“Holding onto bitterness is like pouring poison into your own cup and expecting the other person to die.”
Ava’s couch was not comfortable. It was a low-slung, mid-century type - yellow velvet, very stylish. If any of the wine in her glass were to slosh over the edge, it would be an expensive fix. But she was unconcerned.
With one arm slung over the couch’s back, the other letting the wine glass droop and tilt just so, Ava examined the photographs on the opposite wall. They were enormous, stretched across four canvases that were each several feet tall. They had clearly been taken at the same moment; the crowded background of each continued almost exactly where the other had left off.
In the foreground were four people in various states of shock. The first, a woman with jet-black hair and red lips, had a murder-victim look almost too perfect to be real; the second, a redhead with raccoon eyes, looked as if she had been turned to stone; the third, a man with a mop of curly hair and a beakish nose, looked as if he was about to faint; and the fourth, a bald man with hard-looking eyes, was tensed as if ready to attack.
Ava sipped and smiled.
FOUR MONTHS EARLIER - AVA’S WEDDING
On the reception lawn, garlands of white carnations glowed in the light of the setting sun. A string quartet was playing, pulling forth breathy notes. Tuxedoed caterers tiptoed around, offering platters of sesame foam and edible flowers to hordes of upturned noses.
But why was Sophie Anderson here?
Deandra yearned to bite her nails, but her manicure was still fresh and she desperately needed to kick the habit. Her mind flickered to the one cigarette that was floating alone in a lonely ocean of silk somewhere in her purse. Only for emergencies, she had told herself when she had slipped it in that afternoon.
When she had received the invitation from Ava, Deandra had been shocked. It would be putting it kindly to say that she and Ava had drifted apart since high school. Could a friendship end if it never existed? In high school Ava had been a peripheral figure, flickering around the edges of Deandra’s awareness. The fact that she had asked Deandra to be her bridesmaid was so very sad; Deandra could only speculate how pitiful her social life must be to stoop to such lows. That was the primary reason she had agreed to come - her curiosity surrounding the entire situation was too great.
Sophie had once been Deandra’s best friend, but that had changed, as it often does with two girls who strive to outshine each other. They had both moved to Los Angeles after college - Deandra to act, Sophie to direct - and Sophie was like an irksome fly constantly buzzing in Deandra’s ear. Whenever she attended an event, people would inevitably rave about Sophie, her latest project, her so-called ‘genius.’ Deandra would sniff. She snuck a glance over at Sophie, who was loitering by the bar, thumbs flying across her phone screen.
If nothing else, this night would be interesting.
The villa was lovely, its manicured lawn stretching out of sight into the summer evening. Overhead, stars blinked down, taunting Sophie. The groom must be loaded, she thought, to afford a venue like this. And her Old Fashioned wasn’t half bad. It seemed that, against all odds, Ava had acquired a little bit of taste since high school.
Except for the matter of Jacob Rosenberg.
Why was he here?
Sophie hadn’t thought about him since that first summer back home after freshman year, when she had drunkenly allowed him to feel her up. She had thrown back a lot of tequila that night and he hadn’t made a memorable impression through the silvery haze. She recalled flailing arms, an embarrassing amount of saliva, overly puckered lips.
But why would Ava want to invite him?
Ava wasn’t close with Jacob in high school, as far as Sophie could remember - not that she had known her well. She recalled Ava as quiet and eager to please, like a fish clinging to a shark, trying to catch a free ride through the choppy waters of high school. Sophie couldn’t remember the last time they had had a conversation. Graduation? When Ava had texted, it had appeared as an unsaved number.
Nevertheless, it had been flattering - how could it not be, to be asked to be a bridesmaid? - when Ava had reached out. And Sophie was between projects right now, waiting on a few deals to finalize. She decided to go, for people-watching opportunities if nothing else. Looking around, she saw a sea of slinky dresses and tuxedos, a group of guests so beautiful that they seemed more like robots than people. So why bother adding dead weight like Jacob Rosenberg? Glancing over, Sophie watched as he took an enormous bite of something, sweat slick on his forehead.
She texted her boyfriend: Party’s a bore, miss u xx. Hope to be out of here soon.
The fellow wedding guests all seemed to be ice-cold supermodels. Friends of the groom, Jacob reckoned. Probably all actors, or actor wannabes. Everybody was one of the two here.
Unlike everybody else, it seemed, Jacob had flown into Los Angeles from out of state. As the string quartet retired to gentle applause and a shouting DJ stepped onto the stage pumping her arms, Jacob wished he was back in his Williamsburg apartment, reading the latest New Yorker and sipping on some Pinot Grigio.
But he couldn’t tear his eyes away from one face across the bar. He had barely recognized him with a shaved head, but those thick eyebrows were unmistakable. It was Greg Wilder.
Why, oh why, was Greg Wilder here?
Jacob studied his old classmate, sneaking glances from behind mouthfuls of potatoes and salmon. Greg had somehow been the brains and the brawn behind their high school schemes. He’d have a ludicrous idea, like spray-painting the principal’s car during lunch. Then, when he was unable to convince anyone else to join him - Deandra and Sophie silent, fingers flying across their cell phone keyboards, and Jacob anxiously tapping his legs on the ground, imagining his mother’s anger if he were to do such a thing - Greg would go out and do it himself. And he never got caught. Honestly, it was admirable.
But why would Ava have invited him? Jacob had been surprised himself to receive the invitation, though he figured it made sense. Of all of them, he had been the closest to real friends with her. They would occasionally study together, and one time she had even joined him and his family for dinner. Granted, they hadn’t spoken in years, but Jacob figured she had read some of his writing and wanted to reconnect.
But Greg? He was fairly certain he had never witnessed him and Ava even having a conversation.
He shrugged and bit into a fresh potato.
The wedding was fine. It was average, like most weddings. Well, it was slightly above average; the groom evidently came from some kind of crazy money. Greg had no idea how Ava had lucked out so hard, being so extremely mediocre. But more intently, he wondered why Deandra Newton was in attendance.
Deandra was fussy, a typical high-maintenance type, unsurprising for their upbringing in a wealthy Minneapolis suburb. She and Greg followed each other on social media, so he saw her photos; flawless timer selfies in front of ivy-covered walls, ‘candid’ shots in black string bikinis. But Greg was repulsed by the stinking wave of insecurity that emanated from her in every photo. Nothing disgusted him like somebody who wasn’t comfortable in their own skin.
Greg cut an impressive figure himself, six foot four and three hundred pounds. In San Diego, his tech sales job paid the bills while his side hobby - bodybuilding - got him friends and got him laid. He was actually attending a bodybuilding competition in LA the very next day, which was why he had agreed to come to the wedding. Convenience, pure convenience. And, he had to admit, he had been a little curious. He had never really known Ava; he had vague recollections of watching her hover around Deandra, Sophie, and Jacob, always offering to help them with their homework or run and grab them macchiatos before school. But he was pretty sure Deandra had bullied Ava pretty brutally. Why invite her to the wedding?
He sipped his club soda. He never drank before competitions, but he didn’t mind. Generally, most people took one look at his hulking figure and shuffled the other way, so he didn’t have to worry about small talk.
As he sipped, the lights over the DJ booth spun towards the stage at the front of the lawn. The microphone emitted a piercing screech, and Greg looked forwards to see Ava climbing onto the stage.
“And you have it?” Ava asked.
“Yep, it’s right here.” The man handed her a knife, which flashed in the dim light behind the stage. “Remind me why you need this?”
“It’s all for a skit. It’ll be funny.” She felt like he was holding onto it too tightly when she took it from him. “What? This is Hollywood, you’ve really never brought props to a wedding before?”
The man shrugged. “This seems a bit out of place, but you’re right, I’ve seen weirder. Baboons, horses, a lion once…this city is nuts.”
Ava examined the knife. The subtle plastic tubing running along the backside of the blade would release the fake blood - a wine-colored concoction of corn syrup, water, and food coloring - when she pushed a button. Her heart hammered with excitement.
Ava had been delighting in sneaking glances at her former classmates all evening. Their faces were all too readable, practically flashing a marquee of their rapidly-cycling emotional states - confusion, contempt, resentment, irritation, huffiness. They were so predictable. She had known they’d be confused to receive the invitations, but she had also guessed - correctly - that they wouldn’t be able to turn down the chance to judge a former friend and attend a high-end wedding in Beverly Hills. It could almost make her laugh, if she wasn’t so filled with rage.
Owen would be here tonight if it wasn’t for them. He’d be living, sleeping late, going grocery shopping, breathing, loving, blundering, getting too drunk, doubting himself, getting a dog. Doing everything that a 27-year-old should be doing. But he was likely just bones now. He had been laid to rest at the cemetery in Minnesota, where they had grown up. Where he had died.
Because of these four.
“Ok, tell them that I’m ready,” she said brightly to the sound tech. She gathered her skirts in her hands and stood by the stairs leading to the stage.
The night Owen died, there was a pool party.
Ava was 16 and Owen was 15. Their mother had begrudgingly allowed them to go to the party after they pleaded for hours. “Absolutely no funny business and zero drinking,” she had chided, frowning even as she handed Ava the car keys. “Keep an eye on your brother.” The two of them had scrambled upstairs; t-shirts were thrown over bathing suits, hair gel was rubbed into scalps, and they pulled into the driveway of Ava’s classmate 20 minutes later.
All night, Ava dutifully followed her mother’s request and kept a watchful eye over her brother, managing to stay by his side despite his numerous attempts to slip away towards a circle of upperclassman girls. He perpetually had a beer in hand; she was drinking juice out of silver pouches. After five juices, her bladder was squeezed to the breaking point, and she ducked inside to use the bathroom.
She re-emerged into the warm, humid evening. Pop music was pulsing and clusters of students gathered beneath strings of lights. She slapped away a mosquito.
Where was Owen?
Feeling a wave of concern, she peered over at the pool. It was empty - a good sign. Neither she nor Owen knew how to swim. “I just never had time to take you,” her mother said whenever Ava complained. “So sorry I prioritized feeding you!”
Scanning the backyard, Ava spotted the upperclassman girls standing nearby and jogged over to them.
“Sorry to interrupt, but have you guys seen my brother Owen? He was just here.”
Blank stares and giggles greeted her. One girl, carefully sticking her gum to the outside of a fresh beer can, tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Um, no, I think he left a few minutes ago.”
“Shit.” Ava was starting to panic. Where was he? He hadn’t drunk that many beers - she had been counting - but he could still be wreaking havoc in the fancy house or, worse, tumbling down the sloped backyard. She ran back to the house and began half-walking, half-jogging through the oak-paneled hallways.
Her calls echoed as silent rooms flashed by her. No answer, no sign of her brother. It seemed as if nobody - including her classmate’s parents - was home.
Back outside, she circled to the side yard, where a fire was crackling in a metal pit. There, she spotted her friends, clinking beer bottles and laughing.
“Hey guys, any chance Owen has come by here?”
The laughter receded, and she was met with polite smiles. “Yeah, he went in the grotto,” Deandra said after a moment, thumbing over her shoulder. Down the hill, there was another pool, surrounded by nodding tropical plants that completely obscured it from view.
“He what? How long ago?”
“Uh, a few minutes? We had just gone in and he said he wanted to go.” Sophie shrugged and Ava noticed that her hair was dripping onto her shoulder, a wet mark spreading across the thin knit shirt. Ava let out a strangled cry.
“You know he can’t swim, right?” They just stared. She wanted to scream. Bounding towards the grotto, she pushed through the waxy foliage to the edge of the pool.
Owen was facedown in the water. He wasn’t moving.
“Photographers ready?” Ava asked. Her assistant repeated the question into a walkie talkie, and upon hearing the crackles of confirmation, she nodded and stepped onto the stage, prop knife tucked among the folds of her dress.
“Can I get everyone’s attention?”
The microphone squealed as she squinted into the lights, and around the tent, dozens of eyes turned towards her. They were measuring her up, she thought, making confident conclusions, issuing judgments on her personality, her taste, her aspirations, her worth. It made her want to laugh.
“I’m going to get a bit serious here for a moment if you’ll indulge me.” Chuckles, gentle nods of affirmation. “And thank you, Luke, for letting me take this moment.” She nodded towards the handsome man, who was smiling genially. He’s really smiling, she thought, because of the $4,000 that had already been deposited in his bank account. She had met the man only yesterday in person, after choosing him from a lineup of actors. Not a bad rate for one night of standing, smiling, and getting fake married by a fake priest.
“As many of you know, I lost someone very dear to me several years ago - my brother, Owen.” Her voice hardened. “Growing up with a single mom, he and I were very close. We leaned on each other - we had to, Mom wasn’t around much - and we shared everything. Hopes, dreams, fears, you name it. He’d tell me I was too anxious and I’d tell him he wasn’t anxious enough.” She wiped away a tear, a real tear, and scanned the crowd. Through the blinding lights, she could barely make out the pale hovering ovals of Deandra, Sophie, Jacob, and Greg. What were they thinking? What did they remember?
“I miss Owen every single minute of every day. And so I wanted to raise one final toast to him, so please join me,” she said, raising a champagne flute. For a moment, time seemed to freeze as the bubbles floated slowly to the top and the light danced on the glass. In the crowd, everybody else - a group of well-dressed, well-paid actors, with the exception of her four friends - raised a glass as well. Some had even managed to eke out a tear. Ava was impressed.
“And because it wouldn’t be right to end my wedding day without spending it with my brother…” She dropped the champagne glass on the stage, where it shattered in a pool of bubbles and glass shards, and she drew the prop knife. “I’m now going to join him.”
And quickly, she drew the knife across her throat and pressed the hidden button. A scream rent the air as she felt the corn syrup puddle over her collarbone and soak into the folds of her dress. She collapsed, closing her eyes.
Camera shutters flashed.
Back on her couch, Ava examined the four photographs on the wall opposite her. Deandra’s face could have been a movie poster, with a picture-perfect scream. Her biggest role yet. Sophie was thunderstruck, one bony hand clutching her phone, the other covering her mouth. Jacob was pulling his hair, eyes rimmed in white. She could practically feel the jelly-quality of his legs. And Greg looked poised for attack, his meaty fists clenched, a vein bulging in his forehead.
But as she studied them, the four images began to twist. Each face started melting, dissolving into a blur, a muddied swirl of churning color. Feeling nauseous, Ava squeezed her eyes shut.
When she finally reopened them, the canvases again showed four faces - but they were four different faces. It was the faces of four teenagers, looking startled at a fire pit, clutching beers, a fire illuminating the underside of their skinny chins. And in the background, the foliage that hid the body of her drowned brother.
She closed her eyes.