“Merritt, would you please do the honor of marrying me?”
Merritt stopped in her tracks. She had been leaving the room after visiting her best friend, but now she was frozen.
No way. No way he had just asked her that. Wasn’t possible. She’d been hearing things.
“I know this might come as a shock to you. It must. But please, Merritt…will you do this for me? Before…”
“Shht,” she said, silencing him. “Mark, just shut up.” She cringed when that came out of her mouth, but she didn’t regret it. She didn’t want to hear any more. Didn’t want to think about it.
“It’s not nice to talk to a dying man like that, you know,” he replied quietly.
Merritt finally turned. She hated seeing him like this. Her strong, proud friend reduced to a withering sack of bones in a hospital bed. Sterility all around him, with a cloud of death suffocating the room.
His face was no longer handsome, his hair missing in patches. But she could still see her friend.
“Sorry,” Merritt managed. “But come on. You don’t need to worry about stuff like that right now. You need to concentrate on getting better,” she choked out on a sob. “I’ve got to go.”
And this time she made it out of the room. She made it only a few steps before she broke out into a run, hearing Mark call her voice from the door she’d left open.
She ran faster, pushing past a nurse, and upon finally reaching the elevators, frantically hitting the buttons, hoping that sheer force of will would bring the car faster.
She lunged through the doors as soon as they opened, knocking a guy in a suit back into the car as he tried to exit.
Merritt pressed her face into the corner, the cool metal of the walls helping calm her down. What was her friend thinking? Marriage? Now? He was on the verge of death, infected with a cancer that they hadn’t been able to beat.
She felt her balled fist smash against the elevator car’s wall, and she repeated it until the pain in her hand overwhelmed the pain in her heart.
When she felt a hand on her shoulder, she nearly took that fist and smashed it against the head of the person in the car with her.
Luckily, he ducked.
“Whoa, there, calm down!” His hands were up in the air, surrendering. “Are you okay? I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
Merritt found herself panting, breathing hard, her back pressed against the back wall. Was she okay? Not really. Her best friend was suggesting they get married on his deathbed. There really wasn’t anything okay about that.
“I’m fine,” she lied, slowing her breathing and managing to get a grip. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“Fortunately, I have fast reflexes. What’s going on? Did you get some bad news down on fifty-two?”
Of course she’d gotten bad news. What other kind of news was there on sub-level fifty-two of the Unified Underground Hospital Network? It’s where the most severe cases went. The last stop. The furthest to travel for the families that insisted on supporting their practically dead fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins…or best friends.
He didn’t believe her, and it showed on his face. “Right. Well, where are you headed? I can at least get you to your floor.”
“I’m going to the surface,” she said without thinking. Yes. That’s where she needed to be. In the gardens, where it was quiet. Peaceful.
“Um…are you sure? I was headed up to Surface 15, there’s a real nice little place up there where we could get a drink. I know the owner, we’ll get a table with good views.”
Merritt stared at the stranger. What was this? People weren’t just nice, there was always a motive. Mark and she had lived by that rule their whole lives. It was just them together, they couldn’t trust anyone else. No one would look out for them like they would look out for each other.
Which was why it was going to be so damn lonely without him.
“Fine, yeah. That sounds good.” Apparently she was in a mood to live dangerously. The surface wasn’t dangerous, but the surface levels were.
Especially for someone like her.
“Good!” He took out his card and swiped it in the panel, pushing the appropriate code on the keypad, and the elevator took off.
Merritt never liked elevators. She could feel them moving even when no one else could, and she always felt like she was moving in the wrong direction.
“So you’ve got someone sick down there?”
“Dying,” she corrected automatically. “He wants me to marry him.”
“Really? Wow, that’s some off timing.”
“Tell me about it. We’re friends. Best friends. He doesn’t need to be worrying about this now. He needs to fight.”
“Some kind of cancer they won’t cure,” she replied automatically before correcting herself. “Can’t cure, I mean.”
“Well, I’m really sorry to hear that.”
He actually sounded concerned, too. It felt good to have someone to talk to that was a little removed from the situation.
Their elevator arrived, and Merritt stepped off first. She’d never spent a lot of time in the surface levels. They seemed artificial, and entirely too clean. She liked being able to get a little dirty, to play in the gardens, pick weeds. It made her feel like she was home.
Inside just felt like a prison.
“Two, please,” her companion said to the man standing beside the door of the cafe bar thing they were about to enter. “Can we get a table near the windows?”
She noticed him flashing his card to the other guy, and wondered to herself if it would be worth stealing.
But she was tired. She was tired of fighting to live. Maybe it would be worth getting married, just so she could breathe a little easier before going to bed at night. Not having to worry about where the next meal would come from.
They were seated, and two glasses were set on their table. He didn’t ask what they wanted, just pushed a few buttons, waved his card, and they were filled with something that smelled much like the flowers she’d seen outside about a month ago, and had about the same color.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind. It’s my favorite, something I made up once that just kind of stuck around, you know?”
She knew. Lots of things just kind of showed up and stuck around. You grew attached to them, and then couldn’t imagine life without them.
“Want to tell me about your friend?”
Merritt sighed. She did. She desperately did. But still, she held her tongue. “Not now.”
Her companion nodded. “Well, I’m Terrik,” he said, holding out his hand. “I know formalities like this seem a little silly after you’ve already tried to deck me, but…”
He was smiling at her. Merritt looked at his face for any sign of pretense, but there wasn’t. He was simply smiling.
She tried returning it, and shook his hand.
“Wow, it’s been a while for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Smiling. Yours is kind of rusty.”
This time her smile was genuine. “I suppose so. I haven’t had much to smile about since Mark got sick.”
“How sick is he?”
Merritt’s face grew dark. “Only a few days. They’re just making him comfortable. The cancer…it’s taken over his heart.”
Terrik reached over to take Merritt’s hand. When she raised her gaze to his, he raised his glass.
“To Mark,” he said quietly.
Merritt smiled, raised her glass as well, then drank until the glass was empty.
“So, what are you going to do?”
Marrying Mark…that would put her in a whole different class. She’d spent her life an orphan, without family, the worst offense in the world she lived in. No one was willing to claim her, so she lived on the surface, in the slums. She watched the towers, hating what they represented, hating that she couldn’t have it. At some point she had stopped wanting to be part of them and started actively avoiding things that could have gotten her in.
Marriage would change her status. A widow was an honored woman in her world. No, it didn’t make sense that a widow would have honor where an orphan would not, but she never stayed unwed long. Men would swarm to her side, beg to help her rebuild her family. There would be assistance from the government, a place to stay.
A warm bed, away from the rains and the snowstorms that created such lush landscapes for the towers to view from a distance.
“I don’t know,” Merritt replied. “I just don’t know.”
This post of fiction is part of the April A to Z Blogging Challenge. I’m doing short stories, about 1,000 words, based on words I like that start with today’s letter. Don’t forget to check out the participant list to check out other amazing bloggers blogging about today’s letter!