"There was that one time when I was fourteen and my parents had gone to bed and I snuck downstairs all alone. Got one of my mom's cigarettes and went out onto the porch in the dark. I was so scared. My heart was beating, I mean, they would have killed me if they knew. But I was so excited. Not 'cause of the cigarette, I mean, it was gross, but because I wasn't supposed to.""That could be a story from any kid's life."
Dana Scully was very much fourteen.
It was very, very early in the morning and she threw the sticky, warm sheets away from her bare legs. Her cheap faux-silk pajamas clung to her uncomfortably, riding up and falling down, soaked with sweat. Her open window let in the silence of Southern California nighttime, and occasionally the slightest breeze cooled the hot august air. Her grandmother's cough, harsh and loud after decades of smoking, drifted through the paper thin walls.
She could not sleep.
The night was too uncomfortable for sleep. She breathed deeply through a mouthful of braces, each time blowing her frizzy bangs away from her overheated forehead. She slid her shorts further down her hips, exposing an inch of pale skin, still soft and smooth with childhood. A light gust of wind curled through the window and dried the sweat on her jutting hip bones and knobby knees, still covered in short red hairs her mother told her she was too young to shave.
Another hour passed and she gave up on sleep. She leaned out her window, gazing into the sky. It was turned almost orange with pollution and distant streetlights. She imagined the stars, somewhere behind the smog, remembering summer nights she'd spent in the cool grass with her siblings and any neighbors close in age they'd briefly had. They'd have races, to see who could be the first to count all the stars in the sky, but no matter how fast they counted or how high the numbers ran, there always seemed to be more…
She slipped out of her room and down the stairs as quietly as she could, and then out the door and down the steps of the back porch until she had the grass, cold and dry, springing up between her bare toes. It licked the moisture away from her thighs when she sat, and began to leave the patterns on her skin she had always tried to sort into pictures or words when she was younger. But she wasn't a child anymore, as she frequently reminded herself with pride, so instead she took interest in the houses beyond her tired fence, the stucco mini-mansions and tiled roofs stretching on and on in the infinite replication of suburbia.
After a few minutes the grass became uncomfortable, poking her legs and making her itch. She stretched and stood up, planning to return to her room in further search of sleep, when she noticed a pack of her grandmother's cigarettes on the porch railing, balanced precariously on top of her lighter.
It wouldn't hurt to hold one, would it? Hold one like the women in movies, looking so pretty and grown-up, smiling painted red smiles, shiny white smiles that never had braces. She'd pinch it between two fingers, two long, thin, painted fingers, and smile a smile that showed something more than happiness, and then she'd slide it back in the small cardboard box and go back to bed.
Back to bed in her soft pink sheets, the same ones she'd had since she was six, with the doll on her nightstand she'd named Baby Dana as a three-year-old. She would have one short spree as an adult, and then go back to bed a little girl.
But no one was awake to see her and the lighter was right there. She could smoke just one and then be all grown up no matter what color her sheets were. She could smoke just one and never worry about being a little girl ever again.
She pulled one from the package—a cigarette, a real cigarette—and pinched it between her trembling fingers, just like in the movies. She flicked the lighter open and watched the tiny ball of flame, imagining the thick night air and the polluted sky catching fire, erupting in oranges and yellows and reds like an early sunrise.
Instead the night stayed silent as she carefully touched the end of the cigarette to the flame. Just like that.
She leaned over the porch railing, bending at the waist like the women in magazine advertisements, and pressed the cigarette to her lips.
And for one brief delicious moment, she felt just as grown up as she'd always wanted to feel.
But then the air in her lungs turned stale and sickening, and she couldn't breathe. She dropped the cigarette into the dirt below the porch and coughed, coughed, coughed, she couldn't stop, and she suddenly became quite certain that she was going to die right then, on the porch in her pajamas, coughing like her grandmother, swallowing huge breaths of the night air and coughing it right back out. She started crying, both out of lack of air and out of fear, and then suddenly she could breathe again. Short shaky breaths, one after the other, and she didn't cough any more.
She buried the cigarette as deep in the soft dirt as she could, and then went upstairs and washed her hair three times, replacing the revealing hints of smoke with the innocent scent of peaches.