Mama was addicted to cigarettes in the same way I was addicted to matches.
I knew where she kept them—in the top left drawer under the cabinet with the soup bowls—”for candles,” she liked to say, although we owned only one vanilla candle in the whole house, its wick still white and its wax unmelted. She liked to strike a match, light the cigarette pinched between her chapped lips, shake the flame to smoke, and step out onto the deck to survey the sad space of backyard that was her domain.
That gave me five minutes on a good day.
I would abandon my homework on the kitchen table and creep to the top left drawer under the cabinet with the soup bowls. The box inside pulled at my hand with invisible strings, making my fingers twitch like Mama’s when she’d gone too long without a smoke.
But the moment my fingers found that box, they stopped twitching.
I had to be careful not to burn through too many. Didn’t want Mama to notice her supply going down. I’d strike a match—what a satisfying sound, even the word themselves—strike a match, and watch the birth of a dancing light.
As if hypnotized, I’d hold the flame up in front of my eyes—this hot, hungry thing of beauty I’d just created—and watch it devour the head of the match, then lick at the wooden stick, stretching closer and closer to my pink fingertip. What would it look like blackened? Scorched and charred, kissed by fire, scarred to remember the pain forever?
I’d chicken out every time the crackling heat came within a hair’s breadth. Fwoosh. Gone.
Mama caught me playing with her matches on a rainy Thursday afternoon. “You little shit!” she hollered, cuffing me upside the head.
I ran, tears burning like fire in my eyes, and I hid in my closest, perched on a field of shoes thrown carelessly without partners. I waited until dark. Mama didn’t give me supper. She didn’t tell me goodnight. I heard her door close, and still I waited. An hour, then two. My patience knew no bounds.
And then, silent as a shadow, I crawled from my refuge and tiptoed to the kitchen. I opened the top left drawer under the cabinet with the soup bowls. Gone. Gone, gone—I closed it and opened it again to be certain—gone! They were gone! I yanked open drawers and cupboards. Gone! Where?
I found them. Under the stove.
I cradled the box in cupped hands and carried it into the living room, where I crouched by the wall so I could shield the light with my body while I admired the flame. So small, like me. So easy to extinguish. So pretty. So hungry.
As it flickered to the end of its life, I touched it to the lacy white curtain and smiled as it blossomed like a heart opening into a sun.
*** All works are fiction. The events, characters, and narrator(s) in flash fiction pieces are not intended to accurately portray any real persons, living or dead. ***