A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed and/or favourited. Sorry the update took so long, and I hope Rachel isn't too much of a Mary-Sue in this chapter.
I was never the kind of girl who dreams about her fairytale wedding. So when Jake agreed to marry me, my first instinct was to make it happen as soon as possible. We organised a marriage license the very next day, and made it official just two days after that. A very simple procedure, with no-one there except us, the judge and our witnesses. It's probably a little sad that it still managed to be the most romantic day of my life.
We met in front of the courthouse at noon. I'd spent the morning in a confused whirl, trying to decide just how casual I wanted to play this. We both knew that this was a marriage of convenience. But – Jake had gone down on one knee, hadn't he? Maybe it would be OK to use a few other traditions. If I even wanted to. I ended up wearing my oldest blue jeans and my frilliest white blouse, borrowing a belt from my neighbour ("No reason, it just matches my outfit") and nipping into the store as I headed off to buy a small pair of earrings. I figured that I could deny it all if Jake noticed anything.
There was no need to worry about it, though. When I got there, he sheepishly offered me a small bouquet of flowers. I melted a little, even though I knew they'd only cost him about ten bucks. It broke the tension, for some reason. We talked about the book he was reading until it was time to go in.
For what was arguably the most important event of my life so far, it was over awfully quickly.
We walked out of the courthouse in semi-awkward silence. Then Jake pulled out a party popper and squirted us with streamers. I burst out laughing, and he did too, and all of a sudden I was happy. The nation was going to hell in a handbasket, the President was dead, the army roamed the streets, but I'd just married the greatest guy I'd ever met. For the moment, at least, life was good.
I pulled out a camera. "Wedding photos!" I caught a man's arm as he headed towards the door. "Excuse me, sir, could you take our picture?"
I crouched down beside Jake, he slung an arm over my shoulder, and as we both beamed at the camera a slightly crazy thought slipped into my mind.
No. I couldn't. He wasn't my boyfriend.
He was my husband.
I'd been thinking about this since I was old enough to think about it. Didn't I owe it to my former self to give it a shot?
Just before the flash went off, I swooped in and kissed him.
"Tradition," I explained afterwards. Rather weakly, if I say so myself.
He smiled. "Mom would have killed me if I didn't get that photo for her."
That was the next issue we faced - telling our parents.
I think mine considered it a sort of belated teenage rebellion. They were shocked, but in the end they gave their blessing. Dad even shook Jake's hand in a bemused sort of way.
Telling Jake's mom was another story. She shrieked. She hugged me. She actually cried. She said that I was perfect for him and that she'd always known this was going to happen. When she gave me her mother's wedding ring it was all I could do not to start crying myself.
I told myself that I wasn't a con-woman. That I was doing this for . . . well, maybe not for the right reasons, but for good reasons. That I genuinely cared about her son, and it was only in the last century or so that people had started to believe that being passionately in love with your spouse was a requirement for marriage. That I wasn't selfishly keeping Jake from finding a girl who'd deserve that kind of gift from his family.
It didn't work.
We'd decided almost right away that we'd have to move in together. No-one would believe this was a real marriage if I lived on campus and my husband lived in an apartment twenty minute's drive away. In a fantastic stroke of luck, Jake's roommate chose that week to decide he was moving back home. His parents thought the city was a target for terrorists and wanted him to live somewhere safer. He didn't want to make things any harder than they had to be for them at a time like this. So I took his room, and there was no need for an awkward conversation about sleeping arrangements.
It took us a little while to adjust, but before long I was wondering how things could have ever been different. It seemed only natural to walk down the hall whenever I wanted to see Jake instead of picking up the phone. He was a good cook, and I killed spiders. Despite all the crap going on out in the world, for a few weeks we had domestic bliss.
The day that all professional women were marched out of the workplace at gunpoint wasn't unexpected for me. I'd known it was coming for a while. It was still a horrible shock. I had to sit there, hiding behind the computer, as I watched half the lab technicians hustled away from their stations. Through the window, I could see a parade of librarians, teachers, and even waitresses and gardeners heading for the gates.
I hung around for a few hours after that, visiting my favourite haunts, saying goodbye. I knew, somehow, that this was the last time I'd get to come here like this. Any female students who turned up tomorrow would be politely (or not so politely) sent home. If women aren't allowed to work, they obviously won't be allowed to educate themselves. My last stop was the library. The librarians were gone, so I slipped some books into my bag. I wanted so badly to take some of the best pieces of feminist literature – I didn't want to think about what the Gileadans would do to them. But I restrained myself to practical things. Texts for some of the courses I'd never get to take. A guide to herbal medicine (because nobody was going to let me have anything even resembling real drugs). A thick book on sexual health (contraception, venereal diseases, pregnancy, women's health issues – we were going to need this information like never before). I didn't even feel guilty about stealing the books. They'd stolen a medical degree from me, not to mention almost three years worth of schooling.
When I went home, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling for a couple of hours before I finally roused myself.
Jake looked up with concern as I stuck opened the door to the living room.
"Are you doing OK?"
"Fine. I'm going to the hospital. Do you need anything before I take off?"
"They just lost about 90% of their nurses today. They'll need help."
"You can't. They're not letting women work -"
"I'm not trying to work. I'm volunteering. Caring for the sick is a humble, feminine thing to do, isn't it?"
He was quiet for a few moments. "Yeah, I guess so, but . . . Rachel, what can you do? Really, I mean. You're not a nurse."
I shrugged. "I take care of you."
My heart dropped into my stomach as I saw the look on his face, and I hated myself. When Jake insults me, at least I know he's joking. When I insult him, on the other hand, it's always with something like this. I can be such an idiot.
"Sorry. I didn't mean it to come out like . . . sorry. You're not a patient. But after living with you, I've learned a lot about helping people get around in wheelchairs and that sort of thing." I cleared my throat. "Anyway, um, I'm pretty good with computers, I can read the patients' charts, I've got a general idea of what a lot of drugs do, I know how to take temperatures and measure blood pressure and help people to the bathroom. I learn pretty fast and I can take instructions; I'm sure they'll find something for me to do. Even if it's just mopping up the ER or serving meals. I – I just have to do something to help."
"Fair enough." Another pause. "You're really wearing that?"
I looked down at myself – ankle-length skirt, dark sweatshirt, flat shoes. "What's wrong with it?"
"Don't you think the necklace is a bit much?"
My fingers curled defensively around the small crucifix at my neck. "I wear this all the time. I just usually keep it under my clothes."
"And now you're flaunting it. You've even braided your hair."
"What's your point, Jake?" I snapped.
"My point is that you've been hating Gilead for years, but they're in power a few weeks and suddenly you turn into their bitch!"
I had never been so angry with Jake as I was at that moment. Which is really saying something.
"Yes. Yes, that's exactly what I'm doing. Because people are up in that hospital with no-one to take care of them, and I'll do whatever it takes to get in there and help. Got it? I'll lie down on top of a puddle and let them walk all over me, I'll bend over backwards, I'll do anything they tell me to if it gets me into that hospital! OK?"
I slammed the door on my way out.
Jake was right about what he said. Of course he was right. What I didn't agree with was the bile in the way he said it. I'm not like him. After he got into uni, he vowed that he was going to 'tie it down and make it his bitch'. I, on the other hand, visualised throwing myself at medicine's feet. Maybe it's the fact that I've spent most of my life believing in a higher power, maybe it's just the way I am, but submission comes easily to me. That's the way I fight. I play by their rules, ask "How high?" when I'm told to jump through hoops and I do it so well that they can't touch me, and don't even want to.
But my heart was twisting with dread as I walked away from the hospital the next morning, because I knew that this wasn't one of those things I could resist by surrendering to. This was wrong. It was evil. The number of women and girls who came into hospital last night with black eyes and broken bones, even bullet wounds in a few cases . . . The attending physician called it a record. And it was only going to get worse. Sure, the army would stop beating us up before long – Gilead promised safety for women – but their way of protecting us was to take away our freedom, our rights, our personhood, and all in the name of Jesus. I couldn't call myself a Christian and let that happen.
But I couldn't fight either. It wouldn't be fair. I'd promised Jake that I'd protect him. That my reputation was going to keep us safe. If I decided to throw it away, he'd be worse off than he was before he married me by at least an order of magnitude. I couldn't drag him into that. I could risk my own life, but not his. It wasn't right. Maybe the only honourable choice was to let him go.
Something in my cried out against that idea. Part of it was the fear of losing him, but most of it was fear for myself. A divorced woman in Gilead? I shivered at the thought.
"What the hell?"
The voice jolted me out of my thoughts, and I looked around. A tall brunette was arguing with the cashier in a little café.
"I'm sorry, the number's not valid."
"Bullshit. I've got thousands in there."
"It's not valid."
"I just want a cup of coffee and a muffin! I come here every day. I was here yesterday. My number was working."
Through the fuzz of tiredness, I realised what was going on. They hadn't warned us, but I knew enough about Gilead to guess. Her account was locked. Just like every other one with an F instead of an M.
"I've got it," I said, walking up to the counter.
The man glared at me like 'How many of these idiot females are going to try this before they catch on?'
I recited Jake's compunumber. It worked.
The man sullenly handed over the woman's breakfast. She snatched it and walked away. I followed her.
"What the hell was that about?"
I told her.
"How come your number is still valid, then?"
"That wasn't my number. It's OK, he won't mind."
"This is total . . . I earned that money!"
"I think they'll transfer it to your male next of kin."
She sighed and raked a hand through her hair. "Well that's a lot of fucking help!"
It was only then that I recognised her.
She stared back.
"Is that . . . Rachel?"
We'd known each other in high school. And if I remembered right, Sharon had every right to be worried. Her parents had divorced when she was too young to remember. She didn't have any brothers. And she was a lesbian.
"Yeah. Listen, this might sound kind of presumptuous, but . . . Can I buy you some groceries? I figure you're going to need them soon."
"Won't your father mind you spending his money helping out a dyke?"
"My father's got nothing to do with it." I waved my ring at her. "I got married."
"What? Why? I mean, no offense, do whatever you want, but . . . I thought you were smarter than that! With all the political shit that's going on, why would you give a man any more power over you?"
"It's not really giving a man power. Someone's going to be running my life for me no matter what I do, and I wanted to choose who it would be. I trust Jake. I'm not sure if I trust my dad."
"Makes sense, I guess. I might just take you up on that offer, then. I'll pay you back."
"Don't worry about it."
I knew I was never going to see her again.
I was practically dead on my feet by the time I staggered home. Adrenaline, bright lights and a whole lot of coffee had kept me going all night, but after I left Sharon at the supermarket all the exhaustion I'd been pushing back hit me at once. I met Jake as he was leaving for work, and hugged him for a long time because it felt so good to be touching someone who wasn't in pain. He said something comforting (probably - the words just kind of washed over my head) before dashing off to catch his bus, and I went to my room in a daze. I'd thought I wanted sleep, but I ended up just lying there, not quite able to summon the energy to cry.
It didn't make any sense. I was so glad I'd gone to the hospital - it had restored my faith in humanity. The way everyone banded together had been like something out of a fairy tale.
Janitors changed bloody dressings and gave sponge baths. Techies worked with heart monitors and measured blood pressure and did their best to keep the records up to date. Volunteers like me dispensed pills and handed surgeons their instruments and took histories. And the doctors, paramedics and male nurses were freaking heroes. They did everything.
The problem was that none of it was enough.
Nothing within the bounds of the law was going to be enough.
When Jake got home, I'd have to talk to him. Promise or no promise, I couldn't let this go on. If doing something more than desperate attempts at damage control meant walking away from this . . . marriage, or whatever the hell it was, then that was what I'd do.