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Paige leans back slightly in her chair, ignoring the stiffness in her back, and sighs. Another year gone by, and again she sits alone at an Anderson family reunion. It is her sixth, as Dan only started taking her to these things three years into their relationship. She secretly wishes he had waited a bit longer. She even more secretly wishes he was still waiting to take her.
After five years, Paige had these things down to a science. Arrive at Dan’s grandmother’s house early, around nine or ten. Watch Dan start drinking about thirty minutes after that. Make small talk with people she hardly knew for ten or twelve hours, and then argue with Dan about who’s driving back for about twenty. Most of the time she doesn’t win, even though Dan’s so drunk he can barely piece two words together.
She’s still in the first hour of the watching Dan drink and make small talk phase, so she isn’t doing much. For her, small talk doesn’t really start until the entire Anderson family is so drunk she can walk out in the middle of a conversation if she needs to. They wouldn’t notice.
So she sits in silence, watching the creepy black cat clock Dan’s grandmother owns swing its tail back and forth, back and forth. She tries very hard not to think about John, or the office party, or work at all in fact. They were so close to the wedding...even a kiss with John couldn’t ruin things now.
She must’ve said the “right?” part out loud, because some teenager she’s never seen before is looking at her weirdly. “Did you say something?” he asks.
Paige doesn’t say anything. She’s never seen this kid before. He’s wearing a dark blue sweatshirt and blue jeans and looks about fifteen, but the odd thing is that she’s never seen him before.
She knows everyone in Dan’s family, if only their names and faces. So who’s this kid?
Suddenly his eyes light up, and he grins in a way that reminds her way too much of John. “You must be Paige,” he says, sticking his hand out. “I’m Spencer. Dan’s cousin.” The grin fades, and Paige is once again able to push thoughts of John out of her head, thank God.
“Spencer?” Now she knows why she’s never seen him. Dan had told her that he had a cousin named Spencer whose immediate family had been estranged about eight years back because of ‘something involving a gas station, two large pizzas, and Kara (Dan’s younger sister) losing her virginity to an Estonian.’
Paige had decided not to pry.
Spencer sits down next to her, staring intently into a a large, red plastic cup. “Yeah. Dan told you about me?” Paige nods wordlessly and Spencer continues to stare into his cup. “Man I’m thirsty.”
Paige frowns slightly. “You could try drinking.”
Spencer shakes his head. “It’s supposed to be fanta, but I’m pretty sure someone slipped tequila in there when I wasn’t looking. But I have to carry it around because if I don’t, then Kenny or Mitchell or one of my other cousins will give me something that’s definitely had tequila slipped in it and then I’ll have to drink to make them happy. So I’m good.”
Paige chuckles. “I thought I was the only one here who didn’t drink.”
Spencer shrugs. “My dad would probably hang me if he caught me drinking, and I’m not very good at lying. So I like to play it safe.”
“Good plan,” Paige says with a grin. She likes kids. And even if Spencer is a little older then what Paige usually considers a “kid”, he seems to be the youngest one here. So he’d have to do.
“So you’ve been engaged to Dan for how long?” Spencer asks suddenly, looking up from his cup.
“Four years. Which is a really long time, I know, but our wedding is really soon, so that’s good.” She looks around. “If you and your parents are un-estranged, will you be coming?”
Spencer shrugs. “Maybe. My parents are still kinda iffy on Dan. He’s kinda...” he shrugs again. “I don’t know a good word.”
“I know what you mean,” Paige says. “I know what you mean.” She smiles to herself. “On our first date, he brought Kenny along with us. And we went to a high school hockey game. And when it was over, they forgot me there. They had to come back.”
Spencer laughs and puts his cup down at his feet, gripping it between his shoes so it doesn’t accidently get knocked over. “Nice try, but you’ve got nothing on me. When I was...seven, Dan took me to a baseball game. He got really drunk, and on the ride home took me to a strip club. I still lay awake at night thinking that if he had just waited a couple years, it would’ve been the best night of my life.”
Paige covers her hand with her mouth. “Wow. Really? What did he do?”
“He ordered a dance but fell asleep halfway through and the dancer stole his wallet. I sat in the corner and met a really nice stripper named Cherry who couldn’t stop scratching herself and kept calling me Charles. Then we went to Subway. So, bonus.”
Paige snorts, her shoulders shaking from trying to suppress her laughter. “Okay, that is good. But you will never beat our junior prom...”
Turns out that Spencer can beat her junior prom, with a story about Dan “educating” his math teacher. But that’s fine, because she has a story that tops even that, and she’s sure she’s got this contest in the bag until he whips out Dan crashing his first real date. Still, Paige has an ace up her sleeve, and as she finishes telling Spencer about the time Dan got in a fight with a rather obese man in the park, Spencer is doubled over with laughter. There are tears leaking out his eyes and he reluctantly admits defeat, but they don’t stop talking, and for the first time in ever, Paige is enjoying the ‘small talk’ phase of the Anderson family reunion.
It’s a few hours later, and the rest of the family is struggling to play darts and stand up at the same time, but Paige and Spencer haven’t moved. Except now she’s slightly uncomfortable, because their conversation moved from Dan to history, history to sports, sports to art, art to celebrities, celebrities to Erin, Erin to Steve, Steve to Thomas, and Thomas to John.
It is like the universe is taunting her. The sky is blue. Tomorrow is the day after today. All roads lead to Rome. All conversations lead to John.
“With a website and everything?” Spencer asks. He hasn’t noticed her discomfort, so wrapped up in learning more about this ‘John’. “How did he even do that?”
Paige chuckles, like she has a million times so far today, but it’s a nervous chuckle - a wary chuckle - and Spencer notices it, and he bites his lip and leans back a little, giving her some space. Which is nice, so Paige is nice back and answers his question, or at least tries to, to the best of her ability. “You know what? I don’t even know. It’s so frustrating because even though we’re best friends he won’t tell me and every time I ask about it he just looks smug and waggles his fingers like he’s a magician.”
But Spencer doesn’t seem to be thinking about John anymore. He’s looking at Paige and frowning. “He’s your best friend?”
And suddenly Paige is sweating, just a little bit, but she’s still sweating, and she knows she shouldn’t be, because really it’s an innocent question, it’s just the way he’s looking at her and the tone of voice he’s using that’s giving her the completely irrational thought that he knows about friday, about the office party, and the kiss, and about how good it felt, and about how she can’t seem to stop thinking about it, and John, and the screwed up mess her life has become.
And she starts to cry. It’s completely ridiculous and embarrassing, but she starts to cry, and thankfully Spencer knows that now would not be a good time for Dan to see her and so he sort of grabs her by the wrist and half leads half drags her out of the living room and into the kitchen. The rest of the family is outside and they’ve kind of forgotten about Spencer and Paige but you can never be too careful and Spencer goes from the kitchen to the den and sits Paige down on the couch and then sits next to her and waits for her to stop crying.
“Have you ever felt...” she says after a few minutes, “that you’ve thrown your whole life away?”
If it were John instead of Spencer, standing here, then John (not Spencer) would crack a joke, and grin, and put his arm around her and comfort her and maybe they’d kiss again and Paige wasn’t sure if she’d like that or not but right now she wanted it very much.
But it’s not John sitting beside her. It’s Spencer, and she can see he feels a bit out of his league here, trying to comfort his cousin’s fiance and make sense of the giant stinking pile of garbage that is Paige Fischer’s (Soon to be Paige Anderson’s) life.
Finally he pats her awkwardly on the shoulder and says “No, I’ve never really felt that way.” He sighs. “But my mom told me if I ever make a girl cry then I’m obviously doing either something really really wrong or something really really right, and I need to hurry the heck up and figure out which one it is so I can act accordingly.”
Paige sniffles. “That’s good advice.”
Spencer nods solemnly. “So I don’t know who’s making you cry,” Spencer says, “whether it’s Dan or this John guy, but I think you need to take my mom’s advice and hurry the he** up and figure out which one it is and whether he’s doing something really really wrong or really really right so that you can act accordingly. Maybe it’s both, in which case it’s some sort of double whammy and you need to do something drastic.”
Paige sits in silence and tries to wipe her eyes only to discover that her mascara’s run all down her face. But she just curls up into a ball and Spencer shakes his head and turns on the television and they sit there and watch Seinfeld in silence until Dan stumbles drunkenly in, gives Spencer a noogie, and drives Paige back to their home. Paige doesn’t even bother to argue over who’s driving and decides to devote all her energy to praying Dan doesn’t crash the car, except halfway through she figures out she doesn’t really care what happens to her or Dan for that matter and just stares at a stain in the seat and thinks about what Spencer said. She and Dan arrive home and Dan makes a halfhearted attempt to “fool around” with her before falling asleep in his clothes.
She wakes up a few hours before Dan and looks around her before sighing and packing her bags. She’s systematically going through her drawer when she finds an old picture folded up and stuffed into one of her pockets. It’s of her, and Dan, and the first thing she notices is that her hair is long, much longer than it is now, and up - the way she wore it when she was in high school and had enough time and patience to devote to it every day. The second thing she notices is that she’s laughing, and so is Dan, and he’s carrying her bridal style down the street.
She remembers that day. Not vividly, but well enough. That was the day Carrie had decided to stop speaking to her because “I can’t be friends with someone who’s deciding to throw their whole life away.”
Paige puts her head in her hands. Pennsylvania Technical had been plenty good for her. She hopes Carrie had had fun at South Carolina, with a new roommate. She was doing well for herself now.
Paige wonders why that was. They had been so similar in high school - same grades, same dreams, same friends. But now she’s answering phones and Carrie’s a lawyer.
Another drawer, and this time the picture is sitting next to the lamp, surrounded by a simple wooden frame. Paige is showing off her brand new engagement ring to the camera, doing her best to smile pretty. It hadn’t mattered that the diamond was small, just that it had come from him.
She had been so young. But she wasn’t young anymore. The magic had faded out of the world, replaced with cancelled weddings and family reunions.
“No,” Paige says to herself, her voice barely more than a whisper. “No...”
A teddy bear, the stuffing replaced with Jolly ranchers. A scavenger hunt, taking her all around the office. An “important buisness call” that got her out of another one of Steve’s pointless meetings.
“No, there’s still magic in the world,” Paige says again. Louder this time, more confidently. “I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.”