San Francisco, California
It barely registers that her brother is tumbling down the hill before she's sprinting toward him, feet flying so fast she's barely touching the ground. She catches up before he's even slowed, and stops his tumble far more gently than gravity began it.
"Are you all right?" she asks Gabriel, gently easing him up from the ground. His knee’s covered in blood.
"It hurts," he whines, grasping his left wrist with his right hand.
“Lift it up high," Violet tells him, gently taking his right hand so he can raise his left. "I'll get some ice for it when we get home."
"What about my knee?"
"We'll fix it right up," she says as they walk back up the hill. "Don't worry.”
Violet’s standing in the kitchen, doing the last of the dishes from the party. Mother and Gran are in the living room, and she can hear them, voices muffled by the running faucet.
“She planned the whole thing, all by herself,” says Gran.
“I keep saying she’s going to get herself into trouble, trying to fix everything,” her mother replies.“She didn’t need to do any of that.”
“It’s not every day you turn forty,” Gran reminds Mother. “Violet’s saved for months to throw this party. It’s high time we celebrated you, anyhow, with all you do around here.”
“I’m hardly home!” Mother protests.
“True, perhaps, but it’s all your hard work that means that those two bright children of yours get to follow their dreams. Why, Violet was telling me just the other day that she’s thinking of becoming a nurse after she graduates.”
Mother’s quiet for a moment, and Violet turns off the faucet and cranes her head to listen. She hasn’t told her mother about that idea yet, largely because she’s been unsure of how she’d respond. “Well,” Mother says finally, “I think she’d be good at it. She’s always been level-headed in a crisis.”
“She’s wise beyond her years,” her grandmother says, and Violet feels her cheeks warm.
“That’s my girl,” Mother murmurs.
“So, kid, what’s the plan?”
“The plan,” Violet tells her uncle, “is to spend three years in nurse’s training at UCSF.”
He frowns. “Don’t you have a beau?”
Violet looks over her shoulder and spots Johnny, standing off to the side of the yard, sipping a soda. She smiles at him, and he smiles warmly back. “Yeah,” she replies. “He’s over there.”
“Don’t you want to get married?”
“Eighteen’s a fine age to get married. Bertha was eighteen when we got married.”
“I’m not ready to get married,” she says firmly. “Now, if you’d excuse me, I think Mother needs me in the kitchen.”
She doesn’t head for the kitchen, instead wandering over to the fence where Johnny is.
“Hey, Violet,” he says, pulling her into a hug. “Some party. Your gran really outdid herself.”
“Yeah,” she says, leaning into his embrace, “it’s something, all right.”
He looks down at her. “You okay?”
“My uncle’s been pestering me about when I’m going to get married,” she tells him, sighing.
“Ah,” he replies. “What’d you tell him?”
“That I’m eighteen and I’m not ready to get married yet.” She looks up at him. “What else would I have said?”
Johnny averts his eyes. “Oh.”
She crooks her neck in order to meet his eyes again. “What’s the matter?”
He shakes his head, almost imperceptibly.
Violet takes a step back in order to face him, hands on her hips. “Johnny, what’s wrong?”
“I bought a ring with the money my grandfather left me,” he mumbles.
She can hear her heart pounding in her ears. “I’m sorry, what?”
He fishes around in his pocket, pulling out a small, delicate-looking velvet box. He hands it to her. “I bought a ring with the money my grandfather left me.” He pauses. “I was gonna propose, once the party was over and everyone was gone.”
"I know now that you wouldn’t have said yes, but I… I was going to ask.”
“I wasn’t even going to suggest that we get married right away - I thought you’d go through your nurse’s training first, and you could still work after we got married.”
He looks startled. “Yeah?”
She opens the ring box. The ring is simple, a single diamond set on a thin gold band. She lifts it out of the box, watching it sparkle in the light.
“What are you doing?”
She hands him the ring, then offers him her left hand. “Saying yes.”
“Where’s your fiancé?” Sally asks, filling her coffee cup from the percolator.
“He’s in Tunisia right now,” Violet says, sipping from her own cup. “Doris, turn up the radio, would you?”
Doris looks up from her magazine. “Sure thing.”
“This is Charles Collingwood in North Africa. Today’s communiqué from Allied Force Headquarters tells of more German attacks along a wide front in the northern part of Tunisia. Down in the south, Rommel is still calling Kasserine Pass and, everywhere, Allied Air Forces are striking at the enemy.”
Doris looks up from her magazine. “You all right, Violet? You look awfully pale.”
Violet shakes her head. “I’m worried. It sounds awful over there, where he is.”
“I’ll bet he’s all right,” says Sally, ever the optimist.
“Maybe so,” replies Violet. “But there’s no way to be sure.”
“For your sake,” Doris tells her, “I wish there was.”
WASHINGTON D C 745PM 3-6-43
AMELIA O’MALLEY SAN FRANCISCO CALIF
REGRET TO INFORM YOU PRIVATE JOHN M. O’MALLEY KILLED IN ACTION TUNISIA FEBRUARY 22. LETTER TO FOLLOW.
“Oh.” seems to be all Violet can say when Johnny’s sister shows her the telegram. The sound of her pounding heart fills her ears. “Oh.”
“I’m so sorry, Violet,” Josie is saying, but Violet can barely hear her. “It’s just so awful.”
Violet reaches over and places her hand on top of Josie’s. She doesn't know what to say. There's a lump in her throat so big she doesn't even know if she can speak at all.
“I don't know what to do,” Josie says.
Violet swallows, tries to will away the grief, if only for a moment. It doesn't work, but she talks anyways. “I don’t either,” she tells her. “But we’ll figure it out.”
“It’s just awful, what happened to your fiancé.”
“Are you going to settle down after this?”
It’s the same two questions, over and over, and it’s been the same for months now. Violet’s sick of it - not because she doesn’t have answers (she does) but because of the insensitivity of them both. It is awful what happened to Johnny, and she doesn’t want to settle down just yet, but that doesn’t mean she wants to talk it to death.
There’s often a third question as well: “What’s next for you?”
This one’s easier to answer. It hadn’t been in her original plan to join the Army Nurse Corps and go overseas, but nothing’s gone according to plan. For months, she’s felt like if she had to spend one more second in San Francisco, she’d lose her mind. Leaving is a straightforward solution to her problem: she’ll be saving lives and getting the hell out of her hometown in one fell swoop.
Violet has no idea what it'll be like, who she’ll meet, what she’ll see. That's okay. She doesn't have to fix a plan just yet.
For now, leaving is enough.