Two Packs

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“Three,” Shelby said aloud.

The only thing that he had told her was to count her cigarettes. For somebody trying to quit, it didn’t feel like the best advice. What use was it? She’d told him that she smoked more cigs than she could count. Was it a joke?

She didn’t want to see him again next week. But she had to. She had to stop buying so many packs, or she wouldn’t be able to afford gas, and definitely not the motels. Cash is scarce, and she didn’t know anybody around these parts, so it wasn’t like she could sell dubs again until she went back home.

Home was a long ways away. Home wasn’t far. Where was she, anyway?

Shelby dragged the cigarette from her mouth, looking out over the highway. Almost noon, probably. Ready for some lunch, for sure. She’d spotted a vending machine by the stairs, maybe get some chips or somethin’. Probably a buck fifty for a bag, so she’d want to wait another hour or so, keep herself from spending too high.

A red truck rolled by, with a kid in the backseat. Not her kid. No chance.

Ever since Marty had left her, this was her life. She was better off alone. Every time she tried to settle down with a good man, he turned bad. Had he turned bad himself, or had it been her? And when she had a son, stupid enough to think that she was ready, he’d left before he was ten.

This was her day, every day. Wake up in a motel. Walk the streets. Look for that boy. Come back. Get in the car. Drive. Drive where? Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

Since when does a nine-year-old have the stones to run away from home? Where does he go? Not enough friends in school, right? At least, none that Shelby knew about, and Marty had been long gone by then.

Far away, far far away, she thought that she could see a sign for an IHOP, and her stomach grumbled. She pulled another drag from her cigarette and patted at her belly, wondering when she’d allow herself to have a good meal again. Marty had that warehouse job, and he would bring her out to McDonalds, or maybe Baja Fresh, damn near every day. But then he’d lost that job, when she’d convinced him to stand up to his boss. Fat chance that had of working, but she’d told him to do it anyway.

Last gas station, she’d seen a big map on the back wall. Not a single familiar name. How far had she come? Couldn’t even be bothered to read the signs on the highway. But she loved a good map. The lines, the shapes… She wondered how many more days it would be before she drove off the edge of that map.

She had to stop running. He was going to help her stop smoking. He was going to help her turn her life around, he said. She had to come back next week, if by some crazy chance she ever found this place again. Not that he’d help. He’d leave, like she’d done to every other man who crossed her.

Shelby drew another cigarette from the pack, not a moment after flicking away the old butt. “Four,” she said aloud, and the lighter clicked.

 

 

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

Shelby flicked the lighter and lit the cig. “Seven,” she said aloud.

She had her feet up on the dash, sitting in the parking lot. The meetings weren’t supposed to be “therapy” per se. They were just… people who wanted to talk. People who had stories to tell. People who HAD to tell that story, HAD to get it out into the air, because changing your story into sound, out of brain circuitry, and out of that pure emotion, it released it. Shelby always knew that release was necessary. Keep anything inside for too long, you’re bound to explode.

The building was still emptying out. The meetings took place in the attic of a church. Not in the pews of the church. Not in the basement. The attic. Shelby wasn’t sure why. It was dusty, and smelled like a bunch of old farts. Maybe the people who came here were old farts, not in age, but in how much they had seen.

It was night out by the time the meeting ended. And here Shelby was, sucking on one more cigarette with her feet up on the dash, her car window rolled down, and the radio blabbing on about the economy, and some baccalaureate smartass was going on about politics and foreign policy and yak yak yak.

She didn’t see him come out the building. Maybe he was still in there, talking to somebody. He was religious, she’d learned recently. He was good friends with the woman who ran these meetings. They’d been assigned as a pair today, as they had last week, and the week before, and the week before that, and they talked to each other. They talked, and then they listened. There were too many people at the meetings to all go one at a time. Too many screw-ups out in the world, too many words to spit out. Best to split into pairs, gives you as much time as possible to jabber on until your throat goes sore.

Four weeks she’d been in this town. The town had a name, but she kept forgetting it. No point in remembering. What’s the point of a name, anyway? The place is the place, no matter what you call it. Towns were all the same out here, and she’d seen a lot of towns around these parts. It had been such a long time since she’d slid behind the wheel and just driven driven driven until the next town, whether it was a half hour out or a hundred mile ride.

She wasn’t used to staying still, but she stayed still for him.

She ground the ash into the dashboard, pulled her legs back down to find the pedals. “Seven,” she said again.

They were supposed to give one piece of advice every week. Just one piece. They probably figured that if they gave too much advice at once, it’d sound a heck of a lot like complaining. The stupid things that’ll set a person off. Too much advice? Too harsh a critique? What’s the point of coming to this place for help you aren’t gonna listen to it?

He always gave the same advice, every week. Count your cigarettes. Kinda lame, wasn’t it? That was the best that he could come up with to cut back on the cigs? Count ‘em? They get smoked one way or another, whether you know how many you’ve swallowed or not.

But she did it. It seemed wise, somehow, giving advice that seemed so trivial, so simple and dull. Out of anybody else’s mouth, would’ve sounded like total bullshit. But he had this WAY about him. This WAY that he made the suggestion, like he knew that it would even work, like one of those cheesy self-help books that sounds like it’ll turn you into a total laughing stock, but you gotta do it anyway to turn your whole life around.

She didn’t know why she listened to him. But she did. And she kept coming back. She switched motels a couple weeks ago, but she stayed in town. Couldn’t get much further than that seven eleven out by the edge. Then she’d turned back figuring, what the hell, next city’s probably a killer drive anyway, and Shelby couldn’t afford gas.

She spent her days at a playground, usually, when she managed to get past the vending machine at the bottom of the stairs under her motel room. Sometimes it took her hours to get outside, other than for a bite. When she did make it out, by willpower from an unknown source, she went to that little park just a couple blocks away.

Sometimes she saw a kid there that looked like hers. Couldn’t be. Her kid had outgrown parks before he even hit grade school. Nine years old, already done playing with the other kids? Already hiding out in his room with a video game, already tired of all his toys?

Had he turned ten yet? What day was it? She couldn’t even remember her own son’s birthday. It was in July, wasn’t it?

July 11th.

No, she couldn’t remember it. How could she forget? What kind of mother forgets her own son’s birthday, just like that, the moment he’s gone?

July 11th.

She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything anymore. She was broken. Been through too much for a girl her age. Where was she? How had she ended up like this? She used to be young, used to have a future. Somehow she’d spent her future already, and now she was just floating in purgatory.

Shelby almost reached for another cig, but she didn’t. It was getting late, and she just wanted her bed.

“Seven,” she said aloud, and she started up the car.

 

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