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It was finally her turn. Krista had been dating Rye Smithson since her sophomore year in high school when he saw her at a football game. He asked her to be his date to the senior prom right there on the spot. He even let her borrow a dress from his sister. She fashioned a yellow boutonniere from her neighbor’s rose garden, and polished her mother’s white shoes until the black scuffs no longer showed.
She knew how lucky she was to be going with one of the Smithson boys—her family didn’t have the best reputation in Crickley Creek. And in a town this small, a bad reputation was a life sentence. It didn’t matter that she had a job. It didn’t matter that she took classes at the junior college. Anyone who dated her would be bringing about a world of gossip and speculation. And who knew, they might be putting themselves in danger, too. After all, her cousin, Randy, had killed a man. Krista Hassell barely had a single relative who wasn’t a drunkard, a cheater, or a criminal. Rye had seen through all that, though. He’d been her boyfriend for going on eight years.
Now here she was, at the finest wedding in all of Crickley, and not as the help either.
Charlotte, Krista’s boss at the tea and bookshop, was spinning around the dance floor with her new husband, Will Rushton. They were perfectly in sync, their smiles relaxed as if nothing about the two-hundred-person lavish outdoor wedding had been difficult. Krista knew the truth—she’d seen Charlotte stress over the linens and the cocktails and the chairs and the food and the ceremony and the band and every other detail for the past year. Yet nothing was rushed or difficult on this perfect summer day in the garden of Will’s family estate. Krista held Rye’s hand underneath the table and took a bite of her salad, taking a moment to appreciate the scent that the light breeze had just picked up. It was her favorite, gardenia. She smiled up at him, thrilled that she was the reason they were guests. For once.
“These cheesy potatoes, or whatever the hell these are, ain’t half bad,” he said, chewing.
Krista beamed. Someday soon, the wedding would be theirs. It would be small, and certainly, Rye’s family would pay. But she would be the one in the beautiful white dress, gracefully reciting her vows while her diamond ring sparkled in the sunlight. It was just a matter of him asking.
She squeezed his hand. “Do you want to dance after dinner?”
He laughed. “Naw, you go ahead. I’m thinking of meeting the boys over at the roadhouse for some pool. You can find a ride home, right?”
“Sure.” She tried to control the disappointment in her voice. She probably owed him a night out at the roadhouse since he came to the wedding with her. Actually, she owed him quite a bit after leaving him for almost a year. She had been in Myrtle Beach working for a children’s charity before she left it all to come back home and help out with her little brother. Of course, she’d seen Rye on the weekends, but he was still struggling to get over the fact that she had it in her to move away from him. He was still making her pay. “I’m sure Birdie or Scruggs can take me home,” she said.
“Cool.” He stuffed the last bite of filet into his mouth and pulled his phone from his suit jacket pocket. “I can’t take much more of this sissy music.” His thumbs raced over the screen. “The boys are already there.”
Krista sipped her sweet tea and looked away. He’d only just asked, and he was already leaving?
Rye hadn’t yet finished chewing. “Give me some sugar.” He took the napkin from his lap and threw it on top of his plate of food, then puckered at her. She leaned over and gave him a peck on the lips. He continued chewing afterward.
As soon as he was gone, Krista went to find Birdie. She was easy to spot—big and loud in all the ways: body, voice, opinions, and personality. She even dressed loudly. That evening she’d chosen a velvet dress probably saved from her heyday back in the 1970s, complete with an enormous orange, red, and mustard-yellow floral design. She was sitting next to her new husband, Ashby, whose last name, Crane, described exactly how he looked: like a thin, angular, large-beaked bird.
“Hey, Birdie! Hey, Ashby,” Krista said, sitting in a nearby empty seat. “Any chance I can catch a ride home with y’all?” It was a big ask. Krista lived on the marsh side of town. Most people at the Sinclair-Rushton wedding would be living in the nicer, beach side of town.
“We’d be happy to,” Ashby answered immediately.
“As long as it doesn’t cut into my night of fun,” Birdie said. “Ashby’s the one doing the driving, anyway. Ain’t you, sweet pea?”
Ashby winked at Krista as he uttered, “Yes, dear.”
Charlotte and Will had finished their obligatory dances and began working their way around each of the tables, greeting the guests. The sun was beginning to set, and it seemed like every bird, cicada, and bullfrog was singing to welcome the evening. Krista was transported into a warm world of peace and love. Charlotte deserved every bit of the happiness she was clearly feeling. Even though she hailed from California, the beautiful bride had embraced the South—quirks, jerks, and all. She was a good person and earned the true love she’d found. Krista soaked in the moment. One day she might be just as happy. Someday she would be on solid footing, no longer a pariah, no longer having to be grateful for every scrap of kindness someone gave to her. That day would come as soon as her last name changed to Smithson. She smiled to herself, wondering if she would choose the traditional “Wedding March” for her walk down the aisle, or a romantic country song like Charlotte had.
A tall guy with a short military haircut grabbed the microphone and kicked her out of her reverie.
“Whazzup, wedding guests?! Let’s hear it for Will and Charlotte Rushton! Hoo-rah!” The man, who was clearly one of Will’s old army buddies, began jumping as he motioned for the band to kick up the tempo. “Everybody lift your glasses! It’s tequila time!”
The tune switched to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and despite her age, Birdie jumped up, did a little jig, held her empty water glass to the sky, and yelled, “Bring that tequila over here!” The bride and groom laughed as they headed off the dance floor to their special table.
The man hopped off the stage and proceeded to pour a small portion of the contents of his bottle into Birdie’s glass, then he danced his way around the yard, forcing the younger people to join him in his bad idea. He was more obnoxious than a horn-honking clown, but there were plenty of pretty girls eager for what the handsome tequila man was doling out. What was previously a demure and romantic ceremony had just fallen off a cliff into a raucous, cheap, bar-like party.
That idiot is ruining their wedding. Krista sipped her tea and frowned at the scene. Hopefully, Birdie and Ashby would be ready to leave soon.
Even at the best party, or the most interesting dinner, three hours was about as long as Krista could stand. She’d already been there for six by the time the Rushtons’ twinkling backyard was finally empty of people. The bride and groom had retired to their cabin on the property after a bubble filled send-off. The moon was high and the evening late-night still. She found a pitcher of water on one of the chiffon-covered tables and poured a glass. She’d already scrounged three dinner rolls from Allison Rushton’s kitchen, but she’d failed to find any coffee.
She had been left alone with the tequila man, whose name turned out to be Johnny Merrick. When she found him, he was passed out on the grass missing one shiny dress shoe with his head wedged precariously underneath a prickly bougainvillea vine. She’d considered leaving him there, but she’d never forgive herself if she did. So, she risked her cotton evening wrap by placing it between his forehead and the thorns, and gently slid his head away from the danger. He’d been a willing patient, and even sat up afterward, the skin around his forehead, ear, and jawline looking like a kitten had mistaken it for a stuffed mouse.
With a promise of food, she’d managed to get him to walk to a nearby table, where he barely got his rear end onto a chair before slumping forward like a sleepy toddler.
“Here, eat this.” She tore small bites and fed them to him. He didn’t open his eyes, but he did open his mouth. She got two rolls and a full glass of water into him before he mustered enough strength to open his eyes and look at her.
“Are you Will’s cousin?” He smelled of vomit and fearlessness.
“No. I’m Charlotte’s friend.”
“I thought you were all cousins out here.” His words were as slurred as they were ignorant.
She shooed a mosquito away from his sweaty face and immediately regretted it. She should have let it bite him.
“Ya got any teeth?” he asked, squinting at her.
“Teeth?” Did he just say teeth?
“Smile at me.”
He was lucky she didn’t punch him. She glared at him with no hint of a smile. What an asshole.
He chuckled like he was the funniest guy alive and plopped his head back on the table. Two seconds later, he lifted his red, swimming eyes and held them still on her face. Then he pushed himself upright. “You’re actually kinda pretty for a backwoods chick.”
She poured the remaining water over his head. He immediately shook like a dog, sending droplets all over her. She yelped. Damn him. Struggling to scoot her chair backward on the grass, she finally managed to stand. Birdie could be seen inside the lit-up house, still in the kitchen with the groom’s mother, flitting about like it wasn’t after midnight and her husband wasn’t sound asleep at the table by the giant magnolia. Krista smoothed her skirt and began walking toward the house.
“Don’t go,” Johnny pleaded. “Can I have your Snapchat? Your Instagram? What was your name again?”
She didn’t bother answering him. Who did he think he was? She wasn’t even on social media. And that didn’t make her backwoods, either. That made her smart. Why torture herself by seeing how fabulous everyone else’s lives were? Plus, she had no one to be social with besides Rye, her work friends, and Birdie. She walked up the stairs toward the yellow glow of the kitchen. If Birdie wouldn’t take her home, she would suck it up and pay for an Uber.
By the time she got to her mother’s house, it was almost one thirty in the morning. She waved to Ashby and Birdie before walking along the overgrown crushed oyster shell path toward the chipping, white wood building. The concrete front steps were pockmarked and crumbling from more than fifty years of use, and despite the dark, she knew by heart where to step and where to avoid. She opened the front door quickly to minimize the loud squeaking of the hinges, looking for the only light in the hallway, a night-light both for finding the one bathroom and avoiding any creepy crawlers that had found their way in. There wasn’t a family member who hadn’t stepped on a snake in their bare feet at some point in their lives, and no one cared to repeat the experience.
Zach was in his room, laid out like a corpse underneath his soft patchwork quilt. She touched his arm to make sure he was still warm. Then she peeked into her mother’s room. The bed was empty, the dip in the middle of the mattress a handy hole for the bundled sheets and blankets. Junie had probably snuck out again after putting Zach to bed. There was no telling where she might be—the local bar, a random man’s apartment, or sitting fully clothed in a pond filled with alligators. It was the same worry every time, yet somehow Junie always made it home.
“Kiki?” came a hushed voice.
“Hey, bud. Yeah.” She walked back to their shared room and flipped on the light.
“How was the wedding?” Zach asked.
He was difficult to hear and understand. The Duchenne muscular dystrophy that had been atrophying his muscles since he was four years old had weakened everything, most distressingly, his lungs. He was only twenty-two, and he could barely move. Krista climbed into bed with him, checking that his oxygen machine was on and functioning.
“The wedding was like it came straight from a magazine,” she said. “Miss Charlotte looked prettier than a movie star.” Pulling the covers up under his chin, she kissed his cold, gray cheek. “You warm enough?”
“Uh-huh.” He struggled for a shallow breath. “Tell me more.”
“Well”—she snuggled into his side and stared up at the gray ceiling—“she had magnolias on every table, big, white ones surrounded by peonies in the colors of your favorite Smarties sugar candies. All those flowers, plus Mrs. Rushton’s gardenias made the whole place smell like perfume.”
“Tell me about the food.”
For the past year, Krista and her mother had been feeding Zach through a tube in his stomach. He never complained, but the conversations he enjoyed the most now revolved around food.
“There were two cakes, of course,” she began. “Each layer of the bride’s cake was a different flavor—vanilla, lemon, hummingbird, and strawberry. I got a strawberry piece, and it was as light as air. The frosting was our favorite kind—buttercream.”
He moved his eyes back and forth with excitement.
“The chocolate groom’s cake had a layer of frosting so thick and fudgy that it woulda been dessert enough by itself. I didn’t have a piece, but from the way Miss Birdalee was mmmm-hmmmming, I’d say it was tasty.”
Zach giggled, and Krista went on talking about the fantastical dream wedding, embellishing some details and leaving others as the truthful perfection they were. She talked until her brother’s eyes closed and her own felt heavier than the weight of their mother’s absence. She never, however, mentioned the very drunk, very obnoxious, Johnny Merrick.
End of Excerpt