Zoe sighed and closed the news app on her handheld, as if all the bad news would stop happening if she didn’t look at it. At least, she thought, the depressing downturn in the fortunes of the world over the past year, with energy riots and shortages of nearly everything, served as a balance to her happiness about marrying Bradley. Otherwise Zoe might, she supposed, have struck her friends and family as the most disgustingly happy person on Earth. Today was Thursday, and she was getting married on Saturday!
The handheld buzzed on the breakfast table next to Zoe’s half-finished muesli and yogurt, with the picture of Bradley she had taken just last week when she had surprised him with lunch at the office. Zoe had found her smoking hot fiancé in the middle of a call with opposing counsel on his big case, the class action against the local arm of Selecta Corporation.
She had snapped the photo when he still hadn’t noticed Zoe standing in his office door: in it Bradley gazed out his window as if his eyes were locked on the face of a hostile witness, his broad shoulders rippling with his decisive hand gestures as he spoke to the speaker phone behind him. Bradley had turned, seen her, and smiled. Zoe’s heart had seemed literally to melt inside her chest even as she had taken the pic of her light-brown-haired, hazel-eyed guy, feeling glad at that moment that her small-town values had made her save herself for her wedding night. How perfect would it be, when this gorgeous man, more experienced than she, finally made a woman of her?
“Hi!” she said, hitting the speaker button on the handheld. “I thought you were insanely busy this morning.”
“I am, Zo,” said Bradley’s voice from the other end of the line, though the connection seemed poor. The news had started warning everyone to expect worse cellular service now that power had to be rationed to the towers, and some of them had started to go offline because of inadequate maintenance. “But I need you to do me a favor if you can.”
“Of course,” Zoe answered, smiling. If she could? She would do anything for the young lawyer who had swept her off her feet as soon as he had arrived in Oakville six months before and found Zoe Ralston, honors graduate but without funds to pay for the skyrocketing costs of college, working checkout at the grocery store.
“You remember that state government program I told you about? The marriage subsidy?”
“Yeah?” It wasn’t quite a lie, because Zoe thought she did kind of remember Bradley mentioning something like that.
“Well, I need you to head to the clinic for an exam, if we want to enroll.”
Zoe frowned. “An exam?”
“Yeah,” Bradley answered. “It shouldn’t take too long. Just ask for the marriage subsidy exam—okay, I’ll be there in a moment—sorry, babe, I have to go. Love you.”
Zoe’s handheld went dead. She looked at it for a moment, then picked it up and started searching online for more information about the marriage subsidy program. It came up quickly enough in the search results.
In these days of increasing scarcity, your state government wants to help couples who opt for traditional marriage get started in their lives together. Multiple studies have shown that traditional relationships benefit society in various important ways, most important these days in the area of resource management. Qualified couples may receive free housing and an additional stipend. Mail today to set up your free interview and medical exam.
That was all. Zoe knew that in coming to work in Oakville, where he could live a small-town lifestyle and take on a megacorp subsidiary in court, Bradley had given up the opportunity to make a lot of money in the city. She hadn’t thought they would need help from the government, but times had gotten tougher and tougher over the past couple of years with the loss of farmland in the wake of climate change and energy shortages: Bradley’s clients couldn’t pay much if anything toward the expenses of the lawsuit, and investors who wanted to take on a megacorp were very hard to come by.
Still… traditional marriage? What did that even mean? Zoe supposed it probably had to do with the same small-town values Bradley prized, and she had taken for granted growing up here. Her fiancé had grown up in the suburbs of New York City, a world away. Zoe had found him dazzling in his knowledge of, well, everything, in addition to the pecs that made her knees weak even through the white Oxford shirts he wore to court.
He had found her steady, she knew, and appealingly innocent, her blue eyes widening every time he mentioned the simplest elements of urban life, like eating at a fancy restaurant or drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve. Bradley also found her super-hot, she knew—and always blushed to recall—though she had always thought her wispy honey-blonde hair and her slim small-breasted figure couldn’t attract the kind of attention her busty peers got.
Traditional marriage, in Oakville’s state, must serve as a code phrase for something patriarchal: without having a religious upbringing at all Zoe still knew about the patriarchy. She herself had luckily grown up in a progressive sort of household, her mom working at town hall and her dad at the refinery. Plenty of her friends, though, had had stay-at-home moms even with the difficulty of a family getting by on a single income. Zoe had envied them when she was little, but had grown increasingly proud of her mom and of her family as she got older and learned about how the world worked.
She looked at the handheld again, wondering if she could risk calling Bradley and asking more questions about the government program. But he had so much to do: the case had a big court date coming up, Zoe knew—one on which Selecta might actually have to make a better offer, a real offer, or face some real consequences for their subsidiary’s negligence.
It shouldn’t take too long. Just go to the clinic and ask for the marriage subsidy exam. Doctors made Zoe just as nervous as the next girl, and she definitely wanted more information, but she could just walk away if she wanted, right? And even if they qualified for the subsidy, she and Bradley would talk it through before they signed anything, obviously.
Zoe had one more thoughtful spoonful of muesli, thinking as she chewed about Bradley’s chest. A little guiltily, she pulled up the pic from the office on her phone and looked at it as she took a sip of coffee, half-pretending to herself that she didn’t feel the tingle that ran down her spine and into the naughty places about which Bradley had shown himself such a gentleman.
Traditional marriage. Zoe felt her forehead crease as she rinsed the coffee mug and the bowl. Her parents had gone to work and Zoe, an only child, had the day off. Her left hand stopped the water flowing, and her right hand drifted down to the front of her jeans. She leaned into the counter, just underneath the place where her fingers pressed, thinking about her wedding dress, about Bradley taking it off and finding the white lace Zoe had chosen with red cheeks just the previous night from the website she had only ever looked at once before.
Zoe did not consider herself a traditional girl, by any means. The reasonably well-educated—though much of that education had come from reading on her own—part of her had a quandary, though, now. If she… her small-town mind said ‘kept going’ here… if she kept going, it would be a modern thing to do, wouldn’t it? A girl had the right to enjoy her body.
But the enjoyment… the need for it, anyway… came from thinking of… of a white wedding dress and white lingerie and a bridegroom who knew what to do with a bride who wore that sort of thing. Traditional marriage.
Zoe stood up, refusing to feel guilty, and got her keys.
The overworked man at the information desk of the clinic, which served three counties and always seemed the most densely populated region in any of them, directed Zoe to an office suite on the second floor. The sign on the door of the suite said Governmental Affairs.
“I’m here for the… marriage exam?” Zoe asked the blonde receptionist, feeling the heat creep into her cheeks at her mistake. “I mean… the marriage subsidy… exam?”
A look crossed the face of the woman, who looked to be in her late twenties, which made Zoe’s blush ten times worse. The receptionist’s expression seemed to say that she knew precisely what this particular state program attempted to subsidize, knew everything about traditional marriage and about girls who might be sent to qualify for this program, and despite drawing her paycheck from exactly the same source that supplied the subsidy, disapproved of anyone who would take money from the government through such a program.
“You can have a seat. The nurse will come get you.”
Zoe hadn’t seen anywhere to sit in the cramped reception area, but now she turned and noticed two chairs, one of them occupied by another girl who thankfully seemed Zoe’s own age and also just as nervous as she. Zoe sat and took out her handheld—the other girl had hers out, of course. She opened her news app and saw that the lead story of the morning was about a major layoff at the refinery.
“Oh, no,” she said quietly.
“The refinery?” asked the other girl, peering at Zoe’s handheld in what seemed a friendly, rather than a nosy, way.
Zoe turned to her, and seeing a sympathetic look, said, “Yeah. My dad works there.”
The girl, a pretty redhead, said, “Mine too—and my fiancé. They say it’s these lawsuits.” She sighed. “What can you do? Lawyers.”
Zoe’s whole body had gone hot, though, and she opened her Sudoku app. She entered random numbers, pretending to be paying attention, but she felt huge relief when the door next to the reception desk opened and a middle-aged nurse said, “Delilah?”
Behind the nurse a third young woman emerged through the door, seeming rather flustered, even as Delilah put away her handheld and stood up to follow the nurse.
“Delilah, just go to room one there on the right,” said the nurse, holding the door open. She turned to the girl who had just reached the door to the clinic corridor, a platinum blonde whose cheeks showed a very deep pink. “Gretel, remember what I told you, please,” the nurse said with what seemed to Zoe a very meaningful emphasis. “Your husband knows what’s best for you.”
If Zoe thought her own cheeks had burned before, at the receptionist’s disapproving attitude and at the other girl’s casual, terribly unjust connection of Bradley’s profession with the troubles at the refinery, this crumb from the nurse’s mouth as to the nature of medicine carried on in this suite set her whole face ablaze. The numbers in the Sudoku made even less sense now, and she could only feel grateful that now that she was the only girl in the reception area she didn’t need to pay as much attention to pretending to fill in the puzzle. She felt sure that her sense of the receptionist’s eyes scalding her with a continuous ray of mortification must be wrong—that the woman must have work to do, and couldn’t be looking at Zoe. When she dared look up during the long minutes during which she supposed Delilah must be having her exam, she found the woman gazing back at her, the same expression—now almost of disgust—in her eyes.
At last the door opened, and Delilah emerged, her eyes fixed on the floor and a fiery red in her cheeks. She went straight to the outside door and through it, as if hit with an electric cattle prod. Zoe felt herself frown in alarm as she turned to watch the other girl’s departure, but then the door to the exam rooms squeaked again, instead of closing, and she heard the nurse’s voice say, “Zoe?”
Trembling, and angry at herself for the stupidity of trembling, she got up, saying, “Yes,” and at least seeing a patronizing sympathy in the iron-haired woman’s face. “Room one, dear,” the nurse said as Zoe passed into a medical suite like every one she had seen, from her pediatrician to the eye doctor to the gynecologist she had started seeing two years before.
The door to room one stood open, left that way it seemed by Delilah, so Zoe entered to find a gynecological chair with its stirrups up. That made her heart beat faster, the way it always seemed to do even at her own doctor’s office. Something about doctors plus stirrups seemed to stir irrational fears. That the room for this marriage subsidy exam should contain such a chair didn’t have to mean what it seemed, she reasoned. Surely they just need to weigh her and take her blood pressure?
The nurse closed the door behind her. “I’m Nurse Carter,” she said. “I’ll be doing the first part of your exam, just like an ordinary visit to the doctor. Go ahead and take off all your clothes, Zoe.”
Through every one of the five meetings he had that morning about the Selecta case, Bradley’s mind kept coming back to the medical exam for the marriage subsidy. He had a problem at work, more generally, with keeping his mind off Zoe—though ‘problem’ didn’t really represent the way he thought about it. His gorgeous, innocent-but-eager, five-foot-four fiancée made him smile at the strangest times—especially in the toughest meetings, when an image of her smile would drift up from his imagination and he would have to suppress any facial sign of the elation at having asked her to marry him. If there were a problem, it lay simply in his tendency to look like a love-addled fool, incapable of taking on the largest corporation in history.
Today, however, the hours of court prep and the conference calls stretched on until Bradley felt he could just barely remember what food had tasted like the last time he had had any, let alone what Zoe’s arms felt like around his shoulders or the warmth of her body as she snuggled against him on the couch. He could usually focus on work like a laser despite the occasional mental flashes of Zoe-joy, but together with his usual low-grade need to feel his sweet girl’s body next to his, the knowledge he had sent her to the clinic for the marriage subsidy exam seemed to have made concentration impossible this morning.
He took the five minutes he had between a status update with his paralegals and a call with the lone investor in the case to click over to the program’s website and reassure himself he had done the right thing in starting the application for the subsidy. Of course the vague language on the net didn’t help much, but it reminded Bradley of the details of his conversation with the program officer the previous week, and that recollection did reassure him—mostly, at any rate, because he still didn’t know how Zoe would react when she found out about the aspects of the state government marriage subsidy program that hadn’t made it onto the website.
“Mr. Corvan, you seem like precisely the kind of man this program is meant to help, on paper,” the program officer, who had introduced himself as Jake Davies, said.
Bradley frowned at his handheld. “On paper?”
“Well,” the lightly drawling Midwestern voice said at the other end of the phone line, “I’m going to send you a link to access the part of the site that’s only for men who mean to be heads of household.”
Bradley didn’t want to keep parroting back the government official’s words like a neophyte out of his depth, so he kept himself from saying “Head of household?” Of course he meant to be the head of his household—the one who paid the bills and filed the taxes. He knew Zoe expected a standard division of labor, more or less, and that appealed to him, but he also had no intention of trying to return to the 1950s, so the term had taken him aback.
The couple had discussed cooking, cleaning, and even diapering, and Bradley felt a good deal of pride in how happy he had been able to make her by saying he meant to clean up when she cooked, if she would do the same, and that he planned to clean the toilets as necessary and to do half the diapering. She would work part-time for the present, which naturally put her in charge of the traditionally feminine realm, so he would take charge of the traditionally masculine one—he would serve as head of household even if they had no plans to follow traditional gender roles in other respects.
Was this a New Modesty thing? As a legal opponent of the sponsor of Selecta, that strange corporate governmental program, which sponsored two large communities in a neighboring state, had little appeal for him. All Bradley knew about the New Modesty was that it represented an attempt at social engineering through traditional forms of education. He had heard rumors of other aspects, yes, but they seemed outlandish.
“You can take a look and let me know if you’re still interested,” the program officer said.
“Okay,” Bradley replied, and hung up, still frowning as he opened the mail from the state government with the registration link for Marriage Subsidy, Head of Household pages.
“Welcome to our program for prospective husbands! As the future head of your household, you’re the one who will apply for and receive the funding we have to offer. You’re also the one who must decide whether the program is for you and your bride. As you’ll read about here, under the secret emergency powers act, the governor has invoked certain capacities of state authority that apply even in private homes. Should you qualify, and decide you wish to accept the marriage subsidy, your government will back you up in maintaining order in your home.”
Bradley’s frown deepened considerably. Any lawyer who had come through law school in the past ten years knew that they would probably have to deal with one or more of the secret laws passed at both the state and federal level in the wake of growing societal unrest. They had proliferated in the last couple of years, too, as energy shortages had become more common. Still, Oakville’s sleepy Midwestern state seemed to have taken the matter to an unexpected extreme.
“Reliable studies have demonstrated that a large percentage of couples—anywhere from 10% to 70%, depending on the study—would be happier with better defined roles in the household, and that the traditional roles of husband and wife promote both familial and community harmony. Less-well-known studies, due to the controversial nature of the topic, indicate that the foundation for this happiness lies in the bedroom.”
Now Bradley’s eyebrows rose so high he thought they might ascend to his hairline. Not only did the state want to come into the private home, now, but it seemed the government had awarded itself the power to venture into the bedroom as well.
“As a head of household, you will have the final say over what happens in your and your bride’s bedroom, but thanks to the state’s access to highly advanced biometric analysis, your program officer will have recommendations to make, based on your bride’s social media activity and, later, her medical examination. You may find these recommendations surprising, but your program officer will talk them through with you until you feel comfortable. So sign up today for the free qualification analysis!”
Bradley called Jake Davies back, even less sure that the program would work for him and Zoe, but at the same time even more intrigued than he had been before. As he and Zoe had courted, he had almost tried to force the issue of sex several times—not to force Zoe herself… absolutely not. But forcing the issue would have been different, if he had managed to do it. Bradley had had two serious girlfriends, as well as a few hookups. He had a right to consider himself experienced, he knew.
But none of them had been a virgin when he had met them, and something in Zoe’s innocent-yet-mischievous blue eyes, when he kissed her deeply and she snuggled against him, and something in her protesting murmur when his hand slipped between her thighs and he almost began to unbutton her jeans, made him stop. He could wait. Zoe wanted her wedding night to be special. He would be able to teach her the way he had always heard a virgin should be taught, tenderly, and they could speak about all the mysteries of their marriage bed then.
“You read the HoH section?” Davies asked.
“I did,” Bradley said, endeavoring to sound like he encountered secret government takeovers of private life on a daily basis. “Can you tell me a little more about what’s meant here by your recommendations surprising me?”
Davies had chuckled at the other end of the line. “I can’t really get into that until I’m sure you qualify, but I’ll just say that most prospective husbands—including relatively experienced ones like you—don’t know how much science has told us about young women’s needs. May I go ahead and run an analysis on your fiancée’s social media activity?”
Looking again at the website, Bradley thought those words had probably decided him—how much science has told us about young women’s needs. He felt that if he had known just a little more about Zoe Ralston’s needs, he might have felt more confident about taking their wonderful cuddling further—and about making sure they had a wedding night and a honeymoon to remember.
His office intercom crackled to life, and Bradley sighed, knowing it would tell him his investor, Randall Dosser, was on the line. Instead, the office manager’s voice said, “Bradley, Randall says he’s tied up and he doesn’t mind skipping today’s update. He’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Then, as he thanked the office manager, wondering how fortune could have given him half an hour of free time, he noticed that on the special page for heads of household a link had popped up—something Davies had told him about but, because his schedule would never permit Bradley to take advantage of the opportunity, he had forgotten.
Exam in progress. Click to watch.
Bradley clicked, and saw a live feed from the examination room, where on a relatively noise-free audio stream, he heard the middle-aged nurse say, “Go ahead and take off all your clothes, Zoe.”
Zoe’s sweet, heart-shaped face had the pink hue it got whenever Bradley kissed her.
“Really?” she asked. “I thought… I mean, I didn’t think…”
“Honey,” the nurse said, “this is an exam for the marriage subsidy. It’s going to be a little bit embarrassing, I know, but it’s about marriage, so there are going to be some, you might call them grownup things involved. If you want to follow your future husband’s instructions—remember, he’s the one who signed you up—you need to go ahead and get undressed.”
Zoe’s cheeks had gone beet red. She swallowed hard and very visibly. Bradley wanted to jump through the screen and hold her in his arms to reassure her, but he also found himself fascinated by her reaction, which despite her basic lack of worldly experience he supposed he wouldn’t have expected. It was a doctor’s exam, after all: everyone knew you had to get undressed for them. This one, he knew, would have some strange quirks, but Zoe hadn’t even really heard about any of those yet.
“Okay,” she said quietly. She looked around the little examination room, now—at the back of the door, in the corner. “Where’s the gown?”
The nurse smiled very patronizingly. “There’s no gown for this exam, honey. Get your clothes off so we can get started.”
“But—” Zoe protested.
“Honey, if you want to leave like the last girl did, that’s your right, but I can tell you that your fiancé signed the both of you up for this program, and that you’ve been prequalified, so I know for a fact that you belong here, even if you don’t know it.”
Zoe’s eyes went very wide. “What does that mean?”
Bradley felt his brow furrow. Jake Davies had said that Zoe’s reaction might surprise him, and it appeared the program officer had understood something Bradley didn’t, yet. Zoe seemed to him not actually to be horrified, but instead to be trying to make herself feel horrified—or perhaps his lovely girl did have a part of her that had grown outraged at this strange treatment by the nurse, but she also had another, different part, which had started to say other kinds of things.
“It means,” the nurse replied with a smile whose patience seemed on the verge of getting thin, “that if you want to do as your future husband has asked, you need to get undressed.”
“Can’t I… can’t I leave my… underwear on?”
The nurse shook her head. “You’re going to learn pretty soon, I think, honey, what happens to girls who can’t follow instructions, but at the moment this is your last chance. Take everything off, including your panties, or go home to your fiancé and tell him you don’t want to be part of the program.”