On a sunny afternoon in mid-March—when spring had finally asserted itself over the last vestiges of winter, and the frost had melted into grass the color of emeralds—Aiden Kingsman attended the wedding of his twin brother, Max.
Granted, they were six, and Aiden was officiating, but it was still a momentous occasion.
They were standing in their backyard beneath the shade of a mossy oak tree. The role of the bride was being played by their best friend and next-door neighbor, Oliver. Aiden had climbed on top of a plastic patio chair, the family Bible clutched in his pudgy, pink hands. He was pretending to read passages aloud, despite only recognizing a handful of the words.
Max had stolen one of their father’s suit jackets from his closet. It was about six sizes too big, but he slung it over his shoulders and held it dutifully closed in the front. Oliver had pulled the white sheet off their parents’ bed and wrapped it around himself. The pillowcase draped over his jet-black hair acted as a veil, and he had a fistful of yellow daisies clenched in his fingers.
Aiden did his best to act like Pastor Greenway—the man at their church who, by Aiden’s estimation, was around one thousand years old—but he couldn’t get his voice low and scratchy enough. He screwed up his face into what he hoped was an approximation of Pastor Greenway’s scowl, and he made sure to clear his throat every few sentences with a barking cough.
Unfortunately, his imitation made the boys in front of him break out into giggles no matter how many times he shushed them.
“You sound silly.” Max’s eyes shined with mirth.
Aiden glared at him with bright-blue eyes identical to Max’s. “Stop laughing. You’re gonna upset your bride. Mom said that when you get a marriage, the bride has to get whatever they want.”
Oliver lifted his makeshift bouquet to his nose and sniffed, batting his eyelashes. “Let Aiden finish, Max. As soon as he does, we can go play.”
Oliver always knew just what to say to keep the peace.
Max stuck out his tongue but managed to school his face into a serious expression. For all of two seconds. Then a bee took an interest in Oliver’s flowers, and the two of them dissolved into excited hooting until it flew away.
Aiden stamped his foot, and the plastic beneath him trembled. “Guys, stop it! If you don’t get a marriage, then we can’t all be brothers.”
That shut them up.
Oliver elbowed Max into place and knuckled up on his flowers, looking like he was going to bat. “Get to the good part, then.”
“Yeah,” said Max. “The faster we get a marriage, the faster we get cake.”
“There’s no cake, Max. Mom said no.”
Max’s mouth popped open. “What a rip-off.”
Ignoring him, as he often did, Aiden pulled out the piece of paper he’d tucked between the pages of the Bible. In crayon, he’d copied the vows he’d heard at their cousin’s wedding a month ago. Or at least, as much of them as he could remember. And spell.
Attending that wedding had put the whole marriage idea into their heads. Since then, they’d hosted no fewer than a dozen mini ceremonies in their backyard, but Max and Oliver never made it to the end.
This time, however, Aiden was determined to see it through. Not only so Oliver could be their brother, but so Max could “settle down with a nice boy.” According to Mom, that was what their cousin had done, and if Mom said it, it must be a good thing.
Aiden cleared his throat again and put on his most serious face. He held the crayon vows up to the dappled light and sounded out the first sentence. “Do you, Max Kingsman, promise to be good and true to Oliver for so long as you both shall live?” He glanced at Max.
Max stretched his mouth into a thin line and widened his eyes. “I swear.” He was probably trying to look solemn, but he actually looked like a startled frog.
Oliver giggled, but Aiden cut him off with a glare. “It’s ‘I do,’ Max.”
“Okay. I do.”
Satisfied, Aiden turned to Oliver. “And do you, Oliver . . .” He trailed off. “I don’t remember your last name.”
“Jones.” Oliver frowned. “Or is it Kingsman now?”
Max whispered to him out of the corner of his mouth. “You don’t have to change your name. I heard Mom say that was undated.”
“Outdated,” Aiden corrected. “Back to the vows. Do you, Oliver Jones, promise to be a good new brother and to play with us every day, forever and ever, until we croak?”
Oliver nodded, green eyes somber. “I do.”
“And do you promise to share all your toys?”
He rubbed his chin like people did in movies when they were thinking. “Everything but my jigsaw puzzles. Max always loses a piece.”
“I do not, Ollie!”
Before they could start arguing, Aiden interjected. “We can live with that.” He squinted at the vows, which were sounding increasingly like a list of demands. “Do you promise to never hog the remote like someone always does.” He glowered at Max.
Max made an affronted squawking noise, but Oliver answered, “I do.”
“And will you make the special grilled cheese sandwiches your mom always makes?”
“I’m not allowed to use the stove.”
“Hm.” Aiden sucked on his bottom lip. “We’re not allowed to either. Maybe we can get Mom to make them.”
“Are we done yet?” Max whined. “I want to go play.”
Aiden held up a finger. “One more. This is for both of you. Max and Oliver, do you both swear—cross your hearts and hope to die—that you will always, always be the very best of friends?”
They exchanged mischievous grins that were so identical, Aiden had to remind himself who was the twin here.
In unison, they said, “We do.”
“Then by the power vest of me, in the state of New York, I here declare you . . . um, marriaged, I think.”
Oliver tossed his flowers into the air. “Woohoo!” Yellow petals floated down and landed in his soft black hair.
“We did it!” Max threw his arms out and fell straight backward, landing on the grass with a muted thud. Dad’s suit jacket flew open to reveal Max’s dirt-smudged play clothes. “Life as we know it will never be the same.”
“What does that mean?” Aiden asked.
“I dunno. I heard it on TV.”
Oliver sat cross-legged on the grass next to him, tossing a loose corner of his sheet-dress over his shoulder. “Do you think we’ll be marriaged for real some day?”
Aiden jumped off the chair and landed with a wobble. He set the Bible on the seat with care. “Of course. How else can we all be brothers?”
Max twisted his mouth to the side in thought. “Maybe Mom and Dad can adopt Oliver.”
Aiden waved him off. “That sounds hard. Marriage is much simpler.”
“All right, then.” Max propped himself up on his elbows. Little bits of grass were sticking out of his brown curls. “I’ll marry Oliver so he can be our brother. But you”—he jabbed a finger at Aiden—“have to marry Chrissy Casen.”
“Ew.” Aiden wrinkled his nose. “Why would I marry her?”
“Because her parents have a pool.”
“But she’s a girl. I don’t want to marry a girl.”
“Yeah, but our seventh birthday could be a pool party.”
Aiden paused. “Hm. Good point.”
“I don’t care who gets a marriage.” Oliver was picking petals off one of his flowers and laying them in a pile on Max’s chest. “So long as the three of us are friends.”
“Best friends,” Aiden corrected.
“No. Brothers.” Max glared at him. “That’s what we all said.”
Aiden’s little face grew hot. “It’s the same thing.”
“Is so times infinity!”
“Is not times infinity, plus one!”
Aiden pocketed the vows and—bellowing a wild war cry—launched himself at his brother. Max tried to roll to the side, but Aiden caught him right in the stomach. They hit the grass, grappling without mercy.
Oliver scooted out of the way, eyes wide and wary. “Um, guys? I don’t think you should fight.”
Aiden looked up at Oliver right as Max moved to shove him. Max ended up hitting him square in the face with all his six-year-old strength.
For a moment, Aiden was stunned. Then, he burst into tears. It didn’t hurt that much, but the surprise of it was enough to wrench a tremulous wail from his throat.
Max was on his feet in an instant. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He danced around Aiden. “Please don’t tell Mom.”
Aiden climbed to his feet without a word and headed for the house. He could see their mom through the sliding glass door leading into the kitchen. She was stirring a glass pitcher of lemonade with a wooden spoon, her pink mouth curled up into a smile. Her image blurred as his eyes filled with fresh tears.
Max chased after him, pleading with him not to tell, but Aiden ignored Max. By the time he got to the glass, his cries had quieted into whimpers punctuated by sniffling. He caught sight of their reflections, which were faint and dark like he needed a flashlight to see them. They had the same messy chestnut curls. Same round faces. Same blue eyes, except now Aiden’s were red and puffy.
Just as he put his hand on the door, Oliver caught up to them. His cheeks were flushed with exertion, making his light eyes stand out in sharp contrast. “Don’t tell your Mom, Aiden.”
Because it was Oliver talking, Aiden stopped with his hand poised over the door handle. “Why not?”
“If Max gets in trouble, she’ll send me home.” He bit his lip. “I don’t wanna go home.”
Aiden’s sobs evaporated. “Okay. I won’t tell.”
“Woohoo!” Max threw his hands up into the air. “My wife is the coolest!”
Mom must have heard him shout, because the glass slid open a second later. She poked her head out, smiling so wide her cheeks formed twin red apples in her face. “Are you boys ready to come in?”
“No,” all three of them said at once.
Mom laughed. “I think it’s time for you to get cleaned up. Dinner’s almost ready, and Oliver’s parents are here to pick him up.” She caught sight of the grass stuck to Max’s clothes and the now-stained sheet wrapped around Oliver. “Later, we’re going to have a talk about what you’re allowed to play with outside.”
Aiden caught her hand and tugged on it. “Mom, can Oliver stay the night?”
“Not tonight, honey. His parents want him home for dinner.”
“But he’s our brother now,” Max said.
Oliver elbowed Aiden in the side. “Lemme see the vows. I wanna read them to her.”
“No way,” Aiden whispered back. He shoved a chubby fist into his pocket and fingered the paper. “I’m gonna read them to her. Later. I bet she’ll put them on the fridge.”
Max plucked a petal out of Oliver’s hair and held it up as if that proved something. “We got a marriage, and that means Oliver lives here now.”
Mom covered her mouth with a hand, smothering laughter. “I see. Why wasn’t I invited to my son’s wedding?”
Max dropped the petal, looking stricken. “Uh-oh.”
Mom ruffled his hair. “Much as I would love for Oliver to stay forever, you can’t get married until you’re eighteen. Besides, Oliver’s parents would be heartbroken if he came to live with us. Oliver, you want to go home with your parents, don’t you?”
Oliver didn’t answer. His lips were pursed in a way Aiden had grown to recognize: he wanted to say no, but he was too polite to correct an adult.
Aiden answered for him. “He wants to stay here with us.”
“I’m sure he does, but not today, okay? He can come over again tomorrow.”
Max gave Aiden a sour look. “This is your fault. If you hadn’t come up here to tell on me, she wouldn’t be sending him home.”
Mom’s keen eyes darted between them. “Tell on you for what, Max?”
“Um,” said Max.
“Well . . .” Aiden added.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones walked into the kitchen then, escorted by Dad. Mrs. Jones had dark hair and green eyes, same as Oliver, whereas Mr. Jones was tan all over: tan skin, tan hair, and eyes the color of raisins.
Aiden wasn’t sure why, but he’d always thought there was something strange about Oliver’s parents. They didn’t laugh much. Mr. Jones’s mouth was perpetually set into the same frown Max made when Mom forced him to eat peas. And unlike Mom and Dad, they never stood next to each other. In fact, the Joneses seemed to make an effort to stand as far apart as they could get.
Aiden didn’t know what that meant, but it gave him a weird feeling in his stomach, like that time he’d accidentally swallowed an ice cube and he’d felt it slide all the way down.
He considered asking Oliver about it, but then Mom scooped him up and left big, noisy kisses on his cheek until he squealed. Max ran up to her and demanded to be picked up too, but he got Dad instead. Dad gave good kisses, but his face was scratchy. When their parents weren’t watching, Aiden stuck his tongue out at Max.
“We’ve got to get going,” Mr. Jones said. He looked down at his son. “Take that sheet off, Oliver. I’m sure the Kingsmans don’t appreciate you ruining it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Dad tickled Max, making him shriek with joy. “Nothing a little white vinegar won’t get out.”
Oliver removed the sheet, handed it to Mom, and went to stand by Mrs. Jones. He shot Aiden a final, pleading look, but Aiden could only shrug.
“Thanks for having him,” Mrs. Jones said. “You should come over for dinner at our house sometime.”
“You bet.” Mom smiled. “We’d love to.”
The Joneses exited the kitchen, taking the odd ice-cube feeling with them. Oliver followed behind his parents, but right before they disappeared through the doorway, he turned back. Out of his pocket, he produced Aiden’s crayon vows and waved them at him, as if he were taunting a bull with a red cape.
Aiden gasped, but by the time he’d gotten over the surprise, Oliver had disappeared. Aiden wasn’t certain how he knew, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t see those vows again for a long time.