The Laws Which Govern Chaos by Libby Cudmore
Gaz hadn’t told Claire about the dress yet. Better to wait until they were all at the hotel, when there was nothing she could do about it. No sense searching every bridal store in the state, only to come back with the exact same outcome—no dress. Her mother suggested she use the beaded scarf—that much she had—and match the eggplant color as close as she could to an overpriced sheath dress from the fancy mall. Keep the problem quiet until the last possible second. After three of Claire’s weddings, her mother knew the bridezilla’s triggers.
The wedding was at the Clarkshold Hotel, a sprawling white resort on the edge of an enormous lake. It felt bigger than the town itself; a provisionary street of cheese shops and overpriced linen summer wear. The grocery store and gas station were hidden across long-defunct railroad tracks, as though the regular existences of life were unsavory and unsightly. There would be a lobster bake tonight following the rehearsal. Of course. Claire would have nothing less, and the groom could afford it. He did something in banking IT; Seth, was it? Sean? Gaz didn’t bother learning his name. It wasn’t as though he’d be around for long.
The schedule of weekend events was posted in the lobby. The wedding on Saturday evening. A cocktail mixer for the Wandering Skies convention tonight. A funeral reception for Biko Colchester on Sunday.
Claire would not like that. A funeral would ruin her post-wedding brunch vibes. Gaz wasn’t sure what Wandering Skies was about, but it would probably ruin her vibes too.
Gaz ran into Denise at the lobster bake on the south porch overlooking the lake and golf course, supposedly the best view in the whole resort. “Have you told her yet?” she whispered.
“Not yet,” she replied. “Maybe after she has another glass of wine.”
Denise laughed and glanced over in Claire’s direction. She was introducing the groom to their aunt and uncle, bubbling over with the same manufactured enthusiasm she used on Instagram to sell bed linens and laundry detergent. “Probably not the worst idea,” she said. “Remember how pissed she got when I started to show at her last wedding?”
Gaz did remember. She was surprised Denise didn’t walk out right there. But they’d been friends since middle school, and Denise had long since learned to let Claire rage like a hailstorm until she tired herself out. It was a lesson Gaz never learned.
“In the end, she’ll get over it,” Denise continued. “Tell her someplace where she’s on camera. That’s the secret. She won’t melt down in front of a camera.”
Claire was getting closer, now talking to some of Seth’s guests. Gaz was always in awe of her sister’s ability to work a crowd, to engage and chat with whoever was present. It’s what made her successful in a way Gaz couldn’t replicate. She didn’t want to fake it tonight, didn’t want to keep seething this terrible secret while her sister made small talk. She took her drink and went downstairs. She needed some air.
The Wandering Skies were having their own mixer on the side porch. It was like stepping into another world. Someone dressed in a Halloween alien mask and tuxedo was talking to another man in a vintage X-Files T-shirt. One woman had toy satellites and light-up UFOs mounted in her enormous pink beehive wig. Their bartender, at the far end of the porch, was mixing up a bright green specialty cocktail and seemed to take no amusement in the spectacle.
“Do you come in peace or protest?” she heard someone say behind her. She turned around and saw a girl in a loose black T-shirt dress holding one of the electric cocktails. Her name tag said “Alice,” but she had crossed it out and written “Pet” underneath in thick blue marker.
“Peace, I think,” Gaz said. “What’s going on?”
Pet grinned and took a sip of her drink. “Not entirely sure,” she said. “I came with my parents, you know, like any normal, healthy, well-adjusted adult woman does. Maybe I’m looking to be convinced.”
“Convinced of what?”
“Life on other planets,” she said. “Little green men beyond the stars. E.T. or Chewbacca or even Mars Attacks! It varies, depending on who here you talk to. They’ve all done their own research.”
Gaz had never thought much about the stars, about space, it being little more than a party decoration to her, a painting in the hallway you stopped noticing after the first hundred times. She’d thought even less about whether or not there was other life out there. There was life here, after all, sometimes too much of it to even comprehend—plants and bugs and the people you pass on the street, stray cats and black bears and small mammals nearing extinction. It seemed almost too random to be replicated elsewhere. Everything she was, standing on that porch, was the result of chance and DNA; one small variation and she was someone else—if she was alive at all. To imagine that could be replicated elsewhere was almost impossible. To pretend life was sacred only on this terrestrial orb was beyond arrogant.
“At the very least, they say the Fries038 comet will be visible this weekend,” Pet said. “What brings you here?”
It was a relief to come back down to earth. “I’m with the Joseph-Baleman wedding,” she said. “I should probably get back there soon.”
“Wait, like, Claire Joseph?” she asked. “The influencer?”
Gaz sighed. No matter how often she got asked that question, no matter how many times she grew chilly in her sister’s shadow, she never thought to bring a jacket. “I could probably introduce you later on,” she recited, like a fifty-cent fortune teller in the back of an arcade.
“My roommate is obsessed with her,” Pet said. “She stayed up all night refreshing Wayfair, trying to buy her linen collection the minute it launched. Personally, I couldn’t give any less of a shit.”
For the first time since she arrived, Gaz felt herself relax. “Now I have to get you a meet-and-greet,” she said. “To make your roommate jealous.”
“I appreciate your deep commitment to pettiness,” she replied.
The sun was beginning to set over the lake. “There’s a watch party heading up the mountain,” Pet said after a quiet moment. “You’ll be able to see the comet. It’s your best chance for an alien abduction, if you want to come with.”
Best case scenario, the aliens took her with them. She wouldn’t have to explain losing her dress if she was drifting across the cosmos. She would rather endure some weird experiments than take another one of Claire’s Real Housewives-style dressing-downs—a camera-worthy hissy fit when there were no cameras except the one on her phone. Even if she was kidnapped by extraterrestrials, she was sure her sister would make it all about her. It was her superpower.
She rode in the rented van with Pet and her parents and a driver named Chip, who talked the whole way up the mountain. “Here’s what Elon Musk and James Cameron and NASA all get wrong,” he said. “We can’t go to other planets because they don’t want us. Humans are the bedbugs of the universe. No, if we want to connect with the other beings out there, we have to reinvest in science. All sciences. We need to understand nature. When we understand nature, we can stop wars, stop violence. We’ll feed our people, clean up our oceans, cure diseases, and when they see we’re better, they’ll want to visit us. Do you want to go to a house that’s full of roaches?”
“No sir!” said Pet’s dad, seated in front of us.
“Exactly,” he said. “And we can’t just go up there and wreck their houses either. They have the technology to keep them safe from us.”
Chip parked the van near the site and led us the rest of the way by lantern. Pet took Gaz’s hand in the darkness to guide her. The skies opened up beyond the pine trees, endless and expansive and clear. She hadn’t seen skies like that since she was at Girl Scout camp; if she stretched her hand, she could grasp all of it and none at all, atoms and particles dancing in an unimaginable number of routines to form matter and antimatter, black holes and human flesh. She was made of the same thing as the stars. She was the same as whatever life might be out there, puzzle pieces organized into new pictures. All of her blood hummed to the music of the universe. Her sister, her lost dress, all of it was insignificant in the face of the cosmos. “Do you believe,” she asked, leaning back on the cool grass, “in life out there?”
“I have to,” Pet replied. “Not because of my parents or this, but because the universe is ever-expanding, so incomprehensibly vast that it’s arrogant to think that we’re so evolved as to be the only species out here. Hell, we’re not even the only species on our planet; why should we be the only thing in the solar system?”
It was a point Gaz had never considered. “I come out here like some people go to church,” Pet continued. “I’m not looking for answers, really, and most of what these guys say is crazy-talk. But to be able to sit in a beautiful, quiet space and reflect on mystery is such a sacred thing. Easy to forget. We’re always so distracted, but people have watched the stars for centuries. It’s one of the few things that binds us all, from cavemen to this moment right here.”
“Across the universe,” Gaz said. “Maybe someone out there is looking at the night sky from their planet too.”
She didn’t respond. But she smiled, and inched closer to Gaz on the grass, so close that their hands were almost touching.
Someone in the dark shouted, “Look!” and Gaz glanced up quickly enough to see the last fragile remnants of light streaking across the sky. “Too bright to be a shooting star,” someone said. “Too quick to be a comet, let alone a plane or satellite.”
Pet squeezed her hand. All around them, members of Wandering Skies were shrieking and cheering. And for a moment, she thought, They see us.
“Where did you disappear to last night?” Claire asked quietly from the massage table next to hers.
“My allergies were acting up,” she lied. “All this fresh air, right?”
“No joke,” Claire said. “I’ve been snorting nasal spray like it’s coke at a Harvard party. You want a hit?”
With only room for two in the massage room, it was good to have her sister all to herself. When they were alone, her sister could be normal. No cameras, no TikTok, nothing she could photograph for Instagram without violating the spa’s policy. No need to be anyone but her old self.
“It’s nice to just relax,” said Claire. “Jesus, my own damn wedding weekend and I feel like I’m the event planner. I’ve been up since 4 a.m. taking pictures of favors.”
“You need to get an assistant,” Gaz said. “A wide-eyed intern anxious to get you coffee and bask in your fame.”
“That’s what Seth keeps saying,” she replied. “He can afford it, but it just seems like . . . cheating. I built my following myself. I designed every room, every meal, every outfit and scene I posted. I don’t just want to hand it off to some nineteen-year-old so I can have someone to yell at. That’s just not me.”
Maybe there was something normal left in her sister after all. The massage therapist dug into her shoulders so hard it hurt. “There’s a lot of tension here,” she said, tapping the muscle that ran along Gaz’s neck. “You are worried about something, no?”
She sighed. It was now or never, best to do it while Claire was in a human mood. “I’ve got bad news,” she said. “My dress . . . I don’t know if you saw the news, but my dry cleaners burned down. I’m sorry.”
It sounded like a lie, but it was absolutely true. She hadn’t thought anything of it when she saw the headline; only when she started to pack for the trip and found the receipt on her dresser with no plastic bag in her closet did she put the two together. She had forgotten to pick it up. Now it was reduced to expensive ashes. Arson by a recently fired employee, which was more palatable than a chemical fire. At least she had someone to blame.
Claire held up her hand to stop the massage. She propped herself up on her elbows. “Please tell me this is a joke,” she said.
“I wish it was,” she said.
“Why was your dress at the dry cleaners?”
“More tailoring,” she said. “That’s the only place in town. But I still have the scarf and shoes. I bought a dress the same length and color. Mom thinks it’s okay.”
“Mom doesn’t have 600,000 followers!” she screamed. She stood up without the sheet, naked except for lace boy shorts. “A $5,000 dress and you took it to some ghetto dry cleaners?”
The massage therapists disappeared through the silk curtains. Gaz wondered if they were going to call security, or if this was a routine practice among their high-strung clientele. “What else was I supposed to do?” she asked.
Claire grabbed a rolled up towel. “Live in a better part of town, near a decent tailor, you worthless bitch!” she spat, throwing the towel directly at Gaz’s head. “You’re ruining my whole goddamn day!”
The towel unrolled before it could strike, landing in an unceremonious heap at her feet. She grabbed her sheet like a suit of armor, trying to duck behind the table as Claire grabbed and threw another towel, hitting the wall. Denise burst in through the saloon doors like a Western sheriff. “Claire, Claire, chill, all right?” she said. “Deep breath. C’mon, deep breath. Negativity is bad for your skin.”
Claire closed her eyes. She sucked in a hard breath and held it for a second, and Gaz realized she had done the same when her lungs began to burn. “You should go,” Denise whispered.
“But my clothes are in the changing room.”
“I’ll bring you your clothes,” she said over Claire’s aggressive om. “When it’s safe.”
In an effort not to walk half naked through the rest of the hotel, Gaz had grabbed an oversized white spa robe, hoping she’d blend in with the other blissful guests drifting up from the lake.
“Ooh, Jedi chic, I like it,” she heard Pet coo from the breakfast lounge. “Guess you were deeply influenced by last night’s sighting.”
She laughed, feeling some of the tension ease in her shoulders. “Not quite,” she said. She didn’t want to burden this girl she just met with the petty problems of the spoiled set. “Did they ever figure out what it was?”
Pet shook her head. “Everyone is freaking out,” she said. “There was almost a fight at breakfast over whether it was test programs that NASA is keeping secret from us or a response to Wandering Skies messaging.”
So maybe there was something in the water making everyone—her sister included—testy. “Messaging?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” said Pet. “It’s come a long way since Wandering Skies formed in the ’50s, back when it was spotlights on a hill. They sent up a satellite in the ’70s under the guise of telecommunications. The government found out, but when they threatened to release what they’d found, they were allowed to keep it in orbit. They get grants and everything to monitor it. Your tax dollars at work.”
She snorted. “Who knows?” she said. “That’s the CliffsNotes, anyways. Chip is giving a talk at 2 p.m. in the Green Room.”
Perfect. It would be the last place her sister would look for her. The wedding wasn’t until 7 p.m., and she was pretty sure the rest of their spa day was off. “I’ll meet you there,” she said.
She was just about to head down to the lecture when she heard a knock at her door. For a minute, she held out a strange hope that it was Claire, coming to apologize for her tantrum. No such luck, she realized as she glanced through the peephole. It was Denise.
“I talked Claire down off the ledge,” she said. “And she decided that I’ll lend you my dress so you can still be the maid of honor.”
In spite of herself, Gaz was touched. “It’s primarily for optics,” Denise admitted. “Claire thought it would look bad if she shunned her sister in front of her new family. Something about her new housewares line. Anyways, she’s a bitch. But you knew that already. Probably relieved to have my fat ass out of her spotlight. Don’t worry; she’s bringing in a tailor to have my dress fitted for you.”
Gaz wasn’t amused. She wasn’t even flattered. She was furious, more on Denise’s behalf than her own. “Why do we put up with this?” she blurted.
Denise shrugged. “Because we keep hoping one day she’ll snap out of it,” she said. “It just might not be today.”
Pet had saved her a seat in the back of the Green Room. “You missed the good stuff,” she whispered. “Apparently, Oppy was murdered because the government knew those signals could be hacked. They know we know about life on Mars, so they killed the rover and framed it as a dust storm.”
“You make a very compelling argument,” Gaz whispered back.
Chip took the podium. “There has been no official report of last night’s sighting,” he said. “No confirmation from NASA, of course.” There were some boos, but he silenced them with a wave of his hand. “But the Wells Institute said they received considerable data and are compiling a timeline now. That should give us a stronger trajectory of the object’s movement and a better idea of who might be manning it.”
There were murmurs from the audience. They were as unsatisfied as she was. She wanted an answer to an inquiry she didn’t know she had made, an answer before the weekend dissolved and she never saw Pet or Chip or any of these people again. She couldn’t stand the mystery.
He continued with what he called a new translation of Nick Cook’s The Hunt for Zero Point. It meant nothing to her. She was still thinking about Oppy, singing alone to himself on Mars as the darkness—sand or otherwise—closed in. She was thinking about her sister, getting ready in her bridal suite, so assured that everything would be perfectly curated. Claire monitored and mitigated the chaos, through careful planning, through fear, through gel pens and place cards and the threat of tears. But you cannot plan for a sandstorm in a hostile land no matter what the cosmic weatherman tells you. You never know when the darkness might arrive.
She had to slip out as a third speaker was starting her PowerPoint on The Black Knight satellite. She thought about inviting Pet to the wedding. She decided against it. Pet had better places to be, after all.
Denise gave her a rueful smile from the front row. Gaz tried to offer one back, but she felt like she was last in line for the guillotine. Claire hadn’t spoken to her the whole time they were getting ready, too busy barking at the caterers in a voice like rock candy, jagged and too sweet. But by the time the chamber ensemble started, Claire had turned peaceful, glowing, no longer the woman who, eight hours ago, had thrown towels and screamed obscenities. The chaos, for now, had been tamed.
Over the rent-for-the-hour minister, Gaz heard shouting, faint and distant, lost somewhere in the trees. No one else seemed to hear it, and she had to resist the urge to turn and look for it. No, her job was to stay stiff and still, a statue, a floral arrangement meant to enhance, rather than distract from, the blushing bride. She straightened her spine like someone had pulled corset strings. She focused intently on the cliché of Corinthians love is patient, love is kind. It meant as little to her as all the other times she heard it.
But the noise got closer, louder. Even through her straight gaze, she saw Chip, then Pet’s parents with Pet behind them, leading the whole of Wandering Skies as they pointed towards heaven, following something high within it. Some had binoculars, some had telescopes under their arms, others had camera phones primed. And then Gaz saw it, a small flash of steady blue light moving west across the sky. The same light they had seen on the mountains the night before, only this time it was lower in the deepening dusk, making an arc across the sky above the Clarkeshold Resort.
There was no stopping it. Like a tidal wave, a monsoon of people crashing into the island of the ceremony, pausing between rows of white chairs to snap photos, tripping over vases and tulle swag. There were gasps from the audience, a rival of forbidden cameras pulled to document the stampede. All but the wedding photographer. She knew better, kept her lens trained on the one who signed her check. Seth and his groomsmen were stunned into silence. Her mother and Denise stood like Secret Service agents, ready to haul away Claire if a meltdown was imminent.
Claire began to laugh too. She took her phone out of the white beaded purse that hung from her wrist by a thin gold chain and began taking her own photos. For a moment, Claire was unscripted, unplanned. Maybe the aliens came by to give Gaz back her real sister, beamed back down in a shimmer so quick it couldn’t be seen by human eyes.
The blue light blinked out of sight just before it hit the trees. There were cheers and murmurs between Claire’s guests and the Wandering Skies, all trying to figure out what they had seen. Pet made her way through the crowd to the altar. “We’re going to try and find debris,” she said. “You coming?”
If she was going to escape, now would be her moment. Claire was showing Denise and Seth the footage she got. No one would know she was gone until the party reassembled and there was an empty spot where she once stood; she could be replaced by Denise without any hassle at all.
But she shook her head. Pet smiled and shrugged like she understood; she reached out and took Gaz’s hands and squeezed. The crowds extracted themselves from each other. The wedding continued. At the reception, the DJ played “Men in Black.” Claire’s footage was the most-viewed post in her history; her next set of linens, she announced, would be celestial-themed.
Gaz saw the blue light one more time, from the window of her apartment. She wasn’t looking for it, just caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye while she did dinner dishes. She wondered if Pet saw it too, if she and her parents and Chip were still chasing it around the globe. She reached for her phone to take a photo, but it was already gone.
Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016) and the Martin Wade series in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her short fiction has been published in The Normal School. Bleed Error, PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The RS-500 and the anthologies WELCOME HOME, MIXED UP, HANZAI JAPAN and A BEAST WITHOUT A NAME. She is the co-host of the OST PARTY podcast & the hostess of #RecordSaturday on her Twitter, @libbycudmore.