It started with a nod, a noncommittal acknowledgment of another's existence. It became part of his morning routine: get up, put on a robe, make a cup of instant coffee, light a cigarette, and nod to her.
On the day she first spoke to him, she couldn't get her lighter to work. He watched, not sure whether he should offer her his own or if that would be intrusive. It's one thing to offer a light to a stranger on the street, or to ask for it from one, but a neighbour? That's different, he thought, that's someone you see every day, and keeping it on a nod-only level made it nicely uncomplicated.
"Uh, excuse me?" she said. "Can I borrow your lighter?"
"Yes, of course."
They met at the low wall of her front garden, and he handed her his lighter. She lit her cigarette and gave the lighter back.
"Thank you." She smiled.
"Don't mention it."
He gave her another nod and half a smile, stubbed out his finished cigarette, and went back to his house to resume his routine. He surprised himself by thinking of her, recalling her warm smile with the chipped front tooth, her thick dark hair held together in a ponytail, her voice. He smiled at himself, shook his head, and went to work.
Over summer, the simple nod became a nod with a smile, then a mutual "good morning" and a few exchanged words, which became an ongoing conversation held in short daily talks.
And then, one morning, she wasn't there any more. He wondered, he worried, and realised that he missed her.
When she came back, two weeks later, she was bald. He didn't ask her about that, or where she'd been, but halfway through her cigarette she looked at it, made a disgusted face, and stubbed it out.
"My mother has cancer, lung cancer," she said.
"Oh. I'm so sorry."
"She's getting treatment. Chemotherapy." She shrugged. "I've been looking after her, helping her. Her hair fell off, so I took mine off, too."
"Will... will she be okay?"
"The doctors are hopeful." She shrugged again. "I've promised her I'll stop smoking."
"Well, yes, of course."
"I thought it would be easy to quit, after seeing her. But it isn't."
"You have to, though." He hesitated, not sure what to say next. "You have to," he said again.
"Yeah." She looked down the road, then back at him with a smile. "Well, see you..."
Each morning after that, he looked out his window to see if she'd come, and each morning his heart made a little leap when he saw her open her door. Until finally:
"This," she took a puff, "is my last cigarette. Last of the last packet, not buying any more."
"Well done!" It was heartfelt, and yet he wished she wouldn't quit. His own cigarette forgotten between his fingers, he gathered his courage. "I'll miss you, though," was all he dared say.
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