It was time. Mama and Daddy said it was time. I was almost nineteen years old. I could haul wood, split logs, drive Daddy’s tractor, mend a fence, plant and seed, drive the mechanical hoe, and work the harvest. I could download the daily news and even read the newscasts out loud if the audibles weren’t working. I could feed and take care of babies, having helped to raise my six younger siblings. I wasn’t tall but I was strong, ready to work and to parent and to manage a household. So Mama and Daddy said it was time. Besides, with last year’s harvest gone bad and the new baby on the way, they could use the money.
As I walked the three miles into town to buy the sugar I would need, I thought about what it would be like to be married. I’d have a house of my own, and I could make my own decisions. I would decide how much grain to plant, and whether to borrow from the lenders to plant more. I would decide whether the vegetable garden would do better on the north side or the south side of the house. I would have a respite from the relentless daily racket made by my six younger siblings—at least, until I had children of my own. But I would decide how many children would be in my household.
Of course, I would not make these decisions alone. There would be someone else.
I walked the dusty road, trying as always to see if I could walk the entire way on the faded double yellow lines. The old blacktop was most stable toward the middle anyway. Much of the rest of the road had crumbled away, and on hot days like today, some parts still sizzled in the sun, even at this early hour. The dark, choking odor of hot tar filled my nose. I had to be careful not to step where it was too hot or I’d get tar on the bottoms of my shoes. That took forever to scrape off, and sometimes it would burn right through the soles. I’d gotten in big trouble for that once because Well, who was a year younger than me, needed to inherit my shoes when I outgrew them. So even though it was unlikely I’d be outgrowing any more shoes, I stuck to the middle, hopping the big potholes and counting them to pass the time. The pack on my back was light, holding only my lunch, a water bottle, a big plastic bowl, and a small paintbrush, but my sweat still soaked the thin cotton of my shirt.
It was harder to focus on the road when more houses started to appear on the sides. I only went to town a few times a year, and I was always curious about how the town people lived. Thirty years ago, after the Second Global Contagion swept through, most of the remaining people moved away from the cities. Nobody wanted to be so close to other people anymore, and the government—what was left of it—was selling farmland cheap, to anyone who could make a go of producing the crops the rest of us needed to still survive: grain, corn, sugar. Still, against all common sense, some people persisted in the old-fashioned notion of living close to other people. Mama and Daddy said those people were ignorant and stupid. They called them toxic communalists. As I walked past the houses that grew closer together, sometimes as little as thirty feet separating them, I wondered at the thinking that would convince people that they could be safe in such significant proximity.
Mama had given me the coins for a big bag of powdered sugar and the small bottle of food coloring. She and Daddy went over the rules with me, although I already knew what to do, from the stories I’d heard from friends: make the sugar paste and paint it on the corners of the store signs, road signs, old traffic sensors—anywhere I could. That way, everyone in town would know that someone of marriageable age would be at the town center by the end of the work day. Folks would use their fam-phones to alert others in their network—extended family and maybe even a few friends, if the towers were providing a strong signal that day. Then the suitors would come, and someone would make an offer to my parents, and I would be married.
I was not afraid. At least, not much.
As I neared the center of town, I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. I always got nervous in town—so many people around, big crowds, twenty people or more, walking the streets and going in and out of stores. A car passed me, which made me jump. Of course, I knew how to drive—I was driving our old Honda across the fields when I was twelve, dragging the big rake we used to turn over the soil. But there hadn’t been money for gas in years, so now ours sat unused next to the field, rusting. The buildings in town were low and huddled together, like they were whispering to each other, and some even had second stories. I knew some families lived above their businesses—the baker, the locksmith, the tech repair shop—but I’d also heard rumors that sometimes one family lived in the same building as another. I didn’t put much stock in that, though. People were always looking for something to gossip about, since not much happened around here. Or anywhere, really.
I saw the general store up ahead on the left. I had to cross the street to avoid a couple walking on my side, who seemed oblivious to anything but each other. I slowed down and watched them for a few moments. Their arms were linked, which told me they were married. Their heads were close together and, despite their face coverings, I could see that they were laughing. I wondered if that’s what marriage would be like. Mama and Daddy rarely laughed, though sometimes Mama would give us her tired smile, and Daddy would nod in approval when I finished a job early and well. But this couple seemed different. They seemed happy.
I wanted to keep watching them, but they were going the opposite way, and I was approaching the store. There was no line outside at the marked waiting stations, so I walked right in. The door opened automatically and closed behind me with a vacuumed swoosh of air. Inside, the ventilated and air-conditioned climate cooled me immediately, even sending a chill up my back where I had sweat through my shirt. I glanced briefly at the gleaming rows of fruits, vegetables, fam-phones, small appliances, used but sterilized clothing, and shoes, though the pervasive smell was of sawdust and cut metal from the continual reconstruction of old cabinetry to house all those items. I took one more look down the aisles I longed to explore, but I knew my purpose and walked directly to the cashier.
“One large bag of powdered sugar, please, and one small bottle of food dye,” I said as importantly as I could. The cashier in her plastic-enclosed box raised one eyebrow but said nothing as she punched numbers in her desktop, and the conveyor belt started moving. I envied that computer, wondering what I could see and learn with just five minutes on it. My parents said that wasn’t much left on the Internet—just a bunch of dead sites made by dead people. But I still longed to see for myself, to explore the old world and see what it was really like.
The cashier startled me out of my reverie. “What color dye?” she asked neutrally, as the conveyor belt rolled several tiny plastic containers of food coloring about three feet in front of me. Here I hesitated. Mama and Daddy had said to choose a bright color: pretty pink or sunny yellow, new-grass green or cheerful lavender. The store had all those tints and more, with the colors displayed neatly on the bottles. I almost panicked, knowing that this decision was mine and no other’s. I could feel my heart speeding up again as my eyes razed the bottles, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the options.
Then I spotted a bottle marked dark blue, almost an indigo. It was not bright and cheerful but somber and serious. It had depth to it, like midnight when there’s a new moon. I instinctively reached for it, but when the cashier coughed, I quickly pulled back my hand. “The blue,” I said.
The cashier picked up the blue with one gloved hand and placed it in a box, along with the sugar that had also arrived on the conveyor belt. She indicated she was ready, and I put the coins in the slot next to the checkout desk. She nodded, opened a side plastic panel, and placed my box onto a table next to her desk, quickly closing the panel. I walked around, picked up my box, and left the store without looking back.
I crossed the street and walked down the block, seeing nothing around me this time. I headed toward the park. It was actually just a little green area with a few gnarled trees and overgrown bushes, but I always visited it when I was in town, and today it was empty. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe, so I loosened my mask, knowing no one was around to see. I sat down on the ground with my parcels and took some deep breaths, to steady myself. Then I got to work. My hands still shook a little as I removed the contents of my pack and started mixing sugar, water, and dye in the big bowl.
As I worked, I felt the tension leaving my shoulders. I had made this recipe hundreds of times, to smooth over the birthday cakes of my younger brothers and sisters. Butter was hard to come by, but these ingredients were still widely available, and the recipe was simple. I mixed the sugar and water to get the right consistency, then added the food coloring. Only a few drops were necessary to turn the sugar blue, but I found myself adding more and more, swirling in the color. It was a dark and dreamy shade, maybe the azure of the sea, though I’d never been to the ocean. My hands stopped trembling as I stirred and stirred, the blue sugar becoming smooth as the twilight sky. When I’d used the entire bottle, I removed my mask, dipped a finger in the bowl, and touched the cobalt concoction to my lips. It smelled of home, and the sweet taste was my childhood.
Finally I arose and, leaving my pack on the ground near an old tree, knowing no one would touch it, steeled myself for what must come next. I headed back across the street with my bowl and little paintbrush, and I started dabbing the blue sugar on everything I could see. I walked up and down the main road, brushing the sweet paste on signs, old light poles and hydrants, the side mirror of a rusted-out truck that sat on blocks at the corner. As I walked, I felt appraising eyes on me. I wondered if they saw what I see in Mama’s mirror: strong shoulders, narrow waist, hair curly but close cropped. The heat rose to my face, but I continued walking and painting, not stopping until I’d walked the length of the street twice and had emptied my bowl.
I ended back at the park and surveyed my work. Deep blue splashes plastered the street. I knew the next rain would soon wash them away, but I wondering if some of the stain might remain, suddenly hoping that my marks would not disappear so quickly and completely. I knew this was nonsense; the point of using sugar was because it would vanish, dissolving in the next storm. I told myself to be satisfied with a job well done, that Mama and Daddy would be proud. I retreated back to my little park and settled down to wait.
It wasn’t even 11 a.m.
I spent the afternoon dozing in the meager shade of the stunted trees, watching people walk by—usually solitary, sometimes in groups of two or three. I ate my sandwich—bean paste and lettuce on brown bread—without tasting it. It felt like sand in my mouth. I tried to keep myself from thinking about how many suitors would come, whether I would like them, if my parents’ choice would be in line with my own, how my life was about to change dramatically from the one I’d known. I’d been waiting for so long to get away from my younger siblings, constantly crawling on me and giving me not a moment of privacy. But I suddenly missed them terribly, like a deep ache in my chest, knowing it could be months before I would see them while I quarantined with my new spouse. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes, but I blinked them back quickly. I was an adult now, and needed to face adult responsibilities.
The day wore on. As the sun began its slow descent, I finally made out the figures of my parents trudging slowly up the road toward me. From this distance they looked older, more tired than I expected. I had assumed this day would be a blessing for them, with one less child to care for. But for the first time it occurred to me that they might be sorry to lose me—not just for the work I did on the farm, but for me, my presence. I forced a smile onto my face as I greeted them.
My mother glanced around. “You did a good job of coating the town,” she said, “but blue?” She eyed me warily.
“It just spoke to me,” I answered quietly.
She nodded, glancing around again with a sigh. Perhaps she thought I had intentionally sabotaged the marriage event. Perhaps I had. Perhaps no one would want me. Was that what I was hoping? I couldn’t tell.
Daddy took my right arm. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go see what we can make happen.” Mama took my left arm, and together we stepped out to the entrance of the park to wait.
We stood there for what seemed like hours in the descending dusk. A few people still walked past, keeping their distance but nodding politely. The sun was setting, and no one had approached. I could feel the rigidity of my parents’ arms, holding my own on either side. My heart sank as I considered whether I had wasted their scant coin and ruined my own chances.
Then a single figure appeared in the distance, moving steadily towards us. As the figure approached, my heart beat rapidly, like a bird trying to escape a cage. I felt my face heat up, and I could taste my own saliva.
As the person approached us and stopped on the other side of the street, I sensed my parents relax. They recognized our near neighbor, from the farm twenty miles down the road. Recognition entered me as well. As the adults made small talk across the open space, about the weather and the lack of supplies from the coast, I surveyed my potential spouse: taller than me but not much older, also well built with muscular arms and torso. I did not dislike what I saw.
Finally, our neighbor turned to me with a curious, not unfriendly gaze. A few moments passed. Then, “Will you have me?”
I hesitated, but I knew what I had to do. “Yes. Will you have me?”
I kissed both of my parents on the cheeks. Mama’s face was wet and salty with tears. “Be good,” she said, “and know you always have a home with us.” Daddy couldn’t speak but hugged me tightly.
I crossed the road and we stood facing each other. “I like the blue,” she said. Her hand on mine was warm and dry.