Flick by Matthew Bennett

James heard the flick of lighter, and waited to see if he smelled smoke. This could be a day of intense joy … or intense disappointment and sorrow; it all came down to the smell – to one simple cigarette.

For sixteen years he raised Brian and attempted to instill the values that would keep his son from smoking on this day. He brought up his son by the book, within all legal guidelines. He’d never mentioned lung cancer (a year in prison just for talking about it), but he did extol the virtues of breathing completely clean air. He hadn’t spoken to his son about addiction to cigarettes (six months of harsh community service), but had told him that he was the master of his own destiny and shouldn’t let anything control him. Confined within the legal framework, it had been difficult to come up with a way of instructing Brian that wouldn’t land him in jail, or see his son taken from him … or worse.

Oh God! – how he wished he could just tell Brian that smoking was stupid; that it caused lung cancer and emphysema and heart disease; that pouring stimulants into the blood stream harmed sleep and productivity, lowered sperm count and could make men infertile! He wanted so much to be able to tell his son that smoking made you stink; made you unappealing to the opposite sex – or even the same sex, if that was his preference. James didn’t care if his son chose a man or woman, but only that they lived in a smoke-free, happy house.

But The New Way had tied his hands completely.

Framed in politically correct speech, the laws of The New Way restricted parents severely by removing the possibility of saying anything negative about tobacco in any form. Things hadn’t always been this way: after the Tobacco War of 2021 it seemed like business as usual until the smoking age was lowered – a federal law that the states adopted with very little opposition. After that, the laws of The New Way had fallen into place one by one, each becoming easier to accept.

Before the War, the relationship between Government and Big Tobacco had been a little blurred: publicly they seemed at odds with each other, but in secret many politicians and organizations were sharing in the profits. The FDA was known to be under Big Tobacco control as early as the 1960s; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and Explosives) to mostly go after firearms (and explosives) – the name of the organization intended to delude citizens into thinking that the government was doing something to reduce the millions of deaths caused directly by tobacco, when in fact the BATFE was serving Big Tobacco by removing firearms. The conspiracy theories floating around at the turn of the century had never put Big Tobacco and the gun control lobby hand-in-hand, but from the beginning of the real conspiracy, gun control was part of Big Tobacco’s plan; a disarmed citizenry under their complete control.

James suspected that the 2015 Prohibition Amendment had actually been supported – and perhaps even suggested! – by the tobacco companies; for if the Government of 2015 hadn’t made smoking and tobacco products illegal, there would never have been a war that resulted in Big Tobacco’s owning the United States of America. Back then, when he was a writer, James had wanted to go on shouting from the all the high places, writing books and articles to let the world know what was happening. He had written several books in the first decade of the millennium, detailing the dangers of the two-party political system and problems inherent in the United States’ wars in the Middle East; but that was more or less it. James was no longer a writer: Big Tobacco had taken it from him.

He did write one more book, in the aftermath of the 2021 War – while citizens were assured that free speech was alive and well in the United States. He wrote his thoughts on the conspiracy, his thoughts on Tobacco taking over the Presidency; he used his rights as a citizen to try to tell people what he saw happening.

But first they came for his blog.

One night at 3:22 a.m. (he had never forgotten looking at the clock and wondering who the hell it was) they knocked, but didn’t wait for a response before smashing in the door. Six men in SWAT gear came in. They dragged him over to his computer and made him delete all the anti-tobacco “propaganda” on his website. He remembered wondering, even under such stress, why they didn’t just hack into his website and delete the material themselves … Then: they don’t have to, he’d realised – why bother to hack when you can have a show of power and frighten protesters into submission? They didn’t need subtlety or finesse, not any more; they had the power of the US Government, without the restrictions. He’d removed the material at gunpoint.

That’s what scared James the most – that they didn’t care. They didn’t care what the people, the citizens, thought about their actions.

He had stopped writing books and sunk into depression. He’d blogged about irrelevant government actions for a couple of months, but casually, and without heart; for how could one write about an ill-kept front yard when all the while the house was being consumed in a raging fire?

James’s wife Julie had seen his struggles and had encouraged him to go on with his writing. “More people should be fighting this,” she’d told him; “you can’t give up. Don’t let them scare you into stopping. This is still a free country.”

Oh, Julie, James thought to himself: you were so wrong, and you paid for it. We paid for it.

Three months after the government had forced him to shut down his blog, he had finished his book: The New Way, he called it. After encouragement and editing by Julie, he’d sent it to some friends in the publishing industry. It won’t be popular with Big Tobacco, his covering letter had said; but it is a necessary work with necessary thought – if this country is to remain free.

As it had turned out, the country hadn’t remained free – even from as early as 2021, once the War was over. There had been rumors of other non-fiction writers and publishers being censored, threatened and worse, but they could only be whispered. Most had simply remained docile, and sold out to Big Tobacco at the earliest opportunity. During the sellout there had been media images of owners and CEOs of publishing houses shaking hands with Government representatives and smiling. James had known even then, however, that deals had been being made in secret. No more anti-tobacco publishing.

In fact, the United States had ceased to be a free country from the moment its citizens had begun to fight back. After Prohibition, there’d been a couple of years when people complained about the power the Government was taking into its own hands in banning cigarettes; while non-smokers and people who had been all for the banning of tobacco products were ecstatic, and told them not to complain. They had claimed the move would be great for the future of the country.

But history repeats itself, as is often told, and the second Prohibition had been worse than the first – the black market making billions of dollars a year out of tobacco. The tobacco industry was not forced to shut down entirely, because it wasn’t illegal to export cigarettes: they could still make their money and people had kept their jobs (and were, of course, still highly taxed – much of tax money going into the DEA’s coffers to keep cigarettes off the streets).

The Big Tobacco takeover hadn’t happened as swiftly as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, but nor was it slow. The gang wars, martial law, the banning of guns, the revolt, the door-to-door confiscation of firearms, a Government involved in a civil war that was not North vs. South but everyone vs. everyone. A smokers’ group killing a gang of non-smoking activists, and then turning on a pro-gun militia to get their hands on swiftly-disappearing firearms. Riots and military-type skirmishes involving citizens, the Army, and federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA and BATFE leading to tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries. And then, just like that, it was over.

The Government was broke, and in 2021 people could not live on principle. No more police, no more welfare, no more highway repair – it was all over. This had made Big Tobacco the Savior of our Country, sent by God to pay the debt for our sins.

In 2022, the tobacco companies had merged, shifting an unseen balance of power, and bought out the Government. James knew they would kill him for describing it that way: it was called ‘a bail out’. It was in fact the first open and publicly accepted Government bribe in the country’s history: revoke the ban on tobacco, revoke all federal restrictions, and we will use our almost limitless resources to restore peace to this country. They had kept their promise.

Several changes had occurred over the next two years. The smoking age was lowered to 16, marijuana was legalized (with only the tobacco companies allowed to grow and sell it, hardly surpringly), cigarette advertisements were once again on the media. All of this had occurred largely unnoticed by a citizenry recovering from the trauma of a civil war; some triumphed at the changes – especially those who were already buying pot – while others were just glad to get back to normal life … to business as usual.

James had seen the problem; he had seen how easily the takeover had happened, how quickly the citizens had been subdued, and he knew that The New Way had to be written about, to be exposed. He didn’t care how, he just knew it had to be done; and he would make that happen – not only for Julie, but for his daughter Sarah and his son Brian as well. He wanted to change the world before everything went bad. But every publishing company rejected the book, and some sent back messages of warning” “For your own good, you need to let this rest,” one returned submission read.

As public perception had turned Big Tobacco into more of a hero – almost along the lines of the Founding Fathers – James had found himself becoming less and less popular with his submissions. He’d persisted, and had told himself he would persevere to the end. No matter what.

One night he’d found there was a “what” that did matter, and terribly. They’d come into his house again and dragged him and Julie into the kitchen, sitting them down at the table. A man in a suit said, “James, we need to teach you a lesson. So here it is.” He took out a gun, pointed it at Julie’s chest from two feet away, and fired six times. The man then nodded to one of the SWAT gunmen, who went upstairs and grabbed his six-year-old daughter from bed. “You will never see her again. And you will never speak out against tobacco. Ever again.” They left the house with his daughter; and so far they had kept their promise, as he had obeyed their directive.

They’d been smart, James knew, to leave his son with him. Without Brian, James would have done something. He didn’t know … Bomb the White House, organize an army – anything, anything at all to pay them back for what they had done. For Julie’s life, and for his daughter. He would have become a powerful adversary, but for the need to protect life of his son. So he had obeyed, and he had watched. As he’d watched, he’d planned. The murder of his wife had instantly shaped his resolve into an intense point of hate – resolve that he couldn’t act upon because he’d had to raise Brian.

But James had watched, and learned. He’d learned that he hadn’t been the only person to go through this kind of tragedy; and that most houses had had listening devices planted contrary to the will of the owners. He’d had soon realized how widespread the murderous treatment had become in a very short time. Big Tobacco had the manpower to control every situation; part of their plan was to eliminate anyone opposed to them, and they had done it often. They were in control of all the armed forces and every Government branch, along with every form of media. Anything that couldn’t be controlled had been eliminated.

He had learned about restrictions on tobacco being lifted, and the regulation of tobacco being entirely in the hands of tobacco companies. Drugs were added. Cigarettes were changed. All had been made extremely addictive, and one brand made people so addicted that they would do anything to get them. Another delivered steroids to the system. A devious chemical device being used in all cigarettes was a chemical that built a poison in the body that was released by the smoking of a very special pack of cigarettes. If anyone had needed to be eliminated, someone would make sure that they ended up with that very special pack, and a “death by natural causes” notice had appeared in the media next morning.

The anti-opposition laws had kicked in shortly after Julie’s death. In total repression of free speech, it had become a felony to speak out against tobacco. New research showed that cigarettes were not only harmless, but were able to extend life and increase intelligence. Based on this research, those opposed to smoking were seen as conservative, stuck in the old ways, old fashioned, puritan, fundamentalists. People had been monitored, arrested and jailed – or eliminated. School teachers even hinting that tobacco might be harmful had been removed.

Most disturbing of all were the Government benefits. One of the worst was a free case of cigarettes sent to each child on his or her sixteenth birthday, a “coming of age” present from Big Tobacco. The case was a sampling of many different brands, and included a high-tech lighter. The choice was “left to the children” whether or not they would “act as a responsible adult and smoke”; but if they didn’t they were free to “give them away to their cool friends”.

*******************

James had dreaded this day, the day of Brian’s sixteenth birthday, for years. But he also looked forward to it, mostly because it might very well be the day that he reunited with Julie, and perhaps even Sarah.

He had been busy in the last few years. He made an official apology for his book and his actions; and was permitted to find a job with a plumbing company. There he learned how to make bombs out of grocery store supplies (and anything else he could find). Moving about and carefully positioning his creations, he turned Washington D.C. into a ticking time bomb in preparation for this day. He hadn’t stopped there: he’d traveled interstate and had placed his paybacks for Julie under Government buildings in New York, San Francisco and several other major cities. He had also collected a stockpile of guns and ammunition on the black market, being careful, and adding to the collection several times yearly. As the bombs went off and the USA went up, he planned on making a spectacle of himself, taking as many tobacco officials with him as possible.

The planning had helped him pass the time. It had helped him deal with the pain. It had also helped him cope with Julie’s face, as the life bled out of her from six close-up bullet wounds. But he couldn’t be sure if he would go through with it. Would he set it all off? – would he call the number on his prepaid cellular that would ring phones all over the United States, setting the bombs off and killing more people in one day than the Tobacco War did over several months? He still didn’t know, and it had been driving him crazy. His plan was no longer about freedom, or Government suppression: it was about Julie, and revenge.

So he’d made a decision. If he ever caught Brian smoking a cigarette, he would go through with his plan: he would have nothing more to lose.

So far, there hadn’t been a hint of it.

But today Brian had a choice. And James didn’t want to influence his choice with a plea or a threat. No: this was for Julie, and it would be pure. If Brian was his and entirely his, life would go on as normal. But if Big Tobacco took his son away from him too, there would be hell to pay and he’d collect it.

He stood at the door listening. And sniffing. He heard the flick of the lighter as Brian played with it, and wondered what was going through his son’s head. Was he just flicking, or was he lighting up a nice, refreshing, Government-provided cigarette?

He would know soon enough.