Challenge: Flowers for Cigarettes
I want to make a few things clear before I post this work.
One: This story deals with a very sad and very real problem that many people face so read with caution. (Also, lots of cursing)
Two: This is a work that’s been very important to me since I wrote it some months ago. I know I’m supposed to be writing new content, (it’s kind of the point of the challenge) but I’ve been having a bit of a slump writing lately and if I stop now I’m afraid I won’t pick it up again.
Three: ( and probably most importantly,) While the main character of this story was in the system, I by no means want people to believe that everyone in social services turns out the way he does. Many go on to do great things and live perfectly stable lives.)
That all being said, I present to you, Flowers for Cigarettes. A story about moving on from the all the regrets in the past that we all to often carry into our futures.
FLowers for Cigarettes
The past’s gotta a way of creepin’ up on you. Which is nice if you’re past is dandelions and sunshine, but my life’s been a bare foot race across broken glass and used needles. I’m tellin’ you, just when I thought I’d reached that finish line, it all came crashin’ down on me – Bam! A steel door right in my fucking face. Now I gotta be dragged back through it all over again. And I mean literally fucking dragged back through all that broken glass and shit. I don’t know. You get into enough fucked up situations growing up and it’s bound to smack you in the ass just when you think you’ve buried it deeper than ash and bone.
Am I making any sense here?
The memories caught up to me after a kiss that tasted like Chinese takeout. It was one of those rare occasions I got Elliot to quit his, ‘higher than fast food’ bullshit and order out. Not that healthy crap either. It was deep fried delicious heaven. Man, back in the day, Panda Express was a fucking Christmas feast.
We were sitting in Elliot’s student apartment on an expensive couch, watching re-runs of some space shit he liked, and the rain speckling the window. All I did was lean over and plant a good one on him, but he’d just taken a bite of the last egg roll and his lips tasted like grease and duck sauce.
Just like that, I was sucked back to another rainy day eons ago. The place was a dump but me and some other guy were huddled under a bunch of blankets on a cold floor and knew damn well it was a better place to be than out there. Re-runs played on a TV screen not much bigger than the milk crate we had it on. We weren’t even paying attention to the static picture cause that Chinese was the biggest meal we had in weeks and we felt like a couple of teenagers sneaking a drink in their parent’s basement. I leaned in and kissed him at one point. He tasted like lo Mein.
It was one of those surreal moments that knocked me on my ass. Jamie Ray was his name. God; Haven’t even thought of him since I cleaned myself up. But he was in my head now and he wasn’t about to leave. Talk about ghosts from the fucking past.
It took about a day to get back to the city. Half the day pacing the terminal before I got the balls to buy a ticket, and the other half actually getting through rush hour traffic on a bus packed with guys strangling themselves in cheesy neck ties and grandmas shuffling on board with bulging paper shopping bags.
The old neighborhood wasn’t what I remembered. A lot of the doorsteps smelt like piss and the buildings were wedged like sardines in a can. The windows were propped open with sticks or grimy old fans. Maybe I’d just been sitting on my pampered ass too long.
I stopped next to an old man in a lawn chair on the sidewalk wearing a pair of boxers, smoking and frowning at a couple screaming at each other across the street. To be honest, I didn’t expect the old building to still be up. It was condemned shortly after the incident. Even back then I thought that irony had a twisted sort of humor about it, but there it was.
It was all boarded up. Most of the windows had been taken out by rocks thrown by the neighborhood kids. The only money the town put into the place was some wooden boards crisscrossing the windows, and a, ‘Danger Do Not Enter,’ sign plastered to the front doors. The numbers and names on the mailboxes were scratched off and one of the buzz buttons was hanging like an eyeball popped out of its socket.
There’re some places in the world where people lay out flowers and pictures on the street where people died. It was supposed to help the spirit rest or some shit like that. Around here what you got was a bunch of people with their heads down, trampling over your blood before it even got the chance to dry between the cracks in the sidewalk. I bet Jamie would of liked some flowers though.
I smoked half a pack of Marlboro on the way over. I bought it a few blocks from the bus station. I wasn’t gonna go home for a while, but I bet Elliot was still gonna smell the smoke and chew me out good for it. Man, if he knew half of what I’ve done and where I’ve been, I’m not sure he would of taken me outta the cold like he did.
I lit up another and sucked it down. The smoke blew up in front of me, clouding the view of the sad, shabby memory from a ghost that still gave me nightmares. I squinted real hard at the roof and could almost see a skinny figure watching me right back. It made my throat catch and my heart got all jittery.
It’s kinda like this- I could of turned around and walked back the way I came. I had a shit job now working in the kitchen at Elliot’s school, and that was hella better than selling wood burnings on a street corner just to have the cash for my next meal. Even if it didn’t pay as good as selling hell dust to the kiddies looking for a sweet high.
But I didn’t think of bringing any fucking flowers. The least I could do was drag me and my sorry ass bag of regrets back up those stairs. Otherwise, I’d live with the straps of that bag digging into my shoulders for the rest of my life.
I had to get in from the fire escape. I cut up my hands pretty bad jumping for the bottom rung of the ladder and had to kick the board out of the window when I got to the fourth floor. I was a sweating mess by the time I crawled into that dark hall.
The entire place reeked like death. There were tags on the walls but most of them had been absorbed by the rotting wallpaper peeling off in tight little curls. I kicked rat shit and old, used needles when I walked.
One of the doors was kicked in. The room was covered in stained mattress. The kind with springs poking out of the stuffing. One girl looked up at me with the glass eyes of a corpse before laying her head down to slink back into whatever high was chasing the demons that summer day.
Shit, how many times did Jamie see me like that?
I stepped over a body huddled against the wall and there it was. The number thirty-five was faded, but I could still see the outline.
I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t want to face what was on the other end. It didn’t matter if the place had never changed or some more of these kids had turned it into another room to forget the world in.
After the blood had been cleaned off the sidewalk, I couldn’t even bring myself to go inside and get my shit. Officer Ray had to do it for me. But, the same force that got my skinny ass on that bus wouldn’t let me go.
Sometimes in life, you get this little voice in the back of your head, you know? And it- like, nags at you until you do something about it. I think every point of my life converged on that doorstep, and it didn’t matter where the fuck I went after Jamie was gone I was always gonna end up right back here one day. So, I opened that stupid door.
Most the place had been ransacked, but the bed was still there and, fuck me, I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I saw it. It was the same wood floors and the same line of counters separating the squat kitchen from the rest of it. The TV was gone, but the milk crate we propped it up on was still off to the side of the bed.
To be honest I didn’t know what I was fucking doing. Standing in that room smoking a cigarette was the depth of my thinking ability. I used to blame it on the fucker my drunk of a mom used to cling to, cause he beat me pretty good before social services got off their asses. Not that they got me to any place better.
Those people, the ones with their picket fences and garages full of shiny new cars, they’re the real problem in society. They go around looking down their noses at the world and pointing fingers more dangerous than guns at the gutter scum and the kids picking through free clothes bins outside the shelters; talkin’ about the cruel world and hunger and all that shit they know nothing about. Then they go and pull one of those kids out of hell just to find out that the fucked up life they lived actually fucked them up. So they ship them back without even knowing what kind of seed that kind of rejection planted in our heads.
I used to tell Jamie, ‘I'm the result of a society comfortable with shuffling the rejects under the rug.’ He never argued with me, but he’d start to look all sad and shit. I don’t know why. He was in the same boat as me. That’s what got us in this shit hole together- me selling needles, him selling favors. I’d tell him, in a way, we were getting back at the middle class. I ruined their kids, he ruined their husbands. He didn’t like that either.
A car alarm was going off on the street but it was a distant noise to the crackle of the cigarette and the fall of the lonely ashes between my feet. I took one step then another and just like that I was standing in the middle of the room with a thousand memories swarming my head like flies. A little light came in through the cracks in the boarded window but the glass was so dingy the light comin’ in was a spooky sort of yellow.
I started rummaging through the dresser. I knew exactly what I was looking for, not that I thought it’d still be there. People went at this place like ants tearing the limbs off dead insects. Some newspaper clippings were left. I used to like to cut out the good ones draw skulls and shit over all the words till the sharpie fumes got me high. I’d sit in bed doing it every morning while Jamie made breakfast.
His journal was there – tucked in the back of the top drawer. My chest got real fucking tight when I saw that crummy old thing. Most the pages were held in by paper clips and it was all held together by a rubber band. A guess a part of me didn’t want it to be there.
I kicked the milk crate over to the grimy window and took a seat in the sun. It sent up a dust cloud that had me hacking into my arm.
Or maybe it was the cigarettes.
It’s not that he ever wrote in it much. Half the pages were covered in crooked lines and music notes. It should of been computer code to all it was worth to me, but Jamie used to look at those pages and hum along like he was havin’ some sort of conversation with the damn thing. The guy was a genius. He could of gone places.
A picture fell out when I opened it. I picked it up and held it to the light. It was me and him way back when we first got the place and before I started making a habit of sampling my merchandise. Shit, we looked young. He had his arm draped over my shoulder, and I stood in the apartment like I’d just conquered a country.
He had that clean cut sort of look, a peach skin tone and tight red curls springing up from his head. It was summer so his freckles covered his cheeks and neck. I looked like a little shit, pierced right down to the toes and a ring on every god damn finger. Man, what the hell was I thinking?
I thumbed through the rest of it. All of it music notes and little snippets of fucked up poetry. The last page was ripped out, but I knew what that one said. I’d carried it around in my pocket for years after I saw him fall and finally burned it a few months before Eliot turned up.
Didn’t matter that it was ashes in the fucking wind. The few lines were etched into my head.
I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.
Fuck, I thought someone’s last words were supposed to be more poetic than that. I mean, didn’t kids usually write lengthy prose describing the horrors of their unfulfilled lives? I don’t know, but it pissed me off every time I looked at it. Kept me up at night. Made those highs even sweeter until they didn’t do a fucking thing anymore.
I leaned my head against the window pane and let the journal dangle in my hand. The silence kind of crept in while I sat there. Crept like the sun setting behind the buildings.
I lit up again and held the picture out in the blood red light. Jamie had the kind of deep eyes that looked sad even when he smiled, like there in that picture. Guess I really should of been expecting it but that just goes to show what a fuck up I’d been.
I took a long drag, the cigarette crackling. “You’re a fucking shit you know that?” I said to him. No, I said it to the picture of him.
I felt pretty stupid talking to a picture, but once the words came out it was like a water pipe busted.
“If you were gonna put an end to it don’t you think you could of done it somewhere private?”
He didn’t say anything in his defense. Of course not. It was just a stupid picture.
The silence hung.
“I met someone. He’s nice but such a fucking closet case.” I laughed and snubbed the butt of my cigarette on the floor. “But at least he lets me kiss him cause he likes it and not cause he doesn’t want to hurt my precious feelings like you did.”
“I got a job too. I’m all respectable and shit. Kind of sick to put a dumb ass around all those brains, but they only want me to make burgers most the time so it’s cool. Still not talking huh? Wish I knew what you want from me cause you’re kinda pissing me off hangin’ around my head so much lately.”
I flipped his journal to a random spot. It was blank except for a single line scribbled across the page.
I’m so afraid to wake up and realize I’ll never get out.
“Do you want an apology?” I started pacing. “All right. Sorry I fucked up. Sorry I started using. Sorry I couldn’t pay my share anymore and you had to start fucking those jerks again.” I was yelling but, you know what? I didn’t care. I tore out another bogie but couldn’t stop my hands from shaking long enough to light it so I gave up.
“Don’t you think you could of talked to me? I mean, I couldn’t read your fucking mind, you know? I was an insensitive dick but I wasn’t a heartless fucking asshole.”
I wasn’t even talking to the picture anymore. I was shouting at the counters where he used to sit every time we argued. Well, I argued. He sat there with his head down while I threw my tantrum because he hid my stash or asked where my share of the rent went.
I could see him there now in the days before he jumped off the roof of the apartment building. He’d lost a lot of weight and I hadn’t even fucking noticed until I got a look at him- his head splattered on the sidewalk near the front steps.
Shit. I can’t even write about this without my hands shaking. I still see it in my head.
I didn’t believe it at first. It was- like, it couldn’t be real. Even though I was standing there across the street when he dropped seven stories like a bowling ball. I mean, I heard his head crack on the pavement and I still couldn’t believe it for days. I don’t even remember most of what happened until the ambulance had me sitting in the back of their truck with that stupid shock blanket draped around my shoulders.
I had his blood on my hands.
I remember Officer Ray though, bawling like a fucking baby on his knees right on the other side of the, do not cross, tape.
“You broke that man you know. I know he wasn’t your dad but he wanted to be. Never fucking understood why you ran away from him. You were a good kid you could of had a normal life.”
His mom had been in witness protection when he was an infant. I never got the full story, but Jamie’s dad was a bad fucking guy and he was after them. Officer Ray was on the case until he kinda fell in love with the woman. Jamie never told me what happened, but I stole Eliot’s student pass and got into the research library. Sure enough, there was an article in the paper about a woman under witness protection found dead in her home. There was a picture. She looked just like Jamie.
It went on to slander the police efforts. Not much about a baby but I know Ray was gonna adopt Jamie before the dumb ass ran away. Turns out the home that had him for a while was a real bad place that really fucked him up. Officer Ray didn’t say much about it except that he had them dealt with.
It was dark enough outside that the street lights were flickering on. I couldn’t see very good anymore. The space on the counter was one big empty shadow.
I took the journal and the picture with me back down the fire escape. I held up in a motel for a night but I didn’t sleep very good. The stink of the old apartment was stuck to my skin. Have to admit, I thought of buying a gallon of gasoline at one point and lighin’ the whole fucking building up. I was sitting by the window, on my last cigarette when the sun came back.
What I did was I got dressed. I checked out of the room. I found a florist somewhere close by and bought a bunch of flowers. I don’t know what kind they were but there was a bunch of little purple and white ones. I got a vase too with a pack of envelopes and a pad of paper.
I walked back to the old building and put the vase and flowers out by the front steps. Shit, it made no sense. He had a grave somewhere. I could of put the flowers there, but I had a feelin’ if he was still kicking around this world- it was gonna be right here. I don’t know. Leaving them felt right. Like a huge weight was just lifted off my chest.
I left that old journal behind too, propped up against the stairs, and I stuck the picture of me and him to the vase with the gum I’d been chewing since a block over. I could of found a picture of just him, but I kinda died right there on that street too.
The envelope? Well, I had a little trinket on me and I took it out of my pocket right there on the busted street.
I don’t think I ever saw Jamie without it- a white gold necklace that belonged to his mom. There was a charm dangling at the end of a dainty chain. It was a small angel holding some kind of pink stone against its chest. He said his mom used to tell him angels were watching over him.
Looking back, I think I took it off of him after he jumped. Long before anyone did anything about my screaming to call an ambulance. I must of known he was already dead. Otherwise, I don’t think I would of taken it. I’d worn it since that day too. It was a heavy little weight around my neck and the wings always cut real fitting like into my chest.
The last thing I did was put it in the envelope with Officer Ray’s name on the front. I wrote a quick note there against the bricks.
Sorry I kept this so long. I don’t need it anymore—Jake.
On the way to the bus station, I had a big guy at the front desk in the police station bring it to Ray’s office. I said he’d know what it was about, but I didn’t stick around to make sure he got it.
Elliot was at the kitchen table when I got home. He had his laptop open and a stack of books off to one side. There wasn’t anywhere to eat cause of all the papers taking up table space but that didn’t stop him from having an empty dish and three cold cups of coffee on top of everything. He was wearing his big dorky glasses.
“I’m home,” I said, cause the fucker didn’t even look up when I kicked the front door behind me. Most the time it pissed me off that he did that, but not this time. Guess it’s hard to count your blessings until you go back to visit the skeletons in the closet. Instead, some kind of unexplained force brought me across the room and I dropped a smooch on top of his head.
That got his attention at least. He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Where’ve you been? I was worried.”
“Ya, you really look it.”
“Where were you?”
You know, I was pretty sure it was all over. The city was far behind me and I finally had the balls to go back to that place and say my goodbyes. But I dropped down on the sofa, and I fucking lost it. I dropped my head into my hands and bawled.
Man, I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that before. It felt like my heart was gonna explode right out of my chest. Elliot got over to me real fast and put his arms around my shoulders.
I ended up telling him everything right there on the sofa, where a kiss that tasted like chinese food started this whole damn mess.
I told him about Jamie and the drugs, and my fucked up life jumping around foster care. He listened to it all and didn’t say a word. Guess I didn’t give the guy enough credit. I was kind of sure someone like him, from a family where the biggest fuck up was a distant cousin smoking too much weed, would kick me to the curb once I told him all the shit I’d done. But he didn’t. He held me and for the first time, he was the one who kissed me. I couldn’t even find the words in me to tell him how much that meant. Heh, maybe angels were watchin’ over me. Took them long enough to get off their asses though.
To be honest I still think of Jamie most the time. It still pisses me off what he did, but I guess deep down I feel a little grateful to him too.
I get moments that hit me out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s cause someone who looks like him passes me on the street, or I catch the sound of a piano through an open window. When it happens, a dark closet creaks open in my head, and I remember all that fucked up shit again. Some people say they wouldn’t change anything if they could go back and do it again. I think I would do it all different though.
I don’t know. The past is always gonna be there I guess. Best we can do is use it like a map to chart the future from—Jake.
For those of you who are new to the blog and have no idea what the hell kind of challenge I’m talking about, you can catch the original post for it right here. For everyone else thanks for reading. Have you even known someone like Jake or Jamie? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal? Please let me know in the comments. You can find me and my other work both on Wattpad and Booksie. Also, I’m on Twitter @elixssamrose