Disclaimer: The Republic of Gilead belongs to Margaret Atwood. The sentence describing their rise to power is a paraphrased quote from the book. Rachel, Jake and their personal story are my own.
A/N: This is (obviously) set in America. I'm Australian, so I apologise for any details I got wrong. Feel free to point them out.
Rachel came to me before it happened. Before Gilead was anything more than a political party, or an obscure biblical reference for those – like her – who actually recognised the name. She could see what was coming and, rather more impressively, she was one of the few who didn't write it off as the paranoid after taste of the terror threat that was gripping the nation in a stranglehold.
"An eighth of my class lost their places this week," she informed me as we lay around in my living room, watching cartoons.
That got my attention. Rachel was a second year medical student, studying at the most prestigious university in the state. It wasn't exactly unheard of for classmates of hers to buckle under the load. An eighth of the class in a single week, though . . . "What the hell happened there? A mass outbreak of schizophrenia?"
She frowned at me. "You shouldn't joke about that. It's not funny. And, no. What happened is we got a new professor."
"He must be a monster."
"He's a Gileadan."
We'd talked about them a fair bit since they appeared on the horizon a couple of years ago, more so as they started to gain power. Hadn't argued, surprisingly. A platform taken almost word for word from the Bible was always going to piss me off, but I'd expected Rachel to be a fan. When I pressed her for reasons, she said that their interpretation of the scriptures left a lot to be desired, they relied too heavily on the Old Testament and they were going to give people like her a reputation she didn't want. But I think the main reason, at least then, was the first one she gave me. Something about that group gave her the creeps.
"He says that those people flunked out – 'didn't make the cut' is what he actually said – but I know that's not true. He threw them out because they were women, or gay, or another religion. Muslims, Hindus, that sort of thing."
"Bet you were happy about that part." That came out automatically. I teased her about her religion all the time, telling her it was good practice in turning the other cheek.
She sat bolt upright. "No. You know I'm not like that, Jake! I don't hate them. I think they're wrong about God, but they think the same about me. That's what faith is. If you believe in one religion you can't believe in the others, there just isn't room. Kamal is my friend."
"Easy, Rach. Of course I know that. I was kidding."
"I wish you wouldn't," she muttered. "It hurts. Hearing you say stuff like that about me . . ."
I could only stare at her for a long time. "I'm sorry," I said finally. "You should know better than to take me seriously. I don't mean any of it."
She smiled. "Believe me, I'd have been out of your life years ago if I thought you meant half of what you say. It's OK. That's just who you are. I'm still reeling from this week, that's all."
We sat in silence for a few moments.
"How come you haven't lost your place? You said he was getting rid of women."
"Yeah, but he's pretending it's all about grades. He can't touch me."A smirk, from both of us. Rachel was damn proud of her brains, and so was I. I liked to look at this future doctor and know she couldn't have passed high school math without me. Serious again, she continued "But it's only a matter of time."
"No. It's just one crazy professor. You should complain to the university about him."
"I'm going to. We're getting up a petition. But it's not just one guy. There's a whole party of them, and they're getting more powerful every day. Soon, they'll be the ones making all the decisions."
"Never going to happen. We're not going to wind up with a Gileadan president. America has a lot of problems, but we're smarter than that."
She just sighed. I could tell she didn't believe me. But now, the whole world knows she was right.
When they (Islamic fanatics, we were told at the time) shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress, the world seemed to stop. Change. Remade forever. The army declared a state of emergency and suspended the Constitution. Temporarily, of course. No-one seemed to care. There were no riots in the streets. If there were any protests, they didn't make the news.
Rachel came over two days after that catastrophe, utterly freaked. She paced up and down in front of me, ranting. "You watch," she said. "There's a storm coming. It's gonna be worse than anything we can imagine."
I almost laughed. "Worse than this?"
She nodded. "This is only the beginning,Jake. Everything's changing. This time next year we'll be on the map as the Republic of Gilead."
"Again with Gilead! You're obsessed. This is bigger than a bunch of right-wing nutjobs."
"No! This is all down to them – even if they didn't actually orchestrate the whole thing, they're sure going to milk it for all it's worth. They're so much bigger than any of us gave them credit for." I must have looked sceptical, because she glared viciously. "I don't believe this. You, the guy who knows all about politics, the guy who wanted to be a fucking politician – you need me to point out that the only government representatives left alive are Gileadans!"
I stared. "No, you're -" But I was frantically running through names and histories in my head, and she was right. You could count on the fingers of one hand the politicians who'd escaped the massacre, and they all belonged to Gilead, or had strong sympathies in that direction. "Holy crap."
"Indeed." She opened her handbag, and dumped a pile of pamphlets on the table. "I've been rounding up all the old Gileadan literature I can find, from before they toned it down and started getting popular, and it is some scary shit. Read it. Then watch. We're about to see a lot of this put into practice."
Is it any surprise that Rachel was right about that too? It happened subtly, but it definitely happened. Newspaper and television censorship. Pornomarts and Feels-on-Wheels vans disappeared – not that I minded about that personally, but it's the principle of the thing. Mandated Identipasses. The day we heard about that, Rachel arrived on my doorstep at midnight, despite the fact that she lived on the other side of the city. She wasn't angry, or yelling, as she had been so often for the past few weeks. But I'd never seen her look so scared in my life.
I led my silent, eerily calm faced friend into the lounge, then went to get us some beers. Rach rarely drank, but I could tell she needed it at that moment. When I handed her a can, she swallowed most of it in one gulp. And, naturally, began coughing and spluttering like a drowning cat.
After I'd finished patting her on the back, she looked up at me through streaming eyes and gasped the first words she'd said since she arrived. "Marry me, Jake."
"What?" I gently pulled the can out of her hand. "You've had half a beer. You can't be drunk already."
"I'm not drunk. I've been thinking about it for weeks now. The world is changing. It's dangerous, especially not for people like you. Marry me. Let me protect you."
"Protect – What do you mean, people like me?"
"Atheists. And cripples. But mainly the first one. They're not going to turn on the disabled for a while yet. It's still so un-PC."
I could only shake my head at her.
"Trust me, will you? I've done a lot of research into this. They want to turn the whole country into a cult. But they like Christians. They like marriage too – they're into the whole 'man and wife united as one' idea. If we were married, my reputation could cover you too."
"Rachel," I said quietly, but firmly. "I've been reading a lot of the pamphlets you gave me. And it seems to me that Gileadans are the ultimate anti-feminists. This world is going to be a thousand times safer for men than for women. So if you're scared, I get it. Just don't try to pretend this is you being altruistic instead of desperate."
I saw a flash of murder in her eyes. "Have you been absorbing any of those leaflets? Or are you just so used to tuning out anything religious you can't let it matter even now? They. Are. A. Nation. Wide. Cult. Yeah, this is going to suck for women. We're going to lose almost all the rights we've been fighting for since the 50s. But in a little while the world is only going to be safe for healthy, stably married Christians! And there's nothing anyone can do about the first, but I can help you with the other two. Let me. Please."
I wheeled over to the other side of the room. I needed to think, and I couldn't do that with her face in front of me. Rachel didn't follow me, but I could feel her anxious gaze boring into the back of my head.
"I see what you're saying about the religion," I said finally. "They are pretty obsessed. It might be smart to be seen as a Christian. I can start going to church, get my Compunumber on the records at some religious stores. That settle your mind? Or does it offend you?"
She came over and knelt in front of me, putting her hands on my knees. "What they're doing in His name offends me. You don't. The Bible always says God is a refuge and shield for the oppressed. But, the thing is, it won't work. Because being seen as a Christian really is the smart thing to do now. They know that. They'll be suspicious of any sudden converts. Me, I check out. I've put Uniting Church on every health form that's ever asked, and there are dozens of witnesses to say I've been going to church more or less every week for my entire life. I even got a certificate when I was christened, and another one when I was baptised four years ago. Jake, we can do this. It'll work. I can't promise forever, but we'll be safe for a while longer."
She looked up at me, eyes shining with earnestness and hope, and I don't know if it makes me an utter arsehole or not, but all I could feel was pissed off. This was so Rachel. Trying to turn life into a movie, smugly boasting about her faith, picturing herself as a knight in shining armour swooping in to save her poor crippled friend. It seemed to me right then that this was what she'd always wanted – a chance to be a saint and a romantic heroine all rolled into one.
"Fine, granted, but there's one thing you haven't considered. Why you? It's not like you're the only Christian girl around. There must be others with even better records than yours. If I need a wife so badly, why should I choose you?"
She pulled away from me. "Because," she said. "Because – I know I'm not the only one, or even the only one you know, though I bet I'm the only one you've actually had a conversation with in years – but the others don't realise that the country is going insane. None of them have asked you to marry them, and they wouldn't believe you if you explained why you wantedto. Some of them are probably Gilead supporters." She got to her feet. Then, suddenly, she slapped me across the face so hard I saw stars. "And none of them love you!" she screamed before turning and running out of the room.
I found her out on the back porch, curled into a ball against the railings, sobbing into her hands. I hadn't seen Rachel cry since her grandmother's funeral. There were some comforting words I should probably have said. All I could get out was "You said – Rach, do you love me?"
She looked up. Even though I could see the tears still falling slowly down her cheeks, she sounded almost normal as she said "Not like that. I think. I mean, I was crazy about you back in high school, and it doesn't feel like that any more. But you've been my best friend since we were fourteen. You're the guy I bitch about study to and call in the middle of the night when I have to and trust more than anyone. I love you. And I don't know whether it's romantically or platonically or fraternally or what, but I do know I love you, so maybe it doesn't even matter what way. I'm so scared, and I don't want to lose you to these Gileadan bastards and – and –"
She stopped talking then, and stared at the floor. The words I was crazy about you in high school were playing in my head over and over again. She hadn't even said it like a confession, just like a fact, taken for granted. God, I must have been blind. I looked down at her, and it felt like I was seeing her familiar face for the first time. The face of the girl who'd spent her entire prom with me, a guy who couldn't even dance, and never stopped smiling. Who I'd snuck out and shared stolen alcohol with, though not cigarettes – I'm not interested in lung cancer, Jake. Thanks anyway. She was the only girl who'd ever said she loved me. And . . . the only girl I'd ever loved. Because of course I fucking loved her. She was my best friend, my sparring partner, my sister and occasional late night fantasy. If I wanted her to, she could be my fiancée. Maybe I wasn't in love with her. Then again, maybe I was, maybe I'd just needed something like this to catalyst us into the relationship we should have been in all along. Or maybe Rach was right, and none of that mattered. The world was falling to pieces around us, but she was one piece of it I might be able to hold on to. I felt myself starting to smile. If God existed, and if He'd come to me and told me I could choose one familiar thing to have with me in Gilead, I'd have asked for Rachel.
My hands were shaking a bit as I undid the seatbelt that held me into my chair. Slowly, trying not to think of what an idiot I'd look if I got this wrong, I slid out of it, off the footrest and finally onto the floor. I clutched at the railings and used them to drag myself to a kneeling position. I planted one foot on the floor and pushed up. There. I was in position, now I had to do this fast before my leg gave out. I probably looked ridiculous. "Rachel Walsh," I said, and she opened her eyes. Her jaw dropped. "Will you marry me?"
Remembering the beer can at my side, I pulled off the ring top and held it out. She gave a hiccuping laugh. "Oh. Crap. This won't fit -"
"Yes it will," she interrupted, and held out her left hand, pinky extended. "I - I will too."
I pushed the aluminium circle over the tip of her finger, and as soon as it was on she threw her arms around me, sending us crashing to the floor. We didn't try to get up. That was how my room-mate found us when he came home from work – clinging together and crying like two terrified kids.