Satisfied that he had enough money, Jack opened the register.
He carefully placed the bills and coins in the right spot, taking out what he needed to give himself exact change. He did this formulaically, routinely. The first few times he’d done a transaction with no one at the register he felt a little weird. But now it was just a part of ordinary life for him. When he was done, Jack closed the register, locked it, then grabbed his bag and headed out the door. Just as he did every day.
Jack walked the long road back to his apartment building. The wind whistled through the empty streets and past his face. He was fully aware of the whole road back, every inch and every step, with nothing else to compete for his attention. Everything was still and just the same as it always was.
Jack stood at the crosswalk and waited for the light to change even though there were no cars. He then crossed the street to his building. He walked down the hall to Mary’s first-floor apartment opposite his own and fumbled with the keys as he tried to unlock his door and hold the bag.
"The door’s open," Mary said from inside.
Jack turned the handle and opened the door.
Mary sat at a desk just inside the sparsely furnished room. She smiled brightly and a bit ironically.
"You don’t have to lock it," she reminded him.
He came inside and closed the door. "It’s more prudent."
"Afraid someone’s going to get in?" she teased.
"It’s still more prudent." He shrugged and walked over to the kitchenette where he put his bag on the counter before lighting a match on the stove. "I thought I’d use onions today and fry up the chicken for a change."
"You don’t have to go into work every day," Mary prodded. "You could just do your shopping and come back."
"I need the money in order to buy the stuff. At least until we can grow our own food. Or we have enough stockpiled to make the trip out of the city."
"There’s no one else around to go to the market. You’re basically just standing there in an empty grocery store for five hours every day until your shift is over. All the owners and managers and everyone who would pay you left the city and the money without expecting to get it back. You could just take the stuff we need and we’d be set."
"It would be stealing."
"Is it stealing if there’s no one to steal it from?"
"They might come back."
"They won’t. And if they do they won’t expect it to still be here."
Jack didn’t answer. He just finished assembling the dinner ingredients on the counter and then began chopping the onions.
"Jack, please, come here," Mary pleaded, her hand outstretched to him as she sat.
Jack set the knife on the counter and walked over to her. He knew what that tone meant. He knelt down beside her and looked into her face to assure her that she had his full attention.
"I’m worried about you," Mary told him. "Ever since everyone left, you’ve been behaving very strangely. You keep going to work even though there’s no one there, you stop at crosswalks even though there are no cars, you lock all the doors, you pay for everything even though there’s no one to pay…I’m afraid you are in shock."
"I’m fine, Mary," he patted her hand tenderly. "I promise, I’m fine. I just want to keep being responsible, keep doing my duty to my neighbors, to my city, my country, even when no one’s watching."
"But there are no neighbors," Mary’s voice quavered slightly. "There is no city. They’re all gone. The people the epidemic didn’t kill, left. And the way the disease was spreading, most of them are probably dead too. This is happening all over the country. The world. Only a few of us who I suppose are immune are surviving. We…" her voice broke. She stopped a moment, trying not to cry. Jack patiently waited for her to recover. She finally cracked out a few more words: "We may be two of the last people on the planet."
Jack watched as the tears slowly rolled down her face. He wasn’t sure what to do. He hated seeing her like this. He wanted to grab her in his arms and hold her until she was better. But he didn’t want to overstep himself. Instead, he just knelt there and watched as she cried.
Mary sniffed back the tears. She collected herself and took a deep breath. "Everything we knew is gone. Everything and everyone that could ask something from us. There are no more parents to honor, no more children to care for, no governments or bosses, or poor and needy to give to or friends to get along with… it’s just us. And…" She stopped, unsure if she should say what she was thinking next. "…And I don’t want to live as if they’re still here. I want to be happy. Every reason we had for not being happy is gone. Everyone we can blame or we owed something to is gone. Every reason to put it off is gone. It’s just us. And I…I want to be happy now."
Mary slowly raised her hand and touched Jack’s cheek. His face flushed to feel it. She cautiously, tentatively, leaned forward toward him, as if she were afraid he’d pull away. He did not. He couldn’t.
They kissed softly, tenderly. Jack felt himself filling with euphoria at a breakneck pace he didn’t want to stop. He felt the two of them stroking each other.
"Stop…" he breathed.
The two of them pulled away.
"We said…"Jackwhispered. "We wanted to wait…"
"No one’s going to marry us, Jack. There’s no one left to marry us. There’s no one to witness. There’s no law that makes the certificate legal. It’s just a piece of paper. There’s just us and our understanding with each other. The silly rituals of a ring, making promises in public, asking if anyone has any objections, all have no meaning now."
"It’s still…"
"No, it’s not still."
"Please–let me explain."
Mary took a breath and sat back in her chair.
Jack breathed in, looked down to collect his thoughts. Then he spoke. "When I was twelve, my dad divorced my mom to marry another woman. I asked him why. I told him I thought that when a person got married they made a promise they’d be faithful to each other forever. He told me that circumstances had changed, that he didn’t love my mother anymore, so he didn’t have to be held to that promise."
Jack paused and sighed. "Then a man in our neighborhood’s wife died. Throughout the rest of his life, he never remarried, and always kept his wedding ring on his finger. He had a lot of people tell him that he needed to move on and find someone else. But he didn’t. He spent the rest of his days remaining faithful to the wife who wasn’t alive to be faithful to anymore."
"I think there’s a way we ought to be even if there’s no one else around. I think being honest and faithful still matter. I don’t know exactly why that is, or what…or even always when…But I think it’s there. And if it is… I have to keep reminding myself it is with the little things. Even if it’s just waiting at the crosswalk or putting on a ring, or going to work or asking if there are any objections when no one’s there. Those things make me remember that something else decides how I should live other than me. And it keeps those muscles from atrophying. Because I know…if I ask you to let me carry you and I’ve forgotten those things…I will drop you. And I can never, ever allow myself to drop you."
Jack looked up at Mary. She was looking back at him with affected eyes. She appeared to have understood what he said and was touched by it. That gave him courage.
He was already on one knee, so he just reached into his pocket and pulled out his ring. He held it up to her, and she audibly gasped.
"Mary, he said. "Would you let me carry you?"
Mary began to cry. She nodded and hugged him.
They didn’t even wait to finish dinner. They went to the church and in front of no one recited their promises. When they had finished, Jack smiled: "Whosoever has any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace."
Mary laughed. "You may kiss the bride."
They did.
Jack then wheeled her back to the steps that lead down to the street from the church. He sat her down on the bench right next to it, and carried the wheelchair down the stairs. Once he had, he went back up, lifted Mary in his arms, and carried her down into the wheelchair.
She was so precious in his arms, he thought he would drop her.
He did not.
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