The plane’s door opened, permitting the wind to slide through and blanket me in uninvited coldness. We glided steadily 13,000 feet above the ocean, no longer gaining altitude. I didn’t have to glance out to know the reason for lingering: The portal was beneath us. It made loud gasps as it swirled, like it was alive, already judging us.
“Alright, ready for your last words? I mean—vows?”
The commitment attendant chuckled at his mistake, but I bet he made the same one on each trip. He seemed so harmless with a stomach like a snail shell and ears like antennae, but his innocence was just an illusion. It had to be with his career choice. One tiny mistake, one error in timing, and he was a murderer. I found it comical how he would’ve been regarded as holy if he had been born one hundred years earlier. Back then, people like him were called priests.
“I’ve been ready for this for twenty-six years,” Mark said, squeezing my thigh. The affection seeped from his fingertips, leaping from his veins to mine.
“I’ve only known you for three.”
“Doesn’t matter. My brain didn’t know you existed, but my heart did.” He smirked when I rolled my eyes. “That’s right. The boy’s being romantic.”
“The girl will reward you tonight,” I said as I shifted my eyes toward him.
Curls crept across his forehead, somehow escaping the three layers of gel, and his navy tie was crooked, a zigzag beneath his black blazer. The suit was similar to the one I had on, except mine was the feminine version, pale pink and sticking to my curves like paste. I begged Mark to let me wear a dress instead, but he claimed it would be inconvenient. He said I could wear anything I wanted during our official marriage ceremony, so long as I wore the suit to the Lover’s Leap.
The leap was created back in 2022, after a massive number of married couples cheated on one another, fought, and decided their ‘everlasting’ love had come to an end. Back then, the divorce rates were nearing 75% and the government refused to keep giving tax and employment benefits to those abusing the system.
Instead, they used the nation’s money to fund scientific research for a cure for divorce. A way to assure only those who were devoted to one another could get married.
In order to land a job, you needed to attend an interview. In order to enter college, you needed to score well on the SATs. And in order to get married, you needed to freefall from a plane.
“What happens if one of us flunks?” Mark asked the attendant as he approached us, eager to toss us out. “I know someone dies, but how? No one ever talks about that part. Do we just smash right into the ground or does somebody cook us up a last meal before sticking us on the grill ourselves?”
My bottom lip jutted out as I narrowed my eyes, interrupting with my own question. “Are you planning on failing?”
“I’ve never been good under pressure. Remember how many times I had to take those STD tests before I came up positive?”
I shook my head, refusing to give him the laugh he was looking for. But before I could respond, sweaty, slimy hands hitched me out of my seat. The snaillike man dragged me toward the exit and twisted my body so I was facing out. His fingers clutched my shoulders tightly while the wind slashed my exposed flesh like a whip.
With a downward glance, I could see the portal sparkling and spinning like a whirlpool. The device worked like a massive computer, an advanced piece of technology that had the ability to read the mind of any human that entered it with enough speed.
The brain was set up to recognize danger, and as safe as the fall was, being shoved out of a plane and plunging 13,000 feet toward the earth was a natural stimulant, fooling anyone into believing they were dying.
As scientists had earlier discovered, when someone believed their life was ending, their minds morphed into a flipbook of their most important thoughts, memories, and hopes for the future. The portal processed the information, decided whether an individual’s mind contained enough love for a workable marriage, and either gave them permission to wed or a death sentence.
“Do you, Abigail Abbott, wish to devote yourself to Mark Valentine until death comes between you?” the attendant asked, his grip loosening.
I had no reason to pause before I said, “Of course I do.”
The man’s knee collided with my back as he released his hold on my shoulders. I tumbled through the air, my limbs flailing in an instinctual attempt to latch onto stability. I held in my screams by imagining I was Alice ready to meet that sneaky, smirking cat and the bunny complaining they were running out of time and oh God, the ground was getting closer. The portal growled below me, ready to gobble me in my entirety, but what if I didn’t land inside of it somehow? What if I failed?
What if I died?
Fire replaced my blood and my veins melted against the heat. Now it proved impossible to contain the screams. Mark’s lips against my neck while he thought I was sleeping. The smell of his hair as I nibbled on his ear. The portal was all there was. Any piece of solid land was too far away to see. The real world was imaginary, a memory. Mark proposing while whipping up breakfast together. Making a temporary ring out of a twist tie from a bread bag. Inches away. So close. Death could be so close. If I live, we’ll travel for a few years. We’ll have at least two kids. We’ll be happy.
The portal consumed me, swallowed my body and soul with a single gulp. The machine’s throat lasted for minutes, hours, or was it just an instant? Without a clock, did time even exist? It was a human creation, just like everything else. Just like love—no. No, love was natural. It was pure, a beautiful belief.
I slid through the unending tunnel, my brain empty except for the repetitive sounds of beeping. My thoughts were temporarily deleted from my mind, copied and pasted into the machine to process.
When my cognition boomeranged back, I landed in an empty room, spacious and illuminated by rosy lighting. Flower petals littered the floor and speakers hung on the wall that played organ music. There was no furniture, nor was there a ceiling. When I looked up, I could see the portion of the tunnel I was spit from, but the top was too distant to make out.
“Congratulations, Abigail Abbott,” a mechanical voice said. “You have passed the Lover’s Leap. Now you must wait for your fiancé’s results.”
I crouched down to scoop up a handful of the petals, planning to throw them at Mark when he joined me as congratulatory confetti. My friends called it bad luck to plan any part of the wedding before being granted permission, but I considered it confidence. We had already decided on the cake, band, location, and menu. We just needed the official permission papers so we could legally purchase it all. We hoped to get married around the holidays, so we would have to book the chapel as soon as we—
The walls wavered, swaying like laundry on a line as the floor rippled like waves. I struggled to remain standing, finding it difficult to balance on a moving platform, and my eyes jumped up toward the portal. Mark’s silhouette shot down as the beeps chirped up again, the noise of the machine’s judgment.
Before his dress shoes grazed the ground, the room twisted like taffy, spiraling until it became something new, something dark. I clutched my fingers against my palm, noticing they were empty. I never loosened my hold on the petals, but they had vanished.
When the room stopped moving, the heart shaped lamps were replaced by flickering torches in jet black sconces. The walls looked metallic, as did the floor and the radiator that dispensed the kind of cold air that accompanied snow. The area was barren except for an empty table in the shape of a skull. Mark stood across from me, the table between us, trembling from the cold.
“Abigail,” he said without taking note of the room. Every bit of his focus was directed at me. “I can’t wait to marry you, girl.”
Before I could squeak out a response, the mechanical voice said, “Mark Valentine, you have failed the Lover’s Leap. Permission to marry has been denied.”
Denied. Failed. Rejected.
“Punishment will begin shortly,” the voice continued. “Until death do you part.”
“No. That’s not at all… There’s no way I failed,” I could hear my ex-fiancé say. The room created an echo, forcing me to listen to every lie twice. “I would never divorce you. I’d never not love you.”
“Where’s our punishment?” I asked the air, because acknowledging Mark was too difficult. My back was to him as I pounded against a wall that rippled against my touch. “Are you going to get it over with or just make us sit here?”
“Abby, there’s no one else I could ever feel this way about. Do you understand?”
“Where the hell’s our punishment?”
“Abby, girl, I swear I’m completely in lo—“
“Give us the damn punishment!”
“Until death do you part,” the machine repeated. A gun materialized on the skull table as I spun around. “Only one death is permitted.”
The tears stuck inside my sockets; my legs stuck to the ground. It would’ve been impossible to grab the weapon even if I wanted to. I was stunned by an emotional bullet. Mark remained motionless as well, meeting my gaze with the blue eyes that were always so alive when he told a joke, so caring when I cried, so deep while making love. Now they looked far off and broken, like a marble cracked down the center.
“I don’t… I know I was thinking about you,” he said, bringing my attention away from the weapon. “But my parents might’ve crossed my mind too, you know? And my job. My friends. My life isn’t entirely about you. That doesn’t mean I’m not in love with you. I want to marry you. Only you, girl.”
“Today was a mistake.”
“Come on. Machines can stop working. They break. We’re not the mistake. This damn portal is. It’s malfunctioning. Do you actually believe it over me?”
My frozen feet were thawed, allowing me to move across the room. I stumbled halfway to the skull table when Mark realized my intention wasn’t to wrap him in my arms. As he bolted toward the weapon, I lunged forward, sliding my stomach against the floor.
Catapulting my arms, I managed to knock it out of place and onto the ground. I crawled over to snatch it, grasping it with both hands as Mark skidded to a standstill. Using my elbows to lift myself up, I rested on my knees and aimed.
Could I? No… No, it was impossible. How could I put a bullet between those blue eyes? Stopping the heartbeat that kept me at peace for three years seemed wrong. But it was either shoot or be shot myself. I had to do it.
“Abby,” he said. “Abby, girl, don’t. Please? Just let me…”
He kept his arms raised as he stepped around the table. He crouched down in front of me, reaching over the gun to wrap his hand around my shoulder. I refused to adjust my aim. As he drew closer, I nudged the barrel into his chest.
“Remember the day we met?” he asked. “At that huge gym where a smoothie cost more than our apartment? You walked past me while I was on the elliptical and went into one of the rooms they held classes in. And I didn’t think, I just… You were so beautiful that I followed you.” His lips swirled into a hopeful smile, desperate to clutch onto the memory. “I signed up for six months of damn spin class just so you might look at me.”
My voice came out raspy as I said, “You should’ve left me alone, Mark.”
“But I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t and you teased me for checking you out and I thought you were too good for me, but I asked you to get lunch anyway. And you told me you didn’t date and I told you I didn’t want you, that I preferred girls with canes and glass eyes. It was the dumbest joke, but that was the first time I heard you laugh. And then you left with me and it was a date and it was perfect because—“
“I swear I’ll do it, Mark.”
“—we were already falling in love. And remember the gym? We didn’t even get to finish those spin classes because we were caught making love in that bathroom stall. I remember you arguing with security when they revoked our memberships. You didn’t even care about yours. You just wanted me to keep mine. I know I—.”
“I’ll pull the trigger. I will.”
“—tease you about owing me the money to make up for that, but I don’t give a crap. All I care about is you. I love you.”
I pushed the gun deeper into his chest. “Don’t use that word. That word’s the reason this is happening.” He inched away, creating a short distance between us. “There was no reason for you to propose. There was no reason for you to jump out of that plane. There was no reason to pretend you cared.”
Without time to process his actions, Mark’s hand slid down my arm. Twisted my wrist. Stole the gun.
“I’m sorry,” he said over the clanking of his feet as he scurried across the room.
The back of my hand helped my tongue wipe away the tears. When my vision cleared, I saw my once-upon-a-time fiancé standing across the room, gun pointed toward me to keep me in place. Helpless on the ground, I scanned the area for a source of escape, but there were no exits. Not even the portal was visible when I took a glance upward.
“There was a reason,” Mark said, returning to our earlier conversation. My eyes swerved back toward him, crashing into his gaze. “Because I love you.”
He used the phrase despite my warning, and despite the machine’s decision, I trusted that it was the truth. Three years of flirtatious conversations, two years of living together, and a year of planning our marriage couldn’t be erased after a few words from a computer. I tried to cling onto the charade of hating him, but my brain believed it was dying once again—it flipped through memories, hopes, and dreams that all involved Mark. How could I still love him while he was aiming a gun at my heart?
As compressed as my lungs were, I managed to sob out a string of words. “Then what the hell are you doing?”
“I know you’d never be able to live with yourself if you murdered me. I’m doing this for you.”
Refusing to watch his final betrayal, I closed my eyes and waited for the shot to echo through the room.
When it did, my chin crashed into my neck, a reaction from the ricocheting sound. My ears were piercing, my head throbbing.
Before I could blink my eyes open, the machine sparked back to life to say, “Error 127: suicide. Recalculating.” There was a series of beeps as the room shifted. A moment later, the walls were pink again. “Miscalculation. Mark Valentine has passed the Lover’s Leap. Marriage permission: Granted.”
I basked in seconds of senseless joy before turning toward the lifeless body sprawled across the ground, covered in blood and flower petals.