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At the urging of Everything Quests - Smoking, I present for your reading pleasure "Once a Smoker"... feedback much desired. Thanks :)

"You do realize you don't have to smoke, right Mike? It's got to be getting hard these days to find someone who'll actually sell cigarettes anymore. And you know as well as I do we've had the technology to synthesize a pill with a purer, stronger buzz than those smelly sticks of yours. Hell, you helped develop the thing. Why won't you use it?" Eric waved the acrid smoke from Mike's cigarette away from his face and drowned out the taste/smell with a gulp of his beer.

"I know that, and I know two more things, Eric. First off, there's a pill or shot for everything now it seems, except for the ever-elusive and very damnable common cold. We've created a synthetic substitute for just about everything except sex. They're quick and easy things, but they take all the pleasure out of the original vices. And for all our problems, there's some new shiny pill or shot. Vaccines, preventatives, cures, hey! Presto, just like that." Mike paused and inhaled deeply on his cigarette, then continued. "I don't like it, honestly. It's all too perfect, and too unnatural. Of course we haven't cured AIDS yet, and new diseases spring up just as fast as old ones are defended against. So I guess Nature tries to defend herself somehow. We'll never conquer her fully, I don't think." Mike fidgeted with a small star on a chain as he spoke, mechanically rubbing its cold surface as his thoughts drifted.

"But the only reason we were ever told not to smoke was health, lung cancer specifically, and if I am unlucky enough to develop it, well I'll just have my lungs replaced. I've already had them done once. It won't affect my lifespan a whit." Mike paused a moment and then blurted "And the second thing I know, you don't believe, so why bother discussing it again."

He then snapped in a short tone, to cover up his embarrassment, "and while we're on the topic of synthetics, why do you continue to drink that swill you call "beer" if you can get drunk off an injection just as easily. At least the needles don't smell like a dirty urinal!" Patient though he usually was, he was tired of this same argument day after day with his friend, and the pounding music in the club had shortened his temper ever the more.

"Oh come on now, Mike!" Eric smiled back, as he pointed to the needles in front of his friend. "That's just your "synthetic booze" shots talking, I think. I think you've had a couple more of those syringes than is good for you, pal. At least my beers take long enough to drink they don't hit me all at once. And we should discuss "the second thing you know" again because I really do love those stories you tell as "explanation." You're damn good at them, really. You should've been a writer, not a scientist."

"Oh, why do they matter to you, Eric? You don't believe a word of them." Mike was getting irritated now. Anytime they discussed philosophy he had the nagging feeling his friend was just baiting him.

Eric retorted "Belief has nothing to do with storytelling. You may believe them, but to me they're just excellent tales, and that's enough for any story."

"Dammit, Eric. I leave your beliefs alone. Why won't you respect mine? You know the things I tell you are truth to me, and you mock them and call them stories. I've smoked every lifetime I remember, and I'm not sto--" The shots were catching up to Mike, Eric could tell by his friend's voice and face, and the coughing that caused him to stop momentarily what he had to say.

That cough worried Eric more than he wanted to admit. He was afraid Mike's lung cancer had come back. And while a replacement was possible, commonplace now, Mike wasn't as young as he used to be. His first replacement, 30 years ago, had been hard on him and he now was nowhere nearly as fit as he was then.

Eric had known Mike for many many years, and they'd been research partners together for the last 45. He was just pondering how odd it was that medical advances didn't seem to work as well on Mike as anyone else he knew when his friend's tirade continued to snap him out of his reverie.

"...stopping now just because I don't have to smoke anymore! It's a peaceful feeling, like an old friend or a faithful dog. It's never been about the nicotine high, it's about familiarity."

"Mike, sit down. Your cough sounds really bad... let me have the bartender get you some water or something, ok?"
"Goddammit, Eric, don't interrupt me! I'm fine!" Mike snapped, then verbally wandered down well-loved paths.

Whatever edge on sobriety Mike had previously had plain slipped away as he entered that vacant, odd place where words flow over the brain and then the tongue in a way that they never will for a sober man.

Eric was used to his friend doing this, however, and knew that unless Mike could "talk it off" he'd be cranky all night and worse at work the next morning, so he signaled for another beer and sat back to listen. He braced himself for a rant, which always made him uncomfortable. Mike was skilled with words and an excellent storyteller, but his subjects bothered Eric a lot. He wasn"t sure what he thought on most of them, and having to decide what he did believe, or at least accept he had no decision, made him uneasy.

Reincarnation in specific was Mike's favorite topic, and Eric's least favorite. For all Mike said about accepting Eric's "religious beliefs", Eric had almost none. It was easier that way. It was hard for him to do the kind of work he did and have room left for doubt or faith.

Mike told his stories, one by one. He got his start smoking, he said, in pioneer America. It helped fill the lonely, vacant prairies and the slow, empty days of travel as he and his family moved ever further away from where they began, and never got out of the habit.

He'd nearly quit only one lifetime. Some indeterminate time after he started smoking, he was a slave, in his memories, on a tobacco plantation of all things. He started smoking about 10 years of age, then. He carefully stole and dried bits of the harvest for his own use for the few short years he lived past then. Before his 14th birthday, he was beaten to death by his master when his ongoing theft was discovered. That was almost incentive enough to quit, but not quite.

Mike smoked as a farmer. He had his own plot of land this time, instead of working one for somebody else. He tried grains and tubers and different crops as weather and markets changed, and some years made money and some years lost it. He married, his wife died birthing a dead child, he mourned, he married again, he raised six children with her. The only thing constant in his life was the small patch of his fields in which he grew tobacco.

He smoked through the 1920's, although the actual years weren't as glorified as the gangster-and-flapper stories that lived on beyond the truth. He tried his hand at gambling and lost what small savings he had. For some months, until he got back on his feet, he had to beg money even to buy himself cigarettes.

He smoked in the trenches of the World Wars--both of them. One time he was European, another American. One war, he never saw past. The other, he walked away with only the requisite superficial injuries to attribute to the battles. One war he fought for his own morals, one because he was told he had. Only his tubes of tobacco and paper were constant regardless.

He was smoking when JFK died, when the Challenger exploded, and when the planes hit the twin towers.

He smoked through the bout of fighting people tried to call "World War III" but having seen the other two, he knew it wasn't really. He smoked through a medical breakthrough that could cure cancer better than ever before. He smoked through AOL/Time/Warner trying to buy out half the major newspapers and TV channels in the country. He smoked through the day when a human being set foot on the moon again with the intent to doing research on establishing a base from which to one day head for mars. He smoked the day the bills allowing human cloning for reproduction were passed.

He didn't smoke on the job, of course, not while he was doing research. But every night when he returned home, he smoked. He smoked three times as much as he had when he was young. His wife left him, one day he got home from work late and she was gone, and he turned to his cigarettes for comfort more than ever before. The day his synth-otine pill hit the market, he smoked an extra pack in celebration. He smoked even though he had to tube halfway across the city to find an old-fashioned drugstore anymore that sold cigarettes.

"I smoked... smoked... smo...sm...zzzzz" Mike had finally worn himself out talking and fallen asleep on the table. Eric called for transportation home for his slumbering companion, paid his tab, and left.

The next morning, Mike was not in for work. He'd called in sick. Eric didn't believe a minute of it. Mike got pissy sometimes, when he thought Eric had mocked him the day before, and would skip work. He'd get over it and be back tomorrow, Eric mused, you think he'd know I know how he works by now.

Three days later, when Mike continued to call in sick, Eric started to worry in earnest. It had to be those lungs, that cough. It had seemed worse that last night.

It was the fourth day, when Mike phoned in his permanent resignation, starting now, that Eric panicked. He rushed over to Mike's home as soon as he got off work.

He found his friend looking terrible. Earlier in the week, even though Mike actually had recently reached his 87th birthday, he'd looked like he was barely 35 and was joking about his 111th birthday party and vanishing into thin air, some joke from a favorite book that Eric hadn't read. Now he looked twice his age, and much, much smaller somehow. Yet there he was smoking in bed!

"Mike! You're wasting away, you quit work for a lung replacement and you're still SMOKING?" Eric yelled.
Mike lazily waved him away with a plume of smoke. "It's not my lungs, Eric. It's not my lungs. Remember the project I'd jus taken on earlier this month? The one I wouldn't let you help with?"

Realization slowly dawned.

"You can't mean... Mike?"

"Yes, that's what I do mean. One of those new diseases that's arisen to replace something we've destroyed? The one that has no name that I was trying to find a vaccine for. I was careless. I miscalculated exactly how contagious it was, and contracted it. It's not airborne contagious, you can't get it from me sitting here. But I've had my doctor in, and specialists. There's nothing to be done. I was the hope for that cure, and I won't be around long enough to finish it. I've got three months if I'm lucky, one if I'm not. And I plan to stay here at home. I'm going to die in my own bed. Being in a lab or hospital is useless. There's no cure. I'm sorry, Eric. I kind of always thought we'd grow old together and give the other hell about beer and cigarettes for years onwards."

Eric has nothing to say and turned away, shedding silent tears.

Mike was neither very lucky or very unlucky. He hung around just under two months. His body fell apart, but blessedly his mind was still sharp right up to the end. He lost track of many things, but kept telling Eric his stories every time his friend came over to visit. He spent less and less time in the present and far more in the past. Eric, finally understanding, brought Mike cigarettes every time he visited.

One day, Mike had a rare moment of lucidity. "Eric--don't bother coming back tomorrow. I won't be here. My affairs are in order, everything's with a lawyer. Do one thing for me though. When I'm buried, unroll the rest of my cigarettes and burn the tobacco over my grave. It's an offering to the gods, you know, when that smoke ascends to the heavens." Then his eyes lost the spark they'd gained when Eric entered the room, and he went back to his stories in a very old, very tired voice. He was still retelling his memories, and smoking, as his voice whispered itself out.

Eric, still staring into the tobacco smoke, through the blur of smoke and tears, would swear later that he could see in the rising gray fog images from his friend's stories, images from long ago.

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