By Prossy Bibangambah
It was not often that a groom burst into flames right after saying his wedding vows before all men, God, and of course, the dear bride. Karen Ainomugisha found herself the unfortunate and rare bride in this case as she watched her dearest Malcolm Iguru burn right before her eyes, his shrill screams cutting through the stunned silence in the church.
The silence lasted only until Malcolm’s ashy remains lay on the floor before pandemonium broke out. The reverend, having never before witnessed such a rude interruption of a blessed occasion, fainted.
The choir and congregation, however, scrambled for the closest exit, calling out to any deity who would listen, even pleading for their ancestors to save them. Shoes were discarded, folks were trampled, and though multiple injuries occurred, no one hesitated to inspect said injuries.
Vaguely aware of the flight for the doors, poor Karen stood in a daze as she stared down at Malcom’s remains. She dropped her bouquet and tried to gather her beloved’s ashes as a treacherous wind swept through the church and scattered them.
“N-No…” she whispered, trying to understand what had just happened.
She closed her eyes, hoping that this was all some bizarre nightmare that would end soon but the feel of the last of the ashes being torn from her hand by the wind forced her to open her eyes and face this strange reality.
The voice, sounding both irritated and amused, broke through Karen’s grief and she glanced at the reverend thinking that it was he who had spoken. The reverend, however, remained motionless. A pair of strong hands grabbed Karen and pulled her to her feet.
Karen continued to stare at the reverend, wondering how he could be speaking while lying so still. Two quick slaps to her right cheek sent pain coursing through her and she yelped, roused from the haze clouding her mind. Holding her stinging cheek, she finally faced her assailant.
It was Rowena, her matron, best friend and Malcolm’s twin sister. It took Karen a while to focus on what Rowena was saying.
“I need to get you out of this place.”
Karen blinked, glanced down at the empty spot where Malcolm had once stood then looked back at Rowena and shook her head.
“Never mind,” Rowena cut in firmly, “I promise to explain everything but we need to leave before some fool returns to record this. Come!”
Without awaiting a response, Rowena took Karen’s arm and dragged her towards the nearest church doors, hoping to escape the chaotic crowd that was outside. Karen stumbled over an abandoned stiletto and struggled to lift the long beaded skirt of her gown while Rowena swiftly guided her out of the church and to one of the cars parked a short distance away.
Their escape, however, was soon intruded upon as some people saw them and hastened after the bride, their voices raised in concern, curiosity and anger. Karen shrank from the onslaught, barely recognizing friends and family in the midst of the mob that hounded them while Rowena continued to push on towards the car. It all came to a head when a large sweaty hand reached out and yanked Karen back just as they made it to the car door.
Rowena stopped, turned, and with a frightening snarl, punched the owner of the offending hand. Her actions left the mob startled and she took the opportunity to hurriedly shove Karen into the car and follow in after her.
Ignoring the bewildered crowd, Rowena started the car and drove off, the squeal of the car tires warning any other intruders from stepping into her path.
Karen sat huddled in the passenger seat, staring at the dashboard in disbelief. The one day she had been anticipating for the past eleven months had ended up in shambles. She did not know or understand what had happened to Malcolm, she was certain that her father had been on the receiving end of Rowena’s punch, and now they were driving off to who knows where.
The entire thing appeared so absurd that she started laughing hysterically till she gave in to sobs and slumped against the door.
“Cry quickly and get it over with,” Rowena muttered as she shifted gears and swerved to overtake a car, before making it onto the main road to join the midmorning Saturday traffic.
“Make certain that you buckle your seatbelt first.”
Karen’s body shook and she turned to glare at Rowena, barely making out her friend’s form through the tears streaming from her eyes. As Malcolm’s twin, Rowena ought to have shown more of a reaction towards her brother’s bizarre death; this was the same Rowena who had gone tearing through several pharmacies in panic when Malcolm had gotten a simple cold a year ago.
Seeing her friend driving with that icy cool façade, not a single hair out of place and no hint of tears, made Karen seethe even more. She needed answers, she needed to grieve, and she needed to make sense of what had occurred at the church.
“Stop the car,” Karen whispered in a thick voice.
“No,” Rowena replied.
“I said,” Karen gritted her teeth, “stop the stupid car.”
In response, Rowena pressed down hard on the accelerator and overtook another car, hitting a large pothole as she did so. Before Karen could react to Rowena’s blatant rejection of her demand, Rowena’s phone rang and Rowena grabbed it from her purse, giving Karen an odd look while she answered it.
“Where are you?” Rowena asked, speaking into the phone.
“You’re an idiot,” Rowena went on, addressing the caller. “I am on my way with Karen. Make sure you are decent.” She hung up and tossed the phone aside. “Karen, listen-”
“STOP THE CAR!”
Karen’s shriek caught Rowena by surprise, a shock that only increased when the teary bride leaned over and started hitting her with her fists.
“Malcolm just burned in the church and here you are being normal!” Karen cried and tried to grab the steering wheel. “I want to know what happened! I want-”
She gave a startled screech when Rowena slammed the brakes and the car came to an abrupt halt, sending Karen crashing head first into the dashboard. Karen fell back against her seat, her head pounding as Rowena glared at her.
“Are you trying to get both of us killed?” Rowena asked and revved up the car once more. “I told you to buckle your seatbelt.”
Chastised, Karen reached for her seatbelt with trembling hands and buckled it in.
“W-Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“Our home,” Rowena answered and said nothing further.
Karen sniffed and stared down at her hands. She thought over her interactions with the twins since the moment they had met at university three years before. Karen had been at one of the loneliest points of her life as most of her few friends had gone to a different institution after secondary school. It was Rowena who had approached her first, sitting down beside her in the university library.
As they bonded over a shared difficult assignment, Rowena had shown an insatiable curiosity for Karen’s choice in clothes, music and wardrobe, and had appeared quite fascinated by the things Karen ate during their lunch together. When discussing their families, Karen had answered most of Rowena’s queries about her parents and siblings but had been forced into silence after learning that Rowena was an orphan and her only living relative a twin brother whom Karen met a day later.
Karen had fallen for Malcolm from the moment she laid eyes on him. She loved the softening of his eyes whenever he smiled at her, the way in which he always saw to her comfort whenever they were together, his patience with his more exuberant sibling, and his silly and lame jokes.
The night he had proposed to her, Malcolm had pointed to the sky:
“How many stars do you see up there?” he had asked.
Karen peered at the cloudy night sky which held the promise of heavy rain. She tugged at the thin jacket she wore as a cold wind blew.
“There are no stars, Malcolm. Why did you bring me out here?”
Malcolm ignored her question and asked another. “What if I could show you the stars?”
“Karen,” Malcolm cut in, “if you say yes, I promise to show you whichever star you wish to see.”
It took Karen several moments to realize that there was a ring in the hand that Malcolm held out to her.
Karen hiccupped then burst into tears once more at the memory.
A gentle breeze tickled her cheek, causing her to glance outside the window. The weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold; the reception would have gone well in the lush gardens of the fancy hotel they had booked for the day. She had imagined her and Malcolm sharing their wedding dance in those gardens, the same gardens in which he had proposed.
Karen wiped her face as Rowena brought the car to a halt before the apartment complex in which the twins resided. Karen eyed the building warily before turning to Rowena who nudged her out of the car.
Hesitating, she opened the door and stepped out, hoping that no one was peeking out to witness the sight of a bride with ruined make-up, puffy red eyes and, to her own surprise, a missing left shoe.
Rowena left the car and headed towards one side of the complex, leaving Karen with no option but to follow her. She gathered her bridal gown about her, discarded her remaining shoe and followed, determined to drop all association with her friend once she received the promised explanation.
On the second floor where their apartment was located, Rowena stopped and turned to face Karen.
“I want to apologise because I was not clear about everything, and I reacted terribly when you demanded an answer.”
Karen simply glared at her.
With a sigh, Rowena moved on, surprising Karen when she bypassed the door to the twins’ apartment and approached the opposite door. She opened it, stepped aside and motioned for Karen to enter. Karen walked towards the door, glancing cautiously from it to Rowena till she finally entered the apartment and gasped.
Standing in the corridor just beyond the door, clad in nothing but a short towel, was Malcolm.
“Karen,” he called out to her. He took a step towards her, his eyes full of apprehension.
Karen remained where she was, shaking her head in disbelief. She opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to give voice to her thoughts but her mind and body refused to comply and she continued to stare at him. He was whole, with not a blemish on him, not a single mark of the flames that had engulfed him earlier.
Karen lifted a hand and covered her mouth, feeling another onset of tears. Seeing this, Malcolm took another step towards her with a gentle smile as Karen’s own feet carried her forward.
“Karen,” he called out again and opened his arms to embrace her.
Karen punched him.
Letting out a startled yelp, Malcolm staggered back, holding his bruised face. He tried to look at Karen but she struck him again, sending him crashing to the floor.
“What is going on?!” Karen screamed as she kicked him. “What on earth are you? What happened in the church?” She kicked him again. “How can you be here? Do you know what I have gone through? Why are you in a towel?”
Karen spun around to glare at Rowena who had also entered the apartment and closed the door.
“Do not interfere,” she hissed and pointed a shaking finger at her matron. “You knew he was here, didn’t you? This was some trick of yours, eh? Some foolish prank you fools decided to play on me, eh? How did you do it? How did you make him burn in the church? You people think you are so clever, ruining my wedding day like that. I hate you!”
She kicked Malcolm two more times where it would hurt him most before collapsing on the floor, her energy spent as grief claimed her once again.
“Karen,” Malcolm’s voice sounded pained and she felt more than a smidgen of satisfaction at this.
“Karen, let me explain, please,” he begged.
He froze at the murderous look she sent him.
“Oh for mercy’s sake,” Rowena grumbled as she made her way towards the pair on the floor and forced Karen to her feet. “Malcolm and I are not from this planet.”
“Rowena!” Malcolm cried.
Karen stared at Rowena in befuddlement. Then she burst into laughter.
“Oh, this is priceless,” she gasped in between laughs, “first a groom who burns in a church but turns out to be alive, then aliens…what next? You guys must think that I am an idiot. Just leave me alone and don’t ever bother me again.”
She made to pry Rowena’s fingers off her but froze: an eerie yellow light covered Rowena’s entire form. Her eyes appeared more slanted and her forehead longer, with streaks of white running through her black hair.
Karen struggled out of Rowena’s hold and scrambled backwards till she hit the wall, staring at her friend in disbelief. Her gaze shifted to Malcolm and she saw the same changes in him that had come over his sister.
“Karen,” Malcolm whispered.
Karen pressed up against the wall in fright, shaken even further by how his voice seemed deeper with an unfamiliar lilt in the way he pronounced her name.
“N-No,” she muttered, looking from one to the other.
“I warned you to tell her sooner,” Rowena said to Malcolm before facing Karen. “Look, our father thought it would be good to send us on a study tour of a distant planet so we picked earth. However, time on our planet is different from earth time so while you have known us for three years, we have only known you for three weeks. Our father was not pleased that his foolish son was getting married in such a hurry. So our father decided to punish,” she gestured at Malcolm and went on, “or should I say prank, Malcolm with that little display in the church. He was never in any danger, believe me. I cannot wait to explain to you how father did that little trick. It involves regeneration and-”
“Aliens don’t come to Uganda,” Karen cut in.
“Aliens do not come to Uganda,” Karen insisted firmly, looking from Rowena to Malcolm, her eyes wild. “Evil spirits, perhaps? Yes, that is what you are. I just need to remember how to pray.”
“Karen, please listen,” Malcolm said. “My father’s trick failed to stop our vows-”
“No!” Karen screamed, “No! I didn’t marry an alien…” She froze and stared at Malcolm in horror. “I am married to an alien.”
Then her eyes rolled back and she slumped to the floor. Malcolm shouted her name and ran to her.
“That went well,” Rowena observed in amusement.
Malcolm glared at her as he gently cradled Karen in his arms.
“We have to leave, by the way,” Rowena added as an afterthought. “You have your bride, father is angry, and I do not believe that spectacle at the church shall be forgotten any time soon.”
“I am not leaving her behind,” Malcolm snapped.
“Of course not,” Rowena retorted. “You two are wed; those vows are recognized in any part of the galaxy.”
“He’s being stubborn and hypocritical,” Rowena went on with a dismissive air, “mother will put father at ease. Besides, she will be glad to have a fellow earthling for company. Now hurry up. We must prepare the ship for our departure.”