Smoke Rings This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

By , El Paso, TX
She smiled. She smiled like no one they'd ever seen before, like earth-shattering, bone crushing, meteorite rays of light. She smiled crooked, with bright green braces and squinty eyes and her arms wrapped around her stomach, and she was so pretty, so fragile. They all loved her.
She'd never known anything like it, and so she shied away and she cowered and she made so many friends, and she had no idea how. But she loved it, and she felt special, and so when she met Boyfriend, and when he told her for the first time to go to lunch with him, she smiled her pretty girl smile, and said, "okay."
And just like that, it started.

Boyfriend takes her to this garage, this place between two houses in a shady neighborhood near the school. She's nervous and excited and all jumbled up, because she's never been here before. This isn't her neck of the woods, not a pretty white girl from the Valley, not a rich girl living near the university. She tries to hide her shaking fingers and watches everything, watches and listens, but forgets to pay attention. She never learns the names of the other girls, never finds out who Boyfriend's connect is, doesn't really care. But thinks, "damn. How'd they make a pipe out of a coke can?"
She's a good liar, she learns, even though she's lying to herself. She's a terrible liar, and everyone knows it, and they look at her with pity and admiration and confusion, but mostly, no one cares. They nod when she tells them she's terrified of lighters, even though she's not so much terrified, it's more that she doesn't know how to use one. What can she say? She's a pretty little white girl, perfect and prim and proper. Why would she ever need to know how to use a lighter, except to light her birthday candles? And even then, she always had mommy around to do that for her. They nod, and they assure her, "yeah, I used to be afraid of lighters, too. But I got used to them," and when they say that, she breathes a sigh of false relief because they know the truth and she knows the truth, but who cares, really? Who cares. The truth doesn't matter here.
She's up next, and see, look, it's almost cashed. Damn. But she doesn't know the rules, she didn't know how to call "first" or "second" or "fifth" even because she's new and everyone there knows it, but they pretend she's not and that she just really doesn't care.
Anyway, it's cashed, almost, just almost. Boyfriend lifts the light for her because she's terrified of lighters, you know, but she doesn't quite press her lips to the opening of the can and she doesn't quite breathe in, just holds the smoke in her mouth. It tastes awful and wonderful and kind of like her grandpa used to taste, except less like nicotine and more like vomit, more like rebellion, more like perfection. She coughs it all out and there's a collective groan, but it's almost cashed, anyway, so they let her have what's left of the ash. Boyfriend lights it up again and this time she does it right and it burns. The back of her throat feels like a fire, feels like a volcano, erupting and filling her lungs with plumes of toxic smoke.
When she breathes, the smoke whisps out in pretty ribbon rings and she could swear they were changing colors before they all dissolved away.
After that, on the way back to the classes she forgot she had, she can't stop talking and she's nearly sure she's driving boyfriend insane, because she can't stop talking, and she can't get even a sentence out right, and she thinks maybe everything in the world is calm for once. She can hear someone breathing halfway across the world, like someone stuck microphones to her ears and now everything is so much louder, so much clearer. She feels like she can't quite walk in a straight line. She feels like everything around her is falling, crashing, moving at the speed of light, but in slow motion. It's perfect and wonderful and it's everything.

It wasn't the last time, oh no, it was the very first, and it changed everything. Mommy's princess wasn't pure anymore, she was all messed up, all wrong, hard and soft and dangerous and safe and she was everything and she was nothing and it was perfect.
Boyfriend showed her new things, and she watched him with wide, owl eyes, taking in everything and anything, eager. She learned to love the burn, learned to cut and learned to snort and learned to tell her teachers she had a case of the sniffles, learned to avoid blowing her nose, and when her sinuses froze in the winter, she never, never complained.
She wanted to be perfect, and that's what pushed her over the edge. Boyfriend told her she'd be thin and pretty, and she wanted to be perfect for him, perfect so he'd keep holding the lighters for her, and so she took the thick black pills, and swallowed them down eagerly. They felt like they should be fed to a horse, and she coughed and choked and gagged, but she didn't complain, never complained, because she learned that she couldn't, not if she wanted to keep doing what she was doing. She was still just a little bit terrified of lighters, but that was okay. She had Boyfriend.
Sports were easier, because speed meant speed, and the medals were nice, but the high was great, and every time she won, she was already winning. So who cared? Who cared, but maybe her coach, who liked her. Liked her a lot. What a shame, he didn't know. What a shame. She could have gotten help. But she was a star when she was all messed up, and who wanted perfection when she was already perfect?
Mommy noticed, and she told her that she loved her, her little girl, and she could tell mommy anything. She laughed. "Mommy," she would say, "stop worrying. I'm fine. I've got it all under control." Mommy would look at her with skeptic eyes, but then she'd nod and try to convince herself her daughter was alright. She wasn't.
She liked to sit at home and swallow a couple of horse pills and sit at her computer and talk to all the boys who loved her pretty smile. And so what that some of them noticed? So what. Because they didn't know, didn't want her to feel good, to feel pretty, they were wrong! All of them. She had all the others. They were almost as good.

Everything was all messed up, and she didn't know up from down or left from right, and so she said yes when she meant no, and for a night, it was all great The windows of the car were so thick with sweat you couldn't see through them and she climbed into the front seat with pride she shouldn't be feeling, and slipped her bare feet into his converse like nothing, and her cutoff shorts were all unraveled.

Her life was ruined.
And she didn't care.

For the next few days, everything hurt, everything, and everyone talked about it, and she couldn't look at mommy without wanting to cry, and so she smoked more and she snorted more and she skipped classes with Boyfriend, who was never really boyfriend, she learned, but was Bad influence and Control freak and Dealer everything she never knew, never wanted, but became. Suck it up, he told her, and the boys who used to love her smile told her they would help her, but she ignored them. They couldn't help her. She was already gone. She smiled all the time, pretended everything was fine, but mostly,

mostly, she wanted to cry.

Her smile was never so brilliant again.





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