“I’ll miss your signature, sweetheart.” In the legal department of the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke scratched his name next to Langley’s on their marital and corporeal cohabitation papers. He was wearing slacks, a button up with a little white flower pinned to his breast, and her second-favorite cologne, which smelled of ginger, leather, and coffee.
“It’s the last time I’ll write my name and I wish my hand hadn’t shaken so much.” Absently, Langley reread the binding document:
I, Langley Dodson, and I, Zeke Dumont, vow to be of One United Body from this day forward as Lake Dumont, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, to love and to cherish, to honor and to treasure; from this day forward for all the days of our life.
“Separate parts joined together make a better whole. That’s all that matters,” Zeke whispered to her through a kiss on her temple. “Tomorrow can’t come fast enough.” He kissed her on the lips. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.” Langley turned around and Zeke’s Fathermother clapped the groom and bride on their backs. Langley’s parents hugged her. The uneasy tension in the arms of her mother and father made her throat constrict again.
“We’re going to miss you so much,” a red-eyed Mr. Dodson whispered to his daughter.
“She’s not going anywhere,” Mr.-Mrs. Dumont remarked with a wry smile.
Mrs. Dodson pursed her lips and looked at her feet. “Right. Of course.”
Langley knew her mother had more to say. Out of respect she’d stopped there.
“You know how much this’ll help us financially, Langley? That tax break. Doubled pay.” In a snug honeymoon suite at the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke hugged his wife and massaged her neck. “I mean, of course, Being One with you’ll be terrific. I’ve thought about Being One with someone since I was a boy.” His hand glided down her side. “Since I understood that my parents were One. Just think…” He held his hand against her hip, still covered by her wedding dress. “In about a year, our child, made under perfect conditions by some very clever people, will sleep at our house for the first time…” Zeke’s smile widened.
His words… the last thing she wanted was for his words to penetrate her ears. And the idea of a child growing anywhere but within her renewed the heaviness in Langley’s chest and shook up the anxious matter in her mind. Zeke tried to pull her closer to him, but she moved away and stepped over to the door. She stood with her lips kissing the back of her small hand. If she reached out, she could open the door. She could run.
“This is what you want,” Langley whispered.
“What?” Zeke attempted to hug her from behind, but Langley squirmed away. “Langley, this is what you want, too… right?”
She lunged at the door handle and turned it. The door seemed stuck. Why was it stuck? This facility was too new for the doors to be stuck. She pulled at the door again and then realized that Zeke was holding it closed.
“Are you nervous for tomorrow?” He disengaged her hands from the door handle. One of his hands held both of hers while he brushed a loose strand of rusty blond hair behind her ear. “I’ve dreamed of this for so long. I love you.”
“I love you as you, and me as me, Zeke.”
“There will be more to love once we’re One.”
“Think of the good we’re doing, sweetie. Over-population—”
“I don’t care about over-population.” A tear ran down her face. Then more came.
“But don’t you know how much I love you?”
“If loving me was enough, you wouldn’t make me Be One.” Langley pulled her hands from his grasp. Her engagement band slid on her finger to her knuckle. She repositioned it, her eyes drifting to the wedding ring on Zeke’s finger. Both their names were engraved on the interior of that ring. It held both their birthstones.
“Is this because we decided to be a Husbandwife and not a Wifehusband?”
“I want to be a husband and a wife. I don’t want to a voice inside your head. I don’t want to Be One.” Those words felt better leaving her body than a fresh breath of air felt coming in after holding it during a long swim. She bit the inside of her cheek.
A crease formed between Zeke’s dark eyes. “You signed the papers. You’ve been okay with this until now. Not a peep. Are you really doing this to me?”
Her lips trembled. “I feel terrible.” Her breath came in gasps.
Sighing through his nose and leading her to the bed, Zeke sat her down. She cried silently as he removed the glistening pins holding her waves and curls in place. He held the golden, heart-shaped barrette he’d given her for their first anniversary. His palm dwarfed it. “I love that you wore this.”
Unable to help it, she smiled through her tears. The little pin was too juvenile for a twenty-year-old, but the least she could do for Zeke was to wear it on their wedding day. She’d never wear it again, after all, unless she changed Zeke’s mind.
“I want to keep being me.”
“When I look in the mirror, I want to see myself.”
“You will. Because we’ll Be One. One self.” Zeke placed her hair decorations on the side table before he drew his fingers through her hair, separating the moused and hairsprayed strands.
Langley groaned. Her muscles went rigid. “I feel terrible. This is what you’ve wanted, but I—”
“Can we sleep on it, honey?” Zeke drew her close into a hug that she endured like a cat resisting a child’s attention. “That’s all I ask. Time to think. Time to rest. Today was a bit stressful.”
She sucked on her upper lip. For his sake, she could feign consideration. She brought her arms up and lightly hugged him back. “I am tired.” Lots of spouses backed out at the last moment, whether Zeke wanted to admit that or not. Time would not make her embrace the transformation ahead of her.
Zeke grinned and kissed her face. Then he kissed her again and again until he found her lips. “Now, Mrs. Dumont, I’ll start us a shower. Can I give you one great rubdown? I need to run my hands over you. One last time.” He kissed her temple.
Her stomach hitched. There was his oblivious enthusiasm again, and his eager kisses scalded her skin. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “Sure, dear.”
Zeke’s eyes went wistful for a moment as he stood up. Heading to the bathroom, he mumbled. “Mrs. Langley Dumont…”
Langley sat on her hands for a moment, rocking herself. She then looked over. The suite had a balcony. Opening the sliding glass door, she stepped outside and took a breath. A little table and two weather-stained plastic chairs sat facing the view.
“How many have sat here?” she mused under her breath. “What were their dreams?” She leaned over the railing. Their suite was on the twenty-eighth floor, if she remembered right. The sun was setting and the wind was blocked by the building. Trees in the distance shuddered as the wind ruffled their leaves. She scratched an itch on her forehead and raised herself up on her tiptoes.
Zeke said something from the bathroom, and she looked over her shoulder and cocked her head to the side, but his low voice was muffled by the walls and the water falling in the shower. Turning back, she gazed over the railing and a little chill went through her.
Could she? Dare she? Was jumping to her death better than corporeal cohabitation with Zeke? He didn’t seem to acknowledge her unwillingness at all. He wanted to hear her protestations as much as she wanted to hear his wishes.
Footsteps behind her. “That’s a beautiful view.” Her husband put an arm across the back of her neck and his hand on her shoulder. He’d removed his shirt. “You look beautiful, but it’s about time you got out of that dress. Take that makeup off. Get those muscles warmed up.”
Langley closed her eyes. “I really think you’re making light of my—”
“You’ll be happier once you know what it’s like. It’s not scary at all. You’ve seen how happy my Fathermother is. They’ve told me over and over how it was the best thing they ever did.”
“Zeke. The scores on our compatibility test were borderline.” She swallowed the lump in her throat.
With a hand on the small of her back, he guided her back into their suite towards the bathroom. “I love you, Langley. That’s all that matters.”
She closed her eyes and felt bile rise up in her throat. “I think I want to shower by myself.” She broke away from him.
Hurt filled his voice. “Sweetie, I just want—”
She slammed the door and locked it. The condensed air was throttling and the mirror over the sink was covered by silvery gray fog. Fumbling, she slithered out of her wedding dress and left it puddled around her feet. Her body shook despite the steam. She gagged.
“Langley.” Zeke knocked. “Langley. I know you’re afraid. Talk to me.”
Langley crouched down on the floor, her fingertips pressing against the tile that had a fine film of mist on it. “I’m telling you that I don’t want to Be One. I’ll do anything else with you. Why aren’t our vows and rings enough?”
“This isn’t a surprise. You’ve known about my wishes to Be One from the start. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I thought I’d warm up to it…” Honestly, she had. She rubbed her teary eyes. “I should have said something, but you don’t always listen. I want to love you as me. I want to touch you. I want to be with you. I want you to go do things on your own, and then come back and tell me your stories. If you truly love us, you’ll let me be.”
The silence on the other side of the door was relieving. At first. He was listening to her, finally listening. Right? The sound of Zeke listening to her was very strange. Langley stood and turned off the shower, her muscles tense and her ears searching for Zeke’s voice. C’mon. Guilt and anger stabbed at her heart.
“Langley…” The grief in his voice set her nerves on fire. “Okay.”
She froze. “O-okay… what? What’s okay…?”
“I’m pushing you too far,” he said. “I see that now. We don’t have to be a Husbandwife.”
Jumping up, she unlocked the door, fell into his arms, and pressed herself against his chest, rubbing her face into his skin. “Thank you. I love you.”
They cuddled in their marital bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. Langley thought about asking to sleep elsewhere for the night, but didn’t want to be a bother when the bed was perfectly fine, despite its location at the Symbiogenetic Center. Zeke was quiet. Langley repeated herself several times when she spoke to him because he didn’t catch what she’d said. He was grieving his dream of Being One with her.
“I’ll be the best wife. We’ll have no regrets. Just you wait.” She snuggled against his neck, wrapping her arms around his chest to his back.
He rested a hand on her back.
After a while, they made love, and then they shared a light serviced dinner and some wine just before switching off the lights. Langley sighed and nuzzled her head into her pillow. Sleep came on quickly and she rested in fearless peace.
Langley smiled, expecting the fingers interlacing with hers to belong to Zeke as he tried to wake her up. The sooner they left the Symbiogenetic Center and went home to their apartment the better. It was bad enough the Center was in their hometown.
She opened her eyes.
A nurse, looking down on her, smiled. The suite had been swapped out for a sterile little chamber.
Langley shivered. What was this? Why wasn’t she in bed with her husband? Had something happened during the night and she’d been admitted to the hospital?
This was a last minute decision, but it was the least we could do, I thought.
She looked around for her husband. She’d clearly heard his voice, but where was he?
The thoughts in her head turned over as easily as if someone had dialed in a different radio station. Don’t be afraid. You’ve always been more comfortable in your skin than I’ve been in mine. You’re so beautiful, sweetie.
The nurse stepped back as Langley murmured, “What? I don’t…”
Zeke’s words finally registered.
Langley, don’t be afra—”
No! Zeke! I told you I-I… There was something on her head. She raised her arm to touch it, but her limb froze half way from her reaching it.
Just relax. I will take care of us. We have nothing to worry about. Don’t panic the nurse.
You lied to me, Zeke!
How? Why? He’d betrayed her.
I didn’t expect you to feel so strongly, sweetie.
Tears of frustration ran down her cheeks as her body trembled. How could you have not known? Get out of my head. Now.
Langley knew Zeke was there, waiting to speak, in the background of their mind like a lingering bystander at a crime scene. Why couldn’t he just answer her?
Sweetheart… they’ve already destroyed my body. I’m sorry. I love you.
Cassandra Mehlenbacher lives in the Pacific Northwest and received her BA in English from Central Washington University in 2014. She has publications with The Airship Daily, Wordhaus, The Story Shack, and others. When she isn’t writing and fending off the bills, she is drawing animals or spending time with loved ones.