The Bride

It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.

***

The dress sat perfectly across Katherine’s shoulders. The delicate rose coloured flowers stitched meticulously around the neckline, complimenting her smooth, alabaster skin. Folds of white silk charmeuse cascaded to the floor, trailing out behind her, a trim of intricate lace edging the train.

Her mother adjusted her veil, tucking her fiery ringlets behind the soft tulle.

She shook the ringlets forward and heard her mother sigh.

“You look beautiful,” her mother said. “But maybe you could wear a…”

She waited while the older woman arranged her words.

“…A less bright lipstick?”

Katherine mashed her lips together. They glowed with a slick of scarlet.

“I like it. It matches my hair.”

“It’s just that most brides…”

“Mother.”

“All right,” her mother said, raising her hands in mock surrender. “But you do look beautiful.”

Katherine squeezed out a smile. “Thanks.”

Her mother was right. She did look beautiful. More beautiful than her groom deserved. Even though he was beautiful himself. At least physically. The rest of him was as ugly as any man could be. Brutish and cold and narcissistic.

Her mother handed Katherine a glass of champaign. “Maybe a drink will help with your nerves,” she said, with a titter.

Katherine took the champagne on offer, tossing the bubbly liquid down her throat in one swallow before handing the glass back.

“Or five,” she said, her eyebrows raised.

Her mother took the hint and refilled her glass.

She gazed in the mirror again, barely recognising the woman staring back at her. The one who loved adventure, who danced wildly when no-one was watching, who drove too fast and swore too much, and wanted nothing more than to travel the world, free of commitments and boundaries and barriers.

She knew that life would never be hers now.

***

A year ago, she could never have believed this would be her fate. But a lot can change in a year.

Her father died and left a hole in the family filled with a debt no one knew anything about. Two mortgages on the farm that had been in her mother’s family for four generations.

They tried to get finance. They tried to work the land. They tried everything to keep their heads above water. Her, her mother and her two younger sisters.

They failed.

They sold off most of the stock to simply hold on to the farm. They let the ranch hands go, some who had been with her family nearly all their lives. Roy stayed, of course. More for her mother, than any other reason. He always held a flame.

Their saviour came in the shape of their neighbour. A man who owed his life to her father. Her father had pulled him from a raging river during one almighty Texan storm. They were never friends, but there was a respect between the men that lasted through to the end of her father’s days.

Landry Russell didn’t offer them money, but he did offer up his first-born son.

“A way to join our families and honour your father’s memory,” he had said.

A way to save their farm.

By selling her off.

She knew Walker Russell from school. The quarterback, the homecoming king, the bully. He was handsome beyond any boy she had ever seen. But behind his pretty chestnut eyes, lay a selfish, privileged, cruel young man, who saw himself as better than all around him. He picked on her with her pale skin, and flame coloured hair. He laughed at her father for still working his own land. He told her one day his family would own her ranch.

Seems he was right.

She hated him.

***

Her sisters bundled into the room giggling, their lavender bridesmaid’s dresses billowing behind them.

Laurel was too young to be anything but excited. At fourteen, she had no notion of love. All she cared about were her horses and BTS. Posters of the KPop stars papered her walls. But Justice knew better. She was seventeen, only three years Katherine’s junior, and a senior at the same school her older sister had attended. She understood why Katherine was marrying Walker. She knew it was so their mother could live her remaining years on the land she was born on. She knew it was so her and Laurel could go to college. She understood the sacrifice being made.

Justice looked over Katherine’s shoulder and into the mirror,

“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered in her sister’s ear.

“I do,” Katherine said with a smirk. “See how easy that was?”

Justice shook her head. “I’m going to tell mom you don’t love him.”

Katherine swung around and pretended to fix her sister’s hair. “You will not. Anyway, you don’t know how I feel.”

“Yes, I do. I saw how he used to treat you.”

“People change,” Katherine said with a shrug as she turned back towards the mirror.

“He hasn’t,” Justice said. “Please don’t do this, Kat. Please.”

Katherine smiled at her reflection, “Okay, ya’ll,” she said as she reached back and squeezed Justice’s hand. “I’m fixin’ to get married, who’s with me?”

Her mother and Laurel let out a hoot.

~~*~~

Delicate silk billowed around her like a shimmering marshmallow, as Katherine dropped to the ground and leant heavily against the old phone booth.

She gathered up the voluminous skirt and shoved it between her knees.

Pushing her shoes off with her heels, she tossed them one at a time towards the lake. They landed on the shore edge, a gentle wave claiming the left one and pulling it into the watery expanse. She watched as it drifted back and forth on the lapping tide, before it slowly sunk.

“Just like my life,” she said, as she wrenched the veil from her meticulously constructed up-do. Her flame red curls cascaded down in a messy mop of backcombing and bobby pins.

A dinging sound made her jump, and she fished around under the masses of white fabric, shoving her hand into the pocket she’d fought for when designing her gown. The one choice that was truly hers out of the whole god forsaken mess. Pockets.

She pulled out her phone and stared at the screen with its seventeen missed calls, sighed, and buried the phone back in the folds of her dress.

***

Everything had changed for Katherine when the limo transporting her to the church stopped for a herd of cows on their way to market. In a moment of clarity, Katherine saw the plight of those cows as being the same as her own. Plodding mindlessly forward to where they were expected to go. Passively accepting their fate. Lumbering towards the end of their life.

Without thinking, she’d dived from the car and dashed towards a thicket of trees, with no clue where she was going. Only that it was away. As far away as she could get from her shot gun wedding and a bitter future without love.

As she’d stumbled through the undergrowth, the sound of her name being hollered behind her became nothing more than a whisper on the wind, until finally it stopped. She knew her mother would never speak to her again. She knew she was being selfish. She was turning her back on her family. On their history. On her heritage. On everything she was ever taught to respect and cherish. But in that moment, as she’d clambered over fallen trees and through the long grass, Katherine felt free. The freest she’d been in years. Her future was hers once again, and no amount of money was worth throwing that away. Even if that meant losing the only life she had known since she was born.

When she burst out of the forest and onto the old highway, she’d flagged down a passing truck and a man, the age her father would have been if he were still alive, gave her a ride.

He hadn’t asked a single question, as she clambered aboard with swathes of wedding dress frothing around her. He’d talked only of the weather and the marvellous music playing on his ancient radio.

The man had dropped her by a phone booth beside Lake Pines, handing her a fist full of change and wishing her luck.

***

The coins jangled now as she stood.

***

Katherine’s Uber pulled up, its wheels crunching on the gravel.

She couldn’t help but laugh at the driver’s shocked face. She must have looked a sight. A wayward bride. Barefoot and bedraggled. Marbled patches of mud smeared down the front of her white dress and a tangle of hair hanging over her face.

She would fix it all. Fix everything. She would make it up to her mother. To her family. She would fine another way. A way that didn’t involve selling herself for a plot of land. Her father wouldn’t have wanted that for her, and once her mother understood, she was sure she wouldn’t want it either.

She slid onto the backseat, her one shoe in her hand, and stuffed her dress between her knees as she put on her seatbelt.

The driver gazed at her in the review mirror. “Bad day?” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching.

Katherine thought for a moment, then smiled.

“Happiest day of my life.”

©Amy Hutton 2021

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