The Downward Spiral

(by an4@anon.lelnet.com, 28 February 1998)


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The Downward Spiral
an4@anon.blah.blah		

   It was strange, coming back to this house.
   Without the real estate agent, anyway. Helen had visited the house twice and
then placed an offer. It was well over what the other couple who'd placed an
offer on the house had put together. Helen knew it was little mean, the way
she'd gone about it, but she'd forced her agent to put an offer in that was
twenty thousand over market price because she could pay cash and they'd never
be able to match.
   She wanted this house.
   But the strange tone of the woman made her wonder if any amount of money
would be enough. Still she had called, had said that she had certain
reservations- people were squeamish when you offered to pay cash these days-
as if the money might not be clean or something.
   Of course, the couple selling knew very well that Helen was a successful
author, still shy of thirty but already with three best sellers and more than
enough to cover the cost of the house, especially after the check for the
movie rights to Down with the Fish  cleared.
   She rang the bell hesitantly, wondering if this was some odd sort of
discrimination against a single woman up fighting with a young married couple.
It might just make for the basis of a good short.
   The woman came to the door, flashing a wan smile.
   "I'm glad you could make it, Helen."
   She brought a just lit Marlboro Lights 100 to her lips and inhaled deeply.
   The smoke which soon poured from her mouth was interesting. Helen had always
been fascinated by smokers, even though she herself had no real interest in
the habit. The heroine of her three novels was a smoker, and that was all the
experimentation she needed.
   Truth was, the woman was beautiful. Mid-twenties, large breasted, tall with
the sort of long straight blonde hair only a taller woman could pull off
properly. But it was clearly the cigarette which defined her, its clean white
line in her hand speaking somehow to who she was.
   "Come on in. And try not to look so nervous, Helen. I didn't ask you here to
tell you we're going to sell the house to that other couple."
   Helen stepped into the house, noticing again that the house seemed to have
that eternal smell of slightly stale smoke.
   It wasn't unpleasant to Helen, just unusual.
   Pam lead her guest into the kitchen, trying to make her more at ease.
   "Tea or beer. I know that it's early, but personally, since it's a Saturday,
I'd rather go with the beer."
   Helen agreed that beer was the better of the two options and Pam quickly
produced two without putting down the cigarette at any point.
   "You must want to know why I did ask you to come here," Pam finally said, and
Helen admitted to herself that this was not one of her novels which she could
put aside and come back to when the moment was less painful.
   "Well, despite of your assurance, I can't help but think that you'd rather
see your house go to a married couple than a single women who's trying to
throw her money around."
   Pam actually laughed. then she drew deeply on her cigarette again, smiling
the whole time. This time she released the smoke from her lungs with a slow
and patient nose exhale.
   Helen studied the exhale, thinking about what words could best be used to
describe it, as Pam somehow reminded her of Maureen, the character who was by
and large going to pay for this house if she happened to be so lucky. The
adrenaline rush of getting to the point was maddening right now and she
realised that as much as she was studying Pam, the other woman was studying
her.
   "Don't be silly," she said finally. "We would never sell the house to that
couple just because they're married and you're not. To be honest, they don't
strike us as being quite ready to take on a house. The foundation they're
building on isn't quite that solid yet- oh, I know, that's a terrible thing to
say- but I have to be honest. I would rather sell to them at this point in
time, which is why I wanted to speak with you. On a purely selfish level, I'd
rather we took your money, but-"
   If it wasn't because she was single, what the hell was it ?
   "Can I ask what your reservation is ?"
   "Of course. It's the fact that you don't smoke, Helen."
   "What ?"
   Pam once again inhaled deeply, and despite what she'd just said, Helen found
herself watching this show intently. Pam was such a natural smoker, and that
was what was so pleasant about it. There was no sense that she was engaging in
an habit. She was simply enjoying herself in a way few women could truly know.
The more she wrote about Maureen, the more she watched other women smoke.
   Of course, Maureen was based on her friend Janet, who was a pack a day smoker
and regular visitor to Helen's once adequate apartment. Funny how seeing the
right house made your apartment into a dump overnight, but that was what had
happened to Helen.
   "You don't smoke and I would much rather sell the house to a smoker. When I
first met you- well, I have to admit to being a fan- the real estate agent
told us to keep that to ourselves, but now that your offer is on the table I
guess I can let you in on the secret that both my husband and I are big fans
of yours. But I was shocked to discover that the woman behind Maureen Bilstott
isn't a smoker."
   "Why ?" Helen asked. The thought had never occurred to her.
   "Because Maureen smokes in a way that- well, I never expected that a non-
smoker could capture what smoking is about so perfectly."
   "She's based on a friend who I spend a lot of time with and is a very
devoted smoker. She wakes up with a cigarette in her hand and smokes all day.
Writes poetry. Says it helps her think."
   Pam inhaled deeply, flashed her killer smile. Her nose exhale was worth
writing about all by itself.
   "Maureen never struck me as a poet."
   "My friend calls her the anti-poet. Based on the idea that poets are
philosophers who choose a more direct form of expression. It's a little more
complicated of an explanation than I like to apply to my own writing, but in a
way it fits-"
   Amasingly, Pam was already steeled for another deep, sensuous inhale. She
gave Helen another beautiful nose exhale which would in itself provide the
basis of the idea she'd start forming in the car ride home for a longer short.
   "Maureen's devoted to action, but in a very elliptical sort of way. I like
the explanation."
   "Does the other couple smoke ?" Helen asked. She had an idea that no amount
of beer would prevent this becoming an awkward conversation but she took a
deep draw on the bottle anyway and hoped for the best.
   "Oh yes. Ursula smokes Virginia Slims and Harold has this marvelous pipe. His
tobacco has the amasing vanilla scent- it makes me wish I could get Dirk to
try a pipe, but he's as married to his cigars as he is to me."
   She laughed. Rather, it was a titter. Thoroughly engaging. Helen liked her at
once, even though she was about to tell her that she wasn't in the mood to
sell her house to a non-smoker, not even for cash up front and plenty of it.
   "So you'd rather sell the house to them. I have to admit that I'm fascinated.
I mean, I've heard of looking down on people because they were smokers, but-"
   Reaching across the table, Pam tapped the ash off her cigarette into a
crystal ashtray which was practically under Helen's nose. She found herself
drawn to the smell of the burning tobacco in a way that she never was around
Janet. Absurdly, she found a certain line from NIN's Closer running in bass
rhythm through her mind, a certain line that prevented the song from getting
any airtime save on college radio stations, and it wasn't `my whole existence
is flawed, you bring me closer to god,' either.
   Deep guitar beats and the ugly edged voice of Trent Reznor was forced down so
that she could concentrate on what Pam was saying.
   Her words were carried on the trail of her exhale.
   "Oh, it's not exactly like that. I mean, I have a few friends who don't
smoke- unavoidable when only thirty percent of the population understands the
habit and you work in an academic environment."
   "Then what is it ?" Helen asked, wishing that line would fade from her
thoughts. It wasn't exactly true, after all.
   "Well, it's the girl next store. Robyn Finck. She's such a sweetie-
especially considering all she's been through."
   It was with perfect honesty that Helen said "I'm sure I don't understand."
   "Of course not," Pam said matter of factly. "How could you ? The truth is
that Robin is the sweetest human being you could hope to know- sometimes I
wish I was a seventeen year old boy, just because- well, that probably sounds
crazy-"
   Helen watched Pam draw on her cigarette again, heard that same damn pair of
lines and thought that it wasn't crazy in the least.
   "No. Please go on."
   "Well, it's complicated. About four months ago, Robyn's mother and father
were in a car accident. The usual. Icy road late at night. Head on with a
semi- he was killed, and she lost the boy she was carrying. Now, you can maybe
see that with a name like Robyn, they were hoping she was a boy. Oh, that must
sound crazy too, but I knew them. All her mother Darla could talk about was
how they were finally going to have a boy in the house and-"
   "I can't say I know how that is but I think I know what it is that you're
getting at."
   "Maybe. It gets a little dark from there. There's been a real downward spiral
in that house the last few months. Darla would never hit Robyn-"
   "But the cruelest blows are never truly struck," Helen finished, although she
couldn't exactly place the reference.
   "Exactly. Robyn would have been depressed enough without her mother's
constant help, so-"
   "She came to you. And I guess part of that is that you let her smoke with
you, right ?"
   It was a certain bit of intuitive leap, but Pam's expression told Helen that
she was indeed right.
   "Yes. For the last three months. Ironic since Darla had quit- that pregnant
thing, you know ?"
   "Well, those are two things I don't think I could say I know about. I mean, I
hope that Maureen never gets pregnant, because I can't image how'd I'd write
any of that."
   Once again, Pam laughed, but there was a richer quality to it. Taking one
final pull on the cigarette, she brought the ashtray closer before stubbing it
out. She did it quit efficiently and no smoke curled up from it in that harsh
way they would if you didn't do it right. She then took a long pull of her
beer and ended with a smile.
   "What's so humorous ?" Helen asked, feeling herself sliding down some
dangerously slippery slope towards- towards what ? Friendship. It seemed
unlikely under the circumstances.
   When she took another slug of beer she found that the bottle was already
empty and Pam answered the question as she was walking to the fridge to fetch
a refill.
   "The way that you talk about your character as though you're not sure what
the future holds for her."
   Now it was Helen who chuckled. "Of course I don't. If I knew when I sat down
in front of my G3 and started unravelling it, I'd stop writing. That would be
boring."
   The look on Pam's face as she passed the beer across the table told Helen she
didn't understand.
   Anymore than Helen really understood what caused that look of satisfaction to
cross Pam's face as she lit another cigarette.
   "The same reason you read is the reason I write. That must seem strange, but
the truth is I start any piece of work- whether it's a short or novel, to find
out what happens at the end. Which is why I'd be interested in hearing more
about this Robyn. And-"
   "How that affects whether or not you get to buy my house ?'
   "Exactly."
   "Well, the stress was really getting to Robyn- and before I go any farther I
have to say that I'm not an horrible person or anything. Don't be offended,
but as you are a non-smoker I feel that I need to point that out to you. I
suggested that Robyn take up smoking to relieve stress. I know that smoking
has seen me through things I'd rather forget, and she was very interested- I
think she was looking for an excuse to start."
   "I think I understand. Not about the smoking, but at least about how this
affects me. You're going to want me to allow her to come over here and smoke
when she- I don't know, is need the right word ?"
   "I'd say want. But there's a little more to it than even that. I'll want you
to make sure that she has something to smoke. Obviously with me here, that's
not a problem. I'll leave you a carton to start with and then after that-"
   Pam inhaled deeply, savouring the taste and texture of the smoke as well as
its effect on her. Helen found herself draw to this hedonistic display.
   "You realise that what you are asking me to do is very strange- but
considering just how much I want this house- tell me more about Robyn."
   Pam did, and as she spoke- at great length- Helen got the weirdest idea that
she was making a friend.

   Helen moved in about a week after the closing. She gave herself the day off
from writing to settle in- the movers never really put things where you
wanted, after all, no matter how nice they tried to be about it. She walked
into the kitchen and reached above the refrigerator, which Pam had
meticulously cleaned before moving out.
   The carton was there.
   Helen took it down from its waiting place. She'd never held a carton of
cigarettes before- only rarely had she even seen such a thing up close, in the
hands of Janet. 
   Marlboro Lights 100s. In a small black oval it were the words `Flip-Top Box'.
The carton felt strange, taunt, almost enticing. Inside were ten packs of
cigarettes. 200 total, what seemed to Helen to be a lifetime's worth of
cigarettes. She reached for the end flap, thought about opening the carton,
and then decided against it. She was feeling an overwhelming sense of
curiosity, which perhaps meant she should leave these be until Robyn finally
came by for the first time.
   Pam said that she'd explained it all to Robyn, how she would be welcome to
continue coming over- and to smoke. She did not, on the other hand, explain
the details of the sale of the house as that hardly seemed to be something
that she needed to know. Helen had a feeling that she felt Robyn wouldn't come
if it were nothing more than a condition for Helen.
   Not that there was much Pam could do about it, one way or another. They had
her money and she had their house- or rather what had been their house. But
Helen wasn't one to make deals and then go back on them, regardless of how
strange they might be.
   Just as she was thinking about the oddities of the deal, in walked Janet.
There was no knock, no warning hello, but rather just a breeze of friend
blowing through the back door as though this was her apartment down on Dunham
street. There had been a small part- a very small part- of Helen who wanted
not to tell Janet her new address.
   Tall and leggy, Janet strode across the kitchen floor in all of about two
steps. In her right hand she was holding a just lit Salem Lights 100, and as
she put it to her mouth, she turned her head towards the refrigerator- and saw
the carton of cigarettes sitting on the top.
   "What's going on, Helen ?" she asked, her voice devilishly thick with
intrigue and cigarette smoke. "Finally decided to see how the other half lives
?"
   Helen grinned. "It's the other thirty percent, Janet, and no, the past owners
left them here on purpose."
   Janet sat down across the table from her friend, looked at her over her
glasses, and tapped ash into the familiar ashtray, which Pam had thoughtfully
left behind.
   "Honey, a smoker does not leave behind a carton of cigarettes. Trust me when
I saw this. Besides the fact that it's a waste of upwards of twenty dollars,
it's- well, no one would do that. So tell me the truth, huh ?"
   Helen thought about the ramifications of the truth and found that there was
nothing all that bad about telling it.
   As Janet smoked, Helen explained exactly how it was that she'd come into
possession of the house, the deal she'd made which ensured it. Janet smiled
throughout, except when Helen talked about Robyn's mother had been treating
her only child. By the time she was done talking, it was time for Janet to go
again.
   She lit another cigarette as she stood up, pulling deeply on it. For the
first time, and maybe it was just something about this house, Janet looked
positively sexual as she drew smoke deep into her lungs, her cheeks hollowing
out as she filled herself with the mentholated, nicotine carrying vehicle of
her pleasure.
   "I am a little disappointed," she said, and as she spoke, each word was
carried on smoke. "I was hoping they were yours."
   "Why ?" Helen asked, surprised. One of things which amased her about Janet
was that in the eight years she'd known her she'd never once tried to talk her
into taking up smoking. There were times, and it was a strange thought, that
Helen's feelings were mildly hurt by her friend's disinterest in her lack of
interest about smoking. As was as if she had no intention of sharing the thing
which gave her the most enjoyment.
   "What do you mean ?"
   "Why ? It's a question. I've never understood why you've had no interest in
my smoking."
   "That's a strange thing for you to say. Your smoking. That's the point. There
is no `your smoking.' You have no interest in it- although you certainly write
about it enough."
   Helen smiled an author's smile. When you told someone a character was based
on someone other than yourself, they actually believed it. As if any character
you penned could be entirely devoid of the self. Helen might not believe in
such esoteric things as ka, but there was no question in her own mind she'd
never written anyone who wasn't at least in some small way, an extension of
her own being.
   "That never made you curious ?"
   "No. Maureen is based on me. I can see that, although there are times that's
not exactly flattering. But you- you've never shown anything beyond a grudging
tolerance of my habit."
   Suddenly Helen wanted to change the subject. "You're leaving without the
grand tour ?"
   "Gotta run. I'm meeting Michael in half an hour and you know what a great big
stick he has up his ass about punitively. I'd sooner run naked through a
broken glass factory than be five minutes late to meet him."
   "There's no such thing as a broken glass factory," Helen said, amused.
   "I see you haven't read the poem I e-mailed you this morning."
   "Haven't had time. Haven't even turned on the Powerbook yet today."
   "The world stop turning while I slept ?"
   Helen laughed. "Now that's a great idea for a poem. You better get going."
   She walked her friend to the door and saw Robyn standing hesitantly in her
own back yard. Helen wondered how long she'd been there, if she was waiting to
come over.
   Naturally, Janet saw as well, and as soon as she was in the driveway she
called the girl over and they talked briefly. Helen immediately sensed a plot
of some sort- that was a terrible way to think about a friend, but the word
conniving had been invented for Janet Lester.
   Soon after she was gone, driving off with the sort of breakneck efficiency
only she could manage.
   Robyn walked slowly towards the house. She really was a beautiful teenager.
Long auburn hair which the wind teased without devastating. Helen found her
jealous of that hair. And of the girl's breasts as well. they were ample
without looking surgical, the sort of breasts which would be pert and then age
without sagging, the sort of breasts which men enjoyed sinking their hands
into.
   Janet was right, Helen realised. She did need to start dating more.
   Her stride was not the sort of defeated, half-hearted walk Helen expected
from a sad teenage girl. She smiled as she reached the back step and extended
her hand gracefully. The fingers were long for a short girl- she couldn't have
been more than 5'2". Only her nails, which showed obvious signs of being
bitten, were less than appealing. But that additional oral fixation was not
hard to understand. Most of the smokers Helen knew were also nail biters, and
Janet was a prodigious one.
   "I'm Robyn."
   "Helen-"
   "Helen C. Bonham, author of Down with the Fish, In the Space of Night, and
Downward Progressions. I love your work, although you should have just titled
your last novel the Downward Spiral."
   "The name was already taken. Come on in-"
   "So you must listen to Nails, right ?" Robyn asked as she stepped inside.
   "Yeah. How'd you know ?"
   Robyn sat down at the table, looked at the ashtray with the single cigarette
in it, and smiled a knowing smile.
   "Well, when Maureen says `You can have it all, my whole empire of dirt',
that's sort of a dead giveaway, isn't it ?"
   "I suppose it is. I had and hadn't meant to be so transparent."
   Helen reached over the fridge and pulled the carton down. She opened one end
flap carefully, tried to let a single pack fall out, and then reached in and
took one.
   "You know, when Pam told me she was moving, all I could think of was another
line from that same song `Everyone I know goes away in the end.'"
   As Helen reached out and handed Robyn the cigarettes, she thought about how
sad that was. That this girl lived with a woman whose husband had died, whose
child had died, and maybe there was a woman who didn't think about the fact
that the woman she shared her life with had lost a father as well. It had been
on Helen's mind a lot this last week, how to handle all this.
   Of course, if it didn't work out, she could just give the girl the whole
carton and tell her to come back when she needed more.
   "You don't smoke. That's amasing, you know. You write Maureen as though you
did."
   "Pam said the same thing."
   "Pam was really good to me. I'm sorry if all this makes you uncomfortable."
   "Not at all," Helen said, trying to naturalise the lie. "Go ahead. I have a
very close friend who smokes- I think you just met her, so I have no problem
with it-"
   "That's not what she said," Robyn replied good-naturedly. She tore the
cellophane from the pack and got up, dropping it in the wastebasket. She then
sat down again and cracked back the flip-top box. 
   "I've been waiting all day for this."
   "Aren't you worried that your mother will, I don't know, smell the smoke on
you or something ?"
   "No. Only non-smokers notice that, and she started again the day after my
father died. And yes, despite that, hardly a day goes by that she doesn't tell
me I'll be grounded for life if she catches me smoking."
   "That's-"
   "Hypocritical. Not really," Robyn said, lighting her cigarette with a lighter
from her purse. "I am only fifteen, you know. I suppose it's her slightly
twisted way of saying that she cares, you know."
   "I suppose. So I guess you must miss Pam."
   Robyn's inhale sparked her face into a pleasant, almost ethereal glow. She
was really a stunning girl, one of those people who looked good smoking a
cigarette. As she exhaled- not so much exhaling as allowing the smoke to
slowly leak from her almost closed and mouth- and that after holding the smoke
for longer than Helen thought possible for such small lungs- she smiled again.
   "You're surprised that I've read your work, aren't you ?"
   "Well," Helen said, willing herself as she did with Janet not to be disturbed
by the second-hand smoke, "you're not the intended target audience, but then
again, target audiences are for publishers and best sellers lists. I'm
flattered, that's all. Most teenagers don't read much they don't have to."
   "Actually, Down with the Fish was required reading in Comparative American
Lit."
   "You take Comp Lit in high school ?"
   "I go to a private school. That's been a real hassle the last week. Pam used
to give me a ride every morning. Now Mom has to do it and she's been getting
into work late. I have a feeling this is my last quarter. Which would have
advantages. I'm sick of that stupid skirt shtick."
   She inhaled again and Helen found herself wondering what it was that she was
missing. With Janet, she no longer really noticed her smoking. But watching
Robyn made her think again how odd it was that Janet had never encouraged her
to smoke. The truth was she was annoyed. It was silly to think of it as
selfish behaviour, and yet-
   "Any chance that getting a ride from someone else would be of any help ?"
Helen asked, surprising herself.
   "I couldn't let you do that," Robyn said. "I mean, I could, but you hardly
know me and I'm sure that you work very hard-"
   "I take it you've never been a writer."
   Robyn took another hit on the cigarette. Her appetite for it surprised Helen
greatly. It was obvious just from this short display that she wasn't just
smoking to relax. She clearly enjoyed it- apparently a great deal, if the
smile which came over her face was any indication.
   "You don't even know me yet. I mean, don't get me wrong. I would way rather
get a ride from you than from my mother. But I don't think she'd understand
it."
   "We could say that Pam had worked it out with us, you know."
   "That's fine with me. I don't suppose you'd want to pick me up at three in
the afternoon too by any chance ?"
   "Sure. We'll try it out and see how it works. But I'll have to meet my mom,
you know."
   "Then why don't I tell you about her ?'
   Two hours later and eight cigarettes later, Robyn excused herself. She was
going to take a run and a shower before her mother got home.
   Helen thought she understood things better after that, but in truth, it was
only the beginning.

   Late that night, Helen found herself feeling tired. It had been a very long
day, and in the end, she couldn't really stay away from her writing. Still, as
the clock wound past eleven, she found herself drifting between the waking
world and another one. She would put down a few sentences, then her eyes would
close and she would wallow in an half-waking state. She snapped to at about
eleven-fifteen and found herself craving something indescribable. The truth
was, she was making great progress on what had started out as a short but was
rapidly turning into the kernel of a new novel.
   There was no way she wanted to go to bed, but how was she going to stay awake
?
   There was no coffee in the house. The coffee maker was all set up but there
was nothing to brew, and coffee wasn't what she wanted, anymore than she
wanted food. A snack would likely put her right to sleep. But she wandered
into the kitchen anyway.
   It still smelled smoky from Janet and Robyn. The truth was, although Robyn
herself was a sad young girl in many ways, Helen had really enjoyed talking to
her. She wondered if the girl was still up, locked in her loveless world, but
there was no way to know as the girl's room was on the far side of the house
next door.
   She was supposed to meet the mother tomorrow.
   But that wasn't what was on her mind. No, she found herself, still drifting
between wake and sleep, standing in front of the refrigerator, idly studying-
   Studying what ?
   The carton of cigarettes on top of the fridge.
   Yes, that was why she'd come here. Nicotine was a stimulant, wasn't it ? She
needed something to bring the edge back. And she seemed to remember seeing a
lighter in the utensil drawer which Pam had left behind.
   The thought of that white plastic bic seemed oddly compelling. Helen walked
over to the counter and opened the drawer. yes, the lighter was there. She
picked it out of the drawer and held it in her left hand.
   There was nothing sinister about it.
   It was easy to flick the wheel and draw forth the flame.
   Of course, at the moment there was nothing for the flame to do. No cigarette
to light, no fire in the fireplace to call forth. It was just a dancing butane
sprite.
   "What am I doing ?" Helen asked herself.
   She stopped the flame. That to was easy. There was no shaking it or blowing
on it, no work at all to make the flame disappear.
   She found herself in front of the refrigerator again. The carton of
cigarettes sat there, calling to her, begging for attention. She wondered if
this house had some psychic residue from the people who'd been here before
her, a legacy of smoking which was intertwining itself to her and she found
the idea strangely appealing. Maybe living here meant giving in to the gentle
enjoyments of the habit she'd written so much about yet understood so poorly.
   She had stripped the cellophane off the pack and stuck an unlit cigarette in
her mouth before she realised what it was she was doing. Just as quickly, the
cigarette was lit and she was drawing smoke into her lungs, expecting that she
was going to choke and gag. But she didn't. There was just the mild high
associated with the inhalation of the smoke. She exhaled and was pleased with
the volume of smoke which poured from her mouth. this was simple.
   Walking back to the table she picked up the ashtray and carried into the
study, placing it on top of her scanner.
   She tapped ash into it and inhaled again.
   The pull was stronger this time, more full bodied. Again, there was no
discomfort, no alieness to the sensation. She found that her head was clearing
and she began writing, tapping sentences out slowly with her left hand as she
smoked with her right. When she finished the first cigarette she knew it was
just that, and soon she had another five pages and it was close to midnight.
She lit a second cigarette, smiling at the ease with which her lungs accepted
the smoke, at the way she was able to fill the room with the smoke from inside
her lungs. It had a different smell after being trapped inside her and she
found that she liked it very much.
   Suddenly, she wanted to take a walk. She killed the CD she was listening to,
the external speakers dying quickly as she hit the stop button on the Apple CD
player.
   Yes, a walk. She had a feeling that smoke would smell even better carried on
the cool night air.
   As she walked outside, she saw a puff of smoke trail its way around the
corner of the house, and she was gripped by two simultaneous thoughts. First,
if she walked down the street, Robyn would catch her smoking. She found a part
of herself drawn back towards the house. And at the same time she wanted to
walk out under the streetlamp and let the arc sodium light catch the smoke
coming from her open mouth.
   Which is what she did. After all, she thought to herself, most of her
audience- people such as Pam and Robyn, assumed that she must be a smoker
until they met her. What was the big deal ?
   She turned her head to the right and there was Robyn, sitting on the roof
outside her window. She smiled and waved, then did the most amasing thing. She
stuck her freshly lit cigarette in her mouth and simply jumped down from the
roof.
   "Your friend Janet owes me a carton of cigarettes. I bet her you'd start
smoking by the end of the night."
   Helen looked at the girl, amased.
   "Don't be shocked. It's that house. The first time Pam invited me inside, I
could feel it. To be in that house is to be a smoker. Don't ask me to explain.
But it looks good on you."
   "Really ?" Robyn asked, pulling on the cigarette again and letting a long
exhale trail from her mouth as Robyn did the same.
   "Yeah. And before you ask, my mother sleeps like the dead. She brags that
she's never in her life had to get up in the middle of the night- not even for
a four am cigarette."
   "A four am cigarette ?" Helen asked.
   "Trust me, you'll understand soon enough. Want to take a walk ?"
   Helen nodded. "Sure, but on one condition."
   "Name it."
   Helen drew deeply on her cigarette and bathed them in smoke. "Let's be
friends."
   Robyn smiled, inhaled, held the smoke as they started walking. 
   Her words were a facet of her exhale, and it was beautiful to watch. 
   "I think that can be arranged."
   And it was.


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