The Cigarette Man -- fiction by Madeleine de Belloy de Saint Lienard
It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. The old rickety house barely stood up on its own and it creaked in the wind. Its splintered wooden planks revealed a dark interior that rustled with unseen creatures. It appeared to lurch out towards you, probably because the foundations had collapsed, seemingly calling – no - daring you to walk inside. This dingy house sat in obscurity just far enough from the nearby suburban neighborhood for it to not seem out of place, but just close enough to surprise you. What is this threatening place? If you heard what people said about it, you too would begin to wonder.
I came across the house randomly one afternoon while visiting the nearby areas. As many others had done before me, I stopped to take a look at the dilapidated building. The air was hot and still that day. Even in broad daylight, though, the house was eerie enough. I moved cautiously to what I thought was the front door but would really be more accurately described as a narrow crevice in the rotting planks, just wide enough to fit my shoulders. I was still pretty short in my thirties and didn’t have much trouble squeezing in, but the opening would be better suited to a child. I shivered despite the heat as a rusted nail grazed my foot. “I would have loved this as a kid,” I thought, remembering how fascinated I had been by the supernatural when I was younger. The house was weirdly dark inside, considering that the walls were cracked everywhere. Apart from a couple of patches of light near where I was standing, the area was plunged in obscurity. The dark atmosphere weighed down on me, and I had the sudden urge to get as far away from the house as I could. But just before leaving, I decided on a whim that it would be fitting to leave something behind to mark my passage here. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a used tissue, a torn piece of pink paper from a job flyer, and an old cigarette. Unsatisfied with my findings but unwilling to spend more time on this childish fancy of mine, I wedged the cigarette into a small hole, covering my fingers in sticky cobwebs in the process. I then shimmied outside, wiped my fingers on my jeans, hopped into the car, and pressed hard on the gas pedal.
Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt strangely guilty, as if I had overstepped by walking into the house. It was clearly uninhabited, though, so technically I wasn’t trespassing. Yet, it’s impossible to look at the house without spinning crazy tales of witches and dark magic decorating every rotting plank with a rotten past. It was one of those places that makes you unconsciously tread lightly, warily. That brief first encounter with the house left an acrid taste in my mouth, but I only managed to stay away for a week before its mysteries pulled me back. One windy day, when I couldn’t bear my mundane life any longer, I set out to find the house again. I hadn’t written down any directions, so I drove for a while without knowing where it was, seemingly stranded in suburbia, no place for a mysterious old house. I wondered briefly if I had dreamed the whole thing, but, sure enough, I caught sight of it around the bend. This time, I knew how to clamber in, and I did so almost silently. The house, on the other hand, was howling on this windy day, a high-pitched screech punctuated by the occasional thunk of a loose shingle hitting the ground. Once inside, I couldn’t remember why I came back, as cold gusts of wind whipped my face and legs. Disenchanted with the house and sorry I had wasted the afternoon, I remembered my cigarette and decided to take it with me, as a final goodbye to the house. But when I stuck my fingers into the hole, I didn’t find the expected soggy cigarette, but rather the telltale clink of metal. Pulling out the treasure, I counted three one-dollar coins. Rattling the money in one hand as if to make sure it was real, I grinned, marveling at my luck. Dropping the coins into an open pocket, I grabbed a couple more cigarettes and crammed them into the hole in a makeshift gesture of thanks. Squeezing out the door, I stopped to look back at the structure. Its ominous leaning stance now seemed inviting. It hadn’t lost its eerie atmosphere, but its hole-for-a-door now looked like a crooked smile, taunting me with the prospect of riches. I chuckled at my own thoughts. After all, three dollars hardly counts as riches. As I drove away, I already knew that I would be back soon.
This time, I waited just three days before returning. Armed with a new packet of cigarettes and my, real, tangible, coins (I needed them to rationalize my coming back: they were physical proof that somehow my cigarette had turned into money), I set out. Accustomed to the leaning and creaking of the old building, I slipped through the now familiar crack in the wall. Without waiting long enough to doubt what I had unconsciously accepted, that I would once again find money, I plunged my hand into the hole. This time, I wasn’t greeted with a clink but with the rustling sound of dollar bills. I was relieved and undeniably satisfied with this mysterious source of income. Two fives and two ones - twelve dollars. I guess I must have left four cigarettes last time, since it seems like I got three dollars a cigarette. Yeah, that sounded about right. I stuck another handful of cigarettes into the hole and resolved to come back again in a few days.
Visits to the house marked my weekly routine, and I started to revere this old house that ladled out money for the cheap price of a few cigarettes, although I was aware this was completely illogical. Somehow it was much easier to associate money with the house than to wonder who was leaving the cash for me. I reasoned that I wasn’t cheating anyone out their money since they were clearly accepting the cigarettes in return. Frankly, I was just scared – not of the supernatural, of course, but of really analyzing the situation, since nothing this good happens in life without a caveat. Whatever. I grabbed the money out of the hole and replaced it with more cigarettes. Since the first visit, I had made sure to bring all the money collected at the hole with me each time I went back to the house, clinging to vague superstition in order to maintain my money machine. I knew it was irrational, but I didn’t want to disrupt my luck. The earnings had piled up over the months, and my pockets were overflowing with cash that would snag on splinters and nails as I squeezed through the door.
One day, several months into the weird house transaction, I drove to the house a little later than usual. Winter was fast approaching, but I hadn’t yet internalized the shorter days, and sundown caught me by surprise on the way there. The house transformed at night. The shadows turned every ugly crack and splinter into a mysterious mark of evil magic, like warts on a witch’s nose. The house seemed alive despite being the only one for miles without a light in every window. Suddenly, I saw a flitting silhouette behind the house. In fact, there were at least three of them moving around back there. With a start, I heard the shadows giggle and curse at each other. In the illumination of someone’s flashlight, I caught a glimpse of a couple of neighborhood kids. As one of them slipped through the door, I heard a cry of, “They’re here!” From the other side of the house, someone responded, “No way! So he really exists?” The group huddled together and examined their bounty, what I could only assume were my cigarettes. Having seen enough, I drove away, careful not to alert them to my presence.
I didn’t quite know what to do with this information. I certainly felt guilty about giving this stuff to kids… I swallowed hard and ruminated, absent-mindedly squeezing my pack of cigarettes. I couldn’t just give this up though; that splintered, hole-for-a-door house was the most interesting thing that had happened to me in forever. Before making a decision, I resolved to see these kids once more. In the meantime, I started to hear rumors about an elusive drug-dealer supplying the town’s kids with cigarettes. Frantic mommy blogs named him the Cigarette Man and children spun crazy stories to feed the rumors. That’s certainly enough to make a man feel guilty.
On the fourth day, I finally spotted the kids again. I watched their growing excitement as the bravest one crawled into the house and cried out with glee at his find. They danced around the bounty, eager to try one. At first, their flashlights leaped from surface to surface, briefly illuminating a patch of grass or an old plank. The illuminated objects lost their mystery for a second before returning to total obscurity, returning to the dark that obscures vision but lights up the imagination as the mind rushes to fill in the visual gaps. Later, the flashlights settled down and finally clicked off, leaving only the red glows of cigarettes to puncture the darkness and the kids’ faint murmurs to interrupt the silence. I thought about how enchanted I would have been as a child to discover something like this. The taste of the forbidden, tinged by the mysterious origin of the Cigarette Man and the undoubtedly creepy house, would have obsessed me. It would have been like living out one of my favorite stories, and everyone knows that no matter how good a book is, it can never compete with real life. In fact, maybe I was really doing the right thing by offering these kids an encounter with the supernatural, just as they were about to stop believing in anything of the sort. I was showing them that, in life, cold logic does not make for the most memorable nights. I was giving them stories to tell and an occasion to prove their bravery. As the final ember was extinguished and the group retreated to their houses, I crept into the house once again. The bills I found were still warm to the touch. The night was cold, though, and the kids were long gone... I put the bills in my pocket and replaced them with a small handful of cigarettes. As I stepped outside, I thought I saw the house cast me a devilish grin. Walking across the grass to my car, my pockets stuffed with cash, my conscience clear, I grinned back with satisfaction.
Madeleine de Belloy de Saint Lienard is a 15-year-old Franco-American girl. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she goes to school at the Lycee Francais de San Francisco. She has also lived in Mauritius, France, and Texas. Madeleine reads several books a week and has been writing stories for herself for years. She is particularly interested in exploring the plight of women and girls through fiction.