We Are Gathered Here Today to Eat, Drink, and Be Ruthless

"Wedding Party" from DIRECT SUNLIGHT by Christine Sneed, recommended by Elizabeth McKenzie

Introduction by Elizabeth McKenzie

Christine Sneed is one of our most committed short story writers. In her Chicago Tribune essay, “Short Stories Deserve Love, Too,” she enthusiastically champions short fiction and roots for its practitioners to succeed in the novel-oriented world of publishing. “Within a few pages,” she writes, “the best short story writers show us in a fresh, perceptive way the disquieting and beautiful complexity of our shared experiences.”

Direct Sunlight, Sneed’s third collection, fully delivers on her promise of what short fiction can do. Her emotionally rich, virtuosic prose predicates story upon story, and I’m awed by the range of her subjects, her gift for distilling thorny situations into elegant, lucid narratives, and the perceptive humanity of her vision. There is no other way to put it—she is a master of the form.

This story, “Wedding Party,” captures the essence of what Sneed brings us in her collections—it’s a story panoramic in scope, witty and wise. We traffic in the psyches of the key players in “the bride’s second marriage, the groom’s third,” including the wedding planner and a hired psychic. (Could we go out on a limb and imagine that the story comes to us through the efforts of this psychic, who is so good at understanding others yet not herself?) I love the absorbing asides that unfurl like tentacles beyond the story’s margins, letting in sudden, often shocking, dimensions.

We linger with the scars of the wife-to-be, the secret yearnings of the groom, the screw-ups of the uncle, the fury of the groom’s brother, and the gnawing voids in the lives of those attending, including a kleptomaniac sister. Everyone is hungry, everyone is wounded, and, as custom demands, everyone must be merry nonetheless. Yet undeniably, Sneed proves these mortals are gathered under the same rented tent, bound together by their imperfections, and it’s in that zone that the dichotomies of the story live.

– Elizabeth McKenzie
Author of The Dog of the North

We Are Gathered Here Today to Eat, Drink, and Be Ruthless

Wedding Party by Christine Sneed


It was the bride’s second marriage, the groom’s third. They were both in their thirties, but Kim wasn’t sure if the groom was fibbing about his age—half of his face was hidden behind a dark beard, and he kept his hair, thick and shiny, tied in a youthful ponytail. She hadn’t searched for him online, having managed to break this habit after looking up a different client several months earlier and discovering he was semi-famous for a series of YouTube videos he’d posted of himself performing homegrown stunts in the Jackass vein, which included swallowing half a bottle of motor oil mixed with Bailey’s Irish Cream and dangling heavy objects from his penis while, off-camera, others howled with drunken laughter. After watching four of these clips for reasons Kim still didn’t understand, she’d had trouble looking him and the bride in the eye.

These new clients, Ryan and Emily Ann, had money and divorced parents, several half- and step-siblings, and, for the moment, good attitudes. Kim had a feeling the groom was stoned every time she met with him and the bride, but he wasn’t inarticulate or dopey, only vague and smiling. She wondered why they were in such a hurry to marry—they’d met only seven months earlier, when the ink on Ryan’s second set of divorce papers wasn’t yet dry and Emily Ann had just joined Gamblers Anonymous and was trying to adopt a child from Guatemala, a quest Ryan had convinced her to set aside in favor of adopting two puggles. He liked other people’s children just fine, he’d told Kim during their second meeting, his fiancée’s expression blank as he talked, but he didn’t want any of his own—lucky for him because his sperm count wasn’t the greatest, possibly because he was born during a period of intense solar flares, and his mother had eaten a lot of seaweed while pregnant with him.

Kim had learned to take in the superstitions and idiosyncratic details couples shared with her without letting her surprise or boredom show. She knew they couldn’t help themselves—most of them were young and in the habit of posting every thought and whim online. One couple she’d worked with the previous year had wanted to marry on a rocket blasting into space—did Kim know if anyone had ever done this? (She did not, nor had she ever heard of it—though with billionaires now taking rides on the space shuttle, she supposed space weddings were coming.) Another couple wanted a silent wedding with their vows and the priest’s words projected onto a big screen suspended above the altar. Another wanted to marry on the ocean with everyone floating on air mattresses while dolphins leapt in the distance against the setting sun.

Ryan and Emily Ann were less dramatic and ambitious, but they’d decided to host their ceremony on the lakefront and had a guest list of a hundred and fifty people, most of whom were bringing a plus one. In late September, an outdoor wedding was risky, but the bride and groom had agreed to use a tent for the reception and a half dozen portable heaters in case of a cold night. As a rule, outdoor weddings made Kim nervous, especially when the guest list was large—even in the summer, Chicago weather was unpredictable. Her feeling was that if people wanted to get married outdoors, they should move to San Diego, or at least hold their wedding there.


Clay did not understand his nephew. Two divorces already, and now a third wedding, and the boy wasn’t even close to the age when AARP started sending out those membership forms that looked like a check might be inside but of course there never was a check. Why couldn’t Ryan simply live with a woman and keep lawyers out of it when one of them got sick of the other? No one batted an eye these days over unmarried cohabitation unless they were pious hypocrites, but who cared what those reprobates thought anyway. In his experience, those folks routinely cheated on their taxes and sent their gay sons off to be deprogrammed by scripture-spouting maniacs.

Clay had only been married once, and that was back in his idiotic mid-twenties when he rode a motorcycle and kept an iguana named Clint Eastwood as a pet. The marriage hadn’t been his idea, but he’d thought it might be fun and for a couple of years it was, but then his wife’s sister moved in with them, after she’d left the commune in rural Oregon where she’d learned to cook without meat and had stopped shaving her legs and armpits. He’d gotten into some trouble with her, and for a year and a half he and the sister had lived in a tent in whichever friend’s yard they could pitch it. It had been tough to hold down a job when he couldn’t shower very often and didn’t have a washer, and on top of this, his dental hygiene was on the questionable side, but all that nonsense was more than thirty years ago now, and in the end, he’d managed to hold on to most of his teeth and had been waking up alone for nearly ten years. Much of the time, it wasn’t as bad as you’d think it would be.


Ryan had asked his uncle Clay to be his best man—his two closest friends had already filled that position in one of his previous weddings, and he thought it might jinx the whole thing if he were to ask one of them to stand up again. If he were called before God or some sort of almighty bogeyman to reveal who his favorite family member was, he’d have to say Clay because his parents were bat-shit, his grandparents were dead, and even though he got along all right with his brother and sister, Sebastian was a little off and possibly a peeping Tom, and Jill’s house was crammed full of so much crap from flea markets and yard sales you could barely move from one room to the next without knocking something over, and she was only forty-two. She had too many pets, and the place smelled terrible. Although Ryan appreciated her soft spot for birds and various four-legged creatures, he kept his house pet acquisitions firmly in the dog realm.

But he wasn’t prone to throwing stones—he had his own set of problems, and one of them was he didn’t like being alone and certainly couldn’t live alone for more than a week or two without sort of losing his mind and joining chat rooms about owl migration routes and French cooking and other topics he knew nothing about. His therapist had told him this was something of a Trojan-horse problem, with other problems living like stowaways inside a bigger problem. His therapist had advised him not to remarry so quickly—couldn’t he and Emily Ann take it slower than Ryan had with his two ex-wives?

Well, a year and a half into his first marriage, his wife realized she was still in love with her college girlfriend, and three years into his next marriage, his second wife, Gabrielle, slept with one of her coworkers, and despite saying it wouldn’t happen again, it did happen again, and even though Ryan knew he was still in love with her, he also knew he would never trust her again. She hadn’t wanted the divorce, but he wasn’t able to sleep the night through without waking up in a blind rage after he found out she was still having sex with her coworker. He didn’t like worrying that his fury at being cuckolded might jump the wall at some point and make a lunge for her. And because he was still in love with her, he realized he would probably be a confused wreck for a while.

When he was with Emily Ann, however, he felt saner and relatively happy. So far, she’d been extremely loyal, and even better than her loyalty was the fact that men did not ogle her like they did Gabrielle. Emily Ann was pretty but not a knockout. No other guy ever stared at her as if Ryan, with his arm around her as they entered a restaurant or a party, were invisible.

His secret thought was that one day he and Gabrielle might get back together—when they were both in their sixties or seventies, and she was done screwing around. After her looks had faded and she’d had a cancer scare and come through it a more humble person who understood how deeply her lust for the bonehead at work who played drums in a Doors cover band had hurt and tormented her adoring, occasionally stoned former husband.


Emily Ann was her father’s third daughter and the fifth child of six. She was her mother’s only daughter and first of her three children. She was glad Ryan had only two siblings and was the calmest guy she’d ever dated seriously, but it worried her a little that he didn’t seem to want kids. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted them either, although she did think she might at some point. Her first husband had wanted kids, but he’d also wanted to live in Alaska, and when he insisted they move from Chicago to Anchorage, she’d become very depressed. She couldn’t stand exceedingly cold weather, and this had turned out to be only one of several major problems. The biggest wasn’t his fault, but hers—she’d lost all their money playing online poker at the beginning of the pandemic, a period of collective quasi-insanity that wasn’t over yet. The virus was also the reason why she and Ryan had decided to hold their wedding outside. She sensed the wedding planner would have preferred a banquet hall or a hotel ballroom, but at least she wasn’t being pushy about it.

When they had their first meeting with the wedding planner, Ryan mentioned the idea of hiring a psychic for the reception, and he wouldn’t let it go like Emily Ann had initially hoped. She knew without doubt it was a bad idea because no matter what the psychic said, at least a few people would end up angry or traumatized, and Emily Ann really didn’t want any of the guests to remember their wedding as the night they were told their house would burn down or their teenage daughter would run off with the father of three who lived two doors away. She’d been at a New Year’s Eve party a few years ago where this very thing had occurred. It had taken a couple of months for the psychic’s predictions to come true, but this had only heightened the suspense, and one person was still talking about suing the host for psychological damages.

She wasn’t sure why Ryan had proposed so quickly, even though she’d been hoping since their fourth date he would. On that date, he’d taken her to a pottery shop and they’d both crafted little animals—a lion, a seal, a fox, and a frog—and she supposed she’d fallen in love with him on the spot. His second ex-wife was still calling him, and although Ryan said it was only because they shared custody of a dog, a high-strung German shepherd mix named Horst, he seemed happy whenever she called or texted, which was at least once nearly every time he and Emily Ann were together.


Poor Emily Ann—even though she was the firstborn, she was the most lost of Julia’s three children. It didn’t help that Bill, Emily Ann’s father, was a blowhard and a fool who had spoiled her rotten until she was thirteen—the year he’d left Julia for another woman—after which he’d neglected Emily Ann and her brother Zachary obscenely. No wonder their daughter was so confused and unhappy and had had that awful gambling problem in the early months of the pandemic. Fortunately, Zachary had stronger self-esteem—maybe a little too strong, but at least he knew he didn’t have to turn himself inside out to please everyone who crossed his path, nor did he go chasing after validation in virtual casinos. It did bother her that he was a musician, but he hadn’t impregnated anyone yet, as far as Julia knew.

She hoped this second marriage of Emily Ann’s would last—her own second marriage was a solid, waterproof vessel, and much of this, she felt certain, was due to her loving husband’s strong moral compass and distrust of the internet (thank goodness—Bill had met the woman he’d dumped her for online!). Stewart did not leer at other women, nor did he make up stories about the year he served in the Vietnam War. He didn’t have the supplest sense of humor, but she would take his steady seriousness any day over Bill’s dumb jokiness and wandering eye. It was a wonder he hadn’t been MeToo’d with all the other would-be Casanovas, though for all she knew, he had but had quietly settled with whatever women he’d made a grab for. She hadn’t seen him in four years—not since Emily Ann’s first wedding—and Julia wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing him again, but it couldn’t be helped. At least she’d held on to her figure, despite having three babies—the third, Stewart’s and her good-natured Benjamin, arriving when she was forty-one—and on the whole, she liked weddings but would have preferred her only daughter to have had just one.

As for her son-in-law-to-be, he was a cheerful bore who seemed not to let things get under his skin, but Stewart worried Ryan would never amount to anything and wished he had some sort of career. Ryan had family money and technically didn’t need to work, so, well, he didn’t, though he pretended to—apparently he did something nebulous in the field of graphic design. Trust funds corrupted the mind, in Stewart’s view. Julia didn’t share this opinion, and all things being equal, she would rather Emily Ann have a rich husband than a poor one (but she hoped Ryan wasn’t planning to give her unfettered access to his bank account because he would surely regret it).

It didn’t seem likely he intended to, in any case—there was a prenup, which, although coldhearted, was never a bad idea, in Julia’s view. The world was coldhearted. People didn’t like to hear this, but it was nonetheless true.


To Kim’s great relief, the day of the wedding was clear, the temperature in the mid-seventies—San Diego weather having been bestowed by the weather gods upon Chicago’s North Shore—a perfect early autumn Saturday. The tent had been pitched with no snafus, the tables and chairs unpacked and set up on time, the flowers, the caterers—everything had come together like a well-rehearsed symphony of moneyed goodwill and bracing competence. She really could not believe it.

Ryan and Emily Ann had rented a house with beachfront property for the ceremony and reception—a good tactical choice, as the house also served as the launch pad for the wedding party. Kim had been assigned a small, sunny room off the kitchen as her base of operations. There was one bizarre, slightly sinister occurrence, however, something Kim had never before encountered while on the job: she witnessed the groom’s sister stuffing a small, triangular throw pillow from the living room sofa into a black duffel bag and scurrying out of the room with surprising nimbleness, despite the air cast on her ankle. Perhaps the cast was subterfuge, meant to keep Jill from being enlisted last-minute as an usher or a gofer, or perhaps she had a phobia about dancing in public?

Regardless of the reason, Kim was annoyed that she now had to decide if she should report Jill’s crime to the groom or confront the thief directly. Neither scenario promised anything but awkwardness at best, and at worst, she risked being shown the door if she embroiled herself in what was likely some ongoing family drama over Jill’s ostensible kleptomania. Better to say nothing at all.

Yet, she did wonder what else was in the duffel and hoped Jill’s light fingers would not find their way into her or anyone else’s wallet. The duffel’s lumpish appearance certainly implied it held more cargo than a small throw pillow. If Kim herself were prone to stealing, she would already have filched the five-pound bag of white Jordan almonds that sat unattended ten feet away from her office doorway on the kitchen counter. If she craned her neck from where she sat at her temporary antique walnut desk, the candy was right in her sightline. Her mouth tingled at the thought of the hard candy shell softening on her tongue.

She got up and tiptoed over to the bag, nodding at the caterer who stood rolling silverware into white cloth napkins. The bag of almonds wasn’t yet opened. “May I have a few? I didn’t eat lunch,” said Kim, pointing at the still-pristine bag.

The caterer, a woman in her fifties with the sinewy look of a distance runner, nodded. “Help yourself. You actually like those things?”

“I do,” said Kim with a diffident laugh.

“They taste like wood to me,” said the caterer.

The bag’s seal wouldn’t yield to Kim’s slippery hands. Flustered, she pulled a knife from the wooden block of Chicago Cutlery next to the enormous stainless steel sink and sawed into the bag. The caterer watched with benign interest. “You’re the wedding planner, right?” she said.

Kim nodded as the knife finally breached the bag and the sugary, plasticine smell of the candied almonds streamed out. She inhaled greedily as she poured several almonds into her palm. They were flawless—the Platonic ideal of candied nuts. Kim held her breath to keep herself from sighing.

“How’d you get into this line of work?” the caterer asked, as she placed a fresh silverware roll at the apex of a lopsided pyramid.

An almond’s coating was melting on Kim’s tongue now, her saliva glands tingling. It was almost too blissful to be borne. She looked at the caterer through misty eyes. “I’ve loved weddings since I was a little girl. I remember watching Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding on television when I was visiting my grandmother, and she woke me up very early. We sat in our pajamas, eating raspberry coffee cake as we watched, and Grandma cried and said she had never witnessed a more perfect wedding.”

The caterer gave her a pitying look. “A shame how that one turned out.”


Clay didn’t mind public speaking, but he hadn’t done any since high school speech class, when he’d written a report on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with one hand tied behind your back and another on how to give a cat a bath. (The answer was you didn’t—that was the whole speech, but the teacher didn’t think Clay was funny.) Now that his nephew and this shy girl with nice legs were officially married—the bride, to everyone’s amusement but her own, had had hiccups the whole time they were saying their vows—Clay hoped to make a best-man speech people might fondly reminisce about for years. He’d spent many hours writing it and had practiced several times in front of the mirror and had also read it to the Comcast repairman as he fixed Clay’s wi-fi, which had gone on the blink when he was trying to order Ryan’s wedding gift (a year’s supply of eco-friendly laundry soap—it wasn’t on their registry but he was sure they’d need it, unlike the fancy placemats from Provence which cost twice as much as his monthly cable and wi-fi bill!). When he was done reading his speech, the Comcast guy had said, “That was a whole lot better than the one I got at my wedding.”

Now, under the big white circus tent, Clay looked out at the expanse of shining faces, some alert and receptive, others bleary from all the free liquor—he’d overheard someone losing his lunch on the other side of the canvas wall a few minutes earlier (if you didn’t charge at least a few dollars for the hard liquor, the whole evening would of course turn into a goddamn fraternity party).

Clay noticed his sister giving him an apprehensive look as he stood up from the table and pulled his speech from the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket. He knew she’d opposed Ryan’s decision to ask him to be in the wedding party, but Stephanie had always been a wet blanket, and Clay was going to claim his moment in the proverbial sun whether she liked it or not.

He cleared his throat and glanced at Ryan, who lifted his champagne glass merrily. Clay raised the microphone to his mouth and peered down at his speech, which he saw was not his speech at all. He’d brought the goddamn power bill.

“Fuck me,” he said. Some of the guests tittered nervously. He hadn’t meant to say the words aloud. “Sorry, everyone,” he muttered. “I brought a utility bill instead of my speech. At least I can stop by the library later and renew my card.”

Clay smiled uncertainly at Ryan, who seemed to be enjoying himself. Emily Ann looked wary. He didn’t risk another glance at Stephanie—even several yards away, he could feel the scorn and fear rolling off of his sister. “Don’t worry, young lady,” he said to the bride. “You and your groom are in good hands.” He turned back to the tent full of guests, sensing their sharpened attention. He would not fuck this up. Objectively speaking, he’d probably fucked up a lot in his life, but tonight he would do his best not to humiliate himself or anyone else.

Objectively speaking, he’d probably fucked up a lot in his life, but tonight he would do his best not to humiliate himself or anyone else.

“My nephew, Ryan Alexander Fisher, is someone I’ve known from the day he was born. When his mother was in labor at the hospital, I was there, waiting with his father, for Ryan’s big debut. After several hours in the waiting room, flipping through Reader’s Digests and Prevention magazines, I got up to stretch my legs and ended up having a minor run-in with a bad-tempered nurse who reprimanded me for loitering—her words, not mine—by the vending machines, but my view was, you never knew when someone would forget to grab their change or a second bag of barbecue chips might drop down into the well—and bingo! Your lucky day.”

People were laughing, including both members of the bridal couple. Clay looked down at the power bill and noticed it was his next-door neighbor’s—the mailman had mis-delivered it once before—and payment was two weeks overdue.

“I knew you’d all know what I meant,” he said, smiling at a dark-haired woman a few tables away whose breasts were loose in her top. His ex-wife’s sister hadn’t worn a bra either, saying they’d been invented by a man (which Clay later learned wasn’t true) to serve the male gaze.

He glanced over at Stephanie, whose eyes were wide and staring. She looked a little like one of those life-sized first-aid dolls. He gave her a reassuring smile, but her expression didn’t change.

“As you all know,” he said. “Ryan’s birth was a success, because here he is, and here we all are tonight, some of us actually enjoying ourselves and not wondering how early is too early to leave. Any time before ten o’clock. That’s the answer.” He paused, unable to remember what he was supposed to say next. “I guess I should wrap this up—”

A female voice in the back screamed, “Yes!” followed by two male voices shouting, “No! Keep going!”

“—so those of you who don’t intend to stay until ten o’clock can make your excuses and head out into the night. Wedding cake and Lyle Lovett cover band be damned. Let me close by saying I wish my nephew Ryan and his lovely new bride Emily Ann lasting happiness, no flat tires, lifelong fidelity, a steadfast sense of humor, no lawsuits, and no mass shootings.”

Emily Ann appeared to be exhaling slowly, and Ryan was grinning and nodding like a man who knew the best answers. Many of the guests looked perplexed, but some were gamely chuckling, and one guy, maybe one of the “Keep going!” shouters, was guffawing. Clay took a bow and sunk into his seat, his face flushed with victory. He didn’t look over at Stephanie or try to locate Griffin, Ryan’s father, who had divorced Stephanie fifteen years earlier and subsequently begun camping in a Utah cave, living in it on and off for several years before he’d fully reentered society six years ago.

Clay knew his sister wouldn’t smile back, and Griffin was probably in the bathroom or on the beach, staring out at the dark lake—he hated chairs and had stayed on his feet behind the rows of seated guests during the exchange of vows. He’d likely missed the whole speech. Clay owed him money and although Griffin no longer brought up the unpaid debt on the rare occasion their paths crossed, Clay doubted he’d forgotten about it. He’d brought some of the money he owed Griffin with him tonight. Before the wedding, he’d sold two old LPs, one a pristine early Dylan and the other a Janis Joplin. He’d gotten a fair price too.

He was aware that a man who didn’t pay his debts (or at least try to) wasn’t worth knowing, and Griffin, Clay was sure, had already written him off.


Sebastian knew his sister was at it again—he’d seen her putting a box of votive candles into the black duffel she was carrying around, pretending it was her purse. The air cast was also doubtless pure theater: he did not believe she had a sprain. He stood behind her as she clomped to their assigned table after the vows and discreetly groped the duffel’s nether regions, his hand finding the hard edges of what felt like a picture frame and another object with the contours of an apple or a pomegranate, along with a third object, soft and dense, some kind of small cushion.

When she sensed his hand on the duffel, she yanked it closer and hissed, “Degenerate.”

He wasn’t sure why he still talked to her. A few years ago, when she was angry with him for telling their parents about her klepto tendencies, she’d retaliated by making up a malicious lie, one he probably could have sued her over if he were a litigious person unafraid of bad publicity. She’d told them she’d caught him spying on her neighbor’s teenage daughter while the girl undressed for bed. Their father hadn’t believed her, but their mother was less sure, probably because she’d once caught him in a vulnerable moment in front of his iMac, the actress in the porn clip he’d cued up dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl. It was all so absurd and unfair—he was only sixteen at the time, not some creepy pedophile in his fifties!

At the reception, Sebastian was seated one table over from Jill. When she got up and limped across the tent for a second piece of cake, she left the duffel under her chair, and it was then that he pounced. The three other people at her table, their cousins, looked on with curiosity as he unzipped the duffel. Out tumbled a small triangular pillow, a framed picture of a beach at sunset, and an apple-shaped candle, along with the box of votives, a package of floral paper hand towels, a small blue frog figurine, a pizza cutter, two tampons, and a pair of purple flip-flops.

Behind him he heard a screech and recognized the pitch as Jill’s. She was two tables away and tried to run toward him but tripped over the leg of their great-aunt Lucy’s date’s chair and fell in a heap onto this frail-looking man’s lap, her cake plate exploding into shards and greasy clumps at the edge of the dance floor. Sebastian raised the triangular pillow and waved it at her.

“That’s mine,” she cried as she freed herself from Lucy’s date’s lap and ran toward Sebastian, her air cast flapping loosely around her ankle. “Give it back!”

People were watching them, but not as many as might have been—half the wedding guests were on the dance floor, shuffling along to “If I Had a Boat.” The band was good, but he wondered when Ryan had become a Lyle Lovett fan. Or maybe Emily Ann was the one.

“I very much doubt it’s yours,” said Sebastian, suddenly furious, tightening his grip on the duffel and the pillow. “You’re a liar and a thief and you need help.”

Jill pulled back, doubt in her eyes. Before she could come up with a retort, the wedding planner was at their sides, gently extricating the pillow from Sebastian’s grasp. “This needs to go back in the house,” she said gently, as if calming frightened children. “Where it came from.”

Jill and Sebastian both looked at her dumbly.

“The rental house,” said the wedding planner, pointing behind them. “I’ll put it back where it belongs.”

“Thank you,” said Sebastian.

The wedding planner nodded. She was pretty and wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He liked the way she stood before them with authority but no meanness. He wondered if she had a boyfriend.

The band segued into another song, something about skinny legs—that was its title too, Sebastian was fairly sure. The bassist, he remembered now, was Emily Ann’s brother.

Jill looked as if she was about to cry after the wedding planner left the tent, the small pillow wedged under her arm. She turned away and began stuffing the other purloined objects back into her duffel. Sebastian met the gazes of their cousins, each having watched the scene in silence.

Mickey, the youngest, finally spoke up. “Man, you guys never change.” His laugh was rueful.


The psychic had been told to set up in a small room off the foyer, but no one came to see her, and after forty-five minutes of sitting alone with her phone on silent and no signs of life in the hall, she realized they’d changed their minds about needing her services but hadn’t bothered to tell her. The one fortunate thing was they’d paid two-thirds of her fee in advance and the other third she’d insist on collecting before she went home.

Out the window she could see a large tent lit from within, people silhouetted as they moved around inside. A song she recognized but didn’t know the name of filtered in through the open window, and she closed her eyes for a moment before she stood up and went into the hall. She passed two servers, both in spotless white button-downs and knee-length black skirts, carrying metal trays loaded with soiled cake plates.

The psychic wondered if there was any cake left, and a minute later, when she slipped into the tent, she saw the bride and groom embarking on their first dance as a married couple. She studied the bride’s hopeful face and the groom’s less hopeful face and recognized that he was more afraid of the future than his bride was, but the psychic thought they might outlast his ambivalence and depression (as yet undiagnosed) and the bride’s bad habits with money. Except the past was pulling at him particularly hard, which was often the case with grooms. In her experience, the secrets men guarded most closely were rooted in nostalgia and sentimentality. Much would depend on whom they decided to let into the marriage and whom they kept out. Their families were dark vortices swirling around them—trouble, pain, resentment, confusion.

This was nothing new. Even though her own family was small and most of its members were now in the ground, she could still feel her mother’s gaze upon her from beyond the grave, the impassive crow on the high branch staring down at her in silent judgment.

The cake was delicious—chocolate with vanilla icing and fresh raspberries in between layers. The psychic ate greedily, having skipped dinner because she’d hoped to be showered with leftovers from the wedding banquet. She’d predicted this poorly, however, and although she’d been certain before she set out for this job in her little red Fiat (a car she loved as much as any person she’d ever known) that the night would feature some surprises, she hadn’t been able to foresee what kind. Her own future was generally a fog to her, whereas other people’s future successes and disappointments were often discernible, like shapes in the clouds, as she’d discovered in college when, one drunken night around Halloween, her roommate dragged her to see a tarot card reader, who, after laying out the cards, looked at the psychic and told her she had the gift too. At the time, the psychic had laughed it off, but the tarot reader was undeterred. “Don’t mock your gift,” he said. “It’s as much a part of you as your spine.”

As she savored the last bite of cake, she watched the wedding planner approach her from the other side of the tent. The wedding planner did not, as the psychic expected, shoo her back into the house. “Would you tell my fortune?” she asked shyly.

“Follow me,” said the psychic with a nod, before leading the wedding planner out of the tent, down the flagstone path to the back door, and into her temporary room. She motioned for the wedding planner to sit on one of the two velvet cushions she’d arranged on the floor nearly an hour ago.

The wedding planner settled onto a cushion, tucking her slim legs beneath her, her expression timidly expectant. The psychic sat down across from her and reached for her hand, turning it palm up. She peered in silence at the wedding planner’s soft pink skin with its forking lines, several seconds passing before she said, “Let me see your other hand.”

The wedding planner offered it with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know how much I believe in any of this.”

“We all want answers to questions we doubt anyone has the answers to, but we ask them anyway.” She traced the younger woman’s left-hand lifeline and looked into her face. She sensed the wedding planner’s kindness, and the fact she had less self-interest than the psychic expected of someone in her line of work. “Your mother died not long ago,” she said.

The wedding planner blinked. “Did someone tell you?”

The psychic shook her head. “No one told me. There’s someone here you should get to know better. You’ve already met him,” she said. “Your father’s ill but he’ll get better. You should say no more often than you do.”

“My father’s ill?” said the wedding planner, alarmed.

“Make him go to the doctor. There’s still enough time.”

The wedding planner gave her a stricken look. “I can’t lose him so soon after my mother. If no one has the answers to our questions, why are you pretending you do?”

“I’m not pretending. What I said was we doubt anyone has the answers. That doesn’t mean no one does.”

The wedding planner hesitated before she said, “Is the man I’m supposed to meet the brother of the groom?”

The psychic nodded. “That’s my impression.”

“I’m not sure I want to get mixed up in this.”

“You’ll figure out what to do.”

The wedding planner did not look convinced. “Let me get the remainder of your payment,” she said. “And after that, you’re free to go unless you want to stay and listen to the band.”

The psychic didn’t ask why the bride and groom had changed their minds about hiring her. It wasn’t the first time a client had gotten cold feet, but usually they did not make her wait so long before telling her she could leave.

The moon was visible above the treetops as she made her way back to her car. Someone had left a flyer for a doughnut shop under a windshield wiper. The psychic folded it up and put it in her shoulder bag. Other drivers had thrown theirs onto the pavement. Down the street, a woman stared at her phone as her dog sniffed at the base of a tree, her face ghostly in the phone’s thin light. The psychic had made six hundred dollars for two hours of her time. Her mother had called her a grifter, never once taking it back. Some people would not love you, or not love you enough, no matter what you did. The sooner you understood that, the psychic knew, the better off you’d be.

About the Recommender

More about the recommender

More Like This

I Stole My Neighbors’ Tragedy To Write a Short Story

The stakes are higher when we mine someone else’s grief for art

Aug 16 - Rebecca Meacham

I Can See My Future Through the Haze of My Grief

I didn’t recognize myself as a person who had outlived their sister

Jun 15 - 12:41

A Secret Reverberates Across Four Generations of an East African Indian Family

Janika Oza fictionalizes her family's immigration story in "A History of Burning" to question complicity, safety, and belonging

May 12 - Rosa Boshier González
Thank You!