Written for a contest; here's to hoping.
She was on the old swings in Chesterfield Park when Kate got to see her again.
At first she thought it was just another child swinging across the sunset, bare feet flying and long hair tangling itself as it tore through the air. Lauren was certainly petite enough to be mistaken for a kid. But as Kate stepped towards the nearest bench, dinner in hand, the greeting that drifted through the cool air was unmistakable.
She started and nearly dropped her bagel, lips puckering in confusion before widening into the truest smile she had given in weeks.
"Scout? What're you doin' here so early?"
Lauren stumbled only slightly as she leapt from the swing. Waist-length, mousy brown hair fell as freely as ever – Lauren would never put it up, even when they were young – as she dashed to give Kate a virtual body slam of a hug.
"Thought I'd see this rusty old thing again before coming to your place. I'm amazed it still holds me, actually."
Something inside of her that had been missing for a long time clicked back into place as Lauren casually slid her hand into hers, swinging them gently as they turned their back on the park bench. Lauren stooped to grab her flip-flops, and then they walked, attempting to fill each other in on the last two years in less than ten minutes. Kate only half-listened as her friend's animated voice mingled with the dusk song of crickets; the stars began to peak through their little cuts in the sky. She had come out here to escape, but maybe now, with reinforcements, she could go back again.
Then Lauren's voice took a jarring new turn.
"Wait, this is stupid. I haven't even asked you anything about the wedding yet, and I'm the maid of honor!"
Kate's smile faltered a bit.
Her mother was "a force to be reckoned with."
That was just how it was. For as long as Kate could remember, her parents' disagreements had ended in her father shaking his head, announcing that she was indeed a "force to be reckoned with," and giving it up as a bad job. Kate wasn't entirely sure whether that was meant as a compliment or not, but then again, this was her mother. She was a short Italian woman with flashing eyes, a cross around her neck, and ever-pursed red lips.
"Yes, this one I like," she heard her say loudly to the saleswoman. "Much better than that horribly [I]street[/I] outfit she had on before…"
Lauren snorted, but Kate's hands subtly clutched at the fabric at her sides.
"I don't see what was so 'street' about it, Mom," she said as calmly as she could. Today was a bad day, and it had everything to do with the dress she was tripping over.
"Don't be ridiculous; I could see half of your breasts in that hideous thing."
"Twirl around!" a younger voice called.
She performed a reluctant three-sixty turn, the white gown rippling gently against her ankles. The bodice itched horribly. Kate ignored the admiring voices of her cousins and bridesmaids as she faced the mirror again, scrutinizing the dress for the flaws she knew had to be hidden there. An olive-skinned girl with hips just a bit too wide for her liking stared back at her, but she had more important things on her mind right now, more abstract reasons to hate the dress in its soft, delicate white. Lauren wolf-whistled playfully, and Kate found herself begrudging her for daring to enjoy this.
"Smile for us, gorgeous!" called a cousin, and she tore her gaze away from the mirror to oblige. This dress, she reluctantly admitted to herself, was beautiful. The symbolism of it all was what she hated. Innocence. First love. Happiness and light. The start of a beautiful life with a soulmate.
As her mother began price negotiations, she slipped into the changing room with Lauren.
"So this one's the keeper?" she asked cheerfully.
She turned around to let Lauren undo the criss-crossed laces down her back. The engagement ring, a beautiful blue stone set in silver, had never felt heavier on her finger.
A breath, abruptly warm against her neck.
"The dress is great, but your smile sucks." The fingers sent goosebumps down her spine.
"Bet you do better when you walk down that aisle, hmm?"
A sick feeling settled in Kate's stomach as Lauren flung the expensive fabric left and right with almost mad buoyancy.
"Cut it out," she said quietly.
"When you go up to meet your sweetheart," Lauren practically sang, giving her skin a vicious pinch. "When you become one, or whatever it is you guys believe - "
Kate's face grew hot as she spun around to argue, to shake some sense into her, make her see that she hated this, she hated it all –
But she was already leaving the room, laughing loudly at a joke that the girl stuck in the folds of an itchy white dress couldn't quite catch.
That night, Kate dreams.
She stands on a beach in Hawaii she has seen as a child, all volcanic black rock and odd gray sand, the dusky world of in-between. Oysters spin on the ocean froth as their pearls whisper petty secrets in her ear.
"He's perfect," they say. "He'll give you a shoulder to cry on, an arm to lean on, an ever-ready ear and his beautiful blue eyes. He loves you."
"Yes," she says.
"You will grow old together."
"No, that's all wrong," she says. "I want to want it. But I don't."
"It will be beautiful."
She wants to scream. "No. No, it won't."
"Why not?" Her mother's voice now. Her father's. Her cousins'. Her fiancé's.
Then that one, sacred voice asks, and her heart breaks a little just to hear it as soft fingers run down her back.
"You know why."
Kate had met her fiancé as a client in her salon. "I want something shorter than this," Aaron had said, and she remarked that that was probably a good thing, as she would have some difficulty making his hair longer with the scissors. His laugh was loud and unabashed, no matter how bad the joke. He was sensible yet charming, a progressive social studies teacher just out of college. He looked people directly in the eyes when they were talking, and was fascinated by travel and old Gene Kelly movies. He was gracious and loving, and Kate could ask for nothing more.
Which, of course, made it all the worse.
He sat with his arm around her as they watched Singin' in the Rain. Gene and his friends danced around the house and assured the audience that it was indeed a good morning. Kate mentally counted the days until the caterers would arrive, until the wedding, until the reception. Their first house, their first child. The rest of their lives.
The night before the wedding, Aaron had his bachelor party, and Kate's friends overran her little house for a party of their own. The evening was a whirl of loud music and congratulations, alcohol and lewd speculations. It was bearable at first, but after she had had a couple of beers she felt suffocated from all sides, hot and dizzy and surrounded and it was just too much, she had to escape, and she felt almost sick as she retreated to the back porch through the pressing bodies. She rejoiced in the cool air against her forehead and the calming darkness against her skin.
"Tha's funny. You us'lly like a good party."
Lauren was already there, beer in hand. She had flown back in the night before; they had chosen her outfit together, but now there was some sort of stain on her tank top that looked vaguely like mustard.
"Us'lly like a good party," she repeated, as if to herself, as she leaned on the wooden rail, watching the fireflies with interest. Her eyes jumped to each little light, but they moved clumsily, drunkenly.
"Yeah, well…nerves," Kate said quietly. Lauren was frustrating. She would laugh and tease, act supportive and obnoxious all in one dose. All Kate wanted was for her to loathe the marriage, give her a good reason for hating it. Was that too much to ask?
Her stomach twisted as she saw the familiar way she hooked her long hair behind her ear.
She was about to say something more when Lauren cut across her, her voice unnaturally loud.
"I don' get it, really."
"Don't get what?"
"You. I don' understand it. You're…it'd be so easy. So goddamn easy." There was a tint of bitterness now, and a creeping sensation on her arms told Kate that she didn't want to be having this conversation anymore.
"We should go in."
"So goddamn easy."
"You have a stain down your shirt. We can - "
"This world could be a real blue one, y' know." She set her beer on the railing.
"Blue. Y' know blue. 'S a color."
"I know it's a color."
"I'm telling you, this world could be a violent blue."
Silence, except for the pounding music behind them and the babble of smothered voices, interchangeable, unimportant.
"You're drunk," Kate finally said, "and really hard to understand."
"You understand me alright."
"No, not really."
"You understand me alright. It's me that doesn't understand you. 'S not hard. Wouldn't be hard."
Lauren sought her eyes as she raised her wrists in front of her face, miming pulling them away from each other in one quick jerk, ripping apart manacles of crepe paper and reception napkins folded like swans.
Her eyes were too focused.
"'Cause you don't love him, right?"
"Don't you dare tell me who to love." The words came in a defensive, meaningless rush.
They held each other's gaze for a long time.
Then Lauren shrugged and walked away.
The wedding was held at Chesterfield Park, in sight of the same old swing set that had enchanted them as children. It had been their stomping ground, their airship, their catapult as they flew across the summer sky. Now it was old, and the paint was peeling off of the blue metal beams, and Kate thought that it was the most perfect thing in the world.
The day was bright and clear, and everyone remarked on the azure, cloudless sky. Kate couldn't understand how this could be a good thing – without clouds, the afternoon would be stifling. A luxurious tent was set up for the bridal party's last preparations, and a large pavilion stood ready for the reception. Their church aisle would be a natural one, formed of trees arching gracefully over them as sunlight streamed through the branches and speckled their skin with gold. They all agreed that it would be a beyond beautiful spot for Aaron to kiss his blushing bride.
She sat in the thickly patterned, golden tent in front of a bronze mirror as her bridesmaids fawned over her, all in a rather giggly mood.
"Not much time left," her mother said briskly, fussing over Kate's hair. "Maybe about twenty minutes until the service starts. Don't touch that, Katelyn, you'll ruin the curl. You'd all better go to your places. Where'd Lauren get to?"
The girls left in a huddle, her mother close behind, scanning the area for the maid of honor.
Then there was silence, and Kate was left alone with her reflection.
The serenity of the mirror was suddenly too much, and she was seized with the desire to throw something, to smash –
She stood and stepped back abruptly, biting down on her fist. That would not do. She was a lady, about to marry the perfect man in the wedding of her dreams. It would not do to break now, after withstanding everything else…
There were deep bite marks on her knuckle when she drew her hand away.
"Your time is up," she told her reflection sternly. "Your time is up, you idiot." Her voice cracked on the last word.
Deep breaths now.
She hadn't meant to say it, but the next thing to brush her lips felt somehow truer.
And then she wasn't alone anymore.
Kate turned, and her breath caught in her throat.
She was standing in the entrance, her own peculiar beauty making the pale blue dress she wore seem dim in comparison. Her hair floated around her shoulders, brushed and shining, and she wore a tiny choker necklace that made Kate self-conscious of the heirloom diamond around her own neck. For once Lauren was not smiling, and her eyes held such gravity that Kate wondered if, for the past months, she had been truly smiling at all.
"Your hair isn't done," the bride said shakily.
"I figured if I really had to get it done, you could do it. Like back then."
"Cutting it a little close, aren't you?"
Lauren gave a noncommittal shrug. She walked into the tent and sat on the stool where Kate had been moments before. She watched in the mirror as Kate gathered up the many strands, pulling them from around her neck and ears.
She worked in silence, creating a simple French braid as they had done for one another when they were children. Lauren wouldn't put up with anything else. Now her fingers were surer, her work more elegant as she twisted the smooth, soft hair. In, around, under. Like childhood hide and seek, or an adolescent crush.
"How did we start calling each other Jem and Scout?" she asked abruptly.
Lauren smiled wanly.
"It was after we read the book, of course. To Kill a Mockingbird. We both wanted to be Scout, but I won at rock-paper-scissors."
They talked softly of half-remembered things, teachers and imaginary pets, brownies they tried to make, competitions on the old swing set.
Kate tied off the braid and put in the white daisy reserved for Lauren's hair, just above her right ear. She hesitated before standing up straight; a hand touched her cheek.
In that moment, Lauren kissed her.
It was soft and sweet and tasted of her chocolate lip balm, a childish flavor all her own. It was so different from the kiss of two years ago. That had been the product of fire and desperation. That had been all mixed up in guilt and passion, and a horrible, stinging shame.
This was a thing of light and air and shady trees in summertime.
It felt like a wedding dress, and it tasted like goodbye.
Then they drew away, as if from a fragmented dream, and Lauren stood up.
"You're going to do this?" Her tone was even.
"Yes." The word came as a frantic breath, a sudden, terrifying rush of perspective – what was she doing, oh God, this was it, this was everything – and she gulped down tears. "I have to, I can't - "
"Yeah, I know."
Kate flinched, but there was no blame in her voice, only an accepting sort of sadness. Lauren smiled, small and bittersweet and courageous. Her eyes were moist, but she did not cry.
In that moment, Kate wanted to take everything back, to call off the marriage, to run away right now and start a new life far away from all of this, from family and expectations and her wonderful, perfect, kind fiancé.
But Lauren gave her a parting touch on the hand, smiled again, and left the tent to find the place she should have been standing fifteen minutes ago.
Then it didn't matter if Kate cried, because no one was there to see it.
The music began to play.
She took a deep breath and forced back the desperate ache building in her chest. Best not to think right now. It was a bit late for second thoughts. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, careful not to smear the mascara. She smoothed her dress and patted her hair, though she knew it was perfect. Yes, best not to think.
She stepped into the sunlight.
Her father took her arm with a smile that she returned shakily, and the dizzy sea of happy faces swiveled around to watch.
Aaron stood at the end of the grove, radiant.
Slowly, heart pounding, she went forward to become his bride.