Second Place in the Letter Review Prize for Flash Fiction
New Fiction by Andrew Nest
14th April, 2023
Editor’s note: this story references alcohol.
The day of the office Christmas party – that major day of the year when camaraderie with colleagues and alcohol come together in climax. Not anymore, I tell myself. The day can still be momentous, though – as the Everest of days in my colossal campaign to abstain from the wicked liquor. Can I do it?
You can, Russ, because you know you can’t keep going like this. The drink has cost you one marriage and now the second’s heading over a cliff. Not to mention your health. Change now or continue along your path to self-ruination.
Don’t remind me.
Missing the pre-dinner beers with the boys should be easy. Any excuse will do. You’ll need to dig your heels in during the meal, though. But I’ll be with you.
What time is it? Half past seven.
That’s good. The session at the tavern’s passed. Now, just juice or water at the restaurant. Anything but the toxic stuff…
They’re ordering. So, what’ll it be, Russ?
That’s right. And stick to it.
I hear you, but this group dynamic thing makes it so hard. I’ll destroy a ritual that I’ve lived with my whole life. Things just won’t be the same. They’ll shun me.
Don’t exaggerate. It’s time to find out who your real friends are. But mostly it’s about being the kind of person you need to be, remember?
I’ll be ending my own tradition and blighting theirs at the same time.
Don’t talk yourself out of it again. How many times do I have to tell you, you’re hanging by a thread at home and your whole body’s in danger of being laid waste by this tradition of yours, yet you’re worried about scorning a stupid custom. You never respected any boundaries. Of course you must pay a price.
Okay, but it’s such a special evening. I don’t know how I’ll explain it.
There’s no explaining to do. You just say you want water. Just water for me, tonight.
I’ll just have water. Water, please. There’s nothing to it. Just do as I say…
‘How about you, Russ?’
There it is. The dreaded invitation. You know what to say, though. You know what to answer this time… Russ? You’re hesitating.
Go on, say it: Just water for me.
‘Red for me.’
Russ! After everything we’ve been through.
I can’t do it.
Yes, you can.
You told yourself a hundred times you would.
Let’s start from the new year.
I’m sorry. It’s in front of me now. And look at it. That glass holds a liquid jewel. No one’s a better judge of that than me. And what better time to feel the sensation of the holy liquid than with mates.
Listen to me! That liquid’s wholly unholy in the quantities you’ve always drunk it.
But we’re talking about long-time friendships. There’s an essence to that. They’ve always been part of me. We’re celebrating our bonding as humans.
Stop! Your wife and kids deserve better.
But it’s here now.
Just leave it there. Don’t touch it.
He’s toasting everybody.
Toasting you, Russ? Well, how about the grilling I’m gunna give you now! Are you gunna let that outsider control you ahead of your own good conscience? What does he care? At the end of the night, he’s outta here. To him, you’ll be no more than a fragment of thought, whereas you’ll still be left with your distressed wife, distraught kids, damaged liver and me. And I won’t give you a moment’s peace for the rest of your life if you keep going like this.
But I can feel it running down my throat. I just can’t let the moment pass. Everyone’s got a glass in their hands. I’m picking mine up, too. I’ll prepare better next time.
No! Now’s the time to stop. Put it down!
Then squeeze that glass, squeeze it till it smashes in your hand, so that it cuts you and you can get to a doctor’s, away from here.
I’m squeezing, but it’s not breaking. I can’t stop myself.
I am! It’s almost at my lips.
Then tip that poison down your front. Tip it!
That’s good, Russ. You’ve spilled it over you. Congratulations. Never mind their laughs, their mockery. You’re clumsy that’s all. Go to the bathroom and clean up. We still have more of the evening to get through…
It’s so hard.
Give an excuse. Say you’re not feeling well, or that you’re on antibiotics, or that you’ve got to take your mother to the hospital later. Anything but the drink.
Someone’s refilled your glass. Leave it there.
‘Here’s to Russ and his coordinated efforts.’
It’s not even funny. Ignore it.
Oh, God. But they’re embracing me. We’re one and the same.
Russ, we talked in the bathroom and you agreed. Tell them!
Such a beautiful dark ruby red orb. I want it. I can’t help myself.
Just put it down!
Gulp it down, you mean.
The hell you will! You want abuse. Promise you’ll stick to water, or I’ll smash
Russ! Put it down: in words.
Just keep putting it down in words. That’s a pen in your hand, remember, and paper in front of you. This monumental achievement of yours is that you’re still here in the library, and you’re missing the office Christmas party. You’ve found your sanctuary, the last place you thought you’d ever be, away from the toxic brew, away from all that pressure, letting the ink rather than the drink flow. You’re not a mess for a change. Go home and surprise her with the fact. Things might still be hard but keep climbing; the views will only get better.
Andrew Nest is an English teacher living in Melbourne, Australia. He leans towards the satirical in his writing but cannot ignore the straight serious either. He is the opposite of prolific when it comes to output, honing the few stories he has written to the point where editing is a compulsive obsession. Pursuits and subject matter that have fed Andrew’s desire to write include world travel, running, hiking, language learning, politics and family and friend relationships. His most recent achievements are:
- shortlisted for the 2022 Lord Mayor’s (Melbourne, Australia) Creative Writing Awards;
- shortlisted for the 2022 Alice Sinclair Memorial (Australia) Writing competition;
- the first ever prose fiction published in Wild (Australia non-fiction) magazine 2021-2022 summer edition;
- anthologised in Busybird Publishing’s 2021 [untitled] publication (Australia).
Original Artwork by Kita Das