‘It’s sure to be a stunner,’ Andy said as he sat down, looking out to the setting sun. They had planted their chairs in the slate grey sand, just shy of the incoming tide.
Erin grunted in reply as she sank into the uncomfortable fold-up chair beside him. The little mesh cup holders in the arms were too small to fit anything larger than a beer bottle. They were the kind of chairs bought for a one-off camping trip and then left to gather cobwebs in the back of the garage. Andy had made a point of pulling them out the day before, for the New Year’s Eve party. He’d dusted them off and spread them around the deck. No one had used them.
‘Breeze’s chillier than I thought,’ Andy said.
Erin agreed, and sipped from a steaming mug that couldn’t fit in her cup holder. Jaffa played with a piece of driftwood, chewing on it as if it were a bone, her fur slick and glistening. The ocean beyond was dark and oily, the waves all green and blue and topped with frothy grey. The constant movement of the ocean was in stark contrast to the sky, where dirty orange clouds hung as still as paintings.
‘Want me to run back and grab a blanket?’ Andy asked. He was poised ready to stand.
She shook her head. ‘Sunset’ll be over before you can get one.’
Erin resisted the urge to shiver as the warmth leaked from her bare feet into the dark grey sand. She glanced at Andy, saw his legs fidget as he sat back in the chair, as though he wished he could curl his feet up underneath him. He shivered slightly, and then sipped that insipid tea of his, eyes on the setting sun, the first sunset of the New Year.
Compared to her last relationship, Andy was a lighthouse on a moonless night. He was a beacon, a guiding light leading her to shore, away from the thunderstorm lurking over the sea. But the light turned, round and round.
She tried to focus on the future. Tried not to poke at that memory from last night. The memory was still sore, still raw.
The sun was terribly red, unnaturally so. A red raw circle, slipping down the wall of the sky.
‘Well… it sure is somethin’,’ Andy said, with a nod out to sea.
Everyone at the party had talked about the bushfires at least once over the course of the night. There was no avoiding the smoke plumes, reaching their sooty fingers all the way across the South Pacific to tickle the South Island, tinging the West Coast sky orange and the sun crimson.
Australia burned, and they all watched.
Jaffa carried the driftwood stick up to Andy’s feet, so he did what was expected of him and threw it back out into the surf. He noticed as he sat back that Erin was barefoot. He wondered how she could stand the cold as he watched her playing absentmindedly with one of the ties of her grey hoodie. She took a big gulp of her offensively bitter coffee and slouched in her chair, blue jean legs spread with a masculine self-confidence. He had never understood how she could drink coffee in the evening.
‘Heard anything more from your parents?’ she asked.
Andy inhaled. ‘Just a text… sounds like the excitement’s over now. Thankfully.’
He turned back to the horizon, to his parents, somewhere across that western stretch of smoky ocean. He was glad that they were safe now; worrying about them had caused an anxious knot to form in his stomach. He was still working on unknotting it.
Jaffa brought the stick back, so he whispered some vague words of encouragement and then threw it out again. His mind kept drifting back to the night before, back to words spoken in anger. Stinging words, the kind that could make ears ring. Words had always been important to the two of them.
‘What d’ya think people would’ve made of this a few hundred years ago?’ Erin asked.
Andy glanced at her before answering. ‘I imagine they’d have thought it a bad omen. Especially for New Year’s.’
Erin huffed out what might have been a laugh. ‘Especially for a new decade, you mean.’
‘Mmm. End of an era.’
‘Now let’s not go that far,’ Erin replied. Jaffa abandoned the driftwood stick and started chasing the incoming waves, racing with the surf, orange-gold coat all the more brilliant in the ash-tinted light.
‘End of the world?’ Andy suggested.
‘Pssh, there’s a few more years left in her yet.’
‘Huh? No, I—I meant what they would’ve thought, a few hundred years ago.’
Erin screwed her lips together in thought and then nodded appreciatively, then finished the last of her coffee. Andy had barely touched his tea; there was a twisting in his stomach that made the drink turn sour in his mouth.
‘I s’pose that makes us apocalyptic rubberneckers,’ he said. He half smiled and glanced at Erin, but she was looking at the sinking sun with a glassy melancholic stare.
She tapped a finger against the side of her mug, thinking about sour words. Thinking about a word with a hard beginning and a hard ending, the kind that lingered overlong in the mouth before bursting forth with a careless flick of the tongue. The memory of the night before warmed her up, more bitter than coffee.
‘Hey, you know what’s a weird word?’ Andy asked.
This was familiar ground for Erin. It was an old game of theirs, initially played out in text messages, years ago. Thousands of single word texts, sent throughout the day, a casual reminder of shared intimacy. They had played it so many times that it was a miracle they could still think of new words.
‘What is?’ she asked.
‘Asparagus,’ Andy said. He rolled the word around in his mouth, as if he were tasting rather than enunciating.
Erin shrugged. ‘Platypus is weirder.’
‘Mmm. How ‘bout obtuse?’
“I don’t even know what that means.”
‘Hmm, how obtuse of you.’
Andy opened his mouth, and then closed it again. There had been something sharp in that reply. A soft word wielded as if it were hard, wielded like a word that could wound.
‘No, look, just—wait a fuckin’ minute! All right?’ he had said while hurrying to get dressed before their guests arrived.
‘You need to sign it, before people get here,’ Erin told him.
‘I don’t see why you can’t do it.’
‘Because Jaffa isn’t my dog, the vet said he needs your written permission. I did ask you to do it earlier, multiple times.’
The doorbell rang.
‘It will literally only take a second,’ she said. She left a pen and the spaying agreement form beside him on the bathroom sink, and turned to leave the bedroom.
‘Christ, you can be such a fuckin’ naggy cunt sometimes.’ A mutter on an exhale, not meant to be overheard.
‘The fuck did you just say?’ Erin asked. A chill of shock.
His stomach sunk, cool shame flooding up his torso and colouring his cheeks. He grabbed the pen and signed the form.
‘There, it’s done.’
He left the room as the doorbell rang a second time, followed by a knock. He left Erin behind. Left her in the room where the stinging word still echoed, ringing in her ears.
Jaffa tired herself out and came back to sit between them, her loud panting filling the silence. The crimson sun was touching the horizon. There had been no brilliant pink sunset, only the off-orange tint that had slowly darkened to a dirty brown.
Andy took a deep breath, hesitated, and then sighed before trying again. ‘Sorry for what I said yesterday… I was just…’
Erin tensed, waiting to hear what excuse he would come up with, and preparing herself to counter it.
She was prepared to fight, but he was not.
After a brief hesitation he mumbled, ‘I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.’
Erin didn’t reply. Really she had known from his shamefaced reaction that he hadn’t meant it. And from his childish guilt-ridden actions since, like wanting to watch the sunset. But that hadn’t lessened the sting. He should have known better, he knew what her last relationship had been like.
The sky was darkening rapidly, the evening growing colder with each passing moment. It would be a moonless night.
‘Well, so much for the stunner,’ Andy said. He drank the rest of his tea quickly, its warmth all but gone.
‘More evidence that the world is ending, eh?’ Erin replied. They stood up in unspoken agreement and folded up their chairs. Jaffa stood up as well, stretching her paws out in front of her with a big yawn.
‘Well, the end of the world just means the beginning of a new one.’
‘What, you mean like ‘when one door closes another opens’?’ Erin asked.
Erin wasn’t convinced. ‘I dunno, sometimes the doors stay shut… sometimes the sunset just sucks.’