2:11: “Always a Bridesmaid”, by Mark Rudolph

2:11: “Always a Bridesmaid”, by Mark Rudolph

GaChaltz was wearing white: a white rayon jumpsuit encrusted with silver rhinestones; white, fuzzy house slippers; and a white train pinned to the crown of her head. The train cascaded down her wide, yellow face like a miniature waterfall and formed a frothy mound in her lap.

From the driver’s side of the parked aircar, I could make out four blue eyes sliding around like over-sized marbles beneath the heavy lace, and I wondered how well she could see. Did she realize her train was on backwards? Probably not, but more than likely she didn’t care. Though the Xunians liked to mimic our quaint Earth customs, they rarely paid enough attention to detail, their attempts sometimes bordering on the ludicrous.

GaChaltz’s attire might raise a few eyebrows where we were headed, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t explain away. I looked just as ridiculous in my kelly-green acetate bridesmaid dress with the 3/4 length sleeves, but she had picked it out for me. I would’ve preferred something less gaudy, but this was her day, and you always follow the bride’s wishes.

Anyway, her family was paying for it. Paying for it big.

I kicked off the matching pumps; they fell to the floorboard, the shoes pinched like the dickens, and I rubbed one foot over the other, swearing I’d never wear closed-toe heels again.

My personal alarm went off, 7:40 AM blinking in the right-hand corner of my vision, and I turned it off with the blink of an eye, thinking how easily their technology had been incorporated into ours — even the aircar was a product of their gifts and our ingenuity.

Not gifts, I corrected myself, payment for services rendered.

I wondered what could be keeping Dimitri. GaChaltz and I had been waiting in the empty parking lot of the Six Flags Theme Park for over an hour; the church service was scheduled for 8:30 AM, and he was running late with the grooms. The park had officially closed at midnight, but the managers had kept it open exclusively for the Xunian males.

GaChaltz’s alarm must have been synchronized with mine. She leaned forward, peering through the windshield of the aircar, and muttered to herself. Though I only caught a few words — my feminine Xunian wasn’t great but it was passable — I knew they weren’t very nice.

“Patience,” I said and gave GaChaltz’s banana-colored arm a squeeze, hoping she’d understand my all-too-human gesture, “They’ll be out soon. We’ve still got plenty of time.”

She heaved herself back into the seat, slapped her flat three-fingered hands on the dash, and clicked her teeth twice, the Xunian equivalent of a nervous sigh. Accessing her biostats through my personal interface, I compared them to my medical database — everything seemed normal.

A good thing. The fertility treatments she’d undergone the night before weren’t enough to kick her reproductive system into high gear. They only set the stage. She needed an emotional catalyst. Fear was what she needed and the Xunian females couldn’t do it themselves. They were too cautious and over-protective (maybe even too unimaginative) to do it themselves, and they didn’t trust the Xunian males — they were too carefree.

For some reason the Xunian females trusted us, and we had discovered a way to provide it — safely and easily.

I rummaged around in my purse, found a mild narcotic stick, and handed it to her. Without pushing the lace train aside, she snapped the end off the stick and popped it in her mouth.

“I needed that, Corinne,” she said, her voice trilling through a two octave range.

Wedding day jitters? I thought. More likely the rush of hormones. It must be hell at her age.

As if on cue, Dimitri strolled out of the theme park entrance, toting the youngest of the grooms on his hip, toddler-style, while the other four tagged along behind him. The tallest of the five barely reached his shoulders.

The grooms (Dimitri too, to my surprise) were dressed identically: no shirts, black, crushed-velvet tuxedo jackets, silver spandex biking shorts, and black leather cowboy boots. Their citron-colored skin, bright against the monochrome outfits, seemed to glow, and I was reminded of our daughter’s drawing of a night sky — a crayon yellow moon, featureless and full, rising over a black landscape. I realized Tatiana hadn’t drawn any stars in her picture and I wondered why.

When I get home I’ll ask her, I thought. I’ve been so busy with the Xunians I just haven’t had the time. I’ll make it up to her.

I rolled down the window and leaned out. “How’s it going?”

“They’re still at full throttle, and I’m running on empty. Forty-eight hours straight with these guys. I just wish they weren’t so … up all the time. I know they’re more like teenagers by our standards, but where do they get the energy?” Dimitri tried to smile, but it was a bad imitation. His shoulder-length black hair needed a comb, and he sported a five-o’clock shadow, blue-black against his pale skin. “I really need some sleep.”

“You look it, honey. Go home and get some rest. I’ll take it from here. Tatiana’s at daycare so you’ll have the apartment to yourself.” Dimitri always got the worst part of our assignments; unlike the Xunian females, the males never seemed to sleep.

“Think you can manage by yourself?” He said quietly, a look of concern on his face. The male he carried was oblivious to our conversation as he licked Dimitri’s neck with his broad, black tongue. He was probably engrossed in a highly technical problem and using Dimitri as an erotic stimulus to figure it out.

“I’ve got her with me, remember?” I answered, low enough GaChaltz couldn’t hear, knowing how rude it was in her culture for a female to discuss another female with a male. “If anybody can keep them in line, she can. She’s accustomed to handling ten times that many males. All in a day’s work for her.”

“Of course. I don’t know where my mind is. Too tired to think straight.” He shook his head as if trying to clear the cobwebs.

Dimitri loaded the grooms into the back seat, walked around to the driver’s side, and kissed me. I reached into his jacket, slipped my hand into his prosthetic pouch, and said a few words in the masculine language. They were indecent and crude words by Earth standards, but typical of Xunian males.

“Jesus, Corrine! Where’d you pick that line up?” Dimitri’s face flushed a bright scarlet.

“I have my sources,” I probably had overdone it: pressure was everything. Dimitri had a real talent for the masculine Xunian language. It was one of the reasons we were assigned to the Xunian embassy — that and the fact we were a traditional married couple, female and male, and the Xunians preferred it (although some of them thought I should have more than one husband.)

“Well, your sources have a real potty mouth.” He nodded toward GaChaltz. “She doing okay?”

“As well as can be expected, considering what she’s risking.”

“Damn shame, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said. Damn shame for them. Great opportunity for us.

Glancing over at GaChaltz, I wondered if I would do the same. Would I endanger my health, cut my lifespan by a third, and spend the next few years pushing out babies, in the hopes of producing a female heir? Perhaps. Human women had been sacrificing themselves to produce male heirs for centuries, and most of the time, they never had a choice.

“We go now, Corrine?” GaChaltz said and tapped my arm. “We do not want to be late.”

“Of course,” I said, “Go home, Dimitri. I’ll catch up with you later. GaChaltz and I have a date with a preacher.”

———•———

I had never been to southwestern Ohio and understood why now: there was absolutely nothing there. Flat, green fields of corn and ruler-straight roads rushed below us, and it seemed as if little had changed in the farming communities below. Whether by choice or circumstance, the local people lived the way their parents had, and perhaps their grandparents.

When we crested a slight ridge and the church finally came into view, I frowned, thinking I might have programmed in the wrong directions. This single-story, cinder-block building with the dirt parking lot and cow pasture out back couldn’t possibly be our destination, but as we descended, I saw the over-sized sign spelling out The First Tabernacle of Jesus Christ in bold black letters on a white background. Just below it, in smaller letters was a single line: “Welcome, X-ians.”

Not exactly the red carpet treatment, I thought as we landed near the steps of the church.

I looked at the time, noticed we were only ten minutes late, and thought I must have caught a sympathetic wind over Pennsylvania. Traffic had been light to non-existent; few people could afford an aircar. The licensing fees alone cost a small fortune — thank goodness we didn’t have to bother with them. It was one of the perks of being part of the Xunian embassy staff.

Before I could open my door, a tall, gaunt man in his mid-forties wearing a black suit and a toupee two shades darker than his natural hair hurried over to the car. I slipped on my pumps with one hand, knowing I would pay for it later.

“Mrs. Petrovich?” he said as he yanked on the door latch. He smiled broadly, displaying a set of very white and very perfect dentures.

“Reverend Cannelton, excuse me,” I answered, stepping out and trying to maneuver around him. On the trip here, the grooms had been engaged in an intense discussion, and now GaChaltz was having a hard time getting them out of the aircar.

“It’s an immense pleasure to meet you.” He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. “I’ve been expecting you and the Xunian ambassador. I feel so honored — ”

“GaChaltz isn’t an ambassador, Reverend. She’s a guest of the embassy. Please, I need to — ,” I said, pulling back my hand.

GaChaltz hissed, as two of the grooms, locked in an awkward embrace, tumbled out of the door. She wedged one foot between the couple, grabbed the taller one by the shoulders, and pried them apart, losing a fuzzy slipper in the process.

“Is there a problem? A family disagreement?” He frowned, and took a cautious step backward.

“Get the other one, Corrine!” GaChaltz said in Xunian.

“You could say that,” I muttered. While GaChaltz scolded one groom, I helped the other to his feet and brushed the gray dust from his jacket. His pouch was distended and bright orange: a clear sign of arousal, both intellectual and sexual. “The males can be very … passionate about their work. Don’t worry about it. It’s very normal for them.”

“Nothing like a good debate to stir things up.” Reverend Cannelton laughed nervously and fidgeted with his wedding band. He had begun to perspire, a musky aroma wafted from him, and his white collar sagged from the heat.

“You have no idea,” I mumbled to myself. It was true — he had no idea at all — but that was how the embassy wanted it. We weren’t being very fair to the good Reverend Cannelton. He thought we had come for a wedding ceremony, and though GaChaltz liked the idea of it, it wasn’t the main reason we were there. It was the sermon afterwards.

“Is he my minister?” GaChaltz said, lining up her grooms next to the aircar. She smacked one on the forearm when he tried to slip his hand into his own pouch, and I was relieved she understood public masturbation was unacceptable.

“What a lovely sound! Almost like doves cooing!” Reverend Cannelton said. “I’ve heard recordings and such, but they definitely don’t do her voice justice.”

GaChaltz pulled the train aside, focused two of her eyes on the Reverend, the other two on me, and smacked her thin lips together.

“He likes the sound of your voice,” I said in feminine Xunian, “Tell him thank you.” I knew she didn’t understand. Females didn’t make small talk with males — even those of another species.

“Thank you,” she dropped the train back into place.

I checked her biostats and noticed two climbing out of the normal range. She’d peak in the hour.

“Shall we get this started?” I turned to the Reverend.

“Uh, sure, but my wife is still getting things ready. Cecelia’s in the church right now.”

“I’m sure GaChaltz would love to meet her,” I said, hoping GaChaltz would play along.

He looked at me quizzically. “Uh, sure. I guess Cecelia wouldn’t mind — ”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I smiled my most persuasive smile, took his arm, and steered him toward the steps.

———•———

The inside of the church was as unremarkable as the outside. I counted twelve rows of cheap veneer pews, each row able to seat about ten to fifteen people. The concrete walls needed a fresh coat of paint, the previous coat having flaked away in abstract patterns to display the gray primer underneath, and the fake stained glass in the two oblong windows on either side of the pulpit had faded to watery pastels. The only part of the church that seemed well tended was the platform: a solidly-built dais and pulpit of hard rock maple that gleamed in the filtered sunlight. Reverend Cannelton obviously hadn’t spared any expense there.

From the way Cecelia stared at us, I knew she was a little put out. She pushed a pair of cat-eyed glasses up the bridge of her nose and crossed her arms. Her muddy-colored hair wrapped endlessly around her head like a turban, and her charcoal gray, ankle-length dress had pockets.

Pockets. I couldn’t believe it.

“What seems to be the rush?” She rocked back on her heels.

“She’s just eager. You know how a new bride can be,” I said, but I didn’t think Cecelia was buying it.

“I see. I guess you won’t be staying for the sermon afterwards. It was part of the original request from the embassy, but if you’re in such a hurry — ”

“No. We must stay for sermon!” GaChaltz said, her voice almost rising beyond human hearing, “It is important!”

“Of course, we’ll stay,” I said, “After all, it’s her wedding.”

Cecelia shrugged her shoulders. “If you want. We’ll have to forget the music though. The organist isn’t here; she’s out with the flu.”

“Not a problem,” I said.

I helped GaChaltz line up the grooms, the tallest where a human groom would stand, the next as the best man, and the others as groom’s men. I took my usual place as the matron of honor.

During the vows, I monitored her biostats, which were all headed toward the red at breakneck speed. From start to finish, the whole ceremony took eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds. Not too shabby.

We took our seats in the first row. I was on the outside near the aisle, GaChaltz next, and the grooms filled in the rest of the pew. Facing us, Cecelia sat in a folding chair at the back of the dais where she could watch our every move. I didn’t like the looks of it. Not at all.

After a quick gulp from his water glass, Reverend Cannelton opened his book.

“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will mourn over him. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord God.”

He started out a little rocky, I had to admit, but six minutes into it, he found his groove. His voice took on the quavering resonance typical of fire-and-brimstone preachers. The ominous verses of The Book of Revelations spilled from his mouth, and sweat beaded his upper lip and glistened on his forehead. Spittle flew as he ranted, his fist banging down like the wrath of God Himself. Damn, he was good. I hadn’t seen a performance like that in years — not since I was a young girl and Dad used to sneak me into weekend tent revivals. Mom had put a stop to them when she realized what was happening, but the revivals had already made an impression on me.

The Reverend almost made me want to believe again.

GaChaltz quaked and shivered next to me, and I gripped her hand. All of her biostats were red now. She was peaking, out of control.

When the Reverend reached the opening of the sixth seal, Gachaltz’s readings went off the scale and she collapsed, falling across the lap of the groom next to her.

“What’s happened! Is she all right?” Reverend Cannelton stumbled down from the pulpit. He upset the glass and it shattered on the dais.

The grooms had already gathered GaChaltz up and were carrying her out to the aircar. From my calculations, we had about an hour before she regained consciousness. Maybe less, if the odds were against us.

After I recovered my senses — his sermon had affected me in a very different way — I jumped up and grabbed Reverend Cannelton by the arm.

“She’s fine, Reverend. Nothing to worry about,” I said, “Your passionate delivery overwhelmed her, that’s all. Wonderful sermon. Just wonderful. You certainly have a flair for it, I must say. A real God-given talent.”

“I’m glad you think so, Mrs. Petrovich. But what about — ”

“What would be an appropriate tithe? I’m sure GaChaltz would like to recompense you. Call me later?” I slipped my business card into his hand. “We can settle on a figure. And like I said, wonderful sermon.”

I continued talking as I backed down the aisle, feeling as if I were fleeing the scene of a crime.

———•———

We didn’t make it. Less than ten minutes into the trip, GaChaltz started waking up. Very bad news. Scanning the local e-map, I found the coordinates of a motel sixteen miles away and doubled back.

After checking us into two adjoining rooms, I left GaChaltz and her entourage in one and took the other for myself.

The first thing I did was toss the pumps in the wastebasket. I’d probably fish them out later — they were the only shoes I had with me — but it felt good to do it. Then I called Dimitri on my palmpad to let him know what happened.

“Jeez, Corry, I thought you’d be home tonight. I told Tatiana you would.” He didn’t look much better than when I had seen him in the parking lot, but at least he had found the time to shave.

“Sorry, babe. Looks like I’ll be holed up here at least a day or two. You never know with these things. I’d hate to try to move her. Will you call the embassy and let them know? I don’t feel like fooling with them right now.”

I could hear Tatiana in the background, saying mommy over and over again. It almost broke my heart.

“Will do. Do you need some company later? We could catch an air shuttle out …”

Yes! I almost said it. Almost, but I knew it wouldn’t have been fair to either of them.

“No. I’ll be okay. Let me speak to Tatiana for a minute. Just to tell her good night.”

Hours later, after I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I called the Xunian embassy and requested an emergency drop shipment of food and other necessities. I gave them my location, and they said I’d have it by the end of the day. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Before I could decide what to do next, the palmpad beeped. It was Cecelia, and I wondered how she had gotten my number. Then I remembered giving the Reverend my card.

“We need to talk,” she said. There was no mistaking the tone of her voice or the hard set of her mouth. She was one very determined woman.

“About what?” I said nonchalantly.

“About the little show you and your aliens put on this morning. Where are you?”

I didn’t say anything; I just stared at her.

Her eyes focused on something in the far corner of the screen. Then she shook her head. “Oh, never mind. I already got your location from a trace route on the call. Easy as pie. See you soon.”

The screen went blank. Smart woman. Very smart.

I lay back on the bed and counted the cracks in the nicotine-stained ceiling, knowing it would be useless to do anything else.

———•———

I must have dozed off, because it seemed like only minutes later that I heard a knock. I didn’t need to take a second glance through the peephole to know who it was: the glasses and the hair gave her away — not to mention the pockets.

“I told you I’d find you,” she said, as I opened the motel door. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you? You think I wouldn’t figure out that something strange was going on.”

Far from it, Cecelia, I thought. But I was hoping you’d just let it drop.

“I didn’t think anything. I was trying to do my job.” I closed the door and motioned for her to sit down.

“No thanks. I’m not staying long,” she said and began pacing around the motel room. “The whole ceremony was just window dressing, wasn’t it? A smoke screen. The Xunians were there for the sermon. Right?”

“I said I can’t talk.” I sat down on the bed. I checked GaChaltz’s biostats again, though I really didn’t need to. I needed a distraction anyway; Cecelia was probing into uncomfortable places — places I’d thought I’d come to terms with.

“I know I’m right. You don’t have to tell me. I watched her, that GaChaltz. There was something wrong with her. It was as if the sermon terrified her. And something else. There was something … sexual about the way she acted.”

“Cecelia, you really don’t want to know,” I said. “It could ruin it for us.” I didn’t have the clearance to tell her either, but she had already guessed most of it.

“Us? Who is us?” she said and stopped pacing.

“All of us. Everyone on the planet.”

Finally, she flopped down in the chair facing me.

“Tell me. Now.”

I knew I should’ve stopped then, but I didn’t see any way out of this mess. After all, how much trouble could one woman in rural Ohio stir up? Who would listen to her? I could be risking my job, maybe my whole career, but Cecelia deserved an explanation.

I took a deep breath and smoothed the skirt of my bridesmaid dress. How I hated it: green was never my color.

“The Xunians need us. Or, more specifically, they need your husband’s services.”

“Don’t be coy. Cut to the chase.” She clenched the straps of her purse.

“Your husband’s sermon on Revelations is about the total destruction of the world. It’s Armageddon — ”

“But the Xunians aren’t Christians! You can’t tell me they believe the Holy Bible!”

“It doesn’t matter.” I leaned forward and held my hands out. “Your husband believes. He’s sincere when he quotes scripture, and the Xunians sense his sincerity. They might not understand the text, but the sentiment comes through loud and clear. His words scare the bejesus out of them. That kind of fear, that end-of-the-world terror, acts as a reproductive catalyst on the Xunian female.”

“Not his words,” she said. “God’s Word.”

I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t want to get into a theological debate with her. “The Xunians come from a world where natural catastrophes are common: earthquakes, floods, meteor strikes, … Such events jump start their reproductive system, shove it into high gear to repopulate their world. Even the threat of such an event can do it.”

I slumped back into the chair. “You realize you can’t repeat this. “You can never tell anyone, not even Reverend Cannelton. It would — ”

“Tell him? Tell him his sermon was used as an aphrodisiac? It would crush him. He thought they came to hear him, to know God’s Word. If he knew the truth — ”

Cecelia lurched from the chair. I flinched, expecting her to swing her purse at me. Instead, she just stood there for a moment, looking down at her own clenched hands. Maybe she was praying.

“Why do you do this?” When she finally did looked up, I saw something in her eyes I didn’t expect. I saw pity. “What could be so important to turn my husband’s life work into a stag film?”

“The Xunian pay us well … in technology. Just in the last few years, we’ve gotten — ”

“For the love of money,” she said, and shook her head. “Don’t come back. You understand? I don’t want those aliens near our church ever again. Find someone else to do your dirty work.” She walked to the door as if to leave. “I’m not one to judge you, Mrs. Petrovich. And I’m not going to try to stop you either. But I don’t have to be a part of it. And neither does my husband.”

———•———

The food arrived after eight o’clock and the males were ravenous. GaChaltz was euphoric, high on the rush of hormones and sexual desire. She couldn’t eat.

“This is wonderful, Corrine,” she trilled. “I will have more babies. I will have a girl baby.”

“Of course you will,” I said, knowing the odds were still against her. At this late in life, female births occurred one out of every thirty. But she had hope and that was what mattered.

I went outside, sat in the aircar, and watched the sunset, thinking about Cecelia and the Reverend, wondering if I had done the right thing. I thought about Tatiana — if she was already asleep and how much I wanted to hear her voice right now.

As the night turned chilly, the windows automatically slid up and the heater came on. A dry gust of warm air brushed against my face. It was a great aircar. An expensive one. Its retail value was more than twice my salary, but at that moment, it didn’t seem all that fantastic.

It costs too much, I thought. I really don’t need it.



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