by Robbie Pellagreen
Anthony surveyed the courtyard and glanced at his watch – 7pm. He was uneasy due to the knot in his stomach, or at least that’s what he told himself anyhow. Quite a common experience for someone when speaking to an audience, but he wasn’t just anybody, and he had once made a living with his talent for wordplay. It wasn’t that he was worried that what he had written wasn’t good enough, it was that he hadn’t written anything at all, and he knew from the puzzled expressions on their faces that his audience were united in one common thought – ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ And they were justified in this thought; after all, he had just convinced the groom to allow him to give an impromptu toast in the time slot reserved for the speech by the Best Man.
His mind was elsewhere, yet strangely focused on the task at hand. The words that followed came from some other place. That place where she was. He took a breath, adjusted the microphone, and began:
“It is in our nature to look out for ourselves, to look out for number one.”
“It is our raw, animalistic roots, that cause us to – at the most basic level of our being – go out of our way to ensure we get ahead, and at the end of the day, to get what we want.”
“Those are our priorities, the animal side of being human. That is how it is, until we find them, someone outside of ourselves that become a part of you. Someone you truly care about, someone you’d give every ounce of your being for, and someone you’d fight to the brink of your own life for, just to preserve theirs. That’s when things change, and we experience the most marvelous aspect of being human, we experience love. It takes over everything you are, and makes you do and feel things you never thought you could before. But that’s what makes it so amazing, the fact that you can’t control it. It is a power worth fearing, and rightly so, yet also one to respect and admire; one that can change your entire world in an instant.”
“This is what we are here to celebrate; the love that binds Lucille and Riley, the love that separates us from all other living things, and the love that has brought all of us here today, so that we can revel in its glow. I ask all of you to raise your glasses with me in a toast to the newlyweds, Mr and Mrs Riley and Lucille Pritchett, in a toast to a happy and long life together, and in a toast to the love that any of us would be lucky to experience in our short time here.”
‘Not too bad’ Anthony thought, ‘not too bad at all, now just don’t spill your drink and you might not fuck this up’. What followed was a loud BANG, followed by gasps and utterances of shock, while everyone looked around frantically, yet not knowing exactly what they were looking for or where they may find it. Anthony was surprisingly unfazed by the sound, whether the fact that he’d already downed 12 beers played any part in this, he didn’t know, but regardless, he was not rattled.
It was definitely a sound that had no place there. Anthony looked around curiously because now most of the crowd had their eyes back on him; it was different though, it wasn’t the same look he suspected was fuelled by their thoughts during the speech, this was different, and it was only moments before he realized why. His crisp white shirt had developed quite a noticeable red stain, and Anthony did not recall drinking any wine at all, not yet anyway. “Shit” he said to himself, realizing what the hell had happened. Then, everything that was cliché suddenly became reality; time slowed down to almost a standstill, he felt dizzy, like some invisible vacuum was sucking all of his strength to stand. There was no pain, yet as he lay down to an eerily all-too-comfortable wooden floor, and people crowded around him like a hospital drama on the TV, he felt his eyes prickle with tears and his mind was flooded with faces.
The first face he saw belonged to someone not even in the room, but felt more real than any that were, somehow. He saw his father. He was sitting at the dinner table, the house silent apart from the TV. Anthony never had the best relationship with his father, not that there was a history of neglect (‘physically, at least’ he thought), he loved him and knew he was loved in return, but it was never put to words. They just never saw eye to eye he figured, and Anthony always found it so hard to just have a conversation with him. He saw him there, with worn hands and an exhausted look on his face from a lifetime of laboring to provide for his family. It was the only life that he knew, he was a product of a different generation, one where your worth as a man was determined by the strength of your back and the sweat on your brow. These were not traits that had been passed down, Anthony regretted. He was also a product of a generation instilled with the utmost respect for women though. ‘Never raise your hand to a woman’ was a quality to live by, and one which he learned hastily as a young boy with a sore backside after being a little too rough with his sisters. This was a quality Anthony felt proud to have manifest so strongly within him as he grew.
It was also quite clear to him that a love for the drink was a trait passed from father to son as well, apparently. This was unfortunate. Although his father’s eyes were fixed on the TV, there was sadness in them, a look that burned with the realization that ‘this was it, and all there ever will be’, accompanied by what he was sure was disappointment. Anthony may have never gotten along with his father, but he respected him. He had never hoped as much as he did right now that somewhere along the way, he had made his dad proud. He needed this, needed to make one father proud, in penance for what he had done to another, what he had taken from another.
High hopes, he thought, considering what he’d done.
He saw his friends, a collective swirl of faces not unlike a scaled view of a galaxy, the dearest ones, those that had been there through thick and thin, amassed in the centre, spiraling outwards by rank of the impact they’d had on his life. This is not to say that someone Anthony hadn’t seen in 10 or so years might not be very close to the centre of this ethereal tapestry, he thought, and it definitely didn’t mean that every one of them was not important in their own way.
Anthony was fascinated by the realization that overcame him, that regardless of how small a part someone had played in his life, they were still all important in relation to where he had ended up. There was his first love that spanned the first 3 years of high school, unrequited as it may have been. There were his friends, while vast in number over the years, ranging from those that were there for but a moment, to those that remained to this day, they all played their parts. The chance encounters with that cute girl over mid-semester break during his studying years. Those that had broken his heart and those that had helped mend it. It dawned on him that every interaction he had ever had with every one of those faces swirling in that surreal cloud in front of his eyes, played a part, some larger than others, but parts nonetheless, in where he was right now. They were all forks and paths in the road of his life that landed him on the floor that night, oblivious to everything but the silent revelations he was making inside his head. Anthony had supposed if he had ever achieved any greatness, anything worth being thankful for in his life, then every one of those faces was worth thanking, at least in some way. He began to pity those that denied their past; a person’s past is the very encapsulation of who they were at any given moment in time, the result of how someone chooses to grow from the experiences life, often harshly, threw at them. Anthony wondered if it took something like one’s own impending passage to the ‘other side’ to cause a person to look at life this way. How ironic.
Anthony never thought that something as simple as breathing could ever become so difficult. He was barely aware of those that had amassed around him, but then again he barely cared. Although his heartbeat had slowed to what was now nothing but a sorry excuse for a rhythm, the final act in the play unfolding before his eyes came as a vivid memory of a recent time…
“So, who was driving?” The man asked. Anthony paused for a moment, concerned about the sweat on his brow, and opened his mouth but seemingly couldn’t find the words. “Who, the FUCK, was driving?”
The words felt like they were choking him. “Well?!” he demanded. “It was Brandon” Anthony replied through bloodied lips, feigning confidence in his own words. He felt lower than the belly of a snake at this point, enslaved by his fear and selfish desire to live. The man paced, and Anthony could see there was a fire in him that was on the verge of erupting, yet this wasn’t what scared him. It was how calm he remained that was the truly terrifying part; it was as though Anthony could see pure fury coursing through his veins, yet remained completely in control, that was what had his heart racing. That was, until he saw his eyes. He had the eyes of a man that had been relentlessly tickled, tortured, and ultimately overcome by, a single notion, in a way that only a man locked away with nothing but his own thoughts for a very long time could be. There was only one thing that he could take as amends for what had been taken from him, whatever the cost.
“Was he drunk?” The man asked. “No, well, he had been drinking, but he wasn’t…” The man had been upon him and holding a blade to his throat before he could finish. Those blue eyes of his felt like they would follow Anthony forever, haunting his every step. “Was. He. Drunk?” “Yes. I tried to tell him it wasn’t a good idea, but he convinced us he was fine.” Anthony did not stammer this time, and although this re-telling of events had become more of a personal confession, this man would never know that.
The man pulled his blade back, freeing Anthony to breathe again, and walked over to the table, giving a brief glance to the two men that could easily be confused for mountains barring the large wooden door of the room he had been dragged in to. The man started to go through the belongings that had been stripped from Anthony, tossing them aside as he went – wallet, phone, car keys, and a paper copy of the order of proceedings for a best friend’s wedding reception being held in a few days. The man tossed them aside, having no interest in any of it, but as he went to throw the piece of paper away, he stopped mid-gesture, just before he released his hand’s grip, and pulled it back into his line of sight.
“Brandon, will he be here?” The man asked, his eyes remaining focused on the piece of paper. “Yeah,” Anthony said “he’s the Best Man.” The man took the paper to one of the brute’s by the door, handed it to him and said “Get this to Mark, I want the kid taken care of.” The brute replied “How the hell is he supposed to know who he is?” The impact of what was happening hit Anthony like a truck, and in an effort to prevent any more lives being lost, innocent ones anyway, he interjected. “That family makes their living by being on time. Have a look at that order of proceedings; tell your man that the guy he wants will be the one that speaks at 7.”
All he saw now was smoke, flames and broken glass; a lone pine tree and a blown tyre. He missed her, so much. He saw her face, her beautifully haunting blue eyes, and her lower lip with the single freckle right in the middle. She was smiling, and finally he was with her again. He smiled too, and for the first time in years, he had a reason to.