11 April, 2011

Life Lessons (Fiction Challenge)

cross-posted to Her Beauty And Her Terror - the week's challenge was a piece of fiction, any length, genre or form, which had to contain the words 'vessel', 'extinguish' and 'market'.

Emma wasn't even supposed to be in the wedding party. I'd chosen my sister as my one-and-only bridesmaid right when Jeff proposed, but by the time the big day rolled around she was only weeks away from giving birth, so Emma graciously stepped into the role.

Jeff had always mumbled about not liking Emma. I couldn't even figure out why: Emma was a kindhearted soul who never raised her voice and was forever worrying about other people and doing nice things for them. If it's possible for someone you never want to be romantic with, Emma was my soul mate. We never got invited somewhere on our own: invitations always read "To Emma and Alicia". And Jeff didn't like her and never said why. But whatever. I was the glowing bride-to-be and nothing was going to spoil my day.

Money was tight so the whole affair was going to be on a shoestring. Both the wedding and the reception would be in a hall and we were going to drive to the honeymoon, a week on the lake in a cedar cabin. No flight to Hawaii for me, but I'd reasoned it didn't matter, after all, I would be with the man of my dreams! My dress was a family heirloom and it fit me perfectly. The gorgeous blue shoes had been on sale at the market. I was going to look and feel like a princess, no matter how stretched our budget. This was going to be my day and I was determined to shine.

Before we could blink there was only a week to go. A week! The girls took me out for my hens' night; we partied all evening long from one club to the next and had a fantastic time. We must have taken a hundred photos of Emma and I; flirting with the bouncer, chatting to the bartender, dancing on the tables and hugging for almost every shot. I adored Emma. I still had the tiny handkerchief she gave me in Kindergarten, with the ducks on it. I'd thought it so lovely that she had just given it to me. Emma meant the world to me and I was just ecstatic that she would be beside me on my special day.

I can remember Jeff's outburst when he saw the photos. He was disgusted. He made some sloppy remark about Emma being a slut and then wondered aloud if we were lesbians. Honestly, I was surprised, I know he'd always expressed dislike of her, but this was a lot even for him. I guess I was just disappointed in the end. I put the photos sadly in an old shoebox at the back of a cupboard; I wasn't going to show him them again, since it just seemed like a recipe for an argument.

With just one day to go I was a bundle of nerves. We were going to play traditional and spend our last night apart, so Jeff packed an overnight bag and took himself off to his brother's house on Friday morning before work.

The evening rolled around and we had to attend the hall with the wedding celebrant, for our wedding rehearsal. I stood where I was directed, and Jeff and I exchanged lots of thrilled glances. Everyone else looked bored stiff. We were a strange-looking bunch in our casual clothing but the celebrant was lovely. We finished the practice and said our goodnights; I kissed my man goodnight and promised that I would turn up at the hall in the morning. Actually I was starved, so I was the first one into my car to leave.

It wasn't until I'd walked in the front door of our tiny apartment ten minutes later that I realised I'd left my phone behind at the hall. Cursing, I climbed back into the car. God, the traffic was horrendous. I sat there at the traffic lights and wished it would all just disappear. Grabbing my handbag I foraged around for mints; and then I spotted the lottery ticket for yesterday's draw. And I had today's newspaper in the back of the car with the results.

I always hated those people who dashed out of the driver's seat while stopped at the lights! But screw them all, I'm getting married tomorrow, I want to know if I just got rich! I laughed to myself and decided that now I'd said that, I deserved to get nothing at all. Slamming the lid of the boot back down I clutched the newspaper to my chest and ran back to the driver's door as the lights turned green and horns started blaring behind me.

Have you ever been driving, but wanted to do something else instead, and so you actually wish the lights would go red?

I started comparing numbers. I've been playing for years with the same six numbers.

Five matches! My brain wrestled with the mental arithmetic and my heart ran overtime. I probably just won a few hundred dollars. My hand grabbed for my phone to call Jeff and tell him the good news, but then I remembered where my phone was. I stopped for a moment to compose myself and breathe. I had better check that I hadn't made a mistake.

Four, eight, sixteen, thirty-one, twenty-four, forty-three.

My heart had been hammering but I swear it stopped dead right at that moment. I didn't have five matches. I had all six.

Sweat beaded on my forehead and I checked again. Then I checked again. Six numbers. Six numbers. What if the paper made a mistake? I could barely work my mouth open to breathe. Six numbers. I somehow found some coins, parked the car and ran to a payphone, dialling the lottery information line and pressing
each button to hear the result, and then the prize amounts. Four million dollars and there was only one winner, according to a robotic voice. I was holding that winning ticket in my wildly shaking hand. I replaced the phone handset and moved like a zombie whose very life-force had been extinguished.

A house! We could have a house! No more tiny rented apartment, we could have a grand huge mansion in the countryside! No more rusty old cars, we could have new convertibles! And a proper honeymoon! A grand holiday overseas on a tropical island. In a five star luxury resort being pampered, and oh, we can fly first class! Oh the money I could spend buying gifts for my wonderful Jeff. We would never have to worry about money again. Oh, I was just so excited, nothing could have made my wedding more perfect than to know I had the perfect man beside me, and we would have the happiest times together for the rest of our lives!

A sudden artificial calm came over me and I realised I had to tell Jeff this in person. It was too important for over the phone. I considered going direct to Jeff's brother's house, but then remembered my missing phone still at the hall. I don't know how I managed to start the car or move into the traffic but the next thing I remember is pulling into the carpark across the road from the hall.

I placed the ticket carefully into my handbag and walked quickly to the hall with the back door key in hand. I tried to compose myself and work out how I would announce it once I got to Jeff's brother's house. I imagined the looks his face. He would be thrilled! Before I reached the door, though, an open window high above my head got my attention. Emma's voice, saying, "It's not a good idea." I stopped. A quick calculation, and I realised it was the kitchen. Then Jeff's voice. "Yeah. It's a great idea."

I could tell them both at once! This was great, it would be such great excitement! Knowing how much he disliked her, he was probably horribly bored and irritated to be still in the hall with her right now. He'd be so glad that I had come back. I smoothed my dress and tried to stop my hands from shaking. But then I stopped and decided to listen for a while, hoping to hear whether he was being polite to Emma, at least.

Emma again, after a pause. "Jeff, you are CRAZY." And she seemed irritated. I wondered what was going on here. They'd stopped shouting so I couldn't hear what they said next, but I was intrigued and wanted to know whether they were actually being civil to each other. After a while I could hear her again. "That is fantastic." I waited more than five minutes, but I heard nothing else. I figured they'd moved out of the kitchen, so I rounded the corner to the stairs and went up, wondering what they'd been discussing. I clutched my precious handbag, full of my special ticket and my wonderful news, and I sought them out to share the excitement. My heart was running so fast it was hurting my chest and I grinned to myself wildly.

I picked my phone up from the seat near the door, shoving it into my handbag. From there I realised they must still be in the kitchen after all; murmurs were coming from that half-closed door. Crossing the carpet and pushing the door quietly open, I couldn't believe my eyes. My heart stopped for the second time that day. Emma was bent forwards over the stainless steel bench, underpants around her ankles, her dress bunched up high around her back, and Jeff was wildly thrusting into her from behind, his own trousers around his feet and both of them with eyes screwed shut in ecstasy, oblivious to the fact I stood in the doorway.

What made me freeze right there on the spot? I don't know. I do remember watching in a dream, as Jeff's bare backside moved while he hammered into her, and I remember her voice rising above the mumbles, turning into clear encouragement for Jeff to continue. I'm thankful I don't remember her words, because I'm sure they'd haunt me more than that image of the two of them, which seared itself into my brain.

At some point I must have backed away. The lottery news was long forgotten. I had to go back to the car; I had to call someone, I had to do something, I had to cancel the wedding, oh god what do I do? Stumbling down the back stairs, I could hear her screaming now. And as I walked under the kitchen window I heard Jeff and the three words I knew oh-so-well from our own bedroom. YES, BABY, YES at the top of his voice, that phrase always marked his climax, and here he was, using it with her.

There was vomit in front of me in the grass, just inches from my face where I was bent over. I think it must have been mine. I've no idea how I wasn't run over as I made my way back to the car. But there was a water bottle there and I washed out my mouth, replacing the lid to the vessel in a daze. I clutched the phone and wondered what to do next. And the next thing I remembered was closing the door of our apartment behind me at 5am, shoving the last of my belongings into the car and starting the engine.

I didn't bother to call a soul. My phone rang all morning with people looking for me. Text messages began appearing, asking why I wasn't picking up the phone. As the day wore on they realised that I still hadn't made it to Emma's place to get dressed, and my hairdressing appointment must be lasting so long that I'd soon be late for my own wedding. Messages changed from alarm to realisation, once they found my ransacked apartment and all my things gone.

And I still didn't want to speak to anyone. I didn't cancel a thing. All that money wasted and I couldn't care less. I looked at my lottery ticket and just let all the wedding plans fall apart as the hours ticked by.

Should I have told everyone why I didn't show up? Should I have shamed the two of them in public? I had thought about how that would pan out. I pictured the guests waiting for me to walk the aisle. I imagined their horrified faces as I announced their affair, recounted what I had witnessed, and proclaimed their duplicity. I knew the ridicule and hatred Emma and Jeff would feel from everyone in that hall. But then I realised the feelings the guests would direct at me. Pity. Pure, disgusting and filthy pity, gained only because those two revolting people treated me this way. And so I stared at the phone, and finally at midnight, with everything long over, I sent a text message to my mother.

"I'm sorry Mum, and I can't talk about it just now. I just couldn't marry him. There's someone else."

I switched off the phone. Let them think it's me who was seeing someone else. I didn't care.

I was collecting four million dollars on Monday, and Jeff wasn't getting a cent.