‘She looks beautiful, doesn’t she?’
‘She does,’ says Chloe turning to Hannah, offering her a drag of her cigarette which the latter refuses, ‘but then, she always does.’
‘Yeah, but that dress. Look at her. She looks like, I dunno, like a beautiful bottle of Champagne. Whereas the four of us look like a bunch of cheap-ass shots of pink Schnapps or something.’ Hannah looks down at her garishly pink bridesmaid ensemble. ‘Rightly so, of course. It is her day after all.’
‘Yeah…’ says Chloe as she stubs out the remains of her cigarette on a nearby tree trunk. She awkwardly prods at her hair, sprayed, styled and patterned to within an inch of its life. ‘Ugh. Anyway talking of Champagne, here ladies.’ From her bag she fishes out a small bottle of Champagne and five accompanying flutes. ‘A sneaky one for courage.’
‘Mmm, nice. I can’t remember you supplying us with expensive pre-wedding delights at my wedding, all the same!’ Madison takes a glass from Chloe, holding it ready as the drink is poured in.
‘Which one?’ asks Hannah with a smirk as she gratefully accepts a glass from Chloe. She takes a sip.
‘Which what?’ asks Madison as she fixes the front of her dress, twisting her body uncomfortably in the ill-fitting number.
‘Well…’ says Madison, taking a sip and allowing the subtle dig to roll off, ‘well, neither of them come to think about it! You didn’t even come along to the second one!’
‘You didn’t invite us!?’ says Chloe. ‘You didn’t invite anyone. Come to think of it you hadn’t even told us you were divorcing…’
‘Harry…let alone that you were now marrying…erm…I want to say Donald…’
‘Yes, Richard. That you were marrying Richard. You can hardly blame us.’
‘We’re sorry ok, Maddie’ says Hannah.
‘Thank you, Hannah,’ replies Madison primly, almost to the point of pomposity. ‘That’s appreciated.’
‘Yeah, we’ll be sure to be there for your third one.’
Madison whips her gaze towards Hannah in annoyance, narrowing her eyes.
‘Cheers babes’ smiles Hannah, pushing her glass to clink with Madison.
‘Meh’ says Madison with a knowing shrug of her shoulders.
Chloe looks across at Emma and Rosa as they stroll slowly searching the ground where that old, rusted, disused rollercoaster segment once stood. The ground beneath it only now just beginning to recover its colour, its vibrancy. No doubt searching for the little grave. The one with the bird in it, she thinks. That’ll be long gone now. God, when would that have been? When did Junior High finish? The summer of ‘99. And this is…what…2014. Jesus, 15 years? Seriously!? God. Must be going on five years or so since we were last year. Well, yeah. That was the last time I was in Iowa. Aside from the holidays of course. Yeah, that was just after Rosa…and that was when Emma said…when she, fuck. Why the hell didn’t we push it? Push her? She could have left him, could have been free of him. But now here we are on their fucking wedding day. I knew that prick would manipulate her. I knew he would have gotten wind of it. When did she call telling me about the engagement? Must have only been a few months after we were here for Rosa. No, he knew. He fucking knew he was losing her. I was holding my tongue. I had to. Shit, I’d almost lost her once already. Probably more. Think Chloe, think before you speak. It’s her life. It’s her choice. That’s what I kept telling myself. But hell, if I’d known we’d end up here…
She looked up at the sky. A sea of blue besides the odd, almost ethereal, wisp of cloud ripping into the canvas here and there. The trees frittered gently amidst the cooling afternoon breeze – a godsend in the sizzling July heat. The slight rocking sound of lapping waves inched their way into the air from the Mississippi. A small gathering of birds performed rapid, precise aerial acrobatics; twisting and turning just slightly above the tops of the highest trees in the park before darting off into the sun-drenched horizon.
‘This friggin dress, I swear!’ Madison tugs violently, and one-handed (the other clutching hold of her dwindling champagne), at the bust of her bridesmaid dress. ‘It’s damn near crushing my friggin boobs, I swear!’
‘You better hope Richard kept the receipt then Maddie, y’know incase he has to return them. The boobs that is. Or was it Harry that bought you these?’ asks Hannah, following up the remark with a quick sip of her drink.
‘Hilarious Hannah. Fucking hilarious. Ugh.’ Madison yanks at her dress again.
The back and forth shakes Chloe from her reverie.
‘Rosa, Emma,’ she shouts, ‘here…’ she holds up the Champagne bottle, clinging onto the remaining two flutes with her fingertips.
Emma and Rosa look up from their slow, meandering two-person search party. Rosa smiles and takes Emma by the hand, moving towards the other girls. Each of Emma’s steps choreographed to perfection as she weaves in and out and between any potential tripping hazards. Her friend’s hand, holding on tightly to one hand, a significant clump of her wedding dress clutched in the other.
‘Y’know, I think I’ll pass Chloe and stick to the water,’ says Rosa, taking a half-drunk bottle of Poland Spring from her bag, ‘I don’t think my Sponsor would be too pleased if he knew I was back off the wagon, do you?’ She laughs.
‘Fuck’ mutters Chloe to herself, her expression contorting. ‘You’ll never fucking learn will you.’
Her self-admonishment ceases however when Rosa mouths ‘It’s ok’ to her through a warm smile as she approaches. Chloe smiles in turn.
‘Of course not. Foot in mouth like always, am I right. Em then, come on girl, it’s your big day, surely you’ll partake in a little courage-booster?’ She begins to pour.
‘Actually…actually Chloe I’ll leave it just now if that’s ok. I want to stay clear-headed. My head’s in a mess as it is.’
‘Smart thinking Em, smart thinking. All the more for us then isn’t it’ says Madison as she grabs the bottle from Chloe, taking a swig before topping up her glass.
‘You are one classy bitch, Madison’ says Hannah.
‘Oh fuck off Hannah. Top up?’
‘Of course.’ Hannah smiles, that same exaggerated, knowing smile she’d mastered as a child. She curtsies to Madison as her glass fills up. They clink glasses.
The five stand in silence for a few seconds. Chloe’s face pained slightly although she couldn’t honestly say why. Aside from the obvious.
‘Anyway,’ says Hannah, breaking the tension, holding her glass aloft ‘here’s to you Ems. You didn’t quite beat Maddie down the aisle, either time, but I always knew you’d be one of the first to get married.’
‘And I’m the classy one…’ Madison murmurs bitterly, holding her own glass aloft.
Rosa takes the two glasses from Chloe, pouring water from her bottle into both. She hands one to Emma who combines a smile with a small laugh.
‘Thanks Han’ smiles Emma. ‘All of you in fact. You’ve always been…I mean I know we struggle to stay in touch at times…but…well, you’re here now…that’s why I wanted us to come here…just to…you know, one last time so…so we…I mean…and you all look…you all look…’
‘Fucking awful!’ blurts Hannah, sensing Emma’s need for her to steer the conversation safely away from any potential truly tear-jerking moments. She laughs. ‘Let’s be honest. But hey, at least you get a cleavage in these things, it actually looks like I’ve got tits for once in my life.’
Emma laughs, her eyes glistening slightly. She wipes them with the back of her hand before taking a sip of water. She senses Chloe’s eyes on her, trying to ignore them. She looks at Hannah.
‘You never know Han, it could be you next. Jack must surely be ready to propose one of these days? You’re in Paris in a few weeks, there can’t be many better places in the world to propose can there?’
‘Pah.’ Hannah scoffs. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
They four of them look at Hannah.
‘Oh no no,’ she says, ‘No, nothing, It’s just. I don’t think that’s us you know. I mean, after, what, 16 years now. No, I don’t think that’s us. And a Parisian proposal? No, that’s not Jack, not at all. Knowing him, or knowing us I should say, we’d probably just talk about it one day, decide to do it and that’d be that. Being swept off your feet is something I’ll leave for you girls. That’s not quite poor lil Hannah now, is it.’
‘You’re not unhappy though?’ Emma stares at Hannah, a concerned look creeping over her gaze.
‘Oh god no, no, not at all. Don’t mind me. It’s…no, this is your day Ems, forget what I’ve said. It’s this sneaky champagne that our good friend Chloe has thrust upon us. It’s making me ramble. Not that that’s any different to usual, of course. It’s good stuff though. I’m not complaining.’ She smiles and winks at Chloe.
‘Where is Jack anyway?’ says Madison.
‘Probably at the church by now. We were heading there with my Mom and Dad.’
‘Hmm, how’s his brother doing these days? He’s not coming to this is he?’
‘Aaaand you’re back to being the ‘classy’ one again, young Madison. Whatever would poor Mr Richard think of all this? You brazen hussy.’ Hannah takes another sip.
‘Who knows. And who cares. LA’s a long, long way from Burlington, Iowa. Besides he’s probably banging some younger chick as we speak anyway so…’
‘Oh dear!’ Hannah gasps in mock exasperation. ‘Is all not perfect in paradise? Never mind, Maddie, there’s thousands of other Producers you can marry out there I suppose.’
‘This one, sorry Richard, is actually a Director I’ll have you know, not a Producer.’
‘My bad. You really are growing as a human being aren’t you?’ Hannah blows Madison a kiss.
‘Bitch’ Madison smiles slightly, taking another sip of her own drink. ‘What about you Chloe?’
‘Me?’ Chloe turns her gaze towards Madison, her frown easing off a touch. ‘What about me?’
‘Well, when are we going to get introduced to the lovely Sally?’
‘Well what? You’re living with her, that’s what you told Rosa isn’t it? Is that true? Up there in that fancy Manhattan apartment of yours. One half of a lesbian power couple on the Upper West Side. And a partner in your own law firm. If I didn’t know you well enough I’d be impressed.’
‘We are, yes, living together that is.’ Chloe blushes slightly, despite herself. Fuck sake, she thinks to herself, you’re nearly fucking 30 years old, enough with the childish bashful routine shit.
‘Well I’m happy for you. Genuinely’ says Madison, smiling.
‘How did your parents take the news?’ asks Rosa, finishing off her glass of water and handing it back to Chloe.
‘Well. Surprisingly well, actually. In fact, Sally’s with them right now.’ She drains her glass. A thoughtful look in her eyes. ‘All that time, all that currency, worrying what they would think. What my Mom would think, how my Dad would take it. And all the time all they wanted was for me to be happy. They probably knew the whole time. I think they did. Who knew it would turn out like that. I mean, obviously I knew that but still. I suppose you never really can know, can you.’
She looks at Emma who stares back at her, wavering halfway between a smile and a tear.
‘Anyway,’ says Chloe, ‘enough of all this sentimental bullshit. We’ve got a wedding to take care of, don’t we!’ She takes the bottle from Madison and pours the last remaining drops of it onto the grass.
‘We certainly do Ms Maid Of Honour.’ Emma smiles. ‘In fact, no hold on, I wanted…here,’ she walks over to the side of the clearing, that familiar spot, ‘I wanted us each to have a wild rose with us. Y’know, the pink ones. Yes, yes, look, there, there they are.’
‘What’s this for, luck?’ Madison stumbles slightly as she follows Emma, the alcohol serving an early warning signal to her ahead of the day ahead. ‘I could have done with one of those at both of my weddings. Ha!’
‘Nice, Maddie,’ laughs Hannah, ‘that’s another solid joke. At this rate you’re making one every five years or so. Not a bad ratio.’
‘Hilarious as always, boo.’
‘I aim to please.’
‘Here, woah, woah.’ Rosa skips over towards Emma. ‘You’re gonna mess your dress up kneeling down Em, let me…’
‘Such a sweet girl,’ says Madison as Rosa crouches down towards the wild roses. Emma smiles at her, her hand caressing her back, as she very slowly lifts herself to a standing position. Chloe, at the back of the group, winces slightly.
‘Isn’t she just?’ agrees Hannah. ‘Talking of which Rosie, when are you going to rock up with a gorgeous hunk on your arm one of these days? Or senorita, y’know? Whatever you choose.’
Rosa smiles as she carefully plucks five roses, one a time, being careful not to let the thorns cut into her skin. She chuckles to herself. She hands a rose to Hannah.
‘Not for a while Han. Most of the men I meet are ones that go to the same meetings that I go to. And that kind of, fraternising, shall we say, is pretty much frowned upon. And anyway, most of the guys there are as fucked up as I am so that doesn’t exactly make for a great budding romance.’ She hands a rose to Madison.
‘What, so there’s been no-one?’ asks Madison.
‘No, not no-one. There was one but…’ says Rosa, pausing to hand a rose to Emma.
‘But what?’ Madison sniffs her rose before attempting to place it on the bust of her dress.
‘But…nothing really. It just didn’t…it just wasn’t. I need to work on myself first and foremost. I might make balancing alcoholism, depression, anxiety and fuck knows what other illnesses, look like a piece of cake but believe me it’s not.’ Rosa hands Chloe her rose. ‘Once I get there, wherever the hell there is, I’ll know but for now, I’m not in a rush.’
‘No,’ says Hannah. ‘No Rosa that’s far too mature and sensible an answer. Remember you’re talking to someone there that, going by everything we’ve heard so far today, seems to be hurtling towards her second divorce before the age of 30. You’ll have to rethink it.’
‘Ha. Ha.’ Madison drains the last of her glass.
As Rosa picks her own wild rose, behind her Emma also drains her glass. She smiles faintly as she hands it to Chloe. Their fingertips brush as the glass exchanges hands. Suddenly Chloe clicks. A thousand discordant threads and strings suddenly coalesce in her mind and form a clear, obvious picture. She looks at Emma’s hand and follows it as it recoils to her stomach. She looks back at the glass. The water. The ‘clear head’. The struggle to crouch down and subsequently stand up. Her gaze fixes on her friend’s stomach once more. Lingering there. For mere seconds but for what feels more like an inordinate amount of time.
She takes off her glasses and slowly shifts her gaze upwards. Her gaze is met by Emma’s. Her friend’s eyes wet with moisture. Infused with an undeniable sadness. A fear. Emma holds a finger, trembling, to her mouth. She mouths a broken ‘shh’ as her head slowly nods.