The fire crackled as a log split; its insides consumed from within. Azma tossed another branch in.
Her fingers throbbed, numbed by the cold. The air, dry as would be this time of the year, pinched her cheeks raw, cracked her lips, and froze the inside of her nose. She would be warmer if she would sit a bit closer, but the glare of the light irritated her, burning her irises and making spots dance in her vision. So she made do by hugging herself.
The air seeped through the thin fabric of her green sweater and robbed her of body heat. Her back, the most exposed, felt petrified. Her body protested, shivering and shaking, her mind ignored, deaf to complaints. She would stay out even if she froze, though she had no reason in particular.
Azma’s ear twitched as if a mosquito had flown past.
“Azie--” A crash of metal slamming into the concrete of her porch. “Sorry.”
The lack of metal groaning said the intruder made no attempt to pick up the barbecue grill. When the intruder’s shoulder brushed against Azma’s, her body rejoiced, but she recoiled.
“Why are you here?” Her voice hoarse from the unexpected exercise.
“The party, I invited you remember.”
She remembered. Not that she had a choice. The blinking lights across the street had shone through her window blinds for over a month, flashing red and gold. A waste of electricity. The owners of said house had barged in multiple times with lame excuses about being concerned for her. Tonight, the ground shook thanks to the music being played over the community limits.
“I told you no.”
“Yes, but I thought--”
“I don’t care what you thought. My answer is still no.” Azma fixated on the fire, in the lower region where wood burned obsidian as oranges and reds sprang to life. When a hand touched her shoulder, she stiffened.
“If you change your mind.”
An open end which Azma closed. She refused to reply.
As midnight neared, some premature fireworks whizzed up the cloudless sky. Their light flickered out fast with a shower of red and green on the black canvas. Was it always this brief?
Fireworks had looked so big when she was still light enough for her father to carry on his shoulders, so she could look above the crowd at the New Year’s celebrations. When her father’s warm laughter and solid frame were still tangible as the bench beneath her. She wondered if her mother was with him now.
Loud bangs from multiple firecrackers going off at once rocked the ground. Her neighbors. She should thank them for making the house affordable. At least her parents got to live under a roof that belonged to them before they departed. A roof which she now owned.
Another loud bang and she put out the fire with a shovel full of sand. Smoke wafted around, too lazy to go anywhere. She coughed and took a step back. Her lungs ached and her nose dripped. She should sleep before the celebrations start.
A wall of warm air greeted her inside. The switch from the biting cold to the caressing heat was like going from sleeping on cement to a plush mattress. She had left the heater on. She could afford to now.
Her body unwound as it absorbed the warmth and muscles released from their contorted position.
Outside, the raucous banter climbed up several decibels, climbing higher than the damned music. When she had been new to the place, she’d imagined her neighbors’ voices akin to a mob. Even now, after over three years, the comparison fit. Despite looking different in appearance, both man and woman, child and adult, were the same as if they were factory made. Gossip flew across their shared accent, which Azma didn’t share. Her parents wanted to blend, to turn factory made; when they were alive, she had followed their lead. Now, she shoved her bumps and blemishes, her handmade inadequacies just like the dresses her mother used to sew, and thrust them before the neighbor’s faces.
Somehow, her defiance was interpreted as grieving. Or worse, being quirky.
She shook her head and went to the kitchen to make herself a mug of milk, something her mother did every dry season. Even now, Azma used powdered milk, instead of liquid. She simply couldn’t change her taste after all these years. The kettle whistled, calling out to her. She turned the steaming mixture, careful not to make any clinking sounds. Her mother had hated that during her last days.
As she stretched to return the tin, she spotted the blue plate she’d received as a Christmas present from a classmate. A crappy gift for a Secret Santa who’d often boast about his Christmas and New Year exploits abroad. The others weren’t better. Even after being in school for over four years, they would ask her about her holiday as if somehow, by a miracle or something, her circumstances would have changed, and she would throw parties and go abroad like them.
Over two decades of the same pattern and now the mention of the December and January holidays made her eyelids lower and her gaze glaze. Her heart rate didn’t rise like when she was a child. She answered any intruding inquires with a stone wall demeanour and a sharp remark.
She switched off the lights, said no prayers and didn’t talk to her parents. She didn’t open an album like last year. Tears didn’t drop on old letters, making the ink lose their shape. She climbed up the stairs, brushed her teeth and headed for her room. She tucked herself, shifting in the duvet till she came to the right position. A pair of noise canceling headphones stood waiting for when the inevitable would come.
No snoring from the next room. No calls for assistance. Just her own silent breathing and invisible heart beat. As she closed her eyes, she heard the neighbors counting down, ten, nine, eight, seven… She slipped the head phones on, and went to sleep.