Cigarettes, The Universe, and Other Bullshit

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Start your story with a couple sharing a cigarette in a parking lot.... view prompt



"I'm just saying there's nothing to worry about." The woman passes the cigarette to her boyfriend. "The doc said my chart came back negative. We are 100% STD-free." 

The man places the offered cigarette between his lips and inhales deeply. He's silent, letting the smoke burn the back of his throat before blowing it out through his nose. The woman shifts into a more comfortable position sitting on the car hood. She speaks again.

"The doc will call you in, give you the good news, and then we celebrate over burgers at Molly's. There's nothing better than moderately good diner food after shit like this."

The man puts out the butt of the cigarette on his scuffed boot and flicks it to the ground. A woman walks out of the building on the phone crying. She's too far for the couple to make out the words.

"That could've been you." The man says, looking over at his partner. 

"And? It's not me, so what's it matter?"

"It's not you, but it could've been you, Em." He turns to face her fully. His eyes search her unimpressed ones. "If we aren't careful, that could've been either of us."

"Come back to the present, will you? She could have something else going on, and more importantly: she's not us. I just told you my results." Em turns her focus to the dirt under her short fingernails. 

"You don't feel any weight of how things can turn out so different than what they are? How when something good happens, it's like dodging a bullet by luck? If you had stepped with your left foot instead of your right or ate Wheat-O's instead of Sugar Flakes, you'd be toast." The man's hands grew more animated as he spoke.

Em folds her legs onto the hood to sit criss-cross and leans forward, her elbows resting on her knees. She doesn't take her eyes off the building's entrance.

"Are we still talking about the clinic? Does everything need to have some grand scheme behind it? You always make shit morbid for no reason. How does your cereal end up getting you killed, huh? You won't croak over your breakfast, Tom. Relax."

"I'm not saying the cereal kills you. I'm saying that our whole lives, present and future, are up to things we don't control. Every day we have near misses with death, or even more tragic, near misses with happiness; it's just scary." Tom leans back against the car and folds his arms over his chest. 

"So which one is this then, missing death or missing happiness? Because you're acting like I didn't just tell you we're fine." Em waits for Tom's reply when a man comes out of the building and walks to a car nearby while holding a phone to his ear. They can hear his conversation as he gets closer.

I'm sorry, babe, I-

No, I know. I just-

I know!

No, sorry, I'm not yelling.

I didn't mean for-


Yeah, I'm coming. 

I love y-

Okay. I'm sorry. Bye.

He pulls his car door behind him and turns the key in the ignition. He freezes and stares straight ahead like there's a ghost. A fit comes over him. He punches the steering wheel and repeatedly slams his head back against the headrest. It stops almost as soon as it starts. He slumps forward and brings his hands up, furiously scrubbing his face. Mid-motion, he locks eyes with Tom. His gaze slides from Tom to Em and then back to Tom. The man straightens up, his face blankly composed, and pulls out of the parking space.

"Jesus, that was...Em trails off.

"That's two." Tom stares steadily at the now vacant spot. His face is grim. 

"Huh?" Em asked softly.  

"That's two. Tragedies come in threes, Em." The space between them tenses.

"...You can be real selfish, you know?" Em turns away with a scowl.

Tom's head whips around, his eyebrows raised. "What?"

"You heard me." 

"At least look at me if you're going to attack my character." Tom's words were icicles.

Em turns. Her stormy resolution meets Tom's icy gaze without the thought of backing down. 

"It's not an attack on your character. We're dating; this is me calling you out on your bullshit." Now thoroughly pissed off, Em shakes out a fresh cigarette from the pack and holds up the lighter. "After seeing whatever the hell that was, all you can think about is your universe bullshit and how that comes back to you?"

"Isn't that what you wanted me to do earlier? Be fucking present?" Tom watches Em attempt to light the cigarette, but the wind picks up. He cups his hands around hers as a shield.

"I was scared too, you know? And even after it turned out fine, you kept talking about that dark shit. I didn't realize it was a crime to ask you to celebrate with me after the good news. Damn this lighter." 

Tom pretends not to notice how badly Em's hands started shaking and takes the lighter. 

"Suck." He says.

Em tucks her lips tighter around the cigarette as Tom flicks the lighter one last time. It catches. She takes the first drag, and when she exhales her whole body releases with the smoke. 

"Em, I just-" Tom's interrupted by his phone buzzing. It was the clinic. It's his turn to hear the results. Tom tucks the lighter into his pocket, leans in to kiss Em, and pauses a few centimeters away. 

"I'm sorry." He says quietly. Tom takes the cigarette from Em and walks towards the building's entrance.

Em watches him take a few pulls from the cigarette and toss it in the trash before disappearing into the automatic sliding doors. He hadn't been gone for more than a minute when someone walked out. It was a girl no older than high school age. She rummages through her purse, pulls out a lip gloss, and swipes it on. She balances a phone between her shoulder and ear.

Yes, girl, they said I'm all good.

You should totally go too. It's just safer.

The doctor was this cute older lady. She even tried showing me how to put a condom on!

I know! I had to let her know.

Anyways, we're still on for tonight? Great, my Uber's pulling up, so I should be there in a few.

Love ya. Bye.

The girl slid into the backseat of a car and left. Em swallowed and tried not to let a chill wash over her. Tragedies come in threes, Em. Tom and his universe rules were bullshit. Em was about to grab another cigarette when she remembered Tom had the lighter. Another minute passed. 

Em slides off the car hood and searches for a spare lighter in the car. It takes a least a few more minutes before Em gives up. All she had found was old trash, loose coins, and a key chain she swore she had lost. Em closes the car door and turns to see Tom finally walking out the entrance. 

As he gets closer, Em's growing smile freezes. 

"Tom?" She calls.

Tom doesn't answer. He walks without seeing, without hearing. 

"Tom, you better not be pranking me." Em nudges him.

"Em." He still won't look at her.

Em tilts her head to get a good look at his face. He looks deadly serious.

Em steps back. "You cheated. You cheated? You cheated! How could you even-"

"No, Em-" 

Em turns away. "Don't even speak to me right now you-"

"Cancer, Emily. They said I have fucking testicular cancer." Tom's voice wobbles. Em stops and looks back at Tom.

"Cancer? Did they say anything else? I mean, like how... what..." Em reaches out and places a hand on Tom's arm.

"They referred me to another doctor. I don't want to talk about it yet. Please, I just-, I dont-." Tom cut himself off with a sigh. 

They stand there in the quiet for a moment.

"Molly's?" Em asks hesitantly.

Tom reaches past Em for the cigarette pack. "Molly's." 

They both get in the car, Em in the driver seat. Tom turns on the radio. It creates enough noise for the both of them. As Em pulls out the parking space, they pass two people standing around a car.

"That won't be us, right?" A woman asks, looking up at the man beside her.

The man pulls her closer into his side. "Let's hope not."

August 12, 2022 17:52

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