The Bride's Debt
Those beautiful blue eyes staring back at me, wetness in the corners and a smile on his lips. This was my dream, this moment was what every sacrifice and choice had been for. I was finally marrying him, my sweet Patrick.
He reached out and grabbed my hands, holding them in the warmth of his own as the officiant began his speech. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to soak in every detail. The smell of the pine floors and flowers, the sensation of his palms and mine, the pressure of his fingers entangled in my own, the feeling of silk and lace against my skin. I wanted to stop time and live here forever.
Patrick gave my hand a squeeze and I opened my eyes slowly, my smile growing. He gave me a subtle wink and I had to stifle my giggle. Movement from the pews reminded me that we weren't alone.
I turned and scanned the room. His parents sitting in the front, his college buddies, aunts, uncles, and coworkers. A lifetime of relationships he'd maintained all gathered here to witness our love. I didn't mind that my side was empty, no gushing girlfriends, or weepy eyed mother. No siblings quieting my nieces and nephews who were squirming in their seats. In truth, I did miss my family. But this moment was too perfect to dwell on it. I turned back to my beloved just as the officiant turned to queue us up for our 'I do's'.
"Do you, Jane Smith, take Patrick Luciano to be your lawful and wedded husband?"
"I do," I smiled.
"And do you, Patrick Luciano, take Jane Smith to be your lawful and wedded wife?"
Everyone in the church turned suddenly to the source of the interruption. Standing in the aisle, the double doors to the church wide behind her, stood an old lady dressed in rags. Her silver and white hair wild and untamed, her clothes hanging from her faded and tattered. Moths fluttered around her, some clinging to her stringy hair and the hem of her dirty clothes. In one hand she held a wooden staff, standing taller than her the other hand was held out, one gnarled and dirty finger pointing to the front of the church where we stood. I felt the air leave my lungs at the site of her. She had found me.
"You," she commanded, stepping closer. "I warned you not to cross me, Squirrel."
"Ma'am, this is a private ceremony," the officiant spoke up.
"We had a deal. Did you really think I wouldn't come to collect?" she cackled, ignoring the officiant, as she continued approaching us.
"I-I-," at a loss, my heart pounding out of my chest, I looked around the room at the faces staring, confused and scared.
Patrick dropped my hands, positioning himself between me and the old lady. "You need to leave, now. I think you're confused, lady. This is a wedding."
"Confused?" she paused and laughed, the moths flurrying above her as she leaned on the staff for support. "I'm not the one confused, young man. Your bride-to-be and I had an arrangement, didn't we?"
She arched an eye brow, staring at me with her one good eye, a thin smirk on her crepe lips. My cheeks burned as everyone's eyes turned to me hiding behind my husband to be. I brought a hand up and gently touched the edge of the silver medallion hanging around my neck. Not now, I thought as I gripped it tightly, please not now.
"Sweetie, do you know this woman?" Patrick whispered as he turned to me. I opened my mouth to speak, but my throat went dry and all I could do was stare back at him wide-eyed.
I wanted to tell him, I'd always wanted to tell him. There had been countless opportunities but the fear of him not understanding had been too great. How could I explain everything I had gone through to be here with him? There was no escaping it now, and yet still the words wouldn't come.
The old woman grunted as she stepped up onto the platform where we stood, her smell now reaching our nostrils and the sound of her labored breathing filling the church. She stopped just in front of us, and took a moment before speaking again.
"No more waiting, you silly creature. Give me my payment or give me the necklace."
"Necklace? Your mother's necklace? Wait, are you her mother?" Patrick turned back to the old woman.
"Mother?" the woman opened her mouth wide, revealing only a few teeth left as her loud dry laugh echoed through the room. "Certainly not."
"P-p-please!" I interrupted, stepping in front of Patrick. "Please, I'll get you your payment. I just haven't had time. But I'll get it, I swear to you."
"I've waited long enough, dearie! I'm an old woman, I don't have time to keep waiting. I will collect now, one way or the other."
I looked into her milky blue eye, searching desperately for any sign of mercy, and found none. My heart sank knowing I was about to lose it all.
"May I just have a moment?"
"Just a moment. And no tricks! I mean it," she shook a crooked finger at me. I nodded and turned to Patrick, his face searching mine for the answers behind this bizarre scene playing out before him.
"Patrick, my love... the first moment I saw you in that park, I loved you. For months I would wait for you to come and sit on your bench, reading your book and drinking your tea. I watched you feed the birds, smile at the families walking by, sketching in your notepad, talking on the phone to your mother. You were so sweet, and thoughtful. Kind, oh unbelievably kind," I paused looking down at his hands held tightly in my own. I blinked forcing the tears to fall and clear my vision as I looked back up into those blue eyes. "I'm so sorry for all of this. I should have told you sooner. I WANTED to tell you sooner. So many times, but I was afraid. And now... I need you to know that this was real for me. I love you. I will always love you. Please, remember that-"
Patrick opened his mouth to speak, tears now filling his own eyes but stopped as one dirty gnarled hand reached between us and grasped the silver medallion necklace. With one steady pull, the chain broke and I felt the two ends trail against my skin as the woman reclaimed what was hers. I looked into Patrick's eyes as I felt the magic melting from my body. Slowly I shrank down, my form changing as the world grew bigger around me.
From somewhere in the pews I heard a woman scream, and the officiant stepped back saying "Dear God". Patrick looked down at me utterly mortified as I stood there surrounded by the white fabric and lace, my nose twitching and eyes darting around.
I watched as people fled the church, weaving around the old lady who hobbled her way down the aisle towards the exit. I sat up, feeling my tail brush the back of my head.
My ear pivoted and I turned to look up at my beloved Patrick as he slowly squatted, staring in disbelief at me. I wished I could say something back to him, but he wouldn't understand. All I could do was stare back.
"You're a... a...."
Yes, Patrick I thought. I'm a squirrel.