Fiction by Annie Earnshaw

December 15, 2023

Sugar Flowers

Nell sobbed into her veil, clutching fistfuls of the wispy material, and all I could think was this is my fault.

“I just don’t know anymore, Maureen,” my little sister stuttered from behind the layers of tulle. “It’s like he’s a different person lately.”

I sat next to her on the couch and started rubbing her back with long, even strokes. My fingers kept getting caught on the row of covered buttons that trailed her spine. When I asked Nell if she was ready to walk down the aisle and marry the man of (what I assumed to be) her dreams, I didn’t expect this. “That happens.”

She braced her elbows on her knees and looked vacantly across the room. Her nose started to run and she turned her head to wipe it on the neckline of her gown. It was a boat neck to show off her collarbones; her words, not mine. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You can either marry Davis, or you don’t.” It didn’t seem that complex to me, but maybe that was because I’d already done the big-white-wedding thing; the ring on my finger and the three-year-old in a flower girl dress were a testament to that.

Nell collapsed over into my lap with a moan as the door to the bridal suite flew open. Our mother stood in the doorway, eyebrows cinched together. “Nell, honey, your mascara is running.”

“I don’t care,” Nell mumbled into my thighs.

Mom knelt down in front of Nell and started combing pieces of the veil away from her face. She glared at me and mouthed, you were supposed to handle this.

I tried, I mouthed back.

“I know you’re talking about me,” Nell said with a sniffle.

“Never, babydoll,” Mom cooed. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Nell slowly pushed herself upright and pursed her lips like sitting up was an accomplishment that required extreme determination. “I don’t want to marry Davis.”

Mom rested her hands on Nell’s knees and rubbed little circles with her thumbs. “Then you shouldn’t. You stay here,” Mom turned to me, “and Maureen and I will take care of it.”

Mom pulled me outside into the empty church lobby, her face morphing from soft to steely before the door was even shut. The bridesmaids, made up of various college friends and the wives of Davis’s brothers, were huddled in gossipy conversation.

“Here’s what we do,” Mom said. “You go in, pull Davis aside, and tell him that it’s off. I’ll take Nell to the car so she’s out of the building before everyone starts to leave.”

“Shouldn’t Nell be the one to tell him?”

“In her condition?” Mom said, as if Nell were deathly ill or missing a limb. She shot me one more disappointed look and swept back into the bridal suite.

The bridesmaids were still huddled in the corner, peering around their bouquets. Julia, Nell’s freshman roommate, stepped forward and spoke for the pack. “Is Nellie okay?”

“Wedding’s off,” I said, followed by a chorus of gasps and jaws hitting the floor. “Don’t talk to her when she leaves; it’ll embarrass her more.”

I ducked through the sanctuary doors before they could fire any more questions in my direction. A sea of heads turned toward me as I stepped down the aisle, trying to make as little eye contact as possible without staring at the floor. The feeling of being so obviously out of place made my skin want to melt off of my body. Cynthia, the wedding planner, would’ve been horrified to see the pace at which I proceeded down the aisle. The line of groomsmen in gray suits, led by Davis, stared with confusion. I thought eight groomsmen and eight bridesmaids was extensive, considering I had to stumble through a ceremony with only three of each.

“Is Nell okay?” Davis whispered as I approached the altar.

I smiled at him and turned to face the masses. “Thank you very much for coming, but the wedding is… canceled.” That felt like the right thing to say.

Whispers rippled through the pews, amplified by the vaulted ceiling. Davis started down the aisle with determined steps, but I latched a hand onto his arm, buying Nell a little more time to complete her escape. “It’s not your fault,” I said to Davis over the white noise.

He turned back to me, glaring like I had just sneezed on him. “Isn’t it?”

* * *

After all the guests had cleared out and the sense of speculation stopped reverberating through the church, my husband Michael and I packed up what remained while my dad occupied our three-year-old. Flowers, abandoned gifts, and any paraphernalia that would immediately remind my sister of the wedding she had left behind, went in our van. Everything else, Nell’s makeup and other assorted personal items she insisted on having for the big day, went in the bed of my dad’s pick-up under a tarp.

“Did you see it coming?” Michael asked as we shoved the last flower arrangement into the trunk. His sleeves were rolled up and he wiped off his brow with his forearm. It was strangely sunny for November, the perfect weather for a glowing procession. Nell wanted everyone to throw lavender instead of rice so that she would always associate the smell with a happy memory. The pictures would’ve been lovely.

I shrugged and leaned against the car, pulling bobby pins out of my hair and collecting them in my fist. “I’m not surprised.”

Michael leaned next to me, the car shifting under our combined weight. “You’re not?”

I shook my head, the bulk of my hair slowly collapsing over my neck.

He pushed away from the car and started walking toward the church. “I guess it makes sense. She’s just a kid, you know?”

“We were kids and we still managed to make it down the aisle.”

Michael looked at me sideways. “Twenty-three is different from twenty-one.”

“Not that different.”

He shrugged and held open the door into the church for me. In the lobby, our daughter Sadie was slouched over in a leather chair, deeply asleep. My dad was staring confusedly at his phone before he glanced up over his reading glasses. “Mo, did your mother call you?”

“Not yet,” I said as I started to collect the smattering of toys that Sadie had littered around the lobby. She was currently transitioning from Barbies to Power Ranger action figures.

Dad stood up with a groan, leaning heavily into the arm of his chair. “Nell and one of her college gals are spending the night in a hotel. Your mother wants to move the decorations for the reception to your garage before Nell comes back.”

He said it like I had any choice in the matter. For all I knew, my mother was completing her second or third trip between my house and hers, shoving the white folding chairs and rustic-chic centerpieces, the elaborate chocolate fountain, the buckets of plastic flip-flops that were going to be distributed to guests so they could dance in comfort, all the remains of the reception that should have taken place in the backyard where Nell and I grew up, into my garage.

“That’s fine,” I said, looking at Michael. He swooped Sadie into his arms and shrugged.

* * *

My mother knocked on the door at seven the next morning, waking up Sadie, who woke me up; once she caused enough of a fuss, Mom proceeded to let herself in with the spare key. Michael somehow managed to stay dormant through the ruckus.

After subduing Sadie with an episode of Power Rangers, I padded down the stairs, clutching the sweater I’d thrown on over my t-shirt and old maternity pajama pants. “Good morning,” I said as I squinted into the kitchen lights.

Mom looked at me like I had a foot growing from my forehead. “Why aren’t you dressed yet?”

“I don’t normally dress for the occasion of walking around my own home.”

She’d turned on the electric kettle and was fishing two mugs out of the cupboard. “Well, go put on something presentable. We’ve got a busy day.”

“Doing what?”

She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “If you were a teenager, I’d tell you not to take that tone with me.”

“How unfortunate that you don’t have the responsibility anymore.”

Mom let out a single, sarcastic laugh. “I’m a mother; I’ll be telling kids to keep in line till the day I keel over.”

The kettle started to boil and I poured two mugs; she’d chosen peppermint for herself and something sweet and fruity for me. “What’s on the agenda?”

She took a short sip and pursed her lips. Too hot. “We’re going to clean up the mess. Fight with the vendors, mail back gifts, figure out what to do with all those goddamn flowers.”

“Is Nell back yet?” “Dear God, no. That girl doesn’t need to be anywhere near this catastrophe.”

I took a long, lingering sip. “How’s she doing?”

Mom started to pull all the mugs out of the cupboard and replaced them so their handles didn’t touch. “She’s toughing it out.”

I scoffed. Imagine Nell, laced up in her ballerina ball gown and toughing it out at the downtown Marriott. “What’s first on the to-do list?”

“You need to get dressed.”

“And after that?”

Mom dumped the rest of her tea into the sink. Too cold. “Just get dressed,” she said as she shooed me out of my own kitchen.

Michael was conscious enough to respond when I walked back into our bedroom. “Mo, your mom is downstairs,” he mumbled, the side of his face pressed into the pillow.

“She’s rearranging,” I said over my shoulder as I opened the closet.

“Already?”

I tossed an old pair of jeans, faded and soft with holes in the knees, and a sweater onto the bed. Hopefully they would pass as presentable. “We’re apparently going to fight with vendors all day. Should be an exciting chain of events.”

“Sounds like a good mother-daughter bonding opportunity.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.” I shimmied out of my pajamas and into my outfit, then pulled on my shoes. I didn’t dare leave my mother waiting any longer because if she had any more time, she might open my pantry and disrupt my shelving system. “Sadie’s awake, by the way,” I said as I hurried to save the kitchen from my mother’s intervention.

* * *

By mid-afternoon, we’d cleared out a third of the garage. The flip-flops for the reception weren’t eligible for returns, so we donated them to Goodwill. We gave most of the flowers to the hospital up the road except for a few bouquets, which I spread around our house. Sadie took a few and tried to stick them behind her ear like they do in Disney movies.

The biggest dilemma was the food. The caterers had prepared and delivered all the food before Nell’s striking revelation, meaning we had to pay for everything. Mom and I calculated that if every member of our immediate family ate chicken, fish, or steak every day until the food was gone, our lunches were provided for the next six weeks.

The wedding cake was a cruel thing to cut; it was meant to be sliced open gracefully, surrounded by adoring friends and family, not hacked into pieces with a plastic knife and a straight spatula in a cramped kitchen, but we hated for it to go to waste. Two of the four tiers went to the police and fire department, respectively, and we decided that the rest of us had sweated off enough calories from the stress of unplanning a wedding to deserve a few slices ourselves.

Mom and I sat at my kitchen table, each of us picking at pieces of cake that were easily the size of our heads. It was better than letting it go stale.

“You know,” Mom said as she licked a swath of frosting off of her lip, “I never liked your wedding cake.”

I’d loved my wedding cake. It was a simple shape, two round tiers with flowers cascading down one side. The blooms were supposed to match the bridesmaid’s bouquets, which we lined up in front of the cake so it looked like the flowers continued to tumble right off the cake and onto the table. “I thought it was pretty.”

“You should’ve gotten real flowers instead of sugar flowers. The color wasn’t right.”

“They were green and white. How is it possible to mess up green and white?”

She stabbed another chunk and scooped it through the little pile of frosting she’d skimmed off the top of the slice and deposited to the side. “The one thing I told Nell when she got married was this—”

“The one thing?”

She rolled her eyes. “I told her not to get sugar flowers on her cake because they would turn out ugly.” Mom dropped her hands to her lap and leaned back in her chair. “Look at all the good that did.”

The cake tasted too sweet; I pushed my plate away. “You couldn’t have done anything.”

“It’s not even about the money, really. Don’t get me wrong, the money is a big deal, but Nell’s going to have this, I don’t know, mark now.”

“She’s not the victim here,” I said. “She made the choice to get married, and then she made the choice to run away.”

She looked at me with heaviness in her gaze, a tiredness that comes from carrying a weight that feels small at first, but only pulls itself closer and closer to the ground as you struggle to keep it aloft. “She’s just a kid, Maureen.”

I picked up my fork and swirled it around in the residual frosting on my plate. “Do you remember how old I was when I got married?”

She stood and took her plate to the sink. “That’s not fair. You and your sister are not the same person.”

“Because I could handle the responsibility.”

“Maureen, do not be ugly like that.”

I laughed at the irony of her telling me what to do in my own kitchen. “It’s not ugly if it’s true.”

Mom gripped the edge of the sink like she wanted to break off a chunk of countertop and watch it crumble in her fists. I could see the words turning in her head, sentences forming and breaking down only to form again, finding the right combination. A sentence that would do the thought justice. “You know I never loved one of you more than the other.”

“I never thought you did.”

“And despite what you think, I never made you do things without my help. I tried to be there for you, I really did.”

“I know that.”

She ran the water and scrubbed away any sugary remains. “You just never needed me like Nell did.”

I stood and carried my plate over to the sink. She took it in her soapy hands and started to scrub in wide circles, scouring for congealed crumbs that she could pick away from the plate. I leaned into her, the fleshy sides of our arms pressed together as she cleaned the plate.

About Annie Earnshaw

Annie Earnshaw is a writer from Charlotte, NC. She has a BA in English from Elon University, where she developed a love of stories that explore the beautiful, brutal, singular experience of being human. Annie also writes articles in the lifestyle and wellness space, including her (sometimes) weekly newsletter.

Follow Annie