In the windless sky a pink cloud floats over the chameleon in the sycamore tree. A giant green chameleon, its back arched over the tree’s crown, its triangular head reaching down for a tongue-flick at its prey, spiny tail counter-balancing down the leafy branches. Strange what you see when you sit in a chair and look out of a window long enough. The pink cloud is real though, for now at least. Annie reads the text from her lover for the tenth time.
**Critical we stop seeing each other**
Annie hears her husband leave his bedroom, walk along the landing into the bathroom, bolt the door. She hears her son Fin coughing in his attic bedroom above. Hayfever, he’ll tell her. More likely the effect of the weed he smokes leaning out of his bedroom window. They see each other at night when she wafts outside for a cigarette. Fin looks down and sees his mum take wine and a lighter around the back. Puffs of different flavoured smoke clouding into the night sky. Indoors, in their mother/son lives, they make believe they don’t smoke. They homogenize with their non-smoking husband/father.
Annie’s lover has confessed to his wife. She moved her clothes into a spare bedroom, then threatened to leave him, but Annie’s husband didn’t need to be told. He said he could smell it weeks ago. The affair. But that doesn’t matter. They’re history anyway. Annie and her lover had made plans to go house-hunting, make a weekend of it. They were going to start a new life together. Annie’s lover’s text goes on,
**I can’t do this to her. She’s been good to me**
Annie’s son Fin is taking a critical exam today. University or not. Pivotal. He hasn’t done any revision. Piles of untidy, scribbled notes are on the floor. The revision timetable Annie put together, ignored. Fin’s teachers predict the worst. She’s heard him strumming his guitar, listening to music, he’s watching porn on his phone probably. Anything except learn. But the three of them exist under the same roof, continuing with this charade. They continue to talk about university options. That’s what we do in this house, thinks Annie, clothe ourselves in background colours.
Annie’s lover was her first since being married, first in over twenty years, first time she’d had sex in five. They met at night-school, local college, Organic Gardening. An after-class drink in a pub. Sandwiches together in town during their lunch-hours. A furtive weekend away under the pretext of a class field trip. Cozy rented cottage, country inn, strolling hand in hand around a stately home. Indistinguishable from other couples in the tearoom. On her phone, she has a single photograph of them together. They asked a gardener to take it in the grounds of the stately home. They spoke to him about azaleas. He told them how azaleas need perfect conditions to survive. Annie and her lover have exchanged hundreds of online messages, texts, emails. An electronic courtship. Virtual love. Grown organically, from nothing, no noxious chemicals.
Annie dresses and goes downstairs, makes coffee, sets the breakfast table for two. Her husband hasn’t eaten breakfast since the silence began. He doesn’t eat any meal with her. He walks through the kitchen to the utility room, polishes his office shoes. The kitchen is silent apart from the hiss of the kettle and thrum of the fridge. She hears Fin bolt the bathroom door, the buzz of the electric shower.
Annie takes her coffee back to her single bedroom. She tells people she’s in between jobs. Having a break. That’s what people say when they don’t want a fuss. The grass needs mowing. Perhaps she’ll do it after the dew has risen. There’s a deer in the garden eating the heads off her husband’s roses. Annie would normally have taken a photo of the deer and texted it to her lover. Annie’s left hand trembles in the morning. Her GP told her there’s nothing to worry about.
“Drink decaf,” he said.
This morning her hand trembles more than usual. She feels breathless, as though someone is holding her tightly around the chest. She paces up and down her room. She starts a text back to her lover.
**I’m destroyed**, but doesn’t send.
Nothing is said at the breakfast table. Fin eats his cereal and plays a game on his phone. She smears her toast with low-fat spread and watches it melt. Before he leaves for work her husband goes through his pockets, finds lunch money for their teenager. He asks Fin if he’s got everything for his exam. Pen, calculator, notes to revise in his breaks. Fin says yes. They all know he hasn’t made any notes. That’s how it’s always been, Annie thinks, we camouflage facts, say things that fit.
Fin is dressed to blend in; jeans, odd socks, Bob Marley t-shirt, filthy trainers. She finds her car keys to give him a lift.
“Okay?” she asks Fin.
“Is it okay to sit an exam in filthy trainers?”
“He’s typical,” people have assured her, “He’s no different.”
Last week, in the car, on the way home from school, Annie told her son about things.
“Things aren’t great,” she said.
“Okay,” he said.
“We haven’t been getting on for some time.”
“You must’ve noticed.”
“That’s how things are sometimes,” she said.
When they’re in the car together, Annie and Fin, they listen to music. Which station depends which one of them turns on the radio first. They dislike each other’s choice. This morning neither of them turn on the radio.
“Given any more thought to uni?” she asks.
She doesn’t want to think about what happens next either. She’d rather nothing has changed or will change. She wants to think about her lover and what she can do to keep them together. Annie thinks about her lover in bed with her, on their weekend away, after sex when he’d said, “I feel sad.”
She’d quizzed him on why.
“I don’t know. I wish I did,” he said
“You must know something,” she’d asked, over and over.
“I wish I hadn’t told you.”
As Annie and Fin drive through the lanes, a buzzard flies in front of them, flies low, barely high enough for them to pass beneath. There’s a baby rabbit in its talons, its back legs thrusting into thin air. She can hear it squealing.
“Did you see that?” Annie asks.
“The buzzard with a baby rabbit. I swear I could hear it crying.”
“No, you’re seeing things.”
She and Fin stay silent until she pulls up outside school. Annie sends a text to her lover.
**Critical we don’t**
Fin gets out. “Do your best, darling, okay,” she says.
“Will do,” he says, but Annie’s weeping, not listening. She’s not seeing things.
Steven John’s writing has appeared in Burningword, Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, EllipsisZine, Storgy and Best Microfiction 2019, amongst others. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record seven times and been nominated for a BIFFY award and the Pushcart Prize. Steven lives in The Cotswolds, England, and is Fiction and Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review. Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite