This story is by Paul Isaac and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jason coughed and spluttered, the smoke catching in his throat and part way up his nose.
‘Maybe Cigar Club was not the best idea.’ Chase laughed at the relief that swept across Jason’s face. ‘Let’s go back inside. It’s cold out here.’
‘Perils of you getting married in Autumn,’ Jason said with a grimace. The smoke was quickly whisked away on a snapping breeze that rustled the pile of damp brown leaves that had collected by their feet. He made sure it was out, then swept it and the ashtray into a carrier bag full of different sized boxes and tied it at the top, dumping it unceremoniously into the bin as Chase hauled open the doors and buffeted them with a wall of sound comprised of cheesy music and gaggled conversation.
‘How many of those did you buy?’ Chase joked, leading them to the bar.
‘You idiot. How did you expect us to get through them all?’
‘I dunno, I guess I thought it’d be like wine tasting you know? I got us a variety, just in case.’ Chase smiled knowingly as he signalled the hired barman to fetch them a drink.
‘I appreciate it.’
Jason caught the knowing look and folded in on himself. ‘I wanted to get it right. I feel bad that I’m not around anymore.’
‘Haha it’s alright, honestly. I know all about life getting in the way,’ Chase said, admiring the new shiny attachment to his finger. ‘Man, the adventures we had! You’ve got to live it up for the pair of us.’
Jason took a sip of his bitter drink. ‘Gallivanting is not all it’s cracked up to be you know, it can get lonely too.’
Across the sparsely attended dance floor, Carla was standing on her own beneath one of the house lights that edged the hired hall. The yellow light highlighted her high cheekbones, framing her glazed ocean blue eyes beneath her long dark locks, neatly curled and held in place by her subtle bridesmaid’s tiara.
A hand wafted before him, its closeness obscuring his vision. ‘… listening to me?’ Chase said, a goofy smile plastered across his face.
‘Sorry,’ Jason said, taking another deep swig of his drink. ‘I just can’t shake the feeling-‘
‘That it should be me buying cigars for your wedding?’ Chase suggested.
Jason nodded. He’d not consumed enough alcohol to diminish his inhibitions, with Chase he didn’t need to. He didn’t see him for years at a time, but put them back in a room together and it was as if they’d spent their entire life side by side.
‘After sixth form I got into university and she didn’t. Then when you had little Stevie she was with that prick James.’
‘John,’ Chase corrected.
‘Whatever happened to him by the way?’
‘Fuck knows,’ Chase said, ‘walked out on her and nobody ever heard from him again. That kind of thing happens to her a lot.’
There was a weight to the sentence that hit Jason deep in the pit of his stomach. A blow he was sure that Chase intended.
‘Hey, that was in September too right?’ He remembered the leaves outside of the venue, brittle and dry despite the chill wind. He remembered wanting to be warmer. ‘The baby shower? Why is that?’
‘Because me and Heidi were getting jiggy over Christmas. Stop stalling. Go over and talk to her. If anything’s gonna happen between you two it has to be now. I’m not conceiving another child just so you can fly back from wherever and spend the evening staring at her again. One’s enough, we’ve decided. I’m getting the snip.’
‘You’re wha-‘ Chase shoved him away before he could argue, then came in behind him and made a show of seeking out his new wife, drawing all the attention of the room as they prepared for their first dance.
‘Could’ve been us,’ Jason joked, as he stepped before Carla and took a place beside her on the wall.
‘Heaven forbid,’ Carla said and smiled.
For a moment Jason lost himself in her eyes trying to think of the right thing to say. His struggle seemed to please her and her eyes screwed a little tighter as her smile widened and she placed a comforting hand on his arm. ‘It does seem to,’ he said finally.
Carla looked at him intently.
‘I was talking to Chase about all the near misses we’ve had over the years,’ he said. ‘Something always gets in the way.’ Carla took a sip of her drink. ‘Or someone,’ he said, staring down at the engagement ring on her finger.
‘That didn’t stop us last time at Stevie’s baby shower,’ Carla said, pointedly removing it and slipping it into a stylish clutch bag.
It drew a grin from Jason. He remembered wanting to be warmer, then he remembered exactly how he achieved it. And who helped him. ‘You’ve not told anybody about that I hope?’
Carla shook her head. ‘That’s between us.’
Jason smiled. ‘Partners in crime,’ he said, which drew another warm smile from Carla.
They watched silently as Chase and Heidi danced, camera flashes lighting the room, intermittently granting the illusion of daylight.
‘I meant me, actually,’ Jason said in an expulsion of breath. Carla turned back to face him. ‘The amount of times we’ve nearly got it together, and I’ve just taken off without a word.’
‘It’s alright,’ Carla said, turning her gaze back to the happy couple.
‘No, it’s not Carla. That kind of thing can really screw a person up. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t worry,’ she said smiling. ‘Partners in crime, remember? We’ll find a way.’
* * *
‘Nothing like death to bring two people together…’ Jason said. He’d caught up to Carla as she left the church, relieved that she was at the back of the trail and set a few paces apart. Carla smiled, her eyes partially hidden beneath the black funeral shroud.
‘I didn’t see you inside,’ she said, taking a step forward and initiating their rejoining of the melancholic procession.
‘My flight got delayed.’ He shook his head. It was only a month ago he’d taken a plane out of here. ‘I can’t get my head around this. Poison? Was it something they ate on their honeymoon? God, it must have been horrible!’
‘Arsenic,’ Carla said dispassionately, ‘after they got back.’
‘Right.’ He supposed she must have put herself through hell already, and simply had nothing left to give. Doubly so, if what he’d overheard from the people at the head of the procession had been true. ‘How are you coping?’ He bitterly remembered his and Chase’s conversation. ‘Paul walked out on you and nobody’s heard from him?’ he recited.
‘We were arguing about you actually,’ she said, and Jason found himself unable to form a reply before they joined the rest of the mourners huddled around the double burial plot.
Jason had a feeling that they were forming a protective shroud. The cold wind tore through them where it could, but their frames prevented the worst of the leaves, Autumn scheming to fill the plot with its own dead before they could lower the caskets.
The pastor relied heavily on the season during the ceremony. One line in particular about being cruelly struck down in ‘the Autumn of their lives’ struck a chord with Jason, and he reached out a hand to Carla, who emotionally clasped it in her own.
‘My plane leaves in a few hours…’ he said later, after the others had gone and left the pair of them alone. Carla looked up toward him from her place on his shoulder. ‘But what if this time you came with me?’ Carla smiled, wider than he’d ever seen it, and nodded her head. ‘If fate finally wants this to happen, surely there’s another seat available.’
They were intercepted before they reached the airport.
‘Carla Veyhar?’ an officer said, lights and sirens blaring from the squad car that pulled over their taxi. ‘You’re under arrest on three counts of murder.’
‘Three?’ Was all Jason’s mind could process’ ‘You killed them! Your own sister, Carla, why?’
‘After I killed Paul, I knew Chase’s funeral was the only way to bring you back.’
‘That’s one hell of a bat signal, lady,’ the arresting officer said as he cuffed her. She seemed to take it as a compliment.
‘Why aren’t you panicking?’ Jason almost shrieked.
‘Because we’re finally together. Partners in crime, remember?’
The officer shot a look in Jason’s direction.
‘She doesn’t mean-‘ But the officer was already reaching for Jason’s wrists.
‘She kills her husband, sends the signal, and you come back and book her a flight out of here? It’s not looking good.’
‘But she! I mean!’ Jason turned to her, exasperated further by her innocently uncomprehending smile. ‘This was supposed to be the Autumn of our lives!’
‘In that case,’ the officer said, tightening the cuffs to an uncomfortable degree, ‘it’s gonna be a helluva winter.’