Things Behind the Sun
It took three weeks before Aidan could finally bring himself to go back to the beach. Someone, Aidan didn't know who, had set up a small shrine of wreaths and candles in Ben's honor. Aidan wanted to go over and knock down those stupid wreaths, rip apart all the flowers, and snuff out every one of those candles.
Instead, Aidan kicked off his sandals and began to strip off each piece of clothing layer by layer, as he made his way closer to the shore. His toes sank into the soft, cool sand. Aidan pictured himself peeling an onion as he shrugged off his shirt and smiled to himself. Sometimes the most absurd thoughts popped up at the weirdest moments.
Aidan turned his eyes toward the sky. The sun hid itself behind wispy clouds and the sky was slate gray. A deep breeze blew in from the ocean, chilling Aidan to his core.
The beach had always been Ben's favorite place when they were kids. They used to wakeboard when they were in high school, jet-ski, windsurf, all that good stuff. Mostly to impress the rich city girls who used to lounge on beach towels, and giggle behind their hands whenever Aidan or Ben would grin at them. Occasionally a girl would lift the floppy brim of her straw hat and they would make eye contact. Sometimes the boys would get lucky and when they came in for the day, the girls would slip folded scraps of paper discreetly into their hands.
Cool water lapped at Aidan's toes and he realized he had waded into the ocean. He looked up at the sky and then over his shoulder, at the discarded clothing he left behind as a trail. Aidan wondered if anyone would find their way to him, if anyone would notice he was missing and follow the breadcrumbs.
The ocean churned, and waves began to roll in toward the shore. This was the kind of day Aidan had been expecting when they put Ben in the ground. Aidan waded a little further, until the water was at his ankles.
It would be too easy to keep walking, to just keep walking until the water covered him completely. Aidan wondered what it felt like to drown. He had been wondering that a lot ever since Ben died.
A little girl in a frilly white bathing suit sat in the sand with a green plastic shovel and a matching bucket. Her mother crouched beside her and scooped up wet sand with the shovel. The dull plastic thud, as the sand went into the bucket, made Aidan feel sick to his heart.
Aidan drove to the place Ben's parents had picked out for Ben and Trisha's wedding gift. It was a sprawling Colonial in the oldest part of town, in a neighborhood perfect for raising kids, golden retrievers and white picket fences. Trisha's white Lexus was in the driveway, covered in helicopter seed pods and dandelion cotton.
Aidan eased his beat up old Honda next to Trisha's car and parked, killing the engine and snagging the keyring. Aidan undid his belt and stepped out, squinting as a flood of dying sunlight pierced his eyes, and headed for the garage.
The garage was a mess, stocked with cardboard boxes of junk, mostly Ben's power tools, things they hadn't gotten a chance to unpack before Ben's accident. Seeing Ben's things, still unpacked, stopped Aidan dead in his tracks. Something constricted around Aidan's chest, and he put out a hand to keep from stumbling.
When the feeling passed, Aidan took a deep breath and bounded up the steps, letting himself into Trisha's and Ben's kitchen with the spare key on his keyring.
Trisha was leaning against the kitchen counter, leafing through the classifieds, a black Sharpie marker dangling from the corner of her mouth. A few tendrils of her blonde hair fell out of her ponytail and Aidan reached out, tucking the stray hairs behind her ear. Trisha shivered and turned around, raising a hand to the back of her neck.
"Aidan? What are you doing here?" she asked, eyes widening in surprise.
They locked gazes and the seconds seemed to stretch on for hours, before Aidan finally broke eye contact and looked down. He hadn't expected her eyes to be that blue. "Kind of missed you," he said, a notch above a whisper, finally raising his eyes to meet hers. "Wanted to see how you were doing."
One of Trisha's pale hands fluttered up to the back of her neck. "I've been – okay," she said, just as quiet. "I mean, as okay as you can be. You know?"
"Yeah," Aidan said, "I think I do." He paused, trying to collect his thoughts and assemble them so that they made sense. "I was wondering – did you want to maybe go out and get something to eat?"
Trisha looked down. "I don't know. I haven't gone out since – "
"I know," Aidan jumped in. "It's just – I haven't either. I thought maybe we could, you know. Together."
"I don't know, Aidan," Trisha replied, curling her arms around her waist. She seemed to shrink and age a hundred years all before his very eyes. Trisha paused, searching for words, before looking back at him. "I miss him."
"I miss him too," Aidan whispered.
"I ask myself every day. Why did this happen? Why Ben?" Trisha let out a bitter, grating laugh. "His preacher said it was because – because God wanted him in Heaven, for his choir of angels. Like that's supposed to make me feel better?"
Aidan curled his fingers in the cotton material of her oversized t-shirt and fumbled for words, the right words. "I don't think there's anything that anyone else can tell you," he said, softly. "I just wish there was something I could have done."
Trisha closed the space between them and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "It's not your fault," she said into his shoulder, muffled.
Aidan closed his eyes and wrapped an arm around her, stroking a hand on her back in slow, lazy circles. Ben's presence folded around them. Aidan made a face and wrinkled his nose at the faint smell of Ben's cologne, before realizing it was Trisha. She was wearing Ben's shirt.
Aidan backed away from her, that familiar feeling tightening around his chest.
"Aidan, what's wrong?" Trisha touched his arm, concern laced tightly in her voice.
"I'm sorry," he said, offering Trisha an apologetic smile. He reached out and tugged lightly at the sleeve of the large t-shirt. "That's Ben's shirt, isn't it?"
Trisha was silent for a few seconds before nodding. "I haven't taken it off – since."
Aidan watched Trisha silently, before reaching out and cupping his palm against her cheek. Trisha closed her eyes and pressed her hand against his. Aidan felt wetness on his fingers and realized she was crying.
Aidan leaned in toward her, sliding his hand into her hair. "Trisha," he began, "I – "
"Don't," she whispered, moving his hand away from her cheek. She smoothed her hands down the front of his shirt and stepped back, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of Ben's t-shirt. When she looked at him again, her eyes were glassy with unshed tears.
"I'm sorry," he said, glancing at the floor. "I should go."
"You should," she replied, softly. She didn't sound angry with him, or disgusted. She didn't even sound sad – she sounded hollowed out, like she had been scraped clean.
Aidan gave Trisha one last look before clomping down the steps to his car. He hopped in and gunned the engine, before peeling out of the driveway with the music blaring, the first tears he'd shed since Ben died stinging his eyes, and headed for the beach.
The day they buried Ben was probably the most beautiful day that summer. The seemingly endless blue skies stretched overhead, the bluest sky Aidan had ever seen. He had been expecting threatening black clouds and sheets of rain, clashes of thunder, streaks of lightning ripping across the sky. Aidan hadn't expected to put his best friend in the ground on such a beautiful day, that he wished Ben was alive to see it.
Aidan turned his eyes to the sky and wondered why it wasn't raining, like it usually did in the movies whenever someone died. If anyone should have had rain at his funeral, it would have been Ben.
Ben's mother looked like Jackie O. in a little black dress and oversized black sunglasses, and she clutched a shovel in gloved hands. Her makeup wasn't smeared, and her eyes were dry. Aidan wondered if she'd even shed a single tear the entire service. Her husband put his hand on her back, and she closed her eyes, leaning briefly against his shoulder. Every hair on her husband's head was still in place and his metallic gray suit was unwrinkled. Both of Ben's parents looked like they had stepped out of a photo shoot for some fancy fashion spread. They looked too perfect and put together to have just lost their son.
The preacher signaled to Ben's mother, murmuring to her in a low tone so that Aidan couldn't hear, and she tossed the first shovel of dirt into the hole in the ground. It made a hollow thunk as it hit the wood of Ben's coffin. Then it was Ben's father's turn, and then Trisha's.
Trisha struggled with the shovel, wilting under its weight, the heels of her pumps sinking deep into the pliant ground, and dug up a clod of dirt. She was the only one who had dark tell-tale streaks of mascara running down her cheeks, a soiled Kleenex clutched in one hand. Trisha shoveled the dirt into Ben's grave and collapsed next to it, sobbing. She dug her fingers in the grass, and hands reached out for her, pulling her away from the edge. Grass stained the front of her pretty pastel dress green.
Someone passed the shovel to Aidan and he looked down at it, turned it in his hands as if he didn't know what to do with it. The preacher told him to shovel the next clump of dirt and Aidan felt a hand on his back, guiding him toward Ben's grave. He felt a chill, even though the leaves on the trees remained still.
Aidan looked up and locked eyes with Trisha. Ben's mother had her arms around Trisha's waist in a vise-like grip, the only reason Trisha was still on her feet. Ben's father's expensive suit was finally rumpled, and Aidan felt a small lump of satisfaction in his throat at that.
Aidan dug up a bit of dirt and grass and approached the lip of the grave. He looked down into the hole, still couldn't believe that Ben was in that pine box. Aidan let the dirt go, heard it hit the wood with a solid thump.
Aidan pressed a kiss to the side of Trisha's neck and tangled his fingers in her hair, pushing her up against the door. Trisha squirmed away from him, laughing, and pressed her hands against his chest.
"What?" he asked, grinning at her.
"The doorknob was digging into my back," she laughed, stepping away from him. Trisha swept her hair away from her face and pulled it back into a ponytail. "Not really conducive to making out."
"Sorry. Maybe we can take it somewhere more appropriate, then," Aidan said, slipping an arm around her waist.
Trisha rubbed a hand on Aidan's chest and gave him a squeeze. "Come on, Aidan, the Chinese is gonna get cold. I thought you were so hungry, we had to run out in the middle of a hurricane, at ass o' clock, to get this food."
"You're turning me down for Chinese?" Aidan feigned hurt, but Trisha just threw her head back and laughed.
"I guess I am," she teased. Trisha eased away from his side and picked the brown paper bags up, carrying them to the living room. Trisha set the bags on the coffee table and picked up the remote, turning the TV on to the news.
Aidan followed after her and collapsed on the couch, pulling Trisha down into his lap. "I think the food can wait for a couple minutes," he said, nosing against where her neck melted into her shoulder.
"You men are all the same," Trisha scoffed, settling next to him on the couch. "Ben's the same way." She opened one of the brown paper bags and produced cartons of rice, setting them on the coffee table.
"I guess we just have good taste then." Aidan grinned against the side of her neck.
"Guess so. Lucky me." Trisha reached up and flicked open the first button on his shirt.
Rain pummeled the windows and the glass rattled with the brute force of the thunder. Tree branches thumped against the roof, and Aidan reached up and stilled his hand over Trisha's. "Listen to that," he teased. "Sounds like someone's trying to get in."
Trisha rested a hand lightly on Aidan's knee and he kissed down the side of her neck, fighting the TV for her undivided attention. Aidan pushed up the bottom of her shirt and Trisha squirmed to make room for him, as he slid a hand up her back.
The TV flashed to images of the storm, images of trees bent nearly perpendicular to the ground, blinding sheets of rain, and Aidan reached to take the remote. "Why don't we turn the TV off and put on some music?"
Trisha pulled away from him and tugged her shirt back down. "I don't know, Aidan. I'm not really feeling it right now." She pushed one of the cartons of food at him. "You were starving just, like, five minutes ago. You made me go out in a hurricane with you to get Chinese."
"It's not a hurricane," Aidan grumbled. "And I'm not really that hungry anymore."
Trisha sighed and put the cartons of rice back into the paper bag. "Ben should be home by now," she said, picking the bags up.
"What, you so dissatisfied with me, you can't wait for your husband to come back?" Aidan looked up at her from his sprawling position on the couch and flashed her a winning smile.
Trisha looked down at him and gave him an annoyed look. "It's already midnight, in the middle of a – storm, are you happy? And he's not home yet. I know that job of his is shitty, but they wouldn't keep him this late, in this kind of weather."
"He would've called," Aidan said, patting the empty couch cushion next to him.
"I don't have a good feeling about this." Trisha crossed her arms over his chest and sighed, glancing toward her slicker, hanging on the hook beside the door.
Aidan laughed and sat up, slipping an arm around her and pulling her down with him on the couch. "I'm sure he's fine," he said, giving her a kiss. "They're smart guys. I bet they all headed in at the first signs of the storm." Aidan nuzzled the side of her neck.
Trisha sighed and relaxed into his arms, turning her head to meet his lips. She gave him a light kiss and slid a hand over Aidan's on her waist. "I always hated that stupid job," she complained, rubbing the back of Aidan's hand. "Why couldn't he just do something safer?"
Aidan smiled at her and gave her a squeeze. "I'm sure he's fine, Trish."
Trisha sighed and cast one more longing glance to her yellow rain slicker, before turning to Aidan and wrapping her arms around his neck. "I hope you're right."
"Of course I am." Aidan smiled and dove in for another kiss.
The rabbi said, "Speak now or forever hold your peace," and the seconds melted away like snow, one flake at a time. Aidan heard the nervous hum of the wedding guests, like they were waiting for someone to speak up and praying to God that no one would.
Flurries of snow batted against the stained glass windows like tiny moth's wings, safely kept out.
Aidan looked down at his hands, knuckles as white as the silk kerchief he pulled from the front pocket of his suit coat.
He held his peace.
The noisy, humming silence swelled to a near crescendo, and the rabbi finally cutsthrough it. "By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you – " and Aidan twisted the silk handkerchief so tightly around his fingers that they started to tingle.
Ben leaned in and grazed his lips over Trisha's, briefly, before slipping his arms around her waist, pulling her in close and devouring her.
A cheer rose up at the front of the chapel, and her mother sobbed loudly and theatrically, snapping away with a disposable Kodak.
Ben turned and gave a thumbs up sign, bearing the most glorious smile Aidan had ever seen, all teeth, the corners of his clear blue eyes crinkling. He slipped Trisha's small, delicate hand into his big one and looked at her, and Aidan could almost feel the warmth and the love radiating out of his sky-blue eyes from two-hundred feet away.
They wrapped a champagne glass in a cloth napkin and Ben brought the heel of his shoe down on it. Aidan wasn't expecting the loud, resonant crack that sounded like the snapping of bones. Trisha's family offered blessings, may your children be as the stars of the heavens, and her grandmother, a large woman shaped like a sack of flour in a black dress more suited for a funeral, pulled a handkerchief from her bosom to dab at her eyes.
Trisha raised her skirts and gave Ben's hand another squeeze, pulling him down off the pulpit, and the two of them took their first steps as husband and wife.
Trisha stood in front of the synagogue's picture window, the sinking sun causing the diamonds in her hair to shimmer like they were caught aflame. She raised a glass of champagne to her lips and sipped daintily, pinkie finger extended.
Aidan stepped up behind her and rested a hand gently on her back. "Hey."
Trisha choked on the champagne and spun around, skirts whirling. "Aidan," she exclaimed, reaching up to dab her fingertips at her eyes, "you scared me. Don't ever sneak up on me like that again!" But she was smiling, and she slid her hand over his arm, squeezing.
Aidan paused, took in her glistening blue eyes. "Everything okay?"
"Oh," she said, lowering her glass, "everything's fine. Just – taking it all in, you know?" She smiled, setting the glass down on the window's marble ledge. "I can hardly believe I'll be Mrs. Benjamin Reichert in less than a week."
"It's a lot to handle, isn't it?" Aidan offered her a slight smile.
"Yeah. We're not kids playing house anymore," she said, crossing her arms under her breasts. "We're grown-ups now."
Aidan gave her bare arm a squeeze. "You'll be fine," he said reassuringly.
Trisha sat down on the window's ledge and gathered up her skirts, kicking her feet, her sparkly rhinestone slippers dangling from her feet. "I'm sure I will be," she said with a sigh. "It's just – overwhelming, I guess."
Aidan took a seat beside her and slipped an arm around her waist. "I guess it makes sense that you're nervous," he said, trying to find the right words to make her feel better. "It'll pass."
"Try telling that to Ben," Trisha muttered, pressing a hand to her mouth too late. She sagged against Aidan's side and pressed her hands briefly against her face before clasping them in her lap. "We had a fight."
Aidan gave her waist a squeeze. "He'll come around," Aidan said, rubbing her back in slow circles. "He always does."
"He was so angry this time. He just stormed out to compose himself," Trisha said, with a grumbling sigh. "You can probably catch him if you go now."
"I think you need me more right now. Ben will be fine on his own." Aidan looked down at her and smiled, reaching to tuck her disheveled hair behind her ear. Aidan stroked his fingers lightly against her cheek and Trisha reached up to touch the back of his hand.
Aidan leaned in and brushed his lips against Trisha's before pulling back and staring at the ground. He raised a hand to his mouth and stole a nervous glance Trisha's way.
Trisha was smiling at him.
She slipped a hand over his and squeezed, before getting to her feet. "Come on, Aidan," she said, gathering her skirts. "They're going to wonder where we've been."
"Come on, Aid." Ben tugged at Aidan's hands, pulling him toward the kitchen. "You've gotta meet my girl. I mean, I can't very well marry her without the Aidan McKenzie seal of approval."
"You said the same thing about the last girl," Aidan grumbled, allowing Ben to drag him toward the kitchen. "And that relationship didn't last – what, a month?"
"She wasn't the one! But Patricia is. I swear to it." Ben pushed open the door leading to the kitchen and herded Aidan inside. "Trish? This is Aidan, my best friend."
Patricia – Trisha? – was standing in front of the kitchen counter, flipping through that day's newspaper. She straightened up and turned around, and smiled when she set eyes on Ben.
"Aidan? Ben's told me so much about you. Patricia Heller, but please, call me Trisha." She held out a hand to Aidan and he took it, turning it over and pressing a light, chivalrous kiss to the back of her hand. Trisha laughed. "Such a gentleman."
Trisha was beautiful, the most beautiful girl Aidan had ever seen. Of course she and Ben would be drawn together. Trisha was fine as china and doll-like, delicate and blonde, and Ben was big and dark, with an engaging smile and clear blue eyes. Ben and Trisha went together like a photograph and its negative.
Aidan met Trisha's eyes and smiled, giving her hand a light squeeze before slipping his away. "Ben's been talking about you so much since he got home from college, I feel like I've known you all my life."
Trisha's smile widened and she ducked her head, modestly. "Ben likes to flatter," she said, but Aidan could tell she was pleased.
"I don't think he was flattering you," Aidan said, and Trisha laughed. He glanced at Ben, who was beaming, and gave him a thumbs up.
Ben strode forward and slapped Aidan heartily on the back before slipping his arms around Trisha and lifting her off the ground, twirling her in the air. Trisha squealed and laughed, tightening her arms around Ben's neck. "Hear that, Trisha? Aidan likes you?" Ben winked at Aidan over Trisha's head.
Aidan looked at Trisha in Ben's arms, then Ben, who looked as happy as Aidan had ever seen him, and offered him a smile. "So, when's the wedding?"