacey all watched with some lingering awkwardness as Haylee and Carly walked to their cars. Haylee was rocking a flattering hot pink crop top and a pair of faded daisy dukes, a trail of cigarette smoke in her path as always, while Carly’s T-shirt and dark jeans were less overtly glamorous, but everybody quietly thought to themselves that Carly was becoming more attractive, no longer completely overshadowed in Haylee’s presence. The four of them waved at Haylee and Carly as they got behind the wheel of Haylee’s tan Honda and drove away.

Nick then looked back at Trevor and Lauren with renewed vigor in his eyes. Lacey draped her arm around Nick’s shoulder and made eye contact as well, immediately tipping off that they had a coordinated agenda that was about to be revealed.

“So we’d really like to have you guys come to the party on Friday night. It’ll be like one final hurrah for our junior class before the end of the school year. Just about everyone I’ve talked to says they’re coming,” Nick opened, clearly leading up to something bigger.

“Yeah I think we can probably drop by,” Trevor responded casually, clearly not as excited as Nick about whatever teenage tomfoolery likely awaited at that party with a bunch of people he wasn’t very close with, and expected he was speaking for Lauren as well given that she didn’t even go to the same school as they did.

“Great,” Nick responded with a smile before getting to the main reason he and Lacey dropped by. “And now that we’re alone here, we got another proposition for you guys.”

Lauren and Trevor listened on, with Lauren dragging nervously from her cigarette vaguely expecting what was coming.

“Lacey and I have been looking to experiment a little bit in our love lives…you know, just to shake things up a little bit,” Nick opened. “And we’d like to include you guys if you’d be interested. How would you guys feel about doing a little swinging?”

Trevor and Lauren were both uncomfortable and momentarily speechless before Trevor nervously laughed and responded, “Wow….when you say you have a ‘proposition’ for us, Nick, you’re being completely literal, aren’t you?”

Nick and Lacey laughed in response, expecting some initial hesitation. Lacey bit her lower lip as she feasted her eyes over Trevor once again and added, “Obviously we don’t expect you to commit to anything today, but give it some time to think over. We think you are super attractive and when Nick and I were discussing who we’d want to swing with, you guys were the first ones to pop into our minds!”

Nick took the reins for there. “And no pressure. If you guys don’t think it’d be your thing, we will totally understand and we can just forget this conversation ever happened. But I think we’d have a lot of fun if we tried it.” He closed by looking over Lauren’s nubile form more deliberately and unapologetically, letting her know he wanted her body every bit as badly as Lacey wanted Trevor’s.

Lauren smiled awkwardly, blushing behind her aviators as she placed her two-thirds smoked cigarette between her lips for an extended no-handlebars dangling drag, looking Nick’s slightly husky body over and finding him vaguely attractive as she briefly entertained whether she could ever under any circumstance go through with this. But as Lauren looked over to Lacey continuing to make lustful eyes at Trevor while giving him escalating sexually charged body language, she quickly arrived at her answer as she felt overcome with jealousy at her beloved boyfriend being a casual sexual conquest for a long-time friend. Lauren placed her fingers back on her cigarette, quietly checking out while pumping her lungs with another heavy drag and stewing in a combination of disappointment and anger.

Nick broke up the silence, correctly reading skepticism from the couple he just made his indecent proposal to. “Anyways, we’ll take off and let you guys enjoy the rest of your afternoon, but let me know whenever you guys decide,” pausing to take Lacey by the hand and lifting each other off the patio furniture. “But congrats on that magazine article, buddy,” he said to Trevor before looking to Lauren. “And Lauren, good luck at that new job at Lakeside Bistro.”

“Thanks Nick,” Lauren responded with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, crushing out her cigarette with smoke spraying out of her mouth and nose.

“And we’ll see both of you at my place on Friday night,” Lacey added. “That’s one thing we won’t take no for answer to, okay?”

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Trevor said with a smile and a faux confidence, speaking on Lauren’s behalf primarily to get this uncomfortable encounter behind them.

Nick and Lacey both smiled and began to walk to their cars, hopeful but far from convinced that with further consideration their request would be adjudicated favorably by Trevor and Lauren.

A downcast Lauren darted her eyes toward Trevor as he watched in silence as Nick and Lacey walked away. Lacey put a little extra swagger into her trot, her hips and ass working the tight denim of those jean shorts like the seductress she had apparently become in recent months, with Trevor’s eyes clearly lost in the visual spectacle until Nick and Lacey climbed into Nick’s car and drove out of sight.

The awkward vibe lingered even in Nick and Lacey’s absence, and Trevor and Lauren sat silently next to each other for a couple of moments until Lauren reached for her pack of Marlboro Light 100s and plucked out another one. Trevor grabbed her lighter and reached down to light it for her with a sudden frisky flair that Lauren picked up on without even making eye contact, still lying on her stomach on the beach chair.

“I thought they’d never leave!” Trevor mused, his voice matching his sudden flourish of libido. He reached over to Lauren’s ass and began petting her bikini bottoms like an attention-starved house cat, the pastel cotton candy color of the bikini print proving itself irresistible. He then stood up and hovered over Lauren’s body, blocking her sun rays as he crouched down with his face just over her ass. “Your swimsuit’s making me think about eating cotton candy at the fair, Lauren…..and you know how much I love me some candy-colored sugar,” he added, opening his mouth and beginning to take bites on Lauren’s posterior.

Lauren’s despondent tone was awakened by Trevor’s playfulness. She giggled aloud with smoke spilling from her respiratory system while feeling Trevor’s gentle but sexually charged teeth penetrations on her bikini covering her backside. “Don’t fill up on junk food, baby, or you’ll spoil your supper,” she said with a playful flourish.

Trevor briefly lifted his mouth from her ass and laughed aloud at her clever characterization, responding “Good advice!” before lowering his teeth to the waistband of her bikini bottom and using his teeth to pull the undies down until they were detached from her midsection and hanging loosely around her knees, her bare ass exposed, tan lines and all. From there he climbed atop her and crouched down gently atop her back.

Lauren dragged indulgently from her cigarette as she listened to Trevor unbuckle his pants. She felt him slide her long, golden blond hair out of the way, and seconds later, felt his erection touching her bare back just before it was thrust under the back strap of her bikini top.

Trevor was hopeful his erect cock could by itself undo the clasp tethering Lauren’s bikini top together but it soon became clear he’d need to use his fingers to pop it open. He leaned down toward Lauren’s ear, overwhelmed by the intensity of her endless secondhand smoke as his own respiratory system approached hers and he whispered “A half hour till your brother gets back from baseball….and a couple of hours until your parents get home. Plenty of time to head up to your bedroom and fool around.”

Lauren was aroused and perked up from her slumber quickly, flashing back to all the times Trevor carried her from the pool to her bedroom for sex last summer, but couldn’t help but equivocate as she felt his hardness rub up and down her back. Was it really her that Trevor was about to fuck….or was he gonna be fantasizing about Lacey the entire time? Lauren had never once considered this unsavory hypothetical any other time when they copulated, and it sure was distressing to consider right now as she put on her game face and requested “Take me away, baby,” with as much vigor as she could muster.

Trevor needed no additional motivation as he lifted Lauren’s sun-touched body off the beach chair, with both untethered halves of her bikini surrendering to gravity and falling down onto the vacated chair. Trevor made his first eye contact with her since Nick and Lacey left as he held her in his arms, albeit obstructed by the aviator shades, half-smoked cigarette dangling limply from her mouth until she puckered up for a drag.

Lauren smiled as she let her smoke spill into Trevor’s face, once again grateful for the sunglasses to partially hide her sorrow, however irrational it may have been. As Trevor began to walk to the back door en route to Lauren’s bed carrying her in his arms, she did her best to block these insecurities out of her mind and just enjoy her boyfriend’s sexual touch. He’d never given her any reason to doubt he wanted any other girl but her in their nearly two years together as a couple, and he deserved the benefit of the doubt right now that Lacey hadn’t gotten inside his head or his heart.

————————-

Driving at a comfortable pace along the side streets en route to Carly’s place, Haylee came to a cautious stop at a red light and took the opportunity to pluck a Camel Pink out of her pack and fire it up. As Haylee puckered up for back-to-back dangling drags off of the light-up, Carly lit up one of the Pall Mall Lights she got from her mom Gina who had recently started smoking again after more than a year of vaping. Carly was glad she didn’t have to mooch cigarettes off of Haylee as much anymore, but seeing and smelling the smoke off of Haylee’s Camel Pink still made Carly a bit jealous as she vastly preferred Haylee’s cigarettes to her mom’s.

Carly looked to Haylee to address the elephant in the room from visiting Lauren’s place, asking in a gossipy tone, “Did you pick up on the weird vibe coming from Nick and Lacey toward your brother and Lauren?”

Haylee nodded affirmatively, adding further animation to her dangling, freshly lit cigarette. “Impossible to not notice. Lacey was practically molesting my brother. Not sure what was up with that?”

“I know!” Carly exclaimed. “We don’t see them for like four months and then they act like they want to get some orgy going on when they do show up!”

Haylee laughed and agreed, but wanted to change the subject in the limited commute time she had with Carly. “Enough talking about other people’s love life. Tell me what’s going on with yours!” she requested through a talking dangle.

Carly recoiled into her seat in disappointment, taking a drag from her cigarette and then softly muttering “Not much to tell unfortunately.”

Haylee frowned, but then perked up as she teased, “Well maybe you want to go to that party at Lacey’s place on Friday night. After those girls get a few drinks in them, I promise you they’ll want to make out with another girl.”

Carly laughed out loud, smoke spraying out of her face as she responded. “Yeah, making out with drunken airheads isn’t really want I’m looking for. I think I’ll let the Eden Prairie junior class have their party at Lacey’s place without dropping by.”

Haylee nodded in agreement, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another drag and then asking the same question she’d been asking Carly for months. “Any news with Emma Olson?”

Carly’s hangdog look said it all before she spoke a word, but ultimately confirmed with her response. “Emma appears to be in a relationship now…..with a guy named Travis. Guess those vibes she kept sending me in history class was just her being friendly,” pausing to add “I’m not used to pretty girls being friendly to me.”

“I’m sorry, Carly,” Haylee shared through a talking dangle, genuine sympathy in her tone. “Take it from me though. Something will happen for you…and it’ll happen when you least expect it,” echoing the advice she got from her older sister last summer that proved prophetic.

Carly took a finishing drag from her Pall Mall Light and then tossed the butt out the cracked passenger side window. “I’ll try to keep that in mind….but when you’re as pretty as you are, it’s quite a bit easier.” She laughed and then added “I might even switch teams if I could get a guy as great as Keegan ‘happen when I least expect it’.”

Haylee smiled back, but her hesitation implied potential trouble in paradise, crushing her cigarette into the ash can after a final dangling drag. “Keegan’s a great guy, for sure. But there’s no reason why you can’t find a person just as great as him. You’re pretty. You’re funny. You’re smart. You just need to work on that self-confidence a little. I mean, I’ve dealt with the same things.”

Carly snickered back. “Yeah, sure. You’ve dealt with being pretty, funny, smart….”

The girls laughed back and forth as they traveled the last couple of blocks approaching Carly’s house, where Haylee pulled into the driveway and dropped Carly off. Haylee waved goodbye as Carly walked toward her house and then let out a slightly aggrieved sigh before looking at her phone to see it was 4:32. She then began texting Keegan and typed out her message, “Just dropped Carly off. I’ll be there in 10 minutes to pick you up for work, baby.”

Haylee plucked another Camel Pink No. 9 from her pack and lit it, ingesting her first snootful of smoke off of the light-up and quickly heard the beep from her phone. She picked it up and smiled as she read the response from Keegan reading, “Looking forward to seeing you as always.”

Haylee let her heart fill with joy upon reading Keegan’s message, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag and then putting her car in reverse to back out of Carly’s driveway. She smirked upon realizing that steering her car in reverse had quickly become second nature to her, despite her repeated struggles with it during driver’s training.

—————

Courtney McPherson laid on her back in her bed wearing frumpy sweats, her belly bloated to the cusp of its breaking point with eight months of human life growing inside of her. She dragged deeply from the freshly lit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 between her fingers while listening intently to her mother who stood over her next to the bed.

“As for the charlie horses you’ve been waking up to in the middle of the night…” Becky explained in her husky smoker’s voice, “….be sure to sleep with this towel under your feet every night.” Becky pointed to the towel she had Courtney lie atop. “When you wake up with your legs in pain, reach to both sides of the towel and pull it toward you. It’ll help flex your leg and feet muscles and should alleviate some of the pain. Go ahead and give it a try.” Becky took a drag from her own Marlboro Red as she observed her daughter respond to the instruction.

Courtney dangled the cigarette from her lips and proceeded to reach down to the towel which was no easy task given her positioning and the obstructive baggage she was carrying in her midsection. She eventually grabbed hold of both sides of the towel and pulled them toward her as instructed, grimacing a bit at the discomfort.

“Ugh!” Courtney grunted through a talking dangle, cigarette bobbing up and down between her lips as she added through a labored laugh, “I don’t even have a charlie horse right now and this still hurts!”

A husky laugh from Becky followed that morphed into a smoker’s cough, as she responded “Get used to the pain, Courtney. You’ll have 18 years or more of it as a mother.”

Courtney laughed back, still dangling her cigarette. “I can see how this would help though,” in response to her leg muscles’ response to the towel exercise.

Becky nodded, dragging again from her cigarette before responding. “I might not be a midwife but between my nurse training and delivering three kids of my own I’ve picked up on quite a few tricks over the years.”

Courtney released the towel and then removed the dangling cigarette from her lips to ash, offering an appreciative smile to her mom while releasing a monstrous exhale that blanketed her bed like a heavy-duty quilt. “Thank you so much for all this help, mom. I’ve learned more from you than I would from two weeks of Lamaze classes,” she paused before half-jokingly adding, “…but I do think we need to get Wade in on some of this fun for one of these next sessions.”

Becky laughed again, smoke spraying from her mouth and nose and intersecting with her daughter’s exhaled smoke from the bed. “Oh we’ll find time for Wade. See if he can come over this weekend or next and I’ll give him a fast education on his role, before and during the delivery room.”

Courtney smiled, dragging again from her cigarette, her existing pregnant girl glow beaming a few watts brighter when thinking of Wade. “Looking forward to Friday when we head to my doctor’s appointment. Haven’t decided yet if we want to find out the baby’s sex. We’re both leaning toward keeping it a secret.”

Becky nodded. “Well I’m certainly dying to know whether my first grandchild will be a boy or a girl but I’m not gonna pressure you to tell me. I never found out with you, Trevor, or Haylee and the suspense added to the experience,” she mused, dragging from her cigarette and then adding, “Plus you won’t have to waste any time on those ridiculous gender reveal parties if you decide to wait.”

Courtney laughed, smoke slipping from her respiratory system as she continued to lie on her bed. “I think both Wade and my future in-laws are both a little too old-fashioned for gender reveal pyrotechnics.”

Becky smiled but then took on a more serious tone, asking “Have you made any headway with Ma and Pa Rosenquist?”

Courtney gave a halfhearted nod. “They’re coming around. I’ve gone down to Cannon City for the wedding planning and they’ve been cordial. There’s still some passive-aggressive judgment but it helps that I make sure not to smoke when I’m around them.” She paused and then added with a chuckle, “But that’s a double-edged sword since the stress of wedding planning only makes me crave a cigarette that much more!”

Watching Courtney take a final drag from her cigarette and then crushing it out in the ash can on the nightstand next to her bed, Becky smiled at her daughter. “Well keep working on them. Your father and I have been talking to them on the phone and they’re really good people.” She shrugged and then continued. “And of course their concerns aren’t entirely unfounded. But when you give them their first grandchild, plenty of things that are problems for them today won’t seem like such a big deal anymore,” she closed contemplatively while inserting a fresh cigarette between her lips, as though she was speaking as much for herself as she was for the Rosenquists.

Courtney smiled deeply looking up at her mother, who had been such a help for her in these last few months as her pregnancy entered its second and third trimesters, her vocal trepidation about Courtney having a baby being entirely in the rearview mirror. She reached her right arm in Becky’s direction and asked, “Any chance I can get you to help me out of this bed right now?”

Becky reached down and grabbed Courtney’s extended hand, giving her an assist off of the mattress. As Courtney sat up, she reached to her chest with discomfort.

“Oh….the heartburn,” Becky responded, Courtney’s tell serving as a reminder. Becky dangled her freshly lit Marlboro Red from her lips as she reached for her purse.

Courtney grabbed a fresh cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Light Menthol 100s, lighting up quickly as her mother foraged through her purse. A wave of relief filled Courtney’s face, the mentholated smoke serving as an instant gratification coolant for the heartburn lingering in her chest and throat.

Becky then handed Courtney the bottle of tablets she extracted from her purse and explained to Courtney through a talking dangle. “Nothing will totally stop the heartburn at this point in your pregnancy but these papaya enzyme tablets should help some. Maybe your doctor can prescribe something better at your appointment on Friday but for something over the counter, these are your best option.”

Courtney smiled again as she looked over the bottle, her face filled with gratitude both for the improved relationship with her mother generally, and specifically for all the help she’d gotten for pregnancy preparation. Her raging hormones abruptly shifted from smiles to tears and she reached her arms over Becky’s shoulders for a hug, both women carefully avoiding burning the other with their cigarettes.

“I’d be so scared and so insecure going through this right now without you, mom,” Courtney muttered through sobs. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Becky squeezed her daughter back. “You got this, Courtney. No need to worry,” pausing and then reinforcing, “You and Wade got this,” her addendum making it clear she was inferring both to the delivery room and motherhood thereafter.

——————–

“I really feel bad for having you cart me around like this,” Keegan apologized from the passenger seat with a disarming smile. “After the school year ends, I should have enough money for the down payment on that car I’m looking at.”

Cigarette dangling from her lips in the driver’s seat, Haylee smiled back at him reassuringly. “It’s no bother. As long as somebody’s home to watch the boys tonight when I come pick you up later….and my mom and dad are pretty much always home to cover for me. Plus it’s good driving experience for me.”

Keegan stared admiringly at his girlfriend’s sexy body and stylish presentation in her skin-bearing pink crop top and jean shorts, recoiling a bit as Haylee’s secondhand smoke drifted into his face but he caught himself in time to respond. “Well glad to hear you’re cool with it but I’m still gonna owe you quite a few rides next month when I have my car.”

Haylee puckered up for another dangling drag, exhaling and inadvertently sending another blast of smoke into Keegan’s face before responding “I’m definitely gonna take you up on that babe.”

Haylee focused on traffic as she approached the entrance of Chesley Rollerdrome, Keegan’s workplace, taking a left turn and pulling into the parking lot.

Keegan smiled at her through a haze of her thick smoke while she parked the car. “Thanks for the ride. Sure I can’t help you out and try to get you in here?” he asked in reference to Chesley Rollerdrome. “Pays more than babysitting.”

Haylee shrugged as she took another dangling drag. “Maybe next year. Don’t want to leave the Wagners high and dry for babysitting the boys until they can find someone else. Plus I’d kind of like one more summer to chill out at home,” she responded, smoke bursting out of her face like a steam-powered locomotive as she spoke.

As Keegan choked on yet another waft of her smoke, he grinned and realized that Haylee’s smoking habit would be detrimental to the kind of work they do at the Rollerdrome and that it would probably be best if she didn’t try working there. He nodded and replied, “Good reason….good reason. I’ll see you at 9:00.”

Haylee finally removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth and ashed it as Keegan leaned in for a kiss. Their lips connected for a split second, another reminder to Keegan that Haylee’s intense cigarette breath was gonna be an acquired taste, and another reminder to Haylee that her physical contact with Keegan had been mostly stuck in first gear since they started going out. She nonetheless smiled sweetly at her boyfriend of two months and bid him adieu. “Can’t wait to drive you home, baby.”

Haylee watched as Keegan walked toward the employee entrance in his work uniform. Even though the Rollerdrome work uniform was kind of dorky, it was nonetheless a good look for Keegan and Haylee found herself turned on as he drifted through the door out of sight. She puckered her lips around her cigarette for a finishing drag, fantasizing about the time when she could be intimate with the strapping young buck inside that uniform, assuming he’d be able to let go of some of his inhibitions when Haylee’s self-imposed 90-day celibacy rule expired.

Haylee crushed out her cigarette into the overflowing ash can in the console cupholder and then began texting her mom that she’d be home in 15 minutes for babysitting duty. But as she finished her text, a familiar face caught her eye walking toward the employee entrance. Haylee felt her heart sink and her blood pressure rise as long-time nemesis Chloe Mays walked toward the same employee entrance that Keegan had only moments ago entered.

A lengthy moment of panic overcame Haylee followed by a simmering anger. The girl who took her first love Jacob Roth away from her 10 months earlier just wouldn’t disappear from her life. Haylee had successfully avoided Chloe this past year at school, never making eye contact and drifting as far away as she could whenever she saw Chloe in the hallway. She even gave Chloe the faintest glimmer of credit for recanting her original story of seeing Jacob engage with Haylee sexually on the ferris wheel last summer, and thus leading to the criminal charges against Jacob being dropped. She was willing to let Chloe Mays be an ugly memory of her past and was pretty sure Chloe felt the same, but realizing that Chloe was working at the same place as her current boyfriend was just not gonna be an acceptable situation for Haylee.

Haylee plucked another Camel Pink from her pack and inserted it between her lips, the cigarette trembling as she tried to contain her fury. Watching Chloe enter the Chesley Rollerdrome building only a couple of minutes after Keegan did was the last straw, bringing back all those dark memories of Chloe blowing up her life. Haylee lit her cigarette and puckered her lips assertively for a hauntingly intense opening drag. She made up her mind that she wasn’t gonna give Chloe a chance to do again what she did to her last year. She didn’t yet know how she was gonna settle this score, but the truce was definitely off.

———————

Craig Nelson parked his Nelson Plumbing Supply truck in the family driveway at 5:30 that afternoon, carrying a makeshift briefcase in one hand and a Thermos full of coffee in the other. His close-cropped light brown hair and well-groomed goatee coupled with his button-down shirt and blue jeans straddled the fence between upscale business owner and blue-collar working stiff, an image that served him well in the plumbing business. As he was about to enter the front door of the family home, a familiar intermittent buzzsaw noise could be heard coming in the direction of the pool on the east side of his house. A mischievous paternal smirk emerged on Craig’s face and he decided to find another key on his key ring.

Craig slipped the key into the lock on the fence and stealthly slipped inside. As expected, the buzzsaw noise was coming from his daughter Lauren, decked out poolside on her favorite lawn chair taking in the rays, fast asleep and snoring at a decibel level that seemed disproportionate for her slender young body. Craig chuckled as he observed his napping daughter, shaking his head wondering where the time went as he pondered she was only a year away from graduation. Observing his daughter on the cusp of womanhood, Craig felt a rascally need to pull a prank on her, knowing that these innocent father-daughter moments would become increasingly fleeting.

Craig quietly sat down his briefcase and Thermos, searching around for a container of any kind before settling his eyes on a small vase his wife set out on the patio furniture holding a single rose and couple inches of water. A boyish smirk expanded on Craig’s face as he plucked out the rose and then approached Lauren with the vase. He slow-footed his way over to the beach chair where Lauren was resting, taking note of Lauren’s cotton candy bikini and the pleasured look on her face. He briefly let the thought cross his mind that her satisfied look may well have been the look of a teenage girl who’d recently gotten laid by her visiting boyfriend, but then erased that thought from his mind just as quickly, still not ready to accept the possibility that his sweet 17-year-old daughter was sexually active.

Standing directly above Lauren, her father was struck by the contrast between her peaceful state of rest and the obnoxiously noisy snoring that he and the rest of the family had teased her about for years. Part of him wanted to just let her rest, but at this point he was fully committed to following through on the prank he’d been scheming since he walked in the gate. Craig lifted the vase directly above Lauren’s stomach and began to slowly pour its contents until a trickle of water was splattering onto Lauren’s belly button.

Lauren grunted in a state of semi-consciousness as she felt the water rolling onto her belly. Her eyes began to open and she abruptly realized someone was hovering over her. She gasped in a full-blown reflexive panic, breathlessly bracing her arms as if to launch herself out of the lawn chair before her overcome lungs erupted into a coughing fit.

“Lauren! Lauren, it’s just me!” Craig reassured, feeling remorseful for following through on the prank after witnessing his daughter’s visceral response, not realizing the context for her moment of PTSD but being sufficiently spooked upon seeing it.

Lauren recovered quickly as she realized it was her father, sitting up in her chair and lightheartedly shaking her head and trying to block her hysterical initial reaction out of her mind as she reached for her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s and lighter on the patio table next to her.

“Didn’t mean to spook you, Lauren,” Craig said with a smirk as he watched his daughter light her cigarette. “I just figured I better wake you up before the neighbors called the cops with a noise complaint.”

Lauren giggled as she took her first drag off the light-up, shaking her head playfully at her father and responding through a talking dangle. “Oh dad, you’re as bad as Trevor! That’s the kind of thing he’d do to me!”

Craig smiled back. “I knew there was a reason I liked that kid so much.”

Lauren giggled again and shook her head, removing the cigarette from her lips and teasing, “What am I gonna do with you guys?”

Craig sat down on the chair next to Lauren and reached for her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s. “Mind if I bum one from you?” he asked rhetorically as he plucked one out.

“I don’t know, dad,” Lauren replied with a playful flourish. “Keep pulling pranks on me like that and I might have to tell mom you’re still smoking.”

“Pfft!” Craig responded to his daughter’s empty threat as he lit the cigarette. “You’re gonna tattle on me for still smoking, huh? That would be called mutually assured destruction, young lady.”

Lauren giggled and nodded in agreement as she took another deep drag from her cigarette. “Plus I think the only smoker in this house who is still pretending they’ve quit is mom anyway, right?”

Craig smirked, amused that Lauren was wise to Michelle’s failed attempt to quit. “I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that my answer may tend to incriminate me,” he responded cheekily.

Lauren giggled again, savoring these moments of connection with her dad. “Is mom home yet?” she asked.

Craig shook his head no in mid-drag, responding, “She stopped to pick up groceries on the way home but she’ll here soon. Your brother home?”

Lauren shrugged as she took another drag. “Yeah I think he’s in his room playing video games.”

Craig nodded, lowering his voice in a vaguely secretive gesture as he added. “Good opportunity to talk to you then. Your mother and I were gonna surprise Brian and head up to that bed and breakfast on the St. Croix River that he liked so much last year….the one that served the strawberry crepes. We’re gonna go there Friday after work and spend the night.”

Lauren nodded as she dragged from her cigarette and listened, remembering the place but not loving the idea of spending her Friday night there.

“So it’s totally up to you if you want to come with or stick around here, but you’re invited to come along if you’d like,’ Craig offered.

Lauren contorted her lips in a way that feigned as though she was giving it consideration before responding. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to stay here. I only have a couple more weekends before mom makes me start that waitressing job,” she added with a frown and then continued. “I’d really love a quiet Friday night home alone,” perking herself up quickly at the thought of having the house to herself for a night.

Craig smiled to hide a hint of disappointment, figuring Lauren wouldn’t want to come with but wishing she would in the interest of doing something together as a family before summer. “That’s fine. But if you stay here alone, it has to be alone. No friends over getting you into trouble,” he asserted, pausing to add, “….and that includes Trevor.”

Lauren giggled nervously, blushing as she took another drag from her cigarette. “Don’t worry. Trevor’s gonna be at his junior class party Friday night. And if I get the place to myself for the night, who needs Trevor anyway?” she responded half-jokingly.

“It’s a deal,” Craig responded with a grin, reaching to the ash can to ash his cigarette but instead grabbing hold of the vase and surprising Lauren as he dumped the remainder of the water onto her stomach.

Lauren playfully screamed as she got doused with the water, mocking outrage at her father as she put the stub of her cigarette in her mouth and picked up the empty vase after he set it down. “Oh it is on!” she warned through a talking dangle as she leaned over to the pool and filled up the vase with pool water.

Craig laughed as he launched out of the lawn chair and hightailed it to the back door of the house, his bikini-clad daughter chasing him to the door and tossing the vase full of water at his back. “Ohhhhh!” Craig grumbled half-heartedly as the back of his work shirt got drenched with pool water, quickly chuckling as he admired the sweet air of victory on his giggling daughter’s face, puckering her lips for a final drag of her cigarette. As quickly as Lauren was growing up, her childlike playful streak remained, and even though he was spooked by some of Lauren’s adult choices in recent years, Craig was gonna keep initiating these playful moments with his daughter for as long as possible.

——————-

The next afternoon, Trevor and Lauren walked hand in hand through the residential sidewalks of Trevor’s neighborhood. Sunshine glowing down upon them on the temperate Wednesday afternoon in the second half of May, the young couple silently took in the sights and smells of a long-awaited spring in Minnesota. The respective white and pink blossoms of the magnolia and crabapple trees that lined the sidewalks filled the air with the aroma of mother nature’s perennial revival, and it was a long time coming for the two summer weather lovers as they proceeded with their hands clasped together.

Trevor looked to his right to admire Lauren decked out in a maroon sundress with a white flower pattern that bore a striking resemblance to the color of the blossoms on the trees, and as a light breeze sent a spiral of the blossoms airborne and showering gently down upon them, Trevor mused that it was hard to tell where the flower pedals ended and Lauren’s sundress began. Lost in one of her trademark daydreams, Lauren raised her nose into the sky to enjoy the aroma of the flowers raining down upon them from the trees. But Trevor couldn’t help but chuckle when she interrupted this virtuous appreciation of natural restoration by approaching her half-smoked cigarette to her lips to take a deep drag. Trevor wondered if her sense of smell had atrophied as a consequence of her heavy smoking, but as she closed her eyes and breathed in the odor of fresh flowers at the same time as she exhaled a snootful of carcinogenic smoke, he decided her sense of smell still had a long way to go before it disappeared.

Lauren finally broke out of her daydream and noticed Trevor staring at her. She smiled as she took another drag from her cigarette and then contorted the left side of her mouth to make sure her exhale drifted into Trevor’s face. Trevor let go of her hand and grabbed her by the waist, pulling her toward him and getting off on how her highly feminine sundress reeked of cigarette smoke as he held her tight to the right side of his body.

But despite the storybook setting and peaceful moment they were sharing, Trevor could tell something was on Lauren’s mind and appeared to be troubling her. He suspected the conversation the previous day with Nick and Lacey might have gotten under her skin, and he had no intention of even addressing it with her despite their friends’ request that they talk it over. Still, he wondered to himself if Lauren would take the initiative and address the topic in the final moment of silence before she did.

“So be honest with me, baby,” Lauren opened, taking another drag from her cigarette. “What did you think of Nick and Lacey’s offer yesterday?”

Trevor paused for a moment as he enjoyed the aroma of his girlfriend’s exhale, choosing his words carefully as he shrugged and responded honestly. “I think it would be a really bad idea for everybody…..especially you and I.”

Lauren smiled deeply at his answer, smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose. She then pressed half-jokingly, still testing her boyfriend’s commitment. “You sure you don’t want to fuck Lacey?” she asked teasingly, adding “She’s pretty hottt!” with her sweet vocal flourish.

Trevor smiled half-heartedly, wise to Lauren’s test. “Really easy choice for me to stick with the girl I got,” he responded, turning the tables with a half-joking hypothetical of his own. “Now hopefully you’re not gonna tell me you’re dying to get plowed by Nick.”

Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette and gave him a dismissive eye roll, giggling as she flicked her expired cigarette butt to the street. She then put her arm lovingly around Trevor’s waist and he responded by squeezing her even tighter.

Trevor smiled, feeling as though the conversation was settled. “I’ll call Nick tonight and tell him it’s a definite no from both us,” pausing and then adding, “….and respectfully decline his invite to the party Friday night.”

Lauren frowned a bit and then responded. “No, you shouldn’t have to miss out on your class party because of me. Go ahead and have fun with your friends,” she offered.

Trevor was a bit confused. “You’re not gonna come?”

Lauren giggled. “Give me a few glasses of that spiked punch and Nick might start looking pretty good!” She paused and then added, “Nah, I don’t want to get that rowdy with a bunch of people I don’t know.”

Trevor was still a bit puzzled as he responded, “Sounds like you’re trying to get rid of me for Friday.”

Lauren smirked as she fished out another cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s. “Maaaybe a little!” she playfully opened, building Trevor’s suspense as she paused to let him light her cigarette. Freshly lit cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips as she spoke, she continued, “Actually, my dad broke the news last night that he’s taking my mom and Brian to a bed and breakfast on the St. Croix River on Friday night. So who has two thumbs and gets to have the house to herself on Friday?” Lauren asked, animatedly shaking her thumbs toward herself. “This girl!!!”

“House to yourself huh?” Trevor inquired. “Forgot how much you were into that. Sounds like present company might be excluded from that party for one.”

Lauren finally removed the dangling cigarette from her lips and playfully responded, “Well my dad made me promise to not have any horny boyfriends over…..and I don’t want to break my promise to my dad!” She paused and then added, “Seriously though, with as crazy as things will get for summer between the new job, re-taking the ACTs, and lugging my brother around to summer band practices, I could really use a nice relaxing night at home by myself. Hope you won’t be mad.”

Trevor smiled and teasingly responded. “Well that’s perfect. Because what I could really use is hanging around a bunch of drunken assholes from my class breaking all the lamp shades at Lacey’s parents’ place.”

Lauren giggled, pleased that Trevor was gonna let her have her Friday night to herself, dragging from her cigarette and then bursting into song. “I’m walking on sunshine…..whoa! And don’t it feel good!”

Trevor winced and gave her a quirky side-eye. “What the hell are you singing?”

Lauren giggled and blushed. “My parents have all these old vinyl records from when they were kids that they play sometimes. That’s one of the songs they got stuck in my head.”

Trevor cringed playfully, teasingly adding “I don’t know Lauren. It sounds pretty cheesy.”

Lauren laughed aloud in response. “Cheesy but really fun to dance to!” she exclaimed, shimmying her hips as if hoping her enthusiasm for the weekend would in any way be contagious to Trevor.

Trevor then gazed admiringly at his beaming girlfriend who seemed pleased with the entirety of their exchange as she took a deep drag from her cigarette. He continued to stare and counted the six seconds she held that smoke inside her lungs before a relatively sparse trickle of what was left of it wisped out of her nose, followed by a quick smoker’s cough.

Lauren smirked as she admired Trevor’s stare. “What are you staring at, boy?” she teased.

A wry grin beamed from Trevor’s face as he replied, “Oh you know I could watch you smoke all day long,” his words reinforcing that nothing Lacey or any other girl had to offer could compete with Lauren’s heavy smoking.

Lauren’s heart was filled with pride, responding with a broad smile. “What do you mean, you ‘could’ watch me smoke all day?” she asked rhetorically, convinced at that moment her man would never stray as she took another drag from the cigarette and leaned in to kiss Trevor, exhaling her smoke directly into his mouth and watching it pour out of his nose and she continued to lock lips with him.

With that issue settled to a presumably favorable consensus, the couple retreated to enjoying their late spring walk, holding hands and enjoying the sunshine and magnolia blossoms as they progressed through Trevor’s neighborhood.

—————-

The next evening, Haylee drove through the streets of Plymouth with Keegan in her passenger seat just after dusk, a haze of cigarette smoke filling the inside of her Honda that oddly complemented the smoky color of the sky shortly after sunset.

“Still can’t figure out why you wanted to drive me back and forth to work tonight,” Keegan mused inquisitively. “I told you my dad was gonna let me have the car tonight.”

Haylee puckered her lips around her cigarette for a dangling drag, her scheming mind deep in thought and too distracted to be paying sufficient attention to her boyfriend’s inquiry. After a long pause, she got around to responding to him with another blast of smoke exiting her face. “No big secret,” Haylee offered falsely. “Just want to take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with you,” carefully avoiding giving him any hint of her real agenda.

Keegan nodded, pleased with what he heard even though it wasn’t matching up with the way Haylee was behaving.

Haylee then caught him further off-guard as she repeated her seemingly odd request from earlier when she drove him to work. “You sent me the access password to your work schedule like I asked right?” she asked, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag.

“Yeah,” Keegan responded with confusion. “But I already told you I won’t need another ride from you until next Wednesday. My mom’s letting me have her car for my shift tomorrow night. And I got Saturday and Sunday off for us to hang out,” he added with excitement in his voice.

Haylee smiled back through her ongoing dangle, smoke trickling from her nose as she answered. “Just want to be able to look at your schedule in advance to make sure I can make arrangements if I have to on nights I’m supposed to babysit the boys,” she disingenuously explained.

Keegan nodded once again, even though her answer didn’t make much sense. “Well, I texted you the password so you can check out my work schedule whenever you want to,” he responded.

“Thanks, hun,” Haylee replied, removing her cigarette from her lips to tap the granny ash into the ash can in the cupholder.

Keegan looked ahead to see Haylee pulling onto his parents’ street, knowing the ride home would quickly come to an end. Keegan rubbed his chin as Haylee pulled into his driveway and seemed to be in a hurry to get rid of him.

“Probably see you again Saturday morning,” Haylee bid him adieu as she braked in his driveway, even though she was confident she’d see him before that.

“Good night, Haylee,” Keegan leaned forward to give her a quick kiss on the lips before opening the car door and stepping out.

Haylee was so preoccupied with her secondary agenda that she wasn’t even frustrated by the continued lack of physical progress in her relationship with Keegan, waving him goodbye as she took the final dangling drag from her cigarette before crushing it out in the ash can. She wasted no time checking her phone while still parked in the Robertson family driveway, punching open the account for Chesley Rollerdrome staff personnel and then punching in Keegan’s password to check out the schedule. Haylee’s entire plan hinged upon a compatible work schedule tomorrow for both Keegan and Haylee’s least favorite coworker of Keegan’s. A relieved smile filled Haylee’s face as the spreadsheet of the employee schedule for Friday showed both Keegan Robertson and Chloe Mays designated to work from 5 to 10 on Friday evening.

“Yes!” Haylee exclaimed to herself, looking up through her car windshield to make sure Keegan had gone in the house and wasn’t watching her.

Haylee backed out of the driveway and proceeded back to Eden Prairie. She was gonna make it back to her folks’ place in time, but she had a little pit stop to make on the way. Haylee had spent the last two days scouring Internet “people finder sites” until she found out Chloe Mays’ parents’ name and the family’s home address. She plugged the address into her GPS and began to follow the directions for the 2.3 miles to the Mays’ family residence.

As she reached upscale Willamor Avenue, she followed the windy residential block keeping her eyes peeled for a familiar-looking blue Ford Explorer in the driveways of the McMansions on the block. Haylee had made a point early on in the school year of picking out the vehicle that Chloe drove to school as a mental note for trying to avoid her, so it was ironic that Haylee was now using that information as a means of finding her. As the GPS announced she had arrived at her destination, Haylee smiled at the sight of Chloe’s blue Explorer parked outside the garage on the far right side of the driveway.

Taking a deep dangling drag from her cigarette, Haylee proceeded to open a small box of silver thumbtacks and poured about 20 of them into her left hand, her car very slowly progressing down the empty street. Haylee looked up to the Mays home to make sure nobody was looking her way and then steered her car as close to the driveway as possible. With her driver’s side window rolled down, Haylee tossed the handful of thumbtacks in the direction of the driveway, hearing the metal drop to the cement right behind Chloe’s Explorer.

A sadistic sneer filled Haylee’s face as she accelerated her car down the street, incredibly pleased with herself that her revenge plan against Chloe was going exactly how she wanted it to. Her adrenaline sped up in coordination with her accelerating car as she headed home, confidently dragging from her cigarette and finding that the blast of fresh nicotine in her bloodstream only added to the thrilling sensation of finally giving Chloe Mays what she had coming to her.

——————-

The next day during lunch break, Haylee hauled ass out of the school en route to the parking lot. She’d only had a car for about a month, but she loved being able to sit in her car and smoke during lunch, especially after a year and a half of sneaking cigarettes in the furnace room on her lunch break every day under constant fear of getting caught and suspended from school. Typically, she hustled to her car in a straight line like a heat-seeking missile every day at noon, but she broke her routine for a quick detour today.

Haylee looked over her shoulder to make sure the coast was clear and walked toward Chloe Mays’ Ford Explorer. At the beginning of the school day, Haylee made sure to keep tabs on Chloe’s entry into the school parking lot and then proceeded to move her own Honda to a parking spot as close to Chloe’s vehicle as possible, and ended up finding a spot only three stalls away. A gleeful smile filled Haylee’s face as she observed rapidly declining tire pressure on the front left and rear left tires of Chloe’s vehicle, and as Haylee walked near the Explorer, she could see a few of the thumbtacks that she tossed into Chloe’s driveway the night before had punctured the rubber and remained stuck in it. By the time the final bell rang at the end of the school day, Haylee was confident that both tires would be flat as a pancake.

As Haylee walked past, she couldn’t help but take a gander into the interior of Chloe’s vehicle, immediately struck by how messy everything was, with empty energy drink cans, food wrappers, and an assortment of other junk covering the seats and floor mats, but just as Haylee was about to walk away, something else captured her attention. Sitting on the passenger seat were two of Chloe’s Juul pods along with a charger for them.

Mischievous thoughts filled Haylee’s brain as she again nervously looked over her shoulder to make sure that neither Chloe nor any of her friends were among those exiting the school building during lunch. When she decided none of the approaching faces looked threatening, she proceeded to walk around Chloe’s Explorer to the passenger side and, just for the hell of it, lifted the door handle. Haylee couldn’t believe it when the door latch opened, allowing her full access to the inside of Chloe’s vehicle. Her heart skipped a beat that Chloe had either forgotten or not bothered to lock her vehicle, and a split second after getting over the shock that the Explorer’s door was opened, Haylee immediately took advantage of the golden opportunity, reaching to Chloe’s glove compartment and opening it. A wave of paper and other knick-knacks fell out of the tightly packed compartment and Haylee quickly grabbed the Juul pods and charger from the passenger seat, stuffing them as far back into the overflowing glove compartment as possible to hide them from Chloe and add to the unpleasant surprise that awaited her by the end of the school day when she returned to the parking lot.

Haylee slammed the glove compartment door shut and then closed the car door, dashing from the scene as stealthly as possible, her adrenaline racing as high as it did the night before when she tossed the thumbtacks out her car window when driving by Chloe’s house. Haylee’s detour had proven so satisfying that for the first time in a couple of hours she had briefly forgotten about her ferocious nicotine craving, but as she proceeded three cars down to her Honda, the craving came racing back. Haylee seized her pack of Camel Pink No. 9’s from her backpack and climbed inside, briefly struck by how much more her own car interior reeked compared to Chloe’s, and being perfectly clear as to why as she looked at the overflowing ash can in her console filled with pink and white cigarette butts.

Haylee let her cigarette dangle from her lips for just a couple of seconds before flicking it to life with her lighter, the cigarette erect between her lips for several seconds as she ingested as much smoke into her body in one drag as her lungs could handle, desperate to make up for lost time after going four hours without a cigarette in school. That first nicotine hit on her school lunch break always managed to calm her down as quickly as flipping a light switch brightens a dark room, but given the high stakes of her well-laid plan against Chloe Mays that was playing out in real time, it felt just a little more soothing than usual today. After pumping two additional drags into her lungs off of the light-up, Haylee finally let the cigarette go limp between her lips, her car interior clouding up rapidly with her explosive exhale. She still had no idea exactly how the pending encounter with Chloe was gonna play out, but it sure was a rush to feel in full control of the situation up to this point, a feeling that had been a long time coming in her yearlong cold war with Chloe who’d had the upper hand against her up until today.

—————–

An hour later at Willow Creek Mall, Courtney sat behind the till casually bantering with long-time boss and former lover Kurt Collins as they tended to the empty House of Leathers store on an early Friday afternoon in May. Courtney silently let out a belch and then wrinkled her nose, reaching to her purse and pulling out the bottle of papaya enzyme tablets her mom gave her a few days earlier. Picking up her water bottle next to her purse, Courtney put a couple of the tablets in her mouth and chugged some water to swallow the pills down with.

“What are those?” Kurt inquired.

“Papaya pills,” Courtney replied. “Something my mom turned me on to.”

“What do they do?” Kurt pressed.

“They cool down my heartburn and acid reflux,” she explained, flashing him a bashful smirk and adding, “…..and constipation.”

Kurt laughed. “I don’t know, Courtney. We’re a little too busy here to let you take any more bathroom breaks than you do already,” he teased ironically, pointing to the empty store.

Courtney laughed in response. “I gotta say…they’ve been working pretty well so far. My mom knows what she’s talking about,” pausing to add, “…which I suppose makes sense given that she’s a nurse.”

Kurt nodded with a smile. “Sounds like you’ve come a long way with your mom since Christmas when you broke the pregnancy news.”

Courtney nodded back affirmatively, pleased that she’d been able to heal so many strained relationships in the past year, including with her sister, both parents, and with Kurt sitting next to her. She’d gotten into an extremely ill-advised sexual relationship with Kurt before she was even 18, but the awkwardness of their break-up had completely dissipated by now and he felt more like a big brother. They could banter and even confide with one another without any lingering sexual tension, made easier given that both had moved on with new and more appropriate relationships. Their one-time love affair hadn’t even been brought up in months.

After a long pause, Courtney finally got around to responding to Kurt. “Yeah it’s amazing how much a ‘little one on the way’ can change a relationship,” in reference to her making nice with her mother after breaking the pregnancy news that was initially so poorly received.

Kurt agreed. “I can only imagine,” pausing before adding, “I mean, it sounds right….I don’t know from experience.”

Courtney grinned mischievously. “Well it’s never too late Kurt. You and Tammy still have time,” she teased, referencing the mall’s mid-30s jewelry store manager Tammy Freeman, who Kurt had been in a relationship with for the last several months.

Kurt gave a cautionary smile, indicating there were a number of red flags holding back his consideration of breeding with Tammy, but deciding to lead with a financial argument. “Poor kid would be off to a rough start with two unemployed parents.”

“Ohhh!” Courtney responded as if Kurt was exaggerating. “You’ll land on your feet even if this place goes down.”

Kurt shook his head in frustration. “Not much demand out there these days for two middle-aged retail managers like Tammy and I.” He again drew attention to the empty store and the empty mall corridor beyond it. “This store is gonna be dead for the summer like it usually is. Even if we can hang on long enough for a resurgence in the fall for leather season I’m betting it’ll be too little too late. Tammy’s store isn’t doing much better.”

Courtney made a sad face in response. “I hope you’re wrong but the malls are definitely in big trouble.”

Kurt nodded with a sigh. “I’d sure hate to lose you here but there might be nothing to return to when your maternity leave ends. Is it August you’re planning to marry the cowboy?” he asked, in reference to Wade.

“Close enough….Labor Day weekend in his hometown,” Courtney responded. “Not sure if my heartburn is from the pregnancy or from planning the wedding with the in-laws,” she joked.

As Kurt laughed in response, Courtney looked at her phone to see the time was 1:17. “Speaking of the cowboy, he better get here soon. My appointment’s at 2,” she pondered, in reference to her long-awaited OB/GYN appointment.

The two of them bantered for another moment or so just as Kurt’s girlfriend Tammy walked in to talk to Kurt, jealousy quickly engulfing her eyes as she walked in on Kurt and Courtney talking. A nervous silence briefly filled the air as if they had something to hide, knowing that Tammy suspected that Kurt and Courtney of having a thing, at least in the past.

Seconds after Tammy walked in, Wade Rosenquist followed, himself picking up on an awkward air as he made eyes with Courtney and then surveyed the body language of both Tammy and Kurt. A lengthy moment of awkward silence filled the room before Wade broke it. “I’ve met Kurt before but you must be Tammy,” Wade introduced himself, extending his hand to shake with Tammy. “Wade Rosenquist….how do you do?”

Tammy gave him a suspicious smile and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Wade. Seems like you’ve heard more about me than I’ve heard about you. Are you Courtney’s boyfriend?”

“Fiancee actually,” Wade said with a proud smile, looking over to his very pregnant girlfriend as she labored to stand up with the beach ball underneath her maternity blouse.

Tammy continued to give him a strained smile. “Congratulations on the baby on the way, Wade,” she quipped, darting her eyes back and forth from Wade to Kurt as if implying that the baby might not actually be his.

Courtney stood up, pack of Marlboro Light Menthol 100s in hand, drawing even more subtly resentful eyes from Kurt’s current paramour. Courtney had had some awkward moments in the presence of Kurt and Tammy in the past, but she was becoming mortified at the horrific timing of this current spectacle, hustling toward Wade to try to escape the humiliating encounter. “Thanks so much, Tammy,” she responded with restrained fury as she grabbed Wade by the hand and directed a comment to him. “We better get rolling or we’ll be late, babe.”

Wade bid Kurt and Tammy adieu as he followed Courtney out of the store and down the corridors of the mall. Courtney darted her eyes his way as they walked, making small talk as she projected a deflecting excitement and exclaimed “Big day!” in reference to the pending appointment.

Wade nodded with his usual charming smile, but Courtney could tell that the encounter had left an impression on him. They maintained conversation as they headed for the mall exit, but Tammy’s jealous outburst had clearly shifted their respective energy, and Courtney was pretty sure that with each footstep that Tammy’s stunt was getting inside Wade’s head just a little bit deeper.

Before they even stepped outside, Courtney had an unlit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 dangling from her lips. Given the ugly looks she got in recent weeks when smoking while in the third trimester of her pregnancy, she’d been planning to hold off on lighting up until she got inside Wade’s truck, but she lit herself up and took a ferocious drag in plain view of her potential critics today, desperate for some nicotine therapy. The papaya tablets and the menthol cigarettes seemed to help in their own way with her recurring gestational heartburn, but right now neither was doing the trick in hiding her humiliation and shame from the father of her child as they progressed to his truck. She pulled hard for a second drag from her cigarette, quietly despairing about how the colliding of worlds had just dropped a cold, wet blanket on the mood for this doctor’s appointment she’d been excited about all week.

Wade looked at Courtney with a reassuring smile as they were about to climb into his truck, but she suspected he could tell the difference right now between an expectant mother’s glow and the humiliation of a girl busted in the presence of a former lover.

————————–

Two hours later, Haylee lurked impatiently in front of her high school near the crowds of students boarding school buses, keeping her eyes trained on the student parking lot across the street waiting for Chloe Mays’ departure. She was absolutely dying for a cigarette and was normally the first student busting through the school door to head to her car and smoke as soon as the final bell rang, but she was restraining herself today to make sure she could be there when Chloe stumbled upon the unpleasant surprise that awaited her.

A few moments later, Haylee felt her excitement build upon witnessing Chloe exiting the school and walking to the parking lot on the unseasonably warm late spring Friday. Visually striking as ever, Chloe evoked the aura of a princess with her long dark brown hair, blue tanktop, and sculpted white shorts, and Haylee trained her eyes on Chloe to witness the exact moment when the princess lost her crown. Shock and despair filled Chloe’s face as she came upon her Explorer parked at a slope with its two flat tires on the drivers’ side.

Haylee slowly wandered in the direction of the parking lot to get a closer view, lurking for several moments before making her move. Chloe knelt down to look at the tires and noticed the thumbtacks stuck in the tread, scratching the back of her head as if wondering what to do next. She pulled out her cell phone and Haylee creeped on up to hear what she could of the conversation.

“Dad, I got a problem,” Chloe opened, at which point Haylee could only hear a scattered assortment of Chloe’s response from her vantage point, picking up on “flat tires” and a “waiting for a tow from AAA” while also lamenting that she “had to be to work in less than an hour”.

The conversation lasted a couple of minutes and Haylee crept closer to her prey as the phone chat ended, at which point Chloe reached into her bra and removed her Juul pod, drawing from it but quickly discovering it was empty. Chloe then opened her vehicle door in search of her other Juul pods at which point Haylee kept moving closer, knowing that Chloe was probably as desperate for a nicotine hit as Haylee was herself and, on top of the stress from the flat tires, was likely losing her mind frantically searching for those Juul pods she left on her passenger seat that were now hidden out of sight.

Haylee timed her final approach perfectly as a frazzled Chloe pulled herself out of the hot car interior, perspiration covering her forehead and recognizing long-time nemesis Haylee McPherson staring right at her en route to her own car. A moment of awkward silence ensued as they glared at each other, with Chloe looking over the typically attractive presentation of Haylee in her light pink top and painted-on black cutoffs, thinking to herself that every possible awful scenario had been thrown at her in just the last couple of minutes.

Haylee tried to suppress her amusement as she stared down to Chloe’s flat tires and mused, “Looks like you got a problem there, Chloe.”

Chloe just shook her head in frustration, resenting Haylee for being there and exclaiming “Fuck you!”

Haylee shrugged with indifference. “Suit yourself. Just gonna offer to help you change the tire?”

Chloe furrowed her brow with skepticism. “You know how to change a tire?”

Haylee nodded, hoping she’d get away with the bluff given that she didn’t have the slightest idea.

Chloe shook her head, continuing to grumble. “Doesn’t matter anyway. I only have one spare but I have two flat tires. I’m gonna have to wait for AAA to get here.”

Haylee shrugged, trying to hide her amusement as she replied, “Sucks for you. Hope you didn’t have any place you needed to be today,” pretending as though she was about to walk to her car.

“Actually I have to be at work by 5,” Chloe responded, not yet struck by how surreal it was she was having this conversation with the girl from school she had such a long history of negative associations with.

Haylee looked over her shoulder after taking a couple of steps toward her own car, asking “Where do you work?”

“Chesley Rollerdrome,” Chloe responded under her breath.

“Really?” Haylee responded with faux surprise. “My boyfriend works there.”

Chloe gave her a curious look, at one level holding out some hope that an offer for a ride would be forthcoming, but also feeling a little suspicious at this point that Haylee somehow engineered this entire encounter. That seemed unlikely to her, but she was still hesitant about what to do next until Haylee formally made the offer.

“Can’t believe I’m about to ask this but would you like a ride there?” Haylee inquired.

Chloe paused as if considering her options but then sneered back. “You’d love that wouldn’t you? I have to wait here for AAA anyway.”

“Suit yourself,” Haylee fired back, loving her position of power as she progressed toward her car. “Good luck not getting fired.”

As Chloe watched Haylee walk away, she began to reconsider, thinking she could make arrangements for the car to be towed to a tire shop and still make it to her work shift if she took Haylee up on this offer. Just as Haylee was opening her car door and about to climb in, Chloe called out. “Hang on,” she shouted, bringing a conniving smirk to Haylee’s face. “I’ll take you up on the ride. Just let me call my dad so he can make arrangements for my car without me here.”

Opening her pack of Camel Pinks for a long-awaited cigarette, Haylee again suppressed her smirk as she looked over to Chloe and replied, “I’ll be waiting for you.” Haylee lit her cigarette as she sat down in the car, starting the engine and cranking up the air conditioning as she indulged her lungs and bloodstream with a tidal wave of smoke and nicotine. She took a triple-pump opening drag before looking back to Chloe talking into her phone. Haylee chuckled as Chloe opened the passenger seat of her Explorer again, simultaneously chatting with her dad and frantically looking around for her missing Juul pods. The conversation lasted a couple of moments before Chloe started drifting toward Haylee’s car.

Chloe looked at Haylee with suspicion as she approached her car, not at all comfortable getting a ride from this girl who she had such a long-standing beef with. She still couldn’t figure out if Haylee had an agenda here or if this was a genuine peace offering. After all, Chloe changed her story about seeing Jacob sexually engage with Haylee and kept him out of legal trouble, so maybe Haylee didn’t resent her as much as she feared. Still, Chloe couldn’t have possibly felt more on-guard as she opened up the passenger seat of Haylee’s car to climb inside.

As Chloe sat down, she was instantly overwhelmed by the stench of heavy tobacco in Haylee’s car and made her revulsion known. “Ugh! How can you stand it in this car? It fucking stinks!”

Smirking at Chloe with a half-smoked Camel Pink dangling from her lips, Haylee responded. “Nobody’s holding a gun to your head if my car’s not good enough for you to ride in.”

Chloe continued to wrinkle her nose as she put the passenger side window down. “Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess,” she conceded.

“That’s right. They can’t!” Haylee responded with an air of supremacy, cigarette still dangling from her lips and waves of smoke belching out of her mouth, wafting throughout the front seat as she began to back out of the parking lot, en route to the Rollerdrome.

Chloe exaggeratedly waved the smoke from her face but found her effort futile as Haylee’s smoke just kept filling her airspace. Nonetheless, seeing Haylee indulge her nicotine craving so crudely was having its effect on Chloe, who began to dig around in her purse just in case she left her Juul pod in there.

As Haylee came to a stop at a red light pulling out of the parking lot, she took the opportunity to pluck out another Camel Pink from her pack, knowing that Chloe was looking at her as she used the cherry from her current cigarette to light up her next. With a new burst of secondhand smoke filling up the car, Haylee reached into her ash can to crush out her expired cigarette and then leaned forward to dribble a lugie into it, knowing that would really rile Chloe up.

Her repugnancy dial cranked up to 11, Chloe’s animated face said it all watching Haylee’s vulgar display before she verbalized it. “Oh my God you are disgusting!” Chloe exclaimed, doing her best to reconcile such crudeness coming from such a pretty 16-year-old classmate. “Your parents must be so proud!”

“Guess you better stick with your electronic nicotine devices then,” Haylee responded with a sarcastic flair through a talking dangle.

Chloe began rummaging through her purse again, looking for the very item Haylee just referenced. “This is really not my day! I can’t find my Juul anywhere!” she protested.

Haylee smugly removed the cigarette dangling from her lips and held it in front of Chloe’s face. “You can take a drag from my cigarette if you’d like,” her smirk growing as Chloe snorted at the sight of the smoldering cigarette directly in front of her, the moisture from Haylee’s lips visible on the filter.

“Get that thing away from me!” Chloe barked, pushing Haylee’s hand holding the cigarette away from her face.

“Fine with me,” Haylee mugged, putting the cigarette back between her lips and continuing through a talking dangle. “Could be a long shift without any nicotine though.”

Chloe considered it in silence for a couple of moments before deciding Haylee was right. The weird energy in this car continued to keep Chloe off-balance and she finally gave in. “I suppose you’re right,” pointing to the pack of Camel Pinks lying on Haylee’s console and asking, “Okay if I have one?”

“Be my guest,” Haylee replied, barely able to contain her glee at Chloe setting foot into her trap once again. “Think you can get it lit without my help?”

Chloe sneered at Haylee as she picked up the lighter and placed an unlit cigarette toward her lips. “I’ve smoked before. I just think it’s gross,” she paused and then added, “Plus I’d rather my car not smelled like this,” in reference to Haylee’s smoke-filled car.

Chloe lit the cigarette and took her first drag, making a disgusted face and quickly coughing out the smoke, the nicotine delivery catching her completely off-guard compared to what she was used to with her Juul pod.

“I thought you said you’d smoked before,” Haylee snarked, enjoying every second of this.

“Like I said, it’s gross!” Chloe responded with an acerbic flair, nonetheless enjoying the buzz she got in the aftermath of the first drag that felt different from the afterglow of a Juul pod draw. After a moment of recovery, she took another drag, inhaling the smoke and again puckering her lips and sticking her tongue out as though it was nasty. Her body language nonetheless told a different story as Haylee watched out of the corner of her eye to see the relaxed and satisfied way Chloe’s breasts heaved up and down inside her blue tanktop as she exhaled the smoke.

Chloe looked over to Haylee, still dangle-dragging her cigarette with a familiar look of nicotine satisfaction filling her face. Her curiosity finally got the better of her and she decided to make conversation rather than endure 15 minutes of awkward silence in the car with Haylee. “So who’s your boyfriend at Rollerdrome anyway?”

Haylee proudly exclaimed, “Keegan Robertson! Know him?”

An astonished look filled Chloe’s face as she pressed the cigarette to her lips for another drag. “Seriously? Keegan Robertson and….you….are a couple?”

“Yeah, we’ve been going out for a couple of months now,” Haylee responded defensively through a talking dangle. “Why?”

A what-am-I-doing-wrong-here sheepishness filled Chloe’s face as the smoke flowed from her mouth. “Every girl at work has a crush on Keegan…and most of the girl customers too,” Chloe confessed. “He’s been saying he’s had a girlfriend but we all thought he was just being shy around us when we flirted.” She paused and then added, “What the fuck does he see in you?”

“It’s a charm you’ll never understand, Chloe!” Haylee bragged, the dynamic between them going vastly better than she ever hoped for when she began orchestrating this encounter. She then went for the jugular as she added, “So how long before I have to worry about you calling the cops on him and having him arrested like you do with all of my boyfriends?”

Chloe just shook her head, an air of shame obvious on her face as she took another drag from the cigarette. “And there it is!” she exclaimed as if knowing this moment was coming.

“Just saying,” Haylee reminded through a talking dangle, the cigarette hanging from her lips nearly down to the filter. “You have quite a track record of fucking up my life,” she added, removing the cigarette from her mouth and crushing it out in the ash can full of dozens of butts.

Chloe stared through the windshield contemplatively before striking a conciliatory tone. “Well maybe I’ve grown up a little since then.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Haylee fired back skeptically.

“Look, I’m sorry Haylee. I let things go too far last year at the fair and I’ve felt bad about it ever since,” Chloe formally apologized.

Haylee was thrown a bit off balance, finding Chloe a little less easy to hate right now than she’d hoped for, but finding her anger again when she thought of Jacob. “Well maybe you should apologize to Jacob too. He’s the one whose life was fucked up most because of you!”

Chloe looked at Haylee as though her priorities were misguided. “Haylee,” she opened, pausing for dramatic effect and then continuing, “….you’re going out with Keegan Robertson and you’re still crying about that sleazo fuckboy?!? I can promise you he’s off at college and has fucked a dozen girls since you guys broke up.” She paused again to take a final drag from the Camel Pink and then tossed the butt out the window. “I’m sorry for what I did to both of you. If I ever see him again, I’ll say so. But maybe you should just forget about last year and be grateful for the life you have now.”

Haylee sat in silence for a moment, internalizing Chloe’s lecture and realizing that her nemesis’s perspective was not wrong. She nonetheless snorted, “Whatever!” as she reached for her Camel Pink pack and plucked out another one, inserting it between her lips and lighting up.

Pulling onto the commercial street with Rollerdrome only a few blocks away, Chloe reached into her purse to pull out her name tag for work, at which point Haylee took another opportunity to take a shot at Chloe, trying her best to maintain her long-standing hostility toward the girl she had resented for so long. “So why does a spoiled rich girl like you have to slum it working at Rollerdrome anyway? Aren’t you worried you’ll chip a nail scooping ice cream?”

Chloe sneered back, eventually responding softly and ashamedly, “Just trying to help with the bills at home.”

“Really?” Haylee snarked through a talking dangle. “What are you guys moving to an even bigger mansion to make the rest of the class look ever worse?”

Chloe was clearly struggling to deal with what she decided at the spur of the moment to share. “My mom left us you fucking bitch!” Chloe shouted, masking through expletives her need to tell this to someone, even if that someone was a distant acquaintance who was actually a sworn enemy. After a long pause, she added, “Until the divorce is settled, things are kind of tight and I’m helping my dad and younger sister out.”

Haylee felt as ashamed as she’d tried to make Chloe feel up to this point over the Jacob incident, sitting silently before asking softly through her talking dangle, “How long since she left?”

“About six months ago,” Chloe responded. “But it’s been building for years,” she added, giving Haylee some unspoken insight as to why she’d been such a bully in recent years to Trevor, Lauren, and herself.

“Sorry to hear that,” Haylee finally got around to saying, rattled that after all these months of seething resentment, she was the one who found herself apologizing to Chloe, but as she watched Chloe wipe a tear from her eye, it was clear that the girl was going through quite a bit and that she genuinely did regret some of her own youthful indiscretions that Haylee and her family and friends had found themselves on the receiving end of.

After Chloe was confident she was past the risk of an emotional breakdown, she shrugged, still finding it awkward to be spilling this to Haylee of all people in this moment of weakness. “No need for you to be sorry. It’s not your fault,” Chloe responded, still maintaining the vaguest chip on her shoulder. “But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell this around.”

As they approached a stoplight right before the turn into the Chesley Rollerdrome, Haylee made a brief moment of eye contact. “My lips are sealed,” she responded ironically through a talking dangle, a blast of exhaled smoke drifting into Chloe’s eyes and putting an abrupt end to the eye contact.

“Ugh!” Chloe recoiled. “Do you have to blow that shit straight into people’s faces?” she grumbled, reasserting the defensive relationship that still felt like the right fit between the two of them despite the considerable thawing of the icebergs that occurred on this short drive.

Haylee was then quickly reminded of her objective, grabbing her phone and quickly firing off a text while the stoplight was still red.

“Hello! The light’s green!” Chloe snottily pointed out as Haylee was punching in the final digits of her text.

A couple of seconds later, Haylee turned left into the parking lot, a smug smirk returning to her face as she informed Chloe, “Just texted my boyfriend. Told him to come outside before his shift starts and I’d surprise him!” She puckered her lips around the filter of her nearly exhausted cigarette, crushing it out in the ash can and then looking back to Chloe. “Why don’t you come with me and I’ll introduce him to my ‘friend from school’.”

Chloe cringed, knowing that Haylee was still loving this dynamic and planned to ham it up to the bitter end. Nonetheless she followed Haylee out of the car as Haylee approached the rear entrance where Keegan and most other employees usually entered and exited the building.

Keegan stepped out of the Rollerdrome building right on cue, surprised to see Haylee there today and about to ask why until Haylee came sprinting toward him as if he had just returned from a combat tour overseas.

“Baaaaby!” Haylee greeted with unnatural jubilation, wrapping her arms around Keegan and deciding that now was gonna be the time for their first “real kiss”. She grabbed him by the back of his head and surprised him as she forced her lips onto his with urgency, inserting her tobacco-drenched tongue into his mouth and ensuring that he would follow her lead. The move killed two birds with one stone for Haylee, finally provoking a moment of passion with her extremely hesitant boyfriend, and doing so as a shot across the bow at Chloe watching from closeby.

Haylee darted her eyes toward Chloe as she prolonged the kiss, stroking her hand down the back of Keegan’s work uniform and onto his ass and guiding Keegan’s hand down her pink tanktop and onto her black cutoffs. After a good 30 seconds, she pulled away, looking a stunned Keegan in the eye and realizing she gave him a baptism by fire on not only kissing a heavy smoker but also kissing a girl generally as she was pretty confident this was his first that went beyond a mere “smooch”.

Chloe was rolling her eyes and putting her hands on her hips with annoyance in the background for being forced to endure this spectacle of Haylee marking her turf like a wild animal, and the extreme weirdness of the dynamic was not wasted on Keegan who looked shell-shocked by everything.

It became only a little less muddled with Haylee’s introduction. “You guys probably already know each other a little but Keegan, this is Chloe Mays…..a girl I go to school with,” she introduced, carefully avoiding a friendlier term to describe Chloe. “She had a couple of flat tires in the parking lot so I offered to give her a ride to work while they fix her car.” Haylee then gave a catty look to Chloe as she proceeded with the introduction. “And Chloe, this is my maaan!” she projected, wrapping her arm around Keegan’s waist again.

Keegan smiled awkwardly at Chloe, knowing there was more to the story but not wanting to find out any details right now. “Yep, we’ve already met. We’ve worked together a couple of times. I didn’t realize you went to school together though.”

Chloe smiled and nodded at Keegan’s characterization, responding “Well it’s nice to finally meet the girlfriend Keegan’s been telling us about even if I already knew her.” She paused to give Haylee a disarming look. “You guys make a really cute couple.”

Based on Chloe’s tone and demeanor, Haylee knew that was Chloe waving a white flag. Chloe had already successfully softened her edges with Haylee this afternoon, but it was clear to Haylee at this moment that she had nothing more to worry about with Chloe Mays.

“Anyway, I better head in and change into my work uniform,” Chloe announced, walking toward the rear entrance.

Haylee was suddenly overcome with guilt over what she did to Chloe, and as she watched Chloe slink toward the door with a combination of contrition and shame, Haylee called out, “Hey Chloe. Do you get off at 10?”

“Yeah,” Chloe responded from the entrance.

“How would you like it if I Keegan and I drove you to the tire shop where you can pick your car up? So you don’t have to get your dad out of bed to pick you up tonight?” Haylee asked.

Chloe let out a quick smile, grateful for the olive branch and hoping it meant that she had Haylee’s forgiveness. “That would be nice,” she responded, before walking inside.

Haylee smiled, still feeling guilty but working to atone for her sins. She looked up to Keegan, knowing he had quite a few questions about what just transpired, but having no problem filtering this story for Keegan’s ears now that the hard part was over with Chloe.

—————-

Trevor stepped into his house on Friday afternoon after school, sighing with relief that his three-day Memorial Day weekend was beginning, but then cringing as he reminded himself of the junior class party obligation in a few hours. Maybe it wouldn’t be as much of a shitshow as I’m expecting, Trevor thought to himself but quickly realizing that it almost certainly would as he thought of some of his hard-partying classmates that this evening’s host Lacey, who along with her boyfriend Nick, had recently gotten in with.

Trevor walked over to crank up the air conditioning in the McPherson home, wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead and appreciating after his car ride home from school how hot it was today. He savored the smell of the stale smoke in the house that his mother and sisters were responsible for, loving the circulation of the smoke odor when the A/C was turned on.

Trevor’s phone then rung and he smiled as he noticed the call was coming from Lauren. He picked up and responded, “You changed your mind and decided to come with me to the party?! Great news!”

Lauren giggled, dragging from her half-smoked cigarette from the Nelson family living room. “Not a chance, buddy! Just calling to rub it in that my parents and brother just left and this girl has the place allllll to herself!” she exclaimed with a vocal flourish, spurts of smoke spilling from her mouth and nose.

“Well congratulations,” Trevor responded, legitimately jealous of his girlfriend’s relaxed and carefree evening ahead. “Anything specific planned?”

Lauren dragged again from the cigarette and playfully answered. “Not tellllling! A girl’s gotta have some secrets on a night she spends home alone after all!” She paused as she began to unbuckle her pale blue denim shorts, placing the stub of her cigarette between her lips and then added through a talking dangle, “But I can tell you that as we speak, the pants are coming off and staying off!!!”

Trevor was tortured by the vision of Lauren stripping down to her underwear on this hot evening and said so. “Now that’s just cruel Lauren! You sure I can’t come over?” he teasingly replied.

“Nope! Daddy’s orders! Trevor-free night!” Lauren teased. “Plus I bet you’ll get to see some of your classmates strip down to their panties tonight.”

Trevor laughed. “You’re probably right.”

“I do feel bad making you fib to Nick and Lacey though,” Lauren said, crushing her cigarette out in the living room ash can.

“Meh, finessing the truth a little I guess. All that they have to know is that the Nelsons went on a family trip to the St. Croix River. They don’t need to know you decided to stay behind,” Trevor responded hair-splittingly.

Lauren giggled again. “You’re a lifesaver, baby! Can’t wait to see you tomorrow and try to have some fun tonight,” pausing to cheekily add “But please only call tonight if you really need a designated driver to get you home, okay?”

Trevor and Lauren both laughed at the nonexistent likelihood of teetotaling Trevor getting shit-faced at the party. “I don’t think you’re gonna get that call. Enjoy your night, baby!”

A sweet and animated smile filled Lauren’s face as she responded, “Thanks baby! Love you!” before hanging up, doing a brief and overjoyed dance in her white tanktop and white panties before looking down to her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s on the coffee table, plucking out another one and lighting it.

Trevor found himself getting hard imagining a close variation of the image that was unfolding at Lauren’s place, of his girlfriend in her underwear burning through reams of cigarettes all night long. He smiled as he realized that he’d have plenty of time to build up his sexual energy with this image seared into his brain between now and tomorrow when he’d get to see Lauren again.

—————–

Wade and Courtney climbed into Wade’s truck in the hospital parking lot in the aftermath of Courtney’s OB/GYN appointment. Wade’s energy was electric as he got behind the wheel and helped the mother of his child climb into the passenger seat, unlit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 in her lips that she was preparing to light.

“Thirty-six weeks and everything looking completely normal!” Wade recapped. “Sounds like we’re really blessed,” he added, putting his hand over Courtney’s bulging belly in her maternity blouse as she lit her cigarette and invaded his airspace with mentholated smoke.

Courtney gave Wade a more subdued smile in response as she took a deep second drag from her cigarette, eventually responding through a talking exhale. “Definitely the appointment we were both hoping for. My mom’s texted twice already asking me to let her know how it went when it’s done,” she added with a chuckle, a smoker’s cough erupting from her lungs that contradicted in part the healthy pregnancy report.

Wade laughed with the passion of a proud papa-to-be, adding “Go ahead and text her back to let her know. Then maybe text my mom as well because I can guarantee you she’s also on pins and needles.” Wade paused and then added, “Of course she might keep twisting your arm to let her know if it’s a boy or girl.”

Courtney nodded with a smile. “Glad we decided to keep that a mystery…..if for no other reason than to torture your mom.” She took another drag from her cigarette, inadvertently engaging in the activity that truly was torturing Louise Rosenquist during this pregnancy.

Wade gave Courtney a few moments’ silence to text their respective mothers as he drove out of the hospital parking lot, but as he studied Courtney’s expression as she typed into her phone, it didn’t match the electricity he felt or that he’d have hoped to see from Courtney after such a positive doctor’s appointment. He suspected it was a lingering emotional response from that odd encounter at the mall with Courtney’s boss and his girlfriend, and the more he saw it eating on Courtney, the more nervous he was getting wondering what the story behind the encounter may have been.

Courtney fired off a handful of texts in the next few minutes between her mother and future mother-in-law, but came to a point where she just stopped, lighting another cigarette and staring out the passenger window with a heavy mind and an escalating sense of guilt. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she had to come clean to Wade about her dirty laundry, or at least some of it. She took a deep drag of nicotine courage from her recently lit cigarette and then broke the lengthy silence in the truck.

“Ugh! Wade, I’ve been holding off telling you some things that I knew would eventually come out. If we’re gonna get married in three months, we can’t have secrets,” Courtney opened with an ominous visual of smoke spilling from her face as she spoke that matched the ominous tone of her words. “What happened earlier at the mall is a perfect example.”

A very nervous Wade made eye contact, awaiting Courtney’s follow-up. “I’m listening.”

“It was more than a year ago, months before you and I met, but I had a sexual relationship with my boss Kurt,” Courtney confessed, dreading Wade’s response.

“Isn’t he as old as your dad?” was all that Wade could get out, confused about the relationship Courtney just confessed to.

Courtney nodded, expecting that would be one of Wade’s first takeaways. “I had just turned 18 and was kind of experimenting I guess. I had an odd attraction to Kurt and things just kind of escalated,” she continued, fudging the timeline a bit to avoid tattling on Kurt for having sex with her when she was only 17. “I can’t imagine Kurt would have told his new girlfriend Tammy–and I certainly didn’t tell her–but she must have sensed something. And that’s why she was so weird around us today.”

Wade sighed with confusion and frustration. “I mean, yeah, I’m not comfortable with you still working with a guy you used to sleep with. I can put up with a lot but I don’t think I can put up with that.”

“I don’t expect you to,” Courtney concurred, dragging nervously from her cigarette once again. “Kurt was just saying today that the store is probably gonna close before long. I’ll put in my two-week notice tomorrow and find something else after I come back from maternity leave.” She paused and then added, “But I promise you I never loved Kurt and have never even given a thought to being with him or any other man since I met you.”

Wade sat silently for a moment, trying to come to terms with how he felt about it and then nodding. “Alright,” he responded agreeably. “We all have our past to live with….as long as we know we can leave it in the past, I don’t have any problem.”

Courtney was surprised by how quickly Wade decided he could live with the pretty serious news she just broke, but then sighed again as she was about to break Part 2 of her confession, dragging again from her fast-diminishing cigarette. “Yeah, well the Kurt thing was just one part of a bigger problem I was dealing with last year before we met.”

Wade’s eyes drifted from traffic to Courtney once again, nervously awaiting what could possibly be coming next that would upstage the news she already broke.

“I realized I was having a problem last spring and sought therapy for sex addiction. I went to classes a couple times a week before we met…and still go once in a while when my schedule allows,” Courtney confessed, tossing her spent cigarette out the cracked passenger-side window. “I know this is hard to hear but I need to get this all out there before I expect you to say ‘I do’ to me in September.”

Wade seemed troubled, or at least as troubled as Courtney’s famously easygoing fiancee was capable of being. “So how many guys are we talking here?” he asked, broaching a question he never figured was enough of his business to inquire about until this moment.

“Five before you,” Courtney replied abruptly, hoping the relatively small number would ease Wade’s mind some, at least without the additional context.

A wave of relief filled Wade’s face upon hearing the number was smaller than he feared. He chuckled and responded, “I mean, that’s the same number of girls I’ve been with Courtney. Is it possible you’re overreacting a bit here?”

Courtney nodded in the negative. “It wasn’t the number of partners that was the problem. It was more a matter of impulsiveness….and risk-taking. My willingness to fuck my 40-something boss is a good example,” she said, at this point holding back on pointing out her even more questionable conquest of Haylee’s boyfriend Grant as well as her sexual advance on her own father. She continued. “I mean, even think back to when you and I met and I was still taking sex addiction therapy classes. I asked you to raw-dog me when we got back to your place that first night. All of my impulsive requests for sex on the spot like the rest stop in Missouri where that old couple busted us when I was sucking you off,” she added, the memory of which led them both to a moment of laughter. “I mean, this is all less of a problem for me now after my sex therapy classes but as they tell me, ‘once a sex addict, always a sex addict’. It’s something that will always be a part of me to some degree.” She paused and took out another cigarette from her Marlboro Light Menthol 100 pack, taking the moment of silence as an opportunity to ask, “So what do you think?” eagerly and nervously awaiting Wade’s response.

Wade only took a moment to mull Courtney’s comment as the first blast of secondhand smoke from her recently lit cigarette drifted into his face. “I think we all have our baggage and our limitations….and that I respect you for telling me now rather than after the wedding. As long as you can promise me today that you’ve been faithful to me so far, and as long as you can promise me on Labor Day weekend that you’ll be faithful to me for the rest of your life, then everything that you did before last July when we met is just spilled milk, if you’ll pardon the pun from a dairy farmer,” he said with a wry smirk.

Relief filled Courtney’s face, and this time from a source other than her cigarette, as she beamed with a smile making eye contact with her fiancee. “You must have some really big secrets you’re keeping for you to be okay with everything I just told you,” Courtney teased with a laugh.

Wade laughed back, making occasional loving eye contact while maintaining his attention primarily on traffic. “I mean, yeah, there’s some small stuff I guess, but I don’t think I can outdo what I just heard!” He shrugged. “We can talk about it some day if you’d like but as far as I’m concerned that’s not who we are anymore…and I only care about who we are today.”

Courtney was stunned by the extent of Wade’s easygoing nature, which managed to exceed her wildest expectations going into this conversation. She took a deep drag from her cigarette as she studied his face and body, finally asking through a talking exhale, “I just don’t get how you’re willing to put up with so much from me. What is it that you see in me? I just don’t get it!” she exclaimed half-jokingly, still trying to connect the dots on why this unlikely good-natured farm boy was so into her.

“This again?” Wade mused teasingly, with Courtney returning to the question she’d asked him several times in the past. “As I said before, you have a good mix of city girl and sweetheart from back home. A little bit country and a little bit rock and roll as they say.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve said that before,” Courtney pressed lightheartedly, nonetheless probing for a deeper response from her terse fiancee. She took another drag from her cigarette and pressed, “But there’s a lot of girls that fit that profile. What makes ME special enough to marry?”

Wade smirked as he made eye contact, looking at her as though she’d just answered her own question. “That’s it right there!”

“What?” Courtney asked, furrowing her brow in confusion with cigarette smoke still trickling from her nose.

“All of your deep psychological analysis and desire to get to the bottom of everything. It certainly can be annoying at times–like now,” he teased, eliciting a giggle from an enraptured Courtney hanging on his every word. “But I’m the kind of guy who always just follows his gut for most of my decisions, big and small. And I think I always knew when looking for a partner I needed someone who could balance that out for me. When you told me you were gonna be a psychology major in college at the fair last summer, it was a like a bell went off in my head right then and there.”

A blissful Courtney beamed listening to Wade’s heartfelt confession, somehow not even making this connection with Wade despite studying psychology. “Well if my heavy-handed psychoanalysis is what gets you off, I can promise you there’s a lot more where that came from!”

“Oh I’m aware!” Wade said with a laugh. “You might not look like the psychiatrist stereotype I had in mind but some day soon I’ll spill some of my deep, dark secrets to you and then you can decide if you still want to marry me.”

Courtney laughed boisterously, a granny ash from her unattended cigarette falling onto Wade’s truck seat and briefly scaring her until she realized it didn’t burn anything. She took a final drag from it and confirmed through a talking exhale, “I am definitely gonna hold you to that deal.”

“I have no doubt about that!” Wade responded with a faux annoyance before lovingly reaching over to caress Courtney’s face and then lowering his hand back to her belly to feel the movement of his baby.

Courtney’s glow was fully restored, having this heavy confession out of the way and turning it into a positive pivot point in her relationship with Wade. She felt a moisture building in her panties and she knew it had nothing to pregnancy-induced urination. She leaned over toward Wade to let him know, caressing his chest with her hand.

“And in case you haven’t already thought of it, there are some upsides to having a fiancee with a sex addiction,” Courtney offered with a smirk. “And maybe even more than usual if your sex-addicted fiancee has the raging hormones of a girl in her third trimester of pregnancy.”

Wade looked over, feeling frisky himself, and especially so as Courtney lowered her hand to his jeans in hopes of feeling the development of a very large bulge. “Only a couple more miles till we’re at my place,” he played along, fluttering his eyebrows.

“Oooo, didn’t know you were so into fat girls. I’m learning more useful information about you every time you open your mouth,” Courtney continued to tease as she stroked the growing bulge in his jeans more aggressively.

Wade instinctively gave his truck a little more gas to speed through the last few moments of this drive, thrilled with the prospect of consummating this momentous afternoon of revelation with the girl he was more confident than ever was about to be his wife.

——————–

Lauren stood at the edge of her parents’ living room, freshly lit cigarette dangling from the right side of her mouth as she hovered over the old turntable and cassette player her parents semiregularly listened to. She dangle-dragged from the cigarette as she rummaged through the selection of holdover vinyl and cassette titles she just dusted off. Cigarette smoke billowed out of her mouth and nose and she smiled, recognizing some of the groups and songs not only from occasionally listening to them as a girl but also from the night of the Halloween dance at the barn converted to a dance hall in Bemidji when she got her boogie on with Trevor to the sounds of these retro 80s-era pop and rock songs.

While there were a number of songs Lauren wanted to listen to, her eyes lit up when she saw the Katrina and the Waves record and set it on the turntable, continuing to dangle-drag her cigarette with a long granny ash just hanging on above the record as it began to spin. She pulled back, tapping her cigarette into the ash can and waiting for the music to start from the very song she just referenced to Trevor a couple of days earlier.

The familiar beat started to play and Lauren immediately began grooving to it, craning her arms and neck, tossing her hair around, and shimmying her hips, her youthful body decked out in only the white tanktop and matching panties becoming fully animated. She pretended Trevor was across from her on an imaginary dance floor as she kept boogeying, intermittently placing her cigarette between her lips for a drag as she coordinated her body to the beat of the song.

Lauren placed the cigarette in her mouth to dangle again in the second before the song was about transition to the chorus, at which point she launched into the kitchen, polishing the floor as she slid across the linoleum on her socks and vocally erupting into “I’m walking on sunshine…yeah…..and don’t it feel good!” cigarette smoke intermittently bursting from her face. Her smoked-out lungs were holding up pretty well thus far to the workout she was giving herself. Part of her wished Trevor was able to witness this as she knew he’d get no end of amusement from it, but she was mostly grateful she was able to keep to herself and cherish these rare home-alone moments, especially on a night like tonight.

———————

Courtney’s frisky meter was cranked up as high as it could go as she led Wade by the hand to his bedroom, unbuttoning his shirt and ripping off his belt as she proceeded to the bed. Wade was getting very turned on himself as he began the more laborious process of disrobing Courtney in her eighth month of pregnancy.

“Don’t get me wrong…I’m really grateful my mom is helping so much during my pregnancy,” Courtney opened before delivering the punchline, “…but I’m even more grateful I still have my doctor to talk to when it comes to questions about whether sex is still safe this far into the pregnancy.”

Wade laughed as he began to remove Courtney’s blouse and bra, her body still looking great even with the swollen stomach stretched nearly to capacity. After slipping her out of her slacks and panties, Courtney proceeded to lie back on his bed with far more caution than she had in the past before watching with bulging eyes as Wade slid his own jeans and boxers off.

“Eeeeeek!” Courtney thundered at the sight of her fiancee’s lengthy and girthful reproductive part standing at full erection. As Wade began to approach her, Courtney spread her legs, boasting “Having babies with you, I doubt I’ll ever have to worry about needing a C-section. I’m surprised the baby isn’t already just dropping straight out of me with the kind of canyon you’re leaving behind!” laughing at herself and awaiting the penetration with Wade laughing along.

Courtney’s breath was taken away and she grunted loudly as she felt Wade enter her vagina. After the first few penetrations, she lit the cigarette she had at the ready, thinking to herself that the one good part of having sex while eight months pregnant is that the distance between Wade and her coital cigarette greatly reduced the likelihood of his being accidentally burned.

Looking up to evaluate the look on her lover’s face as he dominated her, Courtney had absolutely no doubt she was looking at the face of the man she wanted to marry. She thought back to a year earlier when she hadn’t yet met him and was going to sex addiction therapy, and how she could have never imagined that 12 months later there would only be one man she’d want as a sex partner for the rest of her life. But as she looked at the love in his eyes and felt the pulsating bombast of his sexuality filling her insides, she couldn’t imagine ever finding this level of physical or mental satisfaction from anyone else.

——————

Trevor could feel an unease in the pit of his stomach as he made the long walk down the street from where had to park his car toward Lacey’s parents’ house. Sunset was approaching and the combination of the well-lit home on the horizon and the rising din of a house party made clear which house was his destination even though he’d only been to Lacey’s house once before and didn’t immediately recognize it. His unsettled feeling as he progressed up the driveway seemed like more than just his general dislike for parties and other heavily populated social events, but as though real trouble awaited. He shook it off as he climbed the stairs to the front door of the home, accepting that he owed his junior class and his friends his attendance tonight even though his heart wasn’t it.

Trevor figured it was an open-door policy and entered Lacey’s home, his senses immediately awakened by a mild but unpleasant aroma of alcohol and pot smoke that reinforced his misgivings.

His buddy Nick was the first to notice him and approached him at the entrance with an enthusiastic flourish. “Trevor McPherson! Now this party’s getting started!” Nick greeted, shaking his hand like he usually did when he saw Trevor, although increasingly in a way that felt a bit oily.

Before Trevor had a chance to greet Nick back, his girlfriend and host of the party Lacey emerged from the next room with a basket in hand that appeared to be full of cell phones. She flashed Trevor a toothy smile and made sure he couldn’t miss her black crop top and tight white shorts, an outfit similar or possibly identical to the one he remembered her wearing last summer at the county fair. “First thing’s first here, Trevor,” Lacey announced, holding the basket in front of him. “Everybody hands over their cell phones at the door!”

Trevor furrowed his brow in lighthearted confusion.

Lacey smiled back, writing the name “Trevor M.” on a sticky note as Trevor handed her his phone. “I want my guests partying and making memories tonight….not spending all night looking at their phones,” she explained as she dropped his phone in the basket with about three dozen others.

Nick added, “Besides that, there is definitely gonna be some stuff going on at this party we don’t want on camera, amirite?”

Laughter ensued between Nick and Lacey as Lacey smacked her boyfriend on the ass suggestively. Trevor chuckled nervously in response, fully realizing at this point just how much the two of them had changed in the last several months when they used to hang out more often. He broke the momentary awkwardness with his rehearsed excuse on behalf of his significant other. “Lauren sends her regards for not being able to come. Guess she’s having her own fun tonight hanging out with her parents and brother,” stretching the truth as far it could be stretched.

Nick shook his head with genuine disappointment. “That really sucks that she couldn’t make it. But we’ll have to make up for it by hanging out with you guys some more this summer,” he added, with Trevor suspecting he heard ulterior motives in Nick’s tone.

“Yeah, definitely. Really a bummer that Lauren couldn’t join us,” Lacey added, her tone even more suspicious than her boyfriend’s, leaving Trevor wondering if these two got the message that their request to swing had been dismissed with prejudice by both himself and Lauren.

Nick changed the subject on a dime. “Anyway, head to the kitchen and get yourself a drink. We got beer, wine coolers, and some rum and vodka for some mixed drinks if that’s more your speed.”

Trevor smirked. “Got any 7UP? Ginger ale?”

“Oh that’s right. You don’t drink,” Nick recalled before laying on the peer pressure. “I mean, yeah, we got soda in there, but c’mon man….we got that to mix in with the hard stuff….not to drink by itself.”

“At least one drink before the end of the night, Trevor!” Lacey added with a flirtatious smirk. “Make me that promise, okay? I’ll be insulted as the host of this party if I can’t get you at least a little bit shit-faced!” she pressured, only half-jokingly.

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Trevor responded, being as noncommittal as possible knowing there was absolutely no chance he’d be bending his elbow tonight.

“Well, it looks like I have to work a little harder to make this sale before the end of the night,” Lacey teased with another punchline that struck Trevor as being a suggestive double entendre, pointing him to the kitchen to fetch his soft drink of choice.

Trevor walked into the kitchen and surveyed the faces of jocks and party animals, waving and nodding at a few who he was casually acquainted with, including Taylor and Madison, two of the mean girl trio who were not long ago inseparable from head mean girl Chloe Mays, who was conspicuously absent so far tonight and who seemed to be running in slightly different circles from Taylor and Madison recently anyway. Trevor had no idea that Chloe was busy working at the Rollerdrome tonight and certainly had no idea that she’d been butting heads with his younger sister once again this very day.

As Trevor pushed his way through the crowd leading into the kitchen, he noticed a Twister mat laid out on the floor and took a mental note of it, only casually pondering its significance before focusing on the uncomfortable house party atmosphere that stood between him and the refrigerator to score whatever limited selection of nonalcoholic beverages that awaited him. Once there, he picked up a can of 7UP and slinked away as quickly as possible.

Venturing back into the less crowded living room, Trevor scanned the room for a dramaless sanctuary, his eyes finally wandering to a cluster of chairs set up in the corner of the room where a trio of casual semi-friends from Trevor’s classes and study hall lingered as inconspicuously as possible. Trevor smiled upon noticing their presence and quickly picking up on them being fish out of water in this party environment just as he was, yet were nonetheless persuaded by Nick to attend this “junior class party” without fully anticipating the magnitude of bad behavior that seemed likely to escalate as the night went on.

Trevor happily weaved his way through the furniture, 7UP in hand, to hang out with these guys until the time came when he could break away for the night in good conscience. “Hey guys,” he greeted, aware with the fact that these guys’ social stature was considerably lower down the food chain than was his but being very pleased to have them here given the circumstances. He sat down and immediately started making small talk about school and what brought them all to this party, but his mind was never more than a passing thought away from Lauren at any given point.

—————–

Lauren sat up in her bed still wearing her tanktop and panties, with a laptop resting on her knees streaming pornography. The pristine image of angelic Lauren resting on her bed was corrupted by the freshly lit cigarette dangling from the right side of her mouth and even more corrupted by the stroking motion of her hand inside her panties working her genitals, her knuckles rising and falling as she masturbated. The cigarette in her mouth was getting even more of a workout than her fingers, the cherry maintaining a permanent red glow as she breathed directly from it repeatedly, so turned on by the imagery on the laptop and the fantasy of doing it with Trevor at the next opportunity. It was only when she saw the long, hot ash was about to fall on to her chest that she removed the cigarette from her mouth with her free hand to ash it, and then placed it right back into her mouth as she resumed getting herself off.

Lauren seldom looked at online porn, and when she did, it was an occasion like tonight when she was searching for ideas on how to spice up her sex life with Trevor. Seeing the way other girls were starting to look at her boyfriend recently, with Lacey at the top of the list, she’d been feeling a bit insecure lately and wanted to make sure she was keeping her man satisfied. Tonight she stumbled upon a porn site subcategory for “submissive guy” and thought it sounded perfect, knowing how Trevor loved occasions when Lauren dominated him. She went down a rabbit hole watching a handful of videos and was most excited about the current one, featuring a girl handcuffing her man to the bed and aggressively pouncing upon him. Feverishly sucking down her current dangling cigarette as she visually consumed the pornography, Lauren was really getting off imagining the combination of handcuffs from this video with her overbearing cigarette in Trevor’s face. As her digital stroking of her clitoris reached its climax, she came to the definitive conclusion that she would reward Trevor for letting her have this night home alone by bringing this porn video to life, with smoking in the mix, later this weekend if possible.

With both the video and Lauren’s cigarette coming to an end, Lauren extracted the scorching white filter from her lips and cut loose a fierce smoker’s cough, having consumed that cigarette in perhaps less time than any of the thousands of cigarettes she’d smoked before. Perspiration covered Lauren’s forehead, despite the A/C running on full blast, after getting herself so worked up watching these porn videos and she took a moment to decompress and cool off, her exhausted lungs wheezing as though she’d just climbed a dozen flights of stairs.

But Lauren felt as though she was on a roll, still stroking her vagina and eager to check out another video. She scrolled to another subcategory and decided to take a look at a video of a “submissive woman” just to change things up. She plucked another Marlboro Light 100 from her pack and lit herself up, keeping the cigarette dangling in the corner of her mouth just like the previous ones she’d smoked while watching these videos, and then pressing play.

Lauren dangle-dragged casually from the cigarette as the scene began to unfold, but found herself becoming quickly uncomfortable as an aggressive male pounced upon a younger blond girl. While her head tried to persuade her that what she was watching was simply a rape fantasy stylized for the camera, her instinct was nonetheless bringing to the front of her mind a litany of repressed memories from last September in Cannon City. The fact that the girl looked a bit like her and the dominating guy bore at least a passing resemblance to Dusty Beaudry in both look and tone made the video seem all the more real to Lauren.

Lauren stared at the screen with a paralyzed horror on her face, removing the cigarette from her mouth and feeling her chest heave for an entirely different reason than from moments earlier when she was breathing directly from the cigarette. She felt a full-on panic attack arising in her compressing chest, and she abruptly snapped the laptop shut to drown out the sounds and visuals that were proving so triggering. She spent several moments calming herself down and getting her breathing in check before she could think about anything else. When she finally felt sufficiently settled down, she took a drag from her half-smoked cigarette and then began sobbing.

Lauren told Trevor on their drive home from Lake Tetonka during spring break that she knew she had to deal with the emotional fallout from Dusty Beaudry’s sexual assault. After the embarrassing overreaction to the prank her dad pulled on her a couple of days ago along with this panic attack from watching a porn video tonight, it was obvious she needed to make good on that promise no matter how traumatizing it might be in the short term. She allowed herself a couple of moments to wipe the tears from her eyes as she took another deep drag from her cigarette and then opened up the drawer on her nightstand and took out the folded up piece of paper from the Cannon City Times that she’d kept at arm’s length from her bed since the day in March when Trevor showed it to her. She picked up her cell phone and then began dialing the phone number listed at the bottom of the article.

Lauren knew there would be nobody there to answer the phone at almost 10 p.m. on Friday night, but as she waited for the sound of the beep to leave a message, she knew that she’d never have more courage than she had right now to do what she had to do. As instructed, she began to relay the message to the Cannon City Police Department. “Hello, my name is Lauren. I’m 17 and I live in Maple Grove. According to an article in the newspaper, you reopened an investigation into a rape case from four years ago. I know the rapist. His name is Dusty Beaudry,” she announced, confirming the unidentified name of the assailant from the newspaper article. “He tried to rape me last fall. I’d like to give you my side of the story and hope it helps with the other case as well. Call me back at 612-555-3706 and I’ll tell you what I know.”

Lauren ended the phone call and felt an overwhelming sensation of relief surging through her body to have that taken care of, dragging deeply from her neglected cigarette to compound that feeling of relief. She was under no illusion that this wouldn’t get a lot more difficult for her when the time came to answer some hard questions and probably even return to Cannon City to go on record with her story, but she knew now that it had to be done. She also realized that with the school year wrapping up only a week from now, the trip to her school’s guidance counselor that Trevor suggested months ago needed to be done right away on Tuesday when she returned to school. She had put it off for far too long, and it was painfully obvious after tonight that she needed professional help to deal with what happened to her.

With that epiphany being settled, Lauren had a renewed spark in her eye and she sprung out of bed, taking another deep drag from her cigarette and then crushing it out in the ash can on her nightstand. There was still at least a couple more hours of having the house to herself before Lauren planned to go to bed, and she was determined to enjoy every minute of what was left.

—————-

Haylee pulled back into the Rollerdrome parking lot just after 10 p.m. as promised, the stub of her cigarette dangling from her lips until she opened her car door and gave it a toss into the lot. She texted Keegan that she was waiting for him and to remind Chloe to come along for her ride.

A couple of minutes later, Keegan and Chloe stepped out of the rear employee entrance and Haylee waved them to the car. Having changed out of their work uniforms, a hint of rivalry briefly filled Haylee’s heart again seeing her well-built boyfriend, who was now confirmed to be the most desirable bachelor at work, walking right next to the equally well-cleaned-up Chloe in her tanktop and tight shorts, and the two of them would be easy to pass off as homecoming king and queen if this was October instead of May. They parted ways as they approached the car with Keegan climbing into the passenger seat while Chloe climbed into the back seat, both of them struck again by the intense stench of tobacco in Haylee’s car.

“Nice to see you, babe,” Keegan greeted, leaning over to give Haylee one of his trademark conservative smooches on her lips, pulling back and then immediately getting down to business. “So how are we gonna work this? You drive Chloe to her car and then back here to pick up my car?” Keegan asked.

“Yeah, that’ll work,” Haylee shrugged. “I just need the address.”

Chloe punched the address into her GPS and read Haylee the address of the destination, still uneasy about what Haylee’s agenda might be. Before taking off, Haylee took another Camel Pink out of her pack, placed it between her lips, and lit it before looking in her rearview mirror to the backseat, asking “Want a cigarette, Chloe?” through a talking dangle.

“Eh,” Chloe winced as Haylee observed her moment of contemplation in the rearview mirror. “Yeah, I suppose you better give me one,” she responded reluctantly.

“You smoke, Chloe?” Keegan asked with surprise.

“Noooo!” Chloe insisted passionately at the ironic moment she took hold of the cigarette Haylee handed her and lit it. “But I vape and I can’t find my Juul pods today. Gotta get my fix somehow. Be smart and don’t take up either nasty habit,” she lectured Keegan.

Haylee fought to suppress a joyous smirk as she began to drive out of the parking lot, appreciating the surreal spectacle of Chloe Mays’ exhaled cigarette smoke wafting toward her from the backseat of the car, rating right up there with the least likely scenario she would have ever imagined possible three days earlier. She puckered her lips around her freshly lit dangling cigarette, pumping out a huge blast of smoke inside the car, her rivalry with Chloe inadvertently playing out in front of Keegan right down to the minutia of which girl was the better smoker.

But as the drive to the tire shop proceeded, Haylee felt a rising tide of guilt and sorrow as she listened to Keegan and Chloe talk about work, only occasionally chiming in with her own thoughts and questions. The more she listened to Chloe interact with Keegan and herself, the more she identified her as a human being….a teenage girl with a closet full of demons and insecurities just like herself and not the faceless cartoon villain that she thought of her as for the last two years in high school. And the guilt then morphed to paranoia as she considered the possibility of Chloe figuring out that Haylee had set her up. Would the thumbtacks that Haylee tossed into Chloe’s driveway be dusted for prints? Was there security footage either outside Chloe’s home or outside the school that could identify Haylee if someone decided to investigate? Should she play it safe and confess her sins now rather than risk being found out later?

Just as Haylee was getting herself all worked up thinking about these possibilities, Chloe’s phone dinged and she summarized the text sent by her father. “My dad said the tires are replaced at Midas and he already paid the bill before they closed tonight. My Explorer’s waiting and ready to go.” She paused, sticking her tongue out in disgust at the final drag from the cigarette and tossing it out the window before adding, “He also said he found the problem. There a bunch of tacks in the driveway. He figures they must have rolled out of the garage somehow.”

“Hmmmm…” Haylee said, breathing a sigh of relief with wisps of smoke trickling from her mouth and nose, confident she’d dodged a bullet and then changing the subject. “Well in that case, you probably still have time to go to the junior class party. Pretty sure my brother’s there tonight.”

“No thanks,” Chloe replied. “Too tired. Not really feeling those people too much these days anyway,” she added, her weary tone speaking volumes about a girl who had forsaken her old identity either because she wanted to or because she needed to. “There’s Midas,” she called out with continued exhaustion in her voice as she identified the yellow sign on the horizon where her Explorer with fully inflated tires awaited her.

Haylee pulled into the empty Midas parking lot and parked a few stalls down from Chloe’s Explorer.

“Hallelujah!” Chloe called out, quite evidently eager to get home. “Thanks for the ride, Haylee,” she added as she prepared to step out of the car, the complete lack of aggrievement in her voice confirming that the grudge match with Haylee was over. But just as Chloe was saying her goodbyes and was about to leave, Haylee was caught off guard by Chloe’s final request. “Haylee, would you mind giving me one more cigarette for the road?”

After a split second recovering from the shock, Haylee replied, “Sure,” plucking out two Camel Pinks from her pack, lighting up her own and then extending her hand to the backseat until Chloe took the other one from her.

As Chloe slammed the car door and walked to her Explorer, the three of them exchanged a final wave and Keegan tried to decipher the history between these two, which he correctly interpreted as complicated. He looked at Haylee hoping for clues, and possibly an explanation on the drive home, but Haylee was leering right past him through the cloud of her own exhaled smoke to observe Chloe drift into the darkness.

Haylee was unwaveringly certain that she was never gonna be friends with Chloe Mays, but didn’t think she could ever hate her again and was disappointed in herself for wasting so much energy hating her for as long as she did. Nonetheless, an air of victory filled Haylee’s face as she watched Chloe light the cigarette she was just bequeathed, the cherry glowing bright in the dark parking lot as Chloe took her first drag standing outside her Explorer. Haylee went into this day fully committed to reversing the power dynamic between herself and Chloe Mays, some way, somehow. And while the last several hours played out much differently than Haylee expected, the inexplicable spectacle of seeing Chloe smoking one of Haylee’s cigarettes at the end of the night was certainly the final confirmation that Haylee put the last point on the board of this high school feud.

———————

Trevor and his socially awkward guy friends found themselves enjoying the evening more than they anticipated a couple of hours earlier, cocooned in the corner of the living room and connecting relatively well discussing school and mutual hobbies. It helped that they were successfully below the radar of the escalating display of debauchery playing out elsewhere in the house, all of which Trevor and his group had an inconspicuous front-row seat to. The empty bottles of alcoholic beverages were piling up and the clouds of marijuana smoke were billowing, all while most partygoers were surrendering to intoxication, with quite a few odd couples finding loving solace in each other’s caress.

Trevor was looking to the far side of the living room where Lacey was playing “strip Twister” with Luke Nolan from his class. He smirked at the idea of these two being in the same room with each other outside of this party let alone stripped down to their underwear with beer cans in hand, tangled up in each other’s bodies on the Twister mat and giggling like drunken fools. But as Trevor was observing this unseemly display from the party’s host, his buddy Neil sitting next to him nudged him on the arm, getting Trevor’s attention and then pointing to the recliner on the other side of the room.

Trevor’s eyes bulged as he witnessed Chloe Mays’ former mean girl BFF Madison sitting on the lap of Nick, exchanging tongue with escalating passion as Madison’s hand went up Nick’s shirt and Nick’s hand worked its way up Madison’s thigh and under her skirt. Trevor shook his head in partial disbelief that this even more unlikely duo was all over each other, with Trevor making a mental note how grateful he was that it wasn’t Lauren getting so casually pawed by Nick. Nick had made his intentions abundantly clear with his suggestion to “swing” but seeing the sloppy drunk who used to be one of his best friends being so publicly sleazy with a girl who had once been so cruel to Lauren was really starting to make Trevor feel ill.

A giggly scream from the other side of the room diverted Trevor’s attention back to the Twister mat, where Lacey collapsed on the floor in her bra and panties, guffawing in an inebriated stupor after “losing” the match. But a couple of moments later, both Trevor and Lacey’s attention was redirected toward Nick, who was on his feet with Madison in his arms, progressing toward the stairway. Trevor felt a little dirty as Nick and Madison ascended the stairs, tongues in each other’s mouths with every step, making it abundantly clear that they were about to hook up in one of the bedrooms upstairs.

But lying on the floor half naked, Lacey observed the same spectacle with much more personal investment as her long-time boyfriend was about to sleep with another girl. A crestfallen sorrow was briefly evident on Lacey’s face as something that had only been a hypothetical up to this point was moments away from becoming very real. As Nick and Madison disappeared out of sight after fully ascending the stairway, Lacey’s sorrow morphed into a raging jealousy, wiping her matted brown hair off of her sweat-covered face and chugging the rest of the beer left in the bottle next to her. She got up to her feet and staggered a little as she grabbed her friend Misty by the shoulder. Lacey reached into her bra and pulled out three twenty-dollar bills, making dramatic eye contact with Misty and exclaiming through a loud whisper, “Now!” her final cue to get rolling with the plan she’d had in motion all night.

Misty took the money from Lacey and gave her a mischievous smirk as she pulled out a cell phone from her purse, the one cell phone that Lacey deliberately failed to confiscate at the beginning of the night. As Lacey staggered over toward the corner of the room where Trevor was talking with his friends, Misty slinked back on the couch and hit record on the phone, secretly recording the encounter that Lacey was about to orchestrate.

“Treeeevor!” Lacey shouted with a supercharged energy, staggering her way over to the corner of the room to mack on the guy she’d been feeling increasingly sexually attracted to recently. “Can I get you a drink, baby?!” she asked suggestively, forcing herself onto his lap and then pawing at his chest.

A startled Trevor held his hands up, making it abundantly clear to Lacey that he wasn’t buying what she was selling. “Only if you got more 7UP,” Trevor responded awkwardly, doing his best to project standoffish body language to Lacey.

“Oh I don’t know about that,” Lacey mused, leaning into him with her repulsive drunken breath. “But listen here…” she slurred. “I know you don’t drink alcohol so I’m gonna respect your wishes,” she said, reaching her arm around her back and removing her bra. “So I’m gonna let you have some milk!” she exclaimed giving her bra a toss.

The room erupted in laughter and stunned bemusement watching a topless Lacey thrust her bare chest right in front of Trevor’s face, the whole ordeal quietly being captured on camera from across the room. “Okay, that’s enough,” Trevor cautiously asserted, his eyes nonetheless instinctively trained on the jiggle of Lacey’s breasts inches away from him.

Lacey continued to shake her body atop Trevor’s lap, pulling in for a kiss she hoped he’d accept but Trevor put his hand in between her face and his before their lips touched.

“I said that’s enough!” Trevor asserted more forcefully, nudging Lacey to get off of his lap.

The humiliation of rejection in her eyes, Lacey stood up and slinked over the black bra lying on the floor, putting it back on and then making the walk of shame back into the kitchen for another drink.

Trevor tried to dismiss Lacey’s unsolicited advance as a drunken indiscretion, a wave of classmates approaching him to either high-five him for his self-control or good-naturedly chastise him for “not hitting that”. Part of him really wanted to get out of that party. Another part of him found himself getting into being a spectator of this degeneracy, if only for this one night. And another part of him really needed to go to the bathroom, but was holding it in until he could head to the john without any risk of crossing paths with Lacey again.

Moments later, Lacey was back in the living room, whiskey bottle in hand and taking a swig, eager to jump back on the saddle after her rejection from Trevor, standing on top of the Twister mat in her bra and panties shouting, “Any other guy around here have any interest in seeing these tits again, come on up!”

Trevor rolled his eyes as a few guys who just watched Lacey macking on him sprung out of their seats to take Lacey up on the offer until she selected the guy of the bunch she wanted to tango with on the Twister mat. Trevor turned back to his group of friends, at this point invested in seeing for themselves how far this evening and the party’s guests would spiral before the night came to an end.

A few minutes passed and Trevor’s bladder was still screaming at him to be relieved, distracting him from his continued conversation with his friends and from people-watching. As he looked to the Twister mat and determined Lacey was sufficiently distracted by her latest Twister mat entanglement with the male classmate du jour, he decided it was time to make his move, excusing himself and migrating as inconspicuously as possible in the direction of the bathroom.

But only a few footsteps into his journey, Lacey noticed Trevor’s ostensible approach and immediately pushed her current Twister mat dance partner out of the way. Lacey made quick eyes with Misty, signalling her to get the phone ready again as she rose to her feet and hustled to Trevor, grabbing him by the hand and saying “Awwww, you changed your mind!” pulling him toward the Twister mat.

“No….no I didn’t,” Trevor reassured, once again the center of attention in the room and feeling like an even bigger party-pooper than he felt like a half hour ago but unwilling to let his defenses down and play along even a little.

Sensing that, Lacey placed her foot behind his once she got him on the Twister mat, successfully tripping him and sending him crashing to the floor. Lacey then dropped to his lap and attempted to smother him with her body, giggling as though it was all in good fun as she picked up her whiskey bottle and approached it to Trevor’s face. “C’mon, Trevor,” she taunted through slurred speech. “Get that stick out of your ass and have some fun with your classmates. We’re only high school juniors once!”

Trevor shook his head pleadingly, as if silently begging her to get off of him as she instead began pouring a slow trickle of whiskey from the bottle onto his face, trying to pry open his mouth until he managed to push her away without too much resistance. Lacey rolled onto the Twister mat in hysterical laughter and Trevor resumed with his trip to the bathroom, needing no further convincing that this party lifestyle was not his scene.

Once Trevor was in the bathroom with the door closed behind him, Lacey rose to her feet, a chip on her shoulder as she became increasingly doubtful her attempt to seduce Trevor was gonna work. She walked on over to her friend Misty and collapsed on the couch next to her, taking hold of the cell phone that Misty had been using to record Lacey’s failed seduction efforts. As she looked at the footage on the videos, Lacey became even more jealous about the fact that her own boyfriend was upstairs getting it on with another girl, and that Trevor was unwilling to give her a chance because of his dedication to his girlfriend Lauren, who Lacey believed was not in her league.

Lacey’s envy began to burn as hot as the whiskey she continued to chug from the bottle in her other hand, and she began to crop out still shots from the videos that looked far more incriminating without context. If she couldn’t have Trevor tonight, she was gonna be sure to burn the place down making it look as though she did to anybody who wasn’t in the room in the last 15 minutes.

———————–

Lauren was getting tired after midnight, walking into her bedroom and preparing to wind down for the evening. She pulled off her tanktop and then her panties, stripping to her birthday suit moments before climbing into bed as she usually did this time of year. Once in the buff, she plucked another Marlboro Light 100 from the pack on her nightstand, what she anticipated to be her final cigarette of the evening. Flicking it to life with her lighter, Lauren climbed under the covers of her bed, and took a deep dangling drag from the light-up. Her body was quickly starting to relax as she briefly reflected on her night home alone when a ding from her phone on the nightstand averted her attention.

A smile beamed on Lauren’s face as she took another drag from her cigarette, figuring Trevor was sending her a message. As she picked up the phone, she thought to herself that it was a bit odd to have not heard anything from Trevor about the party as she figured he’d have given her some sort of update. But as she turned on the phone to see the new Facebook message posted by Lacey Brewster, her smile immediately vanished.

Lauren studied the set of photos in horror along with the caption “FINALLY having my way with Trevor McPherson! Been waiting a long time for this!” with a series of hearts and eggplant emojis. Lauren looked at the half dozen edited still shots beneath the caption individually, each more suggestive than the last. Images of Lacey’s topless lap dance and Twister mat domination of Trevor pierced Lauren’s soul as she took them in, feeling her heart begin to race with the same level of panic as the rape fantasy porn video did to her a couple of hours earlier.

Lauren mentally checked herself for a moment, figuring this had to be a cruel joke that Lacey and Trevor were in on to royally mess with her. She took a drag from her cigarette and then began texting Trevor hoping he would quickly clear things up, and then waited restlessly for a response that wasn’t soon coming.

Each moment passed at the speed of an hour and each drag from her cigarette plunged into the deepest recesses of her blackened lungs as Lauren waited for that phone to ding. She messaged Trevor on Facebook as well, her mind gravitating to darker places as to what Trevor might be up to that was keeping him from his phone, never considering that Trevor’s phone was deviously confiscated from him along with the other guests when they walked in the door at the party.

“Write back, baby!” a forlorn Lauren cried to herself as she sat on the bed. “Please write back!”

An hour passed and Lauren restlessly paced the floor of her bedroom in the buff, her phone in one hand and the latest in a relentless chain of cigarettes in the other hand. She took another deep and joyless drag from her cigarette and then let out a husky cough in response, her eyes swollen from crying and her paranoia long ago escalating to full-blown terror about what was going on at that house party with Trevor and their long-time friend. She had considered driving to Lacey’s place to see for herself, but realized she had no idea where Lacey lived, didn’t know her parents’ name to do an online search, and couldn’t find any information about it on Facebook with everybody’s phones contained in a basket offering no clue as to location.

Lauren crushed out her exhausted cigarette and then quickly reached for another one, the second to last one in the pack on her nightstand. Before she lit it, she had to leave one final voicemail message for Trevor on his phone, the fifth she had sent in the past hour on top of a couple dozen texts and Facebook messages, and unanswered texts to Lacey as well.

Her face bathed in anguish, Lauren spoke softly into her phone. “Trevor, honey. I know you’re avoiding me. Maybe you don’t think I’ve been a good enough girlfriend. Maybe you just got caught up in the moment at the party and you’re already regretting it. Whatever happened, just call me back. All I want to do is talk this out!” she pleaded, her sobs getting the better of her. “Please don’t make me sit here all night without contacting me at all. I love you more than you’ll ever know, baby. I thought you loved me too,” she paused, recognizing how much of a difference an hour can make in a relationship she felt conditionally secure in before midnight. “I’ll be waiting for your call, Trevor,” she closed, ending the call and then lighting her cigarette.

Lauren resumed pacing the floor and power-smoking through her cigarette, believing that if her latest impassioned plea didn’t break through, nothing would. But with each lap back and forth alongside her bed and each drag from her cigarette, it became increasingly clear that the call back she had pleaded for was not coming. Tears continued to roll down her face, and as she took the final drag from her cigarette and crushed it out in the ash can towering with white and gold Marlboro Light 100 butts, it hit her like an eighteen-wheeler that she had invested everything in this relationship with Trevor for the last two years. It had taken over every aspect of her life, and staring at that mound of cigarette butts that had been exhausted of their tobacco entirely by her lungs, she was overcome with grief that her devotion appeared to have all been thrown away in a single impulsive night.

She collapsed into her bed, physically and mentally exhausted, but still too wound up to get any sleep without some assistance. She opened the drawer on her nightstand to pull out her bottle of prescription sleep medication. She didn’t take these pills often, but sometimes when she was having cramps or needed a full night’s sleep for a test the next day, she would take one to help her settle down. She popped the top off of the pill bottle and as she looked inside, a very dark idea entered her mind. Since Lauren’s words didn’t appear to be breaking through to Trevor tonight, perhaps a photographic image was capable of conveying the magnitude of her despair.

Lauren proceeded to pour the contents of her pill bottle into her hand and then use the camera in her phone to snap a picture of the handful of pills. She then held the pill bottle up to the camera and made sure the brand name “Ambien” was in the direct line of the lens, snapping the shutter. With the photos out of the way, Lauren put all but two of the pills back in the bottle before swallowing the two. Satisfied that the two pills would settle her down enough to sleep, Lauren texted the photos to Trevor. It was a desperate move, but the situation seemed to call for it. If he loved her at all, he would respond.

Lauren then reached over to put her plastic mouth guard into her mouth and rolled onto her pillow. She hadn’t cried herself to sleep since the darkest days following Dusty Beaudry’s assault, but she knew it was gonna happen tonight.

———————–

“You guys about ready to go yet?” Trevor asked open-endedly to his sober friends for the fifth time in the past hour, trying to nudge them to the exit with nobody really knowing what time it was given that they didn’t have their phones. “If we stick around, we’re gonna end up having to be designated drivers for half of these clowns,” he continued to persuade.

“You got a point,” his friend Neil concurred, much as he and the rest of the bunch had enjoyed being spectators to the evening’s dramatic twists and turns.

Trevor continued to nudge, having wanted to get out of there for a while, but also knowing that he’d have to approach Lacey to get his phone back before he left. He wanted his three wingmen to accompany him for that task, reducing the likelihood of her using the phone as bait for her carnal aspirations.

As the group looked at the partygoers being past happy hour and fading into the lethargic aftermath of the booze and drug-induced highs from earlier in the evening, they all finally seemed to concur with Trevor’s assessment. Looking at Lacey sitting on the couch on the cusp of passing out, still in her bra and panties with only a few swallows left of her whiskey bottle, Trevor climbed to his feet thinking this was the time to make his move, confident his friends would follow him.

But as Lacey saw Trevor approach with the other three following, the embers of a second wind began to fire up again in her eyes, and Trevor knew that look could be trouble.

“Time for us to split,” Trevor snorted as dispassionately as possible. “Where are our phones?”

Lacey rose to her feet, the ember of life in her eyes morphing into a mischievous fire as she wandered to the closet near the front door and opened it, crouching down to retrieve the basket of cell phones in a way that advertised her ass as best as possible. Trevor’s friends snickered as they admired her backside, but an unamused Trevor impatiently put his hand on his hip.

Lacey climbed out of the closet with the basket in hand, looking at the vague faces of the other three boys and pulling out their phones one by one based on the sticky note attached with their names written on them. Trevor could tell she was continuing to scam him as she pretended to not be able to find his. She shrugged with continued deviousness in her eyes and then announced through slurred speech, “Trevor, I must have left your phone in the OTHER basket. Follow me and I’ll get it for you.”

“Lacey, c’mon,” Trevor pleaded as she led him by the hand toward the stairs. He looked to his friends for support but they were headed for the door with phones in hand.

“It’ll only take a minute to find it. Then I’ll let ya go,” Lacey fired back, staggering up the stairs with thinly veiled intentions.

Trevor shook his head with frustration that she somehow still hadn’t gotten the hint, knowing he’d have to put up a more aggressive resistance than he hoped would be needed. Once up the stairs, Lacey continued to lead Trevor by the hand toward the room he figured was her bedroom. Trevor suspected there might other couples in her bedroom, but when she opened the door it was empty, the smell of recent drunken intercourse nonetheless pervasive. As Lacey tried to close the door behind her, Trevor used his foot to keep her from closing it.

Lacey then hustled on over to her dresser, opening it and then pulling out a joint and a lighter from her underwear drawer. She fluttered her eyebrows as if she thought she had the key to which Trevor would be powerless to resist her. He chuckled a bit as Lacey lit the joint, figuring she must have internalized Trevor’s visceral attraction to Lauren’s cigarette smoking and deemed that marijuana would have the same effect on him as she smoked it. Her bloodshot eyes oozed passion as she approached Trevor and put the joint to her lips, taking a toke and then exhaling it his direction.

“We’re alone now Trevor. You don’t to have resist anymore,” Lacey teased, flashing a lustful smile.

Trevor recoiled at the stench of her marijuana smoke, the foul, skunky odor having the opposite of Lacey’s intended effect of turning him on. “It’s not gonna happen, Lacey!” he insisted emphatically. “I’m not cheating on my girlfriend for you.”

Her eyes desperate for intimacy, Lacey pleaded “Lauren will never have to know, Trevor! Nobody will have to know. It can be our secret!”

“Lacey! Give me my God damn phone!” Trevor raised his voice as loudly and assertively as he had all night, finally at peace that this friendship could no longer be salvaged.

Full and unequivocal defeat finally filled Lacey’s eyes, her spirits crashing before she fired back. “Fine!” she shouted, walking back to the same dresser where she got her joint moments ago and then grabbing Trevor’s phone hidden beneath her underwear. She threw the phone at him with fury and shouted “You had your chance and you blew it! Enjoy Miss Priss for the rest of your miserable life! You two deserve each other!”

Trevor gave Lacey one final glare, as full of pity for her as outrage. He paused for a moment before articulating his response. “Maybe so….just you like you deserve whatever you have left after tonight.” He then proceeded to walk out of the bedroom with a spring in his step, determined to make his long overdue exit from this party as quickly as possible.

Once outside, Trevor felt at ease for the first time in hours, but it would be short-lived as soon as he turned on his phone. He expected to see some messages awaiting from Lauren, but was confused that his inbox was flooded with texts and voicemails. Confusion quickly morphed to panic when he saw the screenshots of Lacey’s seduction attempts and Lauren’s aggrieved pleas for answers.

On the long walk back to his car, Trevor began playing the voicemails, tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened to the despair of his soulmate pleading for his response. But he felt his heart hit the floor as he laid eyes on Lauren’s final photo texts, her handful of pills next to the empty Ambien bottle. The weight of the world was suddenly on his shoulders and the oxygen drained from his lungs, his finger hitting the redial button with the greatest degree of urgency.

As Trevor arrived at his car, he opened the door and climbed inside, distraught as he listened to that lonely dial tone without a response. It was Trevor’s turn to reach out to his lover and get nothing back but soul-crushing emptiness. He started his car with the single-minded objective of heading to Maple Grove, horrified at the prospect of what he might find when he got there, but never being able to forgive himself if he didn’t make every possible effort.

——————-

Trevor zoomed down Interstate 494 en route to Maple Grove, continually pressing the redial button on his phone but repeatedly getting no answer. He left unanswered voicemails of his own, insisting he’d be there any second and pleading with Lauren to respond if she could. His face covered with perspiration and panic, Trevor kept checking himself to maintain his cool and hope for the best, but a passing thought would creep into his brain that reignited the water works from his eyes.

As Trevor pulled off the freeway exit with only a handful of residential blocks to go to Lauren’s house, his heart was full of regret as he replayed the night in his mind. If only he hadn’t agreed to go to this party. If only he had left as soon as he picked up on the weird vibe from both Nick and Lacey. If only he hadn’t refused to surrender his phone at the door. If only he had shoved Lacey off of his lap the instant she sat down rather than try to deal with her more diplomatically. Everything that seemed perfectly obvious now seemed sort of obvious at every interval this evening, and right now Lauren’s life was potentially in the balance as a consequence.

Trevor’s tires squealed around every corner as he raced to Lauren’s address. As he finally pulled onto her street, the darkness gave him an eerie feeling, and he only then remembered she was home alone, raising his blood pressure a bit more. He came to an abrupt stop at the edge of her driveway, leaping out of his car and racing to the front door. He rang the doorbell several times and got no response, eventually pounding on the front door with his right hand while redialing her number on his phone with left hand. After several moments with no indication of life, Trevor took a few steps back wondering what his next move should be, looking up to the window of Lauren’s bedroom on the second floor. His instinct was to call 9-1-1 but at this point was too impatient to wait for the police or medics to arrive and was committed to getting inside that house by whatever means necessary.

Trevor looked to the layout of the fence, garage, and house and decided he could work a route. If he couldn’t, he was either calling 9-1-1 or kicking the door in….possibly both. He looked at the gate surrounding the pool and began to scale it, fighting to maintain his balance as he stood atop a post at the corner of the fence and then leaping to the roof of the garage. He knew he looked like a cat burglar right now and if any neighbors happened to be up at 2:15 in the morning to see this, they’d undoubtedly call the police to report a break-in at the Nelson home. So be it. He was determined to live with whatever consequences awaited, the haunting images sent from Lauren’s phone being the single motivating force of his life at this moment.

Once Trevor ascended the slope of the garage’s roof, it was an easy jump to get to the second floor roof of the Nelson home. He approached the window of Lauren’s bedroom, his heart filled with darkness looking at the soft rustle of the curtains whipping from the breeze of the running air conditioner. He looked inside the window, still unable to see anything but darkness as he attempted to focus his eyes on Lauren’s bed.

Trevor placed his hands on the window frame, disappointed but not surprised to see that it was locked. But as he pushed and pulled on it, he quickly determined the lock was plastic and with enough muscle he could probably snap it and get inside. If not, he was willing to kick through the glass if that’s what it took. He wasn’t quite sure if the window lock was just that fragile or if his adrenaline was that high, but with a couple firm thrusts he managed to break the obstruction that kept that window sealed. Once past that, he busted through the screen that was the final barrier keeping him from getting inside.

Immediately after penetrating the bedroom window, the familiar sound of Lauren’s loud and obnoxious snoring from within the room gave Trevor the sign of life that he needed to remove the scariest thoughts from his head. Tears of despair were replaced by tears of relief as he slithered inside the dark room, his girlfriend in bed and fast asleep. He hustled on over to the bed and turned on the light, seeing the pill bottle on her nightstand and immediately opening it, sighing with an audible relief to see there were still dozens of pills in the bottle and that Lauren hadn’t taken them all as she telegraphed in the photo text.

Lauren was nonetheless out like a light as he looked down upon her in bed, never imagining the shrill sound of her snoring could sound like church bells on Christmas morning the way it did at this moment. Part of him wanted to let her sleep and deal with all of the drama in the morning, but given all that was at stake, he decided he needed to wake her up.

He reached down to her shoulders and began gently shaking her. “Lauren! Lauren, it’s Trevor! Wake up, baby!!” he cried, fully realizing how out of it she was and that she had clearly taken at least some of that sleep medication to be this far gone. A murmur of life in her voice was the first evidence that she was awakening from her slumber. Trevor continued to shake her shoulder and pulled the covers off of her a few inches until she came to, instantly erupting into a violent coughing fit that sent a juicy discharge of black phlegm launching out of her mouth and all over her cheek. If Trevor hadn’t been so grateful to see her finally awakening, he’d have been terrified by the spectacle, wondering if Lauren went through this every morning when she awakened or if this was simply the result of a particularly huge cigarette-filled evening.

A groggy Lauren slowly rose her head from her pillow, blackened saliva all over her cheek, too out of it to make sense of what was going on. “Trevor?” she slurred, “What are you doing here baby?” she asked in a soft but husky voice as Trevor picked up a tissue from the box on her nightstand and wiped away the slobber from her face.

“I had to make sure you were okay baby! You scared me to death!” Trevor exclaimed, still riding high as a kite after his adrenaline-fueled journey leading him to this bedroom. “And I also have to let know that I didn’t cheat on you! I swear to you!”

Lauren was only starting to gather her bearings, Trevor’s words a jumble to her ears that made no immediate sense. As she struggled to process what he was saying, the sleep medication having transported her brain to the deepest slumber, one request was foremost on her brain. “Could you get me a cigarette?” she pleaded.

“Absolutely!” Trevor said with a relieved smile, removing the final cigarette from her pack on the nightstand and placing it in between her lips, flicking it to life and watching her lazily draw in smoke into her fatigued body. Trevor then reached to her chin and held it up gently with his finger, making direct eye contact with her. “And I need you to understand Lauren….I didn’t do anything with Lacey. I have a houseful of people at that party that can back me up on this. Lacey set me up!”

Lauren dragged from her cigarette again, only beginning to partially remember and process the incident that sent her to the precipice of a suicide attempt only a couple of hours earlier. Smoke spilling from her face, she whined in a confused despair “Why would Lacey do that?”

Trevor shook his head, briefly speechless at all the things that had gone so badly over the past few hours that he kicked himself for not seeing coming. “Because Lacey’s not our friend! At least not anymore!” pausing to add with a burst of righteous anger “But fuck Lacey! Fuck anybody who tries to get between us! All we need is each other, baby!”

Lauren gave Trevor a loving but groggy glance, reaching up to touch his face affectionately, but right on the cusp of passing out once again as she wearily dragged from the Marlboro Light at the tip of her lips. “Come into bed with me, baby,” she whispered through a messy talking exhale.

His chest still pounding a mile a minute, Trevor unbuckled his jeans and flipped his T-shirt off as quickly as he could, grabbing the half-smoked cigarette from Lauren’s fingers and crushing it out in her ash can before turning off the lamp next to it. He climbed under the covers with his girlfriend, a bit surprised to discover she was completely naked. He lied on the pillow as she burrowed her sleepy head into his chest. Only then did it hit Trevor that in the nearly two years he and Lauren had been a couple, this would be the first time they’d spend the night together in the same bed.

Lauren made gentle, loving sounds as Trevor kissed her on the forehead, her state of semi-consciousness morphing audibly into slumberland as her telltale snoring began to resume. Trevor also didn’t realize until this moment that Lauren slept with a plastic retainer that positively reeked of the morning breath of a girl who smoked very heavily. Her face buried in his chest, Trevor began to chuckle as a dribble of drool began to pour out of Lauren’s mouth onto his chest and was being parted like the red sea by her convulsive snoring. But just as Trevor thought Lauren was sound asleep again, she grabbed his hand and guided it to her vagina. Even in this state of semi-consciousness, she instinctively felt safe with the touch of Trevor’s fingers on her private parts. Trevor gently lapped the rim of her vagina with his fingers as he had done so many times before, eliciting a lightly stimulated series of gentle moans and grunts punctuated with intermittent snoring.

An eruption of unexpected flatulence from under the covers provoked audible laughter from Trevor. It was the first time in nearly two years together he’d ever heard Lauren fart. He was simultaneously experiencing his beloved girlfriend at her least glamorous but her most peaceful, and after the night they’d just had, peaceful was exactly what Trevor needed. Between her snoring and his thumping chest, there was no chance Trevor would be sleeping tonight, but that was fine. There was plenty of time to sleep tomorrow, especially knowing that he and Lauren would both have a tomorrow.

Come morning, Trevor knew he’d have a lot of explaining to do. When Lauren was fully conscious, she’d remember the events of the night before that led to the evening’s drama. He was prepared to take whatever steps needed to make her understand and forgive. Likewise, he knew Lauren’s parents would be less than thrilled to return home to find the busted window in their daughter’s bedroom and that her boyfriend spent the night in her bed against their direct orders, but he’d deal with that drama tomorrow as well. Right now, this moment of peace with Lauren in his arms was a very hard-earned victory, and Trevor was gonna cherish it for as long as it lasted.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

2021 Southern Iowa Fair


On one hand, it feels incredible to write another fair sightings report after 23 long months. On the other hand, I’m increasingly concerned about my likelihood of writing more with this Delta variant stirring up some serious hand-wringing. Given that there’s a crescendo effect of each of my fair venues being better than the previous as fair season proceeds, I’m particularly worried about the crescendo effect of troubling headlines moving forward. Nothing I can about it so all I can do is hope for the best…..

As for Saturday, July 24, 2021, my fair season officially kicked off with a trip to a southern Iowa backwater that has a long anecdotal history of robust smoker girl sightings for me. I’ll mention the name of the fair for reasons I’ll get to later….the Appanoose County Fair in Centerville, Iowa, hugging the Missouri border. Iowa license plates have county names printed on them and even in the Des Moines metro area, Appanoose County plates have long produced a higher percentage of cars with female smokers inside than any other Iowa county, and by no small amount.

In the last couple of years, I’ve taken to random summer drives to Centerville to spend the day and a portion of the evening. I definitely see a lot of smoking there, but have yet to totally hit the jackpot with timing for something really special from my preferred demographic, and the small-town setting offers relatively few options for enhancing sightings odds on a given weekend day. I was hoping this fairgrounds trip would increase my odds and had even considered leaving early on Friday and spending a second day and night there on Saturday if I was impressed with what I saw on Friday. Ultimately though, temps in the upper 90s with dew points over 100 kept me from following through on the two-day visit, and I instead decided to take off late Saturday morning and spend a single day and night there.

It’s a two-hour drive almost entirely on two-lane roads to get there, so I arrived shortly after 1 p.m. My first pass by the empty fairgrounds parking lot dimmed my spirits, but I always expected this would be a venue that would only come alive in the evening, so I decided to cruise the usual hotspots in town (Walmart parking lot, the town square, the city pool) leading up to that. It was 4:30 that I decided to head inside the fairgrounds, even though the demolition derby main event didn’t start till 7:30.

I pulled into the parking lot and was greeted by a ticket taker. I nearly pissed myself when she told me it would be $20 to get in. I was expecting it to be free, with a charge only to get into the grandstand for the demo derby. I reluctantly forked over my $20 and pulled into a lot with fewer than a dozen cars in it, and then proceeded to walk through the shockingly sparse fairgrounds. County fairs in the Midwest are hit or miss in terms of size, but I’d heard decent things in the past about the Appanoose County Fair, knowing they even drew in a nationally known musical performer most years. So I was caught off-guard when I walked around to see a handful of livestock barns, a handful of food vendors, a grandstand and open-pit in front of it…..and nothing else. There was no carnival. And there were effectively zero people aside from a handful of workers and a handful of 4-H kids. I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I’d pass the time on his horrifically hot and humid afternoon until 7:30 when the derby started, when presumably some semblance of a crowd would show up.

In the meantime, I just walked back to the town square to pass the time, soaked in sweat and chatting it up with some of the locals, picking up a handful of modest drive-by sightings along the way. My lukewarm optimism was waning but shortly after 6 p.m. I walked back to the fairgrounds, pleased to see the lot was starting to fill up and that the crowd included a decent number of attractive young females. But it was still gonna be a decidedly small affair, with several hundred to possibly a thousand in attendance. Even 20 years ago, I’d have probably only gotten a couple dozen sightings here given the modest size. Last night, I got eight sightings. It was disappointing for a number of reasons, but one of these sightings was excellent and is almost certainly poised to make my top-10 of 2021 fairgrounds sightings. Another of the sightings had the potential to be just as excellent but fell short because of how limited the encounter was. And unfortunately, another would-be sighting stands out as the early frontrunner to be heartbreaker of the year.

As I made those early passes through the limited real estate available to me and surveyed the landscape, I quickly realized that there was no restriction on smoking at all, even in the grandstand seating area. In theory, this could have been a bona fide jackpot had I found a seat behind a heavy-smoking beauty as I undoubtedly would have at points in the past, but most of the smokers skewed older and unattractive just as I feared even in a place like this. There weren’t too many options to explore but in the hour or so before the derby began, I did get a couple modest early sightings….

The first was a long-haired late 20s blond in a utilitarian red blouse and jean shorts in the company of a presumed husband and a daughter who looked about three years old. She reminded me of my sometimes Missouri girlfriend Jerrica, but not as pretty. She was alternating between holding her pack of Marlboro Reds Special Blends in her hand and stuffing it in the back pocket of her jean shorts as the husband and daughter bought food off the trucks. After eating, she lit one up and smoked it on the edge of the 4-H booth seating area. Later I’d see her smoking again in the grandstand, neither time in the company of the husband who apparently didn’t smoke.

Also before the derby began, I made a point of keeping close tabs on the grassy area behind the grandstand knowing it could be a prime spot for younger smokers to try to sneak one. At least once, this tactic played out successfully as I came across a blond and brunette in shorts, with the brunette smoking. Both appeared to be about 21 and unfortunately the nonsmoking blond was a bit more attractive. The modestly attractive brunette was putting forth a solid effort though, decked out in sunglasses with a navy blue T-shirt and tan shorts advertising a slender body. I took a seat on an empty bench and managed a few pics, with a holding pic being the clearest. She turned her head away for the dragging pic I got and retired the cigarette earlier than I’d have preferred. I hoped this wouldn’t be the high point of the night but was resigned to the possibility that it might be.

In the moments before the demolition derby began, I perused the grandstand crowd in search of a white whale, and it was on the west side that I found a substantial cluster of high school girls (or girls recently graduated) including an absolutely gorgeous long-haired blond sitting in the front row with her legs crossed in her tight blue jeans. She looked wholesome, but also had that bit of mischievous fire in her eyes that made me suspect there was more to the story. The seating to her right was open and I sat for a while as I tried to get a read on her and some of the other younger girls in this general area. Nothing happened for about 15 minutes so I wandered a few yards away to the edge of grandstand. Even though smoking appeared to be allowed in the grandstand seating area and some people were doing it, with today’s culture being what it is several smokers were migrating to the edge to light up, including a couple good enough to count as sightings.

One of them was a slightly chubby but still cute 21ish dark brunette in a black T-shirt and jeans who appeared to be smoking Camel Crushes. She lit up twice in the company of her presumed boyfriend (also smoking) along with a more attractive brunette friend who was…..vaping. And sadly, my sighting count would have more than doubled last night if the attractive female faces were still putting cigarettes to their lips rather than alternative nicotine products with zero sex appeal. Worse yet, there was probably a lot of stealth vaping going on in the grandstand seats that I didn’t see.

I ventured away from the grandstand area from time to time, knowing some younger smokers would be more inclined to do it away from a crowd. This would lead me to my marquee moment of the evening. A cluster of young people was seated in a cluster of benches under a canopy, and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw an unlit cigarette between the fingers of this attractive redhead with a wholesome and youthful face. I’m guessing she was about 19 but it’s so hard to tell with as young as most college-age females look these days. I started migrating to that seating area based on what I thought I saw and sure enough, she was just placing a cigarette to her lips and lighting it at the moment I arrived.

I was fortunate to get a good place to sit where I could observe and get photos. I was doubly fortunate that this girl played to the camera nicely, even if she didn’t know she was on camera. She looked more girl-next-door than supermodel but had very animated expressions as she engaged with the group of friends in her presence, her fiery mane of ponytailed red hair standing out along with her exotic dress that featured a pattern of black, white, and tan horizontal stripes. The same animation colored her smoking performance, with deep and engaging drags, a couple of which I got on camera, and lengthy hold times. I often thought I missed her exhales but several seconds would pass and I’d catch her contorting her mouth to release a thin stream of smoke from her lungs. I’d have been disappointed if Appanoose County didn’t come through for me with at least one great sighting last night….and it did!

But it was the dynamics playing out around her that would ultimately deliver a big surprise ending to this story. Sitting across from her was a late teen guy who was also smoking, while seated to her right was a nonsmoking high school girl holding a newborn baby along with two other elementary-age kids. My redheaded smoker took a final drag from her cigarette and dropped it under the table, crushing it out with her shoe and releasing her final exhale of smoke seconds later after another impressively long hold time. It was only then that the newborn baby was handed to her…..

My redhead had an odd-looking duo of gray sweaters wrapped around the top of her striped dress that made little sense on such a steamy night, and its utility would soon become clear as she placed the child, who looked no more than two weeks old, in a makeshift swaddle, tying the sweaters into a knot and containing the baby next to her bosom. Before leaving, she even bragged about how it was nice to not even have to push around a stroller that night and seemed to be patting herself on the back for her resourceful contraption. She then began to walk toward the grandstand seating for the derby, and I attempted a motion photo from the side to appreciate the baby she was carrying around swaddled in the sweaters, but it was late enough in the evening that the image was blurry and not particularly effective. But just after I took the photo, another teen girl who undoubtedly knew my redheaded smoker from high school approached her and affectionately said “congratulations” as she began fawning on the newborn baby.

The girl herself was probably a strong enough find to make my hypothetical year-end top-25 without any memorable context, but to have such a fascinating story attached to the sighting ensures this of being a highly rated contender in the 2021 fair season. It also leaves a lot of fascinating questions about whether she smoked during her pregnancy, which seems quite likely given that all signs pointed to her being a dedicated smoker. I wouldn’t see her again last night but she easily made the long drive and lengthy time investment worth while.

Interestingly, my second-best sighting of the night came about 15 minutes later sitting on the exact same bench that allowed me great access to my best sighting of the night. Unfortunately, this one wouldn’t have nearly as compelling of optics. From the bench, I looked to the right and found cars parked on the distant horizon, with two teenage girls sitting on the trunk of a car at least 50 yards away. It was right about dusk and visibility wasn’t great, but it sure looked like one of the girls was putting a cigarette to her lips. When I saw the same hand-to-mouth motion again several seconds later, I sprung to my feet to get a better look.

Unfortunately, the duo of girls was off in an isolated spot and I’d only get two passes by them, the first being a “confused” walk by as if I was lost, followed by a pivot where I doubled back as if I discovered I wasn’t going where I thought I was. The girl was on the final throes of her cigarette on my first approach, and the lighting was such that I couldn’t get as close of a look as I needed, but she definitely looked like a high school girl. When I doubled back, it was just in time for her to drop the cigarette to the ground and crush it out with her foot. I desperately wanted more and returned to the cluster of benches where the sighting began in hopes of seeing her light up another. I kept looking over my shoulder and didn’t see anything, but about five minutes later she started walking my way…..as in walking straight at me!

I had no idea what her agenda was as she approached but figured the most likely scenario was that she planned to call me out for staring at her. Instead she walked right past me and sat on the next bench over. This at least gave me the opportunity to see her face and I figured she was about 16-17. She was pretty…..not standout beauty of a crowd but pretty, with long platinum blond hair flowing over her shoulders onto a T-shirt and dark jeans combo that seemed very utilitarian farm girl. She was studying her phone and in a minute or so, a trio of high school girl friends approached and the four of them walked back toward the grandstand. Unfortunately, my evening would be all disappointments from this point forward.

I followed the foursome of teen girls and it was pretty clear my blond who just smoked didn’t have any more cigarettes on her given that there were no rectangular bulges in her jeans pocket. The four of them pressed on to the west side of the grandstand where I reported earlier that quite a few younger girls seemed to be hanging out. And just as the four of them began to settle in with friends they intersected with a group of girls I’d already kept tabs on that evening, my eyes landing on that blond goddess I reported as being my white whale of the evening….as she placed a vaping device between her lips. It was a gut punch, and I hovered in this area for quite some time and watched her hit that vaping pod several times during the time.

The derby was approaching its close and the hot blond and her group of friends got up to leave a bit early, probably wisely attempting to get ahead of traffic. I followed from a distance as they drifted toward their car, admiring her tall body and her incredible ass in those tight medium-blue jeans, hoping that just maybe when they got out of sight and toward their car that she’d trade in her vaping device for a cigarette, but it never happened and they drove out of the grounds with their car windows remaining closed.

I then headed back toward the grandstand just in time to hear an announcer say “That does it for the 2021 Appanoose County Fair. We’ll see you back here next year.” I knew the evening was about to have a fast ending, but was hoping for a flurry of post-game sightings, of which I got zero. I also kept tabs on that teen blond who was smoking on the trunk of the car, clinging to the prospect of an encore from her. Unlike most on the grounds, she stuck around a while, at one point even sitting on a remote bench next to a teen boy who was vaping. If she had cigarettes with her, it would have been a great opportunity to smoke, but it was pretty clear her cigarettes were still in the car. She remained on that bench for a good 15 minutes before migrating to the car in the lot. I hoped for an encore here, even though I’d have to settle for seeing it at a considerable distance. But I wouldn’t even get that as she climbed into the passenger seat of the car with another teen driver pulling out without incident.

It was almost 10 p.m. by now and the grounds were about 90% vacant. I still had a long drive ahead of me and decided there was nothing more to see here, grateful for one great sighting but disappointed that even in Appanoose County, I couldn’t do better than what I did. But I made one more pass through town square on my way out of town, knowing it was a teen hangout on the weekends. Cars were looping around in a way that made it hard to even find an opportunity to pull in, but I saw a cluster of hot girls from afar that I needed a closer look at. When I finally got my chance and passed the cluster, who did I see but my white whale, the tall blond goddess in the tight jeans….and she was once again vaping. It broke my heart. Ten years ago, or even five years ago, this girl would have almost certainly been a smoker, and possibly a heavy one at that. Now she’s undoubtedly addicted to nicotine but never has or never will touch a cigarette to her lips.

It was a massive downer for my final image of Centerville before leaving town, a frightening two-hour, after-dark drive on back roads chock full of deer ahead of me. But I made it. Even though I got one sighting that made my night, I definitely walk away from the Appanoose County Fair disappointed. And given the long drive, limited amenities, and obscenely high cost for a few short hours of activity, it’s unlikely I’ll go back. If they ever land a musical act that jumps out at me or that I think would bring a big crowd, I might decide it’s worth the effort, but I’m at this point pretty demoralized about the future of smoking being worth this kind of effort moving forward.

Despite my skepticism four years ago, all indicators point to vaping completely displacing conventional cigarettes. And as I witnessed the comparative ease of transport, access, and usage by my white whale and other younger gals I saw vaping last night, it’s no surprise at all. Even in a place like Appanoose County, with a deeply entrenched smoking culture and quick access to the cheapest cigarettes in the country a few miles south in Missouri, the competitive advantage of vaping is rendering cigarettes obsolete. I’m not optimistic at all about the remainder of the 2021 fair season, presuming there is one. But I’m even less optimistic about the 2022 fair season and beyond.

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Trevor’s Spring Break Soulmates (Chapter 18)


Steering her mom’s Buick slowly through the nearly empty parking lot of her high school on a gloomy late March Monday morning, Haylee McPherson was as anxious as she’d been in quite some time.  A half-smoked Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her trembling lips, she gingerly pressed her foot on the accelerator and inched her way across the long stretch of empty pavement well below walking speed.  Even at this slow speed, it still felt like this giant automobile was in control of her rather than the other way around, and she wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of claiming full dominion of it on the streets of suburban Minnesota.  Knowing that in only 24 hours, she’d graduate from the empty high school parking lot to the crowded streets for her first formal day of driver’s training only raised her anxiety further.  She puckered her lips intensely around the filter of the dangling cigarette, belching out a giant blast of exhaled smoke that erupted through the front seat of the car.

“Don’t be afraid to pick up a little speed, Haylee,” her father Steve offered from the passenger seat, looking at his youngest daughter with more apprehension on her face as he could remember seeing in quite some time.  “There’s nothing to worry about in this lot.  We have the whole place to ourselves.”

Haylee exhaled in a sigh, forcing out another blast of cigarette smoke left over in her lungs, realizing her father was probably right but still not comfortable taking that advice.  She proceeded to depress the accelerator one spurt at a time, speeding up the car just a little but then becoming intimidated by the speed and backing off, leading to a very disjointed 50-yard drive.

Steve had to bite his tongue to avoid chuckling at this vision of his daughter, her frazzled light brown morning hair matching the frightened look on her face, casually decked out in a matching pink sweatshirt and frumpy sweat pants and repeatedly letting her anxiety be known by the endless dangling drags and messy exhales from the string of cigarettes she’d already smoked in the hour and a half she’d been out here practicing.  But Steve also felt guilty for not taking the initiative to teach Haylee how to drive before now given that her first day of behind-the-wheel training was tomorrow.  He and Becky had given her a very brief driving tutorial in the fall but had put off any encore sessions amidst the slippery streets of a Minnesota winter coupled with the general passage of time and Haylee’s apprehension-fueled lack of interest in learning how to drive.

It didn’t help that Steve and Haylee had long had a distant relationship that had only gotten more distant after the Jacob Roth incident from the previous summer, and spending alone time together was the sort of thing that weirded both of them out.  Still, Steve had promised his priest at his last confession that he would work harder at playing a bigger role in Haylee’s life and this was an excellent opportunity to reinforce his paternal bona fides.

“Just hold the pedal down at a consistent speed, Haylee.  It’ll be a much smoother ride for both of us,” Steve offered as gently as possible, realizing that Haylee’s blood pressure would still likely go up.

“I’m trying, dad!” Haylee snorted through a talking dangle, the granny ash falling from the end of her cigarette to the upholstery of her mom’s car.  “Please let me get the hang of this at my own pace!”

Steve tried to remain calm and resist engaging but eventually responded, “Well, you’ve been at it more than an hour now.  You should be able to drive in a straight line at a consistent speed by now.”

“Jesus, dad!  Back off!” Haylee snapped back, taking her foot off the accelerator entirely and letting the car slow to a crawl, partly out of defiance, but mostly to reach for her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s resting in the console and pluck a new one out.  Hanging onto the wheel with only her left hand, she placed the fresh cigarette between her lips and used the smoldering cherry of her current cigarette to bring the new one to life.

Steve watched nervously through an ever-increasing haze of air pollution between them and again couldn’t contain himself from expressing his disapproval.  “Keep your eyes on the road, Haylee.  You’re never gonna be able to do that in traffic and avoid smashing into another car.”

“Well I’m not in traffic, am I!?!” Haylee barked, the freshly lit cigarette becoming animated as it bounced up and down in a way that matched her testy tone.  She proceeded to crush out the expired cigarette into the ash can in the console next to her pack.

Steve looked down to the ash can to notice that a layer of Haylee’s white-filtered, pink-logo cigarettes was already covering up the cork filters of Becky’s Marlboro Reds even though Haylee had only been inside Becky’s car for an hour and a half.  He shrugged and chuckled before trying once again to lower the tension in the car.  “Alright….why don’t you just hit the brake, relax for a second, and then get a fresh start.”

Haylee applied the brake as instructed, taking another deep drag from the dangling cigarette, clearly more frustrated by her own lack of progress and projecting that frustration through her salty demeanor toward her father.  “Shittiest spring break ever!” she muttered angrily with smoke pouring out of her mouth and nose.

“Pretty good opportunity to get your driver’s training behind you, actually,” Steve reminded.  “Maybe next month at this time you’ll have your license.”

Haylee winced, largely avoiding eye contact.  “I don’t even care if get my license!  Obviously I’m not ready for it!”

Steve offered a disarming laugh.  “You’ll be 16 in 11 days.  Trust me…you’re gonna want to drive when that day comes.”

“What difference will that make?!” Haylee snarled back through another talking dangle.  “I can just keep getting rides from my friends and from Courtney and Trevor.”

Steve snickered again.  “Yeah I wouldn’t count on them agreeing to chauffeur you around forever…..or your mother and I for that matter.”

“Does that mean I’m gonna get a car?” Haylee asked, pretending to be joking but legitimately curious what her parents’ intentions were.

Steve nodded.  “Your mother and I will help you a little, but you’re gonna have to pony up some of that babysitting money you’ve saved if you want your own wheels.  You’re not gonna get the kind of deal Lauren did last year where her folks pulled into the driveway with her brand new car on her 16th birthday.”

Haylee sneered.  “So basically I have to spend all of my own money for something I don’t even really want??!?”

Steve shrugged.  “That’s the deal.  Take it or leave it.”

A sullen Haylee took another dangling drag from her cigarette in silence, belching out another huge blob of smoke that once again drifted right into her father’s face.  Steve kept his poker face but couldn’t avoid pulling back a bit to seek relief for his watering eyes.  Steve was no stranger to secondhand smoke but Haylee’s smoking style with her cigarette constantly dangling from the right side of her mouth was particularly oppressive to deal with at such close range and he had no idea how she could tolerate smoking like that with such regularity.

After taking a couple of moments to recover, Steve pressed forward with as much encouragement as he could muster as Haylee prepared to resume driving.   “C’mon Haylee, all your friends who are already driving don’t have any special powers.  If they learned how to drive, there’s no reason you can’t.  You aced your written driving test at the end of your classroom hours last week.  The hard part’s already behind you!”

Haylee nodded in silence in partial but hesitant agreement as she took yet another dangling drag from her cigarette, putting both hands on the wheel as if sufficiently motivated to give it another try.

“Atta girl,” Steve added with a smile.  “Why don’t we try parking now.  Just try to fit the car in between the lines at that spot on the edge of this row,” he instructed, pointing several empty spaces away in the lot that was empty with all the students and teachers at home for spring break.

Haylee took her foot off the brake and slow-footed the accelerator in the direction her father pointed, puckering her lips nervously around her dangling cigarette once again until she arrived at the vacant space she was directed to and cranking the wheel leftward upon arrival.

“You’re gonna have to start turning earlier than this next time or you’re not gonna be able to pull in straight,” Steve advised upon seeing that Haylee had waited too long to turn and was poised to miss the painted lines by a couple of yards.

Haylee’s jaw tensed up along with her hands on the steering wheel as if her father’s words were like nails on a chalkboard to her, judging her as she struggled at something they both expected would come more easily.  She tried to overcorrect and cranked the wheel hard left to make the car fit between the painted lines.

“No….not gonna work,” Steve responded.  “If there was another car here, you’d already have dented their fender by now.”

Haylee growled in frustration as she pumped the brake, parked at a 45-degree angle and filling up portions of two designated spaces.   “Get off my back would you!” she exclaimed through a talking dangle with exhaled smoke continuing to drift in a straight line toward her father’s face.  “It’s obviously gonna be a matter of practicing before I get this shit down.”

Steve nodded in agreement, struggling in his ongoing attempt to not let Haylee’s attitude get to him.  “Exactly.  And I took today off work for just that reason.  We’re gonna keep practicing till we get this right….or at least till you’re comfortable enough for tomorrow.”

Haylee rolled her eyes, apoplectic at the idea of being in the car with her dad for much longer even though she knew she needed the help.  She pulled her half-smoked cigarette from her mouth to ash and let loose a frustrated smoker’s cough, hocking up a lugie, and then leaning forward to let her saliva drip from her mouth into the ash can full of her Camel Pink butts.

It was Steve’s turn to roll his eyes at his dyspeptic daughter’s typically vulgar display, placing the cigarette back in her mouth for another long-distance dangle.  Making eye contact and picking up on his combination of disgust and impatience, she grunted out an exasperated, “What?!”

Steve sighed.  “Just back up and try it again, okay?”

“Whatever,” Haylee snapped back with a combination of attitude and exhaustion, methodically shifting from drive to reverse and holding on tightly to the wheel, dangle-dragging once again as she slowly backed the car up.   She began turning the wheel to the right as if not sure of which way to turn it when going in reverse.

“No, no…you want to turn the car left when backing up here,” Steve advised with an air of rising impatience.  “It’ll position you best to pull back into this parking space.”

Haylee nervously tapped the brake and straightened out her wheel, trying to get in the right mental place to continue before releasing the brake.  But with her senses thrown off moving in reverse, she once again began steering right.

“Left, Haylee!  You gotta steer left here!” Steve barked in his testiest tone of the morning.

Haylee slammed the brake as hard and as theatrically as she could, putting the car in park as she pumped her lungs full of the final drag from the cigarette stub left between her lips.  “Fuck this!  I want to go home!” she shouted, removing the animated cigarette from her lips with intense streams of smoke still rising from both ends, commingling with the smoke pouring out of her mouth and nose.

“You’re a smart girl, Haylee!” Steve snapped back.  “Too smart to be having a panic attack about learning how to drive!  This isn’t rocket science!  Jarrod or Joshua would probably be picking this up faster than you are!”

Steve instantly regretted his nasty words after they came out of his mouth.  He prided himself about being someone who kept his cool in just about any circumstance, a trait that served him well as an IT manager for the medical device company he worked for.  There was only one person in the world who consistently got under his skin and drove him to typically undiscovered depths of agitation, and it happened to be the 15-year-old girl sitting on the other side of the console from him.  And as much as the feeling was mutual on Haylee’s end, he saw a sympathetic hurt in her eyes in the moment of silence after his last comment.

“I’m done with learning how to drive from you!” Haylee finally fired back.  “From now on, it’s mom or nobody!”

Steve knew he had overstepped but shook his head in the negative to confirm that wasn’t gonna happen.  “How many times do I have to tell you?  Your mom is packing up to leave for Missouri for the rest of the week.  Like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”  He paused to let his words sink in before adding “So why don’t we give this another fresh start and figure it out, okay?”

Steve’s apologetic eyes served as an unspoken peace offering, still annoyed with Haylee’s behavior as he usually was but trying to project that he was still an ally committed to helping her with this unexpected challenge.  As Haylee looked back at him, she seemed to sense this and let her instinctive defenses recess just a bit.  She reached for the pack of Camel Pink No. 9’s and plucked out another one, averting her eye contact from her father and lighting up the cigarette, her exploding burst of exhaled smoke inadvertently gravitating to Steve’s face once again.

Without saying a word, Haylee put the car back into reverse, committed to figuring this driving thing out and not making a fool of herself the next day when she’d have a bigger and even less sympathetic audience for her behind-the-wheel training.  As on edge as her father’s counsel–and indeed his very presence–made her, she knew he was right that learning how to drive shouldn’t be this difficult for her.  As she puckered her lips around the filter of her fresh cigarette for a second time, she applied all of her mental energy toward backing this car up and slipping in between the lines of that parking space with geometric precision.

——————-

Back at the McPherson home, Trevor sat on the living room couch with girlfriend Lauren at his side, both dressed nicely with a hint of nervous energy on their faces as they peered out the living room window toward the driveway, knowing that the reporter who was coming over to interview them would be arriving at any moment.  Lauren took a drag from her two-thirds-smoked cigarette with her nervous energy on full display and Trevor smiled and put his arm around her, watching the ball of inhaled smoke disappear into her mouth and nose moments before trickling back out those same facial orifices, the visual of which put Trevor momentarily at ease.

The frantic sound of footsteps upstairs redirected Trevor’s attention, followed by the sound of his mother’s husky voice raising to announce, “You’re gonna have get out of that bathroom at some point, Courtney.  I need my stuff out of there!”

“In a minute, mom!” Courtney responded impatiently.  “In case you haven’t heard, I have a bit of a situation these days!” referencing her pregnancy that was by now in its sixth month.

Trevor made eye contact at Lauren and rolled his eyes, with Lauren giggling in response.

“Why can’t they just go away?” Trevor whispered in frustration, wishing his mother and sister could hustle on out the door and leave him and Lauren to themselves for this interview with the reporter, raising his eyes upstairs once again at another round of frantic footsteps that he knew could break his concentration during the interview.  He once again allowed himself to relax a moment as he diverted his attention back to Lauren as she took another drag from her cigarette.

Trevor’s moment of clarity was short-lived though as he looked to the stairway to watch his mother stampede down the steps with a suitcase in her hand and a half-smoked Marlboro Red dangling from her lips, clearly frazzled trying to make sure everything was ready for her pending trip.

“Mom, do you mind?  He’ll be here any second!” Trevor pleaded, reinforcing his need for limited distractions.

Becky removed the cigarette from her mouth after an extended dangle and responded through a talking exhale.  “I’m sorry, Trevor, but your sister has the bathroom tied up and I’m gonna have to get my back-up toothbrush and some towels from the bathroom down here.  I’ve gotta meet the girls in an hour before we leave town,” she added in reference to her pending road trip to Branson, Missouri, with several of her nurse friends from the hospital.

“Well can you try and be a little less loud about it?” Trevor continued to plead.  “Stewart’s gonna think we’re nuts!”

Becky put her cigarette back in her mouth and motioned her hands downward as if reminding herself and her son that she needed to calm down, puckering her lips around the filter of her Marlboro Red and slowing her pace walking into the bathroom with suitcase in hand.

No sooner did Becky drift into the bathroom than Lauren tugged on Trevor’s arm with urgency, announcing “He’s here!” pointing to the car that had just pulled into the driveway while they were distracted.  She took a final nervous drag from her cigarette and quickly stubbed it out in the ash can on the coffee table and then futilely attempted to wave away the haze of smoke in front of her face before the reporter rung the door bell.

A split second later the door bell rang and Trevor gave Lauren a “this is it” look before climbing off the couch to open the front door.

“Hello….Trevor McPherson?” the balding middle-aged male reporter greeted in the form of a question.

“That’s me.  You got the right place,” Trevor responded, waving the reporter inside even though he knew the guy would be in for a rude awakening by the heavy tobacco odor upon breaching the McPherson home’s entryway.

“Excellent,” the reporter responded as he stepped inside, keeping the best poker face he could upon getting punched in the noggin and being transported on a cultural time warp back to 1978 in a way he clearly didn’t anticipate.  After a moment of gathering his bearings, the reporter waved to Lauren and introduced himself to the both of them.  “I’m Stewart Hawkins of Minnesota Great Outdoors magazine…..here to talk to you guys about your great moose-watching adventure a couple of months ago.”

“We’ve been expecting you,” Trevor replied with a humble smile as he shook Stewart’s hand, waving him inside and pointing him in the direction of the futon chair next to the couch Lauren was sitting on.  “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“You know I think I’m good for now but thanks,” Stewart responded, still attempting to conceal his wonderment–and his breakfast–as he fully processed the permissive tobacco culture inside this unlikely suburban home.  He quickly began connecting the dots regarding the smoldering cigarette lurking on the periphery of the moose video that Trevor and Lauren submitted, shaking hands to greet Lauren and failing to miss the ash can and pack of Marlboro Lights 100s on the coffee table in front of her, the not-fully-extinguished cigarette that Lauren had just finished still smoldering out and creating a final flourish of fresh smoke to accompany the stench of the stale smoke that more intensely permeated the premises.

Trevor sat down next to Lauren with a smile directed at Stewart, fully cognizant of the odd first impression the household was making on him.  Trevor and Lauren had done a handful of media interviews already in the aftermath of submitting the video recording of the moose they took in Bemidji in January, but they’d all taken place in TV studios or newsrooms.  This was the first interview where the reporter requested to visit him at home, and the timing just happened to work out with this being spring break week when both he and Lauren were home from school.  Trevor watched as Stewart got out his notebook and prepared his tape recorder for the interview.

Fully prepared to talk to the young couple, Stewart flashed a smile and then opened “So, uh, quite a remarkable find for you two hiking the remote trails of northern Minnesota, huh?”

With Lauren giggling nervously in the background, Trevor responded “To put it mildly.”

“Were you aware at that moment just how amazing of a find you were experiencing seeing the family of moose in Bemidji?” Stewart asked.

Trevor nodded, “We were.  I’ve been studying the plight of the moose in this state since I was a young boy.  I knew the moose population was thought to have migrated out of the Bemidji area before I was born.  When we first heard the moose’s moo I kept trying to convince myself it couldn’t be real, but I’ve seen enough moose videos to know what they sound like and decided we needed to take a closer look.”

Stewart grinned, impressed by Trevor’s vocabulary and natural storytelling ability, assuaging whatever initial doubts he had after walking into the disgusting-smelling house, engaging with Trevor for several moments and trading moose migration backstory information like the two long-time students of the species that they were, albeit with little engagement with Lauren.

About 10 minutes into the conversation, Stewart asked “And what about that magnificent poem you wrote and sent with the video to the TV stations?  You really captured the moment describing the mother moose’s majesty and how you were spectators to their stage show.”

Trevor smiled in appreciation, but decided it was long past time to give Lauren her due.  “I’d love to take credit for those observations, but they were both made by this girl right here,” Trevor insisted emphatically, putting his arm around Lauren and pulling her tight.  “I couldn’t have written the poem without her.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Trevor could see Lauren responding to the gesture with a sweet and animated smile that was equal parts bashful and prideful, unable to restrain her feelings of fulfillment and privilege for being the center of attention at her loving boyfriend’s behest.  It was a look Trevor hadn’t seen from Lauren since the night at the county fair when he was shirtless and put his arm around her on the ferris wheel, and just as it did then it captivated him to the point of briefly taking his mind out of the interview.

“Well hats off to you, young lady, for giving Trevor the inspirational words he needed,” Stewart addressed Lauren a bit dismissively.  “And you were the one who recorded the video footage too, weren’t you?”

“Most of it!” Lauren replied with a sweet smile, hoping the interviewer would follow up with her about it, but the sound of footsteps coming out of the bathroom diverted Stewart’s attention.

Stewart locked eyes on Becky, cigarette in one hand and suitcase in the other, as she tried to proceed from the bathroom to the kitchen undetected.  “Hi there,” Stewart greeted awkwardly as he made eye contact with Becky.

“Don’t mind me,” Becky excused herself.  “I’m just packing for a trip and doing my best not to step on my son’s interview,” she added with a husky laugh that continued to help Stewart connect the dots of this unusual contemporary household.

As Becky drifted into the kitchen, Stewart once again began engaging with Trevor about their respective moose knowledge.  The conversation continued with a very natural back and forth, but as much as Trevor was enjoying it, he was wondering why the reporter was treating Lauren like an invisible third wheel.  He attempted to create openings for either Lauren or Stewart to address one another, but Lauren was beginning to shut down after another 10 minutes or so of being mostly ignored.

Every few moments while immersed in continued conversation with Stewart, Trevor looked to Lauren out of the corner of her eyes and saw her becoming increasingly despondent.  She may have had a good poker face when playing poker but never hid it well any time she felt she was being negatively judged, always reverting to the mindset of the mousy early teen girl tormented by bullies at her middle school.  While this was ostensibly a different dynamic, Lauren clearly didn’t feel as though she was being taken seriously as Trevor’s equal in this interview despite every effort by Trevor to ensure she would be.  Trevor couldn’t help but be affected by his girlfriend’s sadness even though it was taking his head out of the game out of what was easily his best media interview yet related to the moose video.

The sound of footsteps coming down the stairs diverted everybody’s attention, especially Lauren’s whose pout quickly morphed into a beaming smile upon seeing the very pregnant Courtney coming downstairs with a freshly lit Marlboro Light Menthol 100 protruding from her fingers.  Lauren wasted no time excusing herself from the living room sofa, confident she wouldn’t miss anything from the misogynistic reporter as she swooped her hand down to pick up her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s and approach Courtney at the foot of the steps on the edge of the living room.

“Hey Courtney.  Long time, no see!” Lauren called out gleefully from a distance as she approached, temporarily bringing all conversation to a close as Stewart Hawkins’ eyes bulged to the size of saucers upon seeing the late teen Courtney with a six-month baby bump and a cigarette in her hand as she greeted Lauren.

“Hey Lauren,” Courtney greeted back, looking at the interviewer talking to Trevor as his judgmental eyes looked her up and down with her cigarette in hand and decked out in her white blouse and elastic-waisted faux leather pants, an odd combination of maternity clothes that seemed offbeat to the interviewer without knowing the context of the mall job she was heading to.  Courtney pointed to Stewart and Trevor as subtly as possible and softly muttered to Lauren, “Shouldn’t you be over there talking to him?”

“Pfft!” Lauren responded dismissively as she placed her Marlboro Light 100 between her lips and lit up.  “That’s an all-boys talk going on over there,” she added before taking her first deep drag and then continuing with a deep smile, “So let’s have an overdue girls’ talk over here!”  Through a messy talking exhale, Lauren excitedly asked, “Can I see it?”

Courtney, already radiating the glow of an expectant mother, beamed even more brightly as she placed her cigarette between her lips and then extended her left hand to Lauren to show her the diamond ring that she knew Lauren was inquiring about.

“Eeek!” Lauren screeched, inadvertently drawing the continued intermittent attention of the very distracted Stewart Hawkins who was doing everything he could to maintain his professional cool while observing this most unlikely and objectionable display of teen smoking.

Lauren grabbed hold of Courtney’s arm in a show of sisterly solidarity, her face animated with congratulatory goodwill to Courtney that contrasted sharply with her dour look of dejection sitting next to Trevor at the interview only moments earlier.  “I’m sooo happy for you, Courtney!” Lauren finally announced in a tone that matched her gleeful appearance.  “I want details, girl!” she pressed, taking another deep drag from her cigarette while awaiting Courtney’s response.

Becky walked in abruptly from the kitchen, recognizing the distraction that Courtney and Lauren were likely posing to Trevor’s interview, especially when she made renewed eye contact with the shell-shocked Stewart.  “If you two want to talk, bring it in here!” Becky requested authoritatively, motioning them to follow her into the kitchen.

While his mother’s gesture was probably for the best when it came to this interview, Trevor was nonetheless increasingly annoyed as he wanted to overhear the conversation between his girlfriend and his sister, and he was getting a cheap thrill at the idea of his interviewer witnessing it as well.  He continued the interview with Stewart, upsetting as it was to not have Lauren sitting next to him sharing in the glory as he told their iconic story.

Back in the kitchen, Courtney took a drag from her cigarette and began her delayed response to Lauren’s inquiry about the engagement ring on her finger.  “Wade proposed on Valentine’s night…..at Leonardo’s Italian Steakhouse.”

“How romantic!” Lauren interrupted, fondly recalling her New Year’s Eve meal there with Trevor a year earlier.  “Trevor took me there once and it would be such a special place to get engaged!”

Courtney beamed like a blushing future bride once again as she took another drag from her cigarette.  “It was really was the perfect place, Lauren,” she responded through a talking exhale, ironically adding “Wade had the ring delivered inside a champagne glass full of ice water….you know, since I’m pregnant,” with residual smoke still pouring from her mouth and nose.  “Then he got down on one knee right in front of the crowd.  It was kind of a gamble on his part having an audience like that….in case I said no.  But of course I didn’t say no!”

Lauren giggled.  “That’s so sweet!  Did you know he was gonna propose?”

Courtney smiled again and responded, “I had a pretty good feeling…” recalling her conversation with her father while ice fishing and correctly suspecting that Steve and Wade talked man to man not long after.  “When a guy takes you to Leonardo’s on Valentine’s Day, it’s a pretty good indication he has something important to say,” she added, dragging again on her cigarette.

Lauren was feeding off of Courtney’s contagious happy energy, dragging from her own cigarette and then gushing “It’s just so sweet that you’re about to start your life together with a little one on the way,” touching Courtney’s bulging belly and then asking, “Have you picked a date yet?”

Courtney nodded in the negative.  “We’re gonna see if we can set something up at Wade’s church in Cannon City for late summer….after my postpartum phase but before I have to go back to school….”

Lauren’s enthusiasm tempered for a moment at the prospect of having to return to Cannon City for Courtney’s wedding, but she tried not to project any diminution of her enthusiasm for Courtney’s big news as Courtney continued speaking.

“….but if we can’t make it work for this summer, then we’ll just wait till fall or even winter.  I’m not gonna be too picky…at least as long as I’m Mrs. Courtney Rosenquist by next time this year,” Courtney finished and took a deep, satisfied drag from her cigarette.

“I’m so jealous!” Lauren exclaimed taking another drag from her cigarette.  “I mean…about you getting married anyway.  I’m not trying to take your man…don’t worry.”

Both girls laughed at Lauren’s characterization, feeding off of each other’s instinctive feminine attraction to the concept of a storybook wedding on the horizon until Courtney caught herself and took a quick look at her phone.

“Shit!” Courtney exclaimed seeing that it was 10:45.  “I gotta be to work by 11 so I need to head out.  But I’d love to talk to you more about this?  Will you be hanging around here any other days this week?”

“Yeah I should be here pretty much every day!” Lauren responded, taking another drag and then adding sarcastically, “….not like I’m heading to the beach for spring break like everybody else.”

Courtney laughed, “We’ll pick up with this conversation then.  In the meantime, I think my brother might need you in the living room,” she said with a wink, trying to give Lauren the necessary encouragement to return to an interview she knew wasn’t going very well for Lauren.

Lauren formally bid Courtney adieu as Courtney turned around heading for the back door, crushing her cigarette out into the ash can in the kitchen counter and then pulling up on the waistband of her faux leather pants, trying to find the comfortable sweet spot between her bulging belly and her hips as she walked out the door.   Lauren smiled again thinking of how happy Courtney was about Wade’s proposal, taking a final drag from her cigarette and then crushing it out in the same ash can that Courtney had crushed hers out in only seconds earlier.  With the final entrails of exhaled smoke escaping Lauren’s face, she had a renewed energy to return to the living room and support her boyfriend for whatever was left of his interview.

Seconds later, Lauren plopped herself down next to Trevor with a confidence that seemed to come out of nowhere along with the aroma of fresh cigarette smoke filling the airspace of both Trevor and Stewart.  She clutched Trevor’s hand to let him know she had his support despite the interviewer’s complete lack of interest in her story.

“Have you ever been up to the Boundary Waters?” Stewart asked, referencing the only part of Minnesota that had been thought to still have an active moose population until Trevor’s video dispelled the notion of their complete disappearance from the Bemidji area.

“Never been up there but I’ve always wanted to go,” Trevor responded.

“Well I’d encourage you to keep your phone recorder handy if you do but I suppose at this point if you were to see a moose by Ely it would be a little anticlimactic,” Stewart joked.  “Plus at this point you two might want to let some other Minnesotans have a chance at a moose sighting instead of keeping them all to yourselves.”

Trevor and Lauren laughed, equal parts intrigued and annoyed at the hypothetical of canoeing at the Boundary Waters covered from head to toe in ticks and mosquito bites.  Their brief daydream was once again stopped in its tracks by Becky’s return down the stairs, her suitcase now full and her makeup bag in her other hand along with her pack of Marlboro Reds.  As much as she tried to keep her distance from Trevor’s business in this interview, she couldn’t help but pick up on the interest Stewart was taking in her son as she stopped for a moment to light a cigarette.

“So you’re clearly an outdoorsy young fellow,” Stewart prodded before adding.  “Have you always been that way?”

Trevor chuckled ironically and was about to clear the record on the decidedly limited extent of his “outdoorsy” persona, but Becky hustled on up to intervene before Trevor had a chance to put his foot in his mouth.

“Always!” Becky exclaimed from several feet away, startling everybody with her husky voice and how she seemed to enter the conversation from out of nowhere, but the quick moment of eye contact she made with Trevor successfully conveyed to her son to let her take the reins for a moment.  “We’ve been going up to that cabin in Bemidji since Trevor was six.  After spotting his first bear poking its head out of the woods on our drive up, Trevor immediately got online and started researching black bears….” Becky recalled fondly, enjoying the trip down memory lane to Trevor’s boyhood while also hoping to help him make a lasting professional impression on this nature journalist.  “….and from there he got interested in wolves and moose and some other wildlife unique to northern Minnesota.  I guess it really paid off for him when he heard that moose this winter, huh?” she asked rhetorically to Stewart before dragging from her cigarette without apprehension.

Trevor smiled at his mom’s gesture and decided to run with the momentum she helped create, asking “Remember those quizzes I used to give you and dad on the long drives back and forth to the cabin?  I think I remember one being all about moose.”

Becky laughed, residual smoke still pouring from her mouth and nose.  “I definitely remember.  Your father and I felt like chumps getting schooled by our six-year-old.”

Everybody laughed and a suddenly relaxed Lauren reflexively reached for her pack of cigarettes, only catching herself after she already plucked one out and then just deciding to run with it, Stewart’s judgment be damned.  She placed the cigarette in her mouth and lit it, taking an intense opening drag while rubbing her hand affectionately on Trevor’s shoulder.

Stewart was temporarily speechless at the surreal spectacle of the mother and teenage girlfriend of his interview subject smoking so openly in front of him, but his respect for Trevor continued to grow and he decided he’d heard and seen enough to extend an offer. “Trevor, you’ve indicated in some of your TV interviews that you’d like to be a writer.  How would you feel about contributing some of your work to Minnesota Great Outdoors?”

Trevor was a bit startled about how quickly things were moving.  “In what capacity?” he asked, fearful he’d be in over his head given that, despite his mother’s proclamations to the contrary, he was far from “outdoorsy” and even his youthful research into northern Minnesota animal species pretty much stalled out by the time he turned eight years old.

“Well our publication that hits news stands comes out quarterly.  This story will appear in our June edition and we might have you do a feature story similar to this one for the late summer edition,” Stewart responded.  “But we also have a monthly newsletter for our members where I think my editors would be tickled to have you aboard as a columnist.  Between your writing and storytelling skills and your knowledge of your subjects, this would be a great opportunity for you to get samples of your work published….”

Trevor felt Lauren squeezing his hand with encouragement while he listened to Stewart’s offer, while Becky’s body language was practically screaming at him to take the deal.

Stewart continued, “…..Now you’re not gonna get rich doing this.  You’d have to contact my editors to find out what they’ll pay for column space in the newsletter and a feature article in the magazine but the upside is you’ll still be able to do your normal summer job and just do a little writing and interviewing in your downtime.  How does that sound?”

Trevor had a deep contemplative look on his face as he pondered the pros and cons.  Much as his instinct was to immediately agree to the terms, he wasn’t at all sold on Stewart after he snubbed and disrespected Lauren throughout the interview, but just as he was about to give Stewart a cryptic “I’ll think about it,” the angel on his shoulder in the smoky-breathed voice of Lauren spoke.

“Go for it, baby!  This could be the break you were hoping for!” Lauren exclaimed through a talking exhale, recalling Trevor’s comments from their hike about how challenging it is to get a break as a writer.

Looking up to his mother and seeing similarly intense support and encouragement in her eyes as what he just got from Lauren, Trevor felt he had the green light he needed from the most important people in his life, enough to set aside his misgivings about Stewart and his apprehension about pretending to be a nature writer.  He smiled and finally responded to Stewart’s request.  “That sounds pretty good, actually.”

Stewart smiled and positive vibes again filled the room as quickly as the endless waves of cigarette smoke.  The four of them continued to banter about possible writing options for the next few moments, oblivious to the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

The room was startled as the front door burst open, with a frazzled Haylee bulldozing her way into the house, a half-smoked Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips as she exclaimed through a talking dangle, “Mom, can you please handle my driver’s training for the rest of….” abruptly cutting her dramatic entrance short upon the visual reminder that Trevor and Lauren were being interviewed by the magazine writer today.

The whole room looked apoplectically at Haylee after her obnoxious interruption and Becky intercepted as quickly as possible, barking out “Come into the kitchen!” waving Haylee to follow her.

As Haylee slinked past Stewart en route to the kitchen puckering her lips for another dangling drag from her cigarette, he couldn’t help but sneak in one more glance.  The McPherson family continued to find new ways to astonish him with its smoking culture, its youngest member having just busted through the door with a cigarette moments after getting her first driving lesson from her father.  Stewart smiled at Trevor with a hint of pity.  Trevor couldn’t decide if Stewart was opening this career door for him because he saw genuine potential in him or if he pitied him for whatever stereotypical conclusions about his family he had arrived at based on an hour’s worth of time spent in their presence, but he decided he wasn’t gonna waste any more time thinking about that and just accept the positive outcome.

“What’s the matter with you?!” Becky snapped at Haylee in an elevated whisper once they got inside the kitchen.

“I forgot about the interview…sorry!” Haylee responded through a continued talking dangle before quickly pivoting to her own concern.  “Dad is driving me craaaazy!” she exclaimed with animation on her face to match her tone.  “It’d just be so much easier if you’d help me with my driver’s training this week, mom!”

Becky finished her drag from her cigarette and responded through a talking exhale. “Haylee we already went through this.  I’m leaving in….less than an hour….and I’ll be in Missouri until Saturday.  You’re just gonna have to get along with your father and figure this out.”

Haylee shook her head in exasperation, letting loose a quick smoker’s cough after ingesting an accidental drag.  “This sucks!” she grumbled under her breath, adding “He’s such a tool.”

Becky’s ire was raised as she sternly fired back.  “Your father took the day off work to help you, Haylee!  For the next three days, he’s working his schedule around dropping you off and picking you up from driver’s training.  Can’t you ever appreciate anything people do for you?”

Steve came in the back door through the kitchen at this point, looking demoralized as he glanced toward Haylee and then Becky, letting his wife know that it had been a challenging morning for the two of them.

Haylee scowled, avoiding eye contact with her father and dragging again from her cigarette while racking her brain for alternative options.  “Well maybe Courtney or Trevor could be the ones–”

“It’s gonna be your father, Haylee!” Becky interrupted, trying to remain as calm as possible and not draw attention from anybody in the living room to the spat in the kitchen.  “You might want to figure out how to get along with him because that’s the way it’s gonna be.”  She paused to take a drag from her cigarette and then closed with “Now go upstairs and try not to blow your brother’s interview with all of your drama!”

Haylee took a final dangling drag from her cigarette and shook her head in frustration, removing the cigarette from her mouth and crushing it into the kitchen ash can, vituperatively muttering “This is such bullshit!” as she left the room.

Steve walked up to Becky, getting splashed in the face by his youngest daughter’s secondhand smoke one final time that morning.  As he put his arm around Becky’s shoulders, Becky looked at him sympathetically and inquired  “What happened out there?”

Steve shook his head.  “The usual.  Haylee can’t ever slow the slightest bit of gratitude for anything,” he expressed with genuine disappointment.

Becky wrapped her arm around Steve’s waist as a means of projecting calm, recognizing yet again that Haylee seemed to be the only person capable of sending her husband into fits of frustration.  She took a drag from her cigarette and added “She’s a good kid, Steve.  A couple more years of maturity and a more active role from us and I think she’ll turn out okay.”

Steve snorted with a degree of doubt about Becky’s prediction.  “One way or another that girl’s gonna need an attitude adjustment.  If she can’t work out some of that anger I think she’s in for some real trouble.”

“Well she’s her mother’s daughter that’s for sure,” Becky responded.  “You didn’t meet me until I got my attitude adjustment after a night in the Pigeon Bend jail,” she recalled.

“Remind me again what young Becky did to get thrown in the pokey….” Steve inquired to Becky’s laughter.

“Busted at a drinking party when I was 17,” Becky responded. “Mom made an agreement with the local cop to lock me up for the night if I got caught sneaking out again.  The message got through.”

Steve’s charged adrenaline after the morning with Haylee seemed to be cooling in the loving embrace of his wife as he sarcastically quipped  “What I wouldn’t give to let the cops deal with Haylee’s attitude for just one night.”

Becky laughed, taking a final drag from her cigarette and crushing it out in the ash can, becoming the fourth female smoker to extinguish a cigarette in this kitchen ash can just in the last half hour.  “The jail guard might call us in the middle of the night to pick her up,” she teased through a talking exhale.

Steve snickered and kissed Becky on the forehead for helping to calm his tension, wondering how he would possibly maintain his sanity for the rest of the week with Becky out of state and Haylee leaning on him for help with driver’s training.

Becky read Steve’s thoughts and asked, “So just how bad is Haylee’s driving anyway?”

“Ugh!” Steve exclaimed with exhaustion.  “I worry for the other three people in the car with her tomorrow.  She’s got a helluva learning curve to get to the point where she’s ready for her test in two weeks,” he added, referencing Haylee’s pending 16th birthday.

“It’s our fault.  We should have gotten rolling on this months ago with some training sessions,” Becky responded.

Steve nodded in agreement, coming to terms with having to hold his nose and deal with Haylee’s issues out of parental obligation.  “Can’t disagree.  I guess it’s gonna be on me to make that up to her the rest of the week.”

Becky continued to keep the activity in the living room in the corner of the eye, recognizing that Trevor and Lauren’s interview with Stewart was wrapping up.  “Fortunately, I do have some good news to share from one of your other kids,” Becky said, plucking a Marlboro Red from her pack and using it to point into the living room before Steve lit it up for her.

Steve looked to the living room to see all smiles on the faces of Trevor, Lauren, and the reporter as Trevor shook Stewart’s hand on his way out the door.  Without even being told yet what had transpired, Steve recognized from the body language that Trevor had just set up another building block on his path to a bright future.

—————————

The next morning, Steve parked his car in the lot of the strip mall that housed Street Smarts Driver’s Training School on a dreary Tuesday morning with daughter Haylee in the passenger seat sitting silently, flicking her lighter to spark up a final cigarette before the moment of reckoning.  The only sound heard in the car for most of the drive over was the gentle, intermittent motion of the windshield wiper clearing off the light rain accumulating on the windshield.  But as Steve looked over to see the fear in Haylee’s eyes at the prospect of driving on actual city streets rather than merely an empty parking lot was becoming very real to her, he couldn’t help but send her off with a sympathetic tone and words of encouragement.

“You’ve always been able to come through when it counted Haylee,” Steve opened, watching Haylee’s eyes drift his way along with a burst of exhaled cigarette smoke as the prolonged silence was broken. “I remember how you struggled through algebra last year but when you dug in and set your mind to doing what needed to be done, you ended up getting a B.  Just take it easy today, don’t be so afraid of the car, listen to your instructor, and follow the example of the other kids in the car driving with you and I think you’ll see some real progress today.  By April 4th, you’ll look back and laugh at this week when you pass your test and put that driver’s license into your purse.”

Haylee wrapped her lips around her cigarette for another dangling drag, an air of remorse filling her face along with the fear.  She felt tears well up in her eyes but did everything she could to suppress them in front of her father, but Steve’s forgiving smile led her to melt in a moment of weakness, leaning out of her seat to give him a hug with her cigarette still dangling from her lips.  “I’m sorry, dad,” she said in a rare display of emotion as she fully embraced her father, squeezing him and continuing to speak over his shoulder through a talking dangle.  “Thank you for helping me with this.”

Steve was surprised by Haylee opening up the way she did and had to work hard to avoid a visibly emotional moment of his own as his daughter pulled away, leaving behind an intense swirl of her secondhand smoke wrapping around his face.  “Well I’m happy to do it,” Steve responded, fibbing a bit for the benefit of Haylee’s fragile ego.  “I hope my advice from yesterday pays off.”

Haylee ashed her cigarette into the ash can in the console of his Lexus, taking a deep nervous breath before closing tight the drawstring of her pink hoodie, ready to step outside into the light rain and take on this challenge.  “Pick me up at 2 please,” she requested, placing her cigarette back to her lips and stepping outside the car.

Steve smiled before backing up and pulling away, admiring one last time the image of Haylee standing in the rain on the sidewalk in her pink hoodie and black jeans finishing her cigarette, suspecting that her fellow passengers in the drivers’ training car would probably be less tolerant of her tobacco odor than he was.

As Steve pulled out of the lot, another car pulled in and drew Haylee’s attention.  She first noticed the driver, a 40-something Hmong woman who pulled into a parking stall a few yards in front of her.  Haylee didn’t connect the dots until she observed the driver leaning over to the passenger seat to give her son a quick kiss of encouragement before sending him off.  She was surprised to see that the boy was Keegan, a classmate in her driver’s education classes who she felt an unspoken connection with even though they’d never actually spoken.  As Keegan stepped out of the car and Haylee admired his chiseled good looks, his vaguely ethnic look began to make some sense in the company of his Asian mother.

Haylee puckered her lips around her half-smoked cigarette, drawing harder from it than usual since the light rain had begun to extinguish it, the cherry glowing bright and drawing the attention of both Keegan and his mother.  Haylee waved at the friendly but shy boy and he cordially waved back, albeit with obvious apprehension about his mother’s takeaway seeing the girl his son’s age so openly smoking.

But Haylee was oblivious to any judgments made about her as she admired Keegan’s handsome face and buff upper body as they made eyes, trying to maintain her cool upon learning she’d be sharing a car with the hottest guy in the class.  She inadvertently puckered her lips around the cigarette for a multiple-pump finishing drag that served as a tell for her sexual attraction.  With a mess of smoke encircling her person, Haylee tossed the remainder of her cigarette to the wet surface of the parking lot and slowly approached the front door of the drivers’ school while Keegan couldn’t help himself from noticing the mostly smoked pink and white cigarette extinguish itself and smolder out in the puddle.  Just as Keegan was about to follow Haylee inside the driver’s school entryway, the 30-something instructor Kevin came outside to meet them instead in the company of Andrea, the third girl who would be riding with them.

“Everybody ready for their first day of behind-the-wheel,” Kevin inquired with a degree of spunk that was not shared by his mid-teen students, all of whom were awake earlier in the morning than they’d hoped to be during spring break and were to varying degrees nervous about their first formal session of drivers’ training in front of their peers.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” responded Andrea with an air of confidence that masked her own insecurities.

“In that case, Andrea, why don’t you drive first,” Kevin responded, tossing her the keys and pointing to the official instruction car with the Street Smarts lettering on the doors.

Andrea’s apprehension became more visible with the keys in hand as she opened the driver’s seat and got inside, followed by Kevin in the passenger seat.  Haylee and Keegan climbed into the backseat and in seconds, everyone in the car was actively avoiding the metaphorical elephant in the room that was Haylee’s intense cigarette stench, which was even more insufferable than what they remembered from the classroom sessions given the fresh smoke odor clinging to her moist hoodie.  Andrea and Kevin in particular had to gather themselves for a few seconds before Kevin requested that everybody formally introduce themselves even though they had been informally introduced in the classroom sessions.

As introductions abounded, Haylee was entirely focused on the final introduction as her backseat passenger made his first eye contact with her since getting in the car.  “Keegan Robertson,” he said, extending his right hand to shake with Haylee with a stoic gleam in his eye that reinforced their connection.

Haylee flashed her first real smile of spring break week as she maintained eye contact and accepted Keegan’s handshake.  “Haylee McPherson,” she responded as casually as she could, attempting to disguise her girlish giddiness as she added, “I remember seeing you in class,” as a dangling expression of interest she was hoping Keegan would run with.

“I remember you too,” he responded with another smile before they pulled their hands apart, resuming with the general silence as is common with two minimally acquainted teenagers in this kind of setting.

As Andrea backed the car out of the parking lot, Haylee’s head was telling her that the presence of this boy she was crushing on should make her feel even more anxious about the prospect of making a fool of herself on the streets of suburban Minneapolis during her inaugural driver’s training session.  But inexplicably, she found herself feeling more at peace that she had all weekend now that the moment was almost here.

———————————

Back at the McPherson home, Trevor sat alone on the living room couch with his phone held up to his ear, chatting with his mom who called from Branson to touch base.

“What time did you get there last night?” Trevor asked.

“Right around dark.  I suppose it was 7:00.  Some of the girls wanted to hit a late show but after seven hours of driving, I just wanted to settle in and wind down.” Becky replied.

“So when do you see your first banjo-strumming fossil perform?” Trevor asked, taunting his mother about the demographic of singers he knew performed in Branson.

Becky let loose a husky laugh followed by an abrupt smoker’s cough before responding, “I think you know I didn’t come down here for the singers, Trevor.  I’ll go to some concerts to indulge the girls as long as they help me out and fill their trunks up with cigarettes before we head home.”

Trevor smiled, realizing that his mother’s motives were probably just as transparent to the nurses she was traveling with as they were to him.  “How many carloads will you be filling up anyway?”

“Well nine of us are traveling down here in four different cars so we’ll definitely need your help unloading on Saturday when I get back,” Becky responded with a husky laugh.

Trevor smiled again, but was distracted by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway and then killing the engine, confident that it was Lauren dropping by as planned.  While listening to his mother chatter on, Trevor put the phone on speaker knowing that Lauren would enjoy hearing Becky’s voice upon arrival.  His suspicion proved correct as Lauren walked into the house with freshly lit cigarette in hand, her long blond hair frizzy after being rained upon as she brought the combined smell of cigarette smoke and a chilly spring moisture in with her.  A beaming smile quickly accompanied Lauren’s presence upon hearing Becky’s voice.

As soon as there was a minor pause in Becky’s conversation, Trevor chimed in with “Lauren just walked in the door.”

“Hi, Mrs. M,” Lauren projected sweetly using her favorite shorthand reference for Becky.

“Heyyyyy Lauren,” Becky responded in the affectionate kid gloves voice that made Trevor and Lauren both smile even more broadly upon hearing over the phone.

“Hope you’re enjoying your vacation.  I’m jealous!” Lauren responded.

Trevor sarcastically interjected.  “It’s less of a vacation than a five-day discount cigarette run,” knowing his mom would hear it.

“Hey that sounds like a vacation to me!” Lauren responded as she placed her cigarette to her lips for the first drag since she walked in the house.

“I’ll be sure to come back with some of your Marlboro Lights as long as you don’t tell your mom you got them from me,” Becky announced, knowing that Lauren’s mom was still clinging to the hope that her daughter had already quit smoking or still might.

Lauren giggled.  “Your secret’s safe, Mrs. M.  Don’t forget to get the 100s though, please.”

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten what you like, honey,” Becky replied, eliciting another bright smile on the faces of both Trevor and Lauren.  “Anyway, I’ll leave you two alone but don’t forget I made two of those hotdishes yesterday for you guys before I left.  They should reheat pretty well in the oven….if you didn’t finish them off last night.”

Lauren continued to silently giggle overhearing Becky’s over-the-top maternal instinct as Trevor responded, “Oh don’t worry….there’s plenty of hotdish left for tonight and probably tomorrow too,” smiling at Lauren as he spoke.  “Have a great time mom.”

“Thanks Trevor,” Becky closed.  “You know me….I’ll probably call and touch base again tonight and again tomorrow.”

Trevor nodded in agreement as he smiled at Lauren who approached him on the couch.  “I have no doubt about that mom.  Looking forward to talking again.  Bye.”

Trevor ended the phone chat with his mom just in time for Lauren to invade his space, the intensity of her smoky stench clinging to her moist hair and baby blue windbreaker really giving Trevor a sensory overload as she sat down on his lap on the couch.  She stretched her legs out across the sofa, allowing Trevor to admire her lower body draped in a pair of seasonally appropriate leggings featuring bluish-green images of a tree in spring blossom.  Lauren took a drag from her cigarette and leaned into Trevor to blow smoke rings into his face from a few inches away.  Trevor returned the gesture by resting his hands on her lap, placing his fingertips on the crotch of her leggings in what was always their pregame to foreplay.

Knowing they had several hours of alone time to let their friskiness build, Lauren looked to the TV screen to see what Trevor had on, quickly noticing it was MTV’s live footage from spring break in Panama City, Florida.  She watched on for a few moments, placing her cigarette between her lips and taking a deep drag as if wishing she could teleport through the TV to join the spring break crowd.

“I want you to take me down to spring break sometime,” Lauren announced, catching Trevor a bit off-guard.

Trevor gave her a smug smile and responded, “I don’t think you and beer funnels would be a very good combination, Lauren.”

Smoke exploded from Lauren’s mouth and nose into Trevor’s face as she laughed, agreeing that past precedent established public intoxication was not a good look for her.  “You’re not wrong but I just want to go somewhere less miserable for spring break.  Someplace with a beach.  Someplace where it’s, you know, actually spring!” she added, pointing out the living room window to the chilly 37-degree rain going on outside in their own zip code.

Trevor nodded in partial agreement.  “I’m not sure Panama City is our speed, but one of these next years, we’ll get you out of Minnesota for spring break.”

Lauren smiled, taking another drag from her cigarette.  “I wasn’t kidding when I told your mom I was jealous.  I’d settle for a road trip to Missouri right now!”

Trevor smirked again.  “Well you should have spoken up yesterday.  I’m sure my mom would have loved some company listening to those geriatric country bumpkins down in Branson.”

Lauren giggled.  “Oh Trevor, you know I like country music.”

Trevor shook his head, adding with a smirk, “They don’t play the kind of country music you like down in Branson.  They play the kind of music that comes out of Wade’s truck radio.”

Lauren giggled while taking the final drag from her cigarette, muttering “Oh…that kind of country,” through a talking exhale as she leaned forward to crush the cigarette out into the ash can on the coffee table.  She returned to Trevor’s lap and snuggled into his chest, adding with a nostalgic romanticism, “I still wish I was traveling with your mom though.  Imagine how surprised Joyce would be if we stopped by the diner and said hi.”

Trevor smiled at Lauren’s memory, recalling Joyce as their middle-aged waitress at the smoking-permitted Main Street Diner in small-town Carroll Springs, Missouri, last August when Trevor stopped there for lunch on the way back from Lake of the Ozarks.  “Joyce would definitely be surprised if we showed up,” Trevor agreed.  “If she even remembered us.”

“Oh Joyce would remember us,” Lauren added with a twinkle in her eyes, failing to disclose that she’d kept semiregular Facebook contact with Joyce Christian ever since they exchanged information last year, and that when Lauren cryptically referred to “having her sources” for the cigar she procured for their unforgettable autumn poker game, it was Joyce who was the “source” that helped set Lauren up with her Churchillian-sized tool of seduction.

Trevor loved Lauren’s callback to their storybook summer and teased, “Well I bet we can talk our families into another trip to Lake of the Ozarks this summer.  We can drop by Carroll Springs and surprise Joyce then.”

Lauren’s nostalgic smile turned abruptly into a puerile frown far too innocent for Lauren’s nearly 17 years.  “We’ll see if I even have time to go.  My mom’s on my ass about getting a job this summer.  I was able to talk my way out of it last year because I volunteered to pick up Brian from his marching band practice but I don’t think I’ll be able to hold my mom off for another summer.”

Trevor anticipated this, recalling similar conversations Lauren relayed between her and her mother from last summer, but added with a smirk, “You’re not gonna have time for another job this summer.  I’ve already booked you for helping me write columns for Minnesota Great Outdoors magazine!”

Lauren rolled her eyes.  “Yeah right.  Stewart made it pretty clear yesterday that’s gonna be a Trevor-only gig.”

Trevor was disappointed by Lauren’s tone, as he still had aspirations of working as a writing team given how much Lauren inspired his writing, but he didn’t want to push the issue knowing her feelings were still probably raw after yesterday’s interview.

Lauren pulled her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s out of her windbreaker pocket in the moment of silence and plucked one out.  She placed it between her lips and Trevor flicked the cigarette to life.  “Thanks baby,” she graciously responded through the dangling cigarette reaching up to stroke his cheek while keeping her eyes glued on the TV, taking in the continued onslaught of spring breaker imagery.

“We’re gonna drive ourselves crazy watching this all day,” Trevor mused as they continued to stare at the bikini-clad coeds howling at the camera with adult beverages in hand.

“Well what else would you suggest we do on a rainy day?” Lauren asked suggestively, puckering her lips around her cigarette for a theatrical drag.

Trevor shrugged and pretended to ponder his options.  “I mean, our ACTs are coming up next month.  We really should study for them.”

Lauren wrinkled her nose as cigarette smoke poured out of it.  “Hard pass on that!”

“You gotta chat with Courtney more about her wedding plans,” Trevor added teasingly.

“Mmmm but Courtney’s not gonna be home for a long, long time….or anybody else for that matter,” Lauren replied, dragging from her cigarette and then pulling in for a smoky kiss with her boyfriend.

Trevor accepted Lauren’s exhaled smoke into his respiratory system along with her tobacco-flavored tongue that came with it, making out for a couple of moments before Lauren pulled away, smirking at him and his ability to get her motor running far earlier than she expected when she walked in the door and sat on his lap 10 short minutes earlier.  As she proceeded to munch on the one-day scruff growing on his cheek, an idea emerged in Trevor’s mind and he quietly picked up the TV remote and changed the channel from MTV to the local weather channel.

With Lauren distracted planting ashtray-mouthed kisses all over his face and neck, Trevor perked up his ears to hear the perky meteorologist on TV announcing the long-range forecast.  “As for your spring break forecast, hang in there just a couple more days and I promise things will be turning up.  Friday will definitely be the pick day of the week with temps rising to 63 degrees.  Won’t that feel great…..”

Trevor furrowed his brow with the early formation of a plan, smirking as he pondered the potential rewards of delivering the surprise he had in mind for Lauren.

—————————

“Alright, now turn right at this next intersection, Haylee,” Kevin stated calmly from the passenger seat as Haylee, the final driver of the round robin of student drivers, navigated the wheel.  “You’re doing great.”

Haylee slowly approached the low-traffic residential intersection and flipped her right turn signal on, cautiously impressed with how well she was doing 15 minutes into this drive but tensing up every time her body reminded her how badly she needed a cigarette.  She made the turn and continued down another residential street along the strategic route mapped out in advance by Kevin for the students, pleased that the light rain from earlier had almost completely come to an end and allowed her to turn the windshield wipers off.

Just as a small measure of confidence began to set in based on her considerable improvement compared to the previous day driving with her father, Haylee began to tense up as she approached the stop sign at the end of the block and noticed a bunch of orange cones and a truck with flashing lights.  She stopped the car and read the sign reading “Utility Work Ahead Please Detour”.

“What do I do now?!” Haylee asked, turning to Kevin nervously.

Kevin appeared to be racking his brain for the path of least resistance to their destination.  “Uhh, go ahead and take a left here.  We’ll have to take the long way to get to where we’re going but you can handle it,”  he responded, as if trying to convince himself and Haylee.

Haylee apprehensively turned left as if forging into an uncertain world, sensing doubt in her instructor’s voice and anticipating her quiet joy ride was about to end.  Two blocks down the road, Haylee’s fears were confirmed as Kevin requested she turn right onto a much busier commercial strip with a steadier drumbeat of traffic.

Haylee did as instructed and turned right, creeping into one of two lanes on the commercial strip and slow-pedaling her way forward until the cars behind her impatiently crept up too close for her comfort.  Haylee’s eyes frantically peered up to the rearview mirror, petrified about the line of cars forming behind her and leading her to slow down even further.  A couple of car horns started sounding off from behind, rattling her more.

“Don’t worry about the cars behind you Haylee.  Let them honk.  Just keep your eyes on the traffic ahead of you,” Kevin advised, sensing Haylee was very rapidly losing her cool and making her backseat passengers nervous as well.

Haylee shook her head in agitation, responding “No I gotta get off this street!”, looking ahead to the next possible detour and turning right without signaling when she got there.

“No Haylee!  This is a one-way!”  Kevin raised his voice to warn, as Haylee continued steering a few yards ahead.  “Just stop!  Stop!” he exclaimed, allowing her to brake but stepping on his own passenger seat emergency brake to hasten the process.

“What should I do?!” Haylee panicked.

“Just back up a bit and we’ll turn around in this driveway,” Kevin replied, doing his best to maintain calm but realizing Haylee was at her wit’s end, especially with a car approaching on the one-way.  “Just back up and turn right and we’ll get this car on the right course again.”

As Haylee began to back up, attempting to aim the car’s rear for the car wash driveway behind her, she made the same mistake as she did the day before with her dad, turning the wheel to the left rather than the right as she backed up.

“No, no!  Right, Haylee!  Turn right!” Kevin assisted, again doing his best to keep Haylee from losing it.  He assisted her in cranking the wheel hard right to compensate for the few yards she had already gone turning left.

Haylee knew she couldn’t snap at Kevin the way she did her dad the day before, but instinctively wanted to scream at him–or somebody–to relieve her panic attack.  She was even more embarrassed than angry by the time Kevin’s steering assistance aided her in awkwardly backing into the car wash driveway and out of incoming traffic.  Her embarrassment ramped up higher as she peeked into the rearview mirror to see Keegan and Andrea in the backseat, both of whom had much smoother opening-day training drives.  They were doing their best to keep Haylee from feeling on the spot, but it was an exercise in futility as Haylee slammed on the brake and aggressively shifted the gear shift from reverse to park.

Haylee struggled to control her hyperventilation as Kevin looked to her and said “Go ahead and let yourself calm down a minute.  No worries.”

But Haylee would not be content to simply unwind for a moment in the car.  She reached into the pocket of her hoodie and pulled out her pack of Camel Pink No. 9s, for a split second leaving the other occupants speechless wondering if she was really planning to light up in the Street Smarts vehicle.  But Haylee broke the silence reaching for the door handle and opening it, just before stepping outside.

“No…no.  You can’t get out of the car….don’t,” Kevin scolded fruitlessly as he watched Haylee step out of the vehicle and place an unlit pink and white cigarette between her lips, flicking it to life with her lighter before Kevin was even able to finish his futile command to the contrary.

A rattled Haylee puckered her lips around the filter of the cigarette and pumped one giant blast after another of tar and nicotine into her neglected young body, the relative calm flowing through her bloodstream with each toxic breath as she paced like a mad woman alongside the car.

“C’mon Haylee.  Get back in the car!” Kevin raised his voice at the teen girl outside the car who wouldn’t make eye contact with him, continuing to dangle-drag furiously from her cigarette and belch out geysers of smoke into the damp late morning air.  He looked back at Andrea and Keegan, apologizing for the disruption as he began to unbuckle his safety belt to go outside and confront Haylee.

“Actually….” Keegan interrupted, surprising both Kevin and Andrea, “….why don’t you let me give it a try.  I think I might be able to calm her down.”

Kevin’s instinct was to reject Keegan’s offer and take command himself, but even his limited evaluation of Haylee’s body language in Keegan’s presence persuaded him that Keegan may indeed be the man for the job.  “Alright, go for it,” Kevin finally responded with hesitation.

Keegan climbed out the back door and progressed cautiously around the rear of the car to approach the pacing Haylee, whose “don’t mess with me” body language mellowed a tick when she saw that it was Keegan approaching.

“Please…just leave me alone,” Haylee warned through a sloppy talking dangle of the cigarette that was already half-smoked, albeit with a softer touch for Keegan’s benefit.

“It’s okay.  I won’t come any closer,” Keegan assured, repelled by the stench of Haylee’s cigarette lurking thick in the air.  “But I just wanted to say you caught a bad break back there.  I’d be just as stressed out as you are if that happened to me.”  He paused and added with a disarming smile, “I might even be out here taking up smoking with you.”

Haylee maintained eye contact as she listened, allowing a faint glimmer of a smile to emerge on her face, finding Keegan’s presence to have an even greater calming effect that the rush of nicotine she’d spent the last couple minutes breathing into her bloodstream.

Keegan slowly approached her as it became clear her defenses were going down.  “It was just bad luck….nothing to be embarrassed about.  You were doing great out there.  And you’ll do great again when you get back behind the wheel and give it another shot.”

Haylee stared at Keegan as if transfixed by his calming presence, puckering her lips around the filter of her shrinking cigarette and making the cherry glow bright red with another drag.

Sensing that her guard was down, Keegan stepped up close enough to reach out and gently touch the shoulder of Haylee’s pink hoodie.  “We’re all just beginners here.  But with each drive we take, we’re a little better than we were the last time,” Keegan continued, struggling to get his words out with Haylee’s secondhand smoke rolling into his face.  “If you get behind that wheel and get back on the road, you’ll be better.  And tomorrow you’ll be even better.  And on Thursday, better yet.”

Haylee puckered her lips one last time, mesmerized by Keegan’s hypnotic power over her and finally coming to terms with the fact that he was about to accomplish the one thing Haylee didn’t think would be possible three minutes earlier…..getting her back behind the wheel of that car.  “Ya think so, huh?” Haylee finally offered up through the talking dangle of her cigarette stub, her final feeble attempt to remain aloof.

“Well I wouldn’t be getting back in that car myself if I didn’t think you were gonna get any better,” Keegan replied with a wry but humble smile, slowly turning around as if nudging Haylee back to the car with him.

Haylee laughed as she plucked the stub of the cigarette from her mouth, a final gush of filthy smoke exploding from her respiratory system as she flung another cigarette butt to the wet pavement where it would smolder out, clearing out her heavy lungs with a decent-strength smoker’s hack and then staring at the driver’s side car door for a moment before opening it and reentering the car.

Sitting behind the wheel again with a hint of residual shame, Haylee avoided eye contact with Kevin as everyone in the car pretended in vain not to notice the overwhelming stench of Haylee’s tobacco odor for the second time that morning.

“You good now?” Kevin finally broke the silence, to which Haylee gave him a humbled affirmative nod.  “Alright, well we’re just gonna forget that happened and get it out of our minds.  Onward and upward from here, okay?”

Haylee once again nodded, softly muttering “Sounds good.”

“Great,” Kevin replied with an encouraging smile.  “Now let’s work our way out of this jam because that’s the kind of thing drivers have to do all the time.  You are gonna have to take another right on Cherry Street here….” he said pointing to the commercial street Haylee had just pulled off of, “….but we’ll only be on it for a couple more blocks and then you can turn back to the original route we were on before the electrical work detour.  You can do this, Haylee, okay?”

Haylee nodded again in a way that engendered more confidence than before, putting the car into drive and following Kevin’s instruction until she was back on Cherry Street and proceeding in a pace that kept her from standing out like a sore thumb to other cars in traffic with her.  Kevin guided her to a left turn lane at a stoplight and assured her they’d be back on their originally planned path once she completed that left hand turn.

Haylee made the turn and got “atta girl’s” from Kevin and her backseat passengers when she was back on track.  Haylee smiled for the first time since she got behind the wheel, her confidence returned even as her mind was suddenly distracted with another kind of warm and fuzzy feeling that she hadn’t felt in a while.  She sighed in relief that the detour from hell was over, but as she took a quick glance in the rearview mirror to lay eyes upon the restrained masculinity of the young man who walked her off the ledge, she realized that the detour from hell may have happened for the best kind of reason.

———————————-

On Wednesday afternoon, Haylee looked out the living room window to see her father’s Lexus pull up the driveway.  With the stub of her cigarette dangling from her lips, she smiled at the sight of her father’s arrival, clenching her fists with excitement while taking the final drag.  She exhaled one last burst of smoke into the living room and crushed her expired Camel Pink into an overflowing ash can on the coffee table, cutting loose a pretty intense smoker’s cough before hustling into the kitchen so she’d be there when her dad walked in.

Haylee casually strolled toward the refrigerator to hide her excitement as Steve opened the door and walked inside.  She grabbed a bottle of flavored water from the refrigerator and peered up to make eye contact.  “Hey dad,” she greeted laconically as she took her first sip of water, but with an energy in her eyes that immediately tipped Steve off that something was up.

“Hey,” Steve greeted back, rolling with the weird vibe he was picking up from his daughter as he set his briefcase on the table, pausing before he continued.  “So how did day two of driver’s training go?”

“Quite a bit better!” Haylee offered with a continued subdued sparkle in her eye.  “Courtney picked me up a couple of hours ago before she headed to work.”

Steve gave a look of being impressed by the news.  “Quite a bit better is certainly good to hear.  I told you that you’d get the hang of it with a little practice.”

Haylee giggled nervously.  “I know…” pausing before slow-dancing her way to her big request. “…so can I ask a favor?”

Steve smiled, his suspicion confirmed that his daughter had an agenda.  “Well you can certainly ask….” he mused open-endedly.

Haylee proceeded, “Well….I know you had a long day but I did so well today I was wondering if you’d mind riding with me before it gets dark.”

Steve sighed a bit, hoping to relax after work but nonetheless welcoming this rare opportunity to bond with his most challenging offspring.  He smiled back at her.  “What the heck….let’s go for a spin.”

Haylee responded with a gleeful smile unlike anything he’d seen from her in recent memory.  “Thanks!  Let me just go up and change first!”

As Haylee turned around to head upstairs and Steve observed her wearing the same frumpy matching pink sweatshirt and sweatpants she wore on Monday morning when he last took her out driving, his suspicion continued to elevate that her full motivation had not yet been revealed.

Steve sat at the kitchen table and waited for about three minutes until Haylee returned downstairs, furrowing his brow at the sight of Haylee in a low-cut pink blouse showing off considerable cleavage matched with a pair of black leggings that left little to the imagination.  She paused at the bottom of the stairs and approached her lighter to the unlit Camel Pink No. 9 dangling from her lips, making eye contact with her dad and excitedly uttering “Ready when you are!” through a messy talking exhale.

Steve stood up from the table.  “Alright, well let’s get going then.  Maybe we can pick some dinner up for when we get home…..unless you want to eat your mom’s hotdish for the third night in a row.”

Haylee laughed nervously, responding “Sounds good,” before taking a long, awkward pause, puckering her lips for a drag as if using the delay to muster up the final morsel of courage she needed.  “But before we take off, do you mind if I text one of the other kids from my drivers’ class to see if they want to ride along?”

“Uh, yeah I guess,” Steve responded, figuring Haylee’s failure to identify the “other kid’s” gender was intentional.  “As long as the ‘other kid’ doesn’t live too far away.”

“Nah, just like 15 minutes from here in Plymouth,” Haylee responded, already in the process of writing her text while dangle-dragging her cigarette.

Steve studied her body language as she sent the text and as she received the response moments later.

“Keegan will be waiting for us,” Haylee informed her father.

Steve nodded his head, trying not to put his daughter on the spot but having a hard time keeping a straight face.  “Keegan……well okay then….” pausing and adding “….so why exactly will this Keegan be riding with us?”

Haylee blushed a bit as she took another dangling drag.  “He just helps keep me relaxed when I drive.  No need to make it weird, dad,” she responded through a talking exhale that blasted Steve in the face as she walked past him out the door and toward the car.

Steve smiled, pleased to hear that some teenage boy was apparently able to do for Haylee’s confidence behind the wheel what he clearly hadn’t been up to.

———————-

Fifteen minutes later, Haylee eased the car to a stop in front of Keegan’s home after following the GPS instructions down lightly traveled residential streets.  Steve was impressed with how much progress she’d made in these two days of behind-the-wheel training and smiled approvingly at her, noticing that only now was she starting to get a little tense.

Another fresh cigarette dangling from her lips, Haylee waved as she saw Keegan coming out of his home in a light jacket and jeans, hustling his way to the car as if trying to avoid his parents noticing.  Keegan opened up the back door and climbed inside, too preoccupied to fully anticipate the ripe aroma of tobacco in the car, not even realizing he was getting off comparatively easy given that this was the nonsmoking Steve’s car.

Haylee turned and looked over her shoulder from the driver’s seat to smile warmly at him. “Hi Keegan.  Thanks for riding along with me!” she greeted through a talking dangle.

Steve turned around from the passenger seat, unsurprised by the surreal look on Keegan’s face at the oddball father-daughter arrangement he stepped into.  “Nice to meet you Keegan,” Steve greeted disarmingly.  “I understand you’ve survived two days of driver’s training with Haylee but you’re still coming back for more.  You’re a brave man.”

Keegan smirked and let out a nervous laugh, greeting Steve back.  “She’s improving a lot. She just needs some encouragement.”

“Yeah she told me on the drive over that you helped her out of a pretty sticky situation yesterday,” Steve said, relaying the cliff note version that Haylee had just passed along to him.

Keegan shrugged humbly.  “Just trying to be a good riding buddy.”

Steve nodded, getting the right vibe from this kid as he responded, “Maybe I need to take some notes and figure out your secret here.”  He looked Haylee’s way at her proud smile as she drove ahead, dangle-dragging from her cigarette in a way that conveyed ease rather than the tension that Steve witnessed only two days earlier.

In the past, Haylee had always kept any talk about boys tightly guarded from both parents, but especially Steve.  He had been curious the whole drive over what was different about Keegan that she was so eager to have him tag along in Steve’s presence, but he was quickly figuring it out as he took in Keegan’s polite and taciturn demeanor.  In Keegan, Haylee had finally found a boy that she could bring home to the family, and it felt good to her.

For her part, Haylee made small talk with Keegan and could feel her father’s eyes taking it all in, hoping he was reaching the conclusion that he in fact had.  Be it the Jacob episode that her father knew all too well or the Grant and Brian Nelson flings that he remained clueless about, Haylee needed parental affirmation of a guy she was developing feelings for, and her father’s approving gaze was successfully filling that void for her at this moment.

Keegan lightheartedly bantered with Haylee and occasionally Steve from the backseat, his eyes feasting on the inexplicable front-seat arrangement in the moments when they weren’t watering from secondhand smoke exposure.  His eyes were transfixed on Haylee’s dangling cigarette and how out-of-place it seemed on such a pretty girl with such a feminine exterior, even more so here and now in the presence of her father than anything he’d seen from her in the prior days.  His eyes only migrated away from Haylee at the moments when her regular bursts of exhaled smoke flowed directly into her father’s face.  Particularly given that all signs pointed to Steve being a nonsmoker, Keegan couldn’t fathom how he could tolerate this relentless assault from Haylee’s secondhand smoke, but it raised his own confidence about his own ability to tolerate it if he continued to hang out with Haylee after driver’s training ended.  He watched as Haylee removed the spent cigarette from her lips and crushed it out in the ash can in the cupholder, stunned to see how many cigarettes were in there with identical markings to the one Haylee just finished.  It finally fully struck him the degree to which smoking was a lifestyle for Haylee McPherson, and he was committed to unpacking this mystery as best as he could as her literal backseat driver.

Haylee broke Keegan’s extended daydream as she leaned over her shoulder, residual smoke still trickling from her mouth and nose as she asked, “How do we get to Cherry Street from here?  I want to give it another shot after yesterday and see if I do better.”

“It’s probably about a mile from here,” Keegan responded.  “I’ll lead the way as we go.”

Steve looked back and smiled once again at Keegan, conceding autonomy over his daughter’s progression to the young man who she responded so well to.

A few blocks ahead, Haylee stopped at a red light, taking the opportunity to dig another cigarette out of her pack, again surprising Keegan at the frequency of her smoking as she lit up and quickly replaced the hulking blob of exhaled smoked that was only beginning to clear out after her last cigarette.  Hoping not to get caught staring by either Haylee or Steve, Keegan leaned forward in his seat and observed the sign indicating the entrance to Interstate 494.  He took the opportunity to mildly tease Haylee as he pointed to it and said, “If you think you’re up for a real driving challenge, you can always get in the right lane and turn up there.”

Haylee responded with an exaggerated grunt as she looked where Keegan was pointing, puckering her lips around her cigarette and letting it go limp as she exhaled.  “Yeah, no!  I think I’ll be my dad’s age before I feel comfortable driving on the freeway!”

The three of them continued to banter as the light turned green and Haylee proceeded to Cherry Street, knowing that it would be much busier at 6 p.m. than it was at 11 a.m. when she drove on it the previous morning, but she was okay with that.

———————————

Forty-five minutes later, Haylee sat in the parking lot of the pizza place, alone in the car with Keegan in the backseat as Steve went in to pick up dinner.  Unbuckled and leaning over the console to chat with Keegan, Haylee was unusually chatty during this limited window with her dad out of the car.

“I wish Kevin could have been riding along and seen how I handled traffic on Cherry Street tonight!  We’ll have to tell him tomorrow!” Haylee exclaimed, pausing to put another cigarette in her mouth and then sparking it up before resuming through a talking dangle.  “I just hope I didn’t peak tonight and then fuck up again tomorrow.  That would be just my luck!”

Keegan smiled, getting the full brunt of Haylee’s secondhand smoke assault the way her father had been up to this point, smiling back and responding.  “Oh you’ll do fine.  I feel like I don’t even know that girl who had a panic attack yesterday morning anymore,” he preened charmingly, eliciting a beaming look of attraction from Haylee.

“I think what I like most about you is that you really seem to want to help people…including me,” Haylee opened up, half-jokingly adding “…..and you’re not just a simp trying to figure a clever way down my pants!” to which Keegan laughed nervously.

Steve broke up the aspiring drivers’ moment as he walked back to the car with pizza box in hand, climbing into the passenger seat and nudging Haylee along.  “Let’s get Keegan home and then head back to Eden Prairie.  Your brother’s gotta be starving.”

As Haylee began to pull out of the parking lot while pumping out another blast of cigarette smoke from her respiratory system, Steve looked to the backseat.  “Keegan, would you like a slice of pizza before you get home?”

“No thanks,” Keegan responded politely.  “My mom just texted me that I’m already late for dinner.”

Haylee laughed.  “Sorry….didn’t mean to get you in trouble!  Does your mom know who you went out riding with tonight?” she asked through a talking dangle.

“No,” Keegan responded, pausing to watch the latest blast of aromatic smoke burst from Haylee’s mouth and nose and then adding, “…but I think she’ll be able to figure out which of my driver’s ed partners I was with when I get back.”

Steve laughed a couple of seconds before Haylee figured out that Keegan was referring to the smoky smell that will be clinging to his clothes when he got home, at which point Haylee laughed herself and reinforced her earlier point.  “Well like I said I hope I don’t get you in trouble!”

Just as Keegan was about to respond, Steve’s phone began to rang.  He looked at Haylee and said, “It’s your mother.”

“Put it on speaker!” Haylee replied with a flourish, removing her cigarette from her mouth and tapping the long ash into the ash can in the console.  “Hey mom!” Haylee greeted jubilantly as soon as Steve took the call.

“Haylee?!” Becky responded with surprise on the other end.  “Are you guys having supper?” she asked, curious why Haylee would be in earshot of Steve’s cell phone given their usually distant relationship.

“No, actually she wanted to practice driving so I’m in the car with her,” Steve responded.

“Really?” Becky answered with obvious surprise, aghast that Haylee chose to ride with her father on her own freewill.

“Yeah, and she brought along her friend from driver training class to keep her company,” Steve added, knowing that would help Becky put the pieces together.

“Oh, nice,” Becky responded with a husky flair.  “You made a friend in driver’s training huh, Haylee?”

“I did!” Haylee responded.  “His name is Keegan,” she added proudly through a talking dangle.

“Hello Keegan.  Nice to meet you,” Becky greeted, with Haylee looking into the rearview mirror to measure Keegan’s response as he greeted her back.

Keegan was connecting some dots of his own, listening to Becky’s husky voice, figuring out as he briefly bantered with her where the smoking influence in the McPherson family came from given that Steve obviously didn’t smoke.

“So how’s the vacation going so far?” Steve asked with a hint of sarcasm, as if knowing Branson was not Becky’s scene.

“Hmmm, it’s okay I guess.  I’m making the most of it,” Becky replied.  “I’m at the Mickey Gilley theater right now with a show beginning in 10 minutes….just out having a smoke before it starts but I should probably let you go so Haylee can concentrate on driving.”

“Thanks mom,” Haylee replied.  “Call us back after the show.  We’d love to hear more.  We’re heading home to eat now.”

Steve motioned for Haylee to stop talking but it was too late as Becky responded, “Oh there’s still some hotdish left for you guys I hope.”

Steve smiled at Haylee as they both glanced at the pizza box on his lap as Steve responded, “Absolutely.  We’re gonna get right to it when we get home.”

“Great!” Becky responded, a quick smoker’s cough telling on herself occurring in unison with a quick smoker’s cough by Haylee.  “Well, I’ll let you guys go.  Good luck tomorrow on your last day of behind-the-wheel training Haylee….” Becky winded down before closing with a somewhat teasing, “…and to you too Keegan” in a way that tipped Haylee off that she was wise to her even from seven hours away.

As Steve and Haylee bid Becky adieu, a positive energy filled the front seat of the car as pervasive as Haylee’s cigarette smoke, a positive energy that would have been unthinkable  between father and daughter two days earlier.  As Haylee and Steve took quick glances in the rearview mirror at Keegan, they both appreciated that the young man in the backseat was entirely responsible for that positive energy in the front seat.

———————————

Late Friday morning, Trevor walked from his car to the front door of the Nelson home, basking in the relatively warm sunshine on one of the first days of the season that genuinely felt like spring.  Carrying a plastic bag with him and a scheming smirk on his face, Trevor rang the doorbell to alert Lauren of his presence and then invited himself inside.

Standing across the living room at the edge of the kitchen was Lauren, radiating her own ebullient vibe and an electric smile to go along with it as she made eye contact with Trevor.  The young lovers were both dressed for spring break, looking each other over as Trevor approached.  Lauren bit her lower lip with sexual attraction as she checked out Trevor in a tight T-shirt while Trevor fluttered his eyes to let Lauren know he was liking her bare-midriffed white top and tight pale blue jeans.

Trevor walked up to Lauren and they exchanged a quick kiss before she started stroking his forearm lustfully.  “Mmmmm, this is the first time I’ve seen the biceps for a while,” leaning forward to plant a string of smooches on Trevor’s arm as he flexed it for her benefit, and then added with a sweet flourish “I think somebody’s been working out this winter.”

Trevor blushed, still bashful when Lauren vocally complimented his appearance, particularly when she correctly identified his moments of vanity as she did right now.  As Lauren fished out a cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s, Trevor took the opportunity to redirect the conversation to her, grabbing hold of her lighter with one hand and grabbing hold of her bare waist with the other.  He pulled her close to him as he lit her cigarette, responding “Well this is the first time the belly button has made an appearance this season as well.”

Lauren giggled as she took her inaugural drag from the cigarette, exhaling into his face from a couple of inches away.

“That should help me keep you in line,” Trevor teased, giving the faintest movement of his fingers on Lauren’s bare belly.

Lauren’s demeanor shifted to a stern but playful warning as she warned, “Trevor…..don’t you dare!”

“Don’t what?” Trevor prodded sarcastically, moving his fingers gingerly on her belly again and getting off on the power Lauren’s ticklishness bequeathed upon him.

Lauren giggled again as she took another drag from her cigarette, warning “That’s a good way to get yourself burned, tough guy!” reminding Trevor of the power her cigarette gave her over him.  She let the cigarette dangle from her lips to reinforce that power and they stared at each other for a few moments as though resigned to a stalemate.  Puckering her lips for a dangling drag, Lauren then broke the playful silence by asking “So when do I get to find out this secret plan you have for us today?”

Trevor smirked and answered, “Wait no longer,” opening the plastic bag he brought with him and pulling out a textbook.  Reading from the cover, Trevor theatrically projected “The Official ACT Prep Guide!”, pausing to add “Nobody will be better prepared than us after we spend all day reading this together,” attempting to hide his smirk and knowing his gullible girlfriend would probably fall for it at least for a moment.

An aghast Lauren stared at him for a moment, suspecting Trevor was conning her but not completely convinced of it until she detected a smirk breaking out on his face.  She dragged again from her cigarette and then shook her head and rolled her eyes.  “You’re so full of shit!” she added playfully through a talking exhale.  “Now what are we reeeeally doing today?”

Grabbing her by the waist again and breathing in her prolific secondhand smoke, Trevor responded “Well all I’m gonna tell you is that we got an hour or so of driving ahead of us, so you better go to the bathroom one last time before we take off.”

Lauren looked at him with confusion.  “I just went to the bathroom.”

Trevor smirked again as if nudging her to indulge him.  “You don’t understand.  It’s gonna be a looong car ride.  You’re gonna want to make that bathroom visit.”

Lauren smirked back, mouthing the words Trevor hoped she would in exactly the playful demeanor that he wanted.  “Trevor, whaaat are you up to?”

Trevor beamed at having successfully gotten the words he wanted out of Lauren, releasing her waist and watching her head to the bathroom as advised.  Admiring her shapely ass working those tight jeans as she walked away, Trevor was more grateful than ever that he was able to salvage one nice day out of spring break week before it ended.

Lauren turned the corner out of sight and closed the bathroom door behind her, immediately hearing Trevor hustling on upstairs and having a vague sense of what he might be doing.  A look of wonderment beamed on her face knowing that a really fun day awaited with her beloved boyfriend, and she took an indulgent drag from her cigarette as she pondered what might come next.

—————————

An hour later, Trevor proceeded down a sparsely traveled state road in a southwesterly direction, more than 20 minutes removed from Interstate 35.  He had sensed some early unease in Lauren as he drove into southern Minnesota as he knew her lingering connotations with the experience in Cannon City from last September, but that anxious energy had dissipated since getting off the freeway as Trevor was by now going in the opposite direction of Cannon City.  He semiregularly darted his eyes Lauren’s way, enjoying that he was lording this mystery destination over her as they drove further and further from civilization.  With her aviator sunglasses covering her eyes, her revealing clothing, and the steady diet of cigarettes she was burning through, he could feel in his bones for the first time since August the magical energy of summer romance that had defined his fondest memories with Lauren.  Today was gonna be all about recreating that magical energy for the first time this year.

Trevor shook himself out of his daydream as he saw the sign for “Lake Tetonka Beach Access 1/2 mile ahead” and began to slow down.  Lauren made playful eyes with him, her suspicion confirmed that Trevor was going to make good on her request to “take her to the beach” over spring break, albeit a couple thousand miles away from the parties and heat of the Florida coast.

Trevor flipped on his turn signal and then turned left into a wooded and secluded park.  He progressed to the edge of the empty parking area, in complete isolation from the rural road he just vacated, and stopped the car.  The young couple looked ahead to the rugged beach shoreline of Lake Tetonka, every square inch of which was still covered in ice.

Lauren dragged from her cigarette with a semi-confused look.  “Oooo-kay, so what’s this place?” she asked through a talking exhale.

“My dad’s sister lives in Mankato,” Trevor responded.  “One time when I was a kid, we went down to visit her and stopped at this lake for a picnic along the way.  I’ve always remembered it.  And I figured if anyplace would have a secluded beach this time of year, it would be this place.”

Lauren mugged continued confusion as she took another drag.  “The beach is secluded for a reason, Trevor,” she replied, pointing again to the icy lake and soggy beach sand.  “What exactly are you planning to do here?”

Trevor was a bit hesitant, concerned Lauren might not be as down for this as he’d hoped she would be, but building his confidence as he picked up the familiar-looking plastic bag from under the seat that he used to carry the ACT study guide earlier.  “The same thing everybody does on the beach….” Trevor responded, reaching into the bag and pulling out about a dozen of Lauren’s bikinis and then tossing them at her, “…..frolicking in the sun and sand!”

Lauren giggled as she looked through the bikini collection thrown at her.  “So that’s why you asked me to go to the bathroom before we left?  So you could literally raid my panty drawer?” she asked playfully before sarcastically adding, “Creeper!”

Trevor shrugged with a smirk.  “Why don’t you slip into whatever swimsuit tickles your fancy and I’ll break out the beach chairs and the sunscreen.”

Lauren giggled again.  “Trevor, this is crazy!  It’s like 60 degrees outside!”

Trevor shook his head smugly.  “All I heard all winter was how you were a ‘true Minnesota girl’ who could handle the cold and how much of a lightweight I was every time you saw me shivering,” recalling specifically their ice skating dalliance outside the cabin in January.  “I think it’s time you showed me how tough of a Minnesota girl you really are.”

Lauren laughed heartily, loving how Trevor made her eat her words once again, but also feeling genuinely up to the challenge with the gauntlet thrown.  “I’ll see you on the beach, pretty boy!”

Trevor smiled back, pleased that he made the sale to Lauren and hoping this would be as much fun as he hoped, popping the trunk to get the lawn chairs out just as planned.

———————-

Back at the McPherson home, Haylee sat in the living room alone curled up on the couch in her sweats, Camel Pink dangling from her lips.  As she looked outside to take note of the beautiful day, she lamented not being able to be out driving as she had the previous four days of spring break.  She then chuckled to herself thinking back to how petrified she was about driving at the beginning of the week and how unlikely it would have seemed on Monday that by Friday she would actually want to be behind the wheel.  A ding on her phone reminded her of why her feelings had changed so much, a broad smile beaming across her face as she opened the text she just received from Keegan, puckering her lips around her cigarette and belching out a messy burst of smoke into the already reduced-visibility living room.

After sending off the text, Haylee furrowed her brow at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.  She was surprised to see Courtney pulling up, wondering why she was home from work so much earlier than usual today.  She waited patiently as Courtney walked inside, clearly in a hurry as she set her purse on the countertop at the edge of the kitchen and making eye contact with Haylee.

“Hey kid,” Courtney greeted, placing her all-white cigarette with the green rings to her lips for an extended drag.  “No driving today?”

Haylee admired the surreal portrait of her older sister for a moment before replying, giving off the glow of an expectant mother entering the third trimester of her pregnancy while still projecting the conventional feminine wiles of an attractive 19-year-old blond in a jean jacket and leggings.  Smiling at Courtney, Haylee responded, “Nope.  I start back up after school next Tuesday.”

“Dad says you’re getting better,” Courtney responded through a talking exhale.

Haylee nodded.  “Yeah, I think so,” pausing before addressing the mystery of Courtney’s presence at home at this hour.  “So you’re off work early today?”

Courtney beamed.  “Yeah!  I took a few hours off.  Heading over to Wade’s place to watch the Final Four with his friends!  He’s picking me up in about 20 minutes!”

Haylee looked surprised, inquiring “Since when you are you into college basketball?”

Courtney took another drag from her cigarette and gave Haylee the exaggerated look of a smitten, lovestruck schoolgirl as she made the cherry of her cigarette glow bright red.

Haylee laughed at Courtney’s nonverbal response after dangle-dragging from her own cigarette.  “Shoulda known!  So, like, what teams are you rooting for?”

“I’m pretty much for whatever team Wade’s against….and vice versa,” Courtney responded cheekily.  “We have fun with it.  Don’t take it too seriously.  Wanna come with?”

Haylee wrinkled her nose.  “Doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun Friday.  Sorry.”

Courtney shrugged.  “That’s fair.  But you should get outside on a day like this,” she said spunkily before adding “Where’s your brother?”

“Oh he went somewhere with Lauren,” Haylee answered, before another ding on her phone redirected her attention in full.

Courtney immediately picked up on the Cheshire cat grin on Haylee’s face and the accompanying dangling drag from her cigarette as she looked at her phone.  Courtney knew Haylee well enough to recognize that she was hitting it off with a guy, and began to connect a few dots as to why her mood had been improving so much in the last few days.  Courtney smiled seeing some semblance of happiness in the eyes of her sister again after her latest long, moody winter.  She then remembered her own timeline and addressed Haylee before taking off.  “Well since you’re gonna stick around here, I got a surprise for you before Wade gets here.  I’m gonna head upstairs and get ready.  You’ll be the first to see when it’s done!”

Haylee shook her head with eagerness to learn Courtney’s big surprise as she watched Courtney sprint to the stairs and ascend them to the second floor, coughing a bit as she climbed with half-smoked cigarette in hand.  Haylee crushed out her own cigarette into the overflowing ash can on the coffee table, genuinely happy for her sister and how everything seemed to be coming together with her and Wade.  And as she looked to her phone and began texting Keegan back, she reminded herself how much easier it is to be happy for someone else’s loving relationship when she had feelings for someone herself.

———————-

Having just unfolded the two beach chairs from his trunk on the frozen shoreline of Lake Tetonka, Trevor took a seat and tried to decide whether the conditions would be in any way suitable for conventional beach activity.  Decked out in a T-shirt and shorts, he had less exposed skin than Lauren was about to have, but that early afternoon sunshine did feel pretty good shining upon him and he thought he just might be able to make this work.

Trevor’s attention was quickly directed toward his car as he observed an approaching Lauren.  Trevor beamed with happiness watching her tiptoe through the soggy shoreline in her flip-flops, unsure about her comfort level as she navigated through the shady underbelly of the foliage at the edge of the parking lot where she clearly felt a bit chilly.  A hint of bashfulness filled Lauren’s face as well, her pasty white body that hadn’t seen sunlight in six long months now mostly exposed to her audience of one.

As she continued to approach, Trevor was struck by the pale hue of her skin tone compared to the bronzed body he’d gotten used to sitting poolside with her last summer.  But he nonetheless licked his chops at the profile Lauren cut and the bikini she chose to put on, her stars and stripes bikini that she last wore on the 4th of July.  Trevor found it a curious choice, speaking volumes to how much Lauren wanted it to be summer again, but as she continued to approach, he mostly appreciated the sight of a freshly lit Marlboro Light 100 protruding from Lauren’s fingers.  When he last saw Lauren in this bikini on the 4th of July, she was going through her vaping phase, and Trevor decided that even with the pasty white skin of her first sunbathing of the season, what he was seeing today was a much better look because of that cigarette.

Squinting at the sun and wondering if it’d be warm enough today to enjoy this, Lauren dragged from her cigarette as she took her final footsteps toward Trevor, and then teased through a talking exhale, “Right when I think you can’t get any crazier….”

Trevor teased back, putting his sunglasses on quickly and holding his hand over his eyes, exaggeratedly proclaiming “Blinding!” at Lauren’s Casper-like complexion.

“Oh shut up!” she playfully snarled, whacking him on the arm.  “Why don’t you show me what’s under your shirt and we’ll see if it’s any less blinding.”

Trevor put his hands up in the air as if excusing himself from guilt.  “Hey….I’m the guy who can’t handle the cold, remember.  Your the one who’s reputation is at stake here.”

Lauren giggled and rolled her eyes, startled as Trevor reached up to grab her by the hips and pull her onto his lap.  She puckered her lips around her cigarette for an extended drag and then exhaled into his face.

After taking in every microsecond of her smoky assault, Trevor looked up to the full early afternoon sunshine in the blue sky above and asked, “So what do you think?  Can we work with this?”

With residual smoke still coming out of her mouth and nose, Lauren nodded affirmatively.  “I think so.  Not sure how long I’ll last….but I’m pretty comfortable right now,” she added suggestively, fluttering her eyelashes as she squeezed Trevor’s chest.

“Glad to hear,” Trevor said with another wry smirk as he reached down to the bottle of sunscreen next to his lawn chair.  “Because if we’re staying I feel obliged to lather this all over your body….you know, to protect you from the sun.”

Lauren giggled and then gave Trevor the green light, the feeling of the sunshine and the smell of the sunscreen really giving her the feels as she teleported to last summer in her mind.  The soft touch of Trevor’s hands tenderly applying the sunscreen to her legs, shoulders, and stomach helped fully sell Lauren on Trevor’s spring break frozen beach party for the first time.

Trevor’s smirk became mischievous once again as he looked to Lauren’s chest as if warning her it would be the last part of her body to get lathered in sunscreen.  “I feel like Jarrod trying to get away with copping a feel on Haylee,” Trevor mused as he put his hand on Lauren’s right breast, recalling the six-year-old doing the same to his babysitter the prior summer.

Lauren laughed heartily and put her two-thirds-smoked cigarette into her mouth, dangling it as she mocked Haylee’s voice.  “What did I tell you about touching a girl there!” she teasingly snarled as Trevor’s hand worked over her upper breast.

Trevor laughed, amused as always by Lauren’s good memory and spot-on impersonations of Haylee.

Lauren removed the dangling cigarette from her mouth, her ongoing laughter morphing into a smoker’s cough.  “We’re so baaaad!” she retreated with an air of guilt.  “Haylee would kill us for making fun of her like that.”

Trevor shrugged.  “Well I don’t see Haylee here.”  He looked around and added, “In fact I don’t see anyone,” at this point so turned on by Lauren’s intoxicating presence in this intimate setting that he approached his lips to her left breast, covering it in kisses above the stars of the American flag on her bikini before he got around to covering it in sunscreen.

Lauren melted into Trevor’s shoulder as his mouth worked her breast.  She took a final indulgent drag from her cigarette and then closed her eyes to take it all in while flicking her spent cigarette butt onto the ice-covered lake.  She decided that Trevor had definitely made the right call bringing here today.

—————————

After 15 minutes of listening to her sister’s hurried footsteps traipsing around upstairs like a team of Clydesdales, Haylee’s curiosity was now fully piqued about the big surprise she was assured of.  Haylee lit another cigarette just as Courtney announced from upstairs that the wait was over.

“I’m coming down,” Courtney previewed at the foot of the steps, slowly descending.

Haylee almost lost her oral grip on her freshly lit cigarette as she laughed aloud to Courtney’s revelation, her smirking older sister wearing a black maternity blouse with a cut-open front, her swollen belly fully exposed and covered in orange fingerpaint with black stripes resembling a basketball.  Courtney did a full pivot once at the bottom of the stairs to let Haylee admire her presentation from every direction.

“So what do you think?” Courtney asked, quite pleased with herself for her costume creation.

Haylee continued laughing.  “I think Wade is gonna love it.”

“I think so too,” Courtney responded, plucking another Marlboro Light Menthol 100 from her pack.  “You sure you don’t want to come with?” she asked through her unlit talking dangle, adding “We’re a fun group,” before she lit the cigarette.

Haylee’s eyes were briefly fixated on Courtney lighting up, her pregnant smoking seeming that much more real with her bare belly on full display.  She figured Courtney and Wade’s friends group must be pretty easygoing if she was comfortable displaying this imagery in front of them.  “No I think I’m good,” Haylee finally got around to answering through her talking dangle.  “But thanks and I hope you have fun.”

Courtney’s attention was quickly drawn to the sound of Wade’s truck pulling into the driveway.  “Speaking of the devil…..” she said with animated facial language.  “See you later,” she announced on the run, heading toward the door and grabbing her purse off the countertop on her way out.

Haylee’s eyes fixated on that countertop as Courtney exited.  With Courtney’s purse out of the way, Haylee was looking directly at the tempting sight of Courtney’s car keys that were left behind.  Listening to Wade’s truck pull out, a faint glimmer of a maximally mischievous smile emerged on Haylee’s face, unable to take her eyes off of the abandoned keys to Courtney’s car.  As her phone dinged again, Haylee knew without even looking who had just texted her.  And as she puckered her lips for an extended dangling drag, she was quickly working up the courage to take Courtney’s advice.  This was just too nice of a day to stay home alone.

——————————-

Trevor and Lauren basked in the sunshine peacefully in their respective lawn chairs lined up next to one another close enough that they could hold hands.  An occasional gust of chilly wind reminded them it was still March in Minnesota, but for the most part they were perfectly content lying back and taking in the afternoon sunshine.

Trevor felt Lauren slide up in her lawn chair and he knew what was coming next.  She plucked out another cigarette from her pack of Marlboro Light 100s and Trevor was waiting for her with lighter in hand.  She smiled and accepted his flame but Trevor was taken aback as her smile morphed into an apprehensive glare as she looked past him.

“Trevor,” she warned with a hint of danger in her voice, pointing over Trevor’s shoulder to a slowly approaching third party on the horizon.

Trevor looked over his shoulder to find out what had startled his girlfriend, laying eyes upon a very old man about 50 yards up the shoreline who had just descended a flight of wooden stairs from the backyard of the nearest homestead.  The old man was now slowly working his way down the beach in their direction, bearing the look of a long-ago retired farmer in a flannel shirt and overalls. His large and veiny right hand clutched tightly to a wooden cane that aided his beleaguered footsteps while his left hand clutched a plastic bag that Lauren and Trevor both figured was intended for collecting garbage on the beach.

Lauren put her hand on Trevor’s shoulder as if seeking protection, with both of them wondering whether the approaching old man would be accepting of their presence or if he’d be a curmudgeon ordering them to get off of his lawn, or in this case his beach.  The mystery lingered with each footstep closer the old man took, the lines on his face telling the story of a difficult life approaching its sunset.  A comforting smile slowly formed on the old man’s face as he got within shouting distance, and disarmed the concerns of the beach’s guests as he teasingly projected, “Is there a polar bear convention today that I hadn’t heard about?” as he took his final footsteps toward them, holding onto the cane but setting the plastic bag down on the soggy sand.

Lauren giggled and Trevor smiled, at ease at the revelation that the old man was a friendly.  Trevor responded, “Just wanted to bring my girl to a nice quiet beach on a day like today.  Hope you don’t mind.”

The old man shook his head about as animatedly as Trevor figured he could pull off, reminiscently responding, “I don’t mind at all.  Always like seeing young people making memories here just like I did.”  He paused and then introduced himself.  “Bert Nordgren’s the name,” looking back to the property he just walked over from and adding “I’ve lived on this property for 66 years.”

“Wow!  That’s so awesome!” Lauren responded, genuinely impressed.  “I’m Lauren and this is my boyfriend Trevor,” she introduced, looking somewhat apologetically at her freshly lit cigarette and then asking “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“No, no.  Go ahead and smoke,” Bert said with a shrug.  “You just gotta know when to quit those things and you’ll be okay.  My wife and I both decided to quit in our early 40s and we made it another 50 trips around the sun.”

Lauren beamed with a smile as she dragged from her cigarette and then responded.  “That’s sweet.  Is she up in the house?”

Bert’s good spirits vanished instantly, replaced by a lugubrious frown as he shook his head no, lamenting “Evelyn died in December….and left me alone with nothing but my memories.”

Bert’s emotion was contagious as Lauren sympathetically responded, “Oh I’m so sorry, Bert!” with Trevor’s sadness showing as well, recalling the death of his grandmother just before Christmas, likely in the same general time frame when Bert lost his wife.

“Nope, nope,” Bert responded, having none of it.  “No complaints from me.  We had a great life together.  We raised five kids here who gave us 16 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren.  God willing, they’ll keep me out of the rest home until I go!”

“That’s amazing!” Lauren responded through a talking exhale with Trevor nodding in agreement.

“Some of those great grandkids are probably your age by now,” he added with a smile.  “How old are you two?”

“I’m 17,” Trevor answered, nudging his head Lauren’s way.  “She’ll be turning 17 on April 6th.”

“Oh happy birthday!” Bert congratulated. “Not sure if you’re from around here but you might be classmates with some of my great-grandkids,” he continued, feeling comfortable in the presence of this young couple as he began rattling off some of their names wondering if the names rang any bells.

Trevor and Lauren humored him for a bit before confirming that they came here from the Cities and explaining how Trevor knew the place living so far away.  As it became clear that Bert was hunkering down for an extended conversation, the young couple’s body language grew a little hesitant.  They were enjoying the chat, but he was definitely cramping their style as they had their hearts set on alone time in the sun on this beach.

Listening to Bert continue to talk, Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette and then reflexively flicked the butt onto the icy lake just as she had her previous cigarettes, a gesture that was immediately met with a disapproving scowl by Bert.  She looked ominously as he held up his large hand and pointed vaguely in her direction, a hand that had clearly endured many decades of tough manual labor.

“Now I don’t mind if you smoke, young lady, but I am gonna ask you to keep your litter out of that lake,” Bert scolded.  “I’ve worked too hard to keep this lake clean over the years.  I’ve gotten into quite a few squabbles with the neighboring farmers to keep their damn chemical runoff out of there,” he added with genuine emotional exhaustion.

“I’m sorry!” Lauren pleaded, petrified at her thoughtlessness.

Bert smiled again.  “That’s okay.  Just don’t do it again,” he added forgivingly.  “I’m just very protective of this property.  It means a lot to me after all this time.  I saved up for seven years after World War II before I bought this place.”

Trevor perked up, fully appreciating Bert’s age and experience after that reference.  “You served in World War II?” Trevor asked.

Bert nodded affirmatively.  “Yes sir.  I was serving at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed.”

Trevor and Lauren were both captivated by this latest revelation, at this point readily resigned to the fact that Bert’s storytelling would be an extended detour from their lazy day on the beach, listening intently as Bert continued.  When there was a brief pause in Bert’s story, Trevor interrupted to ask “Would you like to sit down on my chair?” letting the lonely old man know that he was not imposing on them and they welcomed his continued presence.

Bert laughed.  “Thanks, but if I tried to sit on a chair like that you’d never be able to get me up!”

Trevor and Lauren laughed as they settled in for more of Bert’s war stories.

“December 7, 1941, was supposed to be a big day for me but for a much different reason than it turned out!” Bert described vividly and energetically, recalling it like it was yesterday.  “I was getting a three-week furlough from the Navy and was gonna fly home to be with my family for Christmas.  I was scheduled to fly out of Hawaii by noon…but I missed that flight by about four hours.  Let’s just say I didn’t make it to Minnesota for Christmas that year….”

Trevor and Lauren listened on with fascination as Bert continued, at peace with the rare gift they were given to listen to the amazing story of this kind old man who crashed their beach party.  Lauren plucked out another cigarette and Trevor leaned over to light it for her while they listened.

Bert briefly lost his train of thought while observing Trevor lighting Lauren’s cigarette, thinking to himself that it hadn’t been since the days of World War II that he could recall seeing such a chivalrous gesture by a nonsmoking young man toward his cigarette-smoking girlfriend.  In a moment, he resumed with relaying his Pearl Harbor memories.

———————-

Haylee gingerly navigated the side streets of suburban Plymouth in Courtney’s car, following the GPS on her phone to the city park near Keegan’s place where they agreed to meet.  Cigarette nervously dangling from her lips, she was surprised at how comfortable she felt driving alone, at least until she semiregularly reminded herself that she was an unlicensed driver in a stolen car.

Approaching the park she presumed to be her destination, Haylee craned her neck over the steering wheel in search of Keegan, eventually spotting a lonely bench several yards ahead occupied by what looked like a handsome teenage boy from a distance.  She sucked on the filter of her cigarette for a final motivational drag while slowly approaching the curb, still uneasy about parking but pleased that she had such a wide-open stretch of space in front of the curb.  She stopped the car and saw Keegan smiling at her from the bench.  She removed the cigarette stub from her lips and approached it to the ash can in Courtney’s console, stopping herself just before crushing it out when she realized Courtney would be able to identify Haylee’s cigarette in the ash can.  Careful to remove all evidence that she ever took the wheel of the car, Haylee opened the driver’s side door and tossed her butt onto the street.

A cloud of residual smoke swirled around Haylee’s face as Keegan laid eyes upon her.  He stood up, struck by her continually stepped-up presentation over the course of the week, which today included a white blouse and a tight-fitting pair of pale pink pants.  Keegan had no idea of the significance of this outfit, but it was the same ensemble Haylee wore when she sneaked out for her official date with Jacob last year on her birthday.  To Haylee, the outfit just seemed right for a new beginning this spring.

Keegan smirked.  “I know your driving has improved a lot since the beginning of the week but I don’t think you got your driver’s license since yesterday afternoon when I saw you last.”

Haylee laughed as she stepped up to Keegan affectionately, embracing him with a heartfelt hug that Keegan returned, fully reminding himself in their embrace of how much Haylee stunk and wondering again if it was something he could learn to live with.  Pulling away and admiring the pastel innocence of her appearance and getting lost in her wavy light brown hair and residual freckles, her foul odor didn’t seem so problematic anymore.

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Haylee finally responded, grabbing Keegan by the arm as they sat next to each other on the bench.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Haylee…” Keegan said with a cautious smile, “….but you’re not exactly the kind of girl who I can sneak around with undetected,” he added, twirling her curly hair around his index finger.

Haylee laughed.  “Yeah, your parents will be able to smell you out every time you’re around me!  Are they home today?”

“No.  They’re at work,” Keegan replied.  “That’s why I was able to sneak out.”

“Well I’m glad you did, Keegan…” she said, leaning forward to give him a peck on the cheek.  “….because I definitely risked a lot to get here.”

Keegan nodded in agreement.  “I can safely say you’re the first girl to commit grand theft auto to come see me.  Not sure if I should be flattered or frightened.”

Haylee laughed again.  “Well assuming I don’t get arrested and get home by 5 before my dad gets back, I should be able to drive up and see you whenever I want in a couple more weeks.”

Keegan smiled.  “I’d like that, Haylee,” he said with a gulp, realizing he was confessing his feelings for this most unlikely girl in a way he hadn’t in any meaningful way to previous girls he hung out with.  He quickly changed the subject to reduce the awkwardness, asking “So when do you turn 16 anyway?”

“April 4th,” Haylee responded, pulling her Camel Pink pack out of her pocket.  “How about you?”

“April 16th,” Keegan replied.

Haylee grinned as she placed her unlit cigarette between her lips, dangling it as she mused, “So you think you can handle being with an older woman?”

Keegan smiled back as Haylee lit her cigarette, wishing he was brave enough to dig into the story of how Haylee became such a heavy smoker at such a young age, but deciding he’d get to know her a little better before pressing too hard on the topic.  Before he was able to finish his thought, he watched with concern as Haylee began to snuggle her head into his chest, the limp cigarette hanging from her lips and cresting close to his T-shirt.  As entitled as she was, Haylee at least seemed to know what she was doing with that cigarette, Keegan thought to himself.  As her smoke rose from her mouth straight up into his nose, Keegan felt like he should ask Haylee’s dad for tips on how to tolerate her secondhand smoke assaults.  But as she placed her hand on his stomach, making herself comfortable in his arms in a way no other girl had, Keegan decided he’d just have to figure out a way.

Haylee closed her eyes as she took in the experience, the soothing feel of Keegan’s buff upper body serving as her pillow reminding her of how good the touch of a man felt after all these months since she buried her head in Jacob’s chest almost every day.  Keegan’s voyeurism was much more reserved though, and as Haylee felt his hands gravitate awkwardly from her waist to her thighs, she figured out quickly that his experience with girls was probably much more limited than his Captain America looks and charm suggested.

Haylee removed her cigarette from her mouth and tapped off the granny ash to the side, deciding to put her cards on the table in a way that would help take the pressure off of Keegan, inform him that she had a sexual past, and lay some ground rules that might protect both of them from getting hurt.  Placing her cigarette back in her mouth and dangle-dragging, Haylee informed her suitor, “Just so you know, I have the 90-day rule before I do anything sexual.  You okay with that….I mean, if we continue to hit it off?”

Keegan used the bombardment of her recently exhaled smoke as an excuse for a minor delay as he gathered his thoughts on the best way to respond to this.  “Sounds good to me.  I’m definitely the kind of guy who wants to get to know a girl before I have sex with her,” he responded, attempting to project a level of sexual experience that Haylee knew he didn’t possess.

Haylee looked up to him with her dark brown puppy dog eyes and smiled, puckering her lips around her cigarette for another deep drag and gently thanking him.  Settling her head back into his chest, she volunteered, “Well no better time to start getting to know me than now.  If you promise to let me in on some of your story when I’m done, I’ll tell you all about the Haylee McPherson story.”

Keegan smiled, stroking her hair and listening as Haylee began to offer him a filtered version of her biography.  As Haylee talked and Keegan listened, they both couldn’t get past how right this moment felt.

————————

“So here we are, already five minutes late for church….” Bert recounted to a teenage audience in stitches at his storytelling prowess, “….and here come the kids with their church clothes covered in mud after following the dog to the shoreline.  Evelyn was madder than a rained-on rooster!”

Lauren laughed heartily, her smoked-out lungs at times gasping for breath amidst the laughter, with more measured laughter coming from Trevor sitting next to her.  Lauren took a final drag from her cigarette and instinctively placed her thumb and forefinger together preparing to flick the butt onto the frozen lake, but catching herself as she recalled Bert’s warning.  She leaned down and crushed the cigarette onto the soggy sand next to a half dozen of its peers that had accumulated over the course of more than an hour listening to Bert’s stories and sharing some of their own with him that had migrated from the serious to the mundane.

A moment of silence ensued as Bert stared out to the frozen lake, taking it all in and mentally preparing to wind down his extended visit with the teenage couple while enjoying a gentle breeze coming off of the lake.  He cut a vague profile of Moses standing there with his long wooden cane, the breeze whipping around the few long strands of combed-over hair resting atop Bert’s head as he gazed longingly onto the frozen horizon before speaking again.  “Well I’ve taken up enough of your day so I should probably head back inside….” pausing to philosophically add, “….but I need to enjoy however many days like this that I can before the Lord calls me home.”

A bittersweet look emerged on Trevor and especially Lauren’s face as she plucked another cigarette from her pack, beckoning a light from Trevor once again.  “Well don’t head inside for our sake,” Lauren replied through her opening drag.  “We could listen to your stories all day!”

Bert furrowed his brow a bit observing the frequency of Lauren’s smoking, taken aback at this point that she hadn’t seemed to go more than a few minutes between cigarettes the entire time he’d been out there.  “Yeah but I gotta know my limits at my age.  All this standing today will catch up with me tomorrow morning when I need to climb out of bed,” he eventually responded with a laugh.

Trevor and Lauren smiled at Bert’s characterization and Trevor responded, “Well we have a long spring and summer ahead of us.  Maybe we’ll stop by and visit again sometime,” pausing briefly and adding “Maybe next time the lake will even be thawed.”

Bert smiled back but a wave of mixed emotion began to take over his face as he responded, “Yeah I’m waiting for the lake to thaw too….even more this year than any other long Minnesota winter,” his voice starting to trail off as if pondering whether he should proceed with revealing what he was about to before deciding he would.  Bert held tightly to his cane as he reached down with his left hand to pick up the plastic bag he’d brought with him.

As Bert clutched the plastic bag tightly to his chest and his lips began to quiver with emotion, Trevor and Lauren both knew that the content of that plastic bag was far more consequential that the lake shore trash retrieval tool they originally suspected.  They remained in suspense as Bert resumed speaking.

“I’ve been walking down here every day for the past three weeks waiting for that lake to thaw…” Bert began, chuckling as he added, “My kids and grandkids could have wrung my neck for climbing down those steps when they were icy.  But I want to be ready on that day all that ice is gone…”  His lips began quivering even more intensely as he peeled away the plastic bag and revealed its contents, a haunting-looking urn.  Once the urn was fully in view of the teenagers who were still a bit unclear of what it was, Bert continued.  “….because when the day comes that the ice has melted, then my Evelyn gets to spend the rest of eternity in the only place we’ve ever called home.”

Trevor and Lauren gasped, breathless with emotional overload at Bert’s revelation.  A stream of tears immediately began rolling down Lauren’s cheeks and Trevor’s eyes were welling up, his flexing Adam’s apple exposing the lump in his throat as he processed all that Bert had shared.  For whatever reason, this random beach on Lake Tetonka had left an impression on Trevor years earlier, but to the old man standing in front of him, the same beach meant absolutely everything.

“I don’t know what to say,” Trevor finally got around to commenting while trying to restrain his tears as much as possible.  “I just hope that we have as many more days like today as possible heading into April to clear out that lake for you.”

Bert fought back the tears, nodding in agreement and thanking the young man who he suddenly felt an even stronger cross-generational kinship with than he had already.  Finally Bert shook himself out of it.  “Ack, definitely time for me to get out of here.  You guys came down here to have a day in the sun and I’ve gone and made everyone cry like babies.”

Trevor and Lauren both laughed, with Lauren doing so through continued sobs.  She surprised both Trevor and Bert as she launched out of her beach chair and lunged toward Bert.  She extended her cigarette-wielding left arm as far as she could behind her back while embracing Bert with her right arm.  She squeezed him tightly for an extended period, struggling to relay her words through her fully manifest emotions.  “You have nothing to apologize for, Bert!  Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful story with us.  We’ll never forget you,” she paused and then looked back to the lawn chair, using her cigarette to point in that direction.  “And don’t worry I’ll be sure to clean up the mess I made before we leave the beach,” in reference to the pile of cigarette butts she’d left in the sand.

Trevor’s emotions were accelerating again observing Lauren’s response, but as he took note of the smirk on Bert’s face as he gently held his hand on Lauren’s back, Trevor couldn’t help but smile.  The old guy probably figured his days of copping a feel from a bikini-clad young hottie were over, but Lauren was giving him one last chance today.  Lauren finally let go and Bert bid them a final adieu.  As he began to turn around and walk away, Trevor asked, “Would you like some help getting back to the house?”

“Nope, nope,” Bert asserted as he looked over his shoulder one last time.  “I made it down here.  It’s up to me to make it back up.”

Trevor smiled, anticipating that would be Bert’s response, and he hypnotically watched every step as Bert slowly drifted off to the distance.  Lauren came over and sat in front of Trevor on the same lawn chair, watching with Trevor in a prolonged silence as Bert drifted further from them, feeling as though they were given a rare opportunity to observe the final march of a great man who lived an incredible life.

Lauren took a long and contemplative drag from her cigarette, the burst of exhaled smoke escaping her respiratory system finally breaking Trevor out of his trance.  “I want a love like that, Trevor,” Lauren lamented, leaning back into his chest.

Trevor was a bit rattled by Lauren’s takeaway and couldn’t disagree with it, but measured his response carefully upon observing the depth of Lauren’s emotionally charged reaction.  “Yeah….I think we all want a love like that,” he muttered, leaning forward to kiss the back of Lauren’s head.  “Only a lucky few are able to find it.”

Lauren smiled, knowing that Trevor was referring to her.  She continued to watch Bert ascend to the top of the stairs and drift completely out of sight, taking another drag from her cigarette and then waxing even more philosophical.  “And just as Bert and Evelyn’s journey is ending, Wade and Courtney’s is beginning,” she mused, recalling the unbridled joy in Courtney’s eyes as she showed her the diamond ring that Wade had put on her finger.

Trevor kissed her on the back of the head again, his girlfriend’s poetic thoughts again reinforcing his feelings that he wanted Lauren as a writing partner despite her reluctance.

At that moment, the sun that had shined brightly all afternoon faded briefly behind a small cumulus cloud.  Trevor and Lauren hadn’t given a passing thought to bodily discomfort for nearly three hours, but the sun’s disappearing act served as a very immediate reminder to the calendar that they’d been defying thus far today.

“Brrrr….” Lauren muttered.  “It definitely gets chilly when the sun goes under a cloud!”

Trevor smirked, grabbing her by the stomach and teasingly responding, “Well lay back and we’ll keep each other warm!”

Lauren giggled and did as Trevor requested, lying back onto her boyfriend’s chest and taking a drag from her cigarette as he placed one hand on her stomach and another on her chest, rubbing her bare flesh with his warm fingers and watching as her goose bumps slowly began to recede.  He also took note of the pinkish hue on her exposed skin, the first indication of coloring that would probably morph into a golden tan in a couple of months.

“Mmmmm, that feels good baby,” Lauren offered with a combination of relaxation and pleasure in her voice, taking a final drag from her cigarette and leaning over to crush it in the sand.  “Just as long as your rubbing doesn’t turn to tickling!” she added as if egging him on.

“Lauren, I would never do that!” Trevor exclaimed his innocence a split second before morphing his fingers from a rubbing motion to a brief tickling motion on her stomach but only for a couple of seconds.

Lauren giggled, her body convulsing from the tickling before she let out an intense smoker’s cough when Trevor stopped tickling.  Her back lying on top of Trevor’s chest, she pivoted to allow her face to meet his and then began making out.  Trevor accepted her passionate open-mouth kiss, tasting an afternoon full of nonstop cigarettes on her breath and listening to the gentle wheeze of her lungs in the aftermath of the smoker’s cough as the kiss drug on.

Lauren could feel Trevor’s erection throbbing into her ass and as they separated from the kiss, she joked with a playful vocal flourish, “I can feel someone saluting the American flag!”

Trevor laughed, even though he knew it was coming as Lauren had said the same joke on the 4th of July when she last wore this bikini, but he was more surprised by Lauren’s friskiness only moments removed from the emotionally explosive moment they shared with Bert Nordgren which he figured would kill the mood for romance.  But it quickly started to make sense to Trevor that his girlfriend’s delayed biological response to such a moving love story would be to get the ball rolling on her own love story with an immediate appetite for intimacy.

Lauren reached down to her pack of Marlboro Lights 100s and plucked out another one, handing Trevor her lighter and surprising him with her request.  “So Mr. Writer, I want to hear your best hot take on your bikini-wearing, chainsmoking girlfriend as we lay here!”

Trevor was speechless as he watched Lauren’s eyebrows flutter in the direction of the cigarette he was lighting for her, her long blond hair blowing softly into his face.  He hesitated as he pondered the risky implications of Lauren’s request, knowing her mixed reaction to sharing his primal, fetish-fueled attraction to her heavy smoking last August.  But Lauren seemed to have come to terms with that, at least to an extent, after reading his creative writing journal, and right now she really seemed to be nudging Trevor to bare his soul in an effort to get them both as sexually worked up as possible.

“You want a hot take!  I’ll give you a very hot take!” Trevor teased, trying to gather his thoughts in a hurry and fuse together some works in motion he’d been toying with recently along with time-appropriate verbiage that fit the present setting.  “There once was this queen….no make that a sorceress,” Trevor opened.  “A sorceress of the sun wielding her smoky scepters…” eliciting a giggle from Lauren.  “The sorceress travels to frozen lakes and uses the power of the sun to thaw the frozen water….and the power of her smoky scepters to thaw the hearts of all the boys caught in her lair.  These boys range in age from 17-year-olds who she lays on top of and smothers….all the way to 95-year-olds who never thought they’d feel bikini boobs again until she hugged them tight.”

Lauren laughed loudly, a heavy burst of exhaled smoke filling the air above her resulting from that laughter.  She let Trevor know how turned on she was getting by shifting her ass on top of him to stoke his erection before pressing for more.  “So what’s the connection between this sorceress and her smoky scepters?”

Trevor again measured his words carefully to minimize the risk of a fully objectifying characterization.  “Oh the smoky scepters are the key that unlocks the kingdom for this sorceress.  You see, this sorceress smokes three packs of these smoky scepters a day!” Trevor enunciated to let Lauren know just how much that turned him on.  “All superheroes have a secret power and, at least for the time being, the sorceress’ secret power is the way she captivates her tormentors into submission with the allure of those smoky scepters.  But again, only for the time being….” he made sure to rein himself in.

“What happens to the sorceress later on?” Lauren inquired, the glow of her cigarette as she intensely dragged from it continuing to match the heat of her body’s internal reaction.

“Well she knows the power of her smoky scepters is such that they can bring any man to his knees!” Trevor replied.  “But she also knows the scepters’ power will one day be more than she can handle if she doesn’t relinquish them.  Until that day comes she’s gonna wield the scepters to their full power to win over her suitor….but the suitor will stand by her and continue to be at her mercy when she lays the scepters down for their happily ever after.”

Trevor paused for a moment as Lauren sucked on her cigarette, theatrically adding “The End!” before inquiring, “So how did I do?”

Lauren surprised Trevor as she grabbed hold of his hand resting on her stomach and guided it underneath the fabric of her bikini bottom.  “Does that answer your question?” Lauren asked with a lustful smirk, smoke pouring out of her face and into his as Trevor felt the wetness of her genitals on his fingers.  “The sorceress is a very happy girl!” Lauren exclaimed with a playful flourish.

As Trevor passionately petted her moist vagina under her swimsuit, he smirked and then mused, “Gotta say, Lauren.  I kind of feel like I’m defiling the American flag right now,” watching as his fingers violated the innocence of the stars and stripes covering her lower body.

Lauren laughed and then swooped in to aggressively kiss him, exchanging tongues and working herself up to a sexual crescendo with no obvious release for it.  She pulled away from the kiss and warned, “We can’t do it right here, Trevor!”

Trevor had already thought about this and then guided his eyes toward his car parked in the obscure foliage off the beach.  “Remember last Halloween when I promised you a rowdy romp on the car hood on some back road outside of Bemidji.”  As Lauren nodded enthusiastically, Trevor added “Just saying…..there’s my car right up there.  And there’s nobody else on this back road.”

Lauren couldn’t contain her glee any longer, exclaiming “Take me, baby!” and taking a final intense drag from her cigarette as Trevor stood up and began to carry her off the beach.

Moments later, Lauren’s upper body was sprawled out across Trevor’s car hood and her bikini bottom was wrapped up around her ankles, with Trevor firmly pinning her down with his hand on her lower back. She couldn’t help but notice that the warmth of the steel car hood that had absorbed an afternoon full of March sun felt just as good on her bare chest and stomach as Trevor’s hardness felt aggressively invading her from behind.  Despite Trevor’s carefully worded narrative from a few minutes earlier, it was obvious to Lauren based on the passion he was exercising at this moment while taking her so primally that there was serious objectifying going on regarding his fetish for her smoking.  But Lauren’s just-realized epiphany was…..so what if he did objectify her about it.  It was abundantly clear to Lauren that Trevor’s feelings for her ran much deeper than his superficial fetish for her smoking, so if the smoking was icing on the cake to intensify and fast-track those feelings in their relationship’s origin, it just made it that much easier to declare victory.

Lauren also internalized Bert’s comments about “knowing when to quit smoking” as he and his wife did in their 40s, formalizing Lauren’s thoughts on continuing to deploy her smoking as a tool for seduction during the passionate youthful years of their courtship so long as she fully committed herself to quitting smoking for the mature years on the distant horizon.  She was at peace with this calculation and smiled as she imagined her life with Trevor playing out the way Bert and Evelyn Nordgren’s life together played out.  But then she smiled again, grunting after a particularly fierce vaginal penetration by Trevor and deciding she was getting ahead of herself thinking about what she and Trevor would be like when they’re 90.  Right now, she was gonna turn her mind off and enjoy the pleasure of the current magical moment for as long as it lasted.

————————

“My grandparents were among the waves of ‘boat people’ who came here from Vietnam after the war in the late 70s.  My mom was two years old when we came to America,” Keegan explained, continuing to ruffle his fingers through Haylee’s hair as her head remained peacefully buried in his chest after more than two hours.

Half smoked cigarette dangling lazily from her lips, Haylee asked, “How did you end up in Minnesota?”

“Quite a few of the boat people settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul actually,” Keegan replied.  “A lot of churches sponsored them.  My mom still kind of felt like an outcast growing up here though, and some people who couldn’t let go of the war said racist shit to her when she was a girl.”

“That’s terrible!” Haylee said through a messy talking exhale.  “Does that still happen to her now?”

Keegan shrugged.  “I don’t think so.  She doesn’t mention it if it does.  She’s pretty Americanized by now.”  He paused and chuckled, adding “My yawg Nguyen though….still not so Americanized.  My white dad still gets some uncomfortable comments from him on holidays.”

Haylee laughed, removing her cigarette from her mouth to ash it and then asking “‘Yawg’ is the Hmong term for grandpa?”

“Yep,” Keegan responded.  “When my parents started dating in the late 90s, there was a lot of tension on both sides of the family about the racial mixing.  But two decades and three grandchildren later, everybody’s pretty much come around…..for the most part at least.”

“That’s such a great story, Keegan,” Haylee rhapsodized.  “And you’re the middle child?”

“Right.  Older sister and younger brother,” Keegan replied.  “We all feel pretty lucky that we have family and friends who don’t make us pick sides anymore…racially I mean.”

“I’m sure,” Haylee responded, taking a final dangling drag from her cigarette and then tossing the pink and white butt to the curb as she’d done with several others during her extended sit with Keegan on this bench.  She then lifted her head from his chest to make eyes with him again, residual smoke spilling from her mouth and nose as she asked, “So do you think your parents will be just as pissed as your grandparents were when they find out the smoker girl from your driver’s training class is the reason you stink of smoke every day even after our classes end?”

Keegan smirked.  “It’s possible but I kind of think they’ll understand,” he responded. “I think if anybody would give a chance to a girl their son goes out with that they might not approve of right away, it would be my parents.”  Getting confidence from Haylee’s puppy dog eyes enraptured by him, Keegan then leaned forward to kiss Haylee on the forehead.

A deeply flattered and lovestruck smile beamed on Haylee’s face as she continued to look up to the dark and handsome young man holding her in his arms, an eagerness to go a little further than Keegan was probably ready to.

Sensing this, and suddenly becoming cognizant of the time, Keegan decided he should draw attention to the clock for Haylee’s benefit and his own.  “I love having you with me, Haylee, but didn’t you say your dad would be home by 5?  It’s quarter till now.”

Haylee’s peaceful state of romantic bliss instantly shifted to breathless panic as she launched to her feet off of the bench.  “Shit!  I totally lost track of time!”  She put her hand on her face as she looked at her phone to confirm the time was 4:43, trying to figure out what to do.  “I’m totally fucked if he beats me home!  And he’s usually right on time!”

Keegan looked at her as though she wouldn’t like what he had to say next.  “Haylee, the only way you’re gonna make it home in 15 minutes is if you take the freeway.”

An additional wave of panic filled Haylee’s mind as she processed Keegan’s words and realized he was right.  She had about 10 seconds to decide which was more terrifying…..trying to drive on 494 during rush hour or pulling into the driveway in Courtney’s stolen car after her dad made it home.  As hard as the choice was, it ended up being painfully easy.

————————

Driving home from Lake Tetonka, Trevor steered his car in the direction of the freeway with his mind far more at ease than his kid sister heading in the direction of a different freeway.  He looked over to Lauren in the passenger seat, the glow on her face indicative of more than merely the sun she’d taken in this afternoon.  She pulled her cigarette to her lips and made eye contact with Trevor, her smile beaming to remind him how great of an idea it proved to be for him to take her on this spring break road trip.

As Trevor approached the turn lane for northbound Interstate 35 to head back to the Cities, he briefly froze as he laid eyes on the highway sign on the eastbound state road they were just pulling off of that read “Cannon City 45 miles”.  He glanced Lauren’s direction out of the corner of his eye, hoping she’d missed it but immediately noticing that her beaming glow had transformed into a troubled flashback as she recalled what that town meant to her six short months earlier.

Trevor maintained his silence as he pulled onto the interstate, hoping the memory would pass for Lauren, but after a few moments of contemplative silence, Trevor was stunned by the sound of her voice.

“I wasn’t lying, Trevor….” Lauren confessed, residual smoke trickling from her mouth and nose.  “He didn’t rape me.”

Trevor’s heart sunk.  Part of him had long wanted for Lauren to broach this topic that she made him promise to never speak of again.  But more recently, he mostly hoped that the topic would stay buried forever.  He tried to focus on the freeway driving but couldn’t avoid making intense eye contact with Lauren.  Choosing his words carefully, Trevor eventually responded, “You sure were shaken by whatever happened if it wasn’t rape.”

“Oh he was planning to rape me,” Lauren clarified.  “But I fought him off, baby.  You’d have been so proud of me.”

Trevor smiled and nodded to reflect that he was proud of her while trying to hold back his emotion, again searching for the right words to respond.  He was instinctively skeptical that Lauren had been able to fight off the menacing troglodyte Dusty Beaudry who had five inches and 50 pounds on her and he wondered if she had invented this escape story in her mind as a means of coping with what happened.  Still, he wasn’t gonna pretend to know enough to challenge her about it.

Lauren filled the silence by continuing, “I know this hasn’t been easy for you and you’ve probably wanted to talk about it as much as I’ve wanted to avoid it, but if I have to go back to Cannon City for Wade and Courtney’s wedding later this year then I gotta come to terms with this.”

Trevor nodded in agreement.  “I’m really glad you opened up about this to me, Lauren.  I’ve wanted to hear your side since the day it happened.  But I think if you really want to come to terms with this, you’re gonna want to talk to a therapist.”

Lauren frowned as she dragged furiously from her cigarette.  “I can’t do that without my parents finding out!”

“Not necessarily,” Trevor responded.  “I bet your counselor at school could help you out….or point you in the direction of someone who can.”

Lauren nodded but seemed skeptical and noncommittal.  “Maybe but they’ll also probably push me to testify against him and I won’t do that!  I want this behind me!”

Trevor tried to maintain his cool, avoiding firing back with words along the lines of “it never being behind her if she didn’t step up” given that he couldn’t possibly understand what she was going through.  Instead, he decided to let the published words sent to him anonymously months earlier do the talking for him.

“Back in December, I got a piece of mail addressed to me with no return address,” Trevor revealed, leaning down to the small storage space at the bottom of his car door where he’d kept it for the last three months and then handing it to Lauren.  “Why don’t you take a look at it?”

Lauren looked at Trevor with trepidation before taking the envelope he handed to her.  Trevor sat quietly and allowed Lauren to read it.  A page from the Cannon City Times newspaper was folded up inside the envelope.  Lauren looked at the headline reading “Rape Investigation Reopened”.  She took an inquisitive drag from her mostly smoked cigarette as she scanned the rest of the article, revealing that recent developments, including an anonymously delivered recording, led to the reopening of a cold case into a four-year-old rape investigation, asking for help from anybody who has more information.

Lauren’s mouth hung open in a restrained panic as she looked to Trevor.  “Who do you think sent this?”

Trevor looked at her with obvious eyes.  “I think we both know,” Trevor responded, confident that it was Wade.

Lauren looked down sheepishly as she pondered what to do, taking the final drag from her cigarette and then tossing the butt out the cracked window, filling the cab of Trevor’s car with a final flurry of exhaled smoke.

Trevor chimed in with his two cents, still being as delicate as possible with his words.  “Not a day has passed since September that I haven’t wanted to kill that bastard for what he did to you.  But I made a promise to you and I intend to keep it,” he paused and then added, “I’d sure sleep better at night if I knew he couldn’t do it to another girl.”

Trevor then extended his hand Lauren’s way to make clear this was a judgment-free zone no matter what she decided.  A nervous but warm smile flashed on Lauren’s face as she continued processing everything she had just taken in, grabbing hold of her boyfriend’s offered hand and squeezing it tightly with unspoken gratitude for being such a wonderful partner to her through good and bad.

——————-

Haylee clutched the steering wheel of Courtney’s car as she zoomed southbound on Interstate 494 right at the dawn of rush hour with an entirely different energy than her brother was experiencing heading northbound on Interstate 35 across town.  Cigarette dangling from her lips, she felt an amazing sense of liberation flowing through her veins as she navigated through the dense, fast-moving freeway traffic, in sharp contrast to the panic she felt pulling onto the on-ramp and in even sharper contrast to her pitiful performance driving with her dad at the beginning of the week.  Necessity was proving to be the strongest motivator right now, and it was hard to imagine a more urgent situation than beating her father home this afternoon.

Peeking to the clock on the dashboard reading 4:49, Haylee puckered her lips around her dangling cigarette and gave the car a little more gas.  It felt like an out-of-body experience as she weaved her way in and out of lanes like she was Vin Diesel, and her heart began racing with pure adrenaline rather than panic.  Eventually, she reminded herself to settle down, trying not to enjoy the thrill she felt right now too much.  Even if she made it home today, she didn’t want a make a habit of living on the edge like this.  Still, it seemed worth the risk to have met up with Keegan and spend this quality alone time getting to know him today…..and the feeling of taking complete control of this automobile that she was so terrified of only three days earlier felt pretty damn good too.

As Haylee connected the dots between stealing Courtney’s car and beating her dad home, she laughed out loud and belched out a giant snootful of smoke in the process as she recalled the closing scene from father and daughter’s favorite movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Courtney had introduced Haylee to the film last summer during their girls’ night after Haylee and Jacob just broke up, and right now, Haylee was poised to bring that movie’s ending to life.  She looked up to the freeway sign marking one mile to the exit leading to her home, and she said a silent prayer that her timing would prove to be as good as Ferris’s.

Haylee sped off the freeway ramp, struggling to maintain control of the car going 15 miles over the speed limit.  She pumped the brake and held her breath as it came to a stop much more slowly than she was used to at this high speed, but she successfully applied the brake in time to avoid the car in front of her at the red light.  Haylee finally ashed her cigarette out the cracked window, taking a deep breath with residual smoke gushing from her face as she looked at the clock reading 4:54.  She took a final neurotic drag and then shouted to herself “C’mon!!!” hoping it would turn the traffic light green for the right turn she needed to make.

Haylee peeled out when the light turned green, reminding herself of the need to balance her desperate need to get home with both avoiding an accident and avoiding the attention of any cop who might pull her over.  Home was in sight as she got off the commercial strip and weaved her way through the residential neighborhood where she grew up.  Darting her eyes repeatedly at the clock as the minutes ticked by, she was increasingly confident that everything was gonna work out.

Moments later, Haylee took one final sharp turn, squealing her tires onto the street where her family lived, praying she didn’t see either her father’s car or Trevor’s car in the driveway.  Relief slowly filtered through her bloodstream in a way only nicotine was usually able to do for her as she approached the McPherson home and still had the driveway all to herself.  Her relief turned to euphoria as she confirmed that she was about to get away with her ill-advised joy ride, pulling into the driveway a little too fast, but able to hit the brake before hitting the garage door.  She put Courtney’s car in park and hustled toward the door, unlocking the front door with her key and nervously looking back at the residual noises of the car’s engine cooling down, thinking what a bummer it would be if she made it this far only to get busted because her dad got home and could tell Courtney’s car had recently been running.  She blocked that out of her mind as she opened the door, setting foot in her house and feeling more relieved to be home than she could ever remember as she placed Courtney’s car keys on the countertop exactly where she left them.

Haylee lit a victory cigarette and crashed onto the couch, her smoked-out lungs gasping a bit after her exhilirating adventure.  She looked at her phone to see it turn from 4:59 to 5:00, and she began texting Keegan through a haze of smoke swirling around her face. “Just got home!  Beat my dad somehow!  That was way too close!”

No sooner did she set her phone down than she heard a car pull into the driveway.  Sure enough, it was her dad arriving pretty much right on schedule.  As much as Haylee wanted him not to come home on time just a few minutes earlier, she was actually feeling pretty good about his prompt arrival now.  In moments, Steve walked in the door and made eye contact with her lounging on the couch.

“Hello Haylee,” Steve greeted, picking up immediately on something unusually perky about her mood today but assuming it was related to another full day of ongoing texts with her new friend Keegan.  “How was your Friday?” he pressed.

Cigarette dangling from her lips, Haylee shrugged as though nothing unusual had happened, responding “Okay…..pretty boring actually,” through a messy talking exhale.

Steve nodded, not fully convinced but having no reason to doubt her beyond a gut feeling.  “We can go out driving before supper today if you’d like,” Steve offered.

Haylee gave him an appreciative but guilt-ridden smile and replied, “Nah I think I’m good today.  Maybe tomorrow though.”

Steve shrugged and responded “Okay,” before drifting to the stairway to head upstairs and change out of his work clothes.

As full of herself as she could ever recall being watching her father drift out of sight, Haylee removed her cigarette from her mouth to ash and decided to take a selfie to capture her best mid-80s Matthew Broderick smirk for successfully pulling off the best race-against-the-clock return home since Ferris Bueller.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

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 | 4 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 end, 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 ash 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 tomor