Chapter 24 - Alex
Our wedding day dawned cloudy and gray. For normal people, I suppose that could be construed as a bad omen. I was delighted. I love cloudy days. They make me feel safe and cozy. On cloudy days, I feel like I can spend all my time curled up with a book and a mug of tea and nobody will care.
In that sense, Nate’s my cloudy day. He makes me feel safe. He makes me feel cozy and warm and content. So, no, I didn’t mind that my wedding day was cloudy. It was apropos.
Gemma didn’t agree.
“I’m gonna ask you one more time,” she said, sitting beside me at the makeshift vanity in my father’s office while Minnie did my hair. “Are you sure about this?”
She’d eased up over the last few months, seemingly accepting that Nate wasn’t going anywhere. I guess she needed one final hurrah, though, before I tied the knot indefinitely.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I sighed, wincing as Minnie tugged a strand of hair back from my face.
“It’s just... what he did to you.”
“They’ve been dating for months,” Minnie interjected. “And kids do stupid shit. If Aly can forgive him, you should be able to, too.”
Minnie and Gemma butted heads a bit on the “Nate” issue. He’d won Minnie over pretty easily. For one, she was straight and therefore subject to the strange, shadowy charm that he refused to believe he had. For another, she wasn’t around for the original blowout like Gemma was. For a third, Minnie was my friend. Gemma was my best friend since forever. Gemma had a lot more riding on my mental health, I guess.
“Hey, Minnie, can you give us a sec?” I asked, glancing up at my friend in the mirror. She nodded and left the room, glaring at Gemma on the way out.
As soon as the door shut behind her, I turned to Gemma.
“I really don’t wanna get married without you on my side, Gem,” I said honestly. “What’s it gonna take to bring you around on this?”
Gemma sighed and crossed her arms. “I’m on your side,” she said. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt again. I believe that he treats you well and everything, but he treated you well before, too. That’s why it was so hard, remember? There was no warning. Just all of a sudden, boom, he’s ignoring you at school and some other chick is pregnant with his kid.”
“There were extenuating circumstances,” I sighed. “I told you that.”
“I know you did, but I don’t really understand what extenuating circumstances justify cheating on you. I’m worried you’re gonna wake up someday and realize you can’t trust him, and it’s gonna bring your whole relationship down.”
“I can trust him,” I said confidently. “I promise.”
“How? How can you possibly know that with what he did? Matt’s a good kid, but you really think you’re going to be able to raise another woman’s child without eventually coming to resent him for what he represents?”
“You need to just trust my judgment,” I said sternly.
“How?!” she exclaimed, throwing up her hands and shooting to her feet. Apparently all the anger and confusion she’d been carrying hadn’t dissipated. It had built up and now it was exploding out of her. “How am I supposed to trust your judgment, Aly? You’re infatuated. He’s got you wrapped around his finger, and everyone else too, somehow. Even Lacey likes him, and she doesn’t like anybody. I want you to be happy I just don’t believe that this is going to do it. You’re going to wake up in a year or three and realize you’ve tied yourself to a manipulative, lying cheater with an anger management problem. What if you get hurt?”
“I won’t get hurt,” I said calmly. “And he’s not a cheater.”
“Aly there is literal physical proof that he is a cheater!” Gemma hissed, throwing out her hand as if to gesture at Matt.
“No, there isn’t.”
The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them. I was growing frustrated, too, and I’ve never been great at controlling my words when I’m worked up.
Gemma clapped her mouth shut and stared at me. “What do you mean?” she asked quietly, her eyes narrow in suspicion.
“Just...” I hesitated. Nate had told me the truth in confidence. Nobody else can know about this, he’d said. But this was Gemma. My best friend.
My phone was sitting on the desk beside me and I snatched it up, dialing Nate’s number and holding it to my ear while Gemma stared at me.
“Hey, is everything okay?” Nate asked before I could get a word in edgewise.
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” I said. “I just... I have a favor to ask you.”
“What’s up, angel?” His voice sent tingles up and down my spine. We’d decided to follow some tradition and I’d spent the night at my father’s place. Twenty four hours was too long to be separated.
“I’m with Gemma,” I said hesitantly.
“She’s your maid of honor, sweetheart. I’d hope you were with her.”
“She’s kinda freaking out.”
A long pause. “Isn’t that your job? This being your wedding and everything?”
“Yeah, she just...” Gemma was glaring at me, motioning for me to hang the phone up, but I ignored her. “She can’t let go of the fact that you cheated on me.”
Another long pause. “Oh.”
“Y’know, she knew we were dating for months before we came out about it.”
“She can keep a secret, Nate.”
He was silent so long, I thought maybe the line had gone dead. “Nate?”
“So what you’re saying,” he said slowly. “Is that you want your maid of honor to actually be happy for you on your wedding day?”
I laughed lightly. “Something like that.”
I felt more than heard him sigh, and when I closed my eyes I could picture him pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers and shaking his head. Then-- “Fine. Just Gemma, though. Not Lacie. Not Minnie. Nobody else. And you need to make her understand how important it is that this shit stay a secret.”
“Of course. Thank you so much. I love you, okay?”
“I love you too. You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”
I wiggled my toes, which were beginning to go numb. “I mean, my dad needs to turn up the thermostat in this place--”
“No, Nate. I’m not getting cold feet. Are you?”
“Yeah, I am. I’m actually on a Greyhound, halfway to Vegas. Gonna marry a stripper.”
I laughed. “I’ll see you in thirty minutes.”
“See you in thirty.”
Gemma was giving me outrageous side-eye when I hung up the phone and tossed it back onto the desk. “What the hell was that about?” she asked suspiciously.
“Gemma, Nate never cheated on me,” I said without preamble, keeping my voice down so it wouldn’t carry out into the hallway.
“Isn’t his kid,” I finished for her. “Not biologically, anyway.”
“Told everyone it was his and he never set anyone straight. Matt’s father... it wasn’t consensual. And Deb didn’t want the father’s family to find out and try to take the kid. Or, worse, for him to end up in foster care if she got in trouble or... or died.”
“Where’s the father?”
“Dead,” I said, and watched Gemma’s face as she slowly put two and two together. Her eyes grew wide, and her hand came up to cover her mouth.
“Oh my god,” she breathed. “Oh... oh my god.”
“Gemma...” I reached out, taking her hands in mine and squeezing. “Nobody can know about this. Not Lacie. Not your mom. Nobody. The only people who know are you, me, Nate, and my dad. Matt doesn’t even know yet, okay? So just... pretend I never told you.”
She nodded emphatically, then stopped, narrowing her eyes once more. “Why didn’t he tell you?” she asked.
“He did,” I said. I wanted to rub my eyes but Minnie had really gone to town with the eye makeup. “Remember those letters?”
“Oh, my god,” Gemma said again, pulling her hands from mine and pressing one to her chest, over her heart. “What the fuck, Aly? Oh, my God.”
I laughed, nodding toward the door. “Can you go get Minnie, please? We’re running out of time and I’m still not in the dress.”
* * *
I stared at the broad wooden doors, listening to the distant sound of the quartet trickle through the cracks. I danced a little in my heels, waiting for the nerves to kick in, but they didn’t. I just felt calm.
“You okay, Aly?” Tom asked? He stood beside me, looking strapping in a suit and tie, smiling down at me. Since my father was officiating, Tom was walking me down the aisle. When I asked him to do it, he’d cried and hugged me so hard my ribs complained.
“I’m okay,” I said, smiling up at him. “I’m just happy.”
“I’m happy, too,” he said. Then the music changed beyond the doors, and he stood up straighter. “I think it’s our turn.”
“Sure is,” I said, laughing when he puffed out his chest and held out his arm like we’d practiced.
A couple young kids, ushers from my father’s regular congregation, pulled the doors open and the music grew louder. Obviously the air was still, and the quartet wasn’t exactly a rock band, but I felt almost as if my hair had been blown back as I stepped into the cavernous room.
The church was packed, but Nate’s and my combined invitees only made up about half the audience. The rest were parishioners, My father had asked if he could invite some of them, and I rolled my eyes and said yes because I didn’t really care. Now that the day had arrived, I was glad they were here. I wanted everyone on earth to witness what was about to happen. The more the merrier.
Only Tom’s arm linked through mine kept me from sprinting headlong down the aisle the second I stepped through those doors. Our modest bridal party flanked the altar: Minnie, Gemma, and my college roommate Rebecca on my side, Red and Matt on Nate’s. My father stood in the center with a tearful smile on his face, dressed modestly in his usual church attire-- black pants, black shirt, and stark white clerical collar.
Then there was Nate. The closer I got, the more that strong force acted on me, and by the time we climbed the steps it was all I could do not to launch myself into his arms, wrap myself around him like a monkey, and cling until the world stopped turning.
He looked a little ridiculous if I’m being honest. Don’t get me wrong. He looked good. Dangerously good. He made a suit look better than any man I’d ever known. He just didn’t look right all clean-shaven and dressed up.
When we reached the altar, Tom kissed me on the cheek, placed my hand in Nate’s, and went to stand behind Red. After I’d asked him to walk me down the aisle, Nate had asked him to be a groomsman. There were a lot of tears that day.
There were a couple moments of suspense as Nate and I stood, facing each other on the altar in front of a room full of witnesses, with my father standing three feet away.
“You look like a billionaire playboy from one of Minnie’s romance novels,” I whispered, grinning as Nate’s hands tightened around mine and his lips tightened as he held back a laugh.
“Well you look like a fairytale princess from one of Matt’s picture books,” he returned evenly.
“This is ridiculous,” I muttered.
“A little bit,” he said, shrugging a shoulder. “Should we get on with it?”
“Probably.” Definitely. I wanted to kiss that cocky smile off his face. The wait was killing me.
“You two done?” My father asked. I nodded. Nate apologized. Our wedding commenced.
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the ceremony. I remember vague rambling as my father preached about love, but sound went by the wayside and my other senses dominated. I remember looking at Nate’s face. I remember breathing deep and smelling him. I remember the feel of his hands, rough and warm, wrapped around mine. I remember my mind wandering to thoughts of forever, and how strange it was that the thought of eternity with one person didn’t scare me at all.
I remember Nate’s hands squeezing mine and his eyes dancing in amusement as he jerked his head toward my father. I remember my tongue fumbling over the vows as I repeated them. We’d written our own but decided at the last minute to save them for after the ceremony, when we were alone. That turned out to be smart, since I clearly lacked the mental capacity to orate effectively. It was all I could do to parrot my father’s words.
I remember the fluttering feel of cool metal as Nate slipped the ring onto my finger. Then I remember the roaring sensation of triumph as I slid the brushed silver band onto his. He’s mine, I wanted to scream. Mine, mine, mine, until the end of goddamned time. But instead I just repeated my end of the vows. “... until death parts us,” I said breathlessly.
Then we were kissing, and I remember the taste of him. I remember feeling a little dizzy as his hand cradled my head and his forearm banded across my back, keeping me upright as the sound of clapping buzzed in my ears and his lips stole my air and gifted my future.
When the kiss ended and he tried to pull away, I held his face between my hands and kept him close. “And after,” I breathed, so quietly not even my father could hear. Until death parts us, and after.
Something dark eclipsed the adoration his eyes as he stared down at me-- some heavy mixture of pain and sadness-- and just like that we were alone. We might as well have been at the spot for all that the rest of the world mattered in that moment. “I promise,” I whispered. “And after.”
“And after,” he repeated, and then he kissed me again, and somewhere people were laughing and cheering, but they didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but our vows.
* * *
The reception was fun, and we were good hosts, until midnight. We laughed and posed for pictures and danced and teared up at all the appropriate moments during toasts.
At midnight, though, we escaped. My father had long since left, taking Tom and Matt with him. All our friends and family had either found their way to bed or were so drunk they wouldn’t notice us slipping out. So, at midnight, we stole out of the banquet hall and broke into a run toward the elevators before anybody could realize we’d left. I’d lost my shoes sometime after ten, and the cool tile of the lobby sent chills up from the surface of my bare feet.
The elevator dinged, and Nate dragged me onto it. Then the doors shut and we were alone. For the first time, we were alone. Husband and wife.
I guess it hit him as hard as it did me, because he didn’t immediately pull me to him and start kissing me like I knew he wanted to. We just stood there and looked at each other. He smiled at my bare feet, and the skirt of my dress clenched in my hands so I wouldn’t trip over it. Then his eyes settled briefly on my chest, heaving from our sprint for solitude. Then they drifted up to my face, framed by frizzled hair that had worked its way out of Minnie’s painstaking up-do.
“This is better,” he said, and I agreed. He’d lost his jacket and tie at some point, and his shirtsleeves were shoved up to his elbows. A shadow of stubble coated his jaw and his hair was tousled. This was better. This was us.
Before I could tell him I felt the same he reached out, grabbed me by the waist, and pulled me flush against him with a snap. “I prefer you naked, though,” he growled in my ear, and I felt his fingers searching the the back of my dress for a zipper.
“We’re still in the elevator,” I gasped, but my own fingers were fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. “And the zipper’s on the side, not the back.”
Then the elevator dinged, the doors slid open, and the ground disappeared from beneath me as Nate swept me up into his arms. A startled laugh escaped my lips as he carried me down the hallway. “Put me down!” I squealed, kicking my legs.
“Goddammit, stop fidgeting,” he huffed as we drew even with our door. “I’m honoring tradition. The key’s in my pocket. Grab it for me?”
Twisting in his arms, I I fumbled in his pocket until I found the electric key card. Then I leaned out and slipped it into the lock, turning the knob and pushing the door open when the light turned green.
Nate kicked the door so that it swung wide, turned sideways, and carried me over the threshold before dropping me on the bed. Then he bent over, bracing his hands on his knees and gasping dramatically.
“You ate too much cake, baby,” he teased.
“Are you calling me fat?” I gasped in mock horror, pressing my hands over my belly and sticking out my lower lip.
“I am,” he replied solemnly before crawling onto the bed, trapping me beneath his body. “Now where is that fucking zipper?”
* * *
“We should order room service,” I said breathlessly, lifting my head to see Nate’s face. He was sprawled diagonally across the bed and I lay half on top of him. We were both as naked as the day we were born, and my senses were filled with shared heat and sweat-slick skin.
“It’s three in the morning, angel,” he said, squeezing my bare ass. “I’m pretty sure the kitchen is closed.”
“But I’m hungry,” I complained.
“Well, then,” he said, gently pushing me off him and sitting up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Good thing I brought provisions.”
I propped myself up on my elbows and watched shamelessly as he ambled to his bag and crouched down, rifling through it. The bathroom light was on and the door was cracked, so there was just enough light for me to make out the constellation of scars that decorated his back. I kind of liked them, I realized. I didn’t like that people had hurt him, but I liked the way he carried his past. It brought his strength to front and center.
He stood and turned, a pack of Oreos in his hand. Speaking of front and center...
“Eyes up here, angel. I’m not an object,” he said, rejoining me on the bed and sitting back against the headboard. I groaned in annoyance as he pulled the sheets up to his waist and patted the mattress beside him.
“You might as well be” I muttered, but followed his unspoken command. As much as I wanted to knock the Oreos out of his hands and start another round, my whole body felt drained and raw, and the pillows were heaven against my back as I eased into them. “You look like a fucking Greek statue.”
“That’s not the compliment you think it is,” he muttered, splitting an Oreo and handing me the good half. “You know the ancient Greeks actually associated big dicks with Satyrs and old geezers? All the heroes were depicted with little baby carrots between their legs. So you’re either telling me I look like a half-goat drunkard or that I have a tiny dick. Which is it?”
I laughed around a mouthful of Oreo. “I was more talking about this,” I said, patting the hard surface of his stomach and snuggling against his side. “I’m gonna start calling you Adonis.”
“Please don’t,” he said. “Although... that would make you Aphrodite so it kinda works. Beautiful, powerful goddess lowers her standards and takes a mortal lover... it’s an apt metaphor. Although Adonis was eventually gored to death by a wild boar and I don’t really want to go down that way. Maybe you could just be Alex and I’ll just be Nate.”
“Fine,” I sighed dramatically, accepting another cookie half and crunching on it. “Oh, hey, we never read our vows!”
I went to stand up and retrieve mine from my bag, but Nate tightened his arm around me and pinned me to his side.
“I was thinking about that,” he said. “What if we don’t?”
“I’ve been working mine for months,” I growled warningly. “And you don’t want to read them? Is this your way of telling me you forgot to write them?”
He laughed, releasing me long enough to lean over the side of the bed and retrieve his pants from the ground. Sticking a hand in one of the pockets, he withdrew a folded piece of paper and handed it over. “I didn’t forget.”
I stared down at the piece of paper, stained by blotches of ink that had bled through. “So why don’t you want to read them, then?” I asked, vaguely hurt.
“I was thinking we could save them,” he said thoughtfully. “You know I love you right now, and I know you love me. Maybe we should hang onto them and break them out when we actually need them.”
I thought about it, and couldn’t help but acknowledge the wisdom in what he was saying. “You’re such a fucking sap,” I said grudgingly, curling my fingers around his vows and holding them close to my chest as he set the Oreos on the bedside table.
“It’s self preservation,” he argued, shifting us down so that he was lying on his back and I was curled against his side. “Someday you’re gonna hate my guts and I gotta have a safety net to keep you around.”
I hummed noncommittally, but didn’t argue. Now that we were horizontal and not pawing at each other like rutting animals, I was unbelievably tired. My eyes drifted closed and I felt Nate pull the sheets up until they rested over my shoulder. The folded piece of paper was still clenched in my hand, but I wrapped my free arm around him and pulled myself tighter against his side.
Cocooned in warmth, I drifted into darkness.
Then darkness turned to dreams.
I walked through squelching mud, cold rain dripping into my eyes and stinging my face and neck. I shivered and hugged my arms around myself, bowing my head against the rain and against the oppressive heaviness of the forest around me. Mud sucked at my shoes and thorny vines grabbed my clothes, darkness and foliage closing until I could barely breathe. Somewhere in the distance, I heard Nate’s voice calling my name. I wanted to stop and turn and follow it back, but my feet carried me forward, farther and farther away, until I couldn’t hear him anymore.
The cold sank into my bones as numb feet dragged me deeper into the woods. I was crying, stumbling, struggling to turn myself around. My knees trembled, and then gave out, dropping me into the muck. My heart burned and ached, and I bent forward, hugging my arms to my chest and willing the pain to leave.
Something dug into my palm, hard and sharp, and I slowly sat up, staring down at my hand and slowly unfurling my fingers to reveal a folded piece of paper. Rain and wind battered me, whipping at my clothes and hair, but the paper sat in my palm, unmoving and unblemished.
I heard Nate’s voice in the distance, again, but this time my feet didn’t pick me up and carry me away from him. I knelt in the mud and, with trembling fingers, slowly unfolded the paper. The rain ceased the second the first line of Nate’s shitty chicken scratch came into view. The air warmed, and the grasping vines receded.
I knelt in the mud and listened as my husband’s voice grew closer. The hysteria left me and the ache in my chest faded to a warm fluttering. He was coming. All I had to do was wait. He would find me. He would pull me into his arms. He would drag me out of the nightmare.
All I had to do was wait, and so I did.
And I read.
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