Smokes [Short Story]
His boots shuffled across the asphalt as he emerged from the alley between the Thai restaurant and the pharmacy.
Hank Ryder paused, blinked in the glare of the fluorescent lights illuminating the front of the pharmacy, and scratched at his beard. He dropped his hand to his side where his fingers tapped against his worn jeans, the cracked nails reminiscent of broken teeth. His nostrils flared, and he turned his head toward the top of the trashcan.
In the cool night air, he could smell the tobacco.
He stepped over to the receptacle and gazed down into the sand at the half-smoked cigarettes laying there.
His fingers stopped their tapping, and from a pocket of his coat, he drew out a battered metal candy tin. He pried the lid off, revealing the remnants of other cigarettes, and then he looked down into the ashtray atop the trashcan once more.
Hank’s eyes narrowed, and he listened.
The cigarettes said nothing.
He shrugged, reached out, and plucked as many of them from the stained sand as he could. He was nearly finished when the automatic door groaned open, and the pharmacy’s night manager stepped out.
“Hey!” the man snapped. “I told you to stay out of here!”
Hank didn’t answer as he snatched up the last two cigarettes, snapping the lid to his candy tin closed as he shuffled out of arm’s reach.
The manager, his thin brown hair plastered down to his skull with sweat, glared at Hank. “I’m gonna call the damned cops.”
Hank took another step back.
“Get outta here,” the manager sighed, and his shoulders slumped as he shook his head. “Just get out. Nobody wants to see you hangin’ out in front.”
Hank slipped the tin back into his coat and walked backward until he felt certain the manager would not chase after him.
Hank’s feet hurt too much to run.
When he was far enough away, Hank turned around and shuffled toward the intersection. He paused at the corner and waited for the light. At the walk signal, Hank crossed, trying not to count his steps as he did so.
By the time he reached Saint Patrick’s church, he had counted to one hundred and thirty one.
Three hundred and eighteen more steps would bring him to the library.
Fifty-nine after that, and he would be in the back of the building.
He turned up Court Street, and a police SUV passed by, the cop inside waving at him. Hank smiled and returned the wave.
He knew all the third shift officers, and they all knew him. Sometimes in the summer, when they could sit outside at the gas station, he drank coffee with them.
Someone whistled, and Hank froze where he was. He waited for the voice. “Rain.”
The first drop struck him in the forehead, and despite the pain in his feet, Hank broke into a shambling run. His throat tightened as panic grew in his chest, his blood pounding in his temples. His vision narrowed, and he stumbled, crashed into a tree, and fell onto the steps of the VFW. He cried out as the granite cut into his knee, but he pushed himself to his feet. Blood dribbled out of the wound and soaked into his jeans as he staggered off the curb, across Court Street and into the Temple Street parking lot.
He froze, then slunk back, pressing himself against a rough cement retaining wall. Panic fought with fear.
The parking lot was dangerous.
They were there, and they were waiting.
He kept to the edge of the lot, staying in the shadows cast by the dull yellow fluorescents of the parking lot’s lights. When he reached the corner of the wall, Hank stepped out and paused, freezing in a puddle that came up to his ankles. As the cold water seeped into his worn boots, he waited and scanned the Temple Street parking lot, trying to see if they were awake.
He avoided looking at the parking meters, but their cyclopean eyes fixed upon him. The faded and worn plastic covers could not hide the malevolence in the machines. Something had awakened them. Perhaps the rain or something more sinister. At the sight of the unblinking eyes, Hank’s heart skipped a beat, then two, and then thundered against his chest with the fury of a lunatic upon a war drum. He waited, fear building, for the parking meters to pull themselves up and out of their postholes, to shake free of the cement, and to chase after him as they had done so many times in the past. The rain increased and in the bitter night, he heard the books cry out to him, forcing him into motion.
He kept his eyes averted from the monstrous gaze of the parking meters, glancing up only now and again to make certain he was still on course to reach the library and to rescue the books that were hidden there. He could not risk becoming confused in the open parking lot, of becoming turned around and forced to confront the monsters in someplace of their choosing. It had happened before, and books had been lost.
The idea of such a thing happening again stabbed at his heart and quickened his pace. Hank stepped out of the lot and onto the street, his breath racing out in one long, shuddering wheeze. His vision swayed, and he staggered forward several steps until he regained his balance. The need for a cigarette swelled up in him, and he battled it back.
He couldn’t stop. Not when he was so close to finding them. Rescuing them. With a gasp and a grunt, he reached the end of the parking lot, avoided a parking meter twisting its oblong head to watch him, and he stepped onto the library’s cement pathway. Across the street from the library, running along the left side of the shattered curbing, apartment buildings stood three and four stories high. He could smell food and garbage, and he saw the flickering lights of televisions and demons. Parked cars hissed and spat, forcing him to keep close to the far edge of the library’s walkway, wary of the sleeping grass that might awaken and nip at his feet. He had felt the blades of grass before, thin weapons that slipped beneath the sprung seams of his boots to stab at his worn and battered feet.
As Hank scrambled up the walkway, insects flew past him, some landing on his shoulders to whisper madness into his ears. He ignored them and sang in a soft, broken voice. His words were nonsensical, he knew that, but Hank understood it was the power of song which kept the insanity of the creatures at bay.
They snarled at him and cursed him, but the insects flew away, denied a taste of his blood. Hank passed in front of the library, reached the corner of the building and hesitated. A new fear sprang up.
He had lost count of his steps. They had been smothered by the fear created by the parking meters and the insects.
The rain slashed across his face, and he clenched his jaw before he plunged down the steep side of the property. His mind tried to keep track of the steps he took since he so rarely traveled the dangerous path, but the panic forced the counting aside.
The rain was coming faster, harder. Not small drops but great, heavy fists of water slamming into him.
He tripped at the bottom and rolled, scrambling to his feet as fear threatened to overwhelm him.
The library’s dumpster was ahead of him, the broken plastic covers thrown back, exposing the trash to the weather and the cold night air.
Hank was panting when he reached the dull green metal container. His hands trembled as he pulled himself up and then into it. He landed atop black plastic bags, and from another pocket, he drew out his small flashlight. Hank managed to twist it on, the beam stabbing into the shadows. At the far corner, half-hidden from the rain, lay a box of books.
He pulled himself to them, shielding them as best he could from the rain. The water slammed into his back as he dug through the box of discarded books, crying out with relief at the discovery of a battered paperback copy of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter. He shoved it inside his coat, and after another moment of looking, he retrieved a copy of Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
The rest of the books were too damaged and too wet.
With his rescues against his chest and protected by his coat, he put away his flashlight and managed to climb out of the dumpster without hurting himself.
He shuffled to the back entrance of the library, where the books would be safe from the rain. In silence, Hank settled down, took his tin of smokes out, and picked through them until he found one that had hardly been touched.
His fingers trembled as he broke off the filter, found his matches, and lit the cigarette. As the smoke slipped out from between his lips and his nostrils, he took the books and eased them into his shirt, allowing them to cling to his chest.
With the books pressed against his bare flesh, Hank smoked and waited for the rain to end. The rain lasted for two and a half smokes.
When the rain slowed, Hank cocked his head and listened.
It was nearly time to go.
At first, only the patter of rain falling from the roof of the library to the pavement was audible. Then, as he pressed his ear against the building, he heard the brick rumble and whisper a single word.
Hank let out a shuddering sigh of relief, pinched off his cigarette, and tucked it away into a back pocket. Keeping the books snug and secure against his skin, he stood up. He touched the library for a moment as a wave of dizziness sent the world spinning. His stomach rumbled, and he remembered he hadn’t eaten.
Hank stepped out from the back entrance and paused to listen again. Voices broke the silence, and he retreated into the safety of a shadow.
From the right, where a path led down to the canal that coursed between the library and Canal Street, a pair of men emerged. They were clad in worn and tattered clothes, and when the wind shifted, Hank could smell them. They stank of stale beer and bad meat. The men lived in the homeless camp down beneath the old bridge, and they were trouble.
Hank touched his cheek, remembering the last time they had beaten him for his tobacco.
He watched them pause by the dumpster and peer in, their voices distorted by the metal and the night and by the library itself. When Hank was at the library, hiding in the shadows, the men never found him.
The library knew Hank loved books, and so it protected him.
Hank could feel the building radiating love, and he pressed himself deeper into its dark embrace.
After a few moments, the homeless men gave up looking in the dumpster and made their way toward Main Street.
Hank watched them until they turned left at the insurance agency, and then he clambered up the way he had come, his steps sure and swift. He ignored the howls of the cars and the whining of the insects.
His books defended him.
When he reached the parking lot, Hank did not hesitate as he stepped out onto the pavement. The books he carried were his shield. His protection. The parking meters could not abide them, could not bear to look at him when he held books against his flesh.
Hank boots whispered across the pavement as he made his way toward Cottage Street. It would be morning soon and the food kitchen would open. They would have coffee in paper cups, chocolate chip muffins in plastic wrappers.
He would sit against the wall.
He would sit and drink coffee. Sit and eat muffins.
Then, in the cool morning air, Hank would smoke and read the secrets hidden in the books pressed to his chest.
Nothing more and nothing less.
It was, Hank knew, exactly as it was supposed to be.
Nicholas Efstathiou is a husband, father, writer, and veteran living in New England.
This short story was the product of his dedicated efforts during the 6 week DRC Literary Fiction Workshop in the Fall of 2021. His story was selected for publication by the DRC team at the conclusion of the 6 week course.