Tiffany lives in rural New Zealand. She has been published in takahe magazine and was highly commended in the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition.
by Tiffany Allan
William stood by the bonfire breathing in the plastic smoke and telling himself that even if Darla was pregnant, they’d take the test on Monday so they could enjoy the weekend. He nodded at Jemma on the other side of the flames who already had a seven year old and was probably glad to be out of the house, spending time with the friends that had stopped visiting her after her first year of motherhood. If she was anything like William she’d be considering just getting in her car when the night was over and driving into a different life.
There was metal music playing in the shed. The boys had hooked up the guitars and amps and an old guy with a red face was screaming a string of swear words into the microphone while his mate sat on an amp and laughed. The screeching whined in William’s teeth.
Eve was lolled over in an old car seat in front of the fire with her sunglasses on and William couldn’t tell if she was asleep or watching the flames. She’d spent the first half of the night throwing up into an ice cream container in the house because she’d gotten too drunk too early. A guy—William thought his name might be Jared—was standing hopefully beside her.
On top of the fire was a sewing machine, dripping plastic and stinking out the yard. Someone had thrown a box of fireworks into the fire earlier and they were still randomly going off. Jemma with the seven year old suddenly copped one, squealing and lifting her knees while the sparking gunpowder pattered against her jeans. She ran and folded over into the tray of a truck with her legs kicking in the air. That made William smile. Then he remembered Darla at her parents’ house, sitting around and worrying about the not-yet-confirmed baby. He looked around his bare dirt yard and imagined it covered in plastic toys, trikes and play sets. It was easy with the smell of melting plastic everywhere. Fuck it. He strolled over and put his shoulder to the back of an engineless car he was going to sell. They didn’t know about the baby yet for sure, didn’t need to start saving money until Monday. The boys ran to help him and they slowly rolled the car onto the fire. The tyres caught first, melting and sagging into the embers while black smoke billowed up. Then the paint started to crack and the seats whipped into flames. The smoke curled hot and stinking towards Eve in her chair but she just kept watching or sleeping through her sunglasses with the flames in her lenses leaping up—
They slept together of course, after the fire died down and everyone trickled away and even Jared gave up hanging around. William touched Eve on the shoulder and she stirred and he still didn’t know if she’d been asleep or awake but they did it anyway, didn’t even move from the car seat by the fire.
William knew that if Eve went home late or not at all her mum wouldn’t care, wouldn’t call the police or teach her a lesson. She was bony, noodle-eating thin, not rich thin. She wore soft T-Shirts. Jandals. Never asked for rides anywhere. It hadn’t occurred to any of them to date her.
Years later at his son’s birthday in the same yard someone was cleaning the sputtering barbeque with chemicals and the air was rich with the smell of toxic smoke. Eve was in front of William again, but Eve was different. She held her face in a still, small smile and she drank soda water with slices of the lime she had brought with her. She stood silently beside her husband and ignored her children who were shouting in the swimming pool. She looked proud and ugly. Darla was next to William; they’d gotten married. He could hear his son crying, being bullied by the girls in the pool. The smell lingered. He stared intently at Eve and when she looked at him he raised an eyebrow like, look at us now, right? But her eyes slid right off him and rested somewhere on the back fence. He raised his beer high and threw back the last mouthful and cracked another almost in the same breath, loudly, so that—he didn’t know—maybe she’d realize she was being a bitch. But she just smiled at Darla and sipped her water.
The boys had all smiled behind their hands when Eve eloped because they knew why, she’d have been embarrassed to stand in front of them all and say look at me now. Marriage material. But William now watched closely to see if she was. She touched her husband’s elbow to warn him that he was probably talking too loudly and she loaded plates with food for her kids serenely as if she didn’t care if they ate it or not. She didn’t say anything that wasn’t measured or safe.
William was only thirty-three and in the mornings some nerve in his shoulders burned all the way down into his hands, making them tingle miserably. He listened carefully to a specialist who showed him replicas of backs and nerves and knees and got him bending down, squatting to pick something off the floor, tucking his head to get back up. He opened another beer. There were plastic toys all over the lawn. His wife hated him for the clothes he left on the couch, for pretending he couldn’t hear his son crying, for the thousand other things. And even Eve had all but disappeared. He stared at her more intently. His grip on Darla’s hand grew tighter and she pulled it away from him.
Eve was passing, perhaps even as someone more than the rest of them. She had travelled down to the barbeque in a nice car while her tall husband wrangled the kids in the back seat as a break from his good job. She had on a linen dress. A gold bracelet. She had slick kids that were bullying William’s own. A clear voice. Did it mean they had to treat her differently? Remember the past differently?
Eve went into the house.
William followed her.
“We took out this wall,” he said in the kitchen, pointing. He was expecting her to come closer to look but she just glanced at it and then looked at him. Stupid Eve, he remembered. She always had to be directed. “Do you like it?” he asked.
Darla was at the door. “What are you looking for?” she asked. “Because I’ve already brought everything out.” She stared at William and her eyes said I hate you. Eve looked at them both and her eyes said nothing at all. Eve went down the hallway to the bathroom.
“The vodka,” said William, staring back at Darla. “That’s what.” He took the bottle outside and stood next to Eve’s tall husband, offering him drinks in a plastic cup.
Darla put him in the shower after the sun had set and the kids had gone to bed. She shouted about how rude he was to be badgering that slut after all this time and he wondered if she was still calling her that because she was afraid of Eve’s gold bracelet as well. In the morning William woke up in his bed with the smell of smoke in his clothes and he didn’t know how he got there.
Copyright 2020 by Tiffany Allan