Fiction 2014 / Volume 44

Plus One — Ethan Wykert

I made it through the ceremony without a problem. I sat next to an elderly couple: the cute, bed-and-breakfast kind. The woman complimented my dress and the man told me not to break too many hearts tonight. I was nice. I laughed. The minister was good, if a little long-winded. I can respect the anecdotes and the metaphors, but ever since the Internet made it possible for people to be ordained in their underwear, I only have eyes for efficiency. They opted for an organ over a piano, which seems to me like a surefire way to throw a funeral vibe on the proceedings. They did the slideshow thing in the sanctuary, too. That brought about the usual chuckles and “aws”. I’ve never really understood that tradition though. Just because both parties were, at one time, a kid with missing teeth doesn’t mean that they were meant to be. I’m sure that’s a comforting thought on your wedding day, but it doesn’t work that way. There is no plan. No grand design. At best, we operate on cohesive misfortune. A feasible mess. Accident, that’s all we’ve got.

After the long caravan ride to the reception, I parked my car and sat for a bit. The other guests filed into the hotel and I let myself breathe for a bit. I’d done well so far. Only a few questions, nothing I couldn’t handle. There weren’t too many people in attendance who knew my family well enough to wonder. I made sure to grab their card from the console as I stepped out of the car and then clipped my way across the parking lot. The man behind the reception desk smiled at me and nodded toward the hallway across from me. Part of the way down, two large black doors were propped open with several people mingling around them. I politely made my way through, making sure to drop my card in the dainty basket, and then made my way toward the back of the ballroom.

I chose a table by myself; that was my mistake. In my defense, I as- sumed people would eventually join me. Things were fine at first. I clapped when they cut the cake and had their first dance. I waved at everyone who passed by and even forced myself into a couple of conversations while I waited in line at the bar. The trouble came when things calmed down. They had just started playing “Shout”, and I was on my second glass of champagne when he finally spoke.

“I love weddings. Everyone is so cheerful and friendly. Perfect place to sulk.”

“If you want to talk to them then be my guest.”

He smiled at that comment and cocked his head a bit. “Hey now, no need to be harsh.”

“You’ll forgive my lack of concern.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that. It seems like your concern for me is pretty front and center right now. And that’s touching, but not really what I was hoping for in the given circumstances.” I took another slow drink, refusing to make eye contact. As usual, he didn’t allow silence for long. “Your dress looks very nice.”

“I had a feeling you’d think so.”
“It’s tough to deny.”
“Right. And do you also think my earrings are cute, but a little high school? Or that my grey handbag would have worked better than this black one? Or that this bracelet is probably overkill? Just a few guesses. I bet I’m right though.”

“I’m sensing some bitterness.”

I brought my drink down hard, the champagne licking the rim of the glass. I resisted the urge to turn toward him, clenching my jaw and looking around at the nearby guests instead.

“And why do you think that might be, Andrew? Is it possible that I’m not overjoyed at the idea of doing this with you here? That maybe I came here specifically to avoid this?”

“Seems a little contradictory, given who you’re talking to.”

I sighed and finally broke, shooting Andrew an impatient look. He was wearing the same blue pullover and khakis, his long blonde hair combed in the same way. And, of course, he was smiling that same playful smile. I had to force myself not to grin, and I looked away quickly.

“Why are you here? I thought I was making the right move, coming here.” I spoke quietly and fiddled with the flowers in the centerpiece.

“I don’t make the rules, Em. I’m not complaining though. Lindsay looks fantastic! And the DJ’s good. Well, you know, as good as a DJ can be.”

“It doesn’t bother you? Seeing her this way?”

“No. What, you think I was hoping she’d grow up to be a lonely spinster? All cats and wrinkles, never to love again?”

“Of course not. But doesn’t it seem a little…fast?” I stole another look at him. He had his hands folded on top of his head, leaning back and forth in his chair. His smile was gone, but his face was still cheery.

“I’m not sure. What’s the standard for something like this?”

“Gee, I don’t know. Let me pull out my grieving chart and see. Don’t be dumb, there is no rule-of-thumb for this sort of stuff.” He raised his shoulders and eyebrows and frowned, looking at me expectantly.

“Then why so concerned?”

“Because it’s only been eight months. Meaning that in eight months she found some other guy and got close enough to him to decide that she wanted to marry him. We got the invitation like three weeks ago.”

“She moved on. Some people do that.”

I rolled my eyes and looked down at the table. It was my instinct to be hurt, but any further thought made that seem stupid. Instead of getting into that debate again, I took another drink.

“You said ‘we,’” he pushed on.
“What?”
“You said ‘we’ got the invitation.’ Who’s ‘we?’”
“It was addressed to the three of us. Mom, Dad, and me.”

“And where are they?”
“Can we not? This conversation is pointless.”
“Got something better to do?” He earned another look with that one. But, again, I relented.

“They couldn’t come. They weren’t up to it.”
“It doesn’t seem like there’s much they are up to these days.” “They’re mourning. Some people do that.” He laughed at my impression, which both annoyed and relaxed me. “Do they know you’re here?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”
“Probably?”
“We haven’t spoken in a while.”
“What’s a while?”
“A couple months I guess.”
He stopped moving his chair upon hearing this. “Oh. So in the same sense that it hasn’t been Valentine’s Day in a while, yo-”

“The invitation came to my apartment, I wrote down the date and I forwarded it to them. If they wanted to be here, they’d be here.” From the corner of my eye I watched his hands come down and he folded his arms across his chest. Details like that sometimes impressed me, in a weird way. He pursed his lips and nodded slowly.

“Emma, are they okay?”
“Like I said, we haven’t talked si-”
“Emma.”
I picked my drink back up, examined the glass for a moment, and then put it back down. “I’ve chatted with some of our neighbors on the phone. No one has seen much of them. Mrs. Walsh actually thought they had gone on a trip or something. Mom’s column has been reprints since it happened, and I’m guessing Dad has been doing a lot of work from home. I sent Mom a birthday card.” I rubbed my eyes for a while with my fingers and winced a bit. “They’re not great.”

“I’m proud of you for coming tonight.”

I sat in silence for a few minutes, finishing off my drink and folding (and re-folding) my napkin. I swallowed several times, determined that I wouldn’t trick myself into crying. When I finally spoke again, there was some edge to my voice.

“I’m not exactly making strides myself.”

“You’re still trying. That might be the only progress available right now.”

“Progress? Hmm. You see, that’s interesting coming from you.” “It doesn’t change the facts, Emma.” His voice had softened a bit. “I’m making small talk with my dead brother. Angry small talk at

that. That changes a few things, Andrew.” I took a moment to look around, fearful I had attracted some attention. One of Lindsay’s sisters I had met a few times caught my look, but she just waved and kept moving toward the dessert table. I drew a few deep breaths and adjusted my chair.

“I’m sorry, Emma.”

“Ugh, don’t say that. It makes no sense for you to say something like that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know that you’re sorry. I know everything that you’re saying be- cause you’re not really you. I might as well be speaking in a mirror.”

“So…you’re sorry then?”
“It would seem so.”
“And why’s that?”
“Another ridiculous question.”
“But one worth answering, I think. Or, you know, you think. We

think. Whatever.”
“The only thing I can think to be sorry about is that I couldn’t keep

you away tonight. Any thoughts on that one?”
“Beats me. You’re here. You’re out in public. You’ve been a good little wedding guest.”

“Amen.”

“You’re back at work, have been for a while. It sucks, but you’re back. A few personal days to spare even. You’re making all of your payments again.”

“I’m even a few months ahead on the car.”

“And your apartment is tidy for the first time ever. All of that, all on your own. I’m drawing a blank here.”

I nodded at first, then hung my head and pursed my lips. He was good at this, my dead brother.

“Well played,” I admitted.

“Whatever can you mean, dear sister?” he said in a facetious tone, with that smile taunting me.

“So it’s a problem that I’m going it alone?”
“You disagree?”
“If I’m doing well, what’s the difference?”
“An excellent question to pose to the ghost you’ve been hanging out with for the past few months.”

“You’re not a ghost, and I didn’t ask you to show up. It’s not like I was lying on the floor weeping and begging for help. I made peace and got back to it.”

“That’s right. Sorrow is for suckers. You’ve got to play through the pain.”

“Whatever. I’m not a shut-in or a blabbering mess. I think I’m doing alright.”

“Okay, then let me ask you this,” he leaned a bit closer to me and locked his eyes on mine. Again, the detail was inescapable. “When was the last time you took a picture?” I scoffed and turned my head. Now that did sound like my brother.

“Andrew, photography majors are collateral for a reason.”
“Didn’t stop you before.”
“I’ve been a little busy, okay?”
“Oh, what, with your exploding social life? Answer the question, Emma.”

“Even before, I didn’t just snap pictures of anything that passed by.

Inspiration is a big part of it. You need to see something worth preserving.” “So you gave up. Nice.”

“Cool it with the dramatics, okay? And you’re about the last person I want hear to a lecture from on giving up.”

He actually looked a little hurt after that one. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“No, no, no. Please, enlighten me, Ms. Independent.” There was anger in his voice I’d never heard before. For the real Andrew, I’d have let it slide. But I wasn’t willing to take it from an echo.

“Fires aren’t like bullets, Andrew. They don’t sneak up on you.” “You’re right. Most people survive fires by outrunning them.” “Everyone else in your building made it out. Everyone. What stopped you? What stopped my brother, the former collegiate wrestler, from running down some stairs and through a door?”

“There was… debris. And it happened faster than you think.” He was scrambling at this point.

“They found your body. It wasn’t pinned down or cornered. There were no ‘that brave young man’ stories. Nothing. How do I know you didn’t give up?”

He stared back at me for a while. His face shifted from fear to confu- sion, then landed on dejection. His mouth hung open a bit, and his eyes grew red. “Why don’t you take pictures anymore, Emma?”

“Unbelievable. You can’t let go, can you?” I turned away from him to see a man approaching my table. I thought he might have been one of Lindsay’s cousins, but I had no way to be sure. He was very charming; strong posture with a touch of insecurity. He stopped just a few feet from me.

“Hi,” he said.
“Hello.” I flashed a polite grin, a bit worried he may have overheard my “argument.”

“I’m Ryan.” He extended his hand and I shook it as I responded. “Emma.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Emma. Is there any way I could interest you in a dance? I’m sure there’ll be a slow one eventually.” He smiled nervously. His effort alone was cute, elevated to sweet by his looks. I wanted to say yes. Part of me did, anyway.

“That’s very nice, but I’m not feeling very well tonight. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, that’s okay. Another time, maybe.” His disappointment was obvious, though he put on a good show.

“Certainly.”

He walked away, rubbing the back of his neck as he did. I don’t know why I said no. Opportunities to get close to someone rarely come so easily. But the refusal was a reflex. Another part of the mess.

“Yeah,” Andrew chimed back in. “I’m the one who can’t let go.”

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