Always a Bridesmaid: Finale

Yes, it’s the final part! It’s a bit too long for a #fridayflash, so I decided to release it with my author chat with The Penny Dreadful. Your comments, as always, are welcome. Look for a surprise after the story. To read the first parts, go to the More Fiction page on my website.

XII. Collision

For a moment, Toby and Tiffany looked at each other like they had the day before. Thunder roared across the sky, and Tiffany shook herself out of the thrall.

“Where’s Bert?”

“He’s under the table in his container in a paper bag. There are holes in it so he can see out. I still can’t believe I’m toting around a talking fish, by the way.”

Tiffany smothered a laugh, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. A chilly breeze ruffled her dress, and she remembered ghost-Danny’s warning, “He’s going to take as many souls as he can with him!”

“What is it?” asked Toby.

“I think they’re coming!” Tiffany told him. She could see shadows moving through the crowd, and she smelled the sulphur-dirty feet aroma of Lydia’s first husband’s spirit. The woman in front of her turned around, and Tiffany saw it was Amber, in jeans and a shirt with “Bridesmaid” stenciled on it.

“Is he here?” Amber whispered.

“Why should I tell you?” Tiffany couldn’t help it – she was mad at the girl for holding back on her.

“I’m sorry!” The breeze ruffled Amber’s hair, and she brushed it out of her mouth. “Yes, I want peace for Danny. As for Lydia…” She shook her head. “I still can’t forgive her. She knew about the curse! She’d had a dream, but she wouldn’t believe it or get help. I would have bailed on this one if she hadn’t talked to you.”

A huge gust of wind knocked the tables with the gifts and goodies legs-over-top, and the guests scrambled to pick up scattered presents. Tiffany dove for her cupcakes and brownies, but Toby grabbed her arm.

“Bert!” He cried. They found the fish in a wet paper bag with only a half-inch of water in his bowl.

“Help!’ The fish’s mouth moved. “I can’t breathe air!”

“Some guardian spirit you are,” Toby said, but Tiffany could see his concern when his eyes met hers. “Can I go to your place and get some water?”

She nodded and gave him the key, and then realized what a stupid thing she had done. Danny’s ghost had warned, “Only one can stop him, and time grows short.” What if that one was Toby? And she had just sent him away! Gigantic raindrops splotched her hot pink dress, and she lost sight of Toby in the downpour.

“What is it?” Amber asked. “You look panicked.”

“Remember Danny’s warning?”

Amber’s eyes grew wide. “Where’s Toby?”

“Getting more water for Bert.” Tiffany gripped Amber’s forearm. She’d spotted him, the man in the tuxedo from her dream. He stood a few feet away and seemed to be looking for something. Or someone. “And the demon is here!”

“Where?” Amber looked around, her wet, stringy hair clinging to her face. “I don’t see one.”

“The guy in the tuxedo.”

“But he doesn’t have horns!”

“Un-freaking-believable.” Tiffany dragged Amber behind a nearby tree so the demon wouldn’t spot them. “They don’t look like the ones in the movies. Demons gain nothing by being obvious, even if they’re the best-dressed guys in the park.”

“What are you going to do?”

“My guess is that he’s after Lydia, so I’m going to follow him.”

“Uh, Tiffany?’

“What?”

“He’s right behind you.”

Tiffany felt the demon’s hands sear the flesh of both her upper arms when he grabbed her, turned her around, and grabbed her again and held her at arms’ length. She saw Lydia behind him.

“What do you want from me?”

His black eyes glittered in the watery daylight, and he drew his lips back in a feral grin. “I’m here for my wedding, little dancer.”

Tiffany’s heart beat in her stomach. Or maybe her stomach climbed up to her throat. Either way, in his grip, she felt like she would simultaneously choke, faint, vomit, and scream. And maybe die.

She did manage to choke out, “I’m not available. Always a bridesmaid, you know.”

“I can feel the energy around you, ma petite. All the wet dreams you engendered in your previous life, and the hopes you give girls now. I want to consume all of it.”

Tiffany remembered that Azmodeous was the demon of lust, and it all clicked into place: why Lydia had consented to let Amber tell her secret and her later visit with Trent. It was all to draw Tiffany in as the new object of the demon’s attentions. There had been a bargain for Lydia’s freedom, and the price was Tiffany.

Toby ran across the square and toward Tiffany’s street. He held Bert’s container in front of him and rolled his feet so the fish wouldn’t lose any more of his precious water. Large drops splashed into the bowl, and Toby slowed. The water that hit his exposed skin felt like tablespoon-sized liquid projectiles, but they seemed to have a good effect on the fish.

A black Camaro rolled to a halt in front of him, and a slender man with black goatee got out.

“Raphe?” Toby asked.

“Did you find her?” Again, Raphe’s leather jacket and hair seemed untouched by the deluge.

“Who?”

“The girl. The bait for the demon! I had to leave you to make preparations for his binding, but I figured you’d watch out for her like you did in the dream.”

“Tiffany!”

“Yeesh, man,” Bert said, his bowl now almost full. “I’m flattered ya left the hot blonde to help me out – you’re a real bro – but that was a dumb move.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why don’t you try to think straight while you’re suffocating?”

Toby shook his head, and he, Raphe, and the fish headed back across the square at a jog. The rain came down so thickly that he couldn’t see but ten feet in front of him. A monster jumped out of the mist at them, and Toby dodged to the side. Raphe stopped and held a hand in front of him.

“Out of my way, bug-boy!”

Trent, dressed in flame-proof armor and wielding a huge sword, paused. “You’re not a demon. You’re –” His jaw dropped.

“You’re in the way,” Raphe said and waved him aside. “You can follow us if you want, but just watch.”

“Where’d he get the armor and sword?” asked Toby.

“Southern boys keep all kinds of crap in their cars.”

“Is Lydia finally free now?” Tiffany asked. Maybe if she could keep him talking, she could figure out an escape route. Not that his grip was lessening.

“To be with a man she doesn’t love?” The demon laughed. “Who says I’m not without my sense of irony? There will be no love or lust in that marriage. She wanted to play it safe, so I let her.” He would have continued, but a stream of cold water interrupted him, and he staggered backwards, spluttering. Tiffany took advantage of the distraction to knee him in the nuts.

“Geronimo!” Bert yelled as he tumbled out of the plastic to-go bowl that Toby held over the demon’s head. Trent charged through the rain, his sword pointed at the demon, who handily tripped him, grabbed the sword, and leapt back, still bent in pain.

“I’m not going back to Egypt, Raphael,” he snarled at the slender man with dark hair and goatee who had followed Toby.

“Idiot!” Bert gasped from the ground. Tiffany wanted to go to him, but Toby held her back. He still held Bert’s bowl, turned up again to catch the rain.

“Did you prepare for something like this?” he asked.

Tiffany pulled the two halves of the rose quartz heart that Amber had broken from her purse. She watched the demon and the unarmed archangel circle each other. She could feel the power pulsing off of Raphael, but Azmodeous had absorbed some energy from her, and she could see the sword glowing red. Whoever lost that battle would have to retreat and regroup, and if that was Raphael, they were in trouble.

“I did some reading, but of course it’s not relevant now.” She dropped the two halves of the heart into the bowl and whispered, “Virgin water, gift of the Goddess, absorb the chaste love between brother and sister and the energy of years of mourning.” She grabbed the bowl and crept behind the demon, who focused his attention on Raphael. She poured the water over him, and he howled, especially when the heart, now whole, touched his shoulder. A cloud of steam rose up around him, and Raphael pushed her out of the way. She landed on the ground beside a forlorn object on the ground: a smoked bearded catfish.

“Oh, Bert!” she said and knelt beside him. She picked up the body of the fish, which still steamed.

“Heya, doll, what can I say?” The catfish gasped. “It’s the handsome ones who die young in these tales.”

“But you weren’t … You didn’t…”

“I told Toby to catch the rainwater and dump it on Azzie. Trust me, me and Raphe, we’ve done this before. Nice work with your knee, by the way. Demons have ’em, too. And that move with the crystal – brilliant!”

“Thanks.”

“Now you just gotta let things take their course.”

She placed him back on the ground, and he disappeared in a sizzle of smoke that smelled like fried catfish.

“See ya in another life, doll!”

“Is he gone?” asked Toby. He knelt beside her.

Tiffany nodded. It felt like she had the heart lodged in her throat and knew that all the water on her cheeks wasn’t the rain. “But he left this.” She picked up the dried bleached white skeleton and handed it to Toby.

“What’s that?”

Raphe emerged from the cloud of steam. “Bound him again! Nice spell, witch.”

Tiffany blushed. “Thank you, Archangel.”

Raphe nodded at the catfish skeleton, which Toby held with his thumb and forefinger. “That will cure your father. Just grind it up, mix it into a paste, and put it over his eyes, and he’ll be good as new. No more brain tumor or blindness.”

“What about Lydia?” asked Amber.

“Oh, I’ll take care of her.” Tiffany turned toward the middle of the square, where the couples gathered again. She saw Lydia support a limping Trent.

“Tiffany, wait,” said Toby.

She turned. “What?”

“Whatever she did to you, this isn’t going to be over until she’s happily married.” He gestured toward the couples. “And this isn’t going to cut it.”

“Then go stop her.” Tiffany watched Toby walk away and sighed. He’d talk some sense into his cousin, especially now that the demon had been bound. Again, apparently.

“It’s been going on since Biblical times,” Raphe told her and came to stand beside her. “Some stories get told again and again even if the Protestants kicked them out of their Bible.”

Toby approached her, Lydia and Trent behind him. “Yes,” he told them, “the demon is gone. Tiffany and Raphe vanquished him!”

Lydia looked incredulous. Trent, pissed off. Raphe winked at Tiffany.

“You mean I’m free?” Lydia asked. “Oh, thank you!” She came toward Tiffany, arms outstretched in preparation for a hug.

Tiffany stepped aside, and Lydia ended up face-first in the mud.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Tiffany said. “I have charms to work for deserving brides. Toby, I believe we have some things to discuss, like the proper way to prepare an ichthys powder for healing.”

“I’ll catch you later, Lydia,” Toby said. He followed Tiffany, Raphe a step behind. “What was that about?”

She started to tell him, “Well, your cousin almost trapped me into an eternity of hell married to a demon,” but stopped. Their family relationship was more important, and he really needed to keep Lydia from marrying Trent.

“Go keep her from making this huge mistake, and then we’ll talk.”

Before he could say anything else, Amber ran up to them. “I saw Danny!” she said. “And he was whole and smiling and not stinky!” She threw her arms around Tiffany. “Thank you, thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Just… Don’t tell anyone about my past, okay?”

“Done.”

“Your secret is safe with me, too,” Toby told her. “Hey, after the non-wedding, how about I come by your place? We’ll talk about the ichthys spell, and maybe you can help me with some of my other problems back home. You see, there’s this chick who’s blackmailing me to marry her…”

Tiffany held up her hand. “You can tell me later.” She watched Toby and Amber walk away together and noted the couple potential there. Maybe she shouldn’t have let Amber polish all that charmed rose quartz – she’d be a guy magnet for a few days.

“And what for you now, witch?”

She’d forgotten about Raphe, who stood a few feet away.. “I’ve realized that I’m missing a lot more of my past than I thought. I need to find it back.”

He nodded. “It’s time. Azmodeous was only the first of your battles. The others won’t be won so easily, and you will need access to all your skills and memories.”

Tiffany saw him as the splendorous archangel Raphael for a moment before he disappeared. It didn’t comfort her.

“All right, Tiffany Chiffon, or whoever you are,” she told herself. “It’s time to stop playing around and get serious.” She looked back at Toby, who held an animated conversation with Lydia, and smiled. “And maybe you won’t always be a bridesmaid, after all.”

End

Oh, no, I’ve killed Bert! Don’t worry, he has decided to emerge from the Great Beyond and join us on Twitter. Follow him at BertTheCatfish. You can’t keep a fish with a big mouth quiet!

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