The Universe Dress
by Laura-Marie Steele
I’ve never been the biggest fan of weddings. Some women plan weddings from childhood. They draw pictures of the dress they’d like to wear and collect magazine cuttings of flowers or venues, but not me. I’d never even thought about it before. I’d always seen myself as the adventurous type, trekking off alone across the world. Maybe that was why I felt strange, staring at myself in the mirror, on the day of my own wedding.
“You look beautiful.” Mum wiped her eyes with the corner of her bathrobe.
“The lips,” Aunt Julia said, with a twist of her own, “can’t we make them a bit darker?”
My two cousins, Emily and Amelia, began to rummage in the suitcase of cosmetics they’d brought with them. They’d already attacked me with all sorts of colours and turned me into a doll with pink-spotted cheeks.
Aunt Julia took charge of the curling tongs, scooping and pulling up my hair. Lipsticks were passed around, tiaras were polished, hairbrushes were located, dress fit was discussed. Everyone struggled to get ready in the small space that had been my bedroom for the past nineteen years, and I sat in the middle, calm and silent, like the eye of the storm.
“And are we expecting Robert’s side of the family to be joining us?” Julia sneered, already knowing the answer.
Mum hesitated, her eyes flicking from me to Julia in the mirror. “Well, I’m sure some of them will be coming, but Sandra’s busy with work and I think Jack has broken his leg…”
“Ange, he’s your husband. What’s it going to look like if none of his side of the family turn up?” Julia yanked unmercifully on my hair.
“Well, to be honest, Julia, I’m not exactly sure he’s told them.”
“Not told them!”
“Not exactly, no. Somehow, we just never got round to it.”
“But they’re going to find out as soon as they turn on their TVs, the amount of coverage it’s going to get.”
Mum kept looking at the window. My curtains were shut, but the garden had already been full of camera crews when I got up this morning. They were probably lining the street by now. I wondered what old Mrs Johns across the road thought about that.
“You’d think they’d be proud to be part of this. It’s a first, Ange. Anna’s going to be famous. Who wouldn’t want to be here?” My aunt continued as curls fell thick and fast over the top of my head.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a first, but it was too late to be having second thoughts now.
“Granny didn’t want to come,” Emily pointed out.
“Granny’s just scared. She’s too old to accept change.”
“She told me that she thinks Anna’s disgusting,” Amelia chimed in. Never the most tactful person, I shouldn’t have let that comment get to me, but my stomach flip-flopped without warning.
“Oh, who cares what other people think?” Mum snapped, then cursed as she snagged a nail on one of the bridesmaid dresses hanging on the back of the wardrobe.
“Amelia, go and fetch us some of that champagne from the fridge,” Julia suggested. “I think we could all do with a drink.” She patted my head softly as she tidied the curls.
So, Granny thought I was disgusting. It didn’t surprise me the way it might have done a few months ago. I knew what other people thought.
“What, not pretty enough to find a human guy, so you’ve had to pick an alien? Nice move, Anna.” That’s what my best friend Bethany said when I told her about me and Erneen. It had been a joke, but the words stung.
“How are you going to have children? Aren’t you worried they’ll turn out all wrong, that’s if you can have any at all?”
“I’ve never wanted children,” I reminded her.
That was true, but so was the fact that I’d never wanted to get married, and now look at me. The trouble was I wasn’t really sure how things had come to this. Things seemed to have snowballed out of my control. Was I actually going to go through with this just because other people said I shouldn’t?
“Any doubts?” Mum said gently as if reading my mind.
“Of course she hasn’t!” Julia said. “This is going to be the wedding of the century. She’s the first woman in the world to be marrying an alien. It’s the type of special wedding every girl dreams about.”
I smothered a snort. I was pretty sure most girls didn’t dream about marrying someone like Erneen. He suited me. I was drawn in by his strangeness, but Bethany couldn’t control her shock when I showed her a picture. I hadn’t bothered to introduce them after that reaction.
“Well, there’s still time to change your mind, love,” Mum said softly.
I managed to smile. A few months ago I would have bitten her head off for suggesting I might want to opt out of the wedding. I’d been too proud to admit I might have made a mistake. Was I making a mistake? Julia was right; this was a special day, not just for me, for the entire human race. Backing out now would be stupid, especially as I loved Erneen.
Amelia came back with the champagne, and we all took a glass.
“To Anna and Erneen,” Mum proposed. “Many years of happiness.”
“How long do hilopheres live?” Emily asked.
“They have two life cycles. Erneen has twelve years left in this cycle.” He’d explained about his transformation cycle, but I still wasn’t exactly sure if I was prepared for what he’d become. The sense of the unknown was part of what I liked about dating him.
“And then what happens to him?”
“Emily, stop asking questions,” my aunt scolded. She took several glugs of champagne.
“Well, I think it’s time for us to get dressed. Emily, Amelia, if you two can get dressed by yourselves then I’ll help Anna.” Mum handed down the two bridesmaid dresses. They were both orange; my mum had insisted on trying to find a colour that was the same shade as Erneen’s body seeing as he wouldn’t be wearing a suit.
The girls took their dresses but waited, watching the wardrobe expectantly. Inside was my dress – the most beautiful dress any of us had ever seen.
When Erneen had given me the universe dress, he’d said: “I know how important clothes are to humans. I’ve had this made for you. It is the only one of its kind. It is my wedding present to you.”
It was incredible. I hadn’t known what to say to him. It was only after he left that I’d wondered about the dress, but there were a thousand other things to plan, and I didn’t get round to asking him about it.
Mum pulled open both the wardrobe doors at the same time, and the others crowded round to see.
“It looks better in the dark,” Mum whispered. “It’s as if the wardrobe’s got a night sky in it.”
“Look at the stars,” Emily exclaimed. “They’re actually twinkling.”
“And look at that planet; its rings are moving!” Amelia gasped.
Mum brought the dress out and laid it on the bed. In daylight, the deep purple-blackness of the space between the stars seemed to fade slightly.
“What’s it made from?” Julia poked it with her finger. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen fabric like this before.”
“Of course you haven’t; it’s not from Earth,” Mum said proudly.
“I’m not sure it is fabric,” I muttered, but no one seemed to hear.
There was something unsettling about the dress, something that made me feel wonderful and dreadful at the same time. I’d only looked at it once before, on the night Erneen gave it to me, and then I’d shut it away.
“What do you think’s powering the light?” Julia rummaged about along the hems and looked inside. “I can’t see any batteries.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s stunning. Come on, Anna.” Mum swept it up between her hands and held it for me to step into.
I stepped inside it, trying not to stare for too long at the whirling planets. It was such a captivating thing to look at, but the more I stared at it the more I knew it couldn’t be just an ordinary dress. The cool, hardness of the lining pressed tightly against my waist. As it was laced tighter and tighter, I felt incredibly heavy, as though I was supporting something monumental that I mustn’t drop. It was like being encased in armour.
I stared down at the dress. It stuck out rigidly like a lampshade. The swirling white stars were hypnotic. There was something about them, something that made me want to look closer. It seemed as though I should be able to reach in and touch them. My fingers moved towards the star clusters but slid harmlessly down the smooth fabric.
“It’s amazing,” Emily said.
“Come on everyone, the men will be wondering what’s keeping us. Ange, get your dress on. Anna, are you completely ready? Let’s all go downstairs.” Julia spritzed a last mist of hairspray over herself and over me.
This was it. Was I honestly about to get married? A traditional wedding. I didn’t even remember who’d suggested it in the first place.
After my aunt and cousins had clattered downstairs, I stared at the mirror and the pale, thin girl who stared back at me, eclipsed behind a darkly vibrant universe. I didn’t want to move. I felt that if I moved I would be destroying something.
“Mum,” I said, half hoping she wouldn’t hear me, but knowing I had to get the words out. “Do you think I’m making a mistake?”
She jumped like I’d thrown a bucket of water over her head. “It’s normal to get nerves on your big day. I was the same when I married your father.” She looked at me with tears gathering in her eyes. “But if you love him, then you know it’s the right decision.”
I did love Erneen, but our relationship was so completely new to anything I’d experienced before, it seemed wrong to tie it up in a wedding ceremony. But was that enough of a reason to cancel the wedding? I tried to concentrate on my feelings, but the dress was distracting me.
“Come on, buck up, we’ve got the world waiting outside. You’re making history today, love.” Out on the landing, Mum gave my hand a little squeeze, and then she went downstairs.
I wanted to take deep breaths, but I couldn’t move. The coldness of the universe seemed to be seeping into my stomach. As I pressed my hands against the fabric, trying to warm myself up, I felt a gap in one of the seams. It was the tiniest hole: a slightly overlarge space between two stitches. A flaw?
“Anna, we’re waiting for you,” Julia called from below.
“Give me five minutes.”
I locked myself in the bathroom. The dress was perfect in every way. Why would there be a hole? I twisted to the side and felt for the small discrepancy in the evenness of the fabric. There it was! I wiggled the tip of my finger inside. Was it going to come loose? Maybe the entire dress would start to unravel as soon as I stepped in front of a TV camera.
My finger slid in further and further. I wriggled it around, expecting to make contact with my skin on the other side, but there was nothing, only a tingling sensation in my hand. What was happening? When I looked down at my hip, I could see the place where my finger disappeared. A burning orange planet was suspended there.
“Anna, it’s time to go!” my aunt was calling.
I wrestled with the straps on my back, tugging them free until the dress was just loose enough for me to struggle out of it. The relief of being unharnessed was immense. I draped the dress over the bath and examined the gap again. It looked so infinitesimal that it was hardly noticeable. The hole was hardly there, but when I pushed against it, my hand easily slipped through. I reached my whole arm in.
“Anna, are you alright in there?” Mum rapped on the door.
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
I pressed my eye to the slit in the seam. There was something wonderful on the other side, something that almost made me cry out. I was surprised, but maybe not as surprised as I should’ve been. I’d always known that the dress was more than just a dress.
Now all I had to decide was what to do next.
I thought about Erneen waiting for me at the registry office. His family would all be there. I imagined him inflating and deflating his body as he floated up and down outside. His almost-human face would be smiling. He’d probably made an effort to bunch his messy antennae together into a ponytail. Cameras would be swarming all over the place, but he would be as serene and thoughtful as he always was.
What made us work was the fact both of us were open to strangeness, to opportunity, to accepting each other the way we were. In a way, I guess Erneen had seen that more clearly than I had.
I pressed myself forwards into the hole in the dress, not just my arm but my head and shoulders and body, as well. I disappeared inside the universe dress.
It was supposed to be my wedding day, but I knew Erneen would understand. After all, he had given me the universe, and a way out of it.
About the Author
Laura-Marie Steele is a writer from Canterbury, England. Her work can also be found in Black Treacle Magazine
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.