The harsh whisper stopped her as she jogged up the lake road toward town. She turned and looked toward the sound. Warm summer air, thick with humidity, carried a wispy trail of smoke flat across the tops of the wild juniper. It dissipated into the muggy distance.
“In here!” the smoking shrub whispered again.
Annie started cautiously toward the voice. Cheryl’s head poked momentarily out between two bushes, waving her over with an unnecessarily frantic hand. Parting the branches, Annie found Cheryl seated with Missy in a small basin in the rocks. Years of rain collecting at the bend in the lake road had carved it away on their annual pilgrimage to the Z.
“Hurry up, stupid,” Cheryl hissed. “Don’t let no one see you!” A smoldering cigarette dangled from the fingers of her left hand as she held the branch with her right.
Annie glanced around at the empty country road with a frown and then peeked through the hole where Cheryl’s head had disappeared. A pack of Marlboro reds sat on a carefully-placed table of flat rock to one side of the small secret room. Annie’s pulse quickened as she realized what was going on.
“Me?! You guys are practically sending smoke signals to the fire marshal. Where’d you get cigarettes?”
The other two girls were twelve, much too young to buy them. Annie would still be eleven until after school started up again. She pushed her way through the juniper and sat in the small open spot next to the rock table, elbow-to-elbow with Missy. It was cramped in there already and their feet were all in a tangle together. The condensed smoke choked her now and she coughed.
“I lifted ’em from the Irani-Mart,” Cheryl beamed. “It’s too easy to hit. They always turn their backs on the counter when the gas customers are paying.”
Annie glanced nervously at Cheryl. She didn’t really know either girl and didn’t understand the invitation to invade their clique. The theft added criminal excitement to the already clandestine delinquency. “Cigarettes are bad for you,” she coughed again.
Cheryl spit out a raspberry.
“I told you,” Missy said. “She’s probably gonna snitch now.”
Cheryl picked up the cigarettes and pulled one out, handing it to Annie. “They’re only bad for you if you inhale them, wing nut,” she said, ignoring Missy’s warning.
Annie stared reluctantly at the forbidden vice before taking it. Cheryl was one of the more popular girls from the sixth grade and maybe this was a chance to make a friend, something decidedly lacking in her life since Jessi’s father died. In fact, Cheryl was one of Jessi’s new friends. Annie took the cigarette and watched as Cheryl put hers back to her mouth, sucking at it and then letting the delicious wisps curl out to lick at her lips.
“Not like that, like this,” Missy instructed, holding up her own cigarette to demonstrate its proper position between the tips of her first and second finger.
Annie adjusted the cigarette between her fingers and inspected it from several angles.
Missy lit a Bic disposable and held it in front of Annie’s face. “Just suck on it like a straw.”
Annie did. Missy held the flame to the cigarette and the tip glowed red. Hot smoke poured into Annie’s mouth, feeling strangely cool at first. It was the sour flavor of the tobacco that began to burn more than the heat. That was the end of the fun. The smoke reached her throat and erupted back out. Instantly, her ears burned, as did her nose and sinuses where the smoke had been forced through by her cough. The taste made her nauseous and her eyes poured tears as the nausea grew worse.
Cheryl and Missy laughed hysterically while she coughed. She threw the cigarette away and jumped up out of the hole to get away from the smoke, gagging, choking, and holding her sides now to help with the sickness. Too dizzy to stand, she doubled-over, retching almost uncontrollably, thousands of tiny day stars spinning about before her eyes.
“I told you not to inhale it, stupid,” Cheryl scolded, sending her and Missy into more fits of laughter.
“I don’t really think it’s funny,” Annie hacked. She was sure she could feel her skin turning green. “It feels like I’m gonna die.”
That only made the girls laugh even harder. Annie stood to a stoop and wiped the water from her eyes. She was spitting now, partly to get the burning flavor out of her mouth, and partly to keep from swallowing it. “I’ll see you later, okay?” she said, and she pushed her way past a different bush and back out onto the street.
“Hey! Where you, going? Wait up.” Missy called out.
Annie stopped without being sure why. She wasn’t at all confident that she’d made anything more than a fool of herself.
Missy trotted after her on the street, digging through her purse. Her fingers emerged with a pack of Dentyne and she offered up a stick. “You can’t go home with your breath smelling like that. You’re folks will know for sure.”
“What’s the diff?” Annie shrugged. “They’ll smell the cinnamon just the same.”
“Just take it,” Missy urged. When Annie did, she reached back into her purse and pulled out a perfume.
“Hey!” Annie jumped back away from a quick spray.
“It hides the smell,” Missy insisted.
She started to spray again and Annie recoiled further.
“What’s the matter with you?” Missy asked. Cheryl was emerging from the hiding place.
Annie couldn’t explain. She would likely take a beating if she went home smelling like a “whore factory” as her father called it. Suggesting Missy smelled like a whore, however, didn’t seem like the best way to cement whatever small bond they had. “Nothing, really,” she said backing away. “Thanks for the gum, okay?” She held up the stick of gum and smiled and then turned and ran off down the road.
Cheryl came up and stood by Missy’s side. “Stupid runt,” she laughed. “Waste of a perfectly good smoke.”
Missy watched quietly as Annie’s image dissipated into the muggy distance. Together, the two started toward town after her. The cigarette Annie had thrown lay smoldering where it had landed under the juniper.
© 2012 Anne Schilde
Note: I don’t in any way approve of racial profiling, or stereotypes, or the idiocy that makes it okay to teach bigotry to generation after generation of kids.