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Here is the River and Here is the Box

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It appeared on the inside of her hip the morning of her thirteenth birthday. It would come any day now, her gran had been saying, and Maddie wasn't sure if she believed. She had read — and if the other girls in her class were to be believed — some of them had gotten theirs already. Though, they were gossips and couldn't be trusted. Maddie kept her mouth shut though, did her sums and waited. She felt like she was waiting for a lot of things, the ache of growing up just starting to settle in her bones.

When it did come, it looked like a jagged misshapen thing. Maddie spent a quarter of an hour examining it in the mirror. It didn't look like anything. Novels were always going on about heart and star-shaped ones, appearing becomingly on wrists and ankles. Maddie's was shaped like nothing she had ever known, and she decided firmly that she liked it that way.

She didn't think of it much over the years. She glimpsed it when she changed out of her slip. Sometimes in the hot summer night, when Maddie would sleep naked, her hand would fall there. She'd trace the slightly raised lines with her fingers, wondering about anyone out there doing the same. Surely there was a boy not too far from her, idly thumbing his mark as well. That was the point.

You tried to marry the person who matched you. It was how it was done. Soul matches, they were called, and you just had to find them.

Then the war came.

And there were other things to think of.

--

She and Julie talked about it during an air raid once. They had gotten bored of playing at cards, and the other girls had drifted off to sleep. Julie was down to her last cigarette — traded, of course — and she shared it with Maddie. They swapped it back-and-forth between themselves, the candlelight steady and unwavering. The stale air in the sheltered was punctuated by sleepy noises, snores. Julie giggled at a particularly loud snort.

"Daft," Maddie said fondly, though they had known each other only a short while. It was impossible to not feel fond of Julie. She was so clever and beautiful and infuriatingly courageous. She made Maddie laugh.

Julie's eyes were hooded in the dim light. It made her look like a cat, sleek and golden, her hair giving off a burnished sheen. She had it loose around her shoulders, undone from its plait. Maddie thought she rather reminded her of a goddess. A feline goddess from somewhere faraway and exotic, untouched by bombs and the smell of turned-up rubble.

"My mum wrote me about all of those soldiers finding their matches during wartime. All of those lovely romances she heard about from the Great War," Julie said conversationally in her posh accent. She took a drag off the ciggie and passed it back to Maddie. "I don't know if she meant it as a hint, but I had to write her that it wasn't my most pressing concern at the moment."

Maddie smothered a laugh. "She thinks you should be off finding your soulmate?"

"No, no," Julie said, sounding cheerful. "She just wants me to keep an eye open. So while I'm connecting calls on the radio, I'll be sure to also interrogate them about what their mark looks like, of course."

They finished the cigarette with a few chuckles and Julie snubbed it out against the floor of the shelter. She leaned back against the wall. It was cold, and she had a pullover over her pajamas. Her face was very sweet in the half-dark, young and scrubbed clean.

"What does yours look like anyway?" Maddie asked, hugging her knees.

"Nothing in particular. Yours?"

"Nothing," Maddie echoed. "Not that I can tell anyway."

Julie made a soft noise in her throat. "I think most of the marks probably look like nothing. Or people twist them to make them into shapes they really aren't. I think most people probably exaggerate, don't you?"

"I can't exaggerate mine," Maddie said. "There's nothing to exaggerate. But I like it."

"Mine too." Julie smiled, and then she sighed. It was a lovely, quiet sound. "I'm not sure how you're supposed to tell either. Half the girls I know have theirs tucked up beneath skirts. My brother Jamie — he's got his beneath his ear. I suppose that's lucky. Doesn't have to go about unbuttoning anything to get to it."

"Beryl says you have to play shy. She says you just have to show them a glimpse of it." Beryl had demonstrated for Maddie, one foot against a fencepost, arching her neck just so. The shoulder of her blouse had pulled down and Maddie could just see the top of Beryl's mark above the collar. It hadn't seemed like anything newsworthy. Maddie had just rolled her eyes at Beryl's coquettish performance.

"Oh, rubbish," Julie said. "Girls are always playing shy. Be bold."

Her features were bright and fierce, and Maddie felt a sudden rush of emotion flood her. Of course Julie was bold. That's just how she was. But not Maddie, no, not Maddie who shrank away from the sound of gunfire. She wasn't like that at all.

"I couldn't," she said.

"Of course you could."

"No," Maddie protested. "I'm not like you."

Julie laughed, a ringing peal like a gently-struck bell. "Maddie Brodatt, are you trying to tell me you aren't brave? That you haven't dodged bullets to bring down a German plane? That you haven't guided pilots in with just the sound of your voice?"

"Fear of being court-martialed," Maddie mumbled, the blush hot in her cheeks, and the tips of her ears too.

"My sweet Maddie." Julie scooted closer and took Maddie's cold fingers in hers. She kissed the tips of them, her lips so soft. It made Maddie's heart pause, like time had slowed, just so she could savor the feeling. "You are brave and wonderful and you can be as bold as you like."

"Shut it," Maddie said, still embarrassed, though a part of her yearned for Julie to say more.

But the air raid siren went quiet then, and they busied themselves by waking the other girls. Julie plaited her hair back, not a strand out of place. They emerged out into gray daylight, and Julie looped her arm through Maddie's, and they walked their way back to their bunks.

--

They wrote as often as they could, though Maddie feared that she was not as reliable as a correspondent as Julie was. Julie’s responses were long and prompt, conversational and interesting. Maddie found herself jotting down the small things — the joy of an unexpected flight, a surprise spoonful of sugar in her tea, a terrible dance she let Beryl talk her into attending. She worried it wasn’t enough for Julie, but if it was, Julie never let on.

Have you met your soulmate while we’ve been apart? Julie wrote in one letter, and Maddie imagined her expression, cheeky and teasing.

HA, Maddie scrawled back in response, afraid of what Julie might say if she knew. Somehow. Cottoned onto the fact that Maddie sometimes remembered the way Julie’s face looked in the sunlight, nose tipped up to the sky, half-smiling. You must have me mistaken with someone else. I’ve got two left feet and oil splotches all over my clothes. A great impression I’m making on the population.

You imbecile, came Julie’s cheerful reply. Any man would be lucky to have you.

Maddie wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she just wrote, Just waiting for the right one to fall out of the sky, and left it at that.

--

Maddie received a telegram from Juliet a week into November. She tore it open as soon as she got inside the house, ripping the envelope carelessly to get to the message inside. She shucked her wet clothes as she did it, kicking her boots off to dry by the fire. Steam rose off her jumper as she stood in her damp wool socks, scanning the message.

GOT LEAVE LAST WEEK OF NOV CAN I COME VISIT?

She signed off with a simple J. Nothing else, maybe because writing out her whole name would have cost a great deal more. But Maddie’s heart gave a leap anyway, seeing just the initial there in type. Because she was an idiot — an adult with a job and everything, could fly actual planes, and she was mooning over Julie like she was a schoolgirl still. She read it through twice more and ran off to the kitchen in squishy, stockinged feet to tell her gran that they would be getting a visitor.

Maddie had grand plans to take Julie flying, so she could point down the coast with the sunlight all about them, the sea shining and bright. Instead the weather was bad enough that she was grounded, and Maddie had to bite back her disappointment.

“Oh yes, very disappointed,” Julie managed to say with a straight face, when Maddie met her at the train station and told her the bad news.

“Liar,” Maddie said, a bit giddy with Julie’s presence, as she helped heft Julie’s bag. “You’re relieved.”

Julie laughed. “I can’t help it. It’s bloody terrifying, flying.”

“There’s nothing terrifying about it. This is the exact reason I wanted to take you with me. To show you there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Maddie,” Julie said, and reached out to take Maddie’s free hand. She interlaced their fingers, her skin warm and dry, and Maddie feeling her own palm start to sweat. “You are one of the bravest people I know. You and Jamie, suspended in the air, braving those Nazi bombers.”

“Oh,” Maddie said, feeling awkward. “Jamie has much more to deal with. I’m just ferrying things about — “

Julie squeezed their hands, and Maddie lapsed into silence.

“Thank you,” Maddie said after a second.

“You’re welcome,” Julie grinned.

The second best thing was taking Julie on the back of her motorbike, and even though the weather was bloody awful, Maddie could at least do that. She lent Julie an old skirt and several pullovers, and they went out into the cold rain on Maddie’s Silent Superb. Maddie drove them through the foothills of the Pennines, carrying sack lunches with them, and a hot thermos of tea to share. Julie shrieked and laughed, her arms tight around Maddie’s middle, and Maddie tried not to think so much of the warm weight of Julie pressed against her.

They curled into Maddie’s bed at night, beneath a heavy quilt to block out the cold. Julie lay with her cheek against the pillowcase, turned towards Maddie. It was very dark in the room, the blackout curtains drawn, and Maddie could hear Julie’s breath — feel it damp against her hair — and she thought suddenly of her mark, lying just above the hem of her pajama shirt. She curved ever-so-slightly towards Julie, and their hands brushed. Maddie jerked back, her heart hammering like the rapid rat-tat-tat of a gunner.

“Come on,” she heard Julie mumble, and then Julie was twining around her, warm skin and sweet-smelling, nesting herself beneath the point of Maddie’s chin. “It’s too cold for that.”

They lay tightly wound around each other, fingers pressed against arms and necks. Julie let out a little breath, and it sounded small and almost song-like.

“Where’s your mark?” Maddie asked, her voice whisper-soft.

Julie was silent for a long minute, and then she shifted her weight, leaning into Maddie’s hip. “Inside of my thigh. Bloody inconvenient, if you ask me. There’s no good way to show that off.”

Maddie giggled at that. “Mine’s at the inside of my hip. Even worse.”

It was Julie’s turn to laugh, and she chuckled, breathily, her mouth so close that Maddie thought she could taste her. Maddie felt a bit dizzy, as if she had taken a dive too steep, the ground coming towards her shallow and she would have to bank, sharp and fast — and Julie’s lips were on hers, her kiss warm when her hands were cool and gentle. Maddie whimpered, her body arching towards Julie’s, and they moved together — legs and arms making room — and kissed again, and it was still new and wonderful and terrifying.

“Be bold, Maddie Brodatt,” Julie murmured, her mouth at the shell of Maddie’s ear.

“Oh,” Maddie said, because that’s all she could manage, and she pulled Julie close and was as bold as she dared.

--

They kissed again, the next day, Julie’s cheeks pink with cold and Maddie’s hair tangled, their mouths finding each other as they leaned against a wet fencepost while they rested. Maddie was breathless, again and again, as Julie pressed herself close, tasting of cigarettes and tea. It was all they dared in the daylight, on the side of a rutted track. Maddie had to be contented with Julie sitting at her back when they went along again, kicking her motorbike into motion, speeding through the foothills.

In the dark, Maddie was spurred on by only Julie’s touch and voice and smell, the small tremors that shook her body whenever Maddie touched her in a spot that she liked. She wanted to see, but it was good enough, Julie’s faint noises of pleasure, and the taste of her on Maddie’s tongue. She traced Julie’s mark with her fingers, the edges prickling her forefinger, but she couldn’t tell its shape anymore than she had been able to previously. Julie kissed Maddie’s. She found each line and followed it with her lips. It made Maddie quiver, her hand twisting in Julie’s golden hair, and Julie’s breaths came hard and shallow.

Afterwards, they lay naked and half-sleeping, the covers thrown back. Julie stroked Maddie’s shoulder with her thumb, over and over, until it seemed to Maddie that it was a part of her, like breathing.

“Don’t leave,” Maddie said.

“I won’t,” Julie replied.

Maddie knew it was a lie — and she knew Julie knew — but she was comforted all the same. She stilled Julie’s hand with her own, and leaned forward to kiss her.

--

When Julie was safely secured on the train, Maddie returned to her room and locked the door. She drew the curtains and lit a lamp and stripped down to her underthings, staring at herself in the mirror. There was a small line of purple bruises moving down her abdomen, and she touched them, one-by-one, thinking of Julie. The mark was still there, distinct as the day it appeared. She rubbed at it, hoping it would disappear. It wasn’t fair, Maddie thought desperately. It wasn’t fair that there were people finding their soulmates all over and she found Julie and they weren’t, they couldn’t be.

It was all so unfair. Maddie felt it inside of her chest, hollowing out a space.

--

The letters they exchanged after that were carefully mundane. No more gentle teasing about men and soulmates. It was easier to leave things unsaid.

I miss you, Julie wrote once, and the “you” was smudged, as if she had cried.

I miss you too, Maddie wrote back, feeling like she might.

--

Maddie woke up still holding Julie the morning after. There were tear stains on Julie’s cheek — she must have fallen asleep still crying, and Maddie brushed them with the pad of her thumb. She could see the edge of a bruise beneath the collar of Julie’s pajama top, the purple slightly less garish in the gray morning light than it had been the night before. She felt so helplessly angry, and she waited while it rose in her like a wave, letting it seep out, while she pressed tender kisses into Julie’s hair.

“Maddie,” Julie whispered, her voice raspy. She reached over and touched the bridge of Maddie’s nose, the corner of her mouth. “It’s all right.”

“Is it?” Maddie asked.

“It is,” Julie insisted. “It’s my job. We’re all doing our jobs.”

She wanted to blubber, but she couldn’t, so she held back her tears and kissed Julie fiercely. Julie made a soft noise against her mouth, and her small fingers curled along Maddie’s neck. She tasted like salt, on her tongue and her skin. Maddie wanted to push up her top, span her hand against Julie’s ribcage, and spend the day in bed with her. Like it wasn’t the war — like it was some other time, suspended between panes of reality, where nothing mattered except them.

“I love you,” Julie said into Maddie’s hair.

“I love you,” Maddie replied, and she meant it, and that wasn’t how it was supposed to be at all.

Julie pulled away, her mouth twisted in a small smile. “I always thought those stories about people who don’t find their soul matches, who fall in love with someone else, that they were sad.”

But it did feel sad to Maddie, and she said as much, kissing Julie’s palm.

“Maddie darling, you are the most glorious person I could have fallen in love with. It’s not sad at all,” Julie said, her eyes very bright, and Maddie believed her.

--

Even in their periods apart, they had at least had letters.

In France, Maddie had nothing at all. Radio silence. A stretching of days where she had to pretend to be someone she wasn’t, longing for a word — any word — from Julie.

If she was dead —

If she was dead —

Maddie didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She didn’t know how to do it without it breaking her inside, cracking open her ribcage like slicing a watermelon. Only soulmates were supposed to feel that way, she had thought.

But she didn’t know how to survive it.

And then:

Maddie found herself unable to breathe when she thought about it. How it happened. The clear crack of her shot ringing in the night, and how Julie tumbled to the ground, blood pooling around her. Maddie’s scream of anguish, wrenched from her like an animal. Gunfire and suddenly, Julie, again, in Maddie’s arms. She got blood all down Maddie’s front, but her pulse beat rabbit-quick, and she was laughing this wild, thready laugh that only Maddie could feel because of her shaking shoulders.

“Bold, Maddie,” she said through cracked lips, her face so gaunt it hardly seemed to be her. “You were bold.”

“Just scared of losing you,” Maddie managed through her tears, hot on her cheeks. They dripped onto Julie’s forehead. “Julie,” she said, her voice cracking. “I can’t lose you.”

“Don’t be daft. You saved me,” Julie replied.

--

The first holiday Maddie got after returning from France, she took and went up to see Julie in Scotland. She arrived mid-morning, and Lady Beaufort-Stuart was there to offer her breakfast and tea and a chance to wash her face because she was dusty from walking from the station. Julie was resting in her bedroom, her mother said, but Jamie was around downstairs, and she went and fetched him from one of the hundreds of rooms in the castle and Maddie couldn’t help herself — she leapt to her feet and threw her arms around his neck. Lady Beaufort-Stuart excused herself from the kitchen, and Jamie pulled his chair close to Maddie’s so they could talk.

“You’re looking very well,” Jamie said, eyeing her up and down. “The picture of health.”

“Rubbish,” Maddie said. “Gran says I’ve still got weight to gain back.”

“We’ll help. Three days with us, and you’ll be full of Highlander food.” Jamie rubbed at the back of his neck idly, and through his fingers, Maddie glimpsed his mark — jagged, like hers — and her heart gave a leap.

“Wait!” she exclaimed, standing up, fingers stretched out towards him.

He froze. “What?”

She pried his hand away from his mark, and stared at it. It resembled hers, more than any she had ever seen. But it wasn’t exactly the same. The lines ran differently, a little bit crooked in places. She traced it, and Jamie went still beneath her touch. He craned his head to try to look at her.

“Maddie,” he started.

“No, sorry. It just, um, it sort of looks like mine.”

“Only just?” Jamie asked, and perhaps he sounded a touch hopeful, Maddie wasn’t sure.

She took a step back from him. “Similar, but still different.” She gave him a crooked smile and shrugged her shoulders, joking, “Sorry, Jamie.”

He put a hand over his heart and grinned. “Ach, Maddie lass, you wound me.”

They talked for a while longer, and Maddie’s gaze kept drifting towards the doorway. She was hoping, she knew, and finally Jamie told her to get up there to see his sister — that was the reason she had come, after all. Maddie didn’t wait a second to be polite. She darted right upstairs, through the massive corridors straight to Julie’s bedroom. She knocked, rapping her knuckles against the door. Twice.

“Come in.”

Maddie twisted the knob and pushed in. Julie was sitting up in her bed, propped against a mountain of pillows, her hair loose and spread golden behind her. She had a book in her hands. Her face was still thin, her cheekbones more prominent than ever, and Maddie didn’t like the sunken look beneath her eyes. But the bruises had healed, at least the ones along her throat and collarbone, and when she saw Maddie, her whole expression brightened, and it made her so exquisitely beautiful Maddie thought she would weep.

And she had done so much weeping already.

She approached the end of Julie’s bed, suddenly shy, for some unknown reason. She hovered there, resting her hands on the footboard.

“Hello,” she said, and her voice came out husky.

“Hello, Maddie darling,” Julie said, warm.

“You look much better,” Maddie blurted out, and colored immediately. “I mean — healthier. You look wonderful.”

Julie smiled. “You look beautiful. Come here.”

So Maddie crawled into Julie’s massive bed, squirreling beneath the downy covers to rest her head next to Julie’s. She smelled of lavender and soap and something warm and sweet, so familiar that it made Maddie’s breath hitch in her chest. Julie put her hand over Maddie’s, their fingers twisting together on top of the quilt.

“I’ve missed you so, so much,” she said, squeezing Maddie’s hand tight.

“Oh, Julie,” Maddie whispered, finding that she was going to cry again. She kissed Julie’s shoulder through her nightgown, and then the shell of her ear, her cheek, her nose, and finally — her mouth. “I’ve missed you so bloody much.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Julie said, between more open-mouthed kisses, lifting her hand to cradle Maddie’s face. “I’m staying right here, Maddie. Right here with you.”

Right here.

--

That night Maddie dreamed they were flying again, Julie’s chin hooked over her shoulder, staring out at that green light just above the horizon. Julie laughed, her mouth pressed close to Maddie’s ear, and the sound rumbled through Maddie’s entire body, and she felt it like she felt the engine of the Anson beneath them.

She woke up to gray-tinged light, and Julie stroking her hair gently, steadily. Maddie turned, still half-asleep, and they kissed, slowly, letting the heat simmer between them. She gathered the material of the nightgown in her hand, bunching it up by Julie’s hip, pulling it so she could touch skin.

Maddie moved her mouth down, kissing Julie’s knee. She trailed her lips up the inside of Julie’s leg, dotted with scars. She made sure to kiss each mark unknown to her. Maddie pushed the nightgown up over Julie’s stomach, and —

She stopped.

“Maddie,” Julie said, a little breathless. “What — “

Maddie stared at the mark at the inside of Julie’s thigh, jagged like Jamie’s — no — jagged like Maddie’s. It was the same. They were the same. Maddie felt laughter burbling up, and she pressed her face into the mattress to laugh. Julie’s fingers threaded into Maddie’s hair and tugged.

“Maddie,” Julie said again.

“Your mark,” Maddie said, and shook her head. “I have to show you.”

She shoved the covers aside and stripped down, ignoring the early-morning chill in the room. Julie sat up, craning towards Maddie’s hip. Her eyes went wide, and she reached out to touch. Her fingers were cold against Maddie’s mark.

“That’s — that’s mine,” Julie said.

“Yes,” Maddie said.

“You’re mine,” Julie said, lifting her gaze to Maddie’s.

Yes,” Maddie said again, and she tipped Julie’s face up to kiss.

Yours, yours, yours.

Julie’s.

“I would have loved you forever anyway,” Maddie said later, the sun fully risen, and the two of them languid and sleepy again. “I was prepared to, mark or not.”

Julie smiled wide. “I know. But it’s lovely this way, isn’t it?”

Maddie hummed, and held Julie a little bit closer. “It is,” she agreed.

Outside, birds sang. Maddie closed her eyes, listening, and Julie sighed against her neck.