In the fall of 1993, Sheridan Park Elementary in Hollywood, Florida, hastily created a mandatory in-school assembly on the dangers of drugs. This was shortly after Halloween when actor River Phoenix died from a drug overdose. His death threw a wrench into the druggie stereotype ingrained in our parents' minds. If the hippie, non-meat-eating, squeaky-clean actor fell victim, then surely their prepubescent kid could too. To protect their children, and for the school to claim that they “did their part,” a kid-friendly anti-drug campaign was formed.
This program included a special visitor, aptly named Harry the Habit Kicker. Our school resource officer, Carl, donned in a giant bear costume, was actually Harry. He wore a signature anti-drugs shirt that read, Make the Beary Best Choice… on the front. Stay Away From Drugs was sprawled on the back. Harry carried a small white duffle bag with the words “BAD STUFF” painted across it in bold lettering. I was warned, adamantly, to “Just. Say. NO!” Well, what would happen if I wanted to partake in drugs? Harry demonstrated this when he ripped apart his bag and poured the “drugs” directly into his unnaturally large mouth. We watched in horror as Harry frantically waved his fuzzy arms as if fighting imaginary bees, then abruptly dropped dead. Everyone gasped as he pulled out a daisy and clasped it to his chest.
I gripped my ribcage tightly with one sweaty palm on each side. As my breath quickened, I couldn't focus on Harry’s untimely demise. My stomach dropped, which felt exactly like my recent joyride on Space Mountain. My eyes desperately scanned the auditorium for my teacher, Ms. Thompson. In the last seat of my row, she sat with her mouth agape. I realized at that very moment, watching Harry’s body being dragged away by teacher aides, that my mother was in terrible danger. According to Harry, cigarettes are addictive drugs and bring death with each puff. Smoking a cigarette is the equivalent of shooting heroin. Later that night, as we sat together on our creaky patio swing, I confronted my mom about her drug habit. We swayed like a gentle melody. Her, with a lit cigarette in hand as the sound of rubbing metal occasionally screeched.
“Why do you smoke, Mommy?”
In a pitiful attempt to get her attention, I glared at her. She taught me the importance of looking someone in the eyes, as an honest person would confidently stare back. The hamster wheel in her head spun. She focused intently on the ground beneath her swaying feet, ignoring my pleading eyes. "I like blowing kisses to the sky," she muttered as she exhaled a large puff of smoke into the air above us. I hopped off, heartbroken by her callous disregard for her own life. Even so, she kept swinging as the Florida sunset's hues resembled the pastel tones of sweet cotton candy.
She never got sober.
Bethany Bruno is an Irish/Italian American writer. She was born and raised in South Florida. She obtained a BA in English from Flagler College and later earned an MA from the University of North Florida. Her writing has been previously featured in several journals, including The MacGuffin, Ruminate, BULL, and Lunch Ticket Magazine. She was a contributor to the chapbook, Those Who Scream. She was previously nominated for Best of the Net in 2021. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband and baby daughter.You can find her at https://bethanybruno.journoportfolio.com