Sun 1 Dec 2013
Today was a perfect day, with three flaws. It was snowing here in Miami, one of her brides had trouble recognizing her, and her cummerbund wouldn’t stay up. The cummerbund was the only problem Mel could fix. She brushed ashes off the church office’s desk and rummaged around for safety pins. She found typed notes for an old sermon, some yellow pushpins, and three tampons. Mel took the tampons and left the rest. Not a single safety pin, which surprised her–for a place that looters hadn’t been through, there was little here. Underneath the desk, Mel found a paperclip. After a moment’s thought, she opened her pocketknife and cut two holes in the cummerbund’s back. She unbent the paperclip, wired the cummerbund together, and attached it to the belt loop on her black jeans.
Her bridesmaid poked his head in. “How’re you doing in here?”
Paul had a fake poinsettia flower wedged behind his ear. Mel laughed, a tense noise that hurt her throat. “Paul, where did you get that flower?”
He grinned and walked into the office. Paul had been a small-town Georgia fireman, in sunnier days. He wore a plain gray shirt that exposed his well-muscled arms and new blue jeans that fit well. Mel wondered where he’d found them. Paul said, “I look like a hippie, don’t I? Well, a hippie on steroids. You look sort of James Dean meets Roy Orbison. I like the bow tie.”
“I told you–you didn’t have to get girly. You can be my best man.”
“I’d rather be a bridesmaid,” he said. He hummed the first few notes of “I Feel Pretty.” Mel laughed again, relaxing into the moment. Paul did a clumsy pirouette, stomping snow from his boots into the ash-streaked carpet. Florida snow was moist and sticky–hard to believe it was so acidic. It was the kind of snow that people used to make snowballs from.
“I’m stressed out,” said Mel. “Today has to be perfect.”
“No wedding has been perfect, ever,” said Paul, stopping mid-twirl and regarding her more seriously. “Something always goes wrong. That’s the nature of them. But that’s what makes them perfect–they’re all different. This one is yours.”
Mel thought about it as she looked out the window. The church was in a neighborhood that had survived better than others. The damage was mostly broken windows and stolen property. A man dressed in black walked across the street, carrying an AK-47. When Mel caught his eye, Jose saluted her through his facemask and kept patrolling. Eight other Warehouse members guarded the church, and twice as many were still at home. No one expected the foreign armies in Georgia to sweep down to Miami, but they couldn’t be too careful.
“I guess so,” she said, “but there’s a damn lot of things that could go wrong here.”
“It’ll be fine,” he soothed her.
“This isn’t exactly how I pictured my wedding day.” Across the street, Jose took aim at something. A dog scampered off down the snowy street.
Mel had read about supervolcanoes once, years ago as an undergraduate. She had taken geology as an elective to supplement her biology coursework. She’d read about the volcanic activity in Yellowstone Park. Facts had entered her mind, as guests into a home: an eruption 2,500 times worse than Mount St. Helens. Lava and burning gases flowing 600 miles in all directions from Wyoming–enough to destroy Seattle and Santa Fe and everything between. Enough to bury the American West under 13 feet of pure rock, release trillions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, and trigger the San Andreas Fault. Yellowstone erupted about every 600,000 years. It had been 620,000 years since the last eruption.
These facts were entertaining companions for a while; they served her well at a party that night, where a bunch of bio students got drunk in a dorm room and compared their favorite doomsday scenarios.
“Global warming, rising oceans, flooding of all coastal cities,” said Carlos, on his fifth beer.
“Unprovoked nuke attack on the Middle East, retaliation, global warfare,” said Kate.
Mel raised her glass and said, “Supervolcano buries the western U.S. and throws the whole planet into nuclear winter.”
But Taresh won with, “American public watches worst season of TV ever, yet remains enthralled. Government runs amok and no one cares.” Everyone laughed, and conversation wandered elsewhere.
Mel forgot that conversation for the next fifteen years. The facts lived in her brain, sitting quietly in the spare room. She went to grad school in Berkeley and wrote her dissertation on trumpeter swan migration patterns. She met Corie–a loan officer at the bank–and fell in love at first sight. She got her first teaching job in St. Louis and brought Corie with her. Mel was thirty-five years old, and her worries were–in retrospect–small. She wanted tenure. She wanted to buy a house. She wanted to write a groundbreaking paper.
Then Yellowstone erupted, and the facts became a nightmare–the guests that demanded every minute of her day and gave no sign of leaving.
Someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” Mel said.
Dr. Green spoke as she entered the office. “Corie’s having an episode.”
“Dammit,” said Paul.
Mel’s heart sank. “What kind?” she asked. “Anxiety? Trouble recognizing people?”
“Places, this time,” said the doctor, tucking her hair behind her ears. She was the only Warehouse member who didn’t go by her first name. Mel respected Dr. Green’s skills, but found her brusque and condescending. The older woman had never mentioned it, but Mel suspected she had religious reasons to dislike lesbians. The doctor added, “She doesn’t know where she is.”
“Well, where is she?”
“In the sanctuary.”
“The main worship space of the church.”
Mel was horrified. “In there? What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t put her there,” said Dr. Green stiffly. “It was Jess and Hernando. They thought she’d like the stained-glass windows. Besides, she had to wait somewhere.”
The sanctuary had been decorated for an expensive wedding–presumably last year, for the Sunday after Yellowstone. No one had taken anything down. It must have been spectacular once–the bouquets of carnations, roses, and baby’s breath, tied with red and green ribbons to the wooden pews. The pair of arrangements next to the altar, with silver bells at their bases, might have cost nearly a thousand dollars. Now, the ash-stained ribbons held tarnished bells and dried flower husks. Mel thought of Corie, alone in that dark mausoleum where someone’s dream had died. “I’ve got to go to her,” she said.
“I’ll go,” said Paul. “Old tradition–she won’t want you to see her, not before the wedding. Bad luck.”
“I’ve seen her a zillion times before.”
“She’s the one who wants to do this the old-fashioned way,” Paul reminded her. “You might upset her more if you go in there. Let me. I’ll talk to her.”
“She does better with Mel,” said Dr. Green. The doctor folded her arms and looked at Mel expectantly.
Mel was deeply torn. She wanted to run to her partner’s side, but Paul was right. The last thing she wanted to do was upset Corie on her special day. “I can’t believe you left her alone in there,” she said to the doctor. “Someone should have stayed with her.”
“She’s not alone,” said the doctor. “Rayvenna is with her.”
Mel sighed with relief. “Why didn’t you say so? Rayvenna can handle this. She and Corie are great together.”
“Mel,” said the doctor, in a tone that carried a warning. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
The last thing Mel needed right now was a lecture. She adjusted her bow tie with a sharp tug. “I don’t have time for this.”
“Hear me out, Mel. I have to speak up. My conscience won’t let me be quiet. I don’t think you should do this.”
Dr. Green held up a hand and silenced Mel with a look. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through. Corie isn’t herself–not really. She’s heavily brain-damaged, Mel, in a way that people don’t usually survive. I’m not even talking about the physical problems–you know what I mean. She doesn’t recognize you half the time, nor anyone else. She has trouble understanding where she is and what’s happening around her. You know how unreliable her memory is–the anxiety, the depression she suffers.”
Mel’s temper flared. “We’re all pretty anxious and depressed, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I don’t think you understand how changed she is.”
“If you’re going to say something, say it.”
“I don’t think Corie understands what’s going on today.”
“You’re wrong,” shouted Mel. She balled her hands into fists. Paul moved behind her silently and put a hand on her shoulder. Mel took a deep breath and forced calmness into her voice. “I know Corie. I’ve been with her for eight years. You’re right, she’s changed–but I’ve changed, you’ve changed–we all have. I know Corie. I know what she wants, and what I promised her.”
“She’s been talking about this wedding all month. She remembers my promise too. And she understands the risk of leaving home. She knew how dangerous it was to split the Warehouse between home and here. She told me she was worried about a raid at home and the Chinese army coming this way. She understands, Doctor. She remembers. She knows.”
Dr. Green clasped her hands together in front of her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s so hard for you. I know you think this is about your sexual orientation–don’t look at me like that, I hear things through the Warehouse the same way you do. It’s not about that, I swear. I admit it took me a while, but as I got to know you I saw that you love each other. I won’t separate two people that God has put together. I’m just saying–don’t bring Rayvenna into this.”
So that was the real problem. “Rayvenna matters too,” snapped Mel. “She’s part of us now.”
“It’s not fair to Corie.”
Mel pushed past the doctor. “Screw tradition. Corie needs me. So does Rayvenna.” She stormed towards the sanctuary.
Corie had always dated men, before Mel. She looked like a mischievous cherub, with fluffy blonde hair and sly blue eyes. The women had started as friends, during a conversation at the bank as Mel took out more student loans. It turned out they both liked birds. Mel invited Corie birdwatching. They spent hours together hiking in the wilderness, with just each other for company. Soon Corie got Mel interested in her own hobby: volunteer work. Together they picked up trash along the highway, served oatmeal in a soup kitchen, and sorted clothing donations in a women’s shelter. Corie’s wicked sense of humor and generous spirit made her irresistible. Mel had a huge crush on her, but tried to bury it for friendship’s sake.
Hugs turned into kisses turned into exploration. Mel’s friends warned her away from “the straight woman,” but Mel was firmly in love and certain that Corie wasn’t as straight as she claimed to be. Corie moved into Mel’s place, and they dated for two years without calling it that. When they were together, Mel felt more like herself. She couldn’t explain it any differently–she just felt it was okay to be Mel, to let down walls she’d built in her childhood. And Corie said that when they were together, she felt wanted and loved. One night Mel asked the question, after they’d made love in an obviously non-straight way.
Corie said, “There’s just one thing holding me back, and it’s ridiculous.”
The afternoon light through the window made squares across their naked bodies. Mel stroked the soft curls resting against her shoulder. “What’s that?”
“You’re going to laugh.”
“Swear I won’t.”
“Ever since I was a little girl… I’ve wanted a white wedding. You know, the whole shebang. White dress, champagne, flowers–everything. I think it comes from being Catholic. I had it beaten into my head… but I want it. I want my family there, and all my friends, and–well, just the perfect day. I used to play dress-up with my mom’s bedsheets. I held my veil in place with a tinfoil tiara.”
Mel didn’t laugh, although she liked the idea of Corie in a tinfoil tiara. “So?”
Corie reached up to rub the top of Mel’s head. “Well, there’s usually a groom in a white wedding. I guess there doesn’t have to be. There can be two brides. But I still want the wedding. Does that make me a bad feminist?”
Mel’s breath caught in her throat. “I can wear a tux. I’d look better in one anyway.”
“You can wear a dress if you really want,” said Corie, with a naughty grin and wandering fingers. “Except mine has to have more sparkly bits. I’m the princess here.”
Mel felt like she was flying. “It’s a deal, Your Highness.”
When Mel moved to St. Louis to take a teaching job, Corie transferred to a local branch of her bank. They rented a small house near the university and registered as domestic partners. They figured they’d do the wedding someday, when they had more money. After a while, the wedding became something on their to-do list, somewhere after “buying a house” and before “traveling around the world”.
On the day of Yellowstone–sometimes Mel just called it The Day–she’d been shoveling snow. She didn’t mind the chore, especially in late afternoon when the holiday lights sparkled in the twilight. The weather was clear and cold. Corie was inside, soaking in a cranberry-scented bubble bath. Last night they’d had a low-key birthday dinner for Mel, where Corie had given her a new pair of binoculars and a gold locket. They’d planned to make Christmas cookies together later–the most subversive thing she could think of for two queer women to do on a Saturday night.
In Missouri, the supervolcano was a sight before it was a sound. The western sky darkened. A plume of black smoke rose like a nuclear cloud, then fell and rolled across the horizon. The sky rumbled, and the wind roared down the street. A blast of warm air struck Mel’s face. Mel put down her shovel and stared, just before the ground shifted under her feet. She threw herself onto the snowy yard and grabbed the mailbox. She clung to the metal pole, protecting her head as houses collapsed around her. The air smelled like gas and smoke. It felt like years passed, although it must have been minutes. When the earth was still, she lifted her head. The front corner of their house had fallen. She rushed inside.
Corie lay partly submerged in bloody bathwater, her head underneath a broken shelf. Mel dragged her out and emptied water from her mouth–too frightened to scream. She restored Corie’s breathing, but couldn’t wake her. When she called 911 and got no answer, she bandaged her partner’s head herself with a clean bedsheet. She looked out the window for help. In the streets, people panicked–a neighbor with a ham radio told her it was a volcano in Wyoming and half the country was buried in lava. “New Madrid fault ruptured,” he said. “San Andreas too. Like cracks in an eggshell. Things are bad out there.” Mel saw few choices. She wrapped her partner in a blanket, carried her to the Jeep, and strapped her down in the backseat.
Mel thought The Day was the best name for it. No other day could really be referred to anymore. Pearl Harbor, 9/11–these were days with names, minor events that could be described with words that went in a history book. The Day overshadowed them all.
Mel headed southeast, away from the epicenter. Traffic was a lawless nightmare, zooming past her both on-road and off, underneath the dark rumbling sky. Mel figured everyone knew this was big. Like her, they held little hope of a place outside the disaster area–not in the United States, and maybe not even on the planet. Mel got ten miles out of St. Louis before someone rear-ended her–a crash of metal, a violent shaking, a hot airbag pressed against her face. The other driver–a terrified-looking teenage boy–died minutes after the collision. She and Corie were only bruised, but their Jeep was wrecked enough that she couldn’t drive it. She sat by the side of the road, her head pressed against the steering wheel, out of ideas.
Mel found Corie in the sanctuary. The room was cold; snowy air blew through broken stained glass windows. At first Mel couldn’t understand what she was looking at: a pile of impossibly white fabric in Corie’s wheelchair, with Rayvenna hugging it. The fabric spilled over the chair’s arms like a waterfall, with pearl beads swimming through a satin river. It was a photograph from the past–a miraculously clean dress from before The Day.
Then she understood–Corie was underneath all that. Tears streaked Corie’s face. The translucent veil was arranged to cover her paralyzed left side, and her shorn golden curls peeked under its edge. Mel knelt by her side and hugged her–one arm around Corie’s shoulders, and the other clasping Rayvenna’s waist. Someone–somehow–had found a wedding dress for Corie. Mel’s throat tightened with gratitude.
Corie whimpered and choked. Mel kissed her cheek. “Corie, we’re here. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
“Isn’t she beautiful?” whispered Rayvenna. “Luisa found it in someone’s attic, wrapped in plastic. She wanted to surprise us. The dress was way too big, so we duct-taped it together in the back. We found lipstick too, but it didn’t look right on her so we wiped it off again.” She dabbed a lipstick-stained cloth at the corner of Corie’s mouth.
From this side, Corie’s partly-veiled face was expressionless underneath. She was shaking, and she hadn’t acknowledged Mel at all. “All dead,” she said, slurring the words. Her voice had the plainness of a child with the dissipation of a drunk. “Everybody dead. Dead, dead. Dead flowers. Dead people.”
“Let’s get her out of here,” Mel said to Rayvenna.
“She wouldn’t go,” said Rayvenna. “She said we had to stay at the wedding because it was the only place you’d find us. She said we all had to stay together.”
“Who’s that?” asked Corie, her voice rising sharply. “Ray, who’s that? Who?”
“I’m Mel.” Her heart broke every time this happened. “See? Look at my fuzzy head. That’s Mel’s head. You can feel it if you want to.” She tilted her head forward, waiting for Corie to rub it.
Corie looked, but didn’t touch. “Where’s Mel’s necklace?”
Mel yanked off her bow tie and dropped it. She pulled the small gold locket out of her shirt collar. “There it is, see?”
“I, uh. Gave that. To Mel.”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Mel,” Corie said, and broke into a lopsided smile. “We’re all here, all. All three of us. Me, and Ray, and Mel. Now we can get, get… get married.”
Mel reached for Corie’s right hand and squeezed it. She looked at Rayvenna. “Let’s go somewhere else. Where to?”
“Um. Can’t do the community room–Tina’s setting up the reception there. The hallway is full of everyone waiting to go into the chapel. Maybe the women’s bathroom? There’s a little couch and a powder room.”
Hanging out in a powder room on her wedding day. Well, why not. “Fine, let’s go.”
Mel called herself agnostic, but for a moment she’d believed in miracles. The enormous RV pulled up alongside them like a chariot from heaven, gleaming as white as an angel’s smile. Cars behind it honked angrily as it blocked the lane. Rayvenna leaned out the passenger side, her long black hair whipping in the wind. “Need a ride?”
Inside the RV, the ashtrays were taped shut and the blankets lay flat on the bed like they’d been ironed. It looked like the vehicle had been created only minutes ago, just to save them. Mel put Corie on the bed and joined Rayvenna in the front.
Rayvenna had the corn-fed goth-girl look common in the Midwest–dark hair and eyes, but Rubenesque curves and healthy pink skin. She spoke with sunny optimism, but her eyes revealed pain. It took less than a minute for her to tell her story, while pushing past maniac drivers on the road. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we’re bigger than they are. We’ll win any collisions.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Mel. “So how’d you get here?”
“I was with my boyfriend in a dealership–Kansas City–looking for an RV. For Burning Man next summer. Mark was talking to the salesguy inside the showroom. I headed out to the RV for a test-drive. That’s when it hit. I took cover inside the thing. When the shaking stopped, all the cars and buildings were wrecked except the RV. I got out and stood there, looking at where Mark had been. I couldn’t lift the rubble, and he couldn’t have survived underneath there. I saw the dark cloud in the west, and cars speeding past on the freeway.”
Mel didn’t know what to say, so she kept listening. Rayvenna continued, “I had two choices. Either give up and cry–or take the keys and run. I didn’t know what was up. Nuclear bomb maybe. But I had an RV, and a full tank of gas.”
“What about your boyfriend?” Mel asked.
Rayvenna’s grin froze. “He didn’t deserve that. No one did.” That was all Mel got out of her on the subject, until a few days later. In retrospect, it was the first example of Rayvenna’s gift: always living in the present, and leaving the bad things behind. It was contagious, and it was what Mel needed.
They looted a gas station for nonperishable food, bottled water, and plastic gas cans. Rayvenna knew nothing about medicine or first aid, but she held Corie’s hand in such a compassionate way that it helped Mel feel better. “She looks like a girl I had a crush on in high school,” Rayvenna said.
“I’ll…” Mel swallowed. “I’ll drive for a bit if you stay with her.” She felt like if she had to look at Corie’s injury anymore, she’d break down and be useless. Now she had to hold herself together, like a vase glued with elementary-school paste, until there was a time and a place to be vulnerable.
They wheeled Corie down the hall and into the powder room, with Mel pushing on the chair handles and Rayvenna carrying the vast train of the wedding dress. It took both of them to maneuver the chair with all the trailing fabric. Mel wished Corie could have a motorized chair, but that was a fantasy.
The powder room had a thick blue carpet coated with ash. Vanity-bulbs lined a wall-sized mirror–the lights didn’t work, but at least they were whole. Corie looked much happier to be out of the sanctuary. Mel couldn’t blame her for that. Mel wheeled her up to the mirror. “You look so wonderful. Like a princess.”
Corie smiled. “I’m a funny princess! Broken. I drool.”
“You’re beautiful,” Mel whispered.
Rayvenna set down the pile of satin and knelt beside Corie. “You’re the best princess ever.” She kissed her cheek.
“My castle is uh, uh, a bathroom. Bathroom castle. With uh, a toilet.”
Rayvenna smoothed Corie’s veil. “Sounds useful. Your guests will always have a place to pee.”
Mel liked to watch them together. Corie was more relaxed with Rayvenna. Mel sometimes got impatient with Corie’s slow progress. She wasn’t good at watching Corie struggle to name pictures or remember a list of words. It tore her up when her partner couldn’t recognize her face or remember how they met. Rayvenna was a natural therapist, and she found Corie’s determination inspiring. The younger woman had a gentle touch that Mel envied sometimes. Right now, Mel was so stressed that watching Rayvenna and Corie made her feel left out. It reminded her of the nagging feeling she had–that today would go wrong, just like everything else had.
Mel finally noticed Rayvenna’s clothes. “What the heck do you have on your head?”
Rayvenna wore a bow tie like Mel’s–they’d found them in a theatre–along with black pants, a gray lace shirt, and an almost-empty roll of duct tape around her arm. On her head she wore a small white veil, held in place by a circlet of tinfoil and some tape. She laughed. “It’s the lining from Corie’s veil. There’s no real place for a third person in this whole traditional wedding thing, so I thought I’d go half and half. Bow tie and tinfoil tiara. The mad scientist goes to prom.”
“Tinfoil,” said Corie, and she winked at Mel. Mel knelt down and kissed her. It was terrifying sometimes, what Corie remembered, and what confused her.
Mel hadn’t meant to fall in love with Rayvenna any more than she had with Corie. The feelings were like spring cleaning in a house, trying to create more space–and realizing the spaciousness was built into the architecture itself. She had to clear away the junk before she could see what was already there.
They made it to Nashville, but the hospitals were jammed. One of them was on fire. The nearby houses showed that the quake had damaged Tennessee too. Traffic was alternately deadlocked, then dangerous. Visibility was close to zero. Mel and Rayvenna discussed what to do. Their best hope was to keep traveling southeast, looking for medical help. They had no way to feed and hydrate Corie without choking her. All they could do was hope she woke soon. A coma could last for days, weeks–and there was no telling how much of Corie had survived.
The gas station had provided a good amount of food and water, including a large supply of peanut-butter cups that Rayvenna insisted on bringing. As she put it, munching on chocolate, “I’ve already committed grand theft auto. If there’s anyone looking to prosecute me when the dust settles, they won’t be worried about eight boxes of peanut-butter cups.” Later, Mel would tease her mercilessly about saying when the dust settles.
They stopped in small towns along the way, looking for a doctor. They found a kind pharmacist in Murfreesboro who gave them medical gauze, amoxicillin, and OxyContin. “For when she wakes,” he said. “End times are here anyway.” The sky was nearly pitch-black as he spoke, and the air smelled like burnt matches. He said there’d been a chemical spill in India–not sure yet whether there were more quakes, or if someone panicked. He told them rockslides blocked I-24 into Chattanooga and they should try US-41 instead, which led to a terrifying night down a nearly-invisible road. Mel thought that the pharmacist was right–these were the end times, and all these years she hadn’t believed. She wondered how long it would be until they died, before the waking nightmare turned into sleeping peace. She tried to think about something other than Corie. The only thing that came to her was how all the lovely trumpeter swans she’d studied were probably dead.
Corie woke up 29 hours after her accident, just outside of Chattanooga. She moaned like she was dying, then vomited on the bedding. She didn’t respond to her name. Rayvenna supported her while Mel poured sports-drinks down her throat. It was risky to move her, but riskier not to give her water. Her head wound was ugly, but it didn’t look infected. Mel kept it safely covered. In Chattanooga, they finally found a hospital. The doctors gave Corie an IV for hydration, but said they were nearly out of backup power. The EKG reading showed that Corie would probably live, but would need a lot of rehabilitation–and given the current situation, the doctor told Mel bluntly, “There are no guarantees that kind of care will be available.”
Mel wanted to shake him. Take care of Corie. Help her. Save her. But the supervolcano, long-dormant, had woken something in her–recognition that she was on her own, like she’d been for so many years.
“I’ll take care of her myself,” she said, folding her arms. “Tell me how.”
The doctor looked like he would argue, then smiled sadly. He gave Mel a five-minute crash course in head injury care. Around them, the hospital filled as more and more people arrived.
The three women spent the week together in the RV: Corie sleeping on the large bed in the back, Mel and Rayvenna scrunched together on the smaller bed. Rayvenna was younger than she looked–only twenty-three, just out of college. Her boyfriend had been a decade older, and a successful computer professional. She’d met him in Nevada last year just after her first girlfriend had dumped her. She spoke of him briskly, and for a while Mel was fooled into thinking she didn’t care about him.
Outside the RV, everything stayed dark. The volcano was still erupting. The wind made their skin itch and their throats burn, so they stayed inside when they could, even though the vehicle smelled like sweat and urine. Mel and Rayvenna took care of Corie, spoon-feeding her applesauce and OxyContin. At one point, while they were counting their remaining supplies, Rayvenna said, “Mel, there’s something I want to tell you.”
“What?” Mel was lifting a flat of bottled water, not entirely listening.
“I… I was raped.”
Mel put the flat down and looked at her. Rayvenna added, “Six years ago,” but that’s not what Mel was thinking. She was thinking about how it wasn’t a non sequitur, how it made perfect sense in context.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Ray,” she said. “No. Sorry isn’t enough. I’m–”
“It’s okay. It’s over now. I just wanted you to know. I thought you should.”
“Do you want to–”
“No. It’s fine.”
“They tried to drown me once,” Mel said, not realizing she’d say it until she had. “The other kids, I mean. I grew up queer in rural Idaho. Usually they just beat me up until I learned to fight back. But one time I think they really would have killed me.” She told Rayvenna the story she kept walled off and rarely told anyone, about a fast-moving mountain stream and icy water. After that, the walls crumbled: they talked about ex-girlfriends, secret fears, and childhood Christmas presents. Both liked the Great Pyramids, neither wanted to have kids, and each had her own idea for creating world peace that no longer mattered.
When, after three days, Rayvenna broke down sobbing, it was natural for Mel to hold and comfort her. Later that night, it was just as natural for Rayvenna to hold Mel as she cracked open, burdened with the weight of loss and the extent of Corie’s injuries, knowing that her partner would be damaged for life. She wanted to forget what awful things she’d said that night–something about, “We’re better off dead–we should have died that afternoon–” Rayvenna rubbed her head, and kissed the tops of her ears, and Mel cried until nothing was left inside her.
They had occasional visitors to their RV, which sat in a Chattanooga mall parking lot. It was from these guests, and the occasional pickup of a local AM station, that they learned more details. The western states were a wasteland of igneous rock. Toxins from the Indian disaster were spreading across Asia and Africa. They heard a tsunami had destroyed Japan, but that turned out to be rumor. “Which is good,” commented Rayvenna, “since a tsunami would be kind of anti-climactic after all those Godzilla movies.”
The ash was the immediate problem, and the most obvious one. It was six inches deep in Tennessee and still accumulating. Ash settled across the Great Plains like snowfall–ten feet deep in some places. Dust filled the air even in Moscow and Tokyo. No one had seen the sun in days. People were dying of particle inhalation, they heard, and the situation would get worse before it got better.
Mel and Rayvenna welcomed anyone who knocked on their door. Most visitors were well-behaved and accepted whatever food the women spared. Four men tried to steal the RV one night, sneaking up to it with knives in hand. Mel punched one in the face as Rayvenna switched the ignition and floored the gas. They thudded against something as they sped away. Mel didn’t look back to see who it was.
After that, they changed cities each night. They used their extra gas cans and headed toward Daytona Beach. The ashfall was shallower here, and driving was easier. Corie was often frightened, and didn’t know where she was or who she was with. Mel stayed with her constantly, and Rayvenna drove the RV. At nights Rayvenna would join them in the back room, and all three women would sleep together. Mel needed Rayvenna now. She had a way of smiling that made it all bearable. Rayvenna brought hope when Mel had none.
After three days, Rayvenna commented, “We’ll be out of gas soon. Not really sure where we’ll get more–and even then, we’ll run out eventually. I’m glad the volcano finally stopped.”
“Think we should park somewhere permanent?” Mel was thinking of the men with knives.
“Yeah. But somewhere safe. I just don’t know what will happen, long-term.”
“This is global,” said Mel. “I’m serious. Nuclear winter is coming.”
“Well, things will sort themselves out eventually. Won’t they?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But there’ll be a lot of killing until that happens. Last time a supervolcano went, it knocked humanity down to a genetic bottleneck of about 10,000 people or so. Toba catastrophe theory, it’s called. Anyway, we’re going to need better shelter and protection than this RV. We need more people. A community.”
“We could head south,” said Rayvenna. “Miami. I’ve got Burning Man friends there. We should have enough gas.”
“It’s a start.”
“At least we have the RV. I tell you, this thing was a steal.”
Mel laughed so hard her sides hurt, grateful that Rayvenna was always–well, herself. She didn’t recognize that feeling as love, not until much later, and when she did it took her months to accept it. It helped to learn that Corie loved Rayvenna too.
Paul stuck his head through the restroom door. “There you are,” he said. “They’re just about ready in the chapel.”
“What are they doing in there?” Mel asked. “No one’s let me near the place all morning.”
“You’ll see,” he said, with a mysterious smile. “By the way, Jake wants to talk to you. He’s here with me. Says it’s important.”
Jake was one of the original Warehouse members, who’d held down the place with shotguns to drive looters away. Mel didn’t like him. He was short-tempered and violent, and he made Corie nervous. She’d overheard him comment about “hot lesbian action” once. He spent a lot of time talking about the next generation of the Warehouse and building a good future for them. But he was family now, for better or worse, and if nothing else he was strong and young and able to defend them. Mel had to admit that Jake was great with the Warehouse’s kids.
Mel looked at her brides. If Jake had come down from his sniper’s nest on the church roof, something was really important. Corie said, “Is Mel going away?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“It’ll be just a moment,” said Rayvenna. “I’ll stay with you. Mel will be nearby, I promise.”
“Okay,” said Corie. Rayvenna stroked her hand. Mel leaned over and embraced both women. She kissed Corie’s cheek underneath the veil. Corie looked up at Rayvenna, who rubbed the top of Mel’s head. Then Corie smiled. “I’m not a, uh, afraid now,” she said.
Mel kissed Rayvenna, then slipped out the door. Jake stood there with Paul, one hand in the pocket of his beat-up jeans. He carried a sniper rifle under his arm. His hair was ash-gray and snowy, like he’d aged four decades by stepping outside. His breathing mask hung around his neck on a dusty cord.
“I’ll go see Corie,” said Paul, as he went into the bathroom.
Mel stared at Jake, her guard up. He looked like he was going to say something, and then changed his mind. “What do you want?” Mel asked.
He shuffled his feet. “Just wanted to say congrats. On the wedding. It’s kind of a weird wedding and all, but it’s nice to have something for the Warehouse to celebrate. I hope God blesses today for you.”
Mel was taken aback. “Well, that’s very nice of you to say.” But surely he hadn’t come off the roof just to say that. There’d be something else, something stupid he’d go and say–
“All three of you are really sweet girls and all. You’re great people.”
Mel didn’t think she qualified as a “sweet girl,” but she understood what he meant. She relaxed a little. “Thank you. It means a lot to hear that from you.”
“I have a question. I guess I shoulda asked this before, but–you’re going to let Rayvenna have kids, right?”
“Rayvenna. She’s bi, right? So she could have some kids or something. You all could raise them no matter who the father was. I wouldn’t ask you–I know you’re a dyke and all, and you wouldn’t like to do it, but–”
And there it was. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jake looked uncomfortable, like he regretted bringing it up. “I just mean–you know, repopulation. She’s young and healthy. You three can raise the kid, of course.”
Mel wanted to swear and punch him, but she held her temper. “Get the hell out of here, Jake. She doesn’t want kids, and if she did it certainly wouldn’t be with you.”
“I mean it,” he said, “I hope God blesses your day. I just mean, think about kids.”
Jake eyed her and stepped back. He walked down the hallway, past the Warehouse members who were standing outside the chapel, and out the front door. Mel pressed her face into her hands. Everything about today was tense, wrong, out of place. Something terrible was coming, she felt sure–a blizzard, an attack–there was no way to know, no way to predict it.
After a moment she heard the bathroom door open. Soft familiar hands touched her arm. Rayvenna took her hand and squeezed it. “Corie sent me to check on you. Hey. You’re sweating.”
“And your hands are like ice.”
Rayvenna drew her hand away. “I heard what he said.”
Mel blew out her breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want that. But I bet he’d just love to have sex with you. Asshole.”
“It’s okay,” said Rayvenna. She took a deep breath. “Do you think he has a point, though?”
Mel stared at her. “Are you serious?”
“Well, I mean–about kids. Maybe he has a point.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want kids.”
“Well, I used to think that, but–I don’t know, maybe I would someday–”
Mel felt the ground beneath her slipping away, like she was back in the earthquake. “Are you saying you want kids? Well, fine, have kids. I don’t care. I won’t hold you back. Find a man and have some. I can’t help you there.”
“Mel, that’s not what I’m saying!”
“Then what are you saying? Just say it. I’m sick of all the implications around here and the innuendos and no one really says what they mean. I’m sick of having my judgment questioned. I’m sick of dealing with everyone else’s issues and problems and I just want one thing to go well, for once in the past year. I want something to go right.”
Rayvenna’s face closed off. “It’ll be fine, Mel. Today will be fine. I’d better go back to Corie.”
Mel stared at her, recognizing the mood she’d seen in Rayvenna the day they’d met. It wasn’t calmness, but a barrier–a sheet of glass over a choppy ocean. “I’m sorry, Ray,” she said, her shoulders tense.
“It’s okay,” Rayvenna said, but Mel felt it wasn’t entirely. They pressed their lips together, but the kiss was cool.
Rayvenna went back in the bathroom. Paul came out, scowling. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“I heard it all too. Rayvenna didn’t deserve that. What’s your problem? Why are you looking for a fight?”
“You are. You’re wanting someone to fight.”
“I want today to be peaceful. Everyone else wants to preach to me.”
“For someone who wants a perfect day, you have a hell of a chip on your shoulder.”
“It’s not for me. It’s for Corie. It has to be perfect, for Corie.”
“Ha! Corie’s happy with today for what it is. You’re the one who wants it perfect. But you can’t make it that way. Why can’t you accept one good day? Not perfect–just good?”
Mel opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she said, “But everyone else–”
“Forget them.” Paul held her by the shoulders and looked in her eyes. “Mel, let today be what it is. Leave everything else behind.”
Everything? Mel thought about it. The Day. Corie’s injury. Their future dreams. Rayvenna’s lost boyfriend. A week in an RV. The biggest breakdown of her life. Without The Day, she and Corie wouldn’t have met Rayvenna.
“I can’t leave it behind,” she said. “It’s part of who I am. Who we are.”
Mel loved them equally, but differently. Rayvenna and Corie were separate people–not similar, but not opposites either. Some of the Warehouse called them a triad, but that didn’t feel right to Mel. A triad implied that each woman was a third of the relationship. But she felt like each woman was more than a third. It was like the colors of visible light. If Mel was red, and Corie was blue–then Rayvenna was green, the color they needed for completion. In pairs they made every color of the rainbow–and all together, they made the brightest light possible, the pure light that showed every other color in its true form.
In Miami, they found Rayvenna’s friends–a group of ex-hippies she’d met at Burning Man who knew survival skills and sustainable farming. In the circumstances, they’d joined up with some gang members who’d taken over a mega-store in the Miami suburbs. They’d figured that a good supply source offered the best chance of survival. When people started dying over the next few months–of lung disease, exposure, and dehydration–the Warehouse did their best to take care of their own. Dr. Green developed a rehabilitation program for Corie, and when the doctor got too busy, Rayvenna took over as her assistant.
Mel often saw Corie and Rayvenna together, their heads bent over a book, reading out loud to each other. At first Mel felt jealous, then guilty as she felt like her place should be beside Corie. But she was busy helping fortify the Warehouse and she couldn’t do more for her partner. Rayvenna was much better for the job. When Corie was depressed late at night, frustrated with her limitations, she asked Mel to hold her–and Rayvenna too. Corie said, “Sunshine,” and Mel understood exactly what she meant. When all three women embraced, it seemed natural and right–like light coming through an open window.
When foreign armies showed up on U.S. soil, the Warehouse strengthened their natural defenses. The community took each day as it came. Every so often, there were arguments–usually about whether Miami was a sustainable place to live long-term, how bad things were in the Eastern Hemisphere, and whether the group should relocate somewhere safer like Europe or West Africa. A few people left. The Warehouse was home, though, and the group stayed.
Rayvenna earned a place in the Warehouse because of her friends. Mel showed off her rusty knowledge of supervolcanoes–she predicted the long-term climate change, warned them about acid snow, and estimated a ten-year period of crop failures. On some level, it amused her that the resident scientist of the Warehouse was really an ornithologist–specializing in a dead species, no less. At least Yellowstone had wiped her grad school debt.
Everyone else thought the three-way marriage had been Rayvenna’s idea–something weird from her counter-culture past. But the idea had been Corie’s. Late one October night, the three women lay together in their king-sized bed in the home-decorating section. Corie had made great progress that day–she’d read an entire page of text without stumbling and remembered details an hour later. She’d already recovered more than Mel dared hope for. More often now, Mel saw that spark in her–the one that felt like the old Corie.
“Mel,” she said, “When are we getting married?”
“We already are,” Mel told her. She glanced at Rayvenna, on the other side of Corie as she always was. Rayvenna reached over and squeezed Mel’s hand. Mel looked at her partner again. “We’ve been married for a while now. It was sort of gradual, but we’re doing all the things married people would do.”
“I didn’t get my, my–my wedding. Did I forget it?”
Mel shook her head. “I’m sorry, hon. I wanted to give it to you.”
“And we’re not, not. Married. I know we’re not. Ray’s not.”
Mel was confused. “No, Ray’s never been married.”
“I want to marry Ray.”
Mel and Rayvenna looked at each other. Finally, Mel said, “Ray will stay with us, Corie. She’s not leaving.”
“She has to marry–marry us,” insisted Corie. “I want my wedding. And I want Ray too. And you, Mel. All of us.”
Mel’s mind unfolded, like the pieces of a cardboard box.
The next morning, she talked to Luisa, who thought it was a wonderfully romantic idea. She and Jess hunted down a nearby church, one that they thought would be suitable for the event. To Mel’s surprise, the whole Warehouse got involved. Everyone threw themselves into wedding planning: ex-hippies, ex-gang members, and ex-ordinary people. It was a good distraction from everyday survival. For a while it felt unreal to Mel, then she was overcome with worry. Nothing they could do would be good enough for the loves of her life.
Mel stood alone outside the chapel. Rayvenna and Corie were still in the bathroom. Paul had brought Mel here to wait for her entrance. Someone had swept away the ash, and the hall was cleaner than the rest of the church. Mel still felt tense and angry–like if one more thing went wrong, she’d break down. Don’t be silly, she told herself, you’ve been through much worse.
True, another part of her said, but this is supposed to redeem it all.
The music rolled out through the hallway. Amazed, Mel listened to the notes, like something from childhood memory. A piano–a nice one, from the sound of it–playing “Here Comes the Bride.” Where had a piano come from? And who was playing it?
Paul opened the door for her, the fake poinsettia still behind his ear. “Everybody’s ready,” he said, smiling. “Come on in.”
Mel’s eyes widened. Through the door she saw hundreds of poinsettias, clustered around the small chapel. The red-and-green centerpiece on the altar blossomed like a holiday garden. White candles, wreathed with pine, flickered on the sides of the pews. Collagework covered the walls–thousands of pictures, carefully clipped from bridal magazines. Green garlands edged the windows at the chapel’s sides, framing the snowy scene outdoors. Red and green ribbons draped down from the ceiling, connected to a suspended cluster of–
“Mistletoe!” she exclaimed.
Paul laughed. “We thought you three might need an excuse to kiss each other.”
“Where did you get all this?”
“From all over. We’ve been working hard. The worst part was trying to keep it a surprise.”
“It’s amazing,” Mel whispered, turning her head so she could take it all in. The room smelled like gingerbread air freshener. In the pews stood forty-three Warehouse members. Mel saw their faces, smiling at her–Jess, who’d taught her how to cook on an open fire. Okapi, who’d listened to her late one night when she needed to talk. Yusef, who’d built the simple machines Corie used for her physical therapy. Dr. Green was playing the piano, she noticed with surprise. So many people were here, all watching her, the shorter people straining on tiptoe to look over the crowd. The Warehouse kids were in the front row, where they could see everything.
Too late, Mel realized she’d left her bow tie on the sanctuary floor. Dammit. She wanted to run and grab it. But the music was playing, and she was supposed to go in. Her eyes dampened. She looked at Paul. His eyes were filled with love. It was the same love from all the people inside this chapel, who’d dedicated weeks to creating the perfect day for her. They had done all this for her, all this gorgeous hard work, and she’d lost her damn bow tie.
Mel touched her neck, trying to decide what to do. Paul saw the gesture and ran out the door, looking at the floor as he went. Mel tried to explain where it was, and her throat choked.
Screw the tie. I’m going in, just like I am.
She marched down the aisle, feeling all eyes on her. She held her head high. The walk to the altar was short, about twenty steps, but felt like forever as her heart pounded. Mel planted her feet firmly on the floor before the altar. Luisa, their impromptu minister, leaned forward and hugged her. She whispered, “Do you like the place?”
“It’s incredible,” said Mel. “And that dress for Corie!”
Luisa’s face was already red and blotchy. “Berta would have loved a wedding like this,” she said, and smiled at Mel. She took a Kleenex out of her pocket and dabbed at her eyes.
Mel remembered that Luisa’s daughter had been engaged. She’d lived on the Air Force base in Colorado Springs. Mel touched Luisa’s shoulder in sympathy, but the older woman shrugged her off. “None of that now,” she said, still smiling. “Berta is watching, you know.”
Mel nodded. The music kept playing. Mel turned to face the back of the chapel, where her brides would arrive. They’d planned an entrance–rehearsed it a few times–but everything was going crazy today. Where were they? Had something happened to Corie–another episode? Something worse? Was Rayvenna still angry at her? She couldn’t be so angry that she’d leave now. Would she?
Paul raced through the door and saw Mel at the altar. He paused, the bow tie dangling in his hand. Finally he walked up the aisle and offered her the tie. He turned to the audience. “Sorry I’m not a blushing bride,” he said. Laughter swept the room. Paul took his place next to Mel. She was glad he was there.
Mel had a lump in her throat as she hooked the bow tie into place. She stood there for what felt like hours, listening to Dr. Green patiently play “Here Comes the Bride” on repeat. The crowd was restless. Mel took a deep breath. Paul was right. Whatever happened today, it was hers–and Corie’s, and Rayvenna’s. White light against darkness. Past the windows at the chapel sides, the snow fell heavily. The wind picked up outside, blowing dirty snow against the streaky glass.
“We now interrupt the wedding in progress to have a blizzard,” someone called from the audience. Even Luisa cracked up. Mel forced a smile. The crowd talked among themselves above the piano music. Overhead, she heard someone walking around on the roof. Boots, heavy ones. Maybe Jake’s. What if something was happening out there?
“Paul, where are they?” Mel asked.
“Relax,” he said. “It’ll all be fine. They’ll be here in a minute.”
“I’m scared,” she blurted out. “What if it goes all wrong?”
Paul sighed. “Want me to go see what’s happening?”
Mel almost said yes, then she paused. It already has gone all wrong. But we’re still here, aren’t we? She shook her head, glad that Paul was there with her, glad for this moment.
And then her brides were at the chapel door. The audience fell silent, leaving only the music. Corie’s wedding dress was tacked to the chair with three long strips of duct tape. Rayvenna grinned, held up the empty roll in triumph, and tossed it aside. Mel wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Of course they hadn’t practiced with the dress. They hadn’t known there would be a dress. Rayvenna couldn’t move Corie alone, so she had to improvise. That’s what we do, Mel thought. Just work with what we’ve got, and do the best we can.
Rayvenna pushed Corie down the aisle. Both were the most beautiful women in the world, each in her own way. Their faces shone in the candlelight. Rayvenna’s held forgiveness and love, while Corie’s radiated a joy brighter than anything Mel had ever seen. Thank God, she thought. No, a mischievous side of her answered, thank the divine RV.
Mel broke into laughter as her brides arrived, a genuine joy she hadn’t felt in months. The three of them held hands in a circle, then turned to face the altar. Everything had gone wrong. Today was perfect.
Copyright 2008 Vylar Kaftan