The Bridal Shower
LeeAnne Rice walked into the elegant Essex Manor on the arm of her fiancé, Vance Quinlan. Vance gave the maître d' his name, after which he and LeeAnne were led through the main dining room toward the private banquet hall in the rear of the restaurant. LeeAnne feigned surprise when the maître d' opened the double doors, and she saw the banquet room gaily decorated for her bridal shower.
"Oh! I can't believe it!" the young woman beamed.
Having done his part by escorting LeeAnne to the restaurant, Vance kissed her on the cheek, whispered, "See you later," and headed for the door.
No one tried to detain him since it was not customary for the prospective groom to be present at the bridal shower. Once Vance departed, the blushing bride-to-be was greeted by a host of relatives, co-workers, friends and neighbors who, after greeting the guest of honor, eagerly descended upon the buffet table. While LeeAnne was filling her plate with greens from the salad bar, her sister, Celia, came up behind her.
"Is that all you're going to eat?" Celia asked.
"I shouldn't even be eating this," LeeAnne replied guiltily, her eyes trying not to gaze at the dessert table. "There are no fat-free dressings here, and I've got to fit into that three-thousand-dollar wedding dress. I can't afford to gain a single ounce."
Her sister shook her head. "All that money wasted on a dress you'll only wear one time. You and Vance should elope like Gene and I did. It's much cheaper."
"No way! I've always dreamed of a big wedding."
As Celia sampled the pasta dishes, she spied an unfamiliar woman sitting alone at a table in the corner of the room.
"Lee, who's that redhead in the corner?" she asked her sister. "Is she a friend of yours?"
"I've never seen her before. I suppose she's one of Vance's relatives."
"Then why isn't she sitting with the rest of the Quinlans?"
"I have no idea. Perhaps she's a black sheep, or maybe she's just unsociable."
"You think she'd at least introduce herself to you."
"Give her a chance. The afternoon is still young."
Not long after taking her seat at the head table, Celia let her curiosity win out over her hunger. She got up from the table, walked over to the unfamiliar woman and introduced herself. "I'm Celia Williamson, one of the bride's sisters. I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting you. Are you related to Vance?"
"No," the woman replied somewhat coolly, "just an old friend."
Celia would have pressed her further had not the mother of the bride-to-be clapped her hands to get everyone's attention.
"LeeAnne has a lot of gifts to open," Mrs. Rice announced, "so I think she'd better begin now. We've only reserved the room for three hours."
Celia left the redhead and took a seat next to her mother, one in which she had an excellent view of LeeAnne's unwrapped gifts.
"Wait a minute, Mom," she said, digging into her voluminous purse for her old, trusty 35mm camera.
Once Celia was ready, LeeAnne began opening her gifts. Her second sister, Libby Pressman, removed the bows from the packages and pasted them onto a paper plate, creating a makeshift party hat.
There were resounding "Eews!" and "Ahhs!" throughout the room as LeeAnne opened sets of silverware, china and cookware. Celia snapped dozens of photographs as her sister held up a food processor, a Dust Buster vacuum cleaner and a stained glass Tiffany-style lamp. There were also the usual jokes and laughter as she unwrapped sheer, lacy peignoirs, exotic body oils and Victoria's Secret lingerie.
Then, about one-third of the way through the pile of boxes covered in American Greetings and Hallmark wrapping paper bearing images of wedding bells, rings, brides and grooms, doves and hearts, Libby found a box wrapped in plain black paper, tied with a large black bow. Well, she thought, there's no accounting for some people's taste. Libby handed the black package to her sister, who laughed at the morbid wrapping. She opened a small card--barely visible in a black envelope against the black paper.
"Who's it from?" Celia chuckled, "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark?"
Laughter rang out through the banquet room.
LeeAnne opened the plain black card and read it aloud. "All it says is 'To the bride and groom,' and it's signed 'a friend.'"
LeeAnne ripped off the black paper and discovered a plain, black cardboard box. Inside, carefully protected by black tissue paper was a porcelain skeleton dressed in a bridal gown designed to fit a Barbie doll. A shocked gasp sounded in unison, followed by an uncomfortable silence. LeeAnne broke the tension with a feeble attempt at humor.
"Now I've got a Halloween decoration. What's next, a Christmas tree?"
A few of the guests chuckled halfheartedly, but most were too appalled by what they considered an extremely tasteless act.
Celia's eyes wandered to the back of the room where the strange redhead had been sitting, but she was no longer there. Could the mysterious woman have been the "friend" who had given LeeAnne the ghastly present? If so, why? Celia promptly forgot about the unknown guest when LeeAnne resumed opening her shower gifts. It wasn't until all the packages had been opened, that she was reminded of the redhead. While the discarded wrapping was being stuffed into trash bags and the unwrapped gifts were being loaded into Libby's minivan, a reception line formed in front of LeeAnne. Celia had just snapped a picture of the future Mrs. Quinlan hugging her fiancé's mother, when the mysterious red-haired woman stepped up to the future bride.
"Thank you for coming," LeeAnne said graciously, although she still had no clue as to the identity of the unknown guest.
The redhead laughed bitterly and said, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world!"
Then, quiet unexpectedly, the woman put her hands on LeeAnne's cheeks, leaned forward and kissed the bride-to-be on the mouth. LeeAnne had been too shocked to pull away. Finally, the woman let go, smiled malignantly and said in an angry, strained voice, "Give my regards to Vance, won't you?"
* * *
A week later a photograph of the mysterious red-haired woman appeared in The Puritan Falls Gazette.
"Look, honey," LeeAnne said, handing the newspaper to Vance, "it's that odd woman who showed up at my shower."
Vance took one look at the photo, and the color drained from his face. "Are you sure this is the woman?"
"This is Paige Holden. She is--or rather, was--my ex-fiancée."
LeeAnne's face became as pale as Lance's. "Ex-fiancée? You never told me you were engaged before."
"It was a very brief engagement--a week or two at most. I never even had the opportunity to buy a ring."
"She and I had been dating only a few months when the lease on my apartment ran out. Paige suggested that rather than renewing the lease, I should just move in with her. And being the old-fashioned gentleman that I am, I foolishly thought we should get engaged before we started living together. But after I got to know her better, I decided that she was not the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. She was jealous, vindictive, cruel and completely lacking in compassion and understanding."
"She sounds like a real witch. It's a good thing you got out of the relationship when you did. What does the newspaper say about her?"
Vance read the article beneath the photograph. It was entitled YOUNG WOMAN DIES OF MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS.
"It doesn't say what killed her," Vance said, "but I bet it had something to do with her job. She worked as a biochemist in a medical research laboratory."
"I hope whatever killed her wasn't contagious," LeeAnne said. "I'd hate to get sick and have to postpone the wedding."
Vance shivered when he remembered that LeeAnne had come into close contact with Paige. "You haven't been feeling sick, have you?" he asked with concern.
"Not at all. I've never felt better in my life, in fact."
Two days later, however, the first symptoms appeared.
"It's nothing--just a mild headache," LeeAnne insisted, trying to ease Lance's fears. But by the end of the day her head felt much worse, and she began to feel nauseous.
Vance touched her forehead with the back of his hand. "You feel warm. I think you have a fever."
LeeAnne took a couple of Tylenol and went to bed early. Shortly after midnight, she was awakened by a pain in the right side of her abdomen. The sound of her vomiting awakened Vance, who quickly got dressed and grabbed his car keys.
"Put your jacket on. I'm taking you to the emergency room," he declared, leaving no room for argument.
* * *
"Any pain in your muscles or joints?" the emergency room doctor asked, marking off a checklist of symptoms on the patient's chart.
"Some," LeeAnne replied, with a wince, careful not to bite down on the glass thermometer in her mouth.
The doctor produced a hypodermic needle and several empty vials. "I'll need to run some blood tests," she announced and proceeded to wrap a rubber hose around her patient's upper arm. "And I'd like to do some tests on your liver too."
"My liver?" Fear crept into LeeAnne's voice.
"You have all the symptoms of Hepatitis B. I want to run the tests to make sure one way or the other."
"And what if the tests come back positive?"
"Then we'll start treatment immediately. Don't worry, Miss Rice. I'll have you up and around and able to go to Hawaii for that honeymoon you've planned."
As soon as the blood tests confirmed her initial diagnosis, the emergency room doctor administered Alpha interferon and lamivudine, two drugs licensed for the treatment of Hepatitis B. Despite the medication, LeeAnne's condition did not improve. On the contrary, she grew steadily worse.
"I'm afraid that neither of the medications has worked as we'd expected," the doctor confided to Lance and LeeAnne. "There's still hope. However, I'll need your permission to try some experimental drugs."
"What do you mean by 'experimental'?" LeeAnne asked.
"For the past few years, a company called Chilton Medical Labs has been involved in AIDS research, part of which deals heavily with the Hepatitis B virus...."
"Chilton Labs?" Lance echoed with uneasiness.
"Doctor, I know--knew--someone who worked at Chilton Labs. She recently died. Could she have passed the disease on to LeeAnne?"
"It's possible. Hepatitis is a highly communicable disease."
Despite the doctor's valiant efforts to safe her life, LeeAnne Rice died three days later in Puritan Falls Hospital. Sadly, she never wore the three-thousand-dollar wedding gown, never walked down the aisle of St. Michael's Church on her father's arm, never said "I do" to the man she loved, never basked in the warm Hawaiian sun with Vance and never got to us any of the wonderful gifts she'd received at her bridal shower.
* * *
A grieving Vance Quinlan looked down at the freshly covered grave, and tears sprang to his eyes. The beautiful floral arrangements that D'Agostino's Funeral Home had placed on the mound of dirt were already brown and lifeless. Heartbroken, he looked away from his beloved LeeAnne's final resting place to a patch of green lawn adjacent to it--the right half of the double plot he'd recently purchased.
His mind strayed from the recent, tragic death of his fiancée to the day in the past when he broke his engagement to Paige Holden. At that time, he had been surprised at the complete lack of emotion Paige displayed. There were no sorrowful tears, no angry name-calling and no bitter arguments. It was as though she didn't even care, but Vance knew better. Beneath her calm exterior, she was burning with rage.
"I'm glad you're taking this breakup so well," he told her honestly. After all, he had not wanted to hurt her; he just didn't want to spend the rest of his life with a woman as cold and unfeeling as Paige Holden.
"What's the matter, Vance? Disappointed that I'm not on my knees begging you to stay with me?"
"No, of course not. I'd rather we part friends, but if we can't do that, then I'm glad we can at least avoid an angry scene."
Paige's laughter was as biting as her sharp tongue. "You really don't know me very well, do you? I don't get mad; I get even."
Vance never imaged to what end Paige would go to get her revenge. Even her own life had meant nothing when weighed against her all-consuming desire for vengeance. She had willingly injected herself with a biochemically engineered strain of Hepatitis B, one impervious to any known medication. Once she'd been infected, she had only to come in close physical contact with LeeAnne.
Finally, as the sun began to set on the western horizon, Vance wiped the tears from his cheeks. He walked slowly back to the car, unmindful of the headache, the pain in his abdomen and the aches in his joints and muscles. The discomfort didn't really bother Vance, for it would all be over soon enough.
I don't think Salem will be invited to any more bridal showers.