My cousin Amy had a sly smile on her face across the table. I tried to give her a warning look, but the corner of my mouth involuntarily curled just enough to acknowledge that we shared a secret. Not a secret I want to share with my sixteen year old cousin.
"I wonder where Jeremy and Rose got off to?" Aunt Gladys asked, looking around the table. Her eyes passed right over me and Rose.
"I'm sure they'll be here." My mother said.
"Well", Aunt Gladys said with a wink. "They are newlyweds".
"Gladys!" My mother scolded. "You behave."
"I'm just saying." Gladys wasn't about to behave. Her eyes twinkled. "They probably have things on their minds other than a stuffy old Thanksgiving dinner."
I glanced around the table, awkwardly acknowledging the little joke Gladys was playing. Grandpa Will studied his plate, pretending not to follow the conversation. Grandma Betty was mostly deaf; she hadn't heard any of it.
Family surrounded the table. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, along with my younger brother and two young cousins, about a dozen people in all, settled in for a warm holiday dinner.
"Gladys, that's none of your business." My mom insisted. I silently agreed. It's nobody's business. It was probably embarrassing for everyone else as well. But afterall, we had kind of made it everyone's business, unintentionally.
I looked at Rose. Her face reddened, probably mirroring my own. She reached under the table and squeezed my hand.
Gladys wasn't wrong. We were newlyweds, and we had other things on our minds. Not exactly a surprising prediction. We'd had a full twenty, maybe thirty minutes before dinner and nothing to do. We knew each other's moods well enough, and when I brought Rose upstairs to show her the room I grew up in, one thing just followed another.
But then Amy burst in without the least tap of a knock. At least, not that either of us heard.
Amy practically lives on the internet, so it was likely nothing she hadn't seen before, but still, there are things cousins aren't meant to see. Sure, it was arguably inappropriate at a family gathering, but we were behind closed doors, and besides, isn't that how families got started?
"I feel like I want to disappear." Rose said, frantically pulling her dress back into order after Amy squealed in shock and slammed the door in her own face.
"I know the feeling." I said, getting myself straightened out. Some feelings of guilt were definitely in order here. We had let ourselves get a bit carried away. OK, a lot carried away.
When we got to the table, Gladys's little joke seemed to confirm that Amy had narced on us.
"They'll be here", Mom went on. "And when they get here, it's none of our business what they were up to." She tried to look stern.
I looked at Rose again. Her blushing face had turned to confusion, and something was dawning on me as well. Everyone was ignoring us, I assumed out of embarrassment, or to go along with the joke. But it wasn't like my mother to play along like that.
Grandpa looked up. "Maybe Betty and I will get some great grandchildren." he said, his voice deep and mellow for his age. He reached out and took his wife's frail hand. "God knows they'd better hurry. Let them get on with it."
Mom pursed her lips. Grandpa's comment didn't have the tone of teasing or a joke. I expected him to look up at us, to assure us that it was fine, but he didn't. Like we weren't even there.
Gladys's eyes shined. Amy's eyes widened. She looked toward us, but did not catch my eye. It was like she looked right through me. Like she was looking at the place we were supposed to be.
I looked at my hands, then at Rose. Instinct was getting ahead of my brain. I looked down at my plate. The potatoes were coming around. Dad gave himself a heaping scoop from the giant serving bowl.
Rose was to his immediate left, and when he finished, she moved to accept the bowl. Instead, he leaned far to his side and reached it past her as if wanting to hand it directly to me. I prepared to be offended at the inexplicably out of character snub of my new wife, but my brother leaned across me and took it.
The joke was going too far. Had they planned all this in the short time we were upstairs? "I would like some potatoes" I said, practically in Lex's ear. He flat out ignored me, and Gladys went on, not ready to drop it yet.
Rose and I locked eyes. Hers were wide as saucers. Mine must have been too. "What the fuck is going on?" Rose mouthed to me. I just shook my head.
"Hello!" I demanded in a voice not calibrated for politeness. Nobody flinched. I waved my hand in front of Lex's face. He didn't react at all, just kept scooping potatoes onto his plate. Either he was an Oscar-worthy actor or...
But no, there was no 'or'. That would be too ridiculous.
"What's happening?" Rose said, out loud, her voice was soft and pleading.
"It's a big joke." I said loudly. "Isn't it?" I asked the room. No answer. Rose squeezed my hand, terrified.
I put my hand on Lex's shoulder and gave a light shove. He flinched, the first break in their no longer funny skit. He brushed his shoulder with his hand, but never looked at me.
Rose waved her hand in front of my Dad's face. Nothing.
We moved around the room, to everybody at the table. We yelled in their ears, we put our hands in front of their faces. Zip, nada, nothing.
I grabbed a spoonful of mashed potatoes as it was passed to my Aunt Patty. No reaction. I flung potatoes against the wall. The conversations never paused. I wound up and made a big show of throwing a glass against the wall, shattering it.
That got a reaction, but nobody looked at me. The room became a chaos of confusion and questions. Accusation flew about who must have thrown it. Rose braced herself. I saw her nostrils flare. "Hello!" she screamed. "Listen to me!"
She moved behind Gladys and yelled in her ear, then shoved her from behind. No reaction besides a momentary confusion, and in the chaos, nobody else noticed her suddenly lurch for no apparent reason. Rose scooped a handful of potatoes. She mashed them into Gladys's face. "Stop talking, Gladys! Look at me!" she wailed. "Shut up! Shut up, all of you!" Gladys only paused long enough to scrape at it with her fingers and look at the mess, wondering how the hell that had happened.
I moved to the head of the table behind Grandpa Will, determined to put an end to this. "OK, we get it." I yelled, cutting Gladys off. Except it didn't. She just continued adding her two cents to the hubbub in the room. "Gladys!" I yelled. "It's all very funny. Fine, we consider ourselves properly teased. Humiliated. Chastised even, if that's what you wanted."
I looked around, hoping someone would break, come clean, acknowledge me and fess up to the joke. I should have known it was futile. Rose fled the room in a desperate hurry. I chased after her and found her crying on the sofa in the living room.
"What's going on, Jeremy?" she pleaded. I had no answers. She slumped, and we held each other for several minutes. Then she screamed and ran out of the room, toward the front door.
I finally caught up to her outside and grabbed her hand, pulling her back to me. She turned and buried her face in my chest. "They can't see us." she said in a weak voice. Tears flowed. "We're not here. We're not here any more."
I felt my own eyes watering as I held her against me. It wasn't just like we weren't there, we actually weren't there. It wasn't an analogy, it was a cold hard fact. But...
"We're here, Rose. And we're together."
That only amplified her sobs. We stood in my childhood street, surrounded by small bungalow houses. Could our neighbors see us? Were any of them watching us now, huddled together in the middle of the street, crying?
Rose suddenly broke from my arms. She took off toward the main street, stopping only to pull off her heels and leave them in the gutter. Every time I caught her, she pulled free again.
We were only a block from the old town square, a small but usually bustling clutch of stores and offices. Traffic was sparse on the four lane main street, and there was only a trickle of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Rose ran from person to person, jumping up and down, yelling in their faces, pushing them. She beat her fists on one man's chest. I could only watch her frantic efforts for someone, anyone, to see us. All of a sudden, she dropped straight down to the sidewalk and sat.
An old lady walked into her without stopping and slammed face first to the sidewalk.
I ran over to the woman to help, but she didn't acknowledge me. I glanced at Rose. She had her knees up, hugging them to herself, her body wracked with sobs.
Others rushed to the old woman's aid. She thanked them and let them help her up. "Clumsy me" she said once she was on her feet again. Rose stared up at her with the saddest look I have ever seen on my wife's face.
"They should fix these sidewalks", a man said, looking down at Rose, then back at the woman. After reassurances that she was not hurt, everyone went on their separate ways, leaving Rose and me there all alone.
"Rose, stand up." I said. We looked down. There was a nasty crack in the sidewalk, one side of which was a half an inch higher than the other. Rose had been sitting right on top of it, completely covering it from the view of anyone standing near the spot. But the man had seen the crack, not Rose.
Rose's body started shaking again and I put my arms around her. Then I realized she was laughing. "We're free." she said.
I looked at her, confused. "Free?"
"Free of all the bullshit. We can do whatever we want." She spun around with her arms outstretched, inadvertently almost slapping a man who walked too close. "We can get away with anything."
Her face was beaming with a fragile joy that looked like it could break at any moment.
She picked up a small chunk of broken cement from the curb and threw it at a bookstore window. It disintegrated in a twinkling shower of broken glass. The sound attracted the attention of everyone on the street.
She reached in and took a book from the window display. "I've always wanted to read this." she said, then tossed the book away over her shoulder.
People crowded around, and we stepped to one side. Nobody looked at us.
"It just shattered", a woman in the crowd said. Others looked at her, then back at the window, shaking their heads. A man got his phone out to call the police.
Rose and I walked away, not rushing, not slinking off. We weren't worried about being seen. Halfway across the street, Rose pulled my arm, heading toward a small cafe. Inside, none of the handful of diners looked our way. Rose walked among the tables unnoticed and unmolested. I stood by the door, watching. She laughed with an edgy calm.
"Oh, Hi!" she said theatrically to a man alone at a table. "I haven't seen you in so long, how have you been?" She turned to another table and took a roll out of the basket. A man in his fifties continued his conversation with a well-kept woman who looked to be in her mid forties.
"George!" Rose exclaimed effusively. "I haven't seen you since we met at your 'business meeting'. You were quite naughty that night, weren't you?" Neither of the couple broke stride in their conversation.
Rose's laugh was too forced, too pointed, but I was only holding on by a thread myself, and the covering laughter was appealing. Rose spun in the aisle between tables and threw a roll to me. I caught it, laughing, as Rose meandered her way behind the counter.
The host worked the register ringing someone up. Rose watched him until he opened the drawer, then reached in, and tossed a handful of bills in the air.
That got noticed, though Rose never was. The host scrambled to collect the scattered bills with the help of some of the diners. I didn't see anyone pocket any of it. Good people in this town, I thought.
"See Jeremy?" Rose said. "We can do anything. We can have all the money we want. Not that we need any". She picked a french fry off the platter carried by a waitress exiting the kitchen.
"Hungry?" Rose asked me, following the waitress. I was. We were supposed to be eating thanksgiving dinner right about now. She pulled a burger off a man's plate as soon as the waitress set it down.
The man gawked, and I realized he must be seeing it floating off his plate. Rose realized it too, and held it down by her side and hurried toward me, rushing me out the door.
"OK, I guess we do have to be a little careful", she said, looking across at the crowd still gathered around the bookstore, now joined by two policemen. "I'm sorry about that!" she yelled to them.
She gave me an apologetic look and said, "I really am. That was stupid." She handed me the burger. The crowd was completely oblivious to us. With an evil grin, she said. "Jesus, Jeremy, I could take off all my clothes and do jumping jacks in the middle of the street, and nobody would bat an eye."
The burger hit the spot, and her exuberance was contagious. I waggled my eyebrows at her. "Maybe you should try it." I said suggestively.
She grinned and elbowed me in the ribs. Something across the street caught her eye and she pulled me after her, coincidentally turning me toward the big clock on the City Hall tower at the end of the block. I laughed when I saw that it read 4:20.
Maybe that was it, I thought, not really believing it. Maybe this was just my private hallucination. I hadn't partaken of anything that might cause it, but Grandpa Will had been using for his arthritis and other assorted maladies. Maybe something got into the gravy.
I suddenly saw terror on Rose's face and the front of a bus, way too close, moving way too fast. It was like the driver didn't even see us...
"I feel like I want to... disappear." Rose said, frantically pulling her dress back into order after Amy squealed in shock and slammed the door in her own face.
She had a strange look on her face.
"I know the..." I couldn't finish it. A feeling of dread smothered me. The world went blank for a second or three, then snapped back into focus. I looked at the clock. Ten to four. We had gotten carried away a little. A lot actually. We'd completely lost track of time.
I put myself together and faced each other. Rose smoothed a wrinkle in her dress and took a deep calming breath. "I don't know if I can face them." she said.
I hugged her. "I'm not sure I want to either."
"It's humiliating." she said. "Gladys is going to have a field day with this."
I nodded. "I know. But they'll understand. We've only been married a month." She showed me a brave smile. "Look," I said, "we'll get some embarrassed looks, a few laughs behind their hands, maybe some good-natured ribbing. Then life will go on."
"You forgot to mention Gladys teasing us relentlessly for the rest of our lives."
I laughed. "There's worse things."
"Yeah, like getting taken out by a bus." Her face suddenly went dark and I felt my jaw drop.
"What did you say?" I asked, gripping her shoulders, not sure why I felt so shocked.
She stared at me, visibly scared. She shook her head. "Nothing."
We went downstairs and got everything we expected. But life went on. Soon everyone was laughing and telling old stories, prompted by the one about me and Rose that would surely become part of the whispered holiday repertoire for generations. I looked at Rose. She smiled at me, knowing what I was thinking. She seemed OK with it. The worst was over.
I leaned in to give her a quick peck while attention was briefly off of us as multiple conversations swirled around the table. A random thought popped into my head, like a memory suddenly recalled out of nowhere. "Jumping jacks?"
She looked startled and studied my face, realization dawning. She looked around the table as if confirming that everyone was still there. She caught Amy's eye and seemed reassured. She grinned, and elbowed me in the ribs. "Not till we get home.
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"The corner of my mouth involuntarily curled just enough to acknowledge that we shared a secret" : I really (really, really) like this line. Thanks for sharing this story!!
Kinda Ambrose Biercey. I sure like the first half, the first segment. The after-segment diluted the first segment. Previously: you shock the family into disbelief. Else: they are alone in their affair. (Wedding symbolize family but the family doesn't typically follow a couple to watch). So much emotion and capturing the essence. The second segment made it like Owl Creek. Time was suspended. A new reality. For me, it went from "wooooooow" to "oh." But I don't particularly like Ambrose Bierce. One of the most original stories with e...
Tommy, thanks. I hadn't thought of Owl Creek, but yeah, it is the identical trope, though inverted, I guess. Can I take it your dislike of that was simply a matter of taste? Or is it something more to that, more inherent to this story and my execution of it. Either way, thank you.