After the crisped sun slid beneath the horizon, Jeff went back out to the yard, making one last effort before he would be locked inside until daybreak. He took a deep drag of his cigarette - a Salem, he noted with mild disdain - trying to finish the pack so he could feel like he had accomplished something today. Not his favorite brand. Not his least favorite either. He had tried them all. Winstons, Winston-Salems, Marlboros, Kools, Camels, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Newports, and rarely, American Spirits. He was a connoisseur, even though the taste didn’t matter to him anymore. His mouth had been numbed, burned, and rubbed off all sensation for as long as he could remember. At least it had made the food tolerable here. When he first learned about the prize, he thought the wrappers might all have to be from the same brand, but he quickly realized that stipulation hadn’t been in the instructions. Importantly, he had a goal. An objective. He was inhaling and exhaling his way to freedom. Towards mobility.
Jeff had limped for nearly a decade. Following an accident. The details were hazy. Inscrutable. Flashing colors staccatoed through his memory every time he attempted to reach back in. He had been somewhere damp, steamy, and loud. Alone, until he was no longer allowed. Before he came to Missouri. Right around the time he learned about the contest. That much he remembered. Now, he hobbled -- leaning far over his four-pronged cane and dragging his left foot a few inches behind him - between his room, the cafeteria, the small yard where he smoked, and the common room where the television stuffed with notes buzzed. During his smoke breaks, which for him meant a break from smoking, he shuffled back inside and slumped beside the other blank-faced residents, the afternoon dripping past.
He had smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day for the last decade. He tried to get through three, but he couldn’t always make it. It took time. Commitment. And it still wasn’t something he could have accomplished on his own. It required an orchestra of woodwinds harmonizing with varied notes of tobacco. Some of the other residents knew the importance of their trash to him, others regularly forgot. Each time he was outside, he diligently surveyed the yard for discarded packs from the other chimneyed musicians. It was the primary reason he regularly donned his thick wire-rimmed glasses through which he squinted for flashes of colorful paper and cellophane.
He wondered if and how he could encourage the non-smokers to start contributing. Maybe if they knew how badly he needed the wheelchair. It had been years in the making and his leg continued to atrophy. He needed the help, but he couldn’t fully reveal his motives. Those in charge of his freedoms had often questioned his logic, his decision-making, and his ability to care for himself. That’s why he was in here, no? He must keep the details to himself until he reached his goal. And he was getting close, nearing the prize. Yesterday, he had sifted through the growing mound in his small closet --which now spilled out onto the floor and seeped beneath his bed - to tabulate his lot. 86,764 empty packs. He counted them twice, just to be sure. Only 13,236 more to go.
He flicked the ash from the end of his cigarette, took a final drag, and crushed the butt against the wall, tossing it into the bin at the edge of the ramp. As he turned to go back inside, he noticed a small billow of smoke from around the corner. He knew that at the bottom of a billow was a cigarette, and at the bottom of a cigarette was a person, and, hopefully, at the bottom of each person’s standard-issued pajama pocket, was a pack of cigarettes, and sometimes even, these packs were even empty. And emptiness had become the path to fulfillment. Jeff jittered with anticipation and staggered towards the murky source. The end was in sight.