A shaft of dusty light crosses Jane-Anne’s face, waking her from the recurring dream of smoke and ash engulfing the town. She opens her eyes, not sure where she will find herself. It takes a few blinks to realize that she’s in her own bed, on just another quiet morning. After another moment, she remembers that today is not just any other day, it is her thirtieth birthday. The alarm clock cuts through the silence. Jane-Anne resolves to change its tune to something less intense, then sits up at the edge of the bed and switches it off. She rises, shrugs into a bra without removing her shirt, and heads downstairs for coffee.
A voice echoes up from the kitchen as she descends the creaky stairs, her hand running along the familiar grooves of the worn-out banister. Her father Sid can often be found talking or singing to himself. She stops short at the door to the kitchen when she sees that this morning he is actually talking to Max, her best friend since childhood, who is sitting at the table looking at his hands. Her schedule and Max’s don’t match up these days, with her at work in the armory and him on rotation. Sometimes they meet for a beer, but the last time he came for breakfast was years ago.
Max and Sid have stopped their conversation. Jane-Anne continues into the kitchen as her dad picks up his coffee mug and heads towards the stairs. He gives her a knowing look as he passes.
“Morning. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks, dad.” But the greeting makes her want to return to her room and hide.
Before she can make it to the mug of coffee her dad has left on the counter for her, Max stands up, straightening his shirt.
She snorts out a laugh. She has no idea the last time he used her full name, it’s always ‘Janie’ or ‘JJ.’
“Maxwell,” she replies, straightening herself up to match his formality.
In that moment, she realizes what is about to happen.
How did I not see this coming? she chastises herself, as a knot of anxiety forms in her stomach.
Max isn’t laughing, or even meeting her gaze.
He repeats himself, “Jane-Anne,” which convinces her, as if he has a script and her interruption has caused him to start back from the beginning. He continues not to look at her or smile. Out of nerves, she sinks into a chair, pushing her hair out of her eyes and waiting for the question.
“Jane-Anne,” he begins once again, this time finally looking at her. “You are my best friend. We have been through a lot. You know I love you. And our son. Imagine the family we can have. Will you marry me?”
Twenty nine words, she counts them to buy herself some time. That is all it takes to bring her world crashing down.
And I’ve only been thirty for a few minutes, she thinks, shaking her head.
“Max, you know I can’t…” she trails off. She can’t immediately think of a reason to refuse him, but also can’t ignore the rising panic she feels.
“Jesus, JJ…” There’s the familiarity between them that Jane had been expecting. It’s a relief, but now it also stings.
“What do you want from me, Max? I’ve been thirty for like five minutes. We’ve never so much as talked about what comes next. Give me a second to catch up.”
He glares at her, but without real conviction. It makes her smile. Pissing each other off is one of their favorite pastimes. He finally gives a small smile, and his shoulders relax. He drops to his knees in front of her and takes her hands in his.
“Do you love me, Janie?”
“Of course I do. But…”
“You love me. I love you. It can be that simple. You may not believe that, but I do.”
He moves his right hand into his jacket pocket. It comes out clenching a small drawstring bag, which he presses into her hand. Jane instantly recognizes the bag, and the sights and sounds of a forgotten childhood memory flood her senses.
She is sitting at his mother’s bedroom vanity, one of her favorite places, the bright lights warming her face. Her own mother had never had drawers like this to open, no makeup or jewelry she was allowed to touch. Max would come back from the field with his father to find her with crooked curlers in her hair or eyeshadow all the way up her forehead. Sometimes he would tease her, other times he would sit quietly for a makeover.
Max waits as, back in her kitchen twenty years later, she looks blankly at the offering in her outstretched hand without making a movement or a sound.
He remembers that day as well. She had gotten into his mom’s jewelry and was covered with shiny baubles; crystal earrings in her hair, a necklace doubled around her wrist, and a delicate silver ring with a pale blue stone on her left ring finger. He had been standing in the doorway admiring her for a few moments before she noticed him.
“Darling,” she drawled in her most dramatic accent, standing to greet him. She had just been formulating a character – a socialite, readying for a party.
“Won’t you escort me to my carriage?”
Ten year old Max gave a small smile, and then a bow as he walked forward, offering his arm. She slipped her left arm through his right. He reached over with his other hand to touch hers, landing on the ring on her finger. She felt him trace it with his fingertips, and they looked at each other. Then he stopped walking and dropped to his knees.
“My lady. You have found the ring so I cannot hide my true feelings for you any longer. To see it there on your finger gives me hope that we can be together. Marry me.”
“Janie?” Max’s voice breaks through the memory and Jane is almost surprised to be back in her kitchen.
“The ring, it was your mother’s?” she stammers, trying to remember what happened next that day twenty years ago when they played make-believe. She fled dramatically, some dumb fairytale fresh in her head, dropping a trail of jewelry behind and playing hard to get. Eventually he gave up the pursuit. And, like many of the games they played, they never spoke of it again.
Jane continues to sit quietly, afraid to scare the vision away. She closes her eyes to try and force the memory to return. She had brought all the jewelry back to his mother the next day when Max and his father were out. His mother had been kind, she had always been kind, even though Jane knew she’d run off with her most prized possession. She watched as the ring was placed in a drawstring bag out of the top drawer of the vanity. There was something written across the bag in pale red ink. She never saw the bag or ring again, never read the pale writing, and forgot the episode entirely.
Until it was placed back in her hand.
Jane pulls the bag open and shakes the contents out onto her palm. The silver ring with a pale blue stone. She looks up from the ring to Max, her eyes welling up with tears.
“My lady,” his voice cracks. Her tears spill over.
“My lady,” he begins again, his voice is more decisive this time, her weakness giving him strength. “I can’t hide my feelings from you any longer. Marry me.”
He picks up the ring, brings it to his lips, and kisses it. Automatically, she flips her left hand over, palm down, and looks at the empty ring finger. He takes this as encouragement and slides the ring onto it. It comes to a stop almost immediately. It fit perfectly when she was 10 years old. She laughs.
“Max, it’s not going to fit.”
She winces as he continues to try to get it on her finger.
But he’s determined, like this will somehow seal the deal.
She is no longer laughing. He desists, and rocks back onto his heels. She removes the ring from her finger, watching as he slumps down in response.
“Can I think about it?”
She holds the ring up, looking at the way it twinkles in the light.
“Yes. Yes, of course. But Janie,” he takes the ring back. “This is for you. No matter what your answer is. You are the only girl…the only woman I would ever offer this to.”
He slides it on to her little finger this time, where they both admire it.
“Seeing it there on your finger gives me hope.”
She tries to find a reply, but her brain is fuzzy. Instead of finding words to appease him, or perhaps to temper his hopes, she is instead realizing that she is still in pajamas, teeth unbrushed, and hasn’t had any – “Coffee?” she blurts out, standing straight up.
“Uh, sure, thanks,” he replies, slapping his knees and getting up off the floor. Jane dumps out half the mug already poured for her and adds hot coffee to it, and refills Max’s mug. They sit down at the table and sip in silence for awhile.
Just before it’s gone on too long, Max speaks up. “How are things at the armory? They promote you yet?”
“Good. No. Pretty sure Jim is just sitting on my designs. I’ll find a way to get them to notice,” she answers, but without conviction. “Where are you this week?”
“Farm. Still doing my time.”
She laughs. From the first time, he never liked his farm rotation.
“Should it worry me that you don’t like animals?”
“Shut up. You know they have it out for me.”
They both think back to the times he’s returned from the farms, bruised and bleeding from more than his fair share of kicks and bites. They both know that Max is more of a blunt instrument than a calm presence, suited better for life as a solider or working with the building crews.
“I’ll never understand why you didn’t specialize after coming home,” she says, for probably the hundredth time.
“I like to be well-rounded, you know that.”
He puffs up his chest and gives her a self-assured smoldering look he’s been practicing since they were teenagers. His fake arrogance always makes her laugh. Her snorting into her coffee is enough to break the awkward spell between them for good.
Back to being friends drinking coffee, her brain clicks into the usual routine.
“I should get…” she begins.
He stands up. “Yeah, me too. See you later?”
He turns to go.
“You will think about it?” he asks without turning around to face her.
He opens the door and is gone. Sunlight streams in. She pours herself another cup of coffee and sits back down at the table, falling back into her memories.
Years ago, not long after the last time Jane saw the ring, she followed her father to his work shift at the armory and was enchanted by the sound of the machines and the smell of the powder. As a scrawny child, she was able to sneak around all day watching the machines clunk along and the men and boys at their stations. The only women were in offices away from the work floor, so that night she cut her hair short, big chunks of it falling to the floor of this very kitchen. Her dad woke up the next morning to her in overalls, packing lunch for them both. Without a word, he took her butchered hair in his hands and smiled. They ate breakfast while he snipped it a bit tidier.
“Let’s go,” he said when it was time.
They each grabbed a lunch bag off the counter and headed out the door. Jane’s mother, Anne, had left years earlier, so all they had were each other. Sid hated leaving Jane behind each day to work his shift at the armory, and much preferred working at the farms or gardens, where she could come along. After a few days of training Jane in the armory, hoping no one would notice that he had a nephew they’d never heard of before, they were found out. Jane had worried her dad would get in trouble, but instead of removing her, the supervisor let her stay on.
“A good worker is a good worker,” he said when she was dragged into his office by a lady who had found her in the restroom and grabbed her by the ear.
That statement became a slogan, chanted in the streets, a few months later when the policy was officially challenged. It caught on and since then girls have been able to work all rotations and train the same way as boys. Jane hadn’t been trying to change the system, she hadn’t really thought about it other than she liked the work, wanted to do her part, and wanted to be with her dad.
Jane snaps back to reality, and realizes that she is twiddling the ring back and forth on her little finger. She heads up the stairs, and then tries to put Max’s proposal out of her mind. She considers leaving the ring at home, but finds that she can’t make herself take it off. Sid is still staying out of sight, and Jane wonders where he’s gotten to. He’s become a solitary soul, and she isn’t sure she wants to hear what he has to say about marriage, even though she knows he loves Max like the son he never had, and would probably be delighted for him to move in. Jane shakes aside the thought, gets dressed, and leaves, still fiddling with the ring as she walks to work.
She doesn’t own a single piece of jewelry, which has never seemed odd until this moment. Her own mother took everything when she left, and Max’s dad got rid of all of his wife’s things when she passed away. Jane remembers seeing the beloved vanity hauled away in the back of someone’s truck just a few days later. She was walking over to see if she could help, and felt a pang of regret that she hadn’t gotten to play dress up one last time. She was carrying her son, Lucas, who was crying into her ear and pulling her hair. Lucas has no memories of the woman who raised him for those first three years, and Max’s dad never talked about her again.
When the bell sounds for lunch, Jane drops her gloves and goggles at her locker, grabs the sack lunch she brought from home, and heads to the roof. Most of her coworkers gather in the cafeteria, but she prefers to be outside; after years of navigating a noisy mess hall she prefers to eat alone. She climbs the stairs two at a time, bangs open the door at the top of them, and heads straight to one corner to sit along the edge. She feels the sun on her back and looks out towards the water. It’s a clear day and she can even see the crumbling breakwater.
She relaxes and bites into her sandwich. The ring catches the sunlight and seems to shine from within. She stops mid-bite to admire the bauble, so distracted by it that she doesn’t hear the door open behind her. She nearly falls off the roof when a voice calls her name.
“Jane-Anne.” Then, “Oh shit, sorry,” as she jumps in fright and he realizes his mistake. “I thought you heard me come up.”
She turns around and shades her eyes with her left hand. Mr. Langs, her boss’s boss, is standing there. She stands up.
“I don’t want to disturb you,” he fidgets, looking around.
She see his eyes land on the ring on her finger, narrow, and then return to avoiding eye contact.
“No problem, sir.”
Jane realizes her blood pressure is up a bit. He normally only interacts with her when she’s up for yearly review. There’s a long pause while she waits for him to speak, and he kicks at the texture of the roof.
“Mr. Langs? If this is about the designs I submitted, can I come see you after lunch?” she says pleasantly. I’m trying to enjoy the sunshine on my few minutes of respite, she adds silently to herself.
“No. Not the office. It needs to be here,” he finally manages to say.
Oh shit, she thinks, only a second before it happens.
Still ten paces off, he drops to one knee.
“Jane-Anne. I know this may seem sudden. But I want you to know that I have admired you for years. And now that, well, now that I can, I am here to ask you to marry me.”
“Mr. Langs,” she begins, with no plans for what to say next.
“Shit,” he says under his breath. He spent so much time thinking about this moment that he failed to remember that they’re not even on a first-name basis.
“Please, call me Jake.”
“Jake,” she says slowly, his name sounding odd on her lips.
She smiles awkwardly as she repeats it. He smiles back.
“And, uh, you don’t have to answer right away,” he says, though clearly he’s hoping she will. “Please, I didn’t mean to rush through that. I just, well, there’s been no good way for us to get to know each other better. I have wanted to, I just…”
He looks at her, and the confident, authoritative guise he puts on at work is gone, replaced with uncertainty. The transition makes Jane uncomfortable, though, if she’s honest, she’s thought about him before too. And he ranks pretty high when the girls get together and gossip about who they’d choose to repopulate the world with.
“Jake,” she repeats. It still sounds odd, but again makes her smile. “I don’t think we’ve ever even talked before. At least, about anything other than work.”
She notices that she’s still standing at attention, and decides to sit back down on the ledge. He watches her nervously, she does it without even looking back, though there’s a 40 foot drop just over her shoulder.
He’s still down on one knee, though is now regretting the distance between them.
“I know.” He stands up, and comes to sit down beside her. “I know.”
His arm brushes against her side as he reaches into his pocket. Jane can feel his shoulder flex as he pulls a ring box out and sets it on her knee. She looks at it, then at him. He’s watching her so their eyes meet. Jane notices that this makes her dizzy, and she is momentarily lost in his dark brown eyes. She grips the ledge with her free hand. Her leg is tingling from his touch, and the weight of the box is heavy on her knee. She blinks herself free and snaps open the box. The ring glimmers, its large clear stone dazzling in the light.
“Is that a diamond?!” she asks, immediately regretting the exclamation.
What a rude thing to say, she chastises herself internally. But she’s never seen one before, and didn’t think there were any left in the colony.
He smiles a bit sheepishly. “It is. It was my aunt’s.”
“Wow,” is all she can manage.
She runs her finger along the outside edge of the box, too scared to touch the ring itself. He pulls it from the box, where it shines brilliantly in the sunshine.
“I want you to know that we can have a life together. I don’t want you to change. I admire who you are, that you’re here every day, that you’re ready in case of…” he trails off, glancing out towards the water for a moment, then returning his gaze to her face. “I think you’re amazing. And I want to be with you.”
She watches him slide the ring onto her ring finger. A perfect fit.
“Just try it out, see how it feels.”
His confidence is back. Jane has no reply. She isn’t even sure she’s forming thoughts, so doesn’t attempt words.
“It’s ok, you don’t have to say anything right now. Can I see you later? Maybe dinner.”
She looks back at his eyes, which are deep and sincere. She nods, gripping the ledge again.
“Ok,” he gets up. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then. Sorry to interrupt your lunch,” he says, slipping back to formal boss-employee talk. “Oh, and Jane-Anne, happy birthday.”
He turns and walks back to the door. She still hasn’t thought of anything to say.
She goes back to eating the sandwich, all the while staring at the diamond on her finger. She’s too scared to take it off and put it in her locker, so after the bell rings again she slides her gloves on over it, and heads back to work.
Jake doesn’t make an appearance during the afternoon shift, though that’s not unusual. It passes in a blur. When the bell rings at the end of the day, she packs up slowly and lingers in the common room in case he shows up, though she has no idea if she wants him to, or what she would say if he did. Only going slightly out of her way, she walks past his office on her way out. It’s the same office she got dragged to all those years ago, when it belonged to his father. He’s on a radio call, looking grim. He glances up, sees her, and immediately presses the button that terminates the call. He looks blankly at it for a moment, as if he can’t believe what he’s just done, but stands up and comes to his office door.
The radio in his office starts buzzing.
“Where, uh, I mean, can I…” he trails off.
He runs his fingers through his hair. Jane finds his uncertainty charming.
“I’m going to grab a few drinks at Cosmo,” she says helpfully.
He seems relieved. The radio continues buzzing.
“Ok, and, uh, others…”
“They usually leave by 6. Families, you know.”
He seems thankful to not have to ask the questions.
“Ok, I’ll see you there.”
He runs back into his office and picks up the call.
Jane walks the few blocks home, washes up, and puts on clean jeans and a t-shirt. But the diamond feels conspicuous paired with her usual attire. Instead of taking it off, which still doesn’t seem like an option, she decides to pull out the dress tucked away in the back of the closet. She smoothes out the wrinkles and slides it over her head. The jewelry no longer seems out of place, instead her whole body does. Even though there’s no one looking at her except her reflection, she feels conspicuous. She turns back and forth, trying to picture walking into Cosmo like this, and can’t tell if she feels like laughing or puking.
She takes off the dress, in the end walking out of the house in what she would wear any other day, chastising herself for considering any other option. So far, seeing him as Jake instead of Mr. Langs has done nothing to recommend her. As she walks to the bar, she vows to keep it together and shake off the flights of fancy. Even if she’s not sure what to make of his offer, she feels the need to challenge his assertion that he doesn’t want her to change. If he wants her, then he doesn’t want someone who wears dresses, except to weddings and funerals.
She heads to her usual table at Cosmo, out of the walkway, against the wall, facing both the bar and the door. Years of practice has taught her that it’s the perfect spot to get a drink when you want it, and minimize unwanted attention.
Her favorite bartender, Daniel, is working and she sees her friend and unit leader at the bar chatting with him. She decides to forego the usual spot and sit there instead.
Maybe this ring on my finger means I’ll be left in peace, she thinks idly.
She slaps Lacy on the back and sits down next to her.
“JJ! How’s it? Haven’t seen you in too long.”
“Good, Lacy, good. How you been?”
“Yeah, alright. Just heading out actually. It’s bedtime for me. Working wall security, up at 0200.”
Lacy scoots off her stool a bit shakily, steadying herself by putting her arm on Jane’s shoulder. She gives it a squeeze.
“You look good JJ. Let’s get together soon.”
“Ok, night. Night, Daniel,” Lacy winks at the bartender.
He waves his hand. “Night, Lacy.”
Jane watches as she leaves, thinking back to watching Lacy’s back on countless patrols. She turns back to the bar.
“Hey buddy, happy birthday.”
“Shit, does everyone know about that?”
He glances at her left hand and raises an eyebrow.
“Apparently,” he says, and goes back to drying glasses. “What’ll you have?”
“The usual.” She can practically taste the cold beer already.
“Not for your birthday! Let me make you something stronger. On the house.”
She drums her fingers on the bar in indecision. It makes a satisfying sound, so she does it again.
“Yeah, alright. No whiskey!”
“Don’t worry, I remember,” he says, smiling.
As Daniel bustles around, grabbing bottles and stirring up a concoction, Jane swings around on the barstool to survey the room. Only a few people from her shift are in here today, the nice weather keeps people outdoors. Spinning back around to face Daniel, she wonders what they would think if Jake were to show up now and join her. Would they care, or even notice?
They sure would have noticed if I’d walked in here in a dress, she laughs at herself.
“Here you go.”
Daniel smiles to see her laughing by herself, and slides the drink down the bar to her waiting hand. She takes a sip.
He smiles and begins to take off his apron.
“That’s it for me.”
On cue, Nick comes around the corner to take over. Jane gives him a smile, but it’s brief and unreturned. Nick has always been impervious to her cheerfulness and she can’t imagine he would ever make her a special birthday drink, though today she is grateful for his aloof manner.
“But I can’t let you have that birthday drink alone,” Daniel says as he pours a shot and slaps it down on the bar.
He rounds the counter and sits on the stool next to her. They clink glasses. She sips her drink. He takes his shot and gestures to Nick, who pours another.
Daniel is good company, and soon Jane is feeling back to being herself, and even less inhibited after the birthday drink. Talk turns to their jobs. As he gets more drunk, Jane notices that Daniel gets philosophical.
Though don’t we all? she muses to herself.
“Being a bartender is like being a shrink,” he says. “Both help people, and both can keep secrets.”
“You’re not wrong about that. We have to see someone, before and after each deployment to, you know, get our heads straight. And obviously we spend a lot of time at the bar before and after as well. Can’t be sure which one does more good, if I’m honest.”
He nods, and after another drink, they begin sharing secrets. He asks about the rings, and she recounts the story of Max’s proposal in the morning and how Jake caught her on her lunch break.
“I’ve been waiting all day for another one,” she scoffs, her joking manner covering for the unacknowledged fear she’s harbored all day. “You’re not going to propose to me, are you Daniel?” she leans on his shoulder.
He slumps down a little farther, his elbows already on the bar, his head in his hands.
“Huh? No, I, uh, no.”
He gestures for another round. She holds up her hand to Nick.
“No, I’m meeting someone.”
Nick pours another for Daniel, who excuses himself.
“Poor guy,” Nick says, watching him go.
“Yeah, well, here you are drinking with him while waiting for your fiancé to show up.”
Jane blinks at him.
“He’s my friend.”
Nick grimaces. Daniel stumbles back up to his stool. He runs into it and curses, dropping something. Jane hears a metallic clinking as he stoops down and roots around on the floor.
“That had better not be a ring,” she blurts out.
He collapses onto the barstool and holds it out in both hands. It is a ring, made from what looks like wire fashioned into overlapping circles.
“It is. I’m sorry,” he mutters. “It’s nothing like his,” he nods to her hand, “But I made this for you, and I should have just given it to you right away, before you told me everything. Before I knew you had better offers…” he trails off.
“Daniel,” she begins, but he cuts her off.
“S’ok, Jane. You’ve just always been a good friend. And that one time, I just thought, maybe…”
That one time?
She tries to clear her head and think back, but it’s not easy. She struggles against the drunken haze that’s settling in. It’s always been a feeling she’s uncomfortable with, at least when she’s aware of it.
Oh yeah, that one time, she remembers.
Her division had just returned from duty after being away for months. Daniel was working that night and served them when they descended on the place. One of the girls had been making eyes at him, which got the rest of the group interested.
Poor guy, didn’t know what hit him, she thinks.
He was a good sport as Jane climbed over the bar and tried to dance with him. Then followed him out back when he was taking out the garbage. Jane had pinned him against the wall, reached down his pants, and then puked on his shoes.
She put her hands to her temples, trying to clear away the fog.
“Just think about it ok. I don’t want anything to change. I like you. I like our friendship. I just, I was bored, ok?”
“Yeah,” he throws the ring onto the bar. “Keep it,” and turns to leave.
Jane is stunned and doesn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted.
“You were bored?!” She yells at him as he walks away.
Insulted it is.
He stops in his tracks, but doesn’t turn around. A moment later, he moves again, leaving out the front door. She jumps off the barstool and follows him. He’s turned right and is headed down the street, towards his house, where Jane had gone the morning after puking on his shoes. All those years ago, she had knocked on his door, apologized for assaulting him, thanked him for returning her to her group, and left, pretending not to notice the clothes strewn on his floor, including a jacket from her division. She couldn’t make out the name on it, and Jane knew better than to ask the others who went home with the bartender. It had been a long tour, and they learned early on not to judge each other for the different ways they used to relieve stress.
“You were bored?!”
She is screaming at him now, and people on the street have stopped to stare. He stops in his tracks again, then turns around. She closes the distance between them and raises her hand as if to slap him. He is crying, which causes her to move her hand to his shoulder instead, then up to his face. He turns his face to kiss her hand. Then in one swift motion he pushes her against the wall, his arms on her shoulders, and is kissing her. She lets him, for a moment, and he breaks off quickly, before she can decide whether or not to.
“All this time I thought we were flirting.”
His eyes search her face for an answer, but she doesn’t offer one. Instinctively, she reaches up to wipe her mouth, removing the taste of whiskey he left there. He releases her shoulders.
“I guess it’s my turn to apologize. We’ll have to work on talking about our feelings I guess,” he says. He takes a step back, then simply says, “I love you,” and walks briskly away, leaving her standing there, stunned.
Jane goes back inside and sits down on the barstool, pushing her unfinished drink away. She looks down at the ring, still sitting there.
He made it?
She picks the ring up and runs it between her fingertips.
Nick comes over, sees her fiddling with it, and says, “You don’t deserve him.”
She stands up to leave, jamming the ring onto her left ring finger, where it stops halfway. Too small. She laughs, and has the idea to put Max’s ring on that finger too, and the three stack up equidistant.
“I don’t deserve any of this,” she says, not knowing if Nick is even still listening.
She looks up at the clock, it’s 8pm. Jake stood her up.
He proposes at lunch, and then doesn’t show up for dinner?
Jane chooses not to process her feelings about this, and heads for home.
While waiting for water to boil for a cup of tea, she notices a small cake sitting on the table, and a note from her dad.
“JJ, I hope you had a happy birthday. Even if you don’t feel like celebrating, I thought you might feel like cake. Love, Dad.”
Jane smiles and cuts herself a piece. The rings are heavy on her finger and she’s tired of looking at them. She places all three rings into the box from Jake and runs upstairs to stash them away in her closet. She unlocks the safe built into her wall and places the rings inside, on top of a stack of old photographs. Alongside those sit her personal firearm, the one her dad bought her when she first told him she wanted to be a soldier. Her identification tags from the service hang in the back, the only thing resembling jewelry that she’s ever owned. Jane sighs, and closes the safe, checking the lock twice before heading back downstairs.
The water has boiled, she adds tea leaves and sits down to eat her cake. It is layers of delicious chocolate, and Jane closes her eyes to savor the extravagance. But it is not enough to distract her from how different her life is now than it was the previous day.
It seems like a good idea when you’re younger, not being allowed to get married until you’re thirty.
Now that the day has come, she is annoyed by the rule. A few generations ago, it was decided to ensure that young people stayed uncommitted, there’s work to be done and it’s important to blow off steam.
Got to repopulate the world after all, and what better way than to allow for relatively consequence-free relations?
Babies are usually raised by older family members. Once each woman has had two, she has access to birth control. Though now, if a woman has one and gets a specialty license, she can get an exemption. Another new rule once girls got into the factories and military. Another rule put in place because of the revolution Jane started, and she took advantage.
Max and Jane had been friends since infancy, and were sweet on each other as soon as they were old enough to notice. It turned into a raging mess once hormones got involved. The baby, Lucas, was so small and so perfect it scared them both, still only teenagers. They were never romantic again after he was born. It took years to build a new kind of friendship, all the while watching Lucas grow up. He was taken in by Max’s mother, and then raised by Max’s older sister Marge after his mom died ten years ago. Thirteen now, he’s always known who his parents are, and has a good relationship with them.
It’s not like having kids once you’re older, like Jane’s parents were. There haven’t yet been cases where married mothers choose to keep working. Women had mostly administrative and other light duty jobs before the rules changed, and just didn’t go back to work when they had kids. Once again, Jane will get to be the test case if she decides to have more kids. She has always assumed that she’d have more kids some day, but can’t imagine not working at the armory.
Jane finishes off half the small cake during her musings. She puts the rest in the fridge and heads to bed. Thankfully, years of sleeping in camps out beyond means that she has practice sleeping under stressful conditions, and falls asleep right away.