A Lighted Cigarette ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in A Twist of Noir)
Ruth Barrett was confused when she woke up. She couldn’t remember anything that happened the day or the night before. She looked over at the clock and seeing that it had stopped and not knowing the time only added to her confusion. She sat up in the bed and pulled a pillow up behind her so that it was between her back and the headboard and smoked a cigarette and then she remembered the reason for her confusion. She had been sick, she had had a high fever, and the doctor gave her some pills to help make her sleep.
She got out of the bed and slipped into her bathrobe and went into the kitchen. She was glad to see that her husband had gone to the store and bought groceries. He was always good to help out with the housework whenever she wasn’t feeling well. There were milk and oranges in the refrigerator and a loaf of bread on the counter and plenty of cigarettes. She made some coffee and sat down at the table and smoked another cigarette and looked out the window at the gray, hazy sky and waited for the coffee to brew.
She drank half a cup of the coffee and took a few bites of a piece of toast, but she had no appetite and she soon went back into the bedroom and lay down again on the bed. She had a terrible headache and a searing pain in her throat and chest. She took another of her pills and pulled a pillow lightly over her face; in a little while she was able to stop thinking about how bad she felt and she fell again into a very deep sleep.
The next time she awoke, the room was dark. She had slept throughout the entire day and it was night again. She got out of bed and turned on the lights and went into the kitchen, expecting her husband to be there, but he was nowhere in the apartment. She looked at the kitchen clock and saw that it had stopped at exactly two-ten, the same time that the clock in the bedroom had stopped. She thought the pills must be playing tricks on her mind.
Her husband would surely be coming home soon. She felt bad that she kept missing him and hadn’t seen him for what seemed like days, but she couldn’t be sure how long it had been because she had been sleeping so much from the pills. He had been coming home and then leaving again, not wanting to disturb her; that much was obvious. His coffee cup was in a different place, he had left a plate in the sink to be washed, and a jacket he always wore had been taken out of the closet and draped over the back of a chair. She was comforted by these little signs of his presence.
She would sit up and stay awake and wait for him to come home and then she would fix him some dinner and they would talk. He would laugh when she told him she had slept the whole day through and had lost all track of time. He would tell her about things that had been happening to him at work and then she would feel better.
Being awake and alert when he came home suddenly seemed very important to her. She turned on the radio for some company, turning the dial until she found a station that was playing some soothing music, and then she picked up a magazine and sat down on the couch and began looking through it. She smoked a cigarette and then another one. She read a story in the magazine to make herself stay alert, but before she finished the story she was overwhelmed again with drowsiness. She lay full-length on the couch and let her magazine fall to the floor. She would just take a little nap. When her husband came in the door, that would wake her up and he need never know she had been asleep again.
When she awoke it was the next morning and voices on the radio startled her; she thought there were strangers in the room with her. She stood up from the couch rather shakily and turned off the radio and then, thinking that her husband must still be asleep, she went into the bedroom, expecting him to be in the bed, but he wasn’t there. She went into the kitchen, hoping to see him sitting at the table looking through the morning paper, but he wasn’t there, either. He had made some coffee, though. Or had he? When she realized the coffee was cold, she thought maybe it was the coffee she had made the day before, but she couldn’t be sure.
She dressed and had a bite of breakfast and then she took another of her pills. She lit a cigarette and tried calling the doctor to tell him how the pills were making her feel and to ask him whether or not she should keep taking them, but there was no answer; she thought maybe it was Sunday and his office was closed.
She made the bed and washed the dishes and cleaned up the apartment a little until she became tired. She was still not over being sick and her stamina was not what it should be. She lay down on the bed in her clothes and soon she went to sleep.
Then it was night again and she was awakened by a clamor on the street in front of the building. There were excited voices and a sound like bells ringing and a roar that she couldn’t identify. She got up and ran to the window to see what was going on, but there was nothing out of the ordinary happening in front of the building. The stoplight at the intersection turned from red to green and back to red again serenely, with no cars in sight. She thought she must surely have been dreaming the sounds.
In this way several days passed. She continued to take the pills. She slept and woke and then slept again. Time had lost its meaning for her; it seemed fragmented instead of continuous. A day might seem like a minute or a minute an hour. Days and nights were jumbled together. Every time she woke, she expected her husband to be nearby, but he was never there. She wasn’t sure why she kept missing him, but she felt certain he had been there and had left again.
At times she was awakened by a popping sound and the sound of screaming and running somewhere in the building, but she could never be sure if these sounds were real or if they were happening only inside her head. When she heard these sounds, her heart beat rapidly and she went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway, but by then the sounds would cease and the hallway would be quiet. At other times she believed she smelled smoke but when she investigated she wasn’t able to find any source of smoke. Sometimes she would wake with a sensation of heat all over her body, but it went away just as soon as she became aware of it.
Most disturbing of all, though, were the sounds coming from the street. Every night at what seemed exactly the same time she heard the bells and the roaring and the loud voices, and every time she went to the window and looked out, all was quiet. She concluded that the only explanation was that she was going insane.
She hadn’t been out of the apartment for days; she couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had dressed and gone out. Maybe being out in the fresh air would make her feel better, she thought. Just the idea of being someplace other than the apartment cheered her up.
She cleaned herself up and put on her clothes and combed her hair and put on some lipstick. After she put on her shoes, she was ready to go. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway and locked the door behind her and went down the stairs to the street.
The sunlight hurt her eyes and the traffic noise made her head ache. People she saw seemed indistinct, as though they were out of focus. When she was standing on a corner waiting to cross the street, a couple of women jostled her rudely and knocked her off-balance.
Six blocks away was a little park that she and her husband often walked to on hot summer nights. She made her way to the park and, finding it nearly deserted, found a place to sit on a bench facing a small duck pond. Out in the middle of the pond were two lone ducks swimming side by side. She watched the ducks for a while and then she looked disinterestedly at the sky and at the trees off in the distance and at the few people who passed.
Just to the right of the bench where she sat was a trashcan. She didn’t look toward the trashcan the whole time she was sitting on the bench, but if she had looked at it, she would have seen an old newspaper sticking out of the top of it.
The newspaper was crumpled and dirty, but she could have easily seen the headline if she had noticed: Eight Die in Apartment Blaze. If she had pulled the paper from the trashcan and read the article underneath the headline, she would have seen that the fire department was summoned to the Grove Apartments on June the twenty-first at two-ten in the morning. The list of the victims would have revealed her own name and the names of the seven other people who died in the blaze. Her husband made it out of the burning building alive; that’s why she was never able to find him. The building was destroyed. The cause of the fire was under investigation.
She was the first to die in the fire before it spread to the rest of the building. Her husband had warned her that she shouldn’t smoke in bed. The pills she took made her do things she would never have done under other circumstances.
She would continue to exist in an in-between world of darkness and confusion. Every day and every night she would relive bits of what happened on the night of the fire—the shouts, the commotion in the street in front of the building, the panicked footsteps, the smoke stealing her breath and, finally, the searing heat and flames enveloping her. In time, though, all would be revealed. When she came to an understanding of the responsibility that rested on her head, she would move forward out of the darkness and into the bright light that was waiting to envelope her.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp