The ice cubes tumbled through the pink liquid in my glass like the tipsy couple on the dance floor, awkward and ever moving. I waited for the groom’s clumsy steps to jettison his bride into a table of assorted cheeses — it was a viral video waiting to happen — but it never did.
Derik was watching from the seat beside me. He lifted my left hand like he wanted to kiss it, but pretended to tug off my engagement ring instead.
“If our reception’s anything like this, I swear, I’ll file for a divorce before the honeymoon,” he said.
I ripped my fingers away to adjust the bangs that crept across my eyes, eclipsing my view of him. “I don’t know…” I said in a sing-song voice. “There are some good things.”
He raised his crescent eyebrows, waiting for an elaboration, so I threw out the first thing that entered my mind. “Like the… cake topper. The cake topper’s nice.”
Both of our gazes searched for the decoration in question (which I hadn’t actually seen until then). The miniature groom held the bride in his arms like he was ready to carry her over the threshold, with one hand on her back and the other on her ass. She held on by wrapping an arm around his neck, her leg popped high in the air. Her skintight dress climbed up her thigh, revealing her lacy, baby blue garter that matched her groom’s vest.
“You just think the little guy is hot,” Derik said. He stood behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist, and rested his head on my bare shoulder. “Bet you’d try to scrape off his paint tuxedo to see what’s underneath.”
“Bet it’s bigger than yours.”
His fingers crept beneath my arms, tickling the delicate skin. “Like you’d know, you little prude.”
“Hey, I’ll push back the wedding,” I said, squirming. “Make you wait even longer.”
His lips shivered, resisting a smile. He knew the woman who dreamt about marriage in the womb would never postpone her wedding date. A collage in my closet held cutouts of dresses, color swatches, and flower samples that I tore out of magazines dated all the way back to ‘02.
My friends never understood my obsession with weddings. They all came from divorced families, and compared walking down the aisle to descending the ladder to hell. Whenever I flashed my ring, they tossed questions at me that they couldn’t understand the answers to: Why did I need some silly piece of paper? Why would I waste so much money on one day? And why the hell would I wait until marriage to “finally get plowed?”
“Because I love Derik,” was always the answer, albeit one that they hated. They claimed that love always ended, and that even my perfect parents would’ve split if they lived long enough.
Of course, I never told them about the time I walked in on my pop thrusting his hips against a hooker half my current age, or that my darling mother stuck a shotgun in her mouth the following day.
Never told them he played copycat and shot himself too, or that I tried finish myself off with another shell, but the damn gun jammed. None of their business, anyway.
When anyone asked, I crafted a lie about a drunk driver smashing into my parents while taking their daily stroll around the block, holding hands and exchanging kisses at stoplights. A true tragedy.
“Derik! Derik, honey,” a cheery voice called over my busy thoughts and the drunken singing of the crowd. Thriller burst from the DJ’s speakers, so partygoers flooded the multicolored dance floor, leaving the bar area wide open.
The curvy woman, Cheryl, sauntered over, her black thong visible through her sheer pink dress. “Derik, are you attending my party next week?” She pecked his cheek, and one of her spaghetti straps fell down her shoulder.
I reached over to fix it for her, exchanging a smile that was a little too large, and she stepped back. “I don’t think he knew about any party,” I said. “At least, he didn’t tell me.”
“Well, I’d love for you to tag along.” She took a hard sip from the straw in her drink. “But we don’t really have enough room for everybody’s plus ones.”
Cheryl dated Derik months before I did. Slept with him. Cheated on him. That’s when he decided he wanted someone more like me. Wild, animalistic sex had nothing over our PG-rated movie nights. At least, that’s what he claimed. No one really believed him until he proved it by staying with me for three years.
But Cheryl missed him, and she had no problem reminding him of how great their sex life used to be by squeezing his thighs and sucking on lollipops every chance she had.
“Remember the suit I bought you? You should’ve worn it,” she said, smoothing down his tie. “Unless it’s still stained from that night.”
“I doubt it fits,” he said. He never grinned when she got suggestive, never threw back a flirty comment, never allowed his gaze to slither down into her cleavage.
“Oh, you haven’t gotten any bigger. Sure you still have those abs.”
“Abscess, you mean? The doctor sliced it off.”
I wandered away as she giggled at the lame joke, unable to listen to her pathetic pick-up lines. I trusted Derik, so she could push him down and strip him if she wanted. Nothing would come of it.
Plus, she had Wiccan in her blood, and I didn’t need another spell cast on me. She had already attempted to send roaches into my floorboards, tamper with my phone, and hypnotize me. If her ‘magic’ allowed her to kill, she’d have no trouble conjuring up a rope around my throat.
“Time to step off the dance floor and over to the dessert table,” the DJ announced after the music faded away. “Yes, you too, Aunt Jean. Got to gain back those calories you just moonwalked off.”
I followed the migration of guests, who were all ready to snap more photos of the newlywed couple, but I gave up my role of pretend photographer. I didn’t even know anyone at the party, aside from my fiancé and the witch.
The groom was Derik’s old college roommate, whom he never received a text from until the wedding invitation arrived. He read it over three times before he recognized the name. He wanted to decline, but I convinced him it would be a good opportunity to see how we should handle our big day.
The newlyweds cut the first slice of cake as I circled the dessert table. When I looked up at the elevated cake topper, I found myself reaching for it. A little kid bumped into me as I stretched, and my finger grazed the icing, leaving a dent. “Watch it,” I whispered, and saw the child’s face squirm into a scowl.
No one noticed the interaction, too focused on the couple smushing icing onto each other’s faces. My teeth jutted into my bottom lip, trying to trigger my common sense, but instead I leaned up on my toes and swiped the decoration, magnetized to it.
It sparkled an unreal series of colors, and I searched for the source of the lights. No camera flashes hit it, no unusual lamps shone from the walls. The only fixture facing it was Cheryl. Her hand still held a drink, but one of her fingers pointed in my direction. The tip of it gleamed with the same dreamlike colors.
I reached back up to put the decoration in its rightful place, my chest fluttering with rage. Cheryl smirked, the smile of a victor showing off her well-deserved prize. She led Derik to the empty dance floor, brushed her chest against his, and moved his hands onto her lower back.
Scraping my teeth against each other, I slid the decoration into my purse.
I could handle whatever the witch threw at me. If she wanted to challenge me, I’d accept it with the dignity she wished she had. My love could conquer anything, and I’d prove it to her. So would Derik.
Seconds later, his fingers left hers and curled around mine. “I think we’re good to go,” he said.
I felt my purse shake as we gave our goodbyes.
After returning to my darkened apartment, I pushed back the box of beer in my fridge, rearranged a pile of Tupperware, and tossed out a few expired items. “You stole way too much cake,” I said. “I don’t know how we’ll fit it all in here.”
“Would you rather have a deserted, dessert-less kitchen?” Derik asked, balancing three paper plates on one arm. “I mean, if you listened to me and went back to my place for the night, we could’ve easily fit it all in.”
“I know what you want to fit in, and it’s not happening.”
He curled his lips down into a frown, but then pulled me in by the waist. “Well, at least I got to spend the day with you. But I promise, our wedding will have way better booze. And I bet we’ll dance better than them, too.”
Our mouths met and his tongue peaked through my lips. Mine swirled against his, allowing me to taste his sweet breath. “I love you,” he said after we parted. His hand folded against my cheek, his soft thumb skimming my skin.
“I love you, too.”
Once he left, I tossed my pocketbook onto the kitchen table and pulled out my wedding collage. I scribbled a few notes down about what not to do, like invite Cheryl, or play the same old party songs over and over again. I wondered if we had enough time to switch our DJ to a band, but I drifted off before I could figure out the scheduling.
An alarm clock sat on my nightstand, the only thing that ever managed to wake me up. Thunder never stirred me, and the urge to pee never struck until morning. Without the clock, I’d remain asleep until death dragged me away. But around midnight that night, my head started to sting. My mind burned, like it needed to be shaded by shadows, and sweat popped from my pores.
“Who was it this time? Go on. Uh-huh. Tell me which slut. I know she’s a slut. No one else would deal with you.”
The screams mingled in with my dreams. Cheryl squatted in the back of my mind, an infestation in my otherwise optimistic thoughts. But even when she tried to kiss Derik last New Year’s Eve, I never considered the possibility of him cheating. I never had nightmares about his lips sneaking toward hers.
“Oh, really? I’m pretty damn sure you deal with my shit. You do.”
“I do? Fuck you.”
I moved from bed once I realized the words weren’t part of a dream, but a fragment of reality. I had fallen asleep with the collage on my chest, but I hopped up so quickly that it tumbled to the ground. Slips of paper I had jammed inside of it fluttered out, leaving a colorful mess on my wooden floor.
A thump vibrated through the wall that connected my bedroom to the kitchen. A scream followed. Then a light smash and another thump.
“You son of a… mother… that hurt.”
I thought about grabbing a bat or frying pan like women did in the movies when they needed a makeshift weapon, but I didn’t own either object. I could grab a belt to strangle someone with, but I wouldn’t have the courage. Instead, I made the sign of the cross, and jogged into the adjoining room.
A lumpy wedding dress sat on the floor, spotted with blood. At first, I thought it was the one from my closet. It took a few seconds to realize that the neckline differed from mine, and a few more to realize that a woman was inside of it. Black circled her puffy eyes, but bright blue shone from the center of them, almost the same shade as her garter.
“I’ll get… Band-Aids?” I mumbled, my head humming with questions. “Will that be enough? Maybe some ointment?”
I kneeled to her level, pushing a clump of hair out of her face. Her blonde bangs looked like they were dyed dark red or purple or even black from the blood.
“Don’t bother. It’ll heal.”
“He does that. Happens.”
My eyebrows pushed themselves together.
“Still in that honeymoon phase, huh?” someone asked. This time, the voice came from a man.
I looked over my shoulder too see a figure walking over. He kept moving until he stood above the bride, and nudged his foot against her ribs. “Get up. Stop playing Damsel.”
A baby blue vest poked out from his navy suit jacket, and his unfolded tie fell down his chest like a scarf. He paused for a second, studying my face which was studying him, and rolled his dark eyes. He coughed, but then grabbed the bride’s hand to help her up.
“Kiss me,” he said, and their lips touched. Passionless. “I love you, you know?”
“Love you too, asshole.”
He grabbed a washcloth from the sink to wipe away the blood. While he padded water on her chin, I searched the room for my pocketbook. I left it on the table, but found it slung over a chair.
I unzipped the main pocket to find my make-up, the disposable camera I should’ve left on a table at the reception, and a few crumbs. But no cake topper.
“Stop it with that face. You already hit puberty. You know how to get blood out of things.”
I looked back at the misogynistic, misguided man, and tried to remember what he looked like at the wedding: a smiling, inanimate object holding onto his beautiful wife. Same suit. Same shoes. Same eyes. Now, he was several feet taller with a loud mouth and a large bulge below his belt.
“If you’re not going to dry-clean my dress, can you at least be useful enough to fetch me a beer?” the bride asked.
Her groom laughed, slapped her ass, and disappeared into my bedroom while she sighed, trudged over to the freezer, and yanked on the door.
Magnets clattered to the floor, a rainbow collection of hearts that held up my favorite photos. She kicked the shapes out of her way, but crouched to grab one of the snapshots. Derik took the blurry photo at our first Alice Cooper concert, holding his phone high above our heads to capture our drunken excitement. Half of his forehead was cut off, and a woman behind us held up her middle finger, but we looked so genuinely happy that I had to keep it.
I braced myself for the usual questions about whether the mystery man in the photo was my boyfriend, how long we’ve been together, and if we planned on marrying. But instead, she said, “The cute ones always cheat.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“It’s easy to tell when it starts.” Her pale hands disappeared into the fridge. “They start fucking you differently. First I thought it was a good thing. Oh, maybe he’s flipping through my Cosmo, trying to impress me. Then you’ll find out he has a whole group of friends you haven’t met. And oh, he’ll start smelling like a perfume that isn’t yours. And there’s the whole locking their phone, and staying late for work nonsense.” She peaked out from the fridge to look at me, her smile growing like I had just let her in on a secret. “What? How many of those things has yours done?”
I had worried about Derik breaking up with me for one of his friends a few years earlier, and I always cringed when I imagined him with Cheryl in his younger days, but I couldn’t fathom him cheating. I’d start blowing strangers before the thought of another woman crept into his pristine mind.
“Make sure he’s tested every few months,” the woman went on. “Call up the clinic yourself it you have to. Have you got any spots down there, discoloration maybe?”
A laugh shot from her throat like a wheeze. “People still play the waiting game?”
“It’s healthy. Maybe if you and your hubby were a little more patient, you wouldn’t have…” My last words dipped into silence once I remembered where her husband had disappeared to. “There’s beer behind the Tupperware containers. Don’t make any more of a mess.”
I rushed toward my room, praying that the groom didn’t burn my collage to ashes or leave his DNA crusted across my blankets. I should’ve followed him as soon as I saw his callused fingers touch the knob. So far, he’d been the dangerous one, the violent one. I should’ve stuck with him. The bride was his harmless counterpart.
When I pushed open my door, a shirt flew toward me and landed on a pile of dresses, shoes, and thongs. The groom tore item after item out of my closet and flung it over his shoulder, oblivious to my presence. Waves of smoke wafted over his head, and when he turned a certain way, I could see a joint balancing between his fingers.
“I don’t own a bong, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
He dropped the bra that dangled from his opposite hand, and turned around. “She needs clothes. You want her to keep walking around in that wedding dress?”
“Oh…” I said, squashing my instinct to scream at him to leave my house, to get the hell off of my property and into an institution.
Maybe if I were convincing enough, I could get him to burn Cheryl’s house down or toss her into a lake — anything to give her the acidic taste of her own black magic. But after years of dealing with her spells, I’d discovered the right way to handle them. Whenever I kept calm, I won. So instead of throwing a tantrum, I plopped down on the bed, fingering the ruffles on my sheets, and said, “I guess she can borrow something.”
He grabbed a white sundress with a pink belt attached at the waist. “This’ll be perfect for her to wear at your wedding. We’re invited, aren’t we? Maybe you’ll let her be your maid of honor. I’m her third husband, so it’s ‘Always the bride, never the bridesmaid’ for her.”
“It’s white,” I said, trying to keep the conversation light. “Can’t wear white unless you’re the bride, and her time is up.”
He sat on the bed, a little too close, but with enough room that our thighs wouldn’t touch. “Wow. You’re worried she’ll look better than you.”
I rarely interacted with men other than Derik, especially ones who looked at me in that way, so I struggled to find the right response. Tip the balance too far to the flirty side, and I’d be in dangerous territory. “I mean, she can wear it, if she really wants to,” I said. “Just as long as she dyes it or something. I have paint in the back room.”
“No way. Permission denied. I won’t let you ruin this gorgeous dress with your paint.”
“Too bad. My dress, my rules,” I said, uncrossing my legs. I tried to hop off of the bed so I could squeeze out the door to call Derik. I needed to hear his voice to remind myself of why I chose monogamy and abstinence over the tingle between my thighs.
Before I could leave, the groom grabbed my forearm. Heat rushed to all the wrong places.
“No moving,” he said. “I’m warning you now.” Lust hid in his squinting eyes, his curved lips, his bulging suit.
I tried to move again, but his grip tightened like handcuffs clicking into place. “I’m telling you, if you move, I’ll have no choice but to restrain you. It’s up to you, but I’ll do it.”
I shifted, trying to escape, even though it meant giving the groom what he wanted. As soon as I moved, his free hand dropped his joint to grab my wrist. Now, he was off the bed, his legs between mine, his face hovering inches away. I felt the kiss approach, but kept my face angled toward his with no attempt to stop him.
I imagined Derik bursting into the room with a shotgun, reenacting the past I never told him about. I still had my suicidal parents’ gun in my drawer. The police handed it to my foster mother with the rest of the evidence after their funerals, and I got it passed down to me once I turned 18. A fucked-up memento for a fucked-up child.
The groom’s lips fell onto mine, and my curiosity for him battled my love for Derik. I let his tongue swirl against mine, let my legs lock themselves around his back, and then changed my mind and pushed on his chest to stop him. He obliged, but continued to hover above me while our breathing slowed. I could feel him between my legs, thick and pulsing, even through the fabric.
Before I could wiggle away or reach up for another kiss, his wife stumbled inside. She kicked the back of his knee, making him collapse on top of me. I gasped from the impact, my entire body trembling from guilt-fueled adrenaline.
“Prepping her for a three-way or are you cheating again?” she slurred, her voice heavy. She smashed the beer bottle in her hand across his back, and he rolled off of me, onto the floor.
“I didn’t do shit,” he said.
She kicked him in the stomach until he curled into fetal position, then turned to me with a single shard of glass in her tiny hand. “Really, little miss virgin?”
Her wide, bloodshot eyes shone down at me, but all I could see were my fiancé’s tranquil, blue ones. “Derik is going to kill me,” I said. “I have to go tell him. We’re not like you two.”
“No, you’re not,” she said. “In my relationship, the man’s the whore.”
I had been sitting on the bed with my legs outstretched, so she clawed her way onto me and straddled me. I tried to squirm away, but she curled her arm behind my head and grabbed a chunk of my hair, jerking me backward.
I grunted as she used her free hand to pierce my neck with the edge of her jagged beer bottle. Blood oozed out of my broken flesh, swerving down my chest. She pushed the point in farther, and farther, smirking with the motion, but then the pressure stopped.
“What the hell’d you do to her?”
I swung my hand up to cover my neck, attempting to stop the blood trickling out of my veins. “Me?” I asked. The injury wasn’t as bad as I thought if I could still speak.
I lifted my upper body and leaned on my forearms to stay up. The groom stood across the room from me, shaking, and staring at my stomach. I glanced down to see a piece of plastic sitting over my navel. The female half of the cake topper, wearing a bloody dress.
“Cheryl’s magic can’t hurt me,” I said. I used two fingers to pluck the object up by its head. “It’s not supposed to, at least. I guess… she transformed back before she could kill me.”
“I don’t want it like this,” he said. He stretched out his arm to cup the figure in his palm. He brought it close to his puckered lips, ready to kiss it, but changed his mind. “I want to be with her. Change me back, too.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, cautious with my pronunciation, as if a question mark hung at the end of each word. “But you’ll be fine. This is like a divorce without all that paperwork. Leave. Be happy without her.”
“I don’t understand. You hated her,” I said.
The groom used the back of his heel to rub his opposite ankle. “She’s my girl. I can’t leave her.”
“You have to.”
His head shook, but his gaze remained focused on the figure. “Not an option.”
I scratched between my eyebrows. At least he wouldn’t be able to return if he reverted to his true form. “All right,” I said. I reached across my bed and grabbed the beer bottle shard his wife had attacked me with. “Here. Go ahead. Don’t actually kill me. Just try to.”
He transported the bride figurine to my nightstand, and then grabbed the glass. I stood, lifted my chin, and waited for him to press the bottle against my skin. He did so halfheartedly, tears outlining his eyes. His wrist shook, so the only pain I felt was a slight scratch against my jugular.
“Damn it,” he said. He tossed the shard to the ground like a cigarette and stepped on it until it crunched.
“What’s wrong? You’ve beat up your own wife before and you can’t lay a hand on me?”
“I never wanted to kill the bitch.”
Empty threats on my life wouldn’t cut it. He needed to make a genuine attempt at murder if he wanted to turn back. His wife didn’t morph into plastic until blood sprouted. He couldn’t half-ass his killing. He needed to mean it.
I walked toward my dresser drawer and opened the top one to ruffle through layers of trash. After slashing my hand on a slip of paper and running my finger over dried gum, I found the gun. I hadn’t looked at it since I stored it away. I pictured my mother’s fingers gripping the handle, her hands quivering with betrayal; my father’s hands sweaty with disappointment; my own hands numb with loss.
“Here,” I said. “Use this. Should be easier. You don’t really have to think about it. You’re just pressing your finger back.” He took it, but stared at it like an insect he wanted to fling away. “Don’t worry. She turned back before she could really hurt me. You’re not special. Same will happen to you. The gun will probably just jam.”
He placed the gun against my chest in the spot he thought my heart was. His face twitched but his finger refused to move until I nodded. Come on. It’s okay.
As soon as he did it, I’d get my happily ever after with Derik. I’d show Cheryl’s sisters my bloody neck, and accuse her of casting a harmful spell. She’d get the death sentence, or jail time at minimum. The Wiccan hated bad publicity, so they’d shun her to prove their humanity. She’d never be a problem again, and I’d get Derik until the end of my days. The bride would get her groom.
At least, that’s what I thought. Turned out, happily ever afters weren’t real.
I felt the shell at the same moment the gun clattered to the ground. The shot missed my heart, so my veins lazily emptied themselves onto the floor. My vision blurred, but I could see the small, plastic groom figurine tipped over with a smile on its face and my blood pooling around it.
Pain swerved through my body, but my screams stayed locked in my throat. I forced my gaze to move so I could watch the lines shift on my alarm clock, even though I was unable to make out the minutes displayed on the screen.
I tried to focus on its brightness, even when I heard cars screeching, glass shattering, and floorboards creaking. Who knew what was real and what was imaginary? My mind could be lying to me, fabricating sounds and senses.
A black overcoat with a man tucked inside swung toward me. I looked for the scythe and waited for the Reaper’s touch, but Derik’s hands grabbed me instead.
“No no no. Baby, baby…” His lips lingered on my head, kissing me through my hair. Warmth rushed through me, partially from the tenderness of his touch, and partially from the anger of seeing Cheryl hunched beside him.
She stayed standing, so I could see up her red miniskirt meant for women half her age. She looked down at me like a roach that needed to be squashed with her fake designer heels. I pictured a neon sign with the word WINNER flashing behind her tilted head.
“I just… I just called him. I wish I did it sooner,” she said, her voice shaking, but her hands steady as steel. “I could sense that my magic… I knew something was wrong.” She turned to Derik. “It’s my fault. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She paused the speech I could imagine her rehearsing to the frogs in her swamp of a bedroom. “Damn it. My sisters are going to hang me for this. I have to leave. I just hope the police believe magic is involved. If they don’t, they might think that you had something to do with it.”
“Turn yourself in, then.” His words left his lips like anchors, heavy and soaked with emotion.
“No. No, I have to run.” She tugged at his sleeve like a bored child at a party. “You can come.”
“It’ll be okay,” Derik said to himself more than to her.
In a few minutes, I’d be gone. Maybe he thought I already was. My pulse had faded. My features froze. After one last kiss to my head, he pushed himself up and plucked the gun off the ground.
“Don’t worry, baby. I got you,” he said, and then swiveled on his heels to hug Cheryl.
While drops of thick blood left my wilting body, he hugged her.
I wished the pain would end. That life would end. It needed to all end.
My sight went black before I could see whether he aimed the gun at himself or her. But I heard the shot. I heard it end.