Short Story: All up in Smoke

Originally published on Short Fiction Break for the Summer 18 Writing Contest here.

“And that’s when I knew I’d be sleeping on the couch again. I’m done with that. Not while my own California king lies empty back at the apartment.”
Owen nodded as he sucked in his cigarette on the inner-city park bench. Next to him Paul had just finished explaining his latest failed attempt at reconciliation with Diane. They sat together in the heavy light of dusk like two crows on a wire, puffing clouds of smoke into the crisp air.
“At least you gave it another go,” He replied.
“Never again. Some people just aren’t meant to be together.”
Owen grunted. That’s for sure. His grey suit was crinkled and loose on his slim frame, and his trousers were wearing thin leaving his arse numb on the cold metal seat. His mousy hair was matted at the back and greasy at the front from running his hand through it all day at his desk. He looked every bit the divorcee. It was obvious no one was looking after him, and least of all himself.
He looked sideways at his friend and noticed Paul’s suit looked new and his hair recently cut into what he could only describe as a trendy style. Owen smirked.
“You’ve cleaned yourself up mate. Who is she?”
“Meeting up with a bird from work. She’s known me for years and still wants to have a drink. Promising!”
Owen grinned. Since he’d split up with Kate, he’d been meeting Paul here at the park every Friday evening. He’d come here one night to have a smoke when he found a man on a bench sobbing into his hands. Paul and Diane were only on their third split back then. Owen had offered him a cigarette and some company, and for the past year they’d returned here at the end of each long week to share a pack of Marlboro Reds. Outside of his custody arrangement, it was the only regular contact Owen had with anyone.
“I hope it goes well.” Owen stubbed out his cigarette and reached over to take another from the pack.

Kate had never let him smoke. He was aware he used this routine as an act of defiance against his old life. After years of feeling stifled and silenced, he felt liberated when the hot air filled his lungs and exited delicately through his nostrils – with no one screaming at him to put it out. But she’d never let him do anything he’d wanted to do.
Not like Leah had. Leah had come along and wanted to do anything and everything. Not that he blamed Kate, but he’d been exhausted from so many years of trying he wasn’t strong enough to say no.
He didn’t regret it. He and Kate weren’t right together. They’d got caught up in the societal parade that dictates how you think you should be feeling and when you should be feeling it. If only he’d had the guts to leave before he’d met someone else. But there is nothing harder than leaving what is safe and familiar. He was weak, and he knew it. It made him furious.

Paul handed him the pack of cigarettes and stood up. “That’s me, mate. Better not leave the lady waiting. You gonna stay here long?”
“No don’t worry about me, I’ve got a date with a frozen meal and the TV. Good luck.”
Alone on the bench, Owen looked up at the buildings that loomed over the park. Lights from offices and apartments scattered the windows, filled with colleagues and families settling in to their Friday night. Surrounded by people, he’d never felt more alone.
How had life led him here? He couldn’t help but feel every tiny decision he’d made since he was a teenager weighing him down like an anchor. Even after he’d left Kate he couldn’t make it work with Leah. Juggling the kids and a new girlfriend was even more exhausting than a loveless marriage. And he’d thought by that point if it couldn’t work with her, it wouldn’t work with anyone.
Tears leaked down his face as he thought of his kids. He missed them so much; with his exorbitant work hours and his tiny apartment, he barely got to spend time with them. He sucked his last cigarette down, wishing he had something harder instead. Who would even care if he lived or died?

Owen was wiping tears off his cheeks when three abrupt gunshots rang out from the street nearby.
Fuck. He whipped his head around to the park entrance and leapt into a sprint toward the sound.
He ran out to the street where a man was lying on the pavement, propping himself up on one arm and clutching his side. Ahead of him a woman stood with trembling arms outstretched, crying and holding a gun. The man on the ground was Paul.
“Paul! Oh my God what the hell happened?” Owen sprinted over and knelt down behind him. He could see a wound in his torso spilling blood like a faucet.
“Shit man, we’ve got to stop this blood. What the hell happened?” He screamed at the woman as he ripped off his suit jacket to press against the wound.
Paul gripped his friends’ arm and looked up with hazy eyes.
Owen looked over at the woman, still immobile in her spot. “What did you do?” He repeated.
“I-I…” She choked. “He’s leaving me for another woman! He can’t do that to me!” Her arms were shaking the gun in her hands.
“Diane? Shit.” Owen fumbled for his phone in his pocket to call an ambulance.
“What are you doing? How do you know who I am?” She looked around as people started to gather in the street; her panicked eyes red with anger and terror.
“Ambulance! We need an ambulance… ahh Duke Street near the park. Hurry!” Owen dropped his phone and pressed down harder with his now blood-soaked jacket. Paul let out a weak grunt.
“You!” Diane spat. “You must be this Owen guy he meets here. You’re as bad as him! Cheating on your poor wife!” She stepped forward, swinging the gun to point straight into Owen’s face. “You don’t deserve to live either.”
Owen’s body froze. His skin began to tickle with cold sweat. “Diane, please. We need to help Paul.”
“You two think you can just get away with this?”
“Diane, please. I have kids. They need me.”
“How could you do that to them?” Diane was sobbing, her face screwed up in pain. Her breathing was loud and ragged as she flicked the safety on the gun.
“Why? Tell me why I shouldn’t!”
Owen closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. If this was it, how would he feel? Would he regret anything? He had hurt so many people. Maybe it was better if he wasn’t around.
No. Stop. They need you. The kids need you.
“Because… Because I want to do better. I need to be better.”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her. Through her tears he saw desperation and loneliness in her eyes, and his heart lurched as he recognised himself. “Diane, we’ve all fucked up. We’ve all made mistakes. Look at us! How did we get here?”
She paused. She took one hand off the gun to wipe her nose, glancing around at the people across the street. Sirens pierced the night air. She looked down at Paul, quiet and shuddering in Owen’s arms. With a low howl she dropped the gun and crumpled to her knees.

Owen wrapped his arms around himself as the ambulance doors closed and Paul was whisked away. He offered reassuring smiles to the curious bystanders as he leaned back against the fence with a heavy sigh. He was shivering.
Diane had spared him. He felt like he’d been given a second chance. He didn’t want to be lonely anymore and he didn’t want to work all those long hours. Most of all, he wanted to see more of his kids.
A police car pulled up to the curb and the officers stepped out. One rushed over to Diane who was still weeping on the ground and pulled her up into the car. Another officer came up to Owen with a notepad and held out a cigarette for him to take. For a moment Owen looked at the open pack in her hand.
“No thanks,” He smiled. “I’m trying to quit.”

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