Tonight was cooler than most and Strep, like Fiona, leaned toward the lamp and cupped his hands around the base of it. “School’s coming soon,” he said. Strep—John Strepkowski to the scant handful of teachers who liked him and Mr. Strepkowski to the bulk of the faculty from whom he got in trouble—didn’t care much for school, had always struggled with straight rows, tucked in shirts, and most types of academic discipline. Last summer Chance had told Strep that he was smart about people and teachers hated that because they didn’t have a test for human relations. As soon as Chance said he was smart about something, Strep had started hanging out with the three of them again. Since middle school they’d seen less and less of Strep, as he’d taken to running with some of the other troublemakers at school, which did little to endear him to most teachers and, of course, that lack of endearment made school all the more painful for him.
Fiona looked at his face in the yellow glow of the lamp, that scraggly peachfuzz on his upper lip might have been a shadow from the smoke if she didn’t know it was what he called his “’stache’.” If only he was as smart about himself as he was about others, Fiona thought, he’d have a much easier time. But then, she knew, he wouldn’t be Strep. Still, he spent more time with them this summer than he did last. Maybe he was smartening up about himself, leaving the troublemakers to their troubles.
Strep stroked his fingers over his upper lip. “I was really thinking this would have come in a little thicker by now.” He pursed his lips and tried to catch the reflection of his ‘stache in the lamp glass. Fiona smiled. For being so thin and insignificant, that ‘stache had certainly eaten up many hours of conversation, and consternation, this summer.
A moth, fluttering towards Strep’s face, caught Chance’s eye. Fiona watched him watching it. It was his habit to take a quick drag on his cigarette and then rest his hand on his jittering knee for just a second before raising the butt and taking another quick drag. Dane often told Chance if he laid off the coffee, he wouldn’t be so jittery and so obsessed with his smokes, but Chance said it was the meds that hyped him up. “Either way,” Strep said, “smoking hardly looks like the relaxing thing they show us in the movies.” As Chance followed the moth, Fiona noticed his cigarette was midway between his mouth and his knee, and the jittering had stopped for the moment.
Strep still had his lips pursed and as the moth approached the lamp chimney, it rose up, drawn as moths are to the light, and got caught in the updraft of heat from the lamp and was incinerated. It became a brief burst of white light, reminding Fiona of a delicate plum blossom, then fell to ash.