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It was the secrecy of the act that lured her to it, the way it drew daddy out of the room and brought him back, smelling strange, but looking furtively happy, relaxed. She wondered at the silence that followed, a tight, tangible thing, and questioned the frown on mummy’s face, and the slight crease between her eyebrows. She then looked at daddy, who looked back at her and grinned wide, and she stretched her arms towards him, wanting to get closer to the smell, to understand it, but he just smiled from afar, and then retreated into the other room. She felt mummy sigh deep, that little quiver down her chest, as she sat on her lap, still confused, but intrigued by the mystery of it all.

The years passed, and Sarah grew accustomed to the daily disappearances and reappearances, and to the silences that turned into screams and conversations she shouldn’t have heard. She knew that some mornings would have to be dealt with on an empty stomach, that no one would be there to pack her lunch for school, or make breakfast, because mummy was shut up in her room, and daddy was gone somewhere where she was forbidden to contact him. She learned not to console her mummy while she cried, because she was slapped harshly on the cheek the first time she tried.

It was a different side of her she saw that first day, a tear-stained visage of the woman she believed to be the happiest in the world. She was sitting in a corner of the room, staring blankly at the wall opposite, so still she hardly seemed to breathe. Tears streamed down her face effortlessly, as she sat without blinking or even sniffing, and all this stillness gave her a ghoulish countenance. Sarah approached her slowly, knowing yet not knowing why she was upset, and gingerly laid a calming hand on her head. Her mother backed away instantly, at the merest indication of the touch, and grasped Sarah’s hand painfully with one hand, and pulled her hair with the other, bringing her down on her knees. She then released her hand and slapped her tightly across the cheek, so that a blazing pain cut across Sarah’s face, searing her skin with an intensity even a red-hot poker couldn’t have achieved. She stumbled back, stunned, and stared at her mother disbelievingly, whose eyes were gleaming with a sort of furious anger as she breathed deep through her nostrils; Sarah thought that she looked like a madwoman. She had never been able to forget that anguished look on her mother’s face, and it haunted her still, so many years after she had left that house, after she had dropped contact with all of them.

Time went by, and Sarah grew up. She skipped school and went to concerts. She saw the boys and girls who hung out backstage, blowing smoke rings through their lips. She smelled their smell, and it reeked of Home, of screams and conversations she wasn’t supposed to hear, of hungry nights and of tears that couldn’t be wiped away- not without getting slapped on the cheek. They saw her staring at them with a look of mingled wonder and disgust and offered her smokes, but she always turned away, trying not to give in to her curiosity. She disappeared into the crowd and then out of the crowd, into a world where people ate breakfast and drank coffee and stared at her as she went by. But she always turned away from their stares and walked on straight, trying not to give in to their curiosity.

But one day she couldn’t resist; she needed to know what it felt like, and why it was so important to daddy and so repulsed by mummy and why it fascinated her own self so. She took a smoke from them when they offered her one, and put it in her mouth; she let them light it and then drew a long breath. Immediately Sarah started to choke, the fumes smoldered her throat and she spat the cigarette out and began gulping down air. They laughed at her pathetic attempt, and began to pull at their own smokes with even more vigor, just to show her how it was done. They called her weak and jeered at her from behind murky clouds of pungent smugness, and Sarah left them silently, her eyes streaming from the burning in her throat and from the disappointment in herself. She was not intrigued by the act anymore, and she wondered how they could stand the singeing, and how they made it look so easy. A sudden feeling took over her, and she realized she wanted to make it look easy and effortless too; their sneering comments rankled and on her way back home, she stopped at the drugstore.
A whole decade passed since Sarah’s first attempt at smoking, and she stepped into her mid-twenties, an anorexic young woman with dark circles outlining her hollow eyes, nearly homeless and broke, never seen without a lighted smoke tugging at her blackened lips. She got a job at a diner where she had to sweep up the crumbs after the customers and attend to the toilet whenever it needed attending. She wasn’t allowed to come out if there were kids in the diner, because the first time a kid saw her cleaning up, he yelled with fright at her disheveled appearance and her sunken bloodshot eyes, and cried out “look mummy, a witch!” Sarah stared at the five-year old for a second before turning away, suppressing with all her might an urge to strike him across the face so that his cheek would burn with a hellish intensity. But ever since then she had been forbidden to come out if there were any children present. It was bad for business, the manager said, to have kids screaming with fright at the employees.

So she didn’t come out when the little toddlers entered the diner, and instead she skulked in the back, pulling at smoke after smoke, blowing out opaque clouds of a strange translucence through her lips, forming smoke rings she once used to envy. One day a six year old hosted a birth day party at the diner, and so Sarah was forced to lurk in a moldy corner in the back room for nearly the whole evening shift. The noise was such that she could hear their yelling and whooping even from her distant corner. She could hear a parent telling a story for their amusement, and she listened with a sneering indifference.

It was the story of the Three Little Pigs, how they decided to go about their separate ways and leave home, and how Mummy pig gets all teary when they leave. Sarah snorted; mums don’t get upset when their kids leave- they kick their kids out in the dead of the night, and pull them by the hair and beat them up because she caught them following in their daddy’s footsteps. The little pigs then decided to make their own homes, each using sticks or straw or bricks which they got from helpful people they meet along the way, but didn’t these kids know how the world treated someone who had been kicked out, how no one would even come close to them, let alone provide them with materials to make a comfortable home? Didn’t they realize that the world was cruel, and that it kicked and bit at you, when you are most vulnerable to pain? She shook her head condescendingly, amused by the gullibility of the little brats. And then she listened to how the Big Bad Wolf came and ate up the first two pigs, how he huffed and puffed and blew their little piggy houses down, and she huffed and puffed as she listened, blowing out smokes that held stories of hurt and anger and pain, and she huffed and she puffed and blew…





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