Travis and Ethan watched the house burn, with a brazen enthusiasm undignified for middle-aged men. Josh stared at the ground, scouting for potential hazards, lest he suffer a similar fate to the house.
A glowing ember drifted through the night sky and nestled on Matt’s shirt. He smothered it and glanced at his friends.
Just four friends, standing on the side of the road, watching a stranger’s house burn.
Matt lifted his hand. A charred hole peeked from under his fingers. He closed his eyes and let out a slow, steady breath.
Travis clapped his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “That’s one hell of a vextempus.”
Matt stopped. His breath caught in his throat, and he coughed, attempting to hide the noise.
Travis frowned and nodded at the burning house. “What would you call it?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Matt said, pulling at the edges of his jacket. The central strut of the roof caved in, sending fresh clouds of acrid smoke and ash. Matt coughed again.
Ethan shielded his eyes. “What happened on your last vextempus, if you’re not impressed by a house fire?”
Matt ran his finger along the black, industrial grade silicone strap wrapped around his wrist. “I got a flat tire, missed an All Blacks game, a neighbour told me the score, three lots of telemarketers rang during dinner…”
He paused, his finger searching for the tiny indentation in the rubber casing of his Charm™. “And… Tina.”
Travis and Ethan both winced. Josh shook his head and his glasses skidded along the ground. He picked them up, a crack in the left lens, and sighed.
“That’s rough Matt,” Travis said. He looked at Josh and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Cheer up mate, the day’s nearly over.”
A man stood outside the burning house, his dressing gown billowing in the wind from the flames. He stood. Quiet. Peaceful. His vextempus. Absolved from blame. Matt gave him a nod.
They walked along the road, towards the pub, in silence. Matt traced his finger over and over the rough spot on his Charm™ and wondered about inevitability.
“You think that’s bad? You’re two hundred and fifty-seven times more likely to die on your vextempus.” Ethan took a long pull of his beer. “Imagine the lawsuits we have to deal with.”
Travis laughed. “Half of them come from us. That’s insurance, thinking of ways to weasel out of paying.”
Josh sat with his hands clasped together, resting on the table. His sleeves rolled up, revealing his Charm™ hugging his wrist, round and black and perfectly intact.
Matt set his coke on the table. It slopped over the side and trickled through his fingers. Wet. Cold. Perhaps inevitable. The dim lighting of the pub concealed his catastrophe. He breathed out and listened to the jukebox, in the corner, playing hits from a simpler time.
Matt reached for a chip and knocked over his glass. He stared in horror as the dark liquid ran across the table. He looked up, his secret exposed.
“Bloody hell.” A steady stream of coke ran across the table and onto Josh’s lap. He gave it a half-hearted wipe and sighed.
“Why not just stay at home? It’s one day,” Travis asked, handing Josh a napkin from under the bowl of chips.
Josh mopped at his pants and put the napkin on the table, leaving it to stem the flow of coke. “I didn’t want to stay home.” He shrugged. “My house might burn down.”
Matt pretended to laugh with his friends, his finger tracing the rough spot, over and over. Inevitable.
Walking up the stairs, voices, giggling, cracking open the bedroom door.
“So, my vextempus is one of the next three days.” Travis set his beer on the table. “And I’ve got a meeting with our biggest multinational client, my wedding and a plane trip for our honeymoon.” He swirled his beer. It toppled precariously but settled without spilling a drop.
“Hard luck mate,” Ethan said.
“You work for them. Do you know what day it will be?” Travis asked, staring at Ethan.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Josh said, bitterness creeping around the edges of his words.
“It doesn’t work like that,” Ethan said. “Your Charm™ damps the quantum frequencies of misfortune. There comes a point where the energy builds up and it becomes, well, inevitable. We can only stall it off for so long.”
Matt felt the rough patch. Inevitable.
The sheets writhing. Hands. Mouths. Skin. The surprise on their faces.
“Yeah, yeah, I get how it works.” Travis laid his hands flat on the table. “I want to know what day it’s going pear-shaped.”
Ethan swallowed. “We’re not meant to talk about it.”
“They probably don’t even know,” Josh said. He checked his watch.
Matt leant forward. Ethan stared out the window.
“Bloody hell.” Travis leant back and took another long pull of his beer.
Ethan shrugged. “It builds up, some bad luck gets through, the Charm™ registers that, it triggers the vextempus and bang, your whole years’ worth of misfortune in one very intense twenty-four-hour window.” He looked at Travis. “Sorry, mate.”
“Joy,” Josh said. “On that cheerful note, I’m going to the loo.” He stood. Fabric ripped.
“Your pants.” Matt pointed to Josh.
Josh shrugged. “I didn’t like them anyway,” he said, and weaved his way through the tables towards the bathroom.
Matt ran his finger over the rough patch on his Charm™. A woman walked in, her black dress shimmering as it caught the light. Her blonde hair fell in soft curls around her face. Several other men sitting at the bar noticed her entrance, their heads turned in rapt attention.
The men went back to drinking their beer and talking about the rugby, dismissing her on a single piece of bad luck. Unwilling to get tangled up with someone on their vextempus.
Matt wiped his palms on his jeans. Dismissed.
“I walked in on Tina and Brad in bed.” He pulled his jacket together. "That's why we split up."
Ethan set down his beer. Travis raised an eyebrow.
“On my vextempus, but I can’t shake the feeling that I was responsible.”
Travis shrugged. “On your vextempus? Totally not your fault, mate.”
Matt wiped a chip around the remnants of the tomato sauce.
Ethan sighed. “It’s inevitable. They’ve done the maths. It all works out in the end.”
Matt wiped at a red stain on his hand. Tomato sauce. “Do you ever wonder about taking it off?”
Travis set down his beer. Ethan paused, his mouth open, his chip mid-flight. Matt wiped at the stain.
“You can’t do that. The backlash would be… significant.” Ethan held his chip, his gaze intense.
Matt forced a laugh. “Of course. Forget it. No one wants to be a Hexed.”
“No, I mean it,” Ethan said. “It’s not just that you’d be a Hexed. It’s the actual backlash. Taking it off releases the stored energy, but not in a controlled way, like the vextempus. The results could be disastrous. Proper disastrous.”
Ethan gripped Matt’s hand, his skin cold and damp. “Even tampering with the Charm™ can affect its efficacy. Don’t do it, mate.”
Matt rubbed his finger over the blade-shaped rough patch on his Charm™ and stared at the tomato sauce stain on his cuff.
“I saw a nice blonde woman just walk in,” Matt said.
“Don’t even bother,” Travis said, picking up his beer. “She’s on her vextempus.”
Matt woke early.
He stood in the lounge with the heater warming his back. The shears heavy and cold in his hand. Dismissed. Freedom. Choice. Blame. Inevitability. The thoughts not quite reaching a landing, but the shears spoke their own truth.
The Charm™ clattered on the wooden floor.
No rush of energy swept him off his feet. No spontaneous combustion. No horde of angry gnomes waged mutiny in his household.
Matt walked into his garden. Forty-three grams lighter, yet he felt like he was floating on air. He lifted his chin and closed his eyes to take in the morning sunshine.
His heart sank below his stomach and settled somewhere south of hope.
It. Wasn’t. Fair.
He kicked a soccer ball. It flew through the ranch-slider and knocked over the gas heater. The net curtains caught fire with a whoosh reserved for movies, and the flames took hold of the wall.
Matt stood. Frozen. Horrified. Rooted in place by inevitability. Flames ran along the coving and into the kitchen.
He grabbed the fire extinguisher out of the garage. He pulled the pin. It wouldn’t budge. He pulled harder. The pin snapped.
Matt walked out of his burning house and stood at the curb, his dressing gown billowing in the wind from the flames. He watched as it burned and wondered about inevitability.
A fire fighter approached. She took off her helmet, her blonde hair falling in soft curls around her face.
She asked questions. He answered. The house burned.
“I saw you at the pub last night,” Matt said, as the central strut of his roof caved in.
She stretched, her jacket riding up to reveal two slender pale wrists. Two slender pale wrists, without a Charm™.
Matt stared. She followed his gaze.
“Hexed,” she whispered and smiled, her eyes nestled in a bed of warm creases.
“But…” Matt couldn’t find the words he wanted to ask.
“People blame so much on the vextempus.” She shrugged. “My choices. All mine. My mistakes. All mine.”
A missed birthday here, a missed anniversary there. Date nights giving way to work. Tina understanding, the distance growing.
“My last vextempus ruined my life.”
“Is that why we found the remains of your Charm™ in the lounge?” She rested her helmet on her feet.
“I cut it off.” He wiped his eyes, the acrid smoke making them water. “And now this.”
“The Hexed make their own luck,” she said.
Matt stared at her. “My house is burning to the ground.”
She looked at her notes. "And tell me, why, out of any direction, you chose to kick the ball towards the house?"