I don't want this to be a sad story, but I guess you need to know how we got here. About a year ago, my mom came to me and told me she was getting married to her new boyfriend, Bill, and she was practically floating with happiness. We moved to Bill's house in Langston, about twenty miles away, the day of the wedding. It took some getting used to, but I was okay with it. Well, except for the matter of my new step-brother Luke. We just couldn't manage to become friends somehow, and mostly we avoided each other. But I got used to my new school and made friends. And Randy, my boyfriend from back home, drove down once or twice a week to take me out or just hang out, so life was good. And then, just eleven short months later, that good life turned into a nightmare. Mom and Bill didn't come home from work, and Luke and I were trying to pretend we weren't worried, when the knock came on the door. It was a big wreck on the freeway, and they'd never had a chance.
So now we were orphans. Alone except for each other. Those first few days were horrible, the worst of my life. But after the funerals were over and I was completely numb and cried out, Social Services decided it was time to take care of business. And that's where the story begins.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Mr. Jackson, the social worker sat there looking at Luke and me like he had all the answers, but all his answers sucked for me. Luke had turned eighteen just days ago and he was free. He could inherit the house and the insurance money and take care of himself. But because I still had nine months to go, I was a ward of the state. They were coming tomorrow at noon to collect me and I was to be packed and ready. And it would be all right, the man said, it was just for nine months, but I knew better.
"And what if she's not there at noon?" Luke asked, surprising both me and Mr. Jackson, who frowned a warning.
"Then it'll be the cops looking for her instead of us. And when they find her, it'll be the juvenile detention center as a runaway instead of a foster home."
Luke looked at me for a long minute and I couldn't tell what he was thinking, then he turned back to Mr. Jackson and shrugged wearily. "Okay." He stood, and I stood up too. We left the office and he took off down the hall without waiting to see if I was coming or not. It wasn't til we got outside that I couldn't hold it back any more.
"What do you mean, okay?" He knew how scared I was about what might happen to me, and he'd just shrugged it off. "You're really glad to get rid of me, aren't you?"
"You're not going."
"Yeah. I've got a plan."
I hurried my steps to keep up with him. "What?"
He stopped suddenly, turning to me and looking at me hard. "How bad do you not want to go?"
"Are you kidding? I'll run away, and who cares about their stupid juvenile detention. I've got seventy eight dollars."
"You're not running away, but we might need that money." He was thinking again.
"What for? And what do you mean, we?"
He took hold of my arm like I might run off when he told me his plan, and now I know why. "We're gonna get married," he said, and it was like my brain froze.
"What?" I gasped when I could finally breathe.
"It's the stupid laws, Katie. I called a lawyer this morning, and they said you can't live alone til you're eighteen but you can get married when you're seventeen. So we get married and I'm your guardian... or, I guess, your husband."
"We can't get married. We're related."
"No we're not. We're steps."
I knew that somewhere in my head, but I was still dizzy. "I can't marry you. What about Randy?"
Luke shrugged. "Okay, ask Randy to marry you then. It'll work just the same, as long as you do it by tomorrow at noon." He let go of my arm. He stood there and watched me, watched my face while I went through three billion thoughts and emotions in two seconds flat.
"We can't get married," I whispered.
"Fine. I just thought it might be better than the alternative. You know, like being a dropout, living on the run and probably starving to death." He saw me starting to get teary and he softened a little. "Okay, look. I know it sucks but I don't know what else to do. It's not like they'll let me adopt you or become your guardian, and even if they did you'd still have to go with them while the paperwork goes through, and that takes forever. Longer than nine months, probably." He hesitated, then put a hand on my shoulder. "It wouldn't be like a real marriage. Just legal."
I flinched. "I know that. But we'll really be... married. I'll really be your wife. I can't date Randy if I'm your wife."
He shrugged. "Sure you can. Haven't you heard of open marriages? Besides, in nine months we get a divorce and you can do whatever you want." He frowned at my terror. "If you've got a better idea, say so."
I couldn't believe what came out of my mouth next. "Okay. I'll marry you." I'm glad I didn't expect a hug or anything because I sure didn't get one. He took off walking toward the car again, his hands jamming into his pockets.
"Then we've got to get busy. There's a license, and I guess a ring for you, and..." He realized I wasn't beside him and he turned and beckoned. "Come on!"
We got our money together and our ID and went to the courthouse first. The license was easy, much easier than it should've been for two kids who didn't have a clue. Then we went home and called a justice of the peace in the phone book and got an appointment to get married at ten o'clock the next morning. Luke hung up slow from that one, looking a little lost himself, and blew out a big breath. "We're on," he said, raising his eyes to look at me and we stared at each other for a minute.
"Just legal," I said, my voice a little shaky.
"Yeah." He looked at the phone, then set his shoulders. "Come on, let's go get a ring."
We went to Sears instead of a real jewelry store because we didn't have much money, but both of us were surprised to find out that plain wedding bands were pretty darn cheap. Cheap enough, in fact, that I asked the clerk to get out a man's band too, and Luke looked at me funny. "I don't know," I said shakily. "I don't wanna do this by myself."
The clerk bent to get back into the case, and Luke pulled me just a little off to the side. "Scared?"
"Absolutely. Please get a ring."
"I don't know."
He stared at me a while, then we went back to where the clerk stood waiting. Luke took the ring he held out, slid it on and looked at it. When he looked back at me he looked like he might puke and I tried to smile.
Then the clerk brought out a different set that was on sale. He said they were nicer and only ten dollars more for the set, and he was right. Why we cared I don't know, but this time when we looked at each other we both nodded. If we were gonna do this, we were gonna do it convincingly. Five minutes later we left the store with two wedding rings in a plastic bag and three feet between us, probably because we were too terrified to get any closer.
Okay, so at first I thought it was this noble thing to do, offering to marry Katie. I thought I'd be the big hero, the more mature one who saved her. But seeing that ring on my finger brought it home that my life would be changing too. In a huge way. I was making a big commitment, taking on lots of responsibility. I almost said forget it, no way, this is a stupid idea. But then she gave me this little smile and I could see how scared she was and I thought she might just really run away. I knew I couldn't just let her go and get hurt or abducted or something. So I just told myself, nine months. It's not that long really. The same as one school year. When I was waiting for the clerk to put the rings into a box I snuck another look over at Katie and she looked so determined to go through with it that I knew I couldn't back out now. We were getting married.
I went to bed without eating that night, way too nervous, while Luke seemed to be ravenous. Maybe it was like a man on death row eating his last meal. I just laid there in my bed wide awake, and it was after midnight when I heard him come up the stairs. His footsteps paused outside my door, for a full minute, and then they went on and I was glad, because I didn't have any clue what to say to him. I knew he was only doing this for me, and I admired him for it more than I can say, but I still couldn't stop tears from running down my face.
I must've fallen asleep eventually because I woke up to the sounds of the shower. I couldn't get up though, not until Luke knocked and opened my door and saw me looking at him. He was still just in a towel so he just peeked around. "Get up, sleepyhead. It's almost nine and we've got a wedding to go to."
"I guess we do." I sat up slow and swung my legs to the floor, rubbing my eyes, and he watched me.
"It's gonna be okay, Katie."
He only paused a second, gathering his courage I guess. "Yeah. I promise." He left and I got up and grabbed my robe and took a shower. Back in my closet, I looked over my clothing choices and wondered what I would wear. Luke came in while I stood there, and he was wearing churchy pants and a white shirt and holding two of Bill's ties out to me. "Which one?"
I pointed at the best one. "I'll have you know, I have nothing to wear to a wedding."
He looked over my clothes as he looped the tie around his neck and got it under his collar. "I don't guess it matters really, does it?"
"But you look nice. Handsome even."
A compliment from me, that made him stop, and I saw him glance in the mirror. "I look like a freakin eighteen year old kid who's getting married because he doesn't have a choice," he muttered.
"You do too have a choice." I looked at the clothes so I wouldn't have to look at him. "You don't have to do this, you know. It's your life too." A tear fell and I wiped it away fast, but he'd seen it.
"Hey," he said softly. "I made my choice yesterday." He touched my arm just for a minute, then busied himself with his tie. "Get dressed, okay?"
I came downstairs ten minutes later and he was waiting by the front door with his keys and the rings and the little envelope that had our license and stuff in it. He looked a little jolted to see me in Mom's wedding dress. It was just a smooth ivory-colored sheath, since it was her second marriage, but it was still pretty and elegant, and it fit. With the high heels and my snowflake necklace, I thought maybe I looked all right, but he just watched me come downstairs with this funny look on his face. I stood in front of him. "Okay?"
"Yeah." His voice came out like a sigh, and when his cheeks colored a little I realized he liked how I looked. "Let's go do this." We went out of the house feeling like two kids dressed up as adults and got in the car. He started the engine, but before he put it in reverse, he looked over at me with a hesitant smile. "You look really pretty, by the way."
He started driving, and partway through town he made a quick turn like he'd just thought of something. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He parked at the curb and opened his door. "I'll be right back."
"But... it's nine forty-five!"
"I know!" he insisted and hurried away around the corner. I sat there watching my last unmarried minutes tick away and he was back at nine forty-nine with a corsage like people got for Prom, and he got it out of the box and held it out. "I thought you should have some flowers."
There was a lump in my throat that kept me from answering, but I'm not sure he noticed because he'd turned in his seat and was awkwardly pinning it on me. "Okay, here goes," he said, and started the car.
I couldn't believe it when I first saw Katie. Yesterday she was a scared little kid, and now here she was coming down the stairs looking like... I don't know, a princess or something. Sure not like a kid. She looked... beautiful. And all at once getting married didn't seem to be such a huge sacrifice. I know, it's stupid to say that just because of how she looked. But man, if you'd have seen her...
The courthouse was only a few blocks away and we found the chapel pretty easily, and there was a man in a clerical collar and suit waiting. He seemed surprised when he saw us, and asked to see our license and ID, and when he saw that it all looked okay he nodded and told us where to stand and to join hands. Luke grabbed my hand and his was clammy just like mine was, but he kept hold of it and we said what he told us to say and promised things we never should've promised. We both fumbled a little putting the rings on each other and before we knew it we were man and wife and did Luke want to kiss the bride?
Luke blinked a few times, then turned to look at me with a question in his eyes. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there and he leaned toward me and gave me a quick, awkward peck on the lips. And that was it. We were married. We paid the man and we signed the bottom of the license and we went home.
Neither one of us said a word the whole way home. I think we were both in shock. I went up to my room out of habit but just stood there looking at myself in the full-length mirror. I was a married woman. The flowers and the dress and the heels. And the ring. I lifted my hand and stared at it. Even if I took it off, I was married. To Luke. For nine months. I didn't hear him come in behind me until he said something.
"The social services people will be here soon. Better change."
"Why?" I asked blankly, turning. He was still in his wedding clothes too, although he'd loosened his tie.
He looked thoughtful. "I don't know why." Then he grinned. "You're right. Don't change." He left and I sat on the edge of my bed trying to feel like a married woman, and when the doorbell rang I got up and headed downstairs. Luke was sitting on the third step waiting for me, and gave me a hand since I still had on my heels. "This may be a little rough," he warned me softly before he opened the door. "But remember, they can't do anything."
And it was a little rough. But I was proud of Luke. He never buckled, never even weakened a little. He just told them we were married and showed them the license and sat there through all their shock and protests and outrage. We weren't blood-related, he reminded them over and over, and it was perfectly legal and since he was my husband and guardian now, they might as well leave. I could see by the looks on their faces that they realized they'd been beaten, and finally they did leave. Luke shut the door behind them and turned to me with a big relieved grin. "We did it."
I wasn't smiling. I blinked back my tears and just said thank you. Luke's grin faded and he said you're welcome and we just kinda walked back to the sofa and sat down. "I guess you can change now," I said, knowing he hated ties.
"I don't know," he said. "I may leave it on. It makes me feel more like..."
"I don't know. Like a husband, I guess. Even if it's not... you know. Real."
"But it is real," I reminded him.
"I meant the... you know. Love stuff. Love and sex and babies and all that." He was blushing now and it was actually kinda cute. I couldn't resist teasing him a little.
"But you promised, in front of God and the preacher. Now you're telling me you don't love me?"
He looked at me quick, like a deer trapped in headlights, but then he saw my grin and he smirked back. "Oh I love you all right. I love you so much that you can start some lunch. I'm starving."
I wished aloud that we could go out, since we might as well make the most of the day and it's not like we had a cake or anything, but he reminded me that money was gonna be a huge problem from now on and things were gonna be rough. Maybe because we were still dressed like adults, but while I fixed lunch Luke pulled out the bank books. We looked at the budget while we ate our sandwiches and chips and tried to figure out how we were going to make it. It still felt unreal, like a class project or something, and then the phone rang and we looked at each other and let the machine get it so we could listen. It was Randy, and he was saying please pick up, and I finally did. Luke sat there a minute looking at the papers all over the table while I said some awkward how are you stuff, and then he got up and left the kitchen and I heard his footsteps up the stairs. My voice must've really been weird because all of a sudden Randy asked me what was wrong.
"I need to talk to you," I said before I could talk myself out of it.
"You are talking to me."
"No. I mean, can you come over?"
"No. I mean, yes and no. No."
"Katie, what's going on?" he asked worriedly. He'd been so supportive already, through all my crying and the funeral and my fears about what was going to happen to me. "No, never mind. I'll be over in about an hour, okay?"
I went upstairs and changed and stared at myself again in the mirror. I was the same, but different. And it wasn't just the ring on my finger that I'd felt every minute since Luke put it there. It was me. I'd just changed my life in a major way. I had a husband, a real husband no matter if we were in love or had sex or not. Luke was my husband. And now I was going to tell Randy what I'd done, and hope that he would be calm and at least try to understand. It was only nine months.
Luke was laying on his bed in his wedding clothes with his hands behind his head when I peeked into his room, and I warned him that Randy would be over soon and I was gonna tell him, so please stay upstairs for a while. He just nodded and looked back up at the ceiling.
When Randy got there he leaned forward and kissed me and I felt strange about it. Luke didn't care, he told me he didn't, but it still felt wrong somehow. Well, in a few minutes he would know. I led him to the family room and sat on the sofa, and Randy sat down beside me looking worried. I wasn't usually this quiet and somber when he came over. "Okay, spill it. What's wrong?'
"I almost got shipped to foster care this morning."
"Yeah. Luke came up with a plan and we got out of it."
"That's great." Randy's grin was sincere. "I know how worried you've been about that. I didn't - " He stopped, because he'd grabbed my hand and felt my ring and he was staring at it. "That looks like a wedding ring."
Randy's face went sort of stiff. "What do you mean, it is?"
"Me and Luke got married this morning so he would be my legal guardian and I wouldn't have to go."
Randy sat there staring at the ring. "You... married Luke."
"Just for nine months, then we're getting a divorce. And it's not like we're gonna sleep together or anything, ick. It's just so I wouldn't have to go."
"But... you actually... married Luke." He raised his eyes up to mine, and his were pale and shocked. "Like, legally?"
I nodded. "I had to, Randy. I had to marry somebody. Today." I wasn't sure how to make this better for him.
"Why didn't you come to me?"
I knew he probably didn't mean it, but I wished he did. "I thought about it. But I just couldn't." He was just staring at me, waiting for an explanation. "If we get married, I want it to be the real thing. Lots of love and romance and walking down the aisle and seeing you smiling all mushy at me and a real wedding night... and that's not what this is. It wouldn't have been with you either, not rushed like this. It would've been just like what Luke and I did. Sign a paper, and you're married, bang. He doesn't love me, and I don't love him, and we both know that. That's why we could do it this way." I grabbed his hands. "It's only for nine months, and Luke said he doesn't care if we keep dating."
"Oh, he doesn't care. How big of him." Randy pulled his hands away. "And I'm supposed to just say okay and go out with you and... kiss you, with this ring on your hand?"
"I'll take it off," I said, and started to.
"Don't bother," he said standing up fast. "I've gotta get out of here."
"Randy, don't." I got up too but he moved away, looking at me with hurt plain in his eyes and running a frustrated hand through his hair.
"I've got to. I need to... think." His face twisted. "Dammit, Katie. How could you do this?"
"I told you."
He shook his head. "It's just... I kind of imagined that maybe one day we would get married. And now... it all feels different. Like it wouldn't be anything special. You've done it already."
Ouch. "I'm sorry," I choked out. "I didn't know what to do."
"So naturally, you married your stepbrother."
"I wish I hadn't," I sniffled, trying hard not to cry.
He stepped back. "Me too. But it's too late now, isn't it?" He strode to the door and it shut firmly behind him and he was gone.
I sank back onto the sofa and let the tears come. I was still sniffling when Luke spoke from behind me. "He wasn't too happy, huh."
"You might say that."
"Did he break it off?"
"I don't know." I sat up and sighed shakily, wiping my cheeks. "He said he needed to think."
Luke came around and sank down sideways in the armchair. "That's not as bad as I expected."
"I hope not."
There was a long pause. "You sorry?"
"I don't know. Yes and no at the same time." I couldn't help asking it back. "Are you?"
He shrugged. "I don't have a girlfriend, so it's easier for me."
"Yeah, until your friends find out. And every girl in town."
He thought about that. "They won't. It's not like we're gonna advertise it."
"But what if somebody does? What if our names are in the paper or something, are we gonna deny it?"
"I don't know." Luke rubbed his face and got up. "I can't think. Guess I'm kinda tired."
"It's three p.m."
"I know. I didn't get much sleep last night."
I started to tell him I didn't either, but then I started thinking about him tossing and turning and maybe regretting his 'proposal', right on the other side of my wall where I was doing the exact same thing. It's funny, kind of, that you can be so close and so far apart at the same time. I blinked and looked up at him and he was looking at me like he knew just what I was thinking, and I looked away. He went upstairs and didn't come back down, and when I peeked later he was dead asleep on his bed, and then I fell asleep on mine and when I woke up it was dark outside and he was gone.
When we parked in the school lot the next morning, Luke said we'd better take our rings off before we went in, and I looked at my hand in surprise. I'd nearly forgotten about it, and realized that I didn't feel it any more.
"They're nice rings, though, aren't they?" I asked, rubbing it with my thumb.
"Yeah. I kinda actually don't mind wearing it."
"Me too." We smiled at each other a little and it was almost a nice little moment for a second.
"But we can't go in with them on," he said, sort of like a question.
"No." I pulled mine off first, then he took his off and we hid them in the ashtray compartment and went in.
I thought it might feel weird in school but amazingly I didn't even think about it until the last class change of the day, when I caught sight of Luke in the hall. Then it hit me all over again. That's my husband over there. He didn't see me at first but then he did and I saw him go through the same thing I had, and I turned into my classroom.
He had to work all that afternoon and evening. I was in my room when he got home, and he didn't come upstairs until I was already asleep. I almost wanted to walk to school the next morning but it looked like rain so I waited and rode with Luke. This time when he parked, he sat there for a second and then pulled open the ashtray and got out his ring. He stared at it, and I wondered what he was thinking. "What would you say if... if I wanted to wear my ring?" he asked.
"You mean, inside?"
"People are gonna notice it, you know."
I was staring at him but he just started twirling it between his thumb and finger, then slid it partway on, then off, up and down, then put it on all the way.
"What would you tell them?"
Now he looked at me. "That we got married."
"Right." I didn't understand him at all. "Most of the kids in there don't even think you know who I am, or me, you. Now you want to tell them we're married?"
"Well, we are."
"Not like they'd think. They'd just think you got me pregnant and we had to."
He hesitated, then pulled it off as if he hated to. "Okay. I won't wear it." He put it back in the ashtray and closed the compartment, then got out of the car and walked off fast.
Yeah, I wanted to wear it. I wasn't real sure why, but I did. I wanted people to ask, and I wanted to tell them that I got married to Katie Hendricks and see their faces. I think some of the guys would definitely be shocked and jealous and wonder what I had that caught a girl like Katie, enough for her to marry me while we were still in high school. That had its appeal, sure. But she was right, there would be rumors. That's really what made me take it back off. I couldn't do that to her, shame her like that, even if we knew it wasn't true. I wanted to do the right thing. But more than that I just wanted my ring on. Already my finger felt wrong without it. Dumb, huh? Like I said, I wasn't sure why either, but it did.