Over the past five years walls had sprouted from the concrete, blocking off the cities from the wasteland that lay between them. The sky was gray and the ground was gray and the walls were gray and the oldest ones still left living liked to tell children stories about the times when the world was actually all in color.
Karl was a metalwork apprentice, living with his mother still. She turned to the bottle to calm her nerves when the skies had begun to light up with missiles every night. Karl had once tried to stop her alcoholic behavior by dumping out her liquor, but it only resulted in yelling and screaming and throwing of bottles. He gave up, and became quiet, working extra long hours to support himself and his mother’s habit. He had somehow avoided the intergalactic military draft every year since his eighteenth birthday. Today, Karl was turning twenty-four.
Karl had a girlfriend, whom he loved so much that he couldn’t quite handle it some days. Her name was Melise, and they’d known each other since elementary school. In fact, he supposed he loved her from the day he was forced to sit behind her in first grade. She would turn and ask to borrow his pencil and he would get sucked into her deep blue eyes. Now that they’d been dating since both were sixteen years old, Karl had started saving up for a diamond ring two years ago. He could finally afford one from a pawn shop on what was left of the downtown strip, so he had it hiding in the glove compartment of his car.
Today, Karl was turning twenty-four, and the only thing he had planned was to take his car to see Melise. She was waiting on the porch of her own family home when he pulled in the driveway.
"Happy birthday, Karl," she said, planting a kiss on his lips as she slid into his passenger seat.
"Thank you, Lise" he replied, beginning to drive off to the old clearing where the drive-in movie theatre had once stood many many years ago. This was where they had always gone to talk. This was where he asked her to be his girlfriend. This was where she finally said yes and they became each other’s firsts. This was where they’d shared many nights together, holding hands or kissing or fucking or watching the windows fog up as they whispered "I love you" over and over until their voices both took on the same cadence.
"Don’t you want to celebrate your birthday?" Melise asked.
"I have two things I want to talk to you about," Karl replied.
"You’re always so serious, Karl," Melise laughed. "It wouldn’t hurt you to just enjoy yourself for once." Karl ignored this comment, pulling into the clearing and cutting the engine.
"Melise, this is important. I got a message today, from the governor."
"Wait—" she began, but he cut her off.
"I got drafted, Melise. I’m leaving in six weeks for training."
Karl heard her gasp catch in her throat. She said nothing otherwise, staring straight out the window. He tried not to look at her; he knew that she was trying not to cry in front of him.
"Is there any way you can defer it?" She asked after awhile in a quiet whisper.
"Melise, you know there’s no way I can get around this. I’ve been lucky for the past six years, but you and I both knew this was unavoidable," Karl answered. A heavy silence sat between them for a few minutes.
"I didn’t want to tell you this on your birthday, Karl, but I suppose I should tell you now," Melise said after awhile.
"What is it?"
"Jesus Christ," Karl sighed. He wanted this. He wanted to move out of his mother’s house and live with Melise and raise a family even though the world around them was falling apart. But he was being called away and he didn’t know if this was any excuse to keep him home with Melise.
She burst into tears at his reaction, and he quickly pulled her close to try to comfort her.
"Lise, Lise, I didn’t mean it like that. I love you, so very much. I’m not angry."
He let go of the embrace just long enough to open his glove compartment. Retrieving the box with the ring, he held it open for her to see.
"Melise Litfield, I wanted to ask you to be my wife. I want to start a family with you."
"But you’re leaving, Karl."
The silence returned.
"Lise," Karl began, "if you wear this ring, I promise I will find a way to stay with you. I won’t leave you or the baby. We’ll run away if we have to."
"You really mean it?" she asked.
"Of course I do. There must be some place beyond these walls for us."
Melise held out her hand, and he placed the ring on her finger. She smiled.
"There must be some place," she echoed.