Author: David Barber

It was an old silver Zippo lighter. You had to hunt down little squirty tins of fluid for it. After his dad quit smoking, it had banged around a kitchen drawer until finally claimed by Max.

He inhaled the heady smell of naphtha.

“Hurry up, Max.”

He shoved forward his few remaining chips, the lighter, his cigarettes, two loose dollar bills, and his coaster. He tabled three jacks and there were hoots of anticipation until Pete turned over a flush.

“Where you going, Max?” asked Dave over the laughter.

“Outside for a smoke.”

“Not with my new lighter you’re not,” Pete called after him.

Dave stood too close in the dark. “Here’s your Zippo.”

“Driving over, passed a newt hive down the canyon. Don’t remember it before.”

“They call it a nest,” said Dave. He taught a class about the newcomers.

“And that new biotech plant in town.”

“What’s your problem with newts, Max? They’ve boosted the economy. All that new biogen, those cures.”

“Ship only arrived five years ago, now there are newts everywhere.”

Dave was surprised at Max, disappointed in him.

With everyone so busy it took a while to organise another poker night.

“Pete, our Pete, got arrested?”

Dave finished dealing. “Emptied his handgun into a newt.”

“Why’d he do it?” Max hadn’t touched his cards.

Something about his wife, said Dave. They sat in awkward silence.

Phil asked Jess if that was murder.

“Chandler-Wright Act,” Jess confirmed, though he did divorce law mainly. “Same as homicide.”

“I’d have shot her as well,” said Max finally.

Were they playing or what? Phil wanted to know.

Poker night folded after Jess relocated to San Diego. After his wife had left him. These days you didn’t ask. Max and Phil still came round sometimes.

Dave was doing his annoying teacher thing, explaining to Phil about newts, how they could control their own development.

“You’re right,” Max interrupted. “Getting so they look more human. Apart from the hair. That’s the tell. Can’t do hair.”

Dave wondered where Max heard all this stuff. Wondered who his new friends were.

“Yeh, that and being only four foot tall,” Phil hooted. He’d drunk more than usual.

“And they think women are wonderful,” said Max, coming back with more beer. “Fat and ugly must mean something different to them.”

“Still one thing we do best,” laughed Phil.

Max lowered his voice. “I heard the new ones…”

Phil’s grin faded. “Can’t have kids though.”

“Easy to get pregnant. Guess who’d love changing diapers?”

It was the way newts liked kids that had decided Dave to vote for them to stay.

“Christ, Max,” breathed Phil, appalled.

“They just want to be more like us,” said Dave, to no one in particular.

Phil stopped coming round after that. Have to make an effort these days, he said.

Max heard he was taking his wife on a cruise, a second honeymoon. “Bet she can’t believe her luck. Phil never lifted a finger at home.”

“Still, all those women playing the field now, eh?” Dave punched Max on the arm. He forgot Max had told him to stop doing that.

The day had gone completely. In the dark, Max was flicking his old Zippo, his face alight, then gone. “How’s it going to end?”

“Men can change.” Dave couldn’t help it. Liberals said things like that.

“Like newts you mean?”

Max seemed to be watching for something, and as Dave turned to look, there was a flash, then the thud of a detonation from the newt nest down the canyon.

Max breathed in the smell of his lighter, savouring it, like the past.