Marlboro Red

She thinks Forks looks ridiculous at Christmastime. This town is really just people who are too stodgy to move to Port Angeles, or god forbid Olympia or Seattle, and the holiday retail hubbub seems awkward and misplaced. She likes it better during the year when the shops close early and the only thing that remains open is the greasy-spoon diner that calls itself the Forks Coffee Shop. The coffee shop has been her haunt recently; and most nights Leah rumbles her way down La Push Road in her ’88 Celica to partake of the quiet and a two-dollar cup of coffee. The woman who works there at night is one of those stupid-looking white women, the ones who spend too much time trying to make their straight hair curly and wear lipstick the color of blood even though their skin is too translucent to pull off that color. The woman gave Leah the evil eye at first, probably because sometimes the residents of Forks mistake the Natives for the Mexican migrant workers who come north to steal good logging jobs, or so the common complaint goes. Or maybe she does recognize Leah for Native, and it’s just straight-up racism; Leah doesn’t know. But it’s been months now and the woman has learned to be more tolerant. Leah sits there for hours getting her one cup of coffee refilled over and over, staring at the stuffed elk that serves as a room divider, and thinking about nothing at all. So racist or no, Leah is grateful for the woman’s tolerance. She doesn’t have much money—never has—but she always tips more than the cost of the coffee as a thank you.

From the windows of The Fern Gallery, Leah can see up the street to the coffee shop. Strands of weather-beaten tinsel garland hang from the eaves of the low building, and a motorized Christmas tree revolves lazily in its front window. The worn letters on the marquee out front spell MERY CHISTMS—stealing letters from the coffee shop is a favorite pastime of the high school boys who have nothing more productive to do. With the missing letters and the old tree, the coffee shop’s decorations look halfhearted, as though their presence is accidental. The whole town looks like this in December. It’s too small to make a big splash, but too folksy to let the holidays go by unnoticed, and so each year the tattered vinyl banner stretches itself across Highway 101 in the middle of town, the old twinkle lights make their way into the windows of the shops, and people try to make up in fake cheer for the fact that winter means no hikers, no tourists, and no loggers.

They don’t have what you would call a bustling retail season.

She’s been spending a lot more time in Forks lately. It used to be only occasional, maybe a quick run to town to get fancier groceries or to buy fishing equipment for her dad for his birthday. But there wasn’t sense in leaving the rez all that often. Her whole world was there, or the parts that mattered, anyway. Her mother, her brother, her father to the extent that he could be counted on, her friends. La Push is beautiful in its own way, the crowded houses with their siding beaten by seawater and wind, and their roofs which always seemed to need two or three of the men on top of them in the summertime to lay new shingle. But the Quileute aren’t a people who are about the outsides, they’re a people who are about the insides.

And it’s Leah’s insides that are the problem. Because La Push, for all it has, also has Sam.

The holiday job at The Fern is step number one in project Get The Hell Out. College would be Plan A, but Leah’s grades went to pot when Sam disappeared and she stopped sleeping, and then they dropped even further when he returned. He was so strange, skulking around at night, sleeping through the middle of the afternoons, and changing from the best-friend/boyfriend that she knew to this sullen, frightened creature. He wouldn’t tell her where he’d been—just begged her to go forward as though he hadn’t disappeared for two weeks. Nights which had once been filled with laughter became filled with arguments instead. But she loved him, and so she tried to reconcile. He tried, too, and for a few months, things seemed as though they might be working.

Then Emily came.

The table on which she’s meant to be rearranging sterling-silver twig reindeer suddenly rattles violently, and Leah takes a step back, removing her shaking hand. A calming breath slows her heartbeat, and slow exhalation steadies her. She loves Sam, and she loves Emily. And even she has to admit that Sam looks at Emily differently than he ever did her. As much as she hates to acknowledge it, there’s something there that she doesn’t understand. So she’s agreed to be a bridesmaid. But after that, she’s leaving.

A huge logging truck rumbles past the store, its thick tires kicking up wet and muddy slush onto the middle of the display window. In her mind—because there are customers in the store—Leah swears profusely. But then she reminds herself that every hour spent here is seven dollars and sixty-five cents closer to being freed, before taxes.

She goes to get the Windex.

~||x||~

The next week a fresh snow falls, which makes the Christmas décor look slightly more fitting. Wind whips Leah’s hair across her cheeks and nose as she stands in front of the store, tugging futilely at the neck of the coat she inherited from her mother. Sue Clearwater is a practical person above all, and although the electric-green coat isn’t what anyone would call fashionable, it’s filled with warm down, and it buttons  from Leah’s chin to her knees.

She gets thirty minutes for a dinner break, per Washington state law. Five of these each night are spent having a cigarette outside the store’s back door, and then she often wanders the street. Service at the coffee shop is too slow for a quick dinner, and she needs to save her cash anyway. So if she eats dinner at all, it’s usually a wilted sandwich she’s brought from home, or on occasion some leftover frybread. But frybread is a shared endeavor, and with her only daughter moping around, Sue Clearwater hasn’t made any in a while. So most of the time Leah eats nothing, and just wanders the main drag of Forks until her weathered watch tells her it’s time to get back to The Fern.

She’s barely paying attention when she realizes she’s managed to wander her way to the TruValue hardware store. They sell pop here, and so she goes in to grab a bottle, even if it is almost a quarter of an hour’s wages. Her brother makes fun of her for thinking of money in this way, but he’s only twelve. One day he’ll understand. Their mother certainly does.

The door jingles as she opens it and Leah slips inside. Tinny, fake Christmas carols play on the badly distorted overhead sound system, and red and green signs direct people to holiday specials—snow shovels, tree trimmers. Six Christmas trees sit  in the entryway, with signs handwritten in orange marker directing people to  the lumberyard, where they can buy a similar one. Three are decorated, three are not—bunched together at the front of the store they look haphazard, not altogether cheerful.

Leah shrugs off the overly-attentive clerk who meets her at the door and makes her way toward the checkout and the coolers of twenty ounce Diet Coke. She’s made it only halfway across the floor when something—or rather, someone catches her eye. She recognizes his build from the back, the slight shoulders, the long hair as jet-black as her own falling down the back over the bright-green shirt, the head topped off with a pointed green hat.

She’s trying to stifle the laugh when he turns. His expression is first surprised, then mortified, and then his face drops into a scowl.

“You will keep your trap shut about this, Clearwater, if you know what’s good for you.”

But she’s already laughing, and from under the lopsided green hat, Jacob Black’s eyes flash dark.

“What,” she manages through her giggle, “are you doing here, Jake?”

He scowls down at the linoleum floor, and he looks even more ridiculous as the flashing twinkle lights overhead turn his green hat from purple to blue and back again. Not looking up, he mumbles something that sounds a bit like “carburetor.”

“I’m sorry?”

Sucking in a deep breath, Jake looks her in the eye, his expression having moved from angry to just depressed. “I…need…a…car…bur…e…tor…” he says, enunciating each syllable carefully as though he is speaking to someone who is hard of hearing. “Dad said if I earned half of it, he’d pay the other half. I’m working on that old truck.”

She pictures Jacob’s front yard, which has always been one of the messier ones on the rez, and the hideous red-orange tank of a truck comes immediately to mind. Jake has wanted to work on cars for as long as she can remember—he didn’t play with Hot Wheels like her brother, who is closer to his age; he built them. Painted them. Pulled out little brushes and did minuscule detailing jobs. It only makes sense that now that he’s getting closer to being a bona-fide driver on his own, he would begin some serious engine work. And if it gets that eyesore off their lawn, so much the better.

Her lips press together of their own accord. This explains why he’s here—unlike some reservations, there’s no casino in La Push to drive their economy, so it’s either one of the two restaurants there at the docks or work in Forks if the high schoolers want money. That is, after all, why she’s here, too. But it certainly doesn’t explain…

“The hat?”

Jake scowls again. “Christmas spirit,” he sneers. “All the stock boys have to wear them.”

“It’s”—she struggles for the right word—“cute?”

He rolls his eyes. “Right. And I’m driving myself home in my BMW tonight.”

This brings up an interesting point. “Your dad drive you?”

He cocks his head to the side as if wondering whether to answer truthfully, but nods.

Leah frowns. Billy Black drives okay; it was diabetes that took his legs from him. One more victim to the white man’s shitty diet. But the disease left him with borderline decent mobility, just not enough to stand. So he must be the one driving Jake to and from the rez every day. Still, though, the choice of driver can’t be fun for Jake, and the offer is out of her mouth before she thinks about it.

“You wanna ride with me instead?” She’s as surprised by the offer as he seems to be, but the words come from her almost unbidden and she realizes they speak a deeper truth. After months of disappearing to Forks alone, having a partner with whom to drive would actually be welcome. “I could start bringing you in when we both work,” she adds.

His eyebrows shoot almost to the brim of the hat and for a moment he almost does look the part of a little Christmas elf, or at least one in some revisionist history where Santa’s helpers are a little more ethnically diverse. She half-expects him to shake with glee and say, “you mean it?” but his face quickly recovers the sour ‘I’m-too-cool-for-you’ look she knows all too well from her little brother.

“Dad’ll be pissed,” he answers solemnly, his lips pressing together in mock sympathy. “He spends his time while I’m at work drinking beer and watching the Seahawks with Charlie Swan. I’d hate to deprive him of that.”

But he’s already grinning.

~||x||~

She drives Jake to and from Forks six times before he even brings it up. Like Leah, Jake doesn’t seem to care much for small talk, and she appreciates this. It’s almost like driving alone, except that the sound of Jake’s breathing seems to fill the car, which strikes her as odd, since she’s the one who smokes while driving.

That had been another thing that suddenly changed about Sam after The Disappearance. Once he smoked twice as much as she did—a full pack each day to her half—and he turned eighteen first which had opened access for both of them. Not that cigarettes are exactly hard to come by on the rez—tobacco is the sacred plant of her people, after all. The white men figured out how kill people with it of course, but smoking is still prevalent despite the risks.

After Sam returned, however, he suddenly refused to smoke. Said the cigarettes were vile-smelling and he couldn’t stand the taste. He asked her not to smoke, either—didn’t want to kiss her after she had a cigarette. So she tried to stop smoking as much as she could, but really what happened was that they stopped kissing.

Now that she thinks about it, maybe that was part of the problem.

For about a week after Emily (for simplicity’s sake, her head has reduced the whole mess to just her cousin’s name—it’s not “the breakup,” but just “Emily”) she smoked more than ever. Death from lung cancer, she thought, was quite possibly preferable to the shame of losing the love of her life. She hated the way the rest of the community stared after her; she could feel their eyes boring into the back of her head when she wasn’t looking, and when she did look, people quickly averted their gazes. They still stare, although as much as it makes Leah feel like a selfish bitch to admit this, it got better after the incident with the bear. Now it is Emily, not Leah, who gets the pitying looks when people think she isn’t paying attention.

But this is the problem of the rez. She loves that everyone is family, that she is part of so much more than just Sue-Harry-Leah-Seth. But it is impossible to shake Sam and Emily when everyone treats her as though they all grieve with her for what she’s lost. So on the one hand, plan Get The Hell Out seems like a terrible idea. On the other, how long can one person live without air?

Jacob is good about not asking any questions, although she recognizes the perplexed stare boring its way into the side of her head as she keeps her eyes on the sometimes untrustworthy terrain of La Push Rd. He never says anything, however, and they drive mostly in silence both ways, to Forks in the mid afternoon after the rez school lets out, and back to the rez in the inky black night.

So it takes over a week of shared shifts—the hardware store and The Fern were happy to help the two of them synchronize their work schedules to optimize the driving—before Jacob says anything to her at all that isn’t directly related to the drive itself. It’s a request for a cigarette, of all things, and she turns him down at once.

“Have you ever even smoked before?”

He gives her a withering look, and unbidden, her lips curl upward. Jake does, after all, live on the rez, too. Without thought, she hands him the cigarette she’s smoking and reaches in her purse for another. He doesn’t smoke it right away, instead turning it between his fingers contemplatively as the end smolders an angry orange. Jake studies his cigarette and doesn’t say anything as she pulls another one from the squashed pack, presses it between her lips and lights it with one hand still on the wheel. When he’s stared at it and then at her so long that she is almost ready to scream, he finally takes a deep drag and exhales, the smoke circling his head lazily as it curls its way to the decaying ceiling.

“Sam gave me my first one,” he says, turning the white stick over in his fingers once again. Jake’s fingernails are long and oval, she notices, and oddly clean for someone who spends his spare time up to his elbows in bearing grease and motor oil. Sam was meticulous about that, too. A warrior’s pride in his appearance—he wasn’t vain, just proud of who he was.

Jake doesn’t say anything else for a moment, and it takes Leah a moment to respond.  When she does, her voice is angrier than she intends it.

“Sam quit.”

The words seem to sum up a lot more than the love of her life’s former affinity for Marlboros.

“I know.”

Another long exhale; more smoke nestling its way into the ripped ceiling.

“My dad says some shit about me understanding it someday,” he adds, almost hopefully, as though she’ll have some information he lacks.

Leah takes another drag but clamps her mouth shut in an effort not to say anything to Jake. The smoke burns as she exhales through her nose, making her eyes water a little. Which is probably a dumb move, because now Jake will think she’s crying. She’s exhausted every tear she can shed over Sam, she thinks. When you cry for a week straight, your body has nothing left for awhile.

Some shit about me understanding it someday. This strikes Leah as odd, but then her own father acted rather strange about the whole Emily situation as well. But Harry Clearwater is Harry fire water far more often than not these days, and although she loves her father, Leah doesn’t always take him seriously when he goes on a slightly-less-than-sober diatribe.

If Billy Black is dropping hints to Jake, maybe Harry isn’t crazy after all.

“For what it’s worth, I’m on your side,” Jake mutters after a moment.

She frowns. “There aren’t sides, Jake.”

He grunts and drags on the cigarette once more. He looks a little ridiculous smoking—Jacob is not a grown man like Sam; he looks more like a puppy of some large breed who hasn’t quite grown into his paws yet. She’s reminded painfully of his age, or rather, lack thereof, and has to resist the urge to snatch the cigarette from him as his jaw works slowly and the end of it bounces up and down.

They drive awhile in silence, their exhaled smoke swirling its way out through the miniscule crack Leah has opened in her window. Soon the two cigarettes are reduced to butts jammed into the filthy ashtray in the dashboard. She’s turning on to Highway 101 when Jake finally speaks again.

“You aren’t just saving up money for Christmas gifts, are you.” It’s not a question.

She doesn’t answer him right away. She has a new account with Bank of America on the north side of town, and it has six hundred twenty-two dollars and forty-seven cents in it. This isn’t enough to leave yet—it won’t make for a deposit on an apartment, not even in Port Angeles or Olympia, and besides that she needs to find a real job, not just a part-time gig in a struggling gift shop.

He doesn’t press her further, and soon they are at the hardware store. Jake’s skinny arm bends backwards around the seat as he retrieves the pointed green hat that he keeps stowed on the floorboards, as though Leah hasn’t already seen him in it. He rolls it up into a tight wad of fabric which he clutches in an open fist. The Celica’s wheels crunch  as she pulls to a stop in front of the store. Jake unbuckles his seat belt and yanks up on the plastic lock—nothing on Leah’s car is automatic—but he pauses before he pulls the handle.

“Your mom and dad will miss you,” he says.

Leah stares straight ahead. She knows this to be true—Sue Clearwater loves her children more than anything. To have children is to tie oneself even more firmly to one’s ancestors, and as family, they are to stay together. Her father feels the same way as her mother, even if he can’t always manage to show it.  Thinking about this, though, just makes her feel more trapped, and so when she answers Jake, her reply is terse.

“My dad’s a drunk.”

Jake’s thin shoulders shrug once. “My mom’s dead, and my dad’s a cripple.” His gaze shifts from the door to the floorboards, and for a moment, she worries she’s brought up something difficult. But then he grins.

“Sorry, but I always win at poor-little-old-me. You don’t stand a chance.”

She laughs, and Jake yanks on the door handle. He springs out of the car, slamming the door behind him, but he doesn’t move right away. He stands in the parking lot, the cold wind whipping his long hair behind him, and then he turns abruptly and opens the door again.

“I will miss you,” he says. “And I’m not a drunk.”

Before Leah can open her mouth, Jake has slammed the door, spun on his heel, and raced off toward the door, kicking up little bits of gravel as he goes. She watches him until his bright green body is out of view. Then she stomps the clutch and heads toward The Fern

~||x||~

The stores close early on Christmas Eve, which means less pay for Leah. She accepts this, but isn’t happy about it—the account is healthy, but not good. Not yet. The hardware store stays open an hour longer than The Fern—so that people can get their last-minute mulch on their way to church?—and so she goes to the coffee shop to wait. Too-red lipstick woman is there, and she wishes Leah a Merry Christmas as she slides into one of the bar stools. The ripping vinyl protests as her jeans slide across it.

She’s three-quarters of the way through her second cup of coffee when the door jangles open and Jake appears. The floppy green hat is clutched in one hand, and his shirt is untucked on one side. He has a peculiar bounce in his step as he moves across the mostly empty diner and slides onto the stool next to hers. He doesn’t even say hello; just stares as she continues to sip the coffee.

“That will stunt your growth, you know,” he says finally.

The comment takes her so much by surprise that she can’t help but to laugh.

“Jacob Black, I am at least three inches taller than you are.”

He straightens himself up as much as he can on the stool, but she still sits taller than he does. After a moment, he gives up and slouches once more. The little green hat unfurls itself on the counter, revealing a carved figurine. She examines it more closely—it’s a remarkably good replica of a bear, its paws splayed alternately as though it is walking.

“Did you make that?”

He nods, pushing it toward her, silly green hat and all. “Merry Christmas. Or you can take it as a thank-you gift for driving my ass all over the place.”

She picks it up and turns it over in her hand—the wood is smooth and cold against her palm. The bear is remarkably detailed. Claws are visible on his front paws, and as she looks at them, she realizes why Jake chose this particular animal to give to her. Slamming the bear down on the counter, she scowls at it before picking up her mug of coffee.

“It’s just a Christmas gift,” Jake mumbles, and suddenly his posture is more uncomfortable. “I figured you had a dark enough sense of humor to appreciate it.”

The truth is, she does. And she is almost on the verge of finding the bear funny, were it not for the fact that the pain is still a little too real. Even her mother had insinuated that Emily’s injury would make Leah feel better about the whole situation, and it hasn’t. Watching Sam disappear every afternoon to Forks Community Hospital for the three-days Emily had been in their tiny inpatient ward had only served to hammer home the point that he would never be hers again. But when she answers Jake, all she says is, “She’s still my cousin.”

Looking crestfallen, Jake slowly rolls up the green hat and pockets the bear. When he speaks, his voice is suddenly terse.

“I’m gonna go outside and wait for you to finish.” He shrugs back into his jacket—a beat-up leather thing that she suspects was a hand-me-down, much like her own—and slides off the stool. His face has lost the joy that it had when he entered, and Leah feels a twinge of guilt. Before she thinks about it, she’s reached into her purse and flung the weathered pack and a lighter at him. But she throws them too abruptly for his reflexes, and the pack lands with a slap and skids across the floor. Too-red-lipstick lady looks from her to the cigarettes and back to Jake, and gives her a disapproving look. But Jake has collected them before she can say anything, and the door jingles merrily once more as he leaves. Through the wide windows on the side of the building, she watches as he leans against the Celica for a moment. Then he jerks open the car door and chucks the cigarettes and the lighter inside.

Leah can hear the car door slam even from inside the restaurant.

~||x||~

By the time they reach La Push, it’s already pitch black. There aren’t many streetlights out here in the rez, and in the moonlight she can make out the craggy islands off the shore as they approach. They have to pass her house to go to Jake’s—the Clearwaters live next to the forest and the Blacks live closer to the docks.

Neither of them has spoken the entire ride from Forks. When Leah finished her coffee, she hadn’t acknowledged Jacob, but simply collected the cigarettes from where they had scattered themselves on the floorboards and put them in her purse before turning on the ignition. Jake sat down with such force that the whole car shook, but only closed his door quietly and looked straight through the windshield on the ride home.

When they pull up to his house, a soft glow from the Christmas tree inside is visible. Every now and then its color is obscured by a body passing by. Jake’s sisters are home for the holiday, Leah knows. Rachel and Rebecca were a year ahead of her in school, and aside from Emily, are probably her closest friends. But she hasn’t seen them since they’ve arrived back on the rez—she doesn’t want to deal with their pity over Sam.

So she decides not to get out of the car, just in case Rachel and Rebecca see her. She doesn’t feel much like talking tonight. Moreover, her mother expects her home—she’s been working on a big dinner all afternoon, and it’s for “the four of us.” Sue Clearwater is a kind woman, but she’s no pushover, and both Leah and Seth know better than to back out of plans.

Jacob opens the door silently, and he has one leg out of the car before Leah stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” she says suddenly, the words surprising them both.

He shrugs, and the leather jacket moves uncomfortably on his shoulders. He doesn’t, however, look at her.

“Do you still have the bear?”

A withering look.

She takes a deep breath, and finds the question is harder to ask than she might have thought.

“Can I have it?”

Jacob’s lips purse for a moment as he thinks. Then he shifts awkwardly on the seat so he can raise his hips, shoves a hand into his jeans pocket, and withdraws the little bear. He holds it in his hand a moment, looking at it, then he holds his hand out to her.

When she takes it, his warm palm presses her cool one. She’s always had cold hands. People comment on this daily, to her embarrassment. So she lets her hand linger in the warmth of Jacob’s for a moment longer than is probably necessary.

And then she kisses him.

It’s not a romantic kiss, not really. Not the kind of kiss she shared with Sam, the kind where it was easy for him to tell if she’d been smoking. “Tastes like ash,” he’d say, and she would ask him how much ash he’d eaten in his life to be so sure. But she doesn’t kiss Jake like that—she doesn’t open her mouth and neither does he, although Leah guesses that on Jake’s part, this might be more from inexperience than anything.  The whole thing is over in under ten seconds, and then they are sitting once again in the quiet car.

She flexes her fingers around the bear.

“I don’t have anything to give you for Christmas.”

He draws the back of his hands across his lips pensively—not wiping, just thinking, she believes. He still looks a little shocked.

“S’okay,” he answers, shaking his head. “I wasn’t expecting anything back.”

Leah nods, and holds up the bear. “Thanks. This is kinda funny.”

Shrugging again, Jake pulls up on the lock and opens the door. The car is suddenly filled with frigid air, and the bear feels cold against her palm. Jake puts one leg out of the car, but then twists over his shoulder.

“Like I said, Clearwater. I’m on your side. I think everybody is.”

And then he’s out of the car and the cold has stopped. He lumbers away toward the cheery house—Leah can see Billy’s silhouette in the window, half the height of his daughters in his chair. As Jacob goes, she pulls a neat three-point turn in the street and then stops to roll down her window.

“Jake!” she calls out.

He pauses, but it takes him a second to turn around. When he does, he is silhouetted by the light of the living room, too, with his face turned a strange shade of greenish-purple by the colored lights strung on the low eaves of the house.

“Are you working on Monday?”

He nods, then redundantly calls back, “Yeah.”

“Let me know what time. I’ll pick you up.”

“I’ll call you,” he says, and turns toward the door once again.

“Hey!”

Jake spins.

“Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” he calls, and gives her a quick grin before turning once more and disappearing through the front door.

Leah smiles to herself as she puts the car in gear. Then, with the lights of the Black house glowing warmly behind her, she drives toward home.

~Fin~

§ One Response to Marlboro Red

  • RobinVanDam says:

    Very vivid story. Your descriptions of the surroundings are crystal clear in my mind. More pointedly is the heartfelt sorrow that lingers in the air, like a thick cloud ready to choke the life out of Leah. Her dispair and need to escape feels like an instinct for survival. Jake’s responce to her is one of total understanding and sympathy but it’s not overwhelming to Leah, like the stares she receives from the other’s on the rez. She seems to appreciate this and need this more than she realizes. Her unconscience need to reach out to Jake for companionship speaks in loud volume as to the pain and loneliness she is drowning in. Jake has become her “life-preserver”, allowing her to tread the swells rushing over her and pulling her swiftly under and she breathes gasps of air as she clutches to Jake to survive. I think Jake is aware of how desparate she really is because his tenderness toward her is just that. Tenderness that he doesn’t take advantage of, because he knows how easily she could crack and crumble to dust from the racking waves that threaten to envelope her.

    Very touching story. It makes me sad for the both of them, seeing them both struggle in their own way.

    Thank you.

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