This snap fiction story (what’s that?) asked for a light when I spotted a jumble of ciga­rettes and an aban­doned pack on the pave­ment near my home.

Here’s the snap I took that day and the story that it inspired. Enjoy!

Waiting for Ignition

Petra took a moment the way one takes a dog by the scruff if its neck, forcing it to sit. Clarity is a func­tion of atten­tion, and atten­tion a func­tion of time—so if it was clarity she needed, she must claim the time, restraining it into submis­sion.

What is was that had made her stop in the middle of a rolling flock of shop­pers she didn’t know. It could have been the bearded sexa­ge­narian in the unflat­tering tawny parka, slav­ishly following his unin­ten­tion­ally garish wife out of one shop and into another, without even the pretense of interest. It could have been the youngish, tired couple hoisting their impa­tient, flailing preschoolers onto their shoul­ders to speed their way to the movie theater. It could have been any of the anony­mous extras in this tableau that Petra had wrested from an unsus­pecting moment.

Sit. Down. Good boy. Wait.

She looked at the abused pack in her left hand, lid still open, one ciga­rette already extracted and waiting for igni­tion between two fingers; in her right hand, the dispos­able lighter oblig­ingly awaited its cue.

How had she ever started smoking? For her gener­a­tion, there was no excuse. Before she ever lit her first smoke, she had known all about the “merchants of doubt” and their cynical campaign to immu­nize the tobacco trade against the truth. For Petra, smoking had been an admis­sion of weak­ness from the start: the reluc­tant conces­sion that in her heart, the need for belonging would always trump dignity.

Drop it. Heel. Stay.

She did sense the docile multi­tude of consumers moving around her, skirting her moment like magne­tized parti­cles avoiding a contrary pole. But in her little vortex, Petra felt the weight of the pack, the weight of its lineage—and the gravity of what she had aban­doned in her pursuit of love.

He was the one who had smoked, not she. He was the one who had claimed her, who had demanded sacri­fice. He had embodied a promise and he had not deliv­ered.

Could she do it? she thought. In forsaking the addic­tion, could she also discard the unhal­lowed depen­dence that had intro­duced her to it? Nothing comes from nothing. She might peel away the onion, layer by layer, but there would always be more to cry about.

Who it was that had even­tu­ally bumped into her she would never know. It could have been the saun­tering teenage boy, a long distracted arm wrapped around his girlfriend’s shoul­ders. It could have been the lanky barista weaving her way back to the coffee shop from her lunch break in the park.

But there it was. On the floor. The mess of her compul­sion, the muddle of her life. Released, unhanded in an instant. And her little moment began to stir. In faithful obedi­ence, it asked for direc­tion. Petra sensed an auspi­cious levity in the air, and she finally knew what do to.

Stand. Leave it. Come.

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Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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