Posts Tagged ‘romance’

Chapter Six

Posted: October 6, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Two

     Getting rid of all signs of Jack proved harder than she’d hoped.

     Maddie quickly found that when you share a life with someone, the vast majority of your belongings are jointly acquired or have some kind of memory attached; she was surprised to realize that very little in the apartment was solely “hers”. Even the damn towels had been housewarming gifts from his mother.

     She cranked up some music and started with the bed. Singing loudly, she felt the sadness start to fade, replaced with the same intense rage she’d experienced in the choir closet. She ripped the sheets off, tugging at a stubborn corner until she heard the elastic rip; undaunted, she kept pulling, until the whole thing tore and the bedding was reduced to two sad halves. She stuffed them in a garbage bag and considered the pillow cases; after a moment she removed her own, added them to the bag, then grabbed both of Jack’s pillows and shoved them in too.

     The comforter slowed her down. It was old, a worn quilt she’d inherited from her grandmother; she couldn’t toss it, but she knew from experience that she couldn’t wash it in the machines downstairs either – it wouldn’t fit. She resolved to spray it with something, to cover Jack’s scent until she could get to the laundromat.

     The bed taken care of, she turned her attention to the rest of the room. A framed photo went in the bag; so did Jack’s deodorant, cologne and comb, swept off the dresser and into the trash. She grabbed handfuls of clothes off the floor, shoving them in until the bag bulged and she had to shake out a new one to continue.

     “I told you I’d throw it out,” she muttered. “Never could find the fucking hamper.”

     Throwing open the closet, she yanked shirts off of hangers. Out went the polo he’d worn on their first date; the dress shirts she’d bought for his new job; the souvenir t-shirt from their 5-year anniversary cruise. She filled the second bag, and then a third. She threw away boxers, and socks. She cut all the laces, laughing, and threw away his shoes.

     Sweating now, she wrestled the bags out the door and into the hallway. She was so intent on checking for her keys and getting things situated for the haul down to the dumpster, she didn’t notice at first that she had an audience.


     She jumped and turned, letting out a relieved laugh when she realized it was her neighbor. The laughter died when she saw the look he was giving her and her mountain of garbage.

     “Spring cleaning,” she offered, giving him a weak smile.

     “It’s October.” The old man furrowed his brow. “Shouldn’t you be on your honeymoon?”

     She felt her face grow hot and looked away. An uncomfortable silence stretched between them, made all the more mortifying when she realized her vision was wavering; she grit her teeth, determined not to cry in front of anyone, least of all a neighbor she barely knew.

     He finally cleared his throat. “Well, ah, I must have had the date wrong. Jack, uh…he asked me to get your papers, so…I’ll bring today’s over later.”

     She nodded, still not raising her eyes. When he turned away she sighed with relief and bent back to her task, gathering the bags as best she could and shuffling down the hall.


     She stopped again, closing her eyes. Please, she begged silently. Please just go inside.

     Fighting to keep the impatience out of her voice, she turned back toward him. “Yes?”

     “Do you want some help?” He fidgeted, clearly ill at ease but desperate to fix it. “You can’t take all those down by yourself. You’ll fall and bust your head.”

     She winced against the quick flash of blood that his words evoked. Forcing herself to smile, she shook her head. “I’m fine. Really.” She didn’t want him to touch the bags; this was her job. Her catharsis.

     He reached out, ignoring her refusal, and tried to grab one anyway. Before she could shove herself between his hand and his target, he stopped; his face screwed up, his eyes disappearing as everything between his forehead and his chin squinched tight.

     What in the-


     The sneeze startled her into dropping her bags. She watched his face screw up for another, and let out a burst of laughter.


     He wiped a sleeve across his face and smiled. “My wife always laughed when I sneezed,” he said, chuckling a little himself. “She said I made the same face as when I-”

     “Don’t!” Maddie shrieked, holding up a hand.

     He grinned broadly and gave her a wink, which only made her laugh harder. He watched her for a moment, looking pleased, then patted her arm. “That’s better. Pretty girls like you should smile, not cry.”

     It was her turn to wipe her face; despite what he’d said, a few tears had escaped, though they were tears of release, not sadness.

     “You’re a dirty old man,” she teased.

     He started to reply, then stopped again. She giggled, waiting for the face.

     Instead, he coughed.

     Maddie recoiled, her amusement instantly replaced with terror. It wasn’t a harsh cough, or a long one; nonetheless, she backed away, stumbling over the bags in her haste to put distance between them.

     “Sorry,” he said. “Little cold, I guess.” He looked at her face and stepped forward, concerned. “Are you okay?”

     She nodded quickly. She knew she was being ridiculous; people coughed all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Drugs, she told herself. They said it was drugs.

     Not all that comforted by the reminder, she took another step back. “I can’t get sick,” she said, hoping her voice sounded less frantic than she felt. “You should go rest. I’ve got these.”

     He stood for a moment, clearly baffled by her sudden change in mood, before shrugging. “Suit yourself, dear. You know where I am if you change your mind.”

     She was already halfway down the hall, dragging the bags behind her, aware that she was being rude and insane but unable to stop herself. By the time she’d registered what he’d said and turned to offer a thanks, he was gone, his door swinging shut behind him.

     She bit her lip, fear giving way to embarrassment. She considered knocking, apologizing, accepting his help. The fear wasn’t gone as far as all that, though; she stood frozen in the hall, unable to make herself walk toward the door.

     Drugs. Mr. Webber doesn’t do drugs!

     Does he?

     Sighing, she heaved her bags up and trudged away.


     She managed not to fall down the stairs.

     In the end she hauled 12 bags down to the dumpster; by the time night fell she was sweaty, exhausted and furious again. Her anger grew as more stuff moved off the shelves and into the garbage, as more and more of her home, her life, disappeared. On her last trip down she stood at the landing and hurled the bag down the steps, then kicked it the rest of the way out the door. When she tossed it into the dumpster and slammed the lid down, she imagined it was Jack’s body she was throwing away.

     Her mother called. And called again. And then again. She couldn’t bring herself to answer; every time she tried she thought about Grace’s statement about needs and muted the phone. After 10 missed calls she sent a perfunctory text, assuring Grace she was alive, and shut it off.

     She settled into her stripped-down living room, poured a large glass of wine and sat back, staring at the only photograph she’d decided to keep: Jack, Holly, Chrissy and herself, taken the night of the engagement party. Looking at it now, she wondered if they were sleeping together when it was taken, Jack and his whore. She wondered how she could have ever believed that a man like him would choose a woman like her over someone like Holly. Fresh-faced, confident, with a perfect smile and perfect hair – of course Jack had fallen for her. She fit into his world far better than Maddie ever had, or ever would.

     “Never should have chosen such pretty friends,” she told her photo-self. “The ugly friend never gets the prince. Not really.”

     She remembered that Chrissy wasn’t a “pretty friend” anymore, not with half her face gone, and gulped the contents of her glass. Selfish. Selfish bitch. No wonder you’re alone.

     She poured another glass and closed her eyes. She tried to remember when she and Jack had been happy, to bring up an image of him like the one she’d conjured effortlessly the day before, when she’d been naïve and in love, waiting to get married. All she could picture was the choir room, and his face as he’d lied to her. Six years of memories, crowded out now by a glint of beads and a limp condom.

     She emptied the second glass and poured another.

     The alcohol was working now; a comfortable numbness spread through her body, and her hand felt impossibly heavy as she lifted the glass to drink more. Drunk and alone. Pathetic.

     She stared dully at the wall. Images moved slowly across the bare plaster, fading in and out of focus: Jessie in her tight dress, tottering across the room; Marion’s furious face; poor Mr. Baum and his cursed cremons. Disaster! The handsome stranger, his dark eyes on her; the feel of his hand on her arm. He’d touched her, hadn’t he? What was his name? He saved us all, she thought dreamily. Her nipples tingled.

     Startled, she sat up, spilling wine down her arm. The room spun. Fumbling, she tried to set the wine down; her hand felt disconnected from the rest of her. There was a tinkle of glass and she blinked, watching as the red liquid spread slowly across the table.

     Blood everywhere. She fell back. That’ll be a bitch to clean up.

     She closed her eyes again, and finally passed out.

Chapter Five

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     At her mother’s insistence, Maddie spent what should have been her wedding night alone in her childhood bedroom.

     She’d tried to argue. After Jack and Chrissy had been hauled off to the hospital and Holly had fled the scene, slapped face burning, the police had descended; three hours of questioning later, Grace had snatched Maddie’s keys and hustled her into the family car, ignoring her protests.

     “It’s a three hour drive back to the city,” Grace had pointed out. “You’re exhausted, upset and in no shape to drive.”

     “Jessie is going back,” Maddie had whined.

     “Jessie has someone else driving her. You think I’d let her drive herself anywhere today?”

     She’d started to pout, until she’d noticed that, despite Grace’s even tone, her hands were shaking. The woman had kept it together during the interminable interviews, the arrival of the coroner’s van and removal of the photographer’s body, and the curious questions from the guests who’d stuck around to find out what had happened. Maddie had feared that any further pushing would send her mother straight off the edge and into a breakdown.

     The officers who’d arrived to assess the scene hadn’t been thrilled with what they’d found, and they’d treated the remaining witnesses like criminals until it had been determined, to Grace’s immense relief, that Vinnie had acted in self-defense. When asked what could possibly have caused the photographer to act the way he had after being resuscitated, they’d put forward what Maddie was calling The Drug Theory. It was what she’d obsessed over during the drive to her parents’ house, and what she was obsessing over now, slumped in her old desk chair, letting her mother’s desperate chatter fade like white noise into the background.

     Officer Drugs had claimed that LSD or something like it was to blame. “There was a case down in Miami last year,” he’d explained. “Just like this one. Guy ate another guy’s face.”

     “Are you serious?” Maddie had been appalled.

     The officer had shrugged. “They only ever found weed in him, but lots of people still think it was some kind of super drug. Who knows what they have on the street these days, you know?”

     “Yeah, but…” Maddie had trailed off, uncertain. “He didn’t seem high.”

     “You said yourself that he seemed sicker than he’d said he was, right?” At Maddie’s nod, the officer had clapped his hands. “See? Drugs. Probably worked on him different, ‘cause he had a cold, and fu- messed him up. Guarantee they’ll find something when they do tests.” He’d finally stopped and looked at Maddie, sudden compassion on his face. “You couldn’t have known he was high. People walk around high all the time and nobody notices.”

     Maddie considered again how reassuring that was – anybody could be walking around, strung out on whatever the photographer had been on, waiting to eat a stranger’s face. She shuddered, wanting to move away from that thought before she became a paranoid mess, and forced herself to pay attention to her mother.

     “Everything is clean,” Grace was saying. “I just washed the sheets, you know, I wash them every week, and the pillows are brand new.”

     “You wash the sheets every week?” Maddie stared at her mother in disbelief. “I haven’t slept here in months, Mom.”

     “Oh, well, I know. I know that. But sheets get dusty, you know. You should always have fresh sheets.”


     “Why don’t you take a nice bath, and I’ll get some sweats for you to wear? You should change. You don’t want- you shouldn’t sleep in those clothes. You should change.”

     Maddie didn’t want to take a bath, or change. She wanted to crawl into bed – her own bed, preferably, but this one would do – crawl in, cocoon, and cry herself to sleep. Maybe, when she woke up, she would recognize her life again.


     “There are clean towels, and some soap, and I think there’s a hair brush. There should be, I can get you one, I’ll grab mine while you’re in. And a drink! I’ll make tea. Something gentle, so you can slee-”


     Grace flinched, and Maddie realized that she’d yelled a little too loudly. She was instantly ashamed. She’s trying, she chastised herself. None of this is her fault.

     “I think I’ll just take a shower,” she said, her tone gentler.

     Grace nodded. “I’ll make the tea.” She turned to go, then hesitated, hand on the door jam. When she brought her gaze up to meet Maddie’s, there were tears in her eyes.

     “Mommy.” Maddie went to her, allowing herself to be wrapped in a hug so tight she feared her ribs might crack.

     “I’m so glad it wasn’t you.” Grace pulled back to look at Maddie’s face, brushing a strand of hair away from her daughter’s cheek. “That’s terrible, I know. It’s terrible. But I just- the CPR. I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

     Maddie looked away, not able to bear the terrible sadness and shame in her mother’s eyes. She merely nodded, staring at the floor, until Grace finally released her and left her alone.

     Once she was gone Maddie headed into the bathroom and stripped, keeping her eyes carefully away from the mirror over the sink. She didn’t want to see what she looked like; she wanted to hold on to the image of herself from that morning, the beautiful bride who’d existed for a single short hour, for just a few more minutes.

     Eyes closed, she stepped under the hot spray of the shower, turning the knob until she thought the temperature might scald her skin. As she reached for the soap, she felt something loosen in her chest and throat, a pressure that had built up over the course of the day and was at last being released.

     She worked the lather through her hair and lifted her face, allowing the water to wash over her, cleansing away the last traces of Mrs. Jack Cooper.

     Alone at last, she finally, finally allowed herself to cry.


     The next morning, over breakfast, she fought with her mother.

     “Daddy picked up your car,” Grace said, setting a cup of coffee and plate full of food on the table. Maddie looked at the food with revulsion, her stomach queasy and unsettled after a long night of little sleep; she pushed it away in favor of the coffee, ignoring Grace’s glare of disapproval.

     She took a moment to relish a hot sip of caffeine before speaking. “I should leave after breakfast,” she said. “I have a lot to do.”

     “Really?” Grace raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

     “Washing sheets,” Maddie snapped.

     Grace rolled her eyes. “You should stay here for a few days. I don’t want you all alone in that apartment.”

     “I want to be alone.” Maddie reached out and grabbed the toast off her plate, shredding the crust into crumbs as she talked. “I need to think.”

     “You can think here.”

     “I want to sleep in my own bed, Mom. I want to get drunk, and cry, and throw away his shit. I can’t do that here.”

     Grace pursed her lips. “The hospital is here.”

     “I know.” Maddie sighed. “I talked to Chrissy’s mom last night, and she can’t have visitors for a few days; they need to protect her from infection.” She swallowed hard, picturing her friend’s mangled face. She pushed the image away before her stomach could revolt. “I’ll drive back down to see her when she’s ready.”

     “And Jack?”

     Maddie jerked her head up, surprised. “What about Jack?”

     Grace shifted under her daughter’s angry gaze. “He’s hurt too. You should see him.”

     “Please.” Maddie laughed. “He’s fine; nothing like what happened to Chrissy.” She attacked another piece of toast. “Besides, he probably already has company.”

     “I’m sure Marion would let you-”

     “I’m sure Marion would not,” Maddie said. “And you know I didn’t mean her.”

     “She’s your friend,” Grace ventured.

     “She is not!” Maddie exploded. “What is your problem? You did this yesterday, and it’s pissing me off. He fucked her. At our wedding. Stop defending them!”

     “I’m not defending anyone,” Grace insisted. “I’m just saying, people make mistakes, Madelyn.”

     “It wasn’t a mistake,” Maddie said, her voice bitter. “They’re in love. Holly said.”

     “No, you told me that she loves him. That doesn’t mean he feels the same way.” Grace hesitated, then continued. “Sometimes men, you know, they become vulnerable. They have a need, and girls like Holly-”

     “They have a need?” Maddie gaped, unable to believe what she was hearing. “Seriously? So this is my fault? I didn’t meet his needs?”

     “That’s not what I said!” Grace slammed her hand down on the table, causing Maddie to jump. “You don’t listen, Madelyn. You hear what you want to hear.”

     Maddie pushed her chair back, disgusted. “I don’t need this, Mom.” Heading into the kitchen, she rifled through the clutter on the counter before finding and grabbing her keys. “I’m going home. I’ll call you.”

     She stomped toward the door, seething and on the verge of angry tears. Her mother called out behind her, begging her to stop, to not make the trip home angry, but she kept on. She made sure to slam the door good and hard on her way out.

     Once in the car she paused, key in the ignition, and lean forward to rest her forehead on the steering wheel. The tears came again, hot as they spilled down her face, and she didn’t fight them.

     I gave him everything, she thought desperately. He was all I needed. What else did he want?

     She wasn’t going to find the answer while bawling in her parents’ driveway. Taking deep breaths, she waited for the wave of grief to ebb, then wiped her face and turned the key. With luck, she thought she’d be home before the next wave hit.

     As she reversed down the driveway she glanced up, and saw her mom, standing at the front door. Grace raised her hand, waving, a gesture Maddie refused to return.

     Driving away, Maddie had the sudden, inexplicable feeling that she should go back. She fought the urge to turn around, run inside and hug her mother tight, to promise that she’d stay.

     Stupid. I’ll call her later.

     Shaking off the odd feeling, she sighed, turned up the radio and started the long, lonely drive back to the city.

Chapter Four

Posted: September 22, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     To Maddie it seemed like everyone around her leapt into action while she remained frozen, staring at the possibly dead body on the floor.

     He said it was a cold. And then, I already paid him in full.

     Marion stalked over to the fallen man and grabbed Chrissy by the arm, shaking her. “You think he’s dead? Is he breathing?”

     “I don’t know!” Chrissy’s eyes were wild, her voice high with panic. “He doesn’t have a pulse! I don’t feel anything!”

     “Well check him again!”

     Chrissy fumbled at the photographer’s neck with shaky hands. After a few seconds she shook her head. “Nothing.”

     “Somebody give me my purse.” Jack leapt up to do his mother’s bidding, his injuries seemingly forgotten. Marion snatched the bag from him and rummaged, cursing. “I must have left it in the car.”

     “Left what?” Maddie looked up, tearing her eyes away from the body with some effort. The stranger who had helped Jack was the one who had spoken. Maddie wondered who he was; maybe a cousin of Jack’s? Does it matter? Your photographer just died!

     “My cell phone.” Marion looked around the room. “Somebody give me theirs. We need to call 9-1-1.”

     Bill fumbled in his pockets, pulling out a handful of paper and a wad of tissues before finally finding his phone. He handed it over, then glanced back down at the pages still in his hand. He offered them to Maddie.

     “My speech.” He laughed suddenly, a barking laugh that made everyone whip around to look at him. “It was about that phrase, you know, ‘til death do you part’?” He laughed harder, tears rolling down his face. “I said – oh – I said you’d probably kill Jack!” He bent over, holding his stomach. “Oh my god. Oh my god, it’s not even funny!”

     Maddie felt a laugh of her own rising up and clamped down on it, hard. Bill was beside himself, collapsing into a chair as he continued giggling, and she knew, if he didn’t stop, he’d start screaming. He’d lost control.

     At that moment Blake returned, cup of water in hand but not, thankfully, with Father Davis in tow. He took in the scene and stopped dead in his tracks.

     “What the hell?!”

     Maddie’s mother grabbed the cup and, in one fluid movement that bespoke her name, turned, took a step forward and flung the contents in Bill’s face. His laughter abruptly stopped.

     “What’s going on?” Blake demanded. “How-”

     “Sshh!” Marion hissed. When he was silent she returned her attention to the phone. “Okay, yes, we have him on his back.” She listened. “Well, he was ill before he collapsed, what if it’s contagious?” Another pause, and she grimaced. “Okay. Hold on.”

     Looking at Chrissy, she said, “You have to do CPR. You could get sick, but the ambulance won’t be here for ten minutes.”

     Chrissy held up her hands as if to ward off a blow. “I don’t know CPR!”

     “It’s okay, they’ll tell me and I’ll tell you.” When Chrissy hesitated Marion snapped, “We can’t just leave him here.”

     Chrissy closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and finally nodded. “Okay. Okay. Tell me what to do.”

     Marion listened again, then began to relay the operator’s instructions. As Chrissy wiped the blood from the photographer’s mouth and prepared to listen for a breath, Marion glanced over and caught Maddie’s eye. She covered the phone’s speaker with her hand.

     “This,” she told Maddie slowly, her voice cold, “Is what happens when you hire off of Craigslist.”

     Maddie closed her eyes, shutting out Marion’s accusing glare, and made no reply. She felt an arm creep around her waist; forgetting herself, she collapsed into the offered embrace.

     “She’s just upset,” Jack murmured into her ear. He squeezed her against his side, a one-armed hug. “None of this is your fault.”

     She turned her head and rested it on his chest, pretending, for just a moment, that everything was fine, that it was all the way it should be. She breathed deeply, allowing him to hold her – until the smell of Holly’s perfume again caught her attention. She jerked away.

     “Maddie.” Jack grabbed her arm, his face earnest. “Please.”

     She shook her head and stepped away, out of his grasp. When he moved to grab her again, the man who had helped him earlier got between them.

     “I wouldn’t.” His voice was low, his tone mild, but something in it gave Jack pause. He looked at the man’s face, then at Maddie, and turned away angrily.

     “Thank you,” Maddie said quietly. He gave her a curt nod. She started to ask for his name when a sudden flurry of activity around the photographer drew both of their attention.

     “Are you sure?” Marion was asking.

     “His hand moved! I saw it!”

     “He’s moving,” Marion said into the phone. “We think he’s m- no, yes, there! He’s moving!” She listened intently. To Chrissy she said, “Check his breathing again, see if you can feel it.”

     Chrissy leaned down again, positioning her ear over his mouth. Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath, waiting.

     After what felt to Maddie like hours, but must have really been twenty to thirty seconds, Chrissy shook her head and started to sit back up. “Nothing. Should I-”

     The photographer’s hand shot up, latching on to the side of Chrissy’s head. She’d turned her face as she was rising; when he pulled her down her mouth met his. It looked as though he was kissing her, grateful to have been saved. Relieved beyond measure, Maddie giggled at the sight.

     Then Chrissy started to scream.

     The sound was muffled at first; for a second Maddie thought it was a cry of outrage. Chrissy struggled, batting at the hand that held her hair, and tried to pull away. Blood poured from her mouth, and Maddie realized, with sudden horror, that the photographer wasn’t kissing her.

     He was biting her.

     A chunk of something hung from his lower lip; Maddie saw his tongue dart out and draw it into his mouth. He chewed frantically, snarling, before jerking Chrissy’s face back down.

     “Hey.” Blake took a step toward them. “Hey! Get off of her!”

     He rushed forward, grabbing Chrissy’s shoulders and pulling back. Her screams intensified as she moved away; her lower lip was caught between the photographer’s teeth. He clamped down, and there was another gush of blood. Chrissy’s scream turned to an agonized shriek.

     “Fucking help me!” Blake yelled.

     The other men rushed in. Bill grabbed the photographer’s hand, fighting to pry his fingers free of Chrissy’s hair. Jack joined Blake in pulling Chrissy back, all of them screaming for the man to let go.

     There was a sudden, nauseating rip, and the three flew backwards, landing in a heap. Grace pulled Chrissy off the pile, crooning at her as she dragged her across the floor. The girl’s screams had turned to guttural moans; as Grace pressed a shirt to the ruins of Chrissy’s face, even those stopped. She lay still and silent, her eyes dull with shock.

     “Where the fuck is the ambulance?!” Marion screamed into the phone.

     The photographer continued to struggle; he grabbed Bill’s leg as he tried to rise, clawing at his pants for leverage. Blake rolled and made a grab for the man’s feet; Jack pushed himself forward, using his weight to propel his body into the man’s chest, knocking him back down.

     “Stay down,” he said, starting to disentangle himself. “Just stay down, you son-of-a-b-”

     His words were cut off as the photographer raised his head, still snarling mindlessly, and sank his teeth into Jack’s chest.

     “No! No! No!” Marion screamed, her voice hysterical. “Get off! Get off of him! WE NEED HELP HERE!”

     She started toward them – to do what, Maddie couldn’t imagine – but was shoved aside. There was a flash of gold. What is that? Is that-

     The stranger brought the trophy down with a thud. Once. Twice. Three times.

     The photographer stilled.

     “Oh my god.” The sound of her own voice sounded foreign to her ears. She stared at the trophy, dangling from his hand; blood dripped from the heavy base. “What did you do?”

     He met her horrified gaze, then looked down, grimacing at the damage he’d wrought. He dropped the trophy and took a step back, wiping his hands on his pants.

     “Is he dead?” Grace leaned forward, over the girl she still held cradled in her lap. “Did you kill him? Is he dead?”

     “I sure hope so,” Marion snapped. She helped her son up and led him to a chair; she’d apparently given up on the 9-1-1 operator, as the phone was nowhere in sight. Removing her jacket, she wadded it up and pressed the pristine silk to Jack’s chest. White quickly turned to red.

     “Is anybody else hurt?”

     Bill pulled up his pant leg and grimaced. “He scratched me, but it’s not that bad. Stings.” He dropped the fabric and looked around. “What was that?”

     Before anyone could answer, the choir room doors burst open and a trio of paramedics hustled in.

     “It’s about goddamn time!”

     The lead medic faltered under Marion’s withering glare, but forged ahead bravely. Setting down his bag, he said, “You have an unconscious male, no pulse, no breath sounds.”

     “We had,” Marion said. She gestured toward the photographer’s body; the medic did a double-take at the man’s head and looked around in alarm.

     “What the hell did you people do?”

     “He went crazy,” Marion explained. She jerked her head in Chrissy’s direction; one of the other medics went immediately to her side, easing her out of Grace’s lap.

     “I thought he was unconscious!”

     “That girl right there did CPR, and he ate her fucking face.” Bill took a step toward the medic, a wild look back in his eye, then stumbled as he put weight on his injured leg. “She was helping him, and he bit her! He bit her face off!”

     The medic turned toward his partner, a skeptical look on his face that faded to one of confusion when the other man nodded. “We need to get her in the bus, Mike. It’s bad.”

     “My son needs to go too,” Marion added. “He’s bleeding a lot.” Maddie saw that it was true – dark blood had saturated the makeshift compress and was oozing between Marion’s fingers. Jack’s face had gone as white as his mother’s outfit.

     Mike the Medic waved his other partner over to them, then looked around again. “Is anybody else bit?” They all shook their heads. He pointed at Bill, who was still teetering off-balance. “You. He bite your leg?”

     “No, just a scratch.” He lifted his pant leg again, showing the scratch that ran down the length of his shin. Maddie winced at the sight; it was puffy and angry-looking, like it was already infected.

     Mike directed Bill to sit and looked the wound over, probing the edges with a gloved hand. “It’s not deep enough for stitches, but we’ll get it cleaned up and look again. Stay right here.” He turned back to the others, his face suddenly cold and hard. “Now, I need to know who did that.”

     Against her will, Maddie found her eyes following the direction of his accusing finger. She realized with a jolt that, while the top of the dead man’s head was a smashed-in mess, the bottom half of his face was unmarred. A piece of Jack’s shirt was still clenched between his teeth.

     Stomach lurching, she turned her head away; a sob escaped her lips before she could stop it.

     Don’t cry, she told herself sternly. If you start, you won’t stop. Don’t. Cry.

     The silence stretched for several agonizing moments, no one wanting to be the one who got their rescuer in trouble, until finally the man himself stepped forward. “I did.”

     The medic nodded, jaw clenched. “You’ll have to talk to the police.”

     “Wait a minute!” Grace moved away from Chrissy, who was still being cared for on the floor. “They can’t arrest him! He had no choice!”


     “No.” Grace cut him off, glaring at the medic with such malice that he took a step back. “We called you. We called you for help and you didn’t come. You left us here.”

     Mike tried again. “Ma’am, we came as soon as we cou-”

     “You didn’t come!” Maddie stared at her, wide-eyed; she’d never heard Grace scream before. “You left us here with that – with that-” She groped fruitlessly for the word she wanted. “You left us here with that, and so he had no choice!”

     She turned, arms out, beseeching. “You had no choice, it’s not your fault Vinnie, it’s okay, you had no choice.” Sobbing now, she collapsed into the man’s arms.

     Maddie watched as the stranger – no, Vinnie – as Vinnie comforted her mom, stroking her hair and whispering to her. When she was quiet he looked up, catching Maddie’s confused look before turning his gaze back to the medic.

     “I did it,” he repeated, patting Grace’s back when she let out another sob. “I’ll talk to them.”

     The medic nodded, looking shell-shocked. Before he could say anything else more people poured into the room, men with two stretchers and bags of supplies. As they worked to load the injured and take them out, Maddie saw a woman hovering outside the open door. Marion strode past her, gripping Jack’s hand and pointedly ignoring the questions being thrown at her. Maddie tried to follow, but a hand grabbed her arm.

     “Please, Maddie.” Holly’s face was red, her cheeks tracked with tear-streaked mascara. “What happened? Where are they taking Jack?”

     Maddie stared at her, waiting for the anger to come back but feeling only exhaustion. “He was hurt,” she said shortly. She tried again to go, and again Holly stopped her.

     “Was it…was it you?” Her eyes searched Maddie’s face. “Did you…was it you?”

     Maddie sighed. “No. The photographer- I don’t know, he was sick, and then he went nuts. Jack tried to stop him, and he got really hurt. He’s bleeding.” She paused. “A lot. Chrissy too. I don’t think it’s good. Chrissy-” She paused again, aware that the quiver in her voice meant she was perilously close to breaking down. With tears in her eyes, she repeated, “I don’t think it’s good.”

     Crying in earnest, Holly grabbed her. She stood, arms stiff at her sides, as the other woman wept against her shoulder. Her gaze darted around, looking for help, but there was no one to rescue her now. She waited, wooden, until Holly finally pulled away.

     “I’m sorry,” Holly said, wiping her face. “I’m so sorry Maddie. It’s just-” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “It’s just that I love him. I love him so much. You know?”

     Maddie considered this for a moment, staring at her friend, who was looking back at her imploringly. There was only one thing she could think to do.

     Taking a deep breath of her own, she smiled sadly.

     And slapped the other girl across the face.

Chapter Three

Posted: September 15, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The couple on the closet floor were so absorbed in what they were doing, they didn’t notice her at first. She had time to take in little details, snapshots of the scene before her that would pop up later, when she tried to sleep.

     The way the hall light reflected off Holly’s silver bridesmaid dress, beadwork shimmering where it bunched around her hips. The dress that Maddie had paid for.

     Jack’s hands on Holly’s breasts, kneading as she moved on top of him.

     The look of ecstasy on her best friend’s face, a look she must have made hundreds of times herself while making love to the same man.

     Maybe she made a sound. Maybe they sensed her angry presence. Holly opened her eyes, and in the second before they widened with fear, Maddie saw it.


     It was gone in a flash, but she knew it had been there. The knowledge stoked her rage higher, so that when she finally spoke it was a scream so filled with pain and fury she thought everyone in the building must have heard.

     “What the fuck are you doing?!”

     Holly was off him in a shot, hurling herself to the side while trying to pull down her skirt and hide her exposed chest. Jack scrambled to his feet, a shell-shocked look on his face; he clearly hadn’t anticipated being caught.

     “Maddie!” He stared at her, still breathing heavily. “It’s not…this isn’t what it looks like.”

     Maddie swept her eyes over Holly, taking in her disheveled clothes, smeared lipstick and just-fucked hair. She glared until the other woman lowered her eyes, then shifted her attention back to Jack, staring pointedly at his crotch. He looked down.

     They both eyed the condom hanging limply through his tuxedo’s open fly.

     He looked back up, a deep blush spreading over his face. Maddie said nothing, waiting to see if he would try another lie or apologize, beg for forgiveness. Maybe cry. She hoped he’d cry.

     Instead, he rounded on Holly.

     “You were supposed to lock the door!”

     Letting loose another scream, Maddie launched herself at him. The force of her anger worked with the element of surprise to overcome the size and strength differences between them; he slammed into the back wall of the closet. The crack of his head against the wood paneling filled her with a savage joy. She bared her teeth in a feral grin and grabbed a fistful of his hair, driving his head back again.

     And again.

     He brought his hands up, feebly trying to push her off. She pressed herself against him, pinning him to the wall; this close, she could smell him, a scent so familiar she could pick it out of a crowd – soap, and aftershave, the woodsy kind she gave him every year for Christmas. Only now it was muddled, mixed with something fruity and floral.

     Perfume. Hers.

     She kicked his shin, cackling when he yelped.

     Dimly, she was aware of others screaming. One was surely Holly; the close proximity of the closet made it seem like an air raid siren was going off by her ear.

     “Shut up!” Maddie yelled, still gripping Jack’s hair. His eyes were unfocused, his face blank; she wondered if he had a concussion yet. She slammed his head again. “Shut up, you stupid bitch, shut up!”

     There were hands on her, grabbing her shoulders, pulling her back. She struggled and kicked, digging her nails into Jack’s scalp, but whoever had her proved too strong and she had to let go. She watched as Jack slid to the floor dazed, shaking his head. Blood trickled down his forehead from where she’d scratched him.

     “Maddie!” Strong arms wrapped around her waist, lifted her up and back, out of the closet and into the hall. She continued to squirm, doubling her efforts when she saw Holly go to Jack’s side, pressing a concerned hand to his face.

     “Get away from him!” Her voice sounded unhinged, even to her own ears. “Get away from him or I’ll kill you, I swear to God, I’ll kill you.”

     Someone pushed past her and went to Jack, helping him to his feet. Others closed around her: her mother; Jack’s cousin Bill; Chrissy, her face pale with shock.

     And Marion, who appeared to be twice as furious as Maddie herself.

     “Get her in the choir room,” the older woman snapped. “And you.” She grabbed Holly’s arm and yanked her up, then shoved her away, hard. Maddie cackled again as she lost her balance and tumbled into the coats. “Get the hell out of here.”

     Holly opened her mouth to object, but Maddie didn’t hear what she said; the arms around her tightened and she found herself being carted down the hall. As Jack and Holly left her sight her energy ebbed, and she slumped against the person carrying her.

     “Here we go,” he said, pushing open the choir room door and depositing her inside.

     “Thank you, Blake.” Pressing a shaking hand to her forehead – the headache was really raging now – she dropped into the nearest chair.

     “No problem, Mads.” Jack’s groomsman knelt in front of her, his face full of worry. “Did I hurt you?”

     “No, no, I’m fine.” She inspected her hands and let out a bitter laugh. “Although, look: I broke a nail.”

     “You’re lucky that’s all you broke.” Marion stormed into the room. “You could have killed my son, you know.”

     “Marion,” Maddie’s mother said, following close on the other woman’s heels, “Don’t be ridiculous. Jack is fine.”

     “No thanks to your daughter!”

     “I’m sure there’s a reason-”

     “Of course there’s a reason! Did you see that little tramp?” Marion scowled. “Her panties were still on the floor.”

     Grace trembled, twisting her necklace between her fingers. “Yes…well.” She cleared her throat and looked around desperately. “This is certainly unacceptable-”

     “Unacceptable?!” Maddie started to rise, until Blake put his hand on her shoulder, halting her. “They were fucking in the closet!”

     “Madelyn!” Grace closed her eyes. “Your language!”

     She gaped at her mother. “My what?!”

     Marion put a hand up. “Be that as it may, it doesn’t excuse assault. I could have you arrested.”

     “Nobody is being arrested, Mother.”

     Jack limped slowly into the room, supported on either side by Bill and a man Maddie didn’t know. Chrissy was close behind, with the photographer bringing up the rear.

     “I don’t think we’ll be needing pictures,” Marion said, eyeing the man with disgust.

     “Relax, Mom.” Jack sat gingerly in a chair, staying, Maddie noted, on the other side of the room, as far from her as possible.

     “I told him to come with us; he needs to sit down somewhere.” Jack waved the man in. “Have a seat. Blake will get you some water.”

     Blake looked at Maddie and frowned. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’m fine. I won’t try to kill anyone while you’re gone.” She winked for good measure, but he only frowned harder.

     “Oh for God’s sake, Blake, just go!” Marion ran a hand through her hair, frustration all over her face. “And get Father Davis. We need to speak with him.”

     “What for?” Maddie asked. “So we can tell him the groom was just caught fucking the bride’s best friend? In the church? He’ll love that.”

     “Language, Madelyn!”

     “SHUT UP, MOM.”

     “Hey.” Chrissy came to Maddie’s side, laying a gentle hand on her arm. “Stop.”

     “Seriously?” Maddie shook her friend off and started to turn away, freezing when an idea hit her.

     “You knew.” She stared at Chrissy. “You knew about them.”

     Chrissy crossed her heart, the age-old signal for truth. “I swear, I didn’t. I had no idea.”

     Maddie couldn’t believe her. “You told me to get Holly’s coat. You sent me right to them!”

     “Maddie, I swear, I didn’t know!” Chrissy seemed on the verge of tears. “Why would I do that to you?”

     Maddie’s head was spinning. She wanted to trust her friend, didn’t really believe that Chrissy had sent her off to stumble upon Jack and his whore bonking in the closet, but she couldn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand either. Everything was such a mess. Today was supposed to be special.

     She looked at Jack, who refused to meet her eyes. “I don’t care what Father Davis says,” she told him, her voice shaking. “You’re going to hell.”

     “That’s enough!”

     Maddie sat back, arms crossed, and met Marion’s hard gaze without flinching.

     “It doesn’t matter,” she told the other woman. “Today is done.”

     Marion sighed. “Madelyn. In 20 minutes 200 people are going to show up at this church, expecting to see you marry my son. What am I supposed to tell them?”

     “That he can’t keep his dick in his pants?”

     The photographer snorted, a laugh that quickly turned into a cough. Marion waited until he’d caught his breath, then continued.

     “You’re in debt. Jack is in debt. I’ve already paid for your honeymoon. Do you really want to waste all of that?”

     Maddie shook her head, unswayed. “I don’t care about the money.” She considered. “And neither do you. You don’t want your snobby friends to find out what he’s done.”

     “That is neither here nor th-”

     Another explosive cough interrupted her. They all turned, waiting for it to subside so they could resume arguing. Instead, the photographer bent double, wheezing.

     “Water,” he rasped, tears streaming down his face as he struggled for breath. “I need-”

     He slid from the chair onto his knees, choking. A fine mist of blood sprayed from his mouth, spattering the choir room floor. Maddie stared at the gleaming droplets, transfixed. Her mother screamed. He collapsed onto his side and gasped once.


     And stilled.

     Chrissy leapt from her chair and ran to his side. She placed her fingers on his neck and pressed, searching for a pulse.

     “Well?” Marion demanded. “Did he pass out?”

     Chrissy looked up, her eyes wide.

     “No,” she said, horrified.

     “I think he’s dead.”

Chapter Two

Posted: September 8, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Heading off down the hall, Maddie wondered again where Holly could be. She lived twenty minutes from the church; even oversleeping and a traffic delay couldn’t account for being this late. She’d better have texted Chrissy.

     As she rounded the corner at the front of the church she collided with the photographer, who nearly dropped the camera he’d been fiddling with.

     “Oh! I’m sorry!” He fumbled with the equipment, losing his grip again as he was seized by a coughing fit.

     “Are you okay?” Maddie watched, concerned, as his face turned an alarming shade of red. “Do you want some water?”

     He shook his head, shifting the camera to one hand and using the other to retrieve a handkerchief from his pocket. Maddie thought she’d have to get some water anyway, or some help, as he covered his mouth and continued to cough violently. She was just about to shout for someone to come when the cough subsided, his color returning to a normal hue.

     “Are you sure you’re all right?” He seemed much sicker than he’d indicated during their phone call. She bit her lip, wondering if he’d be able to do his job.

     He wiped his brow and gave her a wan smile. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” He saw her glance uncertainly at his camera. “My assistant is outside getting the rest of my stuff,” he said. “He’ll be helping me with the shots.”

     “Oh, okay.” Maddie let out a breath, relieved. She gestured back down the hallway. “Were you looking for me?”

     He nodded. “I thought I could take some ‘getting ready’ shots for you. Nothing inappropriate,” he added quickly. “Just, you know, your mom helping with your dress, that kind of thing.”

     “That sounds fine.” She chewed her lip some more, thinking. “I have to go figure out where my maid-of-honor is, but I should be right back. Go ahead and set up. Second door on the right.”

     He set off, and was halfway down the hall when she remembered.

     “Hey!” He turned. “Do not take any pictures of my sister.”

     “Oh…kay.” He gave her a puzzled look.

     “You’ll see what I mean. Just wait for me to get back.”

     He shrugged. “No problem. See you in a few.”

     Resuming her walk toward the chapel doors, Maddie’s thoughts settled on her sister. It was unsurprising that she’d chosen to dress like a two-dollar tramp on a day when Maddie was supposed to be the center of attention; she was always pulling stunts like that. Maddie recalled the mohawk her younger sibling had sported to Maddie’s college graduation; the strung-out musician she’d brought to the engagement party. Jessie was incapable of letting anyone else have the spotlight. Why had Maddie thought her wedding day would be any different?

     Poor bastard, she thought, recalling that Jessie had dressed to impress. Bobby and Carol Franks had been friends with Maddie’s parents for 20 years; she thought she remembered meeting their son, who was a few years older, a handful of times. It had been a long time, though – she couldn’t remember what he looked like, let alone his name.

     Hopefully he remembers Jessie. Nobody should walk into that blind.

     Picturing the potential look on his face when he got his first glimpse of Jessie, she snickered as she entered the chapel. Chrissy saw her and waved, bending to say something to the organist before heading down the aisle.

     Maddie checked out the decorations that had been put up while she waited, and was pleased with what she saw. Soft white lights had been strung along the railing at the front; sprays of white roses perched on either side of the chapel entrance and the altar, framing where she and Jack would stand. More roses, tied with blue and silver ribbons, hung from the end posts of each pew. Small tables had been placed against the walls along the outer aisles, each topped with glass bowls; little white candles floated inside.

     It was exactly what she’d always pictured. This, at least, is perfect.

     She was still gaping when Chrissy reached her; she found herself enveloped in a huge hug.

     “I was just about to come back!” She eyed Maddie’s hair and face before breaking into a grin. “You look amazing!”

     Maddie smiled back, her friend’s warmth and enthusiasm working to calm her. “Thanks. I feel pretty amazing. I just hope Jack likes it.”

     “Oh please. Of course he will!” Glancing around, Chrissy added, “Although we wouldn’t want him to see you too early. You shouldn’t even be out here.”

     “Yeah, I know. I have to put out a few fires.” She gave Chrissy a hopeful look. “I don’t suppose you know where we could find a long coat, do you?”

     “Ah. So Jessie found you.” Chrissy laughed. “I told her you were going to be pissed.”

     Maddie rolled her eyes. “She thinks she looks great, of course.”

     “Well, yeah. It’s not so bad, actually. For the club. But for today, no, we definitely need to cover her up. Father Davis will have a freaking heart attack.”

     Maddie giggled, relaxing further.

     “Hmm.” Chrissy tapped her nails on a pew top, thinking. “Holly was wearing a sweater jacket kind of thing when she got here, maybe that will work.”

     “Holly?” Maddie wrinkled her brow. “She’s here?”

     “Yeah, she got here a while ago.” Chrissy blinked, looking confused. “Is she not in the rectory?”

     Maddie shook her head. “I came out here to find her, actually. I didn’t pass her on the way out, either.”

     “Maybe she got roped into helping the photographer or something.” Chrissy shrugged. “Her coat should be in the choir closet, anyway. They cleared out the robes so we could use it.”

     “Miss Striker!”

     They both turned to the interruption. A spry little man in an eye-watering yellow suit hurried up the aisle toward them, wringing his hands.

     “Mr. Baum.” Maddie smiled at the florist, a smile that faded as she noticed that the man was near tears. Visions of a lost delivery, dead flowers, all manner of disaster flitted through her head.

     Bad luck.

     “What is it?” she asked, reaching out to place a hand on his arm. He was shaking, she noticed. “What’s wrong, Mr. Baum?”

     “It’s a disaster!” The man seemed on the verge of a total breakdown. “A disaster! Oh this is the worst, just the worst thing!”

     Maddie took a firmer hold and guided Baum into a pew. “Here, Mr. Baum, sit down. Take a breath.” She clamped down on her own panic as she watched him do as she said, calming bit by bit. “Tell me,” she said gently, “What’s happened?”

     “The hydrangeas!” Baum lay his head back and moaned. “They didn’t send them! I told them to send them, they were supposed to, but they’re not here!”

     The two women exchanged worried glances over Baum’s head. “So…the bouquets…there are no flowers?” Chrissy asked.

     Baum shook his head. “No, no, we have flowers. But…they sent…cremons.”

     “What?” Maddie was beyond confused. “What the hell are cremons? Are they blue?”

     “Yes they’re blue!” Baum snapped. “A very pretty blue, in fact. But they’re not hydrangeas!”

     Maddie looked at her friend, shaking her head. “Marion picked the hydrangeas,” she said. “If they’re blue then I don’t care. I can’t-”

     Chrissy waved her off. “Go. I’ll take care of this.” She sat beside Baum, who still looked like he’d start sobbing at any moment. “I won’t be long.”

     Maddie went, asking herself what else could happen. What are cremons? She guessed she’d find out when she walked down the aisle.

     The thought prompted her to check her watch again; she noted with alarm that she now had only forty minutes to get ready. She had to move if she didn’t want to get married in sweats.

     Hesitating inside the chapel entrance, Maddie did a quick duck and peek to make sure there was no sign of Jack. Not seeing anyone, she headed toward the other hallway. She peeked again – the guys were using the choir room to get ready, so she was running a real risk being down here. Still, they needed that coat. She resolved to be fast.

     Approaching the closet – which was really more of a room, big enough to hold the church choir’s winter and summer robes – her steps, quiet and quick, suddenly slowed. She heard what she thought was movement inside.

     Just someone hanging their coat.

     With the door closed? In the dark?

     Oh shut up.

     Feeling foolish, she nonetheless waited, hand on the knob, ears straining.

     There! As she listened there was a muted thud, followed by a moan.

     “Sshh,” a voice said. “Someone will hear you!”

     Maddie felt her stomach drop to her feet. Rage began to course through her, until her hands were shaking as badly as Baum’s had been. She knew that voice.

     “You motherfucker,” she whispered.

     Slowly, slowly – aware that she was about to see something that would make her slutty sister and unidentified cremons pale in comparison – Maddie opened the door.

     And got an eyeful of Holly – her eyes closed, head thrown back – riding Jack Cooper for all she was worth.

Chapter One

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day One

     Staring at herself in the mirror, Maddie Striker could hardly believe the day had arrived. She’d made it through tears (her mother’s), shouting (her mother-in-law’s), rehab (her sister’s) and a breakdown (collective, and terrifying for all involved). She’d put up with a vegan cake maker, a last minute hunt for a photographer after the first one had quit and a florist she was 80% sure was 100% insane. She’d invested in a night-guard, after a year of grinding her teeth had necessitated a root canal. She was $5000 in debt. But she was finally here.

     Today, she was getting married.

     “Can you believe this? This is so wonderful. I can’t believe it! Can you?” Her mother, Grace, sat dabbing her eyes and repeating the same nonsense she’d been saying since she’d woken up that morning. Grace Striker was good at two things: crying, and fretting. Maddie was grateful Grace had chosen the former for the day; she’d had her fill of the latter in the fourteen months it had taken to plan this damn thing. She was all fretted out.

     Normally Maddie would have rolled her eyes at her mother’s emotional display, but truth be told, she felt a little like crying herself. In two hours, she thought, I’ll be Mrs. Madelyn Cooper. A warm thrill shot through her.

     Patting her upswept hair, she smiled at her reflection. She knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman – had lamented that fact in front of hundreds of mirrors before this one – but the team she’d given two months’ worth of paychecks to do her hair and make-up had gone a long way toward disguising that fact. Her eyes, her lips, her cheeks that looked, my god, like she had model-worthy cheekbones (“A little highlighter, love, and nobody knows the difference!”) – everything was perfect. She couldn’t wait for Jack to see.

     Sweet, handsome Jack. He thought she was gorgeous even without 3 hours in an artist’s chair, a fact that still, after years, never failed to surprise her. He’d had his pick of the girls at their high school, and later at his prestigious college, but in the end he’d chosen her. She carried that with her, like a treasure in her pocket, to be taken out and admired when she was down and alone: anyone he’d wanted, and he’d picked her to be his wife.

     I’ll make him happy, she thought fiercely. I’ve done it for this long; I can do it forever. I don’t care what she says.

     She was Jack’s mother. Marion Elizabeth Conrad K Cooper, a woman with as many names as she had sticks up her ass. She swore the K stood for Kennedy, that they were distant cousins, but Maddie had her doubts; she suspected Marion had added it when she’d married Jack’s father. If he’d ever known the truth, her husband wasn’t telling – he’d died when Jack was 2. Probably to get away from her. Jack was her only child, and she was fiercely protective of him. Very little was good enough for her Jack. Especially not Maddie.

     One good thing had come out of these long months of planning: Maddie had taken a perverse, petty pleasure in doing the exact opposite of what Marion had wanted, as often as she could.

     The first shot fired had been the wedding cake, hence the need for a vegan baker. Marion had insisted they use an incredibly expensive, snooty friend of hers who operated a “baking boutique”, where the cakes started at 2k and every single decorative flower came with its own additional fee. Maddie had thoroughly enjoyed introducing her to the tie-dye clad hippy who owned the simply named Val’s Cakes; the pop-eyed look of horror on Marion’s face had provided enough euphoria to get Maddie through writing the check for Val’s services. Which, as it had turned out, weren’t all that much cheaper than the boutique’s. Specialty ingredients meant specialty prices, after all.

     The dress, though. The dress had been the coup de grace.

     Thinking of it now, she went to where it hung, on the outside of the rectory’s closet. Carefully, reverently, she removed the plastic bag that had protected it for the last six months. She caught her breath, as she always did, when she saw it in all of its uncovered glory.

     I’m getting married in this dress. She shivered. She couldn’t, even now, quite believe it.

     It was exquisite. Floor-length organza with a chapel train and delicate beadwork that covered the bodice, dainty lace straps and a belted satin waist that created the illusion that she was smaller than she truly was – it was a dress fit for a princess.

     And it was blue.

     Marion had been furious. “You cannot get married in a blue dress,” she’d declared when Maddie had shown her.

     “Why the hell not? Lots of brides are choosing non-traditional colors these days. It’s actually very trendy.”

     “I don’t care what’s trendy, Madelyn. It’s not proper. Brides wear white.”

     Maddie had grinned at her, unable to resist poking the bear. “I’ve been with your son for six years, Marion. I don’t think anybody expects me to wear white.”

     “My mother will be there,” Marion had hissed.

     “I don’t think she could wear white either,” Maddie had snapped back.

     Gasps. Offense. Outrage. Maddie had been appropriately contrite, but later she and Jack had laughed about it, laughed until they’d collapsed onto the bed in tears. When they were calm again he’d rolled over and placed a hand on her breast, teasing the nipple through the fabric. “I like blue,” he’d whispered in her ear, his hot breath giving her goose bumps. “But the wedding is so far away. By the time it gets here, you might have to wear red.”

     “Are you calling me a whore?!” she’d asked.

     He’d grinned. “Do you want me to?” Then he’d brought his mouth down to where his hand was, and everything else had been forgotten.


     The sound of the door opening behind her broke Madelyn from her thoughts. She turned, a word of greeting on her lips that became a gasp.

     “What in the hell did you do?!”

     “Ohh Jessie,” her mother moaned, turning her face away. “Oh no.”

     Maddie’s sister ignored them both, crossing the small room to preen before the mirror Maddie had just vacated. She adjusted the bodice of her dress, blew herself a kiss and twirled; Maddie noted that she lost her balance at the end and staggered just a bit before righting herself.

     “You don’t like it?” Jessie grinned. “I think I look fab!”

     Maddie saw dark spots dance across her vision. Don’t pass out. You’ll ruin your hair. Don’t pass out.

     “You look…” She groped for words. “You look like a hooker!”

     Their mother winced, but Maddie knew it was the truth. Jessie’s hair was teased and shellacked with at least a can of hair spray; her make-up, it appeared, had been applied with a trowel. She’d poured herself into a little black dress, cut so low at the top and high at the bottom that Maddie was certain she couldn’t bend over without exposing herself from both directions. And her skin…what was on her skin?

     “Are you wearing body glitter?” Maddie asked, incredulous.

     Jessie nodded, still smiling. “It’s silver! It matches your dress!”

     “Her dress is blue,” Grace said, as if that would undo what she was seeing.

     “Yeah, I know, but…but the sparkly bits…” Jessie trailed off, her face falling into a pout. “You don’t like it.”

     “Are you insane?” Watching her sister totter back across the room, seeking refuge in the chair beside their mother, realization hit. “Oh my god. You’re drunk.”

     “I am not!” Jessie slumped in the chair. “Mom, tell her I’m not.”

     Grace very carefully averted her eyes. “I’m not getting involved.”

     “Are you kidding me with this?” Maddie glared at her mother. “You were supposed to watch her!”

     “I’ve been with you most of the morning, how was I supposed to do that? I thought she’d be okay!”

     “I don’t need somebody to watch me,” Jessie interrupted.

     “Really?” Maddie looked her up and down. “Because all of this says otherwise.”

     Jessie rolled her eyes. “Fine. I had one drink.”

     “Bullshit! And it’s not even noon.”

     “I was nervous!” She gestured at Grace, who kept her gaze trained on the far wall. “Mom said she invited a guy she wanted me to meet. You know I get shy.”

     Maddie pressed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. “What. Guy?” she ground out.

     Grace answered reluctantly. “Bobby and Carol’s son. He just got back from overseas, and Bobby couldn’t make it, so I thought-”

     Maddie cut her off with a gesture. “Forget it; I don’t care. We need to fix this.” She eyed her sister’s dress. “Maybe we can find a coat, something long so we can’t see your ass.”

     “Whatever. I think I look hot.” Jessie rolled her eyes again, a move that made Maddie long to slap her, then gave her sister a sly half-smile. “Besides, you won’t give a shit about me when you see what Marion is wearing.”

     Maddie froze. “What?”

     Jessie shrugged. “You’ll see. She was right behind me; she must have stopped to bitch at the photographer. Did you know he’s sick?”

     “Yes,” Maddie sighed. “He called me. She hounded the other guy until he quit, so now we’re stuck with this one. It’s just a cold.”

     “Whatever,” Jessie said again. “She sounded pissed, so I would-”

     She stopped as the woman in question entered the room, seeming to bring a gust of cold air with her. She greeted Jessie and Maddie with a chill smile and a regal nod; her hello to their mother held a touch more warmth. “Grace. You look lovely.”

     Grace plucked at her skirt, shooting a nervous glance at Maddie. “Oh. Thank you, Marion.” She paused a moment before adding, “So, ah…so do you.”

     Marion glanced down at her outfit – a beautiful white silk pantsuit that looked expensive and tailor-made – and then back up at Maddie, favoring her with another tight smile. “I know it’s gauche to wear white to a wedding. But I thought, since the bride wasn’t, it would be okay.”

     Oh you wretched bitch, Maddie thought. She opened her mouth to reply, but Jessie beat her to it.

     “I thought white at weddings was for virgins.” She cocked her head. “Did yours grow back?”

     “Jessica,” Grace hissed.

     “It’s all right,” Marion said, her voice dripping with scorn. She gave Jessie an once-over and wrinkled her nose. “I see that you started early today. I suppose it’s a good thing I declined to pay for an open bar.”

     She let the awkward silence hang for a moment before turning her attention back to Maddie. “Are you aware that the photographer is ill?”

     Maddie nodded. “I was saying before you got here, it’s just a cold.”

     “He could have the flu!”

     “I doubt it,” Maddie said. “If it was the flu he’d be in bed. Besides, he does baby pictures too, I’m sure he’s had the shot.”

     Marion made a moue of distaste. “Those shots make you sicker than the flu does.”

     “Well, either way, he’s what we have.” Maddie spread her hands helplessly. “He was all I could find on short notice; he wasn’t sick when I hired him.”

     “Yes. Well.” Marion sniffed. “Perhaps you should have taken my recommendation. Where did you even find him?”

     “Online. Uhm, Craigslist, actually.”

     Marion arched one perfectly groomed brow, but refrained from further comment. Glancing around the room, she asked, “Where are the other girls?”

     “Chrissy is with the organist, making sure she has everything,” Maddie said, referring to her bridesmaid. “Holly…” She checked her watch. “Holly is late.”

     “Holly is always late,” Jessie complained. “You should have made me your maid-of-honor.” She blushed under their combined glares. “At least I’m here!”

     Maddie frowned as she looked at the time again. It was true that Holly was always late, but this was a bit much, even for her. She’d promised to be there when Maddie got ready; she’d already missed the hair and make-up, and with the ceremony in an hour it was almost time to start dealing with the dress. Where the hell was she?

     Grace seemed to notice her daughter’s growing concern and hastened to reassure her. “I’m sure she’s on her way. Why don’t I go see if Chrissy has heard from her?”

     She started to rise, but Maddie waved her back down. “I’ll go,” she said. The room felt suddenly hot and stuffy; if she got stuck in here with Marion, Jessie and no mediator, she’d flip. “I need some air.”

     “Don’t let Jack see you!” Marion called as Maddie left. “It’s bad luck!”

     Not bothering to respond, Maddie shut the door and leaned against it for a moment. It was cool and quiet in the hall; she could hear the organist doing warm-ups in the chapel area but the sound was distant, muffled. Pressing her fingers again to her temples, she groaned. She could feel the beginning of a migraine pulsing behind her eyes.

     Bad luck, she thought.

     I think we’ve had enough of that today already.

It Begins

Posted: August 28, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It started in a lab, as these things always do.

     A worn out assistant, working the eleventh straight day of the graveyard shift; his thoughts were already on the four-day break ahead of him, the beer in his fridge, the girl waiting to enjoy one last weekend at her parents’ summer house before the weather gave way. He was thinking of sand, and salt, and sex, and so he missed the mold.

     Such a small thing, in a batch large enough to fill 200,000 vaccines; he might have missed it anyway. Swirling, dispersing, as the temperature in the vat rose and it began, rapidly, to grow. The heat should have killed it – was designed to do so – but this time, it didn’t. That wasn’t his fault; sometimes, as we know, shit happens.

     The vat emptied into a second machine, this one designed to check for any problems before dispensing into vials. It detected the foreign substance and sent the error warning to his computer. By that point, he was drowsing; he input the override with eyes mostly closed and dropped back into his chair. Later, he wouldn’t remember doing it. Would, in fact, deny that there had been a warning at all. He would be fired, the batch recalled.

     By then, it would be too late.

     For now, he slept. And the vials filled.