It was a world of want, of need, yet everything was for sale. Everything had a price.
And the price of love was too high. No one could afford it.
Who would invest in another mouth to feed? Who would want to have to back up the words “in sickness and in health” when sickness was far more likely than health? When poorer was far more likely than richer? When a little body heat wasn’t worth the cost of sharing food?
Love was for sale in the Zone, but only on a short-term basis. And everyone knew it.
The moans coming from the baggage claim were as mechanical as Zack’s, produced on command in exchange for a ration chit. There was no love in the Zone. There were only attempts to recreate the past, to feel a lost love for just a moment, and to forget the present, to retreat to a world with clean sheets the night before and clean hair, a shower and a toilet, and fresh-brewed coffee the morning after. And everyone indulged themselves in the fantasy while hating themselves for it. It was not love, and it was not sex; it was desperation.
Even Father Tutumbo. He knew it. He saw the faces and he heard the moans and he saw through them all. He knew. He hadn’t been asked to perform a wedding or a baptism in months. He knew before he even asked Krezner. He asked anyway. As far as the doctor knew, none of the Zone’s two hundred and ninety-four women had been pregnant in the past seven months. The last two pregnancies in the zone had ended in miscarriage. The doctor suggested that may have been a function of poor nutrition or stress, but Joseph knew. There were no secrets in Hancock: No one wanted to bring forth a child into a zombie-infested world. They were actively taking steps to sabotage God’s will. Zack was not only making the world Hell, he was preventing people from getting to Heaven.
He also knew that he would never get them to marry from his pulpit. His sermons were politely ignored. He gave them anyway and people came on Sundays, listened politely, and returned to their lives unchanged. Religious dogma was the domain of the well-fed, he knew. They came for the companionship, but not for the marching orders. He was not from Central New York, but he was not stupid. He knew there were many ways to do God’s work. Threats of damnation would not work on people who were living it.
Arranged marriages weren’t unheard of in his country. He knew that Americans would never accept such a vulgar proposition, placing economics above love. But even Americans were people. And there was self-interest he could appeal to. God would get what He wanted. So would they. He knew his plan could work, because his plan was God’s plan.
He started with Clipboard. Clipboard liked data. Clipboard took it to Brooks and Slater. They made it happen.
Ten rooms in the hotel would be reserved for newlyweds. They would get a minimum of three months in their private quarters. If no one else had married by the beginning of the next quarter, they could keep the rooms as long as they stayed together. The first in rooms would be the first out. Meaker agreed to serve as enforcer.
The priest knew people would cheat. He knew marriages of convenience would spring up in mid-December in order to secure the rooms for January through April. He didn’t care. It would all work out in the end. Love and marriage was always an economic decision–a calculation of risks and rewards. He would just tip the scales back toward a little bit of permanence. Weddings would have to be performed by him at the chapel, just to make them official. It was the only condition he attached.
Love would still be rented in the Blue Zone. But now at least, it might also be leased.
Father Tutumbo performed his first christening in the Zone thirteen months, two weeks, and four days after telling Clipboard about his plan. Six hundred and fifty-one people turned out to welcome Alexander Benjamin Kimmell into their filthy, hungry, desperate world with the implied promise to protect him from filth, hunger, and desperation.
And Father Tutumbo, without knowing to whom anymore, gave thanks.