Chapter 20

Sloppy. That’s all I can think. Gabriella has always been careful, clean. But Lorel is like a fish flopping in a boat. I feel vile, wanting to crawl into a cave and never see daylight.

            My mouth opens gratefully. Lorel staggers back, her arms restrained. A guy has taken hold of her and tugs her away from me. Perhaps Gabriella hasn’t seen us. I turn the corner, wiping away the saliva Lorel left, and flinch.

            Yes, she has seen us.

            Gabriella covers her own mouth, something I should’ve done a long time ago. She looks just as horrified as I am.

            “Gabriella, let me explain.” I reach out to grab her wrist, but it remains on her chest.

            “I knew it. She’s just a slut, Charlie. I don’t blame any of this on you.”

            “She practically attacked me,” I add.

            “When she wakes up tomorrow, she won’t remember. Not you, specifically. Ugh!” Gabriella spins around, pressing her head against the wall. “She should get fired for this!”

            “Too bad I’m not a part of the company. That’s a way to get rid of her.”

            “She’s definitely not coming to the wedding. I don’t think she was going to, anyway.”

            I step forward to her, lock her hand in mine. “Let’s go home.”

            Her cheeks, once red with anger, are now a soft pink. “This party sucks, anyway.”

            Gabriella rants on and on about how stupid and gross Lorel is while I drive. “She’s so petty, mean, arrogant, ignorant, ugh. She’s like every bad word in the dictionary.”

            “It just brings back Dahlia,” I say softly. And I recall the disgust I felt churning in my stomach, the vomit building up. The cherry medicine lip gloss residue thinly veiled my lips. The fear of what else she could do to me.

            “Oh, right.” I grip the steering wheel. Six more miles to go.

            And forever to erase the kisses.

            We indolently burst through the door and land on the couch, holding each other. The remorse of thinking Lorel could be a good friend, the remembrance of something that terrified me to the bone. Gabriella could never believe I went for Lorel, like I enticed her or something. And I’m glad, because Lorel will never be my type.

            I start kissing her neck, nuzzling in and let my hands explore. Smooth skin, cold on the outside, and then warm underneath her clothes. She removes my tie, unbuttons my shirt. Feel the fabric graze our legs as it falls to the floor. Gabriella’s on her back, her fingers ruffling in my hair, when she whispers, “Let’s wait.”

            It takes me a while to figure out what she means. I didn’t think it’d lead to that, honestly. Well, maybe I did.

            “Yeah, okay.” We sit up, take in the fact that I don’t have a shirt on and she’s down to her under-layers. She begins laughing, and the idea has become a little ridiculous. We’re still so young. And we’ll be married in three months. It’ll be more special to wait.

            “This doesn’t mean we can’t make out,” she says slyly. I pull her into our room and shut the door.

           

            “My mom says that one of my friends is coming over sometime,” Gabriella says as she hands me a cup of coffee.

            “Oh yeah? Which one?” I take a sip. Scalding hot. I set it aside to let it cool.

            “She wouldn’t tell me. I guess it’s a surprise.”

            “Do you know when?”

            “Still don’t know. I’m taking today off anyway because I don’t want to see Lorel. So I’ll be around.”

            “Hmm. Well, I’m off to work. The Jensen’s’ new daughter, Addie, will be posing on a table.”

            “Aw, she’s so cute. Take good pictures.” She kisses me and I view my sketchpad of ideas as I head down the stairs. 

            “Oh, sorry.” A man bumps into me and holds onto my arm. He looks to be about my age, and very familiar. I go down one more step before the letters form a name.

           Carson.

            Hurriedly I dash back upstairs and stand in the doorway. My girlfriend confirms that indeed, the man is Carson by exclaiming shockingly who he is. And the only way I know for sure that he is trouble because he’s kissing the same lips that kissed me seven minutes ago.

            I just stand from the edge, and I grasp the thin rail for support. I’m trying to make sense of this, but nothing will make sense. Why is Gabriella kissing him back? Why is he even here? Betrayal burns in my heart, blazing pieces of veins and memories, charring the protected box of happiness.

Noise, quiet and vibrating through my already ringing ears. I struggle to listen, to distinguish what anyone is saying.

            “I made a mistake, ending our relationship.”

            “But you had to. It wasn’t going to work.”

            “I’ve spent so many nights missing you. Wondering if you missed me too. Wishing I could hold you one more time. And now I’m hoping we could do that again, with this ring.” I see a glimpse of his knee bent, and I’m on the verge of running in to punch him.

            “I’m engaged, Carson. I love Charlie.”

            Yes! The fire dies down, and flickers diminishes. I just have to hear what else she will say.

            “That wimp that followed you around in elementary? I thought he moved.”

            “He moved back here, to be with me. He’s my best friend. We live together now.”

            “Why did we even go out, then? Oh, I’m going to end up with my best friend! Oh, how sweet and romantic the idea is!” Carson mocks.

            “I’m giving you a minute to get out of here. I don’t ever want to see you again.”

            He scoffs. “I thought you loved me.” It’s anger, not doubt, his voice. Like he discovered her cheating on him.

            There is no hesitation. “I never did.  I guess you were just a consolation prize.”

            I know now that he’s finally figured it out. “You know what? Forget all this. I’ll just sell this ring on EBay. It was cheap anyway.”

            “Nice to know that’s how you treat other girls too,” she counters.

            Footsteps. I duck behind an open door and wait for him to clomp down the stairs in his heavy, ugly dress shoes.

            I think I can skip the appointment. Addie won’t grow into a teenager tomorrow. I quietly sneak to my apartment; put my hand on the knob of the door Carson slammed. But I hear her crying. Why? She shouldn’t be upset about him.

            I have to leave her alone. Let her think. And then I can bring it up later.

 

            There’s take-out on the table. Gabriella always orders that when she feels distraught, and I don’t know if I can mention Carson. She beats me to it.

            “Carson came by today,” she says simply, pushing around lo mein noodles with her fork.

            Do I play the angle that I have no idea what happened? “Oh. Was that the friend your mom said about?”

            “I don’t get how he’s my friend, though. He’s a jerk.”

            “What’d he do?” I pretend like I’m slightly curious, but indifferent enough to feel like I know nothing.

            “We’re always honest with each other, Charlie, so please don’t get mad.”

            “Can’t possibly imagine why I’d get mad.”

            Gabriella shifts nervously. “Carson, uh, kissed me. And then proposed.”

            “Oh, dear God.”Stop mocking this, I think. “What did you say?”

            “No, of course.” She looks at me, puts down her fork. “Geez, why aren’t you getting all worked up? A guy I used to date just freakin’ proposed to me.”

            Right, gotta act like I’m troubled. But I can’t. I play dubious. “It just doesn’t seem like Carson. Being a romantic, proposing and all that.”

            “He said the ring was from EBay,” she adds.

            “That’s a jerk right there. My ring was custom made,” I say smugly.

            “It’s just so upsetting, though. Having him come here and want to be married to me. He should’ve done that when he left for college.”

            This crashes into me like a sled runs into a tree. That Gabriella would have considered marrying him if I wasn’t around. The world seems to have become a lot more serious now.

            “So you’re saying, if I hadn’t moved here, tried to reconnect with you, declare my love for you, and then eventually we decide to live together because of my cancer, you would’ve marriedhim.” Disgust curls into my tone.

            Gabriella immediately softens. “No, but it shouldn’t take living across the country to realize he loved me. You knew since you were four.”

            “Because there was no one else I needed more than you. He never needed you.” I wait, settle my thoughts. “Did you consider him?”

            Now she hesitates. Eight hours later, she hesitates. “After he left, I thought about it. Life without you, and I was married to him.”

            I can’t believe she would even visualize it.

            “I bet he would have more money support, since he went off to become a doctor. But then he wouldn’t be home all the time. And I’d probably be an accountant at a better company. And we’d have a house. But no kids. He always hated them. And we wouldn’t have a cat because he’s allergic. Or a dog either. Or even a little goldfish. So no, I don’t think I’d ever say yes to him.”

            “I wonder why he went to your mom.”

            “To find out where I live. She didn’t mention you, because apparently he got our number and went straight here. So maybe that’s why he just kissed me, because he didn’t know I was engaged. And you know, this ring isn’t exactly a normal engagement ring.” Gabriella breathes a tiny laugh.

            My head is still spinning on the notion that she thought about him. “Let’s just forget about it. He’s done and out.”

            “Agreed.”

 

            Today is the wedding. I wake up, alone in bed. Gabriella stayed with Kyla for the night. I take a moment to remember that in fourteen hours it’ll be five years of Crystal’s crash, her death. The sirens come blaring back and I try to shove them away, but even when I close my eyes I can still see the flashing red lights blinding me. And then the glass on the road, car pieces shattered. And screams. Silent screams in my heart, begging Crystal to come back, to wake up.

            I should get dressed.

            Attempting to see the positive side of today, I get out of bed, have breakfast first, then pull on my fancy clothes. The ceremony starts at four, but I want to take pictures of all the little stuff.

            The forest is blooming with wildflowers, lavender and yellow and pink, the trees floating with cherry blossoms. The path that winds up to where we’ll take our spots is covered with the flowers, small and lithe. I have convinced Gabriella that it can be a little ways off from our tree house, but still somewhat in sight. Soft white and pink lights wrap around the trunks, and small white candles curve along the sides. I ignore the people who have set this up and snap hundreds of shots, crouching down, stretching, whatever it takes.

            Mark interrupts me at about noon, tells me to eat lunch, but I resist.

            “Come on. As your best man, I have to take care of you. How about that ice cream place you always mention?” He slaps my back and pushes me to the car. I laugh, a little glad I can take a break. The batteries are wearing down.

            I place a long order of apple ice cream topped with coconut, marshmallows, and caramel syrup, while Mark sticks with plain old chocolate. Never has been the daring type.

            The bell chimes from the door, and I can’t believe who walks in. Kyla and Gabriella.

            Gabriella playfully covers her eyes and exclaims, “Oh no! It’s bad luck to see each other right now.”

            “I’m surprised you’re here,” I say. “Figured you’d go to Starbucks since that seems to be all you can drink now.” Gabriella always gets mocha every morning, and if she feels like she has to stay up to finish her numbers, grabs another one on the way home.

            “Ha, you’re funny. You better be gone when I get my ice cream. I don’t want to jinx it anymore than it already is.”

            “You heard her.” Mark gets up and throws away his cup. “We have to get back anyway.”

            I smile at Gabriella, then to Kyla. I just feel so happy right now, that I don’t care about any superstitions.

            In the area near the tree house there are tables for our guests to sit at. I guess food will be brought in by some catering business, Gabriella handled that part. All I know is the stuff I’ve seen so far and where the vows are exchanged. The tables are decorated with little silver and gold birds, the napkins and covers are of trees, branching out across the material. Fresh flowers someone picked rest in glazed green vases, and the chairs are concealed with the same design of the tables.

            My parents arrive elegantly and squeal over the fact I’m getting married and how they can’t wait to see what Gabriella’s dress looks like. I don’t know if they remember the other part of today, but it’s too sad to bring it up.

            More guests appear, such as Kira, Julie, some of Gabriella’s work friends and a few of some really close clients, our families, and the flower girl and ring bearer of Gabriella’s side runs around, chasing each other. The twins are asked to settle down by her aunt Millie.

            I scan the crowd for Mark, for some sort of comfort to calm me. That’s a lot of people filling the chairs. I know they’re close friends and all, but this whole wedding seems very big. Like the forest shrunk and I’ve shrunk and now these guys will stomp over me. Too many eyes watching. Mark finds me and I tell him I need a drink. Anything will do.

            Somewhere Gabriella is putting on her dress, fixing her makeup, giggling with her friends. Her parents are also probably with her. I just want her to be under this arc that two trees form, say my vows, and get married. The party can wait. But now all I want is to be with her.

            The sun is drowsy, setting off a glow throughout all the leaves, the branches, the plants on the floor. Everyone has taken their seats and anxiously wait for the ceremony to start. I meet the minister at the arc, shake hands, and breathe in. A radio plays the march and Mark and Kyla strides toward me, smiling. I see Julie in the front row too and she doesn’t seem to care that they’re walking together. I never pegged her for the jealous kind.

            Lettie, the flower girl, release petals of pink roses to the ground, twirling, and for a moment I want to stop everything and get the shot. Caleb seems confused but his sister guides him to Mark. He holds tight to his green pillow, and glares at the rings.

            Suddenly everyone gets to their feet and first I see Mr. Sanders, clutching her arm. The wind stops blowing, time stops spinning. Gabriella glides down the aisle in a white chiffon gown, ruched criss-cross bodice, the neckline jeweled with silver rhinestones, beaded tank straps, the train drifts behind her, catching the petals Lettie dropped. Her hair is swept in something of a bun, the white veil dangles over the crown of her head. The bird necklace from four years ago hangs on her collarbone, and the odd engagement ring is in full focus as her hand envelopes around her bouquet of brilliant green leaves and apple blossoms. No wonder people can’t stop staring, because she is the epitome of beauty. That she is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever seen. An angel, but human.

            She grins, her eyes locked on mine the whole time. Her father kisses her cheek and lets go. Gabriella sighs happily and takes my hand. Everyone sits back down and finally, finally, we can get going.

            “Before we start, Charlie and Gabriella would like to dedicate their marriage to Crystal Harris, Charlie’s sister, who has passed away five years ago on this day. Let’s take a moment of silence.” We all bow our heads, and a tear slips out. Crystal was the one who should’ve gotten married first. She’s the oldest. It wasn’t fair that I get to outlive her. Not at this age. But I feel her with me, feel her sitting next to Mom and smiling, proud I did get the girl of my dreams, the person I wanted most.

            “Alright. Gabriella, you may say your vows now.” Kyla hands her a sheet of paper, and she reads right off of it.

            “I’m marrying my best friend. There’s no one else I can imagine being with than you, Charlie. You make my day, make me laugh and hold me when I need you. We’ve known each other since birth, practically. And I think that’s what makes us work. That we started as really great friends and we grew from that. I love you, always, and I promise I will never leave you.” She slips my ring on and her mouth curves up.

            “Charlie, your turn.”

            Mark gets out my sheet, but I refuse. “Gabriella, I loved you since I was four. That’s now eighteen years. I love how you support me through photography, telling me which pictures are good and bad. You were always so honest. And when I was diagnosed with cancer, you never left my side. You moved in and that’s how it all began. The start of a new chapter. And today we get to add another one, much happier and carefree. I will never say goodbye to you. If something were to happen, you know it was never on my conscious.” I give her her ring and we stare at the minister, willing to speed up the process.

            “Repeat after me. I, Charlie, take Gabriella to be my lawfully wedded life.”

            I echo, quivering with excitement.

            “I, Gabriella, take Charlie to be my lawfully wedded husband.”

            She must have been in a state of deliriousness, because what she says next can’t be possible.

 “I, Gabriella, take Carson to be my lawfully wedded husband.”

The End

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