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She put her cigarettes out on my arms a lot. I’d see the cherries moving slowly in the dark, her bright, big eyes watching me, and she’d connect with my skin. It sizzled, as expected, and I never reacted, as expected. The skin underneath would warp and curl into itself until the cherry finally died out, leaving ash and char. I never stopped her. Just watched the thing mold my arm for her viewing pleasure.


In a few hours, the skin would be fine. The char would be gone. I would be back to whatever it was that defined normal for me.


For two accomplished, bougie black professionals, Noah’s parents almost never engaged with us. Here I was, their adopted child. Here Noah was, their almost textbook promiscuous, edgy daughter. And we sat and smoked and burned in the bedroom without a worry.


I didn’t feel it then, just like I wouldn’t feel it now. But it always annoyed me.


“You don’t even scar. Ugh. I bet you’ll look the same way you do now when you’re fifty. Or a thousand.” She was the only one who knew and she delighted in that. When I ate at the table those big things, those giant bug eyes, they sparkled. Every bite that went passed my teeth seemed to go through her eyes and cycle through her brain first. I felt regret whenever she took a breath, whenever she smiled at me. We were as close as I would probably ever be to anyone other than Osh.


“You’ll get old though. And ugly. Wrinkled.” I stared at her cheeks when I said things, but not for the reasons I won’t look at her now. She had rosy cheeks. Real, actual rosy cheeks, like a drawing. She pushed the red cherry into my skin and watched me closely, smoke flowing slowly from her mouth, crawling up into and around her nostrils, gliding over those bug eyes.


“Yeah. Maybe. But you’re going to be right there watching me, and that’s what counts. I’m going to save you, Astor. And then you’re going to save me.”