This story is by Lisa Walton and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lou and Jetta sat silently inside the tent, holding hands in the darkness. Outside, thunder rumbled, and rain pounded on the plastic roof as if trying to get inside.
Lou cleared his throat. “We have to make a decision.”
“I know,” said Jetta quietly. “What do you want?”
A sudden flash lit up the tiny space like day, and Jetta saw the grief on Lou’s face. Her stomach twisted, knowing she caused him so much pain.
“You know what I want,” Lou said.
Of course she knew.
All either of them ever wanted was a baby.
“Do you know what I remember from the first time we met?” Lou squeezed her hand and let out a chuckle. “That silly doll, what was her name?”
“Nena,” Jetta said, smiling.
“Her stringy hair was sticking out of your butterfly backpack. I thought maybe you were scared because it was your first day of school. But I don’t think I saw you without Nena until we went to middle school.”
“I loved that doll,” Jetta agreed. She carried Nena everywhere, swaddling her tenderly in blankets. Practicing for when she became a mom.
“And her clothes . . .”
“I can’t believe you noticed that. I made them out of old sheets and curtains.” Back then, textiles were common and could be squandered on children’s toys. “We never could have guessed that one day mom would do the same for my wedding dress.”
“I would have married you in rags. But that dress was incredible.”
“I have no idea how she got her hands on those satin curtains.” Jetta was silent for a beat. “That was the happiest day of my life.”
“Dreaming about that day got me through the war.”
“I was so afraid you wouldn’t come home. Or you wouldn’t want me anymore. When I saw you coming up the walk . . .”
Her heart stopped for a moment. Even from the upstairs window, she could see the pointy bones of Lou’s shoulders and the way his clothes hung on his frame. His step had a hiccough as though his right leg couldn’t quite keep up with his left.
But when she opened the door, his gray eyes sparkled. It was like he had never left. He flung his arms around her and swung her around while she laughed. Then he set her down, dropped to one knee, and said, “Marry me?”
Now, sitting in the darkness, she twisted the twine on her finger–the ring Lou had woven out of bits of twist ties saved from bread bags.
“It was supposed to be the beginning of our lives,” Lou said.
The wind howled through the tent, and Jetta shivered.
“If only it wasn’t for that stupid victory decree.” Jetta’s voice was flat.
The official decree was announced on the midday report. Jetta sat at her desk and struggled to keep her face neutral in front of her students. After school, she raced to Lou’s garage.
“It was horrific, but I couldn’t understand why you were so scared,” said Lou. “We’d always planned for children.”
“You were completely unphased,” she said. “I felt silly. I knew you’d never leave me again.” But she remembered the dread she felt in the pit of her stomach.
“I knew what I had signed up for. You were very upfront about your desire to have a big family,” Lou reminded her. “We were barely teenagers when you told me you wanted ten children . . .”
“Five boys and five girls,” Jetta said.
Lou’s voice was sad as he finished the familiar words. ” . . as if children were something you could order at the drive-thru.”
“If only . . .” Jetta said and sighed. “I miss the drive-thru.”
Lou laughed out loud. “Remember when we used to drive all the way to Cranberry for milkshakes and French fries?”
It was hard to believe they’d once been ordinary teenagers.
Then the war came, and Lou went away to fight for the Federation’s Freedom Brigade. Jetta wondered why, if the Freedom Brigade had won, weren’t they now free?
As if hearing her thoughts, the air crackled, and the PA system buzzed to life. Instinctively, Jetta straightened.
Speakers were installed every hundred yards or so throughout the city, ensuring that every citizen would have easy access to the reports. Even those living in tent cities like Jetta and Lou.
The Supreme Chancellor’s voice reverberated through the night. “My good people of Nuerva, good evening. I know many of you are suffering right now. You have my sympathy. But we must stay resolute. Your sacrifice is noble and, may I remind you, fleeting. Our cities, people, and nation will be strong again. And soon, with your cooperation, greatness will be achieved and the freedoms of the past restored.
“But, make no mistake, anyone who threatens the return of greatness, who questions the sovereign command, will be punished. I will not allow the righteousness of the few to destroy the future of the many.”
“Sssh!” hissed Lou.
She rolled her eyes. They were alone in their tent, and outside, a wild storm raged. No one could hear them. “What lies! He’s never going to let us be free.”
“You don’t know that,” said Lou.
Ever the soldier, Jetta thought, and then chastised herself for thinking badly of him on their last night together. “Even so, it will be too late for us.”
The envelope arrived last night. They didn’t need an official reminder that their third wedding anniversary was approaching. But still, they poured over the details of the contract:
“The undersigned hereby agree that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation and survival of the citizenry. Therefore, every marriage entered into in Nuerva shall be deemed probationary until a healthy child is presented to the Supreme Chancellor. All couples shall have three years from the date of their wedding to produce a child. Any union that fails to make a healthy child shall be nullified, and the individuals repaired with virile spouses.
“This marriage expires on November 24, 2051.”
Below the date, Jetta and Lou had scrawled their names in red ink.
The loopy J of Jetta’s name taunted her with its hopefulness.
It’s not as if they hadn’t tried to fulfill their duty. Oh, how they tried.
“Jetta,” Dr. Miska had admonished her after her sixth visit without a pregnancy. “You must be more deliberate about your relations. Chart your cycle, make good choices. And avoid intimacy the rest of the month. It reduces your odds of conception.”
He sent her home with a calendar marked with red hearts and black xs.
When that didn’t work, they tried every conceivable medical intervention available. Nueva prided itself on “Equal Access to the Best Reproductive, Fertility, and Prenatal Care Money Can Buy.”
But sometimes, even the best isn’t enough.
Tomorrow, Lou would be repaired with another woman who had proven herself fertile. And Jetta would get one more chance. She would be repaired with a man who had proven his virility and forced to endure three years of his advances. Then she’d be declared a barena and sold into service. Or, maybe, put to death.
The declaration was inevitable.
“Jetta,” Dr. Larriana had said softly and shaken her head. “I’m so sorry. I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I can’t continue to watch your disappointment every month. You will never bear a child.”
Jetta didn’t share the news with Lou. The diagnosis was illegal and changed nothing. No woman could be declared infertile until three years after her second wedding or the age of thirty-three. There was no way to opt out of the state-mandated fertility treatments. Even when they were futile.
She wanted to enjoy their final months together.
Those months had now become moments.
Jetta cleared her throat. “Lou, I think we should be repaired.”
“Jetta . . .”
“Please listen . . . I can’t have children. But you can. You can still be a father. Your dreams . . .”
“No. I can’t. I won’t. I don’t want children without you.”
“We don’t exactly have a choice.”
He squeezed her hand and reached into his pocket. “Actually, we do,” he said. He placed the well-worn papers in her hand.
“What’s this?” She rubbed the tickets between her fingers. It was too dark to read their words. “Are these . . . ?”
“Yes.” Lou was breathless.
“Never mind. It’s our way out.”
“But to where?” she said.
“Does it matter?”
Jetta inhaled. “If we get on that train . . .” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“We’ll be together,” Lou said.
The Anniversary Train had always been a legend–an almost too easy ride out of Nuerva.
But the rules were strict. The Anniversary train only offered one way tickets. No one knew where it went. And once you got on board, there was no turning back.
“We’ll be . . .” Jetta began.
“Together,” Lou finished.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”