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A Beautiful Wedding: Chapter 2

The Way Back


I stared at the sparkling rock on my finger and sighed again. It wasn’t the airy sigh a young, newly engaged girl might make while staring at her rather large diamond. It was full of thought. A heavy, thoughtful thought that made me think heavier, thoughtful thoughts. But not second thoughts. We couldn’t stay away from each other. What we were about to do was inevitable, and Travis Maddox loved me in a way most people dreamed about. The sigh was filled with worry and hope for my stupid plan. I wanted Travis to be okay so much that it was nearly tangible.

“Stop that, Pidge,” Travis said. “You’re making me nervous.”

“It’s just . . . too big.”

“It fits just fine,” he said, sitting back. We were wedged between a businessman talking softly on his cell phone and an elderly couple. An airline employee was standing behind the gate desk, talking into what looked like a CB radio. I wondered why they didn’t just use a regular microphone. She announced a few names, and then hooked the device somewhere on the back of her desk.

“Must be a full flight,” Travis said. His left arm was settled on the back of my chair, his thumb gently rubbing my shoulder. He was trying to pretend to be relaxed, but his bobbing knee gave him away.

“The diamond is excessive. I feel like I’m going to get mugged at any moment,” I said.

Travis laughed. “First of all, no one is going to fucking touch you. Second, that ring was made to be on your finger. I knew when I saw it—”

“Attention passengers of American flight 2477 to Las Vegas, we are looking for three volunteers to take a later flight. We’re offering travel vouchers good for one year from your departure.”

Travis looked at me.


“You in a hurry?” he asked, a smug smile on his face.

I leaned in and kissed him. “Actually, I am.” I reached up with my finger and wiped away the smudge of soot under his nose that he’d missed in the shower.

“Thanks, baby,” he said, squeezing me against his side. He looked around, his chin lifted, his eyes bright. He was in the best mood I’d seen him in since the night he’d won our bet. It made me smile. Sensible or not, it felt good to be loved so much, and I decided right then and there I would stop apologizing for it. There were worse things than finding your soul mate too early in life, and what was too early, anyway?

“I had a discussion about you with my mom, once,” Travis said, looking out the wall of windows to our left. It was still dark. Whatever he saw wasn’t on the other side.

“About me? Isn’t that kind of . . . impossible?”

“Not really. It was the day she died.”

Adrenaline burst from where adrenaline bursts from and sped through my body, pooling in my fingers and toes. Travis had never spoken about his mother to me. I often wanted to ask him about her, but then I thought about the sickening feeling that came over me when someone asked me about my mother, so I never did.

He continued, “She told me to find a girl worth fighting for. The one that doesn’t come easy.”

I felt a little embarrassed, wondering if that meant I was a huge pain in the ass. Truthfully, I was, but that wasn’t the point.

“She said to never stop fighting, and I didn’t. She was right.” He took a deep breath, seeming to let that thought settle into his bones.

The idea that Travis believed I was the woman who his mother was talking about, that she would approve of me, made me feel an acceptance I’d never felt before. Diane, who had passed away almost seventeen years before, now made me feel more loved than my own mother.

“I love your mom,” I said, leaning against Travis’s chest.

He looked down at me, and after a short pause, kissed my hair. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear in his voice how much he was affected. “She would have loved you, too. No doubt in my mind.”

The woman spoke into her CB again. “Attention passengers of American flight 2477 to Las Vegas: We will begin boarding soon. We’ll start with anyone needing boarding assistance, and those with young children, and then we’ll begin boarding first class and business class.”

“How about exceptionally tired?” Travis said, standing. “I need a fuckin’ Red Bull. Maybe we should have kept our tickets for tomorrow like we’d planned?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You have a problem with me being in a hurry to be Mrs. Travis Maddox?”

He shook his head, helping me to my feet. “Hell no. I’m still in shock, if you wanna know the truth. I just don’t want you to be rushing because you’re afraid you’ll change your mind.”

“Maybe I’m afraid you’ll change your mind.”

Travis’s eyebrows pulled in, and he wrapped his arms around me. “You can’t really think that. You gotta know there’s nothing I want more.”

I rose up on the balls of my feet and pecked his lips. “I think we’re getting ready to board a plane for Vegas so we can get married, that’s what I think.”

Travis squeezed me against him, and then kissed me excitedly from cheek to collarbone. I giggled as he tickled my neck, and laughed even louder when he lifted me off the ground. He kissed me one last time before taking my bag off the floor, lowered me to the ground, and then led me by the hand to the line.

We showed our boarding passes and walked down the Jetway hand in hand. The flight attendants took one look at us and offered a knowing smile. Travis passed our seats to let me by, placed our carry-on bags in the overhead bin, and collapsed next to me. “We should probably try to sleep on the way, but I’m not sure I can. I’m too fucking amped.”

“You just said you needed a Red Bull.”

His dimple caved as he smiled. “Stop listening to everything I say. I’m probably not going to make sense for the next six months while I try to process the fact that I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted.”

I leaned back to meet his eyes. “Trav, if you wonder why I’m in such a hurry to marry you . . . what you just said is one of the many reasons why.”



He scooted down in his seat, and then laid his head on my shoulder, nuzzling my neck a few times before relaxing. I touched my lips to his forehead, and then looked out the window, waiting as the other passengers passed by and silently praying for the pilot to hurry the hell out of there. I’d never been so thankful for my unrivaled poker face. I wanted to stand up and scream for everyone to sit down and for the pilot to get us off the ground, but I forbid myself to even fidget, and willed my muscles to relax.

Travis’s fingers found their way to mine, and intertwined with them. His breath heated up the spot it touched on my shoulder, sending warmth throughout my body. Sometimes I just wanted to drown in him. I thought about what might happen if my plan didn’t work. Travis being arrested, tried in court, and the worst case scenario: being sent to prison. Knowing it was possible to be separated from him for a very long time, I felt that a promise to be with him forever didn’t seem like enough. My eyes filled with tears, and one escaped, falling down my cheek. I wiped it away quickly. Damn fatigue always made me more emotional.

The other passengers were stowing their bags and buckling their seat belts, going through the motions with no idea that our lives were about to change forever.

I turned to look out the window. Anything to get my mind off the urgency to get off the ground. “Hurry,” I whispered.


It was easy to relax when I rested my head in the crook of Abby’s neck. Her hair still smelled a little bit like smoke, and her hands were still pink and swollen from trying to force the basement window open. I tried to push that image from my head: the soot smudges on her face, her frightened eyes red and irritated from the smoke, emphasized by the smeared black mascara surrounding them. If I hadn’t stayed behind, she might not have made it. Life without Abby didn’t sound like much of a life at all. I didn’t want to even wonder what losing her would be like. Going from a nightmare situation to one I’d dreamed about was a jarring experience, but lying there against Abby as the plane hummed and the flight attendant deadpanned the announcements over the PA system made for a somewhat easier transition.

I reached for Abby’s fingers, lacing mine with hers. Her cheek pressed against the top of my head so subtly that if I’d been paying attention to what string to pull to trigger the automatic inflation of my life vest, I might have missed her tiny display of affection.

In just a few months’ time, the petite woman next to me had become my whole world. I fantasized about how beautiful she would be in her wedding dress, returning home to watch Abby make the apartment her own, buying our first car, and doing those everyday, boring things that married people did, like the dishes and grocery shopping—together. I imagined watching her walk across the stage at her graduation. After we both found jobs, we would likely start a family. That was just three or four years away. We both had broken homes, but I knew Abby would be a damn good mother. I thought about how I would react when she broke the news to me of being pregnant, and I already felt a little emotional about it.

It wouldn’t all be sunshine and rainbows, but struggling through a rough patch was when we were at our best, and we’d had enough rough patches to know we could get through them.

With thoughts of a future in which Abby was swollen with our first child running through my mind, my body relaxed against the itchy airplane seat, and I fell asleep.

What was I doing here? The smell of smoke burned my nose, and the cries and screaming in the distance made my blood turn to ice, even though sweat was pouring down my face. I was back in the bowels of Keaton Hall.

“Pigeon?” I yelled. I coughed and squinted my eyes, as if that would help me see through the darkness. “Pigeon!”

I’d felt this feeling before. The panic; the pure adrenaline of being truly afraid of dying. Death was just moments away, but I didn’t think about what it would feel like to suffocate or burn alive. I only thought about Abby. Where was she? Was she okay? How would I save her?

A single door came into view, highlighted by the approaching flames. I turned the knob and pushed into the ten-by-ten room. It was just four walls of concrete blocks. One window. A small group of girls and a couple of guys were against the far wall, trying to reach for their only escape.

Derek, one of my frat brothers, was holding up one of the girls, and she was desperately reaching for the window. “Can you get it, Lindsey?” He grunted, breathing hard.

“No! I can’t reach it!” she cried, clawing above her. She was wearing a pink Sigma Kappa T-shirt, damp from sweat.

Derek nodded to his friend. I didn’t know his name, but he was in my humanities class. “Lift Emily, Todd! She’s taller!”

Todd bent over and laced his fingers together, but Emily had flattened herself against the wall, frozen with fear. “Emily, get over here.”

Her face compressed. She looked like a little girl. “I want my mom,” she whimpered.

“Get. The fuck. Over here!” Todd commanded.

After taking a tiny moment to find her courage, Emily pushed away from the wall and climbed onto Todd. He pushed her up, but she couldn’t reach it, either.

Lainey watched her friend reach for the window, noticed the approaching flames, and then balled her hands into fists at her chest. She squeezed them so tight, they shook. “Keep trying, Emily!”

“Let’s try another way!” I said, but they didn’t hear me. Maybe they’d already tried several routes, and this was the only window they could find. I ran into the dark hallway and looked around. This was the dead end. We had nowhere else to run.

I went back in, trying to think of something to save us. Dusty sheets covered stored furniture that lined the walls, and the fire was using them as a pathway. A pathway straight to the room we were in.

I backed up a few steps, and then turned to face the kids behind me. Their eyes widened, and they retreated against the wall. Lainey was trying to climb up the cement blocks out of pure terror.

“Have you seen Abby Abernathy?” I said. They didn’t hear me. “Hey!” I yelled again. None of those kids acknowledged me. I walked up to Derek and screamed at him. “Hey!” He looked right through me at the fire, a horrified look on his face. I looked at the others. They didn’t see me, either.

Confused, I walked over to the wall, and jumped, trying to reach the window, and then I was kneeling on the ground outside, looking in. Derek, Todd, Lainey, Lindsey, and Emily were still inside. I tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge. I kept trying, anyway, hoping at any moment it would pop open and I could pull them out.

“Hold on!” I yelled. “Help!” I yelled again, hoping someone would hear.

The girls hugged, and Emily began to wail. “This is just a bad dream. This is just a bad dream. Wake up! Wake up!” she said over and over.

“Get one of the sheets, Lainey!” Derek said. “Roll it up and shove it under the door!”

Lainey scrambled to pull a sheet off a desk. Lindsey helped her, and then watched Lainey shove it desperately under the door. They both backed away, watching the door.

“We’re trapped,” Todd said to Derek.

Derek’s shoulders fell. Lainey walked over to him, and he touched her dirty cheeks with both hands. They stared into each other’s eyes. Thick, black smoke snaked under the door and seeped into the room.

Emily jumped for the window. “Lift me up, Todd! I want out! I want out of here!”

Todd watched her jump with a defeated expression on his face.

“Mommy!” Emily screamed. “Mommy help me!” Her eyes were trained on the window, but still she looked past me.

Lindsey reached out for Emily, but she wouldn’t be touched. “Sssh . . .” she said, trying to comfort her from where she stood. She covered her mouth with her hands and began to cough. She looked at Todd, tears streaming down her face. “We’re going to die.”

“I don’t want to die!” Emily screamed, still jumping.

As the smoke filled the room I punched the window, over and over. The adrenaline must have been unbelievable, because I couldn’t feel my hand hitting the glass, even though I was using every bit of strength I had. “Help me! Help!” I yelled, but no one came.

Smoke bumped and swirled against the window, and the coughs and crying silenced.

My eyes popped open, and I looked around. I was on the plane with Abby, my hands clenching the armrests, and every muscle in my body clenched.

“Travis? You’re sweating,” Abby said. She touched my cheek.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, quickly unbuckling my seat belt. I rushed to the back of the plane and jerked open the lavatory door, and then locked it behind me. Flipping up the sink lever, I splashed water on my face, and then stared into the mirror, watching the drops of water slide off my face and onto the counter.

They were there because of me. I knew Keaton wasn’t safe, and I knew too many people were in that basement, and I let it happen. I contributed to dozens of deaths, and now I was on a plane to Las Vegas. What the fuck was wrong with me?

I walked back to my seat and buckled in next to Abby.

She stared at me, noticing right away that something was wrong. “What?”

“It’s my fault.”

She shook her head, and kept her voice low. “No. Don’t do that.”

“I should have said no. I should have insisted on a safer place.”

“You didn’t know that was going to happen.” She glanced around, making sure no one was listening. “It’s awful. It’s horrific. But we couldn’t stop it. We can’t change it.”

“What if I get arrested, Abby? What if I go to jail?”

“Sssh,” she said, reminding me of the way Lindsey tried to comfort Emily in my dream. “It won’t happen,” she whispered. Her eyes were focused; resolute.

“Maybe it should.”


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