Firework

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

stone.

 

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.