Category C: Third Place (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Robert New
‘DA-AD!’ Johnny heard his son, Matty, scream at the top of his lungs. ‘CASSIE PUNCHED ME.’
How the hell was he meant to get any work done with the two of them needling each other all the time? It didn’t seem fair that his wife got to go to work each day. Though, God bless her, Annie was a nurse and as selfless as they came. He shouldn’t be upset that she was getting out. Still, Johnny had to admit he was jealous; not only of her getting out of the house, but also the time away from the kids. Matty and Cassie were twins, but somehow the ‘twin-bond’ had steadily worn away since their birth seven years ago.
‘DA-AD!’ Matty screamed again. Ugh. Johnny clambered upstairs to the children’s living room.
‘WHAT?’ Johnny shouted as he reached the top of the stairs. He felt himself breathing harder from the exertion. Damn cigarettes. They were his crutch, and during this infernal lockdown it was near impossible to get to smoke them. Never in front of the kids. That was Johnny’s one ironclad rule, but the lockdown meant the kids were with him twenty-four seven. There was no escape. It was an intolerable situation.
‘Cassie hit me in the arm,’ Matty cried, glaring at his sister.
Cassie, for her part, looked guilty, but in her usual defiant manner defended her action. ‘He called me a poopyhead.’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ Johnny said icily. His kids knew that tone, and they wilted. They seemed to find it scarier than him shouting. ‘Matty. Stop. Just stop. This is too much, okay? Okay?’
‘Yes, Dad,’ they replied in unison.
‘Matty. Go downstairs and play on the Switch. Cassie. Stay here. I’ll put on a movie for you. What do you want?’
‘The icy movie.’
Johnny sighed, it was always one of those two. ‘Which one?’ he asked.
‘The second one, with the forest.’
‘Fine.’ Johnny set up the movie to play from a Blu-ray disc. He was grateful it wouldn’t wear out like the tapes he’d watched repeatedly as a child. Life seemed simpler then. God, he needed a cigarette.
Johnny’s mind flitted back to the first time he’d smoked. He was sixteen and at a party for his best friend, Imran. There was a girl there, Nishka, whom Johnny had a crush on. He’d followed her round to the back of the house. When she lit up and offered one to Johnny, he couldn’t say no. He’d coughed a bit, but the smile Nishka gave in response made up for the discomfort. She made it clear she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend. Johnny’s heart had leapt at the news. She was letting him know she was available. He’d asked her out just before the call for speeches. They’d dated for seven months. She taught him which milk bars and service stations were lax about checking ID’s. Even now, he could still remember her grin when Johnny bought his first pack and they’d split it. They’d made out for what seemed like an age that afternoon. It was ample reward.
‘Right. Matty, Cassie’s all set up. Wait, why are you still up here? Go downstairs.’ Johnny’s icy tone returned.
Matty withered and skulked downstairs. He was such a sensitive kid. All it took was a telling off for him to seem like his world was collapsing. One time, he’d grazed his knee after coming off his bike. It had taken minutes for the first speck of blood to appear, but Matty had seemed convinced he was bleeding to death, or at least had a major injury. Thankfully, the magic of a bandaid had miraculously made the wound feel ‘all better’.
That wasn’t even the worst response though. Anytime Johnny and Annie yelled at each other, Matty was convinced they were about to divorce. Cassie, on the other hand, barely reacted. If the anger wasn’t directed at her, she was fine. Heck, she was amused if it was directed at Matty. Surely there must be some happy middle-ground response?
Johnny walked downstairs with his son. ‘Matty?’
‘You’re not in trouble anymore. I just need to separate the two of you for the moment. I’ve got to get back to work.’ Johnny’s big project was due in two days and he was a week behind. The thought just made him want a smoke. Nicotine always seemed to fuel his productivity.
Annie had tried to get him to quit. But her efforts were to no avail. She’d first tried talking constantly about her patients in the ICU. It was surprising how many were there due to smoking related illnesses. Which, Annie reminded Johnny, weren’t just cancer and emphysema, but also heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even arthritis. The argument had failed. Johnny knew the risks, surely everyone did, but Johnny had never suffered from any of those illnesses, so the argument didn’t seem relevant. Next, she’d tried focussing on the financial savings quitting would bring. Johnny was a two-pack a week smoker and the seventy dollars they’d save each week could pay for a family holiday each Christmas. That, at least, had some appeal. Getting away for Christmas day would be great. It would spare the multitude of homes they had to visit to make sure all the grandparents, and aunts, and uncles had a chance to give the kids a present. By the end of the day the kids were exhausted and their adrenaline high from presents and candy canes would inevitably lead to an almighty crash. Johnny couldn’t remember a Christmas which hadn’t ended with the kids in tears and Johnny gasping for a smoke. Last Christmas he’d promised Annie he would quit. But deep down he knew he hadn’t meant it. He’d lasted a week that time. It wasn’t even close to the three weeks he’d lasted when the kids were born.
Johnny made himself a coffee. Caffeine wasn’t as good a stimulant as nicotine, but at least it might help his brain fire up. The sound of the automatic machine grinding the coffee and brewing the rich espresso Johnny favoured was a joy. Johnny liked watching the first drops fall into the small, pre-warmed China mug he used for his coffees. It seemed like just from the sound, he could tell exactly how much time was left from the pushing of the start button, to the coffee puck being swept from the group head. He knew every moment of the cycle.
Aah, that first sip. It was almost as good as—
‘Dad,’ Matty said quietly, just loud enough to interrupt Johnny’s thoughts.
Johnny took his coffee over and sat on the couch next to his son. ‘What’s up, my little man.’ With his son’s sensitivity, it was best to try lightening the mood.
‘I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have called her a poopyhead.’
Why did kids always remind you of exactly which bad word they’d said?
‘I know. It’s over now. How’s your game going?’
Matty’s face brightened up. ‘So good. I’ve got nearly enough diamonds to buy the shield. That will allow me to fight the aquamonster and gain a new heart piece.’
Johnny nodded, knowing he’d never understand the appeal of such a game. It was so open, so non-linear, and the more you achieved, the more bosses you had to fight. What was the point? Why wasn’t there only one boss to fight? That was more true to life. Like his boss, Carl. That guy seemed itching for a battle.
Carl had warned him his performance on this project was being monitored. He’d hated him for that. All he did now was second-guess every decision he made. Surely, the average of his work should be considered? Why were the highs barely acknowledged and the lows emphasised so much? The bulk of what he did was good, solid work. That’s what he should be judged on. Not set up for failure like this, with an impossible timeline.
Johnny took the last swig of his coffee and returned to his study. He regretted not keeping the coffee for when he was at his desk. Two monitors of data and an open document he was writing didn’t fill him with hope he’d be able to get the task done. When his leg started shaking, he was sure, if he could only have a cigarette, and the kids remain quiet, he could make decent progress over the next couple of hours.
Remain quiet. That was interesting. The kids were quiet. Each was likely to remain doing their thing for at least ninety minutes, until Cassie’s movie ended. Maybe, just maybe, he could sneak outside? He’d never done that when Annie wasn’t home to be a guard. But just this once?
Johnny went to the bookcase and pulled a large dictionary off the top shelf. He took his pack of cigarettes from behind it and replaced the book. Good. The lighter was still in the pack with the cigarettes. He headed outside.
The cold air meant nothing when there was the promise of a smoke. Johnny went round the side of the house, away from the living room windows where he might be seen. He walked past the kitchen to where there was a windowless wall provided by the side of the garage.
The first drag was always the best. Something about lighting the cigarette, watching the tobacco and paper catch alight and those first sensuous curls of smoke appear. It was beautiful. And then there was the satisfaction of the inhale. The extra warmth and texture of the smoky air felt as good as taking the mask off after his daily walk around the block.
Johnny took another drag on his cigarette. God that felt wonderful. It was why he’d found quitting so hard. He took a few steps and snuck a peek through the kitchen window. Cassie hadn’t come downstairs. Matty was still playing his adventure game on the big screen TV. Good. They’d been utter ratbags today. He deserved the break from them.
Johnny ducked further round the side of the house, away from the window, and took another long drag. He blew smoke rings as he exhaled. Bliss.
He recalled Annie making him try patches. They hadn’t worked. He’d lasted two weeks that time, but he knew from day one it wouldn’t last. His addiction wasn’t just to the nicotine. It was the act. That’s what Annie couldn’t understand. It was the ritual.
Matty suddenly appeared next to him. ‘What are you doing, Dad?’
Johnny felt like a guilty schoolboy. He hadn’t been so ashamed since he was a teenager and his older brother had dakked him in front of his friends.
Matty looked at him with such alarm and then a deep, lingering sadness. Johnny was shaken to his core. The poor boy.
‘I know w-what that is. That can kill you,’ Matty said, his voice quivering. ‘I-I don’t want you to die. I-I love you, Dad. I’m sorry I … I won’t do it again.’
Johnny’s heart broke as he realised his son was crying – mourning the loss of his father as though it was about to happen, as though it was his fault. Such a sensitive soul, Johnny reminded himself.
‘It’s my last one. I swear it.’ For the first time Johnny felt like he meant the words. All those times he’d tried to quit, he’d failed because of his focus on the act. The switch flicked by his son meant he’d now focus on the consequence: that gut-wrenchingly sad expression on Matty’s face. Johnny couldn’t bear being the cause of that. He’d never smoke again.