Mary Roseann Ramirez

Unlit, orange and white, pencil-thin and three inches long, you watch as it is twirled on fingers with nails dirty and yellow. Your eyes travel to the arm, its prickly skin and little scars, focus on a red welt just above the elbow. Then you turn the other way when you see the drying gash on the thin, bare shoulder.

You are sitting in a jeepney caught in the afternoon traffic. The man beside you reeks of the day’s work. Two women in front gasp, giggle and whisper. They pout their painted lips. An old man in the far corner sleeps even as music blares from the dashboard. A squat man in his thirties has on huge black headphones; the office woman beside him. Coins rattle almost imperceptibly, the engine is idling, the heat threatens to suffocate. You look back at the seven-year old boy holding the cigarette.

He is in faded blue with the sleeves torn off, his shorts brown and two inches too short. You see the spindly legs, the knobby knees, the feet caked with dirt. He sits nonchalantly on the curb. You see there are others around him, older but no better off. He twirls and twirls the cigarette until someone throws him a light. The match flares and smoulders, the tip is lit. He takes a long slow drag.

You imagine his lungs shrivelling into black pulps, his breath turning acrid, his teeth—are all of them even permanent?—becoming frighteningly yellow. You recall that they have four-thousand chemicals and forty-three of them cause cancer. You try and fail to remember the statistics of people who die from it. A film clip of dying lung cells plays in the corner of your mind. You wonder if he already has asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. You wonder who gave him his first cigarette. Father? Mother? Brother? Sister? Stranger? You picture him rummaging barefoot for cigarette butts in drainages, fending off traffic fumes while seeking deadly intoxication from the same element. You imagine him trying to quit, hands shaking, lids fluttering, until he cannot resist the pungent temptation. How young will he be then?

You wonder if anyone else sees. And if they do you wonder if they see what you see, if they can picture this boy’s fate as the smoke is suspended in his throat.

The word carbon monoxide flashes in red neon lights, then twirls itself into death, death, death. You imagine his eyes, veined and hopelessly worn in a future you are not sure he has, his lips cracked, fingers tar-yellow, hair brittle, as he coughs up blood.

You will those around him to make him stop, but they are caught in the heat of the afternoon. You speculate at how many others are like him, and how many others are like you.

You imagine the poison pulsing through his veins, hypnotizing his fledgling heart into submission.

He exhales and the traffic stirs. Your jeepney drives away from the boy whose childhood is being stolen by a pencil-thin stick three inches short. And you do nothing but stare at the smoke.