Nell rolled her eyes for the fourteenth time inside an hour, but no one was looking at her face. Being eleven made that a usual occurrence.
If anyone was going to take notice of something, it was the way her hair looks so nice pinned into submission from warriors of baby’s breath and aerosol or the way her white tulle dress, dappled with red roses made her look just like one of those tear-shaped eyed children from Precious Moments, if only her hair were blonde. Plenty did take notice of both, and it went beyond the expected pinch of a cheek or the chuck under her chin, the sort of sentiments Nell came to understand as part of being around grown ups and not even being close to being one. No one seemed to notice what was so out of the ordinary about Nell even though it painted her eyelids lavender and splotched her cheeks orange like some irresponsible sunset forgetting to deepen and temper after a rainstorm; the effect therefore becoming lost according to the odd circumstance.
But it wasn’t these thin compliments that caused the anomaly, it was because inside Nell’s white dress, inside her birdcage chest, her heart was breaking.
Only Nell’s mother Sophie knew why, and every now and then she would glance at her daughter and smile reassuringly. Her mother might be the only one on the planet who knew the extent that Nell adored her brother Sam. He had been her age when she was born. Sometimes it felt that Sam had been created and planted so that he would be perfectly ripe as a brother before Nell could come forth. Only Sam could beckon her if occasion waved in her direction. Only Sam could turn a black demon on her wall into a harmless shadow, could turn a green dragon into a house pet.
One time, Nell had accidentally killed a nest full of eggs when she attempted to climb the next staircase of limbs on her favorite tree in their backyard. She had stayed out late that night, wanting to apologize to the mother bird in person. Sam had come out, wearing a tan button up sweater and looking so grandfatherly that Nell laughed out loud.
“There’s something profitable in wearing pockets,” Sam had declared, stretching them open like secret drawers to be opened.
Nell had reached her stiff fingers into first the left, then the right front pocket and come out with a bright bubblegum pink popper, small enough to be hidden in a fist. The little rubber ten cent toy was still so smooth from the quarter machine he had found it in, it gleamed in the moonlight.
“Watch this,” Sam whispered theatrically and fit the bubble upside down on the white planks of the back porch like a miniature mixing bowl. He covered it up like a true magician before…
Without Nell even having seen how he had done it, he tapped it once with a finger and it sprang into the air, meeting like a punctuation dash in between the two of them before falling again. He did it again and again and before Nell knew it, she had forgotten the nest until Sam told her he would pass along Nell’s message himself, since he was a far better climber then she was anyhow.
Sophie’s scissors crunched into the thick fabric of Nell’s dress. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Certain things felt threadbare. Not today, not this.
“Done,” Sophie said to her daughter with a metaphoric pat on the rear. Nell jumped down from the stool now that the laborious task of being expected to stay still while her hem was trimmed of slinky threads was complete. Her scraped knees were adequately covered. “Go see if you can sneak a finger full of icing without anyone seeing. Oh, and Nell?”
“Huh?” Nell stammered mid leap.
“Do try and make it down the aisle? Sam would be happy if you would act the role.”
Nell ran to Sam’s room, a quite empty place which had been wallpapered navy, as if he were a New England politician instead of a part time entry level legal assistant. Nell’s mouth curled up on one side, thinking of how he looked sophisticated even when rumpled. The opposite side of her mouth however, turned down, thinking that it was probably that very aspect that Maryanne had seen in him in the first place. Maryanne wasn’t sophisticated at all, yet somehow she was still the dimpled violet that charmed all the underclassmen into stupors with her clumsiness. It had certainly worked on Sam.
Things would never be the same after today. Sam was no longer her brother, her protector, her compatriot in mild pranks and pretend wilderness explorations. He was Maryanne’s now.
Nell wasted no time and went right to the closet, opening up the shuttered doors and ignoring the rusty squeals emitted along the metal rudders. His tan button up sweater hung half off the hanger, Nell picked it up and smelled it deeply as if it were the first breath on the surface after a deep plunge in the water. It smelled like wood shavings and deodorant, she gulped something sour down her raw throat and pushed her arms into it and ran outside to their tree, swiping a finger load of white icing as she passed by. At least the wedding was held in their backyard and she didn’t need to find new hiding places.
It was insightful of Sophie to have reminded Nell to take part in the ceremony, but it was also in vain. The was no way Nell was planning on walking like a poodle over the tissue papered aisle. She would be there for pictures for the sake of her mother. Otherwise, what did it matter? It didn’t to Sam, and that was what was important. He knew her, knew enough to look to the tree if he wanted to see her watching.
Nell would never have chosen red as a wedding color, she decided. The whole wedding looked like a game of operation from up in the tree; don’t touch over here, watch out over there. The red balloons looked like blood sickle cells, bright and shriveled floating everywhere. The wedding cake did taste delicious, as it turned out, even with those hideous red daisies folded on top of each lap of tier.
Nell licked her lips, dissolving the last sugary remains when she saw Maryanne approaching.
“Nell, can you come down for a minute?” Maryanne called. Sam would be hurt if she said no so she shimmied down quickly, more to just get it over with. “Hmm,” the bride complimented taking in the sight of Nell in a dress. “I thought you were a girl, but you look more like a bird up there.”
“Yeah,” Nell said succinctly. Maryanne looked like the pictures of brides on paper dolls, with eyelashes like peacock feathers complete with goopy dots at the tips.
“I’d join you up there if I could but its no use. Can I tell you a secret?” Maryanne asked.
Nell shrugged as if it wasn’t up to her. Maryanne leaned in closer, brushing her soon to be sister’s cheek and whispered, “he also said you could climb a tree better than anyone else he knew.” She pulled away then, “that smile there suits you, even on a bird.”
Nell touched her mouth in panic, not having noticed she was smiling.
“Better go,” Maryanne said and turned to go.
Once Nell’s spot in the tree was regained, she felt what it was Maryanne had put in her pocket. It was small and round and red of course.
Nell wore the sweater for the rest of the day without even noticing. And as the groom leaned over to kiss his bride, and the buttons of each cardigan and suit jacket strained with breath held and then released, the sound came in a quick smack with a meek echo tagging along.