by Hasen Hull
The paper around the filter had been flayed, a dirty orange strip hanging from soiled cotton. The tobacco itself, miraculously, had survived. He placed it with the others, a ragtag collection of cigarettes in an old and faded carton, some close to original length, others almost stumps, all of them giving off the same burnt odor. When he had enough money—it wouldn’t take long, even on a bad day—he’d buy papers and filters, and roll fresh cigarettes with the tobacco he’d obtained. He couldn’t smoke any other way.
It was a funny thing, walking through a capital city without a sense of time or space. He drifted through days, through alleyways, through memories of past convictions, and he knew that true freedom did not exist. A valued employee yearns for a simpler life. A rich man is horrified at the idea of his own death. There is always something to be escaped, he thought, and therein lies the futility of freedom.
Yesterday a girl—some sort of goth, he supposed—dropped a little change in his cup and told him with rehearsed compassion to get himself a coffee. He’d gotten a hamburger, against his old nutritional proclivities, but no matter; he needed the protein. The heads had turned when he joined the line to order, as they always did, as they always would, and as he ate on the floor outside the place, he reflected that life was not so bad. It had been a long time since he’d looked at anyone with envy.
The only real problem, beyond the obvious day-to-day trivialities not altogether removed from anyone else’s, was the inability to hold onto his sense of self—not on a mental level, not yet, but personal. Yet there was freedom, what existed of it, in this too. All around him were people doing their best to separate themselves from the crowd, but in the end, it was he who stood out. He did so unintentionally, and as a result, effortlessly. There was, he knew, no glory in what he stood for, but he saw no glory in the forceful characterizations of others.
He took a rest on a bench in a park. He would set up his pitch soon. There was one thing he didn’t want to lose. He could lose everything else—his childhood, his age, his name—but he could not lose what he used to do. The possibility was enough to cause him to hunch over himself, hands on his knees, containing his reminder to the world inside him, as there was no one else to hear it.
“Why do you look so sad?”
A girl, young enough to talk to him. She stood as children often do when faced with something curious and unfamiliar, a posture of blind confidence that threatened to collapse at any moment.
“Do I, my dear? I’m not sad. I was thinking.”
“Well, about what I used to do.”
“What did you used to do?”
Her father was running up to them, taking the girl’s arm with delicate authority.
“Sorry. She ran off. I’m really sorry.”
Smiling, he offered a friendly dismissal with a nod of the head. Talking would be quite useless.
Led away, the girl looked back at the man on the bench, up at her father.
“Who was that man?” she asked.
The father held her arm a little tighter.
“Nobody,” he said.
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Hasen Hull is a young writer with a particularly keen interest in American literature, currently living in London. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Dirty Chai, Praxis, The Reject Pile, Defenestration, Microfiction Monday and 101 Words. He enjoys photography and long journeys.