Read ‘Morticia and Me’ by Emma Darragh, featured in our latest Fiction Edition.
We’re at a backyard birthday party in Keiraville. Fairy lights are strung up along the gutters. Adults in fancy dress laugh and talk in small groups. A fire lights up a section of the dark backyard and I’d like to throw myself into it. Everyone was half drunk by the time we arrived and soon my mother wasn’t far behind. She put her drinks in a mini fridge then flitted off, up into the house, without looking back.
I didn’t choose the Ghostbuster costume. My mother chose it for me because apparently it was the only thing we could throw together with such short notice. She’s dressed as Morticia Addams. She showed me a clip of The Addams Family. It suits her, the long black hair, the flowing black dress. “I was always teased for being so pale,” she said. “A boy at Year Seven camp called me Wednesday Addams once and I cried.”
She doesn’t cry at the party but I almost do. I don’t know anyone here. There are kids – little kids, little fairies and a little Spider-Man and a Baby Yoda – shining a torch around the corners of the back garden. Nobody my age.
A Star Wars guy in a long robe, barbecuing by the back steps, watches Morticia’s ascent. He notices me noticing him noticing her and lifts his tongs in the air to say hi.
The Tiger King and Carole Baskin and a character I don’t recognise sit around the fire. Carole Baskin breastfeeds a tiny tiger, right there in front of everyone. I look away.
There’s a few gazebo tents with tables and folding chairs and I can hear Morticia laughing inside. I turn around and notice that Star Wars guy isn’t at the barbecue anymore. Huh.
I wish someone my age would show up so I’d have someone to talk to, but the thought of it also terrifies me.
There is a cob loaf, though. And a tub of hummus ringed by sticks of celery and carrot. Beetroot dip and fancy crackers. And a wooden cheese board with uneven hunks of hard cheese crumbled all over, the brie or camembert hacked and smeared, a dead white body part. I grab a plate, dip some carrot sticks into the hummus, and head to the cob loaf.
“There are more snacks for you kids over there,” says an adult Harry Potter. He points to the adjoining table – like I couldn’t possibly have noticed it on my own.
“Thanks, Harry,” I say. I step around him and take a handful of chips from the so-called Kids’ Table.
“Soft drinks are in the esky,” he says.
I manage to grab a Coke without spilling food from my plate and go sit on a crate near the fire.
More people arrive: a Mulder in a suit and a Scully in a lab coat, their Riverdale daughter in red jeans and baseball shirt.
It’s obvious that Riverdale girl is Scully’s daughter – they both have the same red hair as their characters.
Riverdale is lame, but I’ve watched a few episodes. The character’s name comes to me: Cheryl Blossom. This Cheryl Blossom looks like a popular girl, too.
Morticia joins me by the fire with a full plate of food: sausages, potato salad, barbecued chicken. She hands me a bamboo knife and fork.
“I got us some food,” she says, spearing a sausage and putting it on my plate. She divvies up the potato salad and is about to give me the chicken leg but I hold up my fork.
How she eats without smudging her lipstick is a mystery to me. I’ve probably got tomato sauce on my chin and potato salad in my hair.
“Columbo over there?” she says pointing to a floppy‑haired guy in a long grey coat, smoking a cigar across the fire. “That’s Greg. It’s his birthday. He’s a writer and teaches at the uni.”
“Who’s that?” I ask, pointing to Cheryl Blossom.
“I can’t remember her name. I can find out—”
“No, no. Don’t do that.”
She sits back down. “She’s Sarah and Tom’s kid. Actually, I think Tom’s her stepdad. I don’t know them very well. They’re in theatre.”
“Please, have some of this chicken,” she says, putting it on my plate.
She picks up a can of Canadian Club and takes a drink. “How am I?” she asks, waving a hand in front of her face.
I check her face for crumbs and smudged lipstick. She’s immaculate. “Good,” I say.
She bares her teeth. White. Clean.
“Yep, good. Me?”
She looks me over. She seems both relaxed and energetic. Her face is soft and pretty in the firelight.
“Absolutely perfect,” she says. “I’m going to be social. Do you want me to grab a drink for you?”
I hold up my Coke.
She bends down and picks up our plates, then wiggles away to toss them in a bin.
I’m trying to get some chicken out of my teeth with my tongue when Cheryl Blossom, of all people, sits beside me. I stop with the chicken and try to smile a hello.
“So what are you meant to be?” she asks, stretching her legs toward the fire. Her white Converse sneakers are muddy around the soles. I look up at her face, trying not to stare. No, I’ve never seen this girl before. I’d remember.
“I’m a Ghostbuster. From the remake,” I say.
“It was my mum’s idea. It was last minute. I wasn’t meant to be staying at her place this weekend so we just picked something easy.”
Why am I explaining myself to this girl? You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, Evie. Don’t go through life apologising for who you are. Mum is always saying shit like that to me and she’s right, but it’s easier said than done. I spot her – Morticia – bending down to get another drink from the fridge.
“I haven’t even seen it,” I say, turning back to Cheryl. “The new Ghostbusters.”
“Why aren’t you dressed as Wednesday Addams?”
“Why should I be?”
“Well look, Obi-Wan brought Baby Yoda,” she says, pointing to Star Wars guy. “And Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin brought tiger cubs.”
She’s right, of course. Why aren’t I dressed as Wednesday Addams?
The crack of my mother’s can opening, a man laughing.
“Why aren’t you dressed as, I don’t know, something from The X-Files?”
“I just think you’d make a great Wednesday and the costume would be super easy. You look so much like your mum.”
I follow her gaze to where Morticia is standing by the dips talking animatedly to the Star Wars guy. He leans toward her, doesn’t look away until he throws his head back laughing. Morticia tilts her head in a cute half-shrug and it occurs to me that she’s flirting with this guy and he’s really into her.
I turn back to Cheryl Blossom.
“She’s very…vivacious,” she says.
“She’s very drunk.”
She gives a half laugh and twists on her crate. “You want a drink?” she asks.
Cheryl goes over to the mini fridge and brings back a beer and a Canadian Club. “Which one?” she asks, holding out the drinks to me, her back to the house.
“Take one. Quick.”
I take the Canadian Club and Cheryl sits back down, opens the beer.
“They won’t notice.” She tilts her head back and drinks. She’s clearly done this before.
I slip my thumbnail under the ring pull.
“They’re not supervising us, so it’s a moral failing on their part, not ours,” she says.
I crack it open and take a sip.
“Do you always drink at parties?” I ask.
“When I can.”
“How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
This feels like a trick question. I shrug. “I dunno.”
“Sixteen. Basically. You?”
“Fifteen. Basically,” I tell her. My birthday is in five months and nineteen days.
“Cool,” she says.
“So, you like Riverdale?” I ask.
“Yep. But I’m wearing this, you know, ironically.”
“What do you mean?”
She looks at me sideways, but not in a way that feels mean. “Don’t worry about it,” she says.
I curve both hands around the can so that nobody can see what I’m drinking. We sip our drinks. Some adults come over and sit beside us and I wait for them to notice how sus I’m acting, but they don’t. They don’t even notice us.
“Do you like Ghostbusters?” Cheryl asks.
“Like I said, I haven’t seen it.” My drink is half gone. How?
Cheryl finishes the rest of her beer. “You want another one?”
Cheryl leaves the beer bottle on the grass and heads toward the house. But instead of stopping at the mini fridge she goes inside.
Please come back.
I feel exposed without her, sure to be busted. I finish my drink in three mouthfuls and set the can down on the grass behind my crate. The plastic is digging into my bum but I don’t want to move in case someone takes our seats.
I stand, stretch my legs. So this is what it feels like.
This party isn’t so bad. The air is cool but the fire is warm. Every now and then a breeze comes and blows smoke into my face. I close my stinging eyes.
I wonder how my mother knows all these people. She is not the mother I remember from playgroup, or the mother who packed muffins and mandarins into my lunchbox. Morticia.
I open my eyes and look up at the sky. Where’s Cheryl?
I look around and there’s Morticia, sitting across the fire from me now, listening to Star Wars guy. How long has she been there? Did she notice me drinking her drinks?
She meets my eye and waves. A few moments later she comes and sits in Cheryl’s seat.
“Are you okay? Do you want anything else to eat or drink?” she asks, her breath sweet, her eyes intense.
“Yeah,” I laugh. “We just ate, remember.” But maybe that was hours ago. I look up toward the house.
“Did you make a friend? Sarah’s daughter?”
“I dunno, kind of. Did you?” I nod toward Star Wars guy.
She laughs. “Kind of. We went to high school together.” She leans in and whispers, “I had a massive crush on him.”
She turns and looks across the fire towards him and he waves over at us both.
“You can go,” I say. “I’m good.”
“You sure? We can leave whenever you like.”
“I love you, Evie,” she whispers and kisses my cheek. When she stands, she almost falls back into the fire. I grab her hand and pull her toward me.
“I love you too, Morticia,” I say. “You can go sit with your crush.”
She laughs and wobbles slightly on her way back to him.
I imagine her as a teenager. Pale and dark-haired, crushing on that guy. I try to picture him young, too. He’s tanned and very tall. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would’ve been bullied. But you never know. I can’t imagine her having a crush on someone. Did she write in her diary about him? There would have been no internet, no Instagram to stalk him on. Did she look across the classroom in maths and imagine touching his arm, the way she’s touching it now? Did she imagine him looking at her in that way?
Cheryl comes back with two glasses and what appears to be lemonade.
“It’s not what it looks like,” she says. “I had to be sneaky.”
It tastes a bit like lemonade but more like…
“Vodka,” she whispers.
I screw my face up at the taste and she laughs.
“I think I made them a bit strong. Don’t do that with your face though or we’re done for.”
I laugh and take another sip. It warms my throat and what feels like my heart.
“What took you so long?” I ask, trying to sound casual. I figure she must have been gone for at least half an hour.
“Got stuck talking to my mum. Then I had to wait for people to leave the kitchen.”
I take a tiny sip of my drink and try to think of something interesting to say.
“Your mum’s gonna hook up with that guy,” Cheryl says, nodding toward the fire.
God, she might be right. They’re sitting close. The neckline of her dress plunges low.
Cheryl takes a drink and shivers.
“Don’t do that with your face,” I joke.
She nudges me with her knee and I feel like I might float away, like a balloon.
Morticia’s loud laughter brings me back down to my hard plastic crate. Star Wars guy has his arm around her and is laughing into her shoulder.
“Where’s his kid gone?” I ask.
“I dunno,” Cheryl says, standing. “But I can’t drink this. We need more lemonade.”
She holds out her free hand and I take it. Her hand is soft and warm and stronger than I imagined it would be.
I let go and follow her into the house.
She goes to the fridge and takes out a bottle of lemonade.
“Drink a bit more and I’ll top you up,” she says.
I take a big swallow and can’t help shuddering.
“Take it easy,” she laughs. She pours lemonade into our glasses and stirs each drink with a spoon from the dish rack, like she lives here.
I wonder what it’s like to be so confident. And beautiful. Those things are connected, I realise. They must be.
“Do you know where the toilet is?” I ask.
“Down that hall,” she says, pointing.
I go. I have to unbutton the whole jumpsuit and it’s cold but the cold is good. It wakes me up a bit. The toilet seat against my thighs is cold too. When I stand up, I notice that my legs are imprinted with crate lines. My face is hot, so I splash water on it, and drink straight from the tap. I look up into the mirror and see my plain pale face, my Ghostbuster costume.
Cheryl is waiting for me in the empty kitchen, leaning against the counter in her red jeans, drinking her vodka.
“You okay?” Cheryl hands me my drink.
My face is hot again. “Yeah.”
“Are you sure?” She touches my elbow, looks into my eyes.
I’m hot all over now, need to go take my clothes off and wash my face and drink more tap water. Get cold again.
I sip my drink. It tastes better, much more like lemonade. Much more like the drink I should be drinking.
“Do you feel it?” she asks.
I breathe out. “I feel drunk.”
She laughs, touches my arm again. “Me too. But no, I mean, it. Do you feel it?”
My heartbeat is everywhere in my body. Like I’m about to get my period. Like the kitchen is on fire. Like I’ve hiked all the way up to the top of Mount Keira.
I nod. Cheryl leans in and kisses me.
The moment is way too good to be true. And it doesn’t last. The back door smacks open and I hear my mother’s voice, my mother’s laugh, tinkling like dropped cutlery. She steps into the kitchen.
“Oh. Hello. I’m interrupting. I’m just going to grab a drink and I’ll get out of your way.”
Her voice, her face – she sees it. She knows what’s happening. She opens the freezer and takes out an ice tray. Cracks ice into a glass. Drops an ice cube, bends to pick it up, and tosses it into the sink. I want to smack her. Cheryl watches, has an amused look on her face. An annoyed look. She rolls her eyes. I look back at my mother in her long black dress. I wonder how many kitchen kisses she’s had. I picture her crushing on that guy.
“Mum,” I say.
“Yeah, baby girl?”
She puts the empty ice cube tray back in the freezer.
“Give me your phone, Mum.”
“What for?” she asks, but gets it out of her bag for me.
“I’m getting our Uber,” I say.
My voice is different. I’m the boss now. Was it the kiss or the Canadian Club? I’ve never booked an Uber, but I find the app on her phone. Our lift is on its way.
I lead her out the door, I don’t look back at Cheryl in her red jeans. Don’t even know her real name.
“I guess it’s getting late, huh?” Mum says.
“It’s almost two-thirty,” I tell her.
“Oh my God. Feels like eleven-forty-five.”
I laugh. It’s a game we play. Guess the time. “You just lost two hours and forty-five minutes of your life,” I say. “Sorry.”
“It was worth it,” she says.
The Uber arrives and we get in. Mum starts out chatty, asking the guy how his night was. Her face flits in and out of shadow as the car takes us back into town. She is smudged, but beautiful. Cheryl Blossom said I look like her. The driver doesn’t really want to talk to my mother. She looks across the backseat at me and pulls a grimacing face that makes me laugh. She reaches across the backseat and takes my hand, rubs her thumb across my knuckles a couple of times. We sit like that the whole way home.
By Emma Darragh
Emma Darragh lives and works in Wollongong, on Dharawal Country. Her writing has appeared in Cordite, Westerly, Meniscus and TEXT. Emma is soon to complete her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, where she is also a sessional academic.
Illustration by Guy Shield
First published in Ed#669. This edition was made possible by the generous support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.