A SHORT STORY BY MATT DURAND
THE LAST FLICKER
The crack of the match igniting broke the silence of the Texas desert. Jessup Barnum inhaled deeply as the end of the cigarette met the flame and began to burn. The exhale of smoke came from his nose and escaped through the thin slits at the side of his mouth. The cigarette tasted good, no, damn good he thought. The flavor reminded him of something Turkish perhaps. Or maybe the tobacco was from Virginia, as he reconsidered the taste. Unlike the sun beating down upon him, the smoke wasn’t harsh.
He breathed in deeply again, drawing the bold, yet sweet flavor over his tongue. The cigarette rested gently on his cracked lips. Smoke billowed into his eyes. It was a delicate balance of exhaling through his mouth without dropping the cigarette, for his hands were bound tightly behind his back. He was surprised at the amount of concentration the skill required. So he inhaled and exhaled as slowly as he could.
The buzz had hit his head with a kick of familiar comfort. His shoulders sagged in response. He relaxed for the first time in a long time. He closed his eyes. A natural reaction to the pleasure ricocheting in his brain. As he exhaled once again, he spoke out nervously after the Captain as though he were a parent leaving a terrified child in the dark.
“I ever tell you about that old bandito we caught in Laredo?”
The question lingered without a response, but for the moment stopped the Captain’s retreat. The Captain turned his head ever so slightly, which gave Barnum the courage to continue with his tale.
“He told me this story about how he survived a hanging once. He said right before the floor gave way, he saw his whole life flicker before his eyes. Like some sort of picture book of memories. He told me—the old bandito—about many of his compadres that had gotten out alive from scrapes just like his that had experienced something similar.”
He looked down at the tan desert dirt as he finished his thought.
“It’s funny though, all I can seem to think about right now is how damn good this smoke is. What do you think that means? The fact that I don’t see anything? Think maybe it’s because I don’t have a life worth remembering?”
The Captain hesitated for a moment as though he were going to respond, but thought better of it and slowly turned his attention back to the rest of his men. As Barnum watched the Captain take his place amongst the line of soldiers, he could feel the heat of the burning ash nearing his lips as he drew another deep drag.
The Captain spoke sternly while the soldiers to his left began to raise their rifles to their shoulders.
“Your crime is desertion. Do you have anything else to say?”
Still no memories came to him. Resigned to the falsehoods the old bandito had told him, he spit the spent smoke to the ground and muttered, “Thanks for the cigarette.”
And as the last plume of smoke escaped his lungs, the last word he’d hear hit his ears with a sharp crack.