Published 14 April 202318 April 2023 · Fiction / Friday Fiction Fiction | Spare key Nicole Melanson Tayla placed the cap back on the permanent marker and swivelled her foot around. When light shone directly on the shoe, you could see the difference in colour but otherwise the ink matched well. She’d get another couple of weeks out of that patch before it needed touching up again. Tayla slipped the shoe off and cosied it up with its partner by the door, then fished around in the kitchen drawer for a smoke. She drew the last cigarette from a packet and moved to the balcony, flicking a lighter as she went. The woman in the corner apartment was watering her plants and gave Tayla her usual constipated side-eye. The woman couldn’t have been more than thirty but Tayla just knew she had a name like Bertha. Maybe Morag. Something coagulated and chewy. The woman wasn’t ugly, but she didn’t do her figure any favours, jerking around in sacks the colour of dead leaves. Tayla guessed Bertha Morag was jealous. Who wouldn’t be, moving into an apartment next to a guy like Robert and finding out he was already taken? All Robert’s fault, of course. He’d have helped Bertha Morag carry up some boxes or shown her how the rubbish chute worked. It never took more than that. Tayla had been smitten three minutes after meeting him, though he swore he was the one who’d fallen for her first. Robert had purchased a paper shredder that wasn’t in stock. Tayla had confirmed his address for delivery, saying, ‘It must be nice to live in that part of the city—near the water.’ ‘Do you like pizza?’ Robert had asked. And Tayla had answered, ‘Who doesn’t?’ That was the first time she’d ever tried an anchovy. Robert was watching, so she steeled herself and got it down. No worse than whisky, really. And dating Robert was an upgrade by anybody’s definition. He didn’t fidget, for a start. His hands were steady. ‘You drive me crazy,’ he’d breathe into her ear and his voice wouldn’t even waver. Bertha Morag’s terrier yapped as Robert entered the apartment. When he closed the door, the wind tugged Tayla’s hair. She listened for his footsteps, hoping he’d spot her on the balcony and feel a little ache inside before she turned to greet him. ‘Hey, sexy,’ he said, kissing her on the cheek. ‘Thought you were going to quit?’ ‘They’re your cigarettes.’ She fetched the new pack from his briefcase and shook one into her palm, noting her ratty red polish. Robert paid for manicures, but only once a month; he thought the chippy look was hot. Tayla laid her hand on his chest and gently pushed him into a chair. ‘C’mere,’ he said, snatching her onto his lap. He slid his hand between her thighs and they shared the cigarette in silence. At some point, Tayla shifted, and Robert got semi-hard beneath her. She laughed. ‘Oh, you think it’s funny, do you?’ he said. ‘What am I going to do with you?’ ‘I’m sure you can think of something,’ she teased, leaning towards his lips. Across the way, Bertha Morag huffed and stalked back inside her apartment. Bertha Morag wasn’t a smoker. Plus, there was the jealousy. Tayla ran her tongue around inside Robert’s mouth. He’d chewed a mint before coming home but now he tasted of smoke. She liked it. She liked that he still wanted her even when she tasted the same. ‘Let me get out of this suit,’ he said, nudging her off his lap. ‘How’d it go today?’ Robert sighed. ‘I couldn’t save the deal. Client’s still pulling out.’ Tayla followed him into the kitchen and watched him hang his jacket over the back of a chair. After years of her mother’s moods, she knew when a storm was brewing. Nothing worked with her mother but she could usually salvage things with Robert if she jumped in early enough. ‘Go have a shower,’ she said. ‘I’ll order something for dinner.’ He smiled and grabbed her waist. ‘Come in with me. Then I’ll take you out.’ Tayla’s hip hitched awkwardly in its socket. She stiffened and the clouds shadowing Robert’s face returned. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ she said. ‘It’s just…I already showered.’ ‘So?’ ‘So, give me time to get ready. I want to do my hair.’ ‘Your hair is perfect just the way it is.’ ‘It won’t be if I shower again.’ Tayla retreated to the living room and tucked herself into the sofa, its leather sumptuous and smooth. She dug between the cushions for change and pocketed a coin as she listened for the sound of water running at the end of the hall. But the apartment was double brick. You couldn’t hear stomping upstairs or know when someone on the other side of the wall was crying. She closed her eyes and imagined the soft hnc, hnc, hnc her mother made in her sleep, curtains drawn, air wintering around her. Tayla considered calling but didn’t want her mother to realise she wasn’t home. Robert returned, a black towel wrapped around his waist—like a piece of sushi, thought Tayla. ‘That was fast,’ she said, focusing on the broad plain of his chest, taut and slick with moisture. ‘I missed you.’ Robert sank down beside Tayla and hooked her close, his skin coldgainst her cheek. ‘I didn’t even ask about your day,’ he said. ‘How was school?’ Tayla wouldn’t tell him that he’d dropped her off too late and Mr. Fazio had given her detention. ‘I skipped cheer practice again this afternoon.’ Another miss and Mahoney would kick her off the squad. ‘You don’t need a bunch of pimply losers perving on you every weekend anyway.’ What did he care? He never came to any of the games because of his son. ‘Did you buy Matthew’s present yet?’ ‘He’s a teen now,’ Robert said. ‘All he wants is my money.’ He checked himself and softened. ‘You know what I mean.’ Tayla twirled the chain—completely worthless around her neck—that Robert had given her for their six-month anniversary. It was 18-karat gold but she’d told her mother it was fake. Tayla thought about Saturday’s game. How she’d pray the safety pins on her bra straps held while she spun and kicked the air. And afterwards, how the football players would whoop and holler out their windows and offer her a ride, even though she always ignored them in case they bumped into Robert and his son somewhere. He planned to introduce them soon, once the timing was right. They’d have lunch by the harbour. Maybe take the boat for a spin. Robert squeezed Tayla’s knee and rose to open a bottle of wine. She preferred bubbles, but Robert bought reds by the crate. Shiraz. Cab Sav. Malbec. Wine so dense you could almost bite it, with sediment that always seemed to settle in Tayla’s throat, no matter how hard she tried to wash it down. Nicole Melanson Nicole Melanson has been awarded Australia Council grants in both poetry and fiction and was shortlisted for the 2021 Island Nonfiction Prize. She is the founding editor of WordMothers, supporting women’s work in the literary arts. A native Bostonian and former Sydneysider, Nicole presently lives in Brisbane with her husband and their five sons, where she runs poetry workshops and mentors emerging writers with disabilities. Find her at www.nicolemelanson.com / www.wordmothers.com / wordmothers. More by Nicole Melanson Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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