Keys in hand, Darla climbed into the rust-bearing ‘58 Fairlane she inherited from Em when he got his Impala. The engine spat to a start as she fluttered with nerves. She reversed down the thinly-graveled drive and into the street. McLellan’s Beer and Spirits was no more than a couple miles away from their home on Wilmer Lane, a fact for which Em was particularly thankful. This would be Darla’s first visit in years. Her husband relied on his wife for a great many things, but he insisted on making his own voyages to the local booze store. One evening weeks ago, Darla had begged an exceptionally inebriated Em to let her go to McLellan’s for him. He had polished off a bottle of his preferred Old Faithful Kentucky Bourbon a bit earlier in the evening than usual and had concluded that another trip to McLellan’s was in order. His feet seemed to have different agendas during his trek to the driveway. Darting out after him, screen door rattling behind her, Darla grabbed his arm as he fumbled his key ring in his cigarette-stained fingers.

“Em, why don’t you come back inside and rest?”

“Oh lord, here’s the firing squad. I’m fine! McLellan’s closes in 15 minutes,” Em stammered pulling his arm from Darla’s grip.

“Ain’t you had enough tonight? Let’s just go inside and watch ‘The Waltons’ with Frankie. You can go tomorrow.”

Em stared briefly at his wife, the gray-blue of his eyes watery and tired. “I hate that show,” he declared as he finally secured the Impala’s key and slung the door open. Darla sighed with frustration.

“Jesus. If you’re so dead-set on getting more booze, then at least let me go for you. You’re liable to kill yourself on the way!” Darla reasoned, her voice agitated with panic.

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Em declared coldly, eyes pointed harshly at his wife. He fell into the seat, the door thudding behind him. The quiet of their street ruptured with the Impala’s exit, leaving Darla alone in the dust of tossed gravel.

Today she was getting her chance to visit Em’s daily post-work stop. Weaving through the intersecting streets of Mason Valley, North Carolina, Darla clutched the steering wheel, knuckles white with tension. Shadows from the wind-beaten branches overhead shifted along the pavement. She nodded politely at a heavy-set man mowing his lawn in a shirt too small and plaid shorts much too short. He offered a brief wave, the motion exposing his gut from beneath the sweat-drenched shirt. The day was alive and blue, a smattering of crisp white clouds painted on. It did not go unnoticed to Darla, though her hesitation at the plan before her made admiration difficult.

Cresting the hill in front of City Hall, McLellan’s Beer and Spirits appeared in view, the faded and weathered brick worn like a badge of honor. Bert McLellan opened the store as a young man just after the end of Prohibition. Over four decades later—two of which saw her husband as a valued patron—the business was thriving and old Bert was still behind the counter. Darla paid mind to the dip in the parking lot entrance, easing the Fairlane over it, careful not to scrape the bumper. The sound of metal on pavement alerted her of her failure. The tires bumped over cracked asphalt, and Darla jolted as the car came to a sudden stop, her anxious foot heavy on the brake. The day was still young so the small parking lot was barren, save for Bert’s ancient Ford pick-up and the glimmer of a dandelion yellow Nova.

Darla briskly walked the length of the glass-front building, head down in fear of a fellow member of her congregation passing by thinking she had taken an interest in Em’s hobbies. That was not exactly the case, and she didn’t need to give Maggie any ammo for her gossip arsenal. As she reached the door, a young man arms wrapped around a large brown bag exited the store, nearly knocking Darla over. “Excuse me, ma’am. My apologies,” he said in a sincere but hurried tone. Darla shared a timid smile thinking that maybe some drunks weren’t like Em.

Once inside, amidst shelves of bottles illuminated beneath the sick fluorescent glow, a boisterous yet strained voice greeted her. “Darla Jo Morris! What a treat for these old eyes!”

“Good afternoon, Bert,” she replied taken back a bit by his gusto. Bert shot a glance at his watch.

“Not quite yet, but good morning,” he said jovially. “Pardon my François, but what the hell are you doing here? I can’t recall the last time you came by, but that could just be my old fart brain.”

Darla smirked. “It’s been a while. I don’t have much use for your inventory, I’m afraid. No offense.”

“None taken, sweetheart,” Bert said with a chuckle. “That again begs the question: what the hell are you doing here? Tell me it’s my good looks,” his laugh shifting into a smoker’s cough.

“Unfortunately, no, though always a pleasure to see a familiar face. I was out and about. Figured I’d save Em a trip and swing by for his usual.”

“Old Faithful. Appropriate name, it would seem. Always have one waiting on Em behind the counter here.”

“Oh, I am well aware,” Darla said with soft disappointment. Bert adopted a pained look, his jowls lowering as he ran a hand through the thin gray hair atop his head.

“You know, I’ve tried to talk to him before about how much he…” his voice trailed a bit as his brow furrowed. “He said it’s just something he needs to unwind, relieve some of the wear and tear of the day. I suppose there’s worse things a man can do. Ain’t hurting no one,” he murmured, punctuating his opinion with an optimistic shrug. Darla vacantly acknowledged his statement as she struggled to suppress the anger now welling at his naiveté.

“That’s about the attitude I would expect from the man paying his bills with the bad habits of Em and God knows how many other fools stumbling around this town.” Darla felt the words slip out of her before she could halt their delivery. A stunned look washed over Bert’s face as he searched for his part in the unexpected conversation in which he found himself. Darla’s jab flustered the old man. He squared his shoulders and bent forward over the counter.

“Now, wait a minute here, little lady. I’ve ran this store for as long as you’ve walked this Earth. I ain’t going to get blamed for all the drunks that crawl in here. If you’re looking for someone to blame for Em’s drinking, then considering what you are currently buying, I suggest you start at home. Don’t blame the chef for a man’s appetite.” Bert’s words stung Darla in their almost rehearsed honesty. She fought the tears pooling in her eyes, forming not out of anger, but because she knew Bert’s sentiment, harsh though it was, to be true. Bert guiltily noticed the toll his words had taken. “Look, I—“

“How much do I owe you?” Darla asked pointedly, careful to not let her voice shake.

“$3.67,” Bert replied softly. Darla pulled the money from her frayed purse, grabbed the paper bag, and turned toward the door. “Listen, Darla, I didn’t—” Bert called to her back.

“Have a nice day, Bert,” she answered, never breaking stride.


A heavy foot on the gas led Darla home. Bert’s words hung in her head, partially in anger, but mostly in quiet contemplation. She had spent years trying in some way to distance herself from Em’s drinking, a sad exercise in futility. Every part of her life was very much ingrained in her husband’s weakness, but she never considered herself to be at fault for it. Complicit, certainly, but not to be blamed. Was Em filling some void in his life with drinking? Did it stem from some underlying unhappiness with her and Frankie? She had never given much thought to the why of it all. Em just drank. It was unfortunately a part of his DNA, it seemed, though she knew no other drunks in his family. The questions lingered on her mind as she pulled back into the driveway.

Darla noticed Maggie investigating her return from a living room vantage. She nestled her purchase into her handbag, safe from her neighbor’s daytime sleuthing. Exiting the car, she shot a quick look and wave Maggie’s way, causing her to quickly close the curtain. Darla grinned slyly. Maggie didn’t seem to realize that the whole street was well aware they were always under her scrutiny.

The front door stuck as Darla attempted to enter, an overlooked project of Em’s. She shouldered it open and removed the glass pint from her purse, crinkling the brown paper bag into a ball as she unsheathed the all-too-familiar bottle of bourbon. Golden brown liquid sloshed as she inspected the pint, passing it hand to hand. The cap cracked with a pop as she opened it and placed the mouth of the bottle to her nose. Familiar though the scent was, her eyes squinted feebly at the bourbon’s jarring strength. She sat the bottle down and considered her next move as doubt began to cloud her confidence.

Maggie’s advice of fire with fire had seemed ill-fitting to Darla’s situation, and in the context she meant it, maybe that was true. However, Darla had molded Maggie’s words into a different plan of action. When Em dragged in the door this evening, he would get a glimpse from the other side. Darla’s plan was to, simply put, plant herself on the couch, Old Faithful in hand, and as the afternoon haze faded into the glow of the evening twilight, drink. And drink. And drink some more. Frankie would be at Albert’s tonight, so any fear of him seeing his mother in a less-than-admirable state wouldn’t be realized. Em would come home to Darla remade in his image. He could pillage the pantry for his own dinner because Darla was taking the night off to play the role of lazy, useless drunk. She would be Em’s understudy. In doing this, she hoped—well, she was unsure what response she would illicit from her husband. At the very least, reflection was all she desired from him. Seeing her stoop to such an admittedly absurd scheme may show him the effect his drinking took on her. Em wasn’t a cruel man. Surely he could find some compassion for Darla in her potentially misguided plea. Reflection. That was the goal. Darla ceased her nervous pacing, snatched the bottle from the table and turned it back.


The shrill bang of the screen door made Darla jerk her head from its place on the kitchen table. A dull throb strong-armed her brain as she gathered her wits and squinted her eyes vaguely at the intrusive sunlight. Through blurred vision, she could make out 5:26 on the wall clock, her ears ringing with each tick of its unrelenting hands. Standing was more difficult than anticipated. Her back ached and her knees wobbled with from the persistent effects of the bourbon. Darla accepted defeat and reclaimed her place at the table. Nausea crept into her gut, intensifying as the kitchen door swung open. Em took a drag from his cigarette, exhaling a puff of smoke Darla’s way. Raising an eyebrow, he studied his wife’s dazed expression. She met his gaze and sighed. An effort to speak failed upon realizing how dry her mouth was, her throat only offering a dry rasp. Em’s confusion fell upon the bottle of Old Faithful to Darla’s right. “Bert said you came by,” he declared.

“Yeah, a bit ago,” Darla croaked. It was all she could manage. The room around them was a carousel of unwanted movement.

“Try yesterday.” Darla’s eyes widened at Em’s words and darted back to the clock. She then noticed the sunlight through the window was distinctly of the morning. Her heart sank with awareness as she looked up at Em.

“You didn’t come home last night.”

“Got hung up late at George’s, crashed there. Doesn’t seem you noticed,” he said with a belittling grin as he jostled the remaining liquid in the bottle playfully. Darla focused her eyes on the bourbon and saw that she had barely gotten to the label before she blacked out. “You ain’t found your calling, that’s for sure.” Darla shrugged in response, a meek but scorching burp escaping in the process. “Care to explain what the hell this is about?” Em asked. Darla struggled to explain.

“I just thought…I don’t know. Maybe you should see how—“

“How ridiculous you are?” Em interjected with a laugh. “This look is not very becoming of you.” His laughter grew. Darla’s face reddened out of embarrassment and anger at how much joy he was taking in her misfortune.

“I wanted you to come home to a lousy drunk for once,” she retorted through clenched teeth. The same lack of control she found at Bert’s reared its head, and the words again moved too swiftly to stop. Em’s laugh faded as he adopted a sneer beneath narrowed eyes. He said nothing for a moment as a chaotic silence hung in the air. Darla tried to read his face. The lines deepened under the weight of the scowl, but she noticed his blue eyes wavering. She felt a hint of shame may be slipping in. It was this notion—or possibly the bourbon still swimming in her head—that caused that poisonous hope to fill her veins. “Look…Em—“ A tightened fist met the table and Darla nearly jumped out of her chair. Em lowered his face close to hers.

“I do not need anyone’s help.” Each word was overly enunciated and carried spiteful weight with it. “Certainly not the help of a damn housewife, with all her mighty knowledge of linens and cobbler recipes.” Darla felt her weary eyes well up as Em flicked his cigarette into the sink and dragged his feet out of the kitchen. The door swung shut behind him, and Darla exhaustedly put her head down as each sob bled into heavier sobs. She felt no worth. She was just a silly woman whose blackberry cobbler was the first thing gone at her church’s Easter potluck.

Suddenly, the door reopened with a flash, putting the hinges to the test. Em flew back in the room. Darla made a shocked attempt at speaking. “Em, please can we—“ The words had no more than left her lips before Em had the Old Faithful bottle in hand. Head back, the bottom of the pint was the compass to the ceiling’s North Star. The bourbon quickly disappeared into his gullet, an errant stream running down his neck. He winced as he pulled the bottle away, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his dingy flannel shirt. Darla watched, stunned at this display of…whatever this was. Desperation. Power. Dominance. All she knew was it frightened her. Em sat the bottle back down with a hollow thud, the pint somehow managing to stay intact. He shot a quick eye at his bewildered wife before again making his exit. This time he stormed out the front door, failing to even close it behind him. Darla heard an encore of shrieking rubber on the pavement. She didn’t see Em again for five days.


“Mom? Wake up.” Frankie said just above a whisper as he shook Darla gently. She slowly peeled her eyes open. Her son’s face was a distorted blur. After Em left, she had staggered on flimsy legs to the once cream-colored couch, now soured from years of Em’s smoking. It seemed she had lost a battle with her exhaustion. Darla propped herself up on her elbow. “What time is it?” she groaned, discovering the stale taste of her mouth.

“About 7:00. Just got home from Albert’s. Figured I’d swing by before school.” Darla nodded as she sat up, lowering her head into her hands and caressing her temples. “Guessing Dad didn’t come home last night?” Frankie asked, almost rhetorically.

“Something like that.”

“Did you sleep on the couch?” Frankie asked puzzled. Darla sighed.

“No. I slept at the kitchen table actually.” Her son raised a confused eyebrow. Darla couldn’t help but chuckle. “It’s a long story. I need to get you something to eat,” she said as she stood, steadying herself by grabbing Frankie’s arm.

“I already ate. Made you a plate, too. Saw the empty bottle in the kitchen, you on the couch, just figured you had a rough night. I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” The shy sincerity in her son’s voice warmed her. She eased the kitchen door open to see a single plate of scrambled eggs and a nearly black piece of toast. A cup of coffee accompanied it. Her hunger made itself known upon seeing the food. Sitting down, she took a huge bite of undercooked eggs and washed it down with a sip of watered-down coffee. Frankie stared from across the table, eyes eager for approval. She reciprocated with a smirk and nod of her head, a frazzled curl falling into her eyes. A blackbird landed on the window pane, unnoticed in the moment of peace.


For all installments of “Fire with Fire,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1