By Nat Baker
Marie locks the front door. Then she runs to the car and sits passenger side, her hands
in her lap, as Jon drives them to the station. When they roll past the neighbour’s house
wrapped in Emergency Police tape, the world moves in slow motion – she stares at the
wounded window, the fractured glass – she pictures the bullet cutting swiftly – and on impact
releasing its delicate outline, a snowflake. The tear in the curtain behind it is so slight, it
might well have been a shadow. What had she become? How quickly she had descended into
the vainglory of homeownership. In that moment, she realised: dreams can make you brittle,
the weight of imagined futures could crush you in your sleep.
Before that, they were standing outside on the grass wet with mist from the night
before. They’d barely slept; Jon wore crumpled boxer shorts and Marie an oversized t-shirt
with a print of ‘Little Miss Trouble’ stretched across her chest. She often hinted at the gifts
she wanted, yet Jon had fallen into the habit of purchasing items she considered more suitable
for an acquaintance or young cousin. She wondered if he was hinting at the things he wanted
too, but she had no way of asking, not now.
As their feet grew stiff with cold, they watched the people in blue and white
bodysuits, with cameras and single-item plastic bags, Police officers in full uniform standing
guard. When one of them crossed the road, calling out, all Marie could hear was the sound of
her heart beating, blood whooshing inside her ears. She watched with disbelief as Jon shook
the officer’s hand.
The night before, they were splayed out on their sofas, watching a movie neither
cared to finish, but they were stuck. Then, there was the bang of a firework, and a car pulling
away. There was no spluttering crackle, no sounds of burning building like a drumroll, no
flash of pink or green spliced between half drawn curtains – still, Marie decided it was a
firework – and turned off the TV without speaking.
She was brushing her teeth when she realised the front door was open. The melodic
chirping of night-time insects, the cool air, pulled her from the house. Barefoot on the gravel
driveway, Jon was half way to the letter box. She called out to him, but he waved her away
without turning – and that pissed her off, because honestly. She hurried back inside, grabbed
her dressing gown and phone. She flicked on the torch, the small white light bouncing along
the path as she ran to catch up.
Be quiet, said Jon, followed by, put that thing away, and so Marie tucked her phone
into her pocket and slipped her hand into his. The jolt of warmth made up for hard feelings.
Together, they approached the old villa, the one that belonged to the neighbour she despised
most of all.
Two days before that, the neighbour’s house guest showed up and was hurtling rocks
for his dog, down the road. The animal lumbered after each one, barked like its voice box had
burst. He was white as flour, arms etched with ink snakes that wound their way from his
wrists to his neck, the head and tails of each fallen behind an ear, with fangs on the side of
each cheek, like a Calavera. The man’s eyes were sunken and he blew his nose loudly
between throws, straight onto the grass, firing snot from one nostril at a time. Marie watched
him from behind her kitchen blinds, undeterred by the dust and fly spots that had formed a
sticky film along each blade. He let the dog roam, let it take a dump on her front lawn as he
skulled a beer. Crushing the can under foot, he tossed it onto the road, over the sea of
abandoned cars that were parked up on the neighbour’s lawn, tall grass and vines clutching
deflated tyres close, as if to contain them. Marie turned away, sipped vodka tonic from her
water bottle and she clicked through one kitchen design after another on her phone; Jon
insisted Granite was too much for a benchtop – but she yearned for something monumental –
she needed something to anchor.
Three weeks before that, Marie and Jon were stumbling in the dark, swaying between
yellow soaked streetlights. For almost two hours, they’d sat in the bar, staring at the wine
bottle between them, when suddenly it was empty and there was nothing left to say, no,
Would you like another? Just a half? and finally: You have the last.
Across the road, there came the sounds of women laughing, smashing bottles on the
footpath, heels clacking loudly on and off the road. She’d put up with this for months, Jon
too, even if he refused to speak about it now: did he suspect her guerrilla tactics?
Marie spat in the direction of the women, pointed both middle fingers and stood,
defiant on the other side of the road. Jon reached out for her, catching the cuff of her sleeve,
pulling her arms down. Don’t, he said. They struggled until she yanked her arm free, or did
he let go? The women in short skirts and plastic animal masks, mocked her. Their white teeth
shone in the moonlight, and a haze of sweet smoke rose from their fingertips – she knew they
thought she was pathetic, but still she stood there. Eventually, one of them flicked a burnt
out spliff in her direction, hitched up her skirt and flashed her arse, then she shouted at Marie
to go get fucked.
Four months before that, Marie collected cat shit from around the garden, dog shit
from her front lawn, and stored it in bread bags behind the garage. On nights when Jon worked late, she put on plastic gloves and skulked between the neighbour’s cars, some of
them abandoned, some of them visiting. She snuck stinking turds through small window
gaps, popped poops in exhaust pipes, wiped her gloves on windscreens. She was careful, and,
she had no choice. The Police were parked outside the house every other week now, but
nothing ever changed.
Half a year before that, rubbish bins were set on fire, the stench of half-eaten
takeaways, nappies and community newspapers floated on the air and hung around until
morning. The exterior lights of the neighbour’s crumbling villa were permanently on and the
curtains always drawn. People came and went at all hours, shouting and hissing, toddlers
wandered onto the road in nothing more than unmatched socks. Once there was a child
covered in felt-tip pen, scrawling scribbles like home-made tattoos on his fingers and toes; he
found his way into Marie’s car port. There were bony women who got dressed on the street,
mascara run down their cheeks like melted crayon.
She’d saved the number for Noise Control to her Contacts, called them weekly, at
three in the morning, the neighbours screaming, throwing kitchen appliances and dinner
plates. Always, her heart raced – she never remembered when it stopped or if anyone ever
came – all she knew was that at some point, she slept.
A few months before that, Marie noticed the neighbour throwing food scraps from his
kitchen window onto the front lawn. At first, she thought he was feeding birds, but over the
weeks that followed she realised bacon and banana peels only attracted rats. Paper towels,
wet wipes and plastic bags caught in the hedge to the side of the property and when she
walked back from work there were cigarette butts, empty coke bottles lolling in the wind. She
stepped around them on the first few days, and then in the weeks that followed she just crossed the road.
Everyone else took care, mowed their lawns at the right intervals, trimmed
edges of berms, put recycling out on the right day and emptied their mailboxes. Everyone,
except the neighbour across the street, the one she looked out on, all day and all night.
When she decided to introduce herself, to speak with the neighbour about the state of
his property, she realised it was an act of civic duty – perhaps everyone else was too busy to
speak with him? She considered he might thank her – surely, he would – for pointing out
where he was going wrong. She grabbed some pre-paid rubbish sacks from under the kitchen
sink: a good neighbour never visited without a gift.
The sickly smell of weed wasn’t unexpected, but the man, standing there in stripped
pyjama bottoms and mirrored aviator glasses, was. His hair was thinning at the sides, his skin
grey and his lips cracked.
Can I help you? he said.
Marie introduced herself without offering her hand, holding the orange rubbish sacks
between them like a bunch of flowers. She explained: the rats in the night and the parties
made her too tired for work. As she spoke, he just grinned, and clicked his tongue when she
was done. He took the rubbish sacks and shut the door.
One year before, when Jon picked Marie up from work, he couldn’t stop smiling.
They took the elevator, ascending the Sky Tower till they were seated with a view over the
harbour and a bottle of champagne on ice beside them. They held hands as the sky faded
from orange to pink to black. When their meals were ready, the waiter flicked open her
napkin: something shiny lifted into the air, then fell square onto her lap like a fallen star.
Marie took it and held it to the candle light: it was a key.
Now, the image of the neighbour is persistent. It wakes Marie when she is dreaming
and she can’t tell what’s true and what’s not – she stands in the dark – all the power’s out, she
glides from one side of the street to the other, like thin air, and then she is standing over him,
like a hologram – she flickers – she has no right to be there, but she is, all rage.
The metallic scent of his blood fills her nostrils and she clutches her stomach as it
cramps. She falls to her knees, retching. Over the sounds of her squirming she can hear
groaning, the sharp sound of breath leaving his lungs until there is no sound at all. When she
dares to look, all she can see is deep red rivulets, coming from the place where his heart
might have been, his white t-shirt soaked and stained. He is clutching his phone, his other
hand reaching towards the wound. His mouth is open but his eyes are closed. In this exact
moment, the moment that Marie cannot help but repeat, she does not dial the phone, she does
not call ‘111’ – instead, she reaches out – to touch the man into whom she had poured all her
hate, her blame for everything that had gone wrong – for stealing her dream home. She
cannot stop as she reaches – into his chest – her fingers on his heart – it is dead and cold as a
All she wanted was for him to be gone, and now all he ever did was keep her awake.
She ought never have asked the officer to see the photos at the station, Jon looked at her
sideways when she did. Still, she insisted: she needed to see what she had done.
Nat Baker is an Auckland based writer with short fiction and personal essays have been published in Bravado, HER, Art+Money, Headland, Takahe, Newsroom and Brief (forthcoming). Nat holds a Masters in Creative Writing (MCW) from the University of Auckland.