Slow Burn

by Abbey Schlanz (Univ. of Mount Union)

Third Place

Even in the mountains, North Carolina summers burn. Although I’d rolled down the passenger-side window of Kenna’s black Pontiac, the air in the car stayed heavy and thick in my lungs. I breathed deeply, trying to find oxygen in the swirl of heat, exhaust fumes, and metallic molecules of gasoline. The backs of my thighs stuck to the black leather, hot and sticky from baking in the July sun. We were parked near the entrance of the two-pump Shell. Inside the gas station window clogged with lottery and tobacco ads, I watched my cousin exchange money with the cashier and limp out the door, her hips locking and clicking, making sharp angles of her already sharp joints. She leaned through the window, handing me a pack of tropical Starbursts.

“Eat as much as you want. Just save me at least one pink one.” She hobbled back to the side of the Exxon door and pulled her other purchase out of her pocket, a box of Marlboro blacks. She produced a lighter from the purse over her shoulder and lit a cigarette, sucking deeply before blowing a jet of smoke straight into the air, pale and grey like the hand-stenciled lettering on her worn T-shirt that read “KISS MY CARBON FOOTPRINT,” edged in clouds of excess spray paint to resemble exhaust fumes. For a 5’1” girl with 2% body fat, Kenna was a striking figure. She bounced up and down a few times, rushing the nicotine through her system, before dropping her cigarette stub on the sidewalk and snuffing it out with the toe of her thick-soled Sketcher.

She creaked back into the car, filling the interior with the scent of sweet tobacco smoke. I wanted to grab the Marlboros from her pocket and grind them into the car floor with my sneaker, but instead I turned my face away and popped a maroon Starburst into my mouth, savoring the tangy flavor. Kenna took the pack from my lap and dug through a few to find a pink one before throwing it into the console cup holder, where opened packs of Skittles, fruit snacks, and more Starburst oozed their contents into a molten rainbow swirl at the bottom, trapping their wrappers like a sugary La Brea tar pit. I wondered where they’d all come from, what adventures followed the sugar highs, and who had been along for the ride.

Kenna turned the ignition, backed her car out of the lot, and headed up the winding road, speeding through the mountainside with the ease that only locals have. As an Ohioan I still had the tourist habits, slamming my brakes around every curve and constantly eyeing the GPS. I hoped we would have enough summers together that I could learn the shape of the mountains, too.

After a few moments, Kenna glanced at me and said, “Hey, by the way,” She hesitated, shifting her grip on the steering wheel. “Not that I think you would, but don’t say anything about—“ She gestured toward the pack of Marlboros gleaming white as teeth against the black cup holder. “My parents don’t really know. It’s the only thing that helps settle my stomach so I can eat, but they wouldn’t understand because…you know.”

Because her dad was twenty minutes away at home, seated on their living room recliner with a TV in front of him and translucent green tubes trailing from his nostrils while periodically sucking vapor from an oxygen machine with one hand and playing solitaire on his laptop with the other, the same position he’d been in for seven months now, ever since he’d been diagnosed with COPD. Still, he snuck out the back door onto the deck every couple of hours, and we all had to pretend we didn’t know he was smoking enough to go through a pack every two days while he slipped back in, keeping his eyes trained on the green solitaire screen until he sat down and returned to his game.

Kenna and I snaked up the North Carolina mountainside, watching the surrounding skinny-treed forest blur around us. Only two cars passed us going the other direction, and when we crossed the muddy drive that led into the gravel parking lot, we were the only car there. I climbed out of the Pontiac, my limbs stiff from sitting for so long. I wiped the sweat off my legs and squinted through the sunlight at the shiny gate a few feet away from us. It read, “PARK HOURS: 8 A.M. TO DUSK.” Although the sun had begun to streak the sky with pink, dusk hadn’t quite fallen, so the gate remained unlocked.

On the other side of the car, Kenna was still slowly getting out of the car. Once out, she opened the door to the backseat and exchanged her purse for a vintage Nikon with a neck strap she found at Goodwill before pulling her cane out of the backseat. The cane’s ivory handle mimicked a nineteenth-century pistol, complete with a moveable trigger, but the real danger lurked in the blade hidden within the staff of the cane. Kenna had picked up the antique at a consignment shop when she lived in Savannah, where she went to SCAD until she had to drop out at the end of last semester. Kenna limped over to the gate, her joints pushing and stretching, moving her body jerkily like early CG animation. I followed her, slowing my pace to match hers.

Together, we headed up a short, steep trail. Kenna warned me to look for snake holes, explaining that they like to burrow in the soft mud tracks left by the four-wheeler that had cleared the trail. At the crest of the hill, Kenna pointed to a wild cluster of plants, her eyes flashing excitedly.

“See those ones with the big umbrella-y leaves? They’re called trillium, and they’re my absolute favorite plants. Every May, they bloom these gorgeous white and maroon flowers, usually right around my birthday, so my mom and I usually hike up here to see them.” She paused and coughed with a weak smile. “I wish they were blooming now so you could see them.”

We continued up the now-gentle slope for a few minutes, stopping at the summit, where a grassy cliff overlooks the city of Asheville. Kenna took off her shoes and balled her socks up inside the soles. She dug her toes deep in the grassy earth. “I’ve been going to see this New Age hippie doctor-lady,” she explained. “She wants me to do this thing called ‘earthing’ every day where I spend at least ten to twenty minutes in direct contact with nature. It’s supposed to help with my symptoms. Personally, I think it’s a load of bullshit, but so are the meds that ‘real’ doctors give me, so might as well give it a shot, right? Oh, and she wants me to start a hobby, so that’s why I brought the camera.”

I forced a laugh and nodded because I wasn’t sure what else to say. Kenna had a way of saying it all. Sometimes, I hated talking to her because my voice felt slow and boring, a drip of molasses against her rushing-river voice. It was easier to listen.

Kenna carefully stepped across the grass to the cliff and squatted down on one knee, propping her elbow on her other, and squinted into her camera lens. She switched the angle a few times, snapping shots of the skyline and the dimly lit city below. I had to admit the view was beautiful. The sky melted from blue to gold to red, framed by mossy green leaves and tree branches shadowed black from the backlight of the sun. Mountains rose in the distant fog, and houses nestled between patches of forest that surrounded the pulsing core of Asheville.

Kenna gestured toward a structure glinting on a nearby mountainside. “See that there? Yet another condominium. Asheville’s been tearing down forest and putting up tons of them lately. They almost built one right here where we’re standing, but a bunch of us signed a petition and got it protected as a nature preserve. Thank God. Those contractors have no idea what they’re destroying.” Her T-shirt fluttered in the breeze, looking tattered and faded in the bright sunlight.

I sat down a few inches away from the edge of the cliff, folding my legs under me, feeling the evening-cool grass tickle against my legs. Kenna stepped behind me. I heard her lighter click, and tobacco smoke wafted over to me. I glanced back and she apologized, unsuccessfully trying to dissipate the smoke cloud by waving her bony hand frantically in front of her face. I turned back around and kept my face stoic, pretending not to hold my breath as the smoke continued to swirl around my face.

Disjointed sentences floated through my head: Those things are killing your dad, you know…I hate seeing you do this to yourself…Do you really need to smoke right now? We aren’t eating for at least another hour…But I couldn’t open my mouth to say any of it because I knew the words would flutter out like scraps of paper that Kenna would crumple up and toss over the cliff with a shrug and a laugh.

After a few minutes, I heard Kenna say, “You know, there’s a berry tree a bit further down the trail that my dad used to take me to. He’d give me a piggy back ride and run all the way down, lifting me up so I could reach all of the juiciest berries. I’d eat them until my fingers and half my face were stained red. I’d say we go pick some now, but my bones are tired and dinner should be ready soon anyways. Maybe we can come back tomorrow with our moms and your sister and pick some. They should be ripe right around now.”

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” I said, even though she and I both knew the odds of her being physically able to hike two days in a row were as likely as seeing a blossoming trillium.

Still, we liked to pretend.

Kenna carefully lowered herself to the ground, suppressing a groan, and put her shoes and socks back on, keeping the cigarette stub pinched carefully between her pinky and ring finger. Using her cane as a crutch, she pulled herself back up, wobbled a second, and started heading back down the trail. We navigated stones and slippery patches of mud that weren’t an issue on the way up but almost caused Kenna to fall several times.

When we reached the grass at the edge of the parking lot, Kenna stopped and pushed the leftover tobacco out of her cigarette filter. She pulled a packet of seeds from her pocket and dumped a few into her hand, slipping them gently into the filter. She crouched down, packed it with dirt, and buried it shallowly in the earth. “It’s biodegradable,” she explained, flattening the soil. “And the filter actually provides protection for the seed while still allowing it water and nutrients from the soil.”

As we walked back to the Pontiac, I hesitated before offering, “You know, American Spirit cigarettes have biodegradable packaging too, but their ingredients are also all-natural, so they’d be a bit healthier than your Marlboros.”

Kenna laughed, unlocking the car. We climbed in, and she threw her cane into the backseat, letting it clatter against a stack of CDs. “See, I prefer the blackest, most tar-filled cigarettes I can find. I don’t smoke for the nicotine. I smoke to die faster.”

As we drove away, I watched my words flutter down the road behind us, disappearing in the distance. Kenna rolled down the window and lit another cigarette.