With chores done, and nothing to do, Clark crept back onto the mattress. Ginger was there beside him a minute later. She'd managed to change into another shirt, and even combed her hair. He offered an arm and she snuggled close.
"Mmm. Last night, right before you dozed off, we were talking." She paused.
"And I asked you to marry me."
"Yes. Sort of. You said you'd ask today."
"Yes. Well, will you?"
She turned over onto her stomach and elbows. She clicked on the flashlight so she could see him, but she stared down at her fingers and began picking dirt out from under her nails. "Before I say, I have to ask why. We weren't that close the day before yesterday. We'd dated and I like you and all, but marriage was way down the line."
He nodded. "And then the world changed. Even in the best case, it will be years before things are back to normal. Maybe I wasn't looking for a wife yesterday morning, but I was looking forward to spending some quality time with you. Yesterday and for many more days after that. Maybe I'd have gotten around to the flowers and chocolates and romantic evenings. Maybe I'd have gotten around to the kneeling proposal and the fancy words.
"But this past day has collapsed all those dates into one long hard stretch. I know much more about you than I would have learned in those dates. I know you can hold your own even when panic is clawing away at you. You can think of things I can't and we work well together. I know you still look fabulous even when you're face is dirty and dressed in an old man's shirt." He looked at her, trying to read her face.
"I know I like caring for you. I want to be here for you, even if things never get back to normal. And if they do, great. I'd still want you with me if we end up heading for college together next fall.
"And I don't want to wait. Look at us, two half-naked kids hiding under the staircase, side by side on a mattress. I want to go ahead and do the stuff we're supposed to be doing. You don't know how close you came to waking up this morning with me between your legs." She flushed and her lips compressed into a little smile.
"But I don't know your answer. I don't know what you want. I know you've been coming on to me a little more than usual, but I don't know if that's real, or just a girl in danger's reaction to the nearest male protector."
She shook her head. "That's just a guy fantasy. But as for us, you saw the swimsuit I wore yesterday?"
He grinned. "Yes."
She was angry, "Well, that's not the kind of suit a wear when I go out with my family! I bought that with you in mind. So if I've been a little, affectionate, it's not because I'd just latch onto the first guy who came around!"
"Sorry." He winced at her response. "If I'm not sure about your feelings, partly it's because I'm not sure about mine. I was thrilled by the way you looked yesterday. Now, I'm struggling real hard to keep from going...much...further."
She nodded, watching him. "The world changed. We've been running on adrenaline and bottling up all kinds of emotions. I didn't mean to yell at you just then."
They lay there in silence for a minute or so.
Then she asked, "Is it the sex? Do you want to marry me so we can have sex without feeling guilty?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Partly, I'm sure. But when I look at the future, I'm not sure of anything--other than that I want to be with you. I can actually look forward to the future, with you. I mean, if my folks and yours are out of the picture, then we'll just claim this place and defend it and turn it into a little farm. With this place as a base, and if I can keep the Jeep running, we can go searching for your folks. Even if everyone survives, and we all have to live together, then this place is big enough to make it work.
"And with you and me, together, we can make anything work."
She smiled. "So, what exactly did you have in mind? The bridal shops aren't open, and it might be hard to scare up a preacher this morning."
He shrugged. "Legally, you have to get a license, but I doubt the county court house will be in business for a while. I just want to be married. I want to claim you as my wife with a clear conscience, if anyone asks. We can take care of the paperwork when things settle out. What do you think is necessary and sufficient?"
She rolled over on her back and scooted up close enough to feel him against her. She stared at the undersides of the steps above. "I'd like a ring." She thought some more. "We could make a certificate ourselves, and sign it. And I want a ceremony."
He whispered. "I can come up with a ring."
She looked him in the eyes. "I can do the paperwork." They breathed together for a tense moment.
"Clark, I do. I will marry you."
He pulled her into his arms and they kissed. When his hand started wandering across her hip, she snagged it. "Later. We've got some work to do."
Clark skipped through the laundry room without much thought. He was intent on scaring up the materials they needed. Soon, Ginger was working on the mattress on a drawing tablet. He retreated to just outside the doorway so he could fire up the torch.
Uncle Fred had been alone for a dozen years, and he spent his time tinkering with things. Thus the Geiger counter with his rock collection, and drafting materials for sketching out his projects. He also had a parts drawer for electronics. With one hand on the Geiger counter, monitoring his risk, he rummaged through the drawers until he found the parts and tools he needed--then he raced back safety.
Ginger had giggled as he carefully measured her ring finger with a piece of wire. From a little spool of braided, silver cable, he formed a loop, with the braid spread flat. The high temperature torch caused the silver solder to flow into the braid, changing it into a solid, if textured ring of metal. He checked the size several times, and buffed the result smooth. He could see every imperfection. It wasn't at all like he'd imagined, but it was the best he could do under the current constraints.
I wish I had a stone. He could probably make a setting, given his uncle's tools, but his rock collection was feldspar and quartz and mica, not rubies and diamonds.
"Are you okay, out there? I'm smelling smoke."
"It's okay. The torch is off." But as soon as he said it, he realized he could smell smoke as well. Wood smoke.
"Ginger, I'm going to check the house."
He made sure the torch was all the way off and the valves closed tight. He slipped the ring into his pocket.
She looked out. "Be careful."
"You. Stay put." He grabbed the Geiger counter and dashed from room to room, making sure that everything was as it was supposed to be.
But in the living room, the smell of smoke was pronounced. And he could see it, out the window. There was a grass fire sweeping through the area! He dashed from window to window, risking seconds of radiation to get a view of what was happening.
He raced back to the garage.
"It's a fire outside. We may be okay. The house is stone and if the trees don't catch, the house should be okay, but we need to be prepared."
"What do we do?"
He didn't know. The radiation outside was still terribly high. They couldn't stand more than an hour's exposure, and even less than that would leave them sick and susceptible to infection. Their only safety was inside, but not if the house was on fire.
"Ginger, can you tread water?"
"Yes. You want to get in the pool?"
"Only if the house starts to catch. Stay put and pray. But if I yell, we'll put on face masks again and get in the pool."
"What about the fallout?"
"The stuff that fell into the pool will be sitting on the bottom, so if we can just tread water in the deep end, and keep from stirring up any sediment on the bottom, the water will protect us from some of it."
He didn't go into what they would do if the house burned and left them with no shelter, because he had no idea.
He dashed into the main part of the house, quickly checking the windows and then retreating to the hallway. He pounded on the wall and yelled, "Still okay!"
He heard her faint reply. "Still praying!"
It was a long fifteen minutes, as the front rose bushes caught and flared high and hot. He checked the rooms closest and pulled the blinds, to keep the heat from catching anything on the inside.
But eventually, wide porches front and back, and no bushes on the end, left the limestone exterior walls untouched. The air inside was filled with smoke, and he had no idea how much of the fallout dust had piggy-backed indoors on the smoke. He checked with the meter, but the radiation from outside masked any readings from indoors.
She looked out.
"It's over. We don't have to move."
She sagged back inside, and he followed.
"So are you." He didn't tell her about the blaze in the front. He'd tell her later. "The house is okay, but it's been heated up. Thank goodness for stone walls and metal roofs."
"Come here," she patted the mattress.
He stretched out. She produced a rag and began washing him down. He closed his eyes and relished the cool feel.
"Shed that shirt and I'll do the same for you."
She swatted him with the rag. "Although it does sound like a good idea, for later."
He napped, while she finished some last minute preparations. She woke him, new clothes in hand.
"Put these on, outside. I'll call you when I'm ready."
He went out into the garage and changed into slacks and a white shirt, making sure the ring got moved into the new pockets.
"Okay, come on in."
She had a candle lit on the top of the hot water heater, and the soft glow made even their tiny, utilitarian shelter seem special. Fancy scissor work, cutting dozens of horizontal slits into a white shirt, made it into a white dress that when she pulled it lower, fit her figure and stretched to her knees.
"You look beautiful."
She glowed. He produced the ring. She was surprised and overjoyed at the craftwork.
"If it doesn't fit, I can..."
He slipped it onto her hand. "I take you to be my wife, to love, and to protect, ’til death do us part."
She could barely speak. Her eyes were filled with tears of joy as she kept looking from the ring on her finger to his eyes. "I take you to be my husband, to love, and to stand beside, and to make all your dreams come true, ’til death do us part."
She produced the paper. Fancy lettering proclaimed that they were married on that date, under the eyes of God. He signed and dated, and then she did the same. She carefully rolled it up and affixed a ribbon around it.
"You may now kiss the bride," she said.
After two days of serious honeymooning, Clark took the meter outside and determined that although the upholstery was singed in places from embers, the Jeep was still intact and started. They rinsed the porch with buckets of water from the pool and began the process of hunting down any radioactive hotspots and burying them.
Surviving neighbors recognized Clark from previous visits to his uncle, and when Fred didn't return, they upheld his claim of survivorship. A trip into town determined that both Clark's home and Ginger's had burned in the firestorm that followed the nuclear blast. No family members were located. It was a common story.
Clark and Ginger traded supplies and services with their neighbors--his Geiger counter surveys were particularly welcomed--and they had a fall garden going by the time that the Texas Recovery Census came around to register their existence. A photocopy of their wedding certificate went straight into the county records with no more comment than a congratulations. When Christmas rolled around, Ginger began chatting up her neighbors, hunting for a potential midwife just as Clark raised the sign advertising custom metal work. He never did get around to adding a stone to her ring. She was happy with it the way it was.