The Marriage Program
by Cherie Reich
"You are now married," the bass voice boomed over the couples' heads and echoed in the large room. "Link hands with your spouses. You will receive your certificates and moving instructions." A gong sounded, and hundreds of feet padded along the concrete floors to receive their nuptial papers.
"Here you go, Mr. and Mrs. Jones. This is your certificate of marriage, including your qualification factors on why you two were chosen. These papers will include your new address in the couples' quarters of the city. Do you have any questions?" Aytia offered the inch-thick manila folder to the new couple.
"No, I don't believe so," Mrs. Jones said, taking the folder and moving along with her new husband.
"Next," Aytia called out. When she looked away from the computer screen, she found her line empty. A satisfied sigh rushed from her lips. She stretched, arching her back catlike and hearing the bones pop back into place.
"All done, Aytia?" Carlos strolled over and leaned against the metal desk.
"Looks like it. I can't wait until July rolls around. I'm sick and tired of weddings." She smoothed some ebony wisps of hair back into her bun. "And, don't sit on my desk. You'll bend it."
"Are you calling me heavy?" He flexed his bicep under his black T-shirt. The bulge ripped the shirt at the seams.
She laughed, the sound rough and bubbly like waves crashing against rocks. "Not exactly, and if you keep tearing your clothes, you'll have to come in naked."
"The ladies would all like that, no?" His chuckles rumbled in his massive chest.
"I think we'll pass." She winked at him while tugging on her black jacket.
"You're disappointed that I'm already taken." He pointed at her. "Your turn is coming up soon, is it not?"
She slung her brown messenger bag over her shoulder. "Unfortunately, yes. I had to file my paperwork in May. My date is in two days."
"Don't worry about it." He placed a meaty palm over her shoulder and patted it. "You'll be fine. I met Sarah through the program when we were married. She is everything I could want." He grinned, displaying straight, strong white teeth. "We'll be moving into the family quarters soon." His dark eyes darted around the empty office. "Sarah is expecting our first child."
She leaned under the weight of his hand. Sometimes she wondered if Carlos was part-giant. When he told his news, though, she smiled. "That's wonderful. Congratulations!" She truly did mean it. After all, she knew the Marriage Program was highly successful. "I suppose I'm nervous. The program has a 95% success rate, but there's always that 5%."
"Well, just don't get cold feet and try to escape. You know what happens then."
"Oh, I know." She suppressed a shudder. "The last thing I want is to be sent to re-education." Her gaze fell to the floor. The re-education section was in the basement of the building. Although she didn't have clearance to go down there, they all heard horror stories on what occurred.
"Good luck in two days, Aytia. I'm sure you'll find your perfect match like I did." He patted her shoulder again and walked off.
"Thanks," she responded, although Carlos had already left the room. "Two days." Her voice whispered the words like a bad omen as she clutched her bag.
Her boots clomped along the ceramic tile corridors while she headed toward the underwater tunnel entrance between Ellis Island and Manhattan. A glimmer of faded sea green caught her eye, and she paused at the window. The headless Statue of Liberty appeared in the distance. From history lessons, she learned the statue became beheaded in 2039 in a home-grown terrorist attack. She had seen pictures of the head, and it had been beautiful. In the other direction, Manhattan wasn't far away. The city once boasted its magnificent skyline, but now, no building was more than five stories tall.
Shaking her head, she continued down the hallways until she reached the shuttle. Seconds later, she and sixteen other workers zoomed down the tunnel at breakneck speeds, arriving in Manhattan within minutes.
The doors whooshed open, and she continued along the underground paths of old subways. The trains no longer worked, so she journeyed by foot to her apartment building on the corner of Broadway and 8th. Dim overhead lights illuminated her path as she reached to her side, pressing her hand against the hilt of her dagger. The tunnels could be dangerous, so she learned quickly to be prepared.
A rat scurried alongside the tracks before ducking into a crevasse. Aytia shivered and clutched the dagger's hilt more tightly. She supposed it would be a good thing to be married. The couples' quarters were located on Staten Island, and it was a much prettier and safer commute.
She walked with short, quick strides, making certain to step over the stray trash and feces. The air was cool and damp with a perpetual foul smell. Her nose wrinkled, and she focused on breathing through her mouth.
A door opened, and a glimmer of light struck the dark grey floor. Aytia didn't look back. Many people traveled through the tunnels since the plague, since worst creatures existed above ground than below.
A hand clasped hold of her shoulder, and she spun around, knife blade shining in the dim light. The dagger paused just centimeters above his chest. "George Rimms, don't you know better than to sneak up on a girl? I could've killed you."
George laughed and threw his arms up. "Sorry, Aytia. I didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't startle me." She sheathed the knife. "It's just not smart to do that." Her eyes brightened as she looked upon George. With his wavy blond locks, sea blue eyes, and boyish charm, George was quite handsome when he wasn't being a dumbass. "So, how's work?"
"It's good. We're working on a new vaccination for the Doomsday virus. We haven't had a single new case in a few months." He walked easily beside her as they chatted.
"That's good." She inwardly shuddered at the thought of the Doomsday virus. Every so often, a new case would sprout up, and everyone would fear the worst. The human race couldn't stand more of the plague that destroyed most of the world's population.
"Definitely." He chuckled. "How's the marriage business?"
She froze mid-step before continuing down the path. "It's good. I'll be glad when June is over, and we can focus on the general business end." She thought about her own upcoming nuptials and wrung her hands.
"Are you okay?" He placed his hand upon hers.
"Oh, yeah. I'm just nervous. It's my turn on the chopping block."
"Ah, I understand. It's mine, too." He paused at their apartment buildings. "I'll see you later, Aytia." He squeezed her hand and left.
"Bye, George." She entered her apartment building and went to her room. The photograph of her great-grandparents' wedding struck her gaze right away. She had forgotten she left it out. She smiled as she saw her great-grandpapa's tuxedo and her great-grandmama's beautiful white dress. They had one of the last traditional weddings. Life was so much simpler before the plague. She sighed, running her fingers along the metal frame. "I want to be happy. Is it so difficult?"
* * *
Carlos placed a hand upon Aytia's arm. "Don't worry. You look beautiful."
Aytia smoothed down her ponytail for the fiftieth time. "I'm so nervous, Carlos. What if I don't like him?" She chewed on her lower lip. "I can't do this," she whispered.
"Shh, Aytia." Carlos glanced around the room, making certain no one overheard her. "We already had one woman taken to re-education today. Be quiet. Just go along with the wedding."
"I know." Butterflies twirled in her stomach like they were battling a hurricane. Her fingertips fluttered over her lips. "It's such a big step." She breathed slowly through her nose.
"Women, please enter room A," a voice announced over the loudspeaker.
"It's time. You'll do fine." Carlos gently shoved her toward the line of women.
Each woman was dressed in dark gray trousers and a black sweater. Aytia fell into line, which buzzed with nervous and excited energy. They bottlenecked at the entrance for a moment until one woman ran the other way.
"No, no, I can't!" The woman screamed as two men caught her and dragged her away.
Aytia shivered, knowing they would re-educate the woman.
After the brief and quickly squashed incident, everyone fell into uneasy silence.
"Put on your blinders," a mechanical voice instructed.
Aytia's hands trembled as she fastened the blinders over her head. Her vision became limited. She could see nothing in her peripheral vision, and her forward sight grew blurry. They didn't want them to be able to see their future spouse until after the ceremony.
"When your number is called, move forward. You will be paired with your spouse." The machine paused. "Number 129390."
The group of 150 women dwindled as each woman's number was called and brought into the main ceremony room, where they were paired with a mate. "Number 103182."
Aytia swallowed hard when they called her number. She exited the waiting room and entered the ceremony room. With drab gray walls and cement flooring, the place was as gloomy as the old subway tunnels, but it did smell much better. Protocol dictated she keep her gaze straight ahead. She spotted Mark in front, who would marry them, and she gave him a slight smile.
After filing into line, she stood with her right hand held out to her future partner and waited.
Once the last numbers were called and the man and woman filed into the room, Mark lifted the bullhorn. "Women, join your right hands with your spouse's left hand."
A warm, dry hand enveloped Aytia's cold, clammy one. She knew she was making a terrible first impression, but her nerves had gotten the best of her. His fingers entwined with hers, though, and she thought he might not be too bad. Of course, she still couldn't see him. For all she knew, he could weigh four-hundred pounds, have a glass eye, and have constant flatulence.
"You are joined together today with your spouse. You are to love and honor each other all the days of your lives. Marriage is a sacred ceremony, and yours will be successful if you remember to listen to each other, find compromises, and most of all have love in your hearts. You've been matched most successfully to each other. So, hold your soul mate close. Lead happy lives. By the power invested in me by the state of New York, I pronounce you husband and wife." Mark's voice boomed over the room. "You are now married. Remove your blinders and view your partners."
Aytia turned toward her partner, searching his face through the blurred, black mesh over her eyes. Slowly, she removed her blindfold as did her spouse. Shock ran through her, and a burble of laughter burst from her lips. "George Rimms, don't you know better than to sneak up on a girl."
George laughed, clutching her hands in his and bringing them up to his lips. He kissed them, causing her to blush. "You'd think I'd learn by now, wouldn't you, Mrs. Rimms?"