‘Should I get a parrot?’ Emily posed the question as the lift door closed.
‘A parrot? Or maybe a parakeet?’
‘Why on Earth would you want a parrot?’ Mariella asked, her painted-in brows knitting together beneath a wispy fringe.
Emily stared back at her friend, mirroring her puzzled expression.
‘Em, you’re not making any sense.’
‘Oh, so you can hear me then?’
Mariella’s eyes darted left then right. ‘Of course I can hear you.’
‘Only you don’t seem to be listening. Hence, the parrot.’
‘OMG, Em, have you totally lost it? How many glasses of bubbly did you have back there?’
The hint of a smile crept across Emily’s freckled face. ‘You do know that was Cava, don’t you?’
Mariella tilted her head, pushing stray wisps of hair out of her eyes. ‘Your point?’
‘That it wasn’t strong enough to make me lose anything’. She stressed the word and added air quotes for maximum effect.
The lift came to a halt and the doors sprang open. The young women stepped out into the foyer of the skyscraper that housed the city’s financial headquarters, including Field, Carter & Reese where they both worked as analysts. Bright lights filled the area, further illuminated by unusually strong winter sunshine glinting through the all-glass walls. Located on the seafront, the building offered a view of the shoreline and the dark, retreating ocean, currently resplendent under the sun’s impressive rays.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to come to the party tonight? The firework display there is pretty awesome.’
Emily stormed ahead, muttering under her breath.
‘Oh, don’t be such a grump, Em. You can’t allow that sham of a party upstairs to be your last memory of the year.’ Mariella reached for Emily’s arm and forced her to stop. As Emily turned around, her cheeks wet with tears, Mariella pulled her into an embrace. ‘What’s up?’
Emily tore herself out of the hug and wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand. A red flush crept up from her neck. ‘I’ve told you a thousand times, Ella, I don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve. Please, for once, listen to me and stop asking-’
Mariella reared up, holding her palm towards Emily. ‘Whoa there. Okay, message received and understood. I only wanted you to not be on your own, Em. This’ll be the fifth year running, in fact ever since I’ve known you, that you’ve spent the last night of the year alone.’
‘Don’t go there, Ella.’ The warning carried a frosty sternness, matched by a steely stare.
Mariella shrugged, pulling on her gloves, a Christmas gift from Emily. ‘Okay, but one of these days you’re going to have to face whatever demons are holding you back, you know. This,’ she waved her arm up and down her friend’s stiffened body,’ is not healthy. Not for you, and not for anyone around you.’
‘Which is why I want to be left alone,’ Emily said through gritted teeth.
‘I heard you.’
‘Mariella approached her, arms outstretched. ‘Well, at least let me give you a hug before I leave you to get ready for the party.’
Emily grinned, squeezing her friend tightly. ‘Maybe next year, eh?’
Mariella kissed her friend’s cheek and let her go. ‘I hope so, Emily. I really hope so.’ She made to walk away, then came back wearing the same bewildered expression from earlier. ‘And the parrot stuff? What was that all about?’
Emily laughed. ‘I thought I could teach it to say, ‘Emily said no’ to save me from having to repeat myself so many times when you mention the damn New Year’s Eve party.’
Mariella chuckled. ‘And you say you haven’t lost anything. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’ Their laughter brought them lots of attention from others passing through the foyer, which only made them laugh louder.
‘It’d probably take a whole year to teach it to say anything too. Probably not my best idea.’
‘Yeah, reckon you should give that a miss. Besides, you did say maybe next year. It’d be a pity to waste all that time and effort training a parrot, wouldn’t it?’
‘I could just teach it to say ‘maybe’ instead.’
‘Yeah, but you know that wouldn’t stop me from asking.’
‘You’d best hurry. You’re going to need plenty of time to get ready-’
‘Hey! What are you suggesting?’
Emily exaggerated biting her lip. ‘Oops!’
Mariella gave her a gentle shove. ‘I’ll deal with you next year.’ She winked and walked away, laughing, and fastening the belt on her coat. She turned and waved before exiting the building.
Emily whistled a long breath and zipped up her jacket. Telling Mariella why she avoided New Year’s Eve parties was never going to happen. Despite being her best friend since Emily had joined the company, Mariella would tell her to get over it, or worse to get some counselling! She wouldn’t understand. The only people who knew why she felt this way were no longer around. They’d left her on this very night many years ago. She’d hoped moving somewhere new would make the nightmares go away so that she could start afresh and make a new life for herself. Away from the burnt-out shell of her childhood home. But, every year, without fail, as the clock struck midnight the memory paralysed her in its vice-like grip.
It had only taken a single stray firework to destroy everything. Exploding in her father’s garage among the tins of paint and thinners. The fire had spread within seconds, claiming the house and her parents. And where had she been? Staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s because they’d promised she could stay up late and see the New Year in on the telly. Her mum and dad, both suffering from a severe bout of flu, had encouraged her to go. They’d waved her off and retreated to bed dosed up on paracetamol and a dram of whisky in their tea. Neither one had heard the smoke alarms blaring, nor the fire engines speeding towards them, inevitably delayed on one of the busiest nights of the year.
Emily had heard the doorbell ring that night, then the door to her room opened and Grandma rushed to her bedside while Grandpa stood in the doorway, telling his wife to let the child sleep. Instinctively, she sat up, goosebumps travelling up and down her limbs as she threw back the duvet. Grandma had pulled her into her arms, sobbing on her tiny shoulder, making her pyjama top damp.
They’d told her time and time again it wasn’t her fault. An accident, they said. Unavoidable. Mum and Dad were just unlucky. But, she knew. Emily knew differently. The paint was for her bedroom; they’d promised her a makeover after a successful first term at her new school. Dad planned to get it finished during the Christmas break but had been too sick to start. The paint - Magical Mauve - had been stored in the garage for later.
It wasn’t just the paint though. If she’d stayed home, looking after them, then she would have heard the alarms. She’d have woken them up and dragged them outside to safety. It was all her fault, and even now, as a young woman she couldn’t celebrate New Year’s Eve without thinking she’s let them down. How could she be happy on the night she lost everything? She was better off on her own. No need to spoil the night for others.
She left the building and headed for the bus station. Finishing at noon meant she had a few hours to fill before she went home. A glint off the sea caught her eye, and she crossed the road to get a closer look.
Sunlight bounced off the object in the water, but she couldn’t make it out. Wet sand squelched with every step she took as curiosity got the better of her. Then she heard a yelp. She threw down her bag, kicked off her shoes and ran into the sea. The yelping got louder, fuelling her on through the ice-cold water.
In front of her, just out of her reach, a bag jostled against the waves, the sun hitting the metal clasp. The sound was coming from within. She pushed on through the cold, her heart pounding as she reached out to grab it. Breathless, she pulled it to her chest, the contents moving against her body. With numb fingers she yanked on the zip. A bedraggled puppy poked its head out, a tiny pink tongue licked at her hand. She raced to the shore and lifted the puppy out; it wriggled in her arms so she set it down on the sand. Its little legs folded beneath its body and it fell onto its side, eyes shut. Vigorously she rubbed its chest and belly. The dog responded, opening one eye first, then rolling onto its feet.
‘Hey, little lady,’ Emily said, ‘fancy coming home with me?’
She picked the shivering puppy up, snuggled her inside her jacket and ran to the pathway, collecting her bag and shoes on the way. With one hand on the dog, she rolled up her wet trousers and wiped the sand off her feet with tissues, then headed for the bus depot.
Luckily, the driver was in a good mood and on hearing the story he let her on with the puppy, even dismissing her attempt to pay the fare. ‘It’s on me, love. You’ve done enough saving that little one’s life.’
Emily stared at him, open-mouthed. She had saved the puppy from drowning, hadn’t she?
‘Boy or girl?’ the driver asked, snapping her out of her trance.
‘A girl,’ said Emily, glowing from the heat of the warm bus and the excitement of moment.
‘Should call her Eve, then,’ he said, chortling at his own joke.
Emily giggled. ‘Great idea.’ She rubbed the puppy’s head. ‘So, Evie, how about you and me keeping each other company tonight?’
The puppy blinked and nuzzled her golden head under Emily’s chin.
She took her seat and smiled all the way home, imagining Mariella’s reaction when she heard Emily hadn’t spent the last night of the year alone after all. Maybe there would be something to celebrate next year after all. Although, a parrot would definitely be out of the question now.