It’s all much too boy-centric in these opening chapters. I need to find a way to get to or flash back to more of the apocalyptic mystery. And I have many tweaks and flushing-out ideas in mind – just torn as to whether or not it’s worth more of my time. Hope you enjoy…
The next morning at work, she heads for her usual workstation, only to find it cleared off. She stops short and blinks a few times. The extra cup of coffee in her hand is just starting to clear away the cobwebs left behind by the strong drinks the night before. Just as she’s checking that she didn’t take a wrong turn, her boss Jim knocks on the doorframe and strolls in. He is a nice enough guy but Jane has always found it hard to respect him, as he just doesn’t seem to have the stomach for weaponry.
“Ms. Bilks,” he begins. Jane has always hated being called that. “I have some good news. They liked your ideas upstairs and want you to join the design team. I took the liberty of moving your things already.”
She sips her coffee, distracted from the good news by deciding whether it’s weird that he packed up her stuff. It takes a few beats to process.
A promotion to the design team is Jane’s dream job, so she is quick to snap out of it. She thanks him and heads upstairs. It had seemed like Jim wasn’t interested in considering her as anything but a grunt. Whenever she brought up the ideas that she’d been tinkering with during breaks from working on the manufacturing floor, he’d brush them off, saying “No need to kill it a second time.”
But that’s never been her point. Jane is motivated by knowing that it could be safer for the soldiers who go out, that more could be done to lower their risk of being hurt or killed. Her most recent focus has been developing a tracking system that could be placed inside the guns made in the armory.
When Jane was very young, the colony was connected by phone lines to the city a few hundred miles away. She has vague memories of talking to her mother’s parents, who lived in the city, and sending them letters in the monthly mail trucks. When she was seven, the lines suddenly went dead and all communication and transports from the city ended. Since the connection was severed, only short-distance radios have worked.
In an attempt to reach the city, armed divisions have been sent out, a little farther each time, but always within radio contact of another base. Troops end up spread out, and sometimes entire divisions go missing on patrol. Without knowing if they got lost or attacked, missions to search for them are often not mounted. Jane’s tracking device could help pinpoint every gun down to within a few feet.
Her drawings have already been shared with the design team she is now a part of, and their enthusiasm for the technology is apparent. Though she recognizes some of the faces on the team, a few of which were also soldiers, she has never worked with them before. Her first few hours of the dream job she’s been aspiring to for years is not a disappointment.
At lunchtime, Jake is waiting for her on the roof. He’s standing where he did yesterday, just looking at her usual corner. He turns and gives a small wave when he hears the door open.
“Hi,” she says, not meeting his eyes, and heads to the wall.
She goes through the motions of setting out her lunch, while repeating in her head, I will act like myself throughout this entire interaction.
He stands, awkwardly watching for a moment, and then sits down next to her.
“I’m sorry about last night.”
“No. I went to Cosmo…”
“No, I was there,” she interrupts, finally turning to look at him.
“At the bar,” they say in unison.
He looks at her sadly. “I don’t know what I expected. Of course you have other offers.”
“You saw me with Daniel?” she asks gently, and then realizes that she’s not ready to be gentle with him. “So you just left?”
She looks at him expectantly and he can tell that answer’s not going to cut it.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have, I just, hadn’t thought about it before, that other guys might…”
“You and me both.”
She gives a little laugh, and he smiles. There’s a pause.
“Next time, don’t just leave ok? That’s shitty.”
“Ok,” he says, then, “Next time?”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”
His posture relaxes.
“How was your morning?” he asks.
“Pretty great, I’ve been on the second floor with…” And then it occurs to her. “Did you get me that promotion?”
“Promotion? I hadn’t heard. Congratulations!”
“Come off it, you expect me to believe you didn’t know?”
She looks at him keenly, trying to decide if he’s bluffing. She’s not sure whether to be impressed or offended if he got her the job.
“Jane, you deserve it. The team met last week to discuss your submissions. Jim speaks very highly of your talent, and your initiative.”
She’s still watching him closely as he says this. He doesn’t make eye contact.
“I can’t tell if you’re bullshitting me. I haven’t spent enough time with you to see through it.”
“Well, we’ll just have to change that, won’t we?”
He finally makes eye contact.
Has he always had those dimples? Jane wonders
“Yeah, ok. Anyway, it won’t take me that long to figure you out,” she says, trying not to blush.
“That’s probably true. But what about me, will it take me long to figure you out?”
“Nah, I’m simple.”
“Now why do I doubt that?”
“I am simple,” she repeats.
“Ok, tell me your story.”
Jane has never liked telling “her story,” it makes her seem more important than she’s comfortable with. But in this case it seems like a simple request, so she just starts talking.
“I live with my dad, just down the road. I love it here, at the armory. Back before I went out beyond, when I was on work rotations, I always missed it when I wasn’t here. Now I miss the deployments. Those were some of the best times, out patrolling, pushing forward.” She pauses. “I’m sure you know the history, that I was part of the first female squad. The Vectors. They changed the rules for us. Command put us all together, didn’t know what to do with us at first. But we were a tight group, showed them what mattered and what didn’t. The camaraderie out there, it’s like nothing I’ve ever known.”
Jane doesn’t usually share details of her division and their missions. The girls she knows are all soldiers and they generally don’t rehash stories. Her dad never asks. She and Max swap adventure stories, but they don’t get into feelings.
Might as well go all in, she decides.
“I loved it, hope I get to go out again, though it’s been a few years since they called us together. What are we doing here in town, how can we enjoy it, if we don’t get out there too, and see out beyond? Make our way to the city. I need to experience the risk out there, it’s the only way I can appreciate the nights when I’m here, the quiet, the safety. You know?”
He’s looking at her, and she tries to make out what he thinking before he can even open his mouth.
“Actually, I don’t know. They had enough volunteers my year. My dad wanted me here, so here I’ve always been.”
“I’ll be thirty in three months.”
“So they ended mandatory service right before you would have had to sign up. That’s my fault, I suppose.”
“Yeah, there were enough volunteers because of the change. The Vectors, man, I remember you all tromping around town, and then every story that came back turned into legend among the girls in my class. Nearly all of them signed up.”
Jane smiles at the memory of how quickly it all changed for the women who wanted to be soldiers.
“But wait, if you’re not even thirty, what are you doing proposing to me?”
“I figured I’d better ask you right away, before anyone else had a chance. Turns out that was a good instinct.”
He smiles at her and places his hand on hers. Their fingers meet and intertwine. Jane’s brain gets fuzzy, so she moves her hand and changes the subject.
“Your dad was a soldier. I remember the pins on the walls of his office,” she says.
Those have been replaced with maps and blueprints now that the office is Jake’s.
“Sure was. Most of my childhood, he was gone. Doesn’t talk about it much, just the usual duty and honor and all that. I hate shipping everything we make out beyond, without ever having been. That’s why my dad made sure to set it up before he retired, so that the soldiers who want to can work here when they come back. It’s a good program, we need people like you, who have been there.”
“And what’s he doing now, your dad?”
“Still involved, visiting camps, meeting with command, planning, organizing. I don’t see him much.”
The bell rings. He stands up and dusts himself off.
“I better go. Uh, see you later.”
“Yeah, ok. I’m upstairs now, kind of a big deal,” she says, puffing herself up.
He smiles, lingers an extra beat, then turns and heads for the door. They made no specific plans, and Jane is surprised to find that this bothers her. As she stands up, she congratulates herself on keeping a level head throughout their conversation, and then realizes that she completely forgot to eat lunch. She scarfs it down while descending the stairs back to her new office.
Jake is nowhere to be found when the shift ends, and Jane doesn’t want to just linger, hoping to run into him. She walks home and finds Max sitting on her front steps. She nods hello like it’s any other day, squeezes by him on the steps, and unlocks the door. He stays on the porch. She drops her things, grabs beers from the fridge, and heads back out.
Like any normal day, she laughs to herself.
“Hey,” she says, tossing him a beer.
“Hey.” He cracks it open and quickly takes a swig as it froths over. He adds an exaggerated “Ahhhhhh,” which for some reason always makes her laugh.
“So…” she begins.
“I saw you kissing Daniel last night.”
Great, she thinks in frustration.
“Ok,” she says tentatively.
“Well, I don’t need your damn permission.”
Even without knowing why she’s gone on the defensive, it rises up and she’s stubbornly ready to hold the line.
“No, of course you don’t,” he mutters, staring into his beer. “Do you love him?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
She stands up, cursing, He should know that the wounded thing isn’t going to fly.
“No, I don’t love him. He bought me a birthday drink, then another,” A pause, while she thinks. “And I think another. He proposed, I yelled at him, and then we kissed. The end.”
She yells all this at him, drains her beer, and turns for the house.
“JJ…” Max says, near laughter. “Don’t…”
He’s up too and puts his hand on her shoulder before she makes it through the door.
“Come back. I just wanted you to know. I was there, I was coming to make sure you weren’t drinking alone on your birthday. I should have expected you’d get other offers. I’ve been counting down to your birthday for months, of course others have been too. I walked right by before realizing it was you that was kissing Daniel. He used to be my favorite bartender. Now…”
“Oh, boo-hoo. So I kissed Daniel. Get over it.”
She flops down into one of the deck chairs. He looks hurt for a second, then shrugs.
“It’d be easier if I hadn’t seen that rock on your finger. Who would expect that from a bartender? Never seen anything like it. Odds are I would have kissed him too if he’d offered me a thing like that.”
Jane almost laughs at this mental image, but instead closes her eyes and pinches the top of her nose.
“Actually, that ring came from Mr. Langs.”
“Mr. Langs? He’s like 70!”
“The other Mr. Langs, obviously,” she throws a pillow at him. “Jake. Took over for his dad a few years back. You’ve been to the armory since then, come on.”
He’s laughing at her now, amusing himself while breaking through her stubbornness.
“Jackass,” she murmurs at him.
“So, three proposals then?”
“Three proposals. Three rings.”
There’s a long pause.
“I need another beer,” she says.
She gets one and returns to the porch, sinking down into the chair as the last of the sunlight warms over her.
“Happy fucking birthday to me,” she mutters, closing her eyes and raising the beer in a toast with the universe.
When she opens her eyes again, Max has moved to the chair next to her. The sun is setting, grey clouds with pink edges streak across the sky.
“Lucas says hi,” he says.
They smile at each other, forgetting any stress between them as they talk of their son.
“I went out there this morning. He’s going to come on my next set of rotations with me.”
Max offers his hand. Jane reaches out and lets her fingertips dance on his.
“There will never be anything more perfect than that boy,” she says.
“We could have another go.”
Jane smiles up at the sky, admitting to herself that it seems like a great idea at that moment. Dropping his hand, she gets up and sits on the arm of his chair. Max dares not breathe as he watches her. She seems even closer to him than she is. Years of unacknowledged anticipation well up between them. She leans in to kiss him. His hands shoot up to her face, then move down her body to pull her into his lap. The connection is still there, even though it’s been over thirteen years since they kissed this way. He didn’t have a beard then, and it feels strange against her face. The rest of the sensation is familiar though, and a rush of hormones quickly takes over. Jane is kissing him greedily when he abruptly breaks off.
“Daniel,” he breathes into her hair.
What? she thinks, and whispers, “I don’t want to talk about him right now.”
He moves his face farther away and clears his throat. Another throat clears from behind her.
Jane widens her eyes at Max, and pulls her face away from him. She turns her head to see Daniel standing there. As she gets up, Max reaches for the pillow behind his back and puts it across his lap, a movement that doesn’t go unnoticed by Jane, or Daniel. She can’t help but smile a little at the ridiculousness of the situation, though also feels bitter that she can’t have so much as a whimsical moment without it getting complicated. A week ago she had no romantic prospects, or so she thought.
Daniel, to his credit, has the decency to look more awkward than wounded.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey buddy, wanna come in?”
She gestures to the door. Daniel climbs the stairs and walks into the kitchen. Jane shoots Max a look to convey that he’s not allowed to eavesdrop, and follows Daniel in, closing the door behind her. It feels weird to have Daniel in her house, and to be the one offering him a drink.
“Just water, thanks.”
She pours him a glass from the evap system, which he takes and then immediately sets down on the table untouched.
“I came to apologize for last night. I shouldn’t have kissed you that way. It was…”
“It’s ok. Only fair, really, considering our history.”
She gives a smile, letting him off the hook. There are rules about consent in the colony, and she and Daniel have both broken them in their interactions with each other.
“No. It’s not allowed. I know better, and I’m sorry. I understand if you plan to report me.”
Jane shakes her head.
“I’m not going to report you Daniel, please don’t give it another thought.”
Daniel is relieved, but has the decency not to show it.
“Now, that I can’t do. I’m going to think about it.”
Jane blushes, and looks away.
“Well, I can’t stop you from doing that. But I…”
“I should go. Just on my break. Gotta get back. Coming by tonight?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” she gestures lamely towards the porch, and they both remember Max sitting out there.
Or maybe he’s gotten up and left. Jane isn’t sure which she’d prefer. Her pulse is still racing, but now that the moment has passed she doesn’t know how she feels.
“Right. Well,” Daniel pauses, “I’m off.”
And he’s out the door before she can say anything else. She heads back to the porch and sees him jogging down the street towards Cosmo. Max is also watching him go, still sitting in the chair, looking a bit smug.
“Where were we?” he says, a conspiratorial glimmer in his eyes as he pats the arm of his chair.
His certainty is what decides it for her.
“You were leaving.”
“So I was.”
He stands up and looks around.
She stands rigid as he kisses her cheek. He heads down the stairs and she watches him leave down the same street as Daniel. She drops into the chair he vacated, enjoying the warmth he left behind as she sinks into the cushions. Tucking her knees into her chest, she sits there until the sky goes completely dark and the stars come out.
Her dad comes home from the gardens and joins Jane on the porch. They sit in silence for a long time. She is instantly able to think more clearly with him there. But she is not sure she wants to think about her choices any more, torn between laughter and screaming at the top of her lungs. She lets out a long sigh.
“How was your birthday?” Sid asks.
Jane just laughs.
“I assume you know that Max was here to ask me to marry him yesterday morning?”
“I do. He asked me if it was ok before you came downstairs.”
This is news to Jane. She can’t picture Max talking about it with her dad, but it also seems natural for him to have sought permission.
“What did you say to him?”
“That he was asking the wrong person. That I don’t much see the point in marriage, but the two of you have been in love with each other your whole lives.”
No wonder Max had such confidence, she thinks to herself.
“What? Anything about that not true?”
“No,” she admits, “But it’s more complicated than that.”
“We had our chance, and it’s been over for ages. Who knows what we’re like now? And don’t you remember how much we fought when we were together?”
“You were kids, playing make-believe. Same as when you were six.”
Jane can’t really argue with this. She can’t remember one fight she had with Max that really meant anything.
“Well, I got two more proposals yesterday, so that complicates it.”
“No kidding, two more? Now all the girls will be wanting three for their birthdays.” There’s a pause.
“Who else wants to marry my Janie?”
“The bartender, ha! Fantastic, we’d drink for free.”
“Very helpful dad. And Jake Langs, from the armory.”
“Jake Langs. Now that’s a prospect.”
“No kidding. My promotion went through at work today.”
Sid sits up straighter and reaches over to pat her arm.
“Well done, you deserve it.”
“I think he was involved.”
“Well, that’s ok now, you didn’t ask him to get you the job. You worked for it, and you’ll work at it.”
Jane feels better at these words, but still wants to know if Jake gave her a promotion because he wants to marry her.
“Drink?” She asks, getting up.
“Yeah, get us some of that spring liquor we made.”
“It’s going to be that kind of night, eh dad?”
She opens the refrigerator and pulls a carboy out from the back of the bottom shelf. Sid had brought flowers home from the gardens when everything was in bloom and fermented them with honey. It’s a strong liquor. Jane pours two glasses, but adds ice and a bit of water to dilute it. Back outside, she takes a sip and enjoys the warming sensation as it travels through her.
“Cheers,” Sid announces, moving his glass to clink against hers.
“Thanks. And thanks for the cake, it was good.”
Her dad grunts in reply. Then it’s quiet for a few minutes.
“How do you picture my life?” Jane asks, after spending that time trying to picture it for herself.
“I want you to have it all. It was never my intention to have kids Janie, you know that.” Jane absolutely did not know that, but decides that’s a conversation for another time. “You’ve done an amazing job of making a life, even in this dusty town. Your mother never liked it here, always wanted to go back to the city. You’ll never have that chance. But you have dictated your own happiness up to this point, so I’m not worried about your future.”
“I am,” she says, and they fall silent again.
“Here’s a question – do you want to get married?”
“I don’t know. I know I should have been thinking about it leading up to my birthday, but I never really did. I’m not opposed to it. But I don’t want to change much from the life I have now. I can see being with someone, having more kids, actually getting to be part of their lives. But I don’t want to stop working. And I still hope to go out beyond again.”
“Do you?” Sid asks, having never considered the prospect. “You seem so happy here.”
“I am. But I think only because I’ve been out there. And I never quite rest easy, I would be kidding myself if I said I thought we were always going to be safe here. I can’t just sit back and hope.”
“Well you’d better get used to that if you’re going to be a parent, Janie. I can tell you that’s most of what I did – just sit back and hope. Hope that you came home every night, hope that you were happy, hope that you didn’t get stuck somewhere you didn’t want to be.”
“You did more than that.”
“Maybe, a little. But you made your own way, right from the start. You’ve always lived on your own terms, and you can keep right on doing so.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Whatever will make you happy. Would marrying Max make you happy?”
“I wouldn’t have to change anything, that’s for sure. He has always been a part of my life. He could fit right back in. Maybe Lucas would want to live with us.”
“Great kid. Always so sweet, and he works hard when he comes to the gardens.”
Jane gets lost in imagining them there together and, for the first time, has a pang for the outdoor work she’s avoided since returning from her first deployment.
Sid interrupts her daydream. “Would marrying Jake make you happy?”
“Shit, I don’t even know him! I know we like the same kind of work, that I could advance in the armory with him.”
Jane decides not to tell her dad about the dizziness she feels around him, but adds it to both the pro and con list in her mind.
“What does he want from a wife, a man like that?”
Sid is trying to picture her in dresses, hosting parties, playing house.
“He says he wants me, no changes. But he doesn’t know what that means. Maybe I should just marry the damn bartender.”
“We’d drink for free!”
They clink glasses again, now almost empty. A few minutes later her dad gets out of his chair.
“That’s it for me. Good night.”
Jane stays a few minutes longer, giving fair time to thinking about marrying Daniel. She pictures a simple life with him, maybe the easiest of any future she can imagine.
There’s a chill in the air now. She takes a last look at the stars before getting up and heading for bed.