A short story written as part of the Summer Prose Competition 2011 Challenges 3 and 4
The rings of smoke dissipated into thin nothingness. The desert threatened to spread continuously till the ends of the world. The horizon was a blurred image, a zone where the blue, cloudless sky met with the long expanse of dried, yellowed land. There was nothing for miles and miles of desert land, except for the occasional cactuses spread here and there, and the rare shadow of a bird in flight against the sun-reigned sky. The wind swept the ground like a sweet caress, heaving clouds of dust, creating contrast with the otherwise plain and rough surface.
Another set of smoke rings floated into the air and dissolved itself, just as the first one had. The cigarette had lost its taste; it was now soggy between his lips. He chewed at the butt and spat it out, crushing the dying light with the front of his shoe. He yawned and stretched his tired body. It had been a long week for him, three deaths in one night. So far, it had been unprecedented. He didn’t want to imagine the paperwork waiting for him to be filled out and filed, or the tragic calls he had to deliver to the families of the deceased. That was the worst and most painful part of being a policeman, the delivery of bad news to families. The fact that he was a father to a teenage girl didn’t help either. Often times at night, he would jolt awake because he dreamed of his daughter’s demise in a car accident with a syringe sticking out of her arm.
Most of the cases he handled were of young, mindless people that wasted their life on the road, consuming the addiction that would end their life sooner or later. It was time to get back to work; thinking too much usually wore him out and the day was still young. He got into his car and drove away toward the endless desert road.
He pulled up to the station and killed the engine of the car. He breathed in the dry, hot air and looked lazily at the brick, two-story building standing before him. The name was fading off the façade, as well as everything with this small town. They didn’t receive many visitors during the year; nobody was interested in a dead little town off the route of the map anymore. The houses in this town were scattered, framed in history. The city and the lights were one hour-drive away, in other words, they were stranded from civilization. However, he was okay with it. The desert was a quiet place for meditation, where the stars burned so easily in the sky.
He snapped out of his poetic thoughts and walked through the murky looking ceiling-high glass double doors of the station foyer. The foyer was small and ventilated by a ceiling fan, droning incessantly in his ears the moment he stepped in.
“Morning Maggie,” he greeted the receptionist, a smartly dressed middle-aged woman with a honeycomb hairdo sitting atop her small head. He then added jocosely, “a fine morning to be in the office, eh?”
“Morning Pete my dear. It’s beautiful outside, just another day in paradise, right?”
Pete chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t take it that far. It’s burning hot outside.”
Maggie offered a faint smile and said, “I thought you’d never come to finish your paper work for the week.” She pointed a long finger to the desk across her own, where heaps of papers were scattered over the desk.
Pete grunted. “This will be a long day, eh?”
“Oh, you can’t imagine how long.” Maggie chuckled. “You better start now or you’ll stay over tonight.”
“I better not, Mags,” Pete scratched his chin, where his beard grew wildly. “Megan’s piano recital is tonight, if I miss it, my wife will hate me and my marriage will be on the brink of disaster.” He walked over to his desk and gingerly sat down, sifting through the papers. “Is Thomas in yet?”
“No honey,” Maggie said. “He’s resolving a conflict between the Walkers and the Haynes; apparently old Walker beheaded one of Miss Haynes’s chickens again.”
“The poor lady should have her chickens locked up instead of having them running around like wild, untamed animals,” Pete suggested, reclining on his chair. He took the first stack of paper; it was the case of the dead man with overdose of heroin in his organism. Pete remembered him; he was hallucinating right before his death. He groaned bitterly. “I have no idea what goes through the younger generation’s minds these days. This boy had everything and he just threw it all away to feel the fleeting instant of bliss so alluring to heroin.”
“Well, you know what they say nowadays,” Maggie said, “Life is just a journey to a tragic death.” There was a silence between them as Pete weighed down Maggie’s words in his mind. She then broke the silence with the question Pete evaded like the plague. “Still smoking, Pete?”
Pete said nothing at first. Rehabilitation sessions had taught him that denial was the worst way to avoid his smoking habits. “Bad habits die hard,” he simply said after a long pause. He then glanced at a fading photograph sitting on his desk; it was his family. The photo featured a caring-looking woman standing next to a teenage beauty with black hair, like his.
Maggie glared at him in scornfully.
Pete raised his arms defensively. “I’m just having one a day, I swear.”
“Is that what you’re telling Sarah and Megan?” Maggie snapped, “Because I can smell more than one cigarette on you.”
Pete pretended not to hear her and went to work. His chest felt constricted; maybe it was the heat beating down on him. The morning progressed into the afternoon without occurrence or further exchange of words between Pete and Maggie. The silence was intense and annoying, growing on them as the grandfather clock in the corner swung its pendulum monotonously.
The door swung opened and a lanky and sweaty policeman stepped into the foyer. His expression was battered and red, product of running under the sun. “Hey Pete, Maggie,” he waved casually.
“Wow, Thomas, you look terrible,” Pete said, offering him a cup of water.
Thomas took the cup gratefully and slumped into the chair facing Pete’s desk. He drained his water in a gulp and set the cup in the desk. “Thanks man,” said Thomas. “Do you have plans tonight? I thought maybe we could grab some beers and play pool tonight.”
“Sorry, pal,” Pete said, “Megan’s piano recital is tonight. I have to be there. If I don’t make it tonight, they’d be staring daggers at me for an entire year and giving me the cold shoulder.”
“I thought they gave you the cold shoulder already!” Thomas guffawed at the joke nobody had understand, but himself. Pete cocked an eyebrow, expecting Thomas to shed some light to his confusion. “I was talking about, oh well, never mind.” Thomas squirmed in his seat, feeling Maggie’s intense eyes on his back.
Pete wasn’t the role father he wanted for his beautiful Megan, he was far from that. However he never stopped trying. His chest ached as he suppressed the spasmodic coughs that came to him every now and then. Maybe is the dry air, he thought, stroking his chest to ameliorate the burning sensation that was accumulating inside him. He shifted his mind to his family, looking forward to the pleasant evening they would spend together. Sometimes, thoughts of his family took him away from the pressing urge to light a cigarette.
The sun wore off the sky; it was now behind the haze of sand. Pete’s desk was cleared of papers, Thomas had slept on the chair, and Maggie was packing her things, calling it a day.
“See you Monday,” Pete called and waved good bye. He then nudged Thomas. “Hey buddy, time to go home.”
Thomas stirred before rousing to his feet. “Well, are we chilling tonight or what?” Thomas reached inside his pocket and took out a packet of cigarettes. “I thought that witch would never leave. Here.” He produced a cigarette for Pete. “You pulled a good one. Telling Maggie you’re going to your daughter’s recital was brilliant. Have one, pal, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?” He pushed the cigarette into Pete’s hand. “You deserve it.”
“I wasn’t lying,” Pete said, dropping the cigarette, though guiltily, to the floor. His eyes lingered hungrily on the cigarette. How he craved for one right now. He had craved for those little monsters ever since his life had become ashes. “I am going to repair our relationship.”
“Stop deluding yourself,” Thomas sneered. “Nothing you can do will make Sarah take you back. She’ll break your heart when you show up and see her clinging to that city boy of hers. She loves the life there; you won’t be able to drag her back to this town. She will hate you, and Megan too. Why do you think they didn’t invite you to the recital?”
“Shut up!” Pete snarled. “I am her father, I don’t need an invitation. Sarah is still my wife and I can do what I want with her. Even if I have to drag her by the hair back to our home, I will.” He coughed, bending as he did so. He cupped his mouth, feeling the elixir of life creeping up his throat and into his hand. He spit out the blood on Thomas’s boots.
Thomas looked at him condescendingly. “She will not be after the papers of the divorce are out.”
Pete coughed again, as he dropped to the floor, grasping his chest. He wheezed as he tried to conjured energy to curse Thomas. He wiped away the blood from his mouth with his sleeves. It was growing dark; the recital was going to start pretty soon. “I have to go.”
Thomas leered at him. “Pete, come on man. They’ll just shatter your heart. Have you forgotten the solitude they made you feel after they dumped you and moved with Sarah’s pretty boy in the city? Have you forgotten?” Thomas wicked face hovered over Pete’s. “They’re the image of the perfect family, and you have this.” He slid the packet of cigarettes across the floor and placed it before Pete.
Painful memories flooded into Pete’s mind, particularly to the night when he came back to an empty house, devoid of life and warmth. There was a note tacked to the corkboard in his room. It was Sarah, telling him that they were gone and that her lawyer will contact his soon. He mourned his loss for days, turning his back to sanity and plunging himself into swirls of smoke. He was so sure he could fix his family, so sure that if he battled what drove them away, they would come back. Were these all illusions?
Pete didn’t know. He savored the blood in his mouth; his body was starting to give in after years of smoke addiction.
“What is it going to be Peter?” Thomas taunted, “The recital where your heart will be trampled on over and over again, or the relief of your pain?”
Pete didn’t want to choose. Throughout his life, he had painfully experienced the consequences of his bad decisions. He didn’t want to choose wrong this time. He looked at the cigarettes longingly, his mind screamed at him to take them while his heart whispered hopes of bringing back his family to him. His heart doubled its speed.
“What’s it going to be, Pete?”