She had slipped into the party unnoticed, trying hard to pretend as if she’d been there since the very beginning. He had spotted her first and his eyes had crinkled in cheerful, conspiratorial recognition. She felt sick at the sight of them but grimaced a smile back.
He turned back to Jess and murmured something in her ear; her sister straightened and turned to look in her direction.
“I’m so glad you were able to make it, Liz,” she dimpled prettily. “Jonathan was beginning to tease me about making bets.”
“And I would’ve won, too,” Jonathan rejoined with a good natured grin.
Liz blushed. “Sorry, I had work and-”
Jess waved her excuse away. “Tonight’s not the time to worry about apologies. We’ll settle accounts later.”
“That’s what she says when she hasn’t thought of the perfect punishment to suit the crime yet.” Jess laughed it off, but Jonathan shot her a I kid you not look.
Suddenly Liz felt a surge of rage. Who is this stranger, this outsider, who presumed to know her sister so well? What has he done to earn it other than share her bed and give her gifts on Valentine’s Day?
The anger started a slow burn at the back of her throat. The quiet, persistent rage left her mouth dry.
“Liz? Liz!” She refocused on Jess’s exasperated face. “Have you been listening to a thing I’ve said?” At her dumbfounded expression, Jess rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to go on stage in fifteen and say a few words about Jonathan and my engagement. I thought it’d be better to have you open than dad and…”
Jess’s words faded into the background again. Suddenly all Liz could think of was the hopeful yet hopeless feeling she had had earlier that day. Who was that woman? That woman that had hugged and then kissed and then led into the hotel room the man whose silhouette she didn’t dare to recognize? She wanted, desperately, for this to be some man she had never met, some tryst six degrees removed from the cocoon that she had carefully woven around Jess since their mother had passed away two decades ago.
“Liz, are you ok-” He pulled back sharply at the sight of her face before she quickly herded all her wayward emotions behind the glass mask of social niceties. Jonathan took a moment to recover; his face showed the aftershock of seeing a wolf beneath sheep’s clothing and realizing that it was already too late; he had already let the wolf pass the gate. For the first time that evening, Liz felt Jonathan eye her warily, questions undoubtedly going off rapid fire in his mind – what was that? did I imagine it? does she know?
But they both knew he was now merely a player on the sidelines, an accessory, helpless as he watched the action unfold.
Somehow, someone, from somewhere, handed her a mike. She blew into it, made a few ice breaking jokes, and walked towards the stage. She could feel his eyes – and those of all their friends and family – follow her.
When she turned to face their expectant faces she hesitated. Her eyes found Jess’s and she felt an inflow of poignant reassurance. Here was the beautiful girl – woman – that she had raised, that she had protected all of her life, that she would give anything to see happy. That meant working three jobs sometimes, that meant not having a social life for the majority of her adult life, that meant having her personal happiness take a back seat to Jess’s.
But the world is a big place, much bigger than the roomy bird cage that she had constructed around Jess. Like a dutiful parent, she had shown Jess that world and warned her of its dangers. Like a protective parent, she had kept Jess satisfied in that cage for as long as she could. Like any parent, she knew there were certain pitfalls Jess had to experience herself to learn to avoid.
But maybe she could keep her here a little longer. Just a few more years. Maybe she could make the cage a bit bigger, stretch herself a bit thinner to envelop it under her aegis. Maybe if she were just a bit stronger or smarter or faster…
Liz cleared her throat and brought mike to her lips.