The girl was so quiet that Katie hadn’t even noticed she was there.
“Stupid bloody country,” she muttered, kicking spitefully at a wooden crate. The kick was followed by an outraged, pained yelp and something that looked a little like Scottish folk dance, what with all the hopping about on one leg with one arm raised above her head as she tried to grab hold of something to keep from falling.
And so, because she hadn’t seen her, it came as a great surprise when slim hands settled onto her waist, steadying her.
“The fuck?” Katie exclaimed, head whipping around to see who was behind her.
“Sorry,” came the bored reply from her erstwhile savior. “I can let you go if you’d like.”
Her toe still throbbed, so she put it down gently, her hands covering the ones still around her waist. “What? No, it’s fine. I was just startled, is all.”
“You’ve got a lot of anger,” the voice noted, and Katie tried putting her full weight on her foot, curious to see the face that went along with it.
“I… what?” she asked distractedly, flexing her toes in her boot.
“You’ve got a lot of anger,” the girl repeated. “You hate France. You hate coffee, apparently.”
“It’s a miserable sodding place, so of course I fucking hate it.”
She reached down, straightening the cuffs of her khaki jacket, then turned. Her savior, such as she was, had dark hair and the biggest blue eyes Katie had ever seen. She was wearing a uniform that dwarfed her, the jacket far too large for her slight frame; the expression on her face was devoid of emotion, as if someone had flicked something off behind her eyes. It was distinctly unsettling.
“That’s not very Christian of you,” the girl drawled, and it took Katie a moment to remember why that might be important.
“Going to report me?” she questioned tartly, then rolled her eyes. “And so what if you do. What are they going to do, kick me out of the war?”
The girl smiled a small, mysterious smile. “It can be our secret.”
And then she turned and was gone, leaving Katie there with a slightly puzzled expression on her face. “Yeah,” she said to no one. “Sure.”
“What took you so long?” Emily hissed. Katie tried to ignore her, but her sister kept staring at her.
“What does it matter?” she answered finally, then plastered on a smile as another soldier appeared in front of her, his tin cup held at the ready. She poured out a generous portion of lemonade, then turned her blank smile to the next soldier in line.
Emily was silent, because, really, what did it matter? Of course, Emily worried about everything, from soldiers losing their minds after seeing what was probably the first female to enter their small world for several months to being blown to bits by an errant artillery shell.
“There’s a new girl,” Katie said nearly an hour later. Her fingers were beginning to cramp from holding the pitcher of lemonade, as were the muscles in her face, and she was fairly certain that if she had to hear one more leering comment, she was going to kick someone in the shin if not somewhere more painful.
She didn’t know how Emily could stay so bloody cheerful, standing out there for hours in their stupid, heavy uniforms, pouring lemonade and offering smiles to exhausted yet still surprisingly randy soldiers. “What’s her name?”
Katie drew up short, realizing that she didn’t know. “She didn’t say,” Katie mumbled, plastering on another fake smile as yet another tin cup materialized in front of her. “It was more of a quick meeting than a proper introduction.”
She wasn’t sure why she’d told Emily any way, unless it was because she liked to know information others didn’t, and liked to impart it in ways that let them know she knew things they didn’t. But this, a new girl, was hardly going to be earth-shattering news. They’d meet her later, after all, when they all piled back in to the flimsy wooden huts they called home. There was an empty bed in their hut, the last girl having fucked off back to England for undisclosed personal reasons, so she’d probably go there. Which, undisclosed my ass, Katie had thought at the time, because everybody knew the girl who’d left had had a bloke stationed at the camp just up the road. And it was war, after all, and no one knew if these boys would come back once they marched off in the direction of the trenches, and if they did come back, no one knew what parts of them would manage to return. So it made sense, yeah, that she’d have wanted to send her boyfriend off to war with the knowledge that he had a powerfully good reason for coming back, but she still felt kind of bad for her because this wasn’t the time to be having undisclosed reasons for heading back home, not with the world in the state it was.
“Are you even paying attention?” Emily hissed, and Katie realized she’d drifted off into her thoughts, and that there was a blank faced soldier standing in front of her, staring.
“Oh yeah,” she said, then forced the smile back into place before filling his cup with lemonade and filling her voice with cheer. “Well wishes and good tidings and all that. Safe return and England thanks you.”
“That was maybe laying it on a bit thick,” Emily said dryly, her own smile never wavering.
Whatever, Katie thought. It wasn’t as if it mattered what they said.
She’d been right, because when they got back to their hut that evening, there was a well worn bag laying at the foot of one of the unoccupied cots that served as their beds. There was a girl sitting next to it, staring off blankly into space, and Katie remembered that the girl had seemed vaguely weird earlier. Of course, most of them had some sort of reason to be weird, only some were better at hiding it than others.
This girl didn’t even seem to be trying.
“I’m Katie,” she said, planting herself firmly in the girl’s line of sight. “That’s my sister Emily.”
When the girl just looked up at her silently, Katie carried on. “You’ll meet Naomi later. She’s the last of our little group. So, what’s your name then?”
“Effy,” the girl said. She looked as if she was preparing to say more, and Katie waited impatiently, but then Effy just seemed to shrink back into herself.
“Right then,” Katie said tiredly, because she’d been hoping for a friend, but this one was clearly off her nut. Still, though, no reason not to talk to her, because it wasn’t like she had anyone else, not when Naomi wandered back from whatever it was she did with the running of the operation and Emily spent the rest of the day attached to her hip. And as for the rest of them – well, there was only so much goodness she could take, and even one of the other three was more than enough to top her limit. “Is this your first time out in the field?”
She plopped down onto the cot beside the new girl and stared at her expectantly. She could just see Emily hovering nervously out of the corner of her eye, like her sister was especially wont to do when she thought Katie was about to do something spectacularly inappropriate, but she didn’t care. She was going to make this stupid, crazy bitch her friend.
“No,” Effy said shortly, and Katie sighed because really, she was hoping for a bit more than one syllable.
“So where were you before you came here?” she asked slowly, as if questioning a toddler.
The girl shrugged lazily, then offered, “Near Amiens.”
Which, great, Katie thought. Like she fucking knew where Amiens was.
“Well,” she said dryly, “I bet that was loads of fun. Kill any Bosch?”
“Katie,” Emily said disapprovingly.
“What?” she retorted, annoyed. “Why does no one here have a sense of humor?”
“Maybe because you’re in the Salvation Army,” Effy murmured, “not the Expeditionary Force.”
Katie frowned. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean that we’re armed with lemonade, coffee, and cake, not rifles and bayonets. Your attempt at a joke didn’t make very much sense. Maybe no one laughed because it wasn’t very funny.”
“God,” Katie groaned, then shook her head. “Cunt.”
She decided it was fine if the other girl was going to be a total bitch. She wouldn’t be her friend and it wouldn’t matter, because having the hut full again meant that she didn’t have to spend half the night listening to Emily and Naomi whisper and giggle. It meant that there were never any ominous, telling creaking noises in the early hours of the morning, and all of that was more than enough to make her moderately less miserable.
Still, though, she thought that Effy had to be even worse at the job than she was, because Katie could at least manage to make her fake smile look somewhat real. Effy couldn’t even manage that. When she did smile, it was almost painful to look at. So, she decided to stop looking at her, and she focused only on the parade of soldiers that shuffled past her, the crowds growing thicker by the day, and on the way some part of her would inevitably start to ache, no matter what task she’d been given that day. It was always the feet and knees, because standing there, virtually immobile, for hours at a time was sort of a prescription for that sort of thing. Sometimes it was her hands, because cutting slices of cake or pouring out cup after endless cup of lemonade or coffee, depending on what they had on hand that day, seemed to make every tiny little bone just throb. It was maybe the worst when she was relegated to the makeshift kitchen, though, because the late August sun was already stiflingly hot. When that was added to the nearly airless huts and the thick fabric of her stupid uniform and compounded by the heat from the flimsy wood stove they had to use, she felt, sometimes, like she was just going to melt into a big, seething puddle.
All in all, she hated everything about France.
They worked in long shifts with short breaks, because it seemed like the soldiers were coming without end. She hadn’t even known there were that many men left in Britain, to be honest, but they trudged down the road in wave after weary wave. The younger ones always had a bit more of a spring in their step and an anxious set to their shoulders since they hadn’t quite been beaten down by the drudgery of it all, and they were raucous and cheeky, and sometimes Katie liked the attention but mostly she was well over it. Some of them were quite dashing in their uniforms, eyes twinkling underneath the brim of their helmets, but the last thing she wanted to do was get drawn in by the charm of some stupid soldier. When they’d left home, Katie had told everyone that she was going so that she could catch the eye of a high-ranking enlisted officer because she fancied a life of luxury on the arm of a heroic military man, because it hadn’t made sense to tell them that she was going so that she could keep an eye on her stupid cunt of a sister. People would have asked her why, and she wouldn’t have known what to say, because there really was no way to phrase it delicately.
She’s disgustingly in love with this stupid bint who thinks she can save the bloody world, and so Emily is of course following along behind her blindly. And I’m the only one of us with any sense, obviously, so of course I have to go and make sure she doesn’t get herself killed because it is a war, after all, and who knows what Naomi would talk her into doing.
And it was all stupid, this whole ridiculous war, because she hadn’t really cared so much that the sodding Kaiser had marched into Belgium and had been shouting to high heaven about Alsace-Lorraine, because politics was and always had been boring. When the boys had started shipping out to the front, it hadn’t seemed so serious anyway. There were parades, and she had to admit that the uniforms considerably enhanced the attractiveness of a great many of them. But then Germany had just plowed straight through France, and suddenly things didn’t seem quite so lively any more, and more and more boys started leaving, never to return. The years ground on, and then it got harder and harder to find food and coal, and the boys who left for the front got younger and younger. And then Naomi had said that if the blokes their age were getting shipped off to man the trenches, then the least they could do was to go and help. So she’d signed on to the Salvation Army and Emily had signed on along with her.
Katie had thought her parents were going to have a collective stroke. She’d just thought it was by far the stupidest thing Emily had ever done, which meant that she was going to have to then do the stupidest thing she’d ever done, because there was no way she was going to let her sister fuck off to France without her. So now she was baking cakes and pouring out coffee and smiling at dead-eyed soldiers, and it felt like she was going to be doing it forever because as far as she could tell, this war wasn’t ever going to end.
It was during a break when Katie ducked back behind their hut, because she needed to be somewhere where she couldn’t see a single soldier, and she didn’t want to actually be inside the hut because it was near to boiling in there. It was where she found Effy, leaning back against the wood of the structure in a loose, oddly arrogant way, cigarette dangling from her lip. It annoyed her, because she wanted to be alone and because she’d been doing her best to avoid the girl all week, but there was nothing for it.
“Want one?” Effy offered casually, holding out a battered package of cigarettes. Katie just shook her head, because she didn’t see where it would be at all comfortable to be sucking smoke into her lungs in this kind of heat. And besides, she didn’t like the fact that Effy could just act like she hadn’t been a massive cunt, and make some sort of overture as if they actually were the friends Katie had initially envisioned.
Effy shrugged, as if Katie’s refusal didn’t matter at all, and then continued on with what she’d been doing before, namely staring out blankly into the distance and blowing out streams of smoke.
“I don’t think they’d be happy if they caught you smoking,” Katie said finally, because she couldn’t stand the silence. “They’d probably say it wasn’t ladylike.”
In response, Effy blew out another long stream of smoke and tapped the ash from the end of her cigarette. “I’ve never been particularly ladylike,” she said finally, the cigarette once again at her lips.
“Yeah,” Katie muttered, pressing her back against the wall and wiggling one of her feet to work out the ache. “Me neither.”
They didn’t say anything else. After a bit, Effy ground the butt of the cigarette into the sole of her shoe and then palmed it, and Katie wondered why for a bit until she figured that Effy would probably dispose of it later, in a way that wouldn’t have her found out. Then she trudged back out to resume her place in the line, and even though they’d barely spoken more than a few words to one another, Katie felt inexplicably lighter.
After the first few weeks they’d been out there, Katie had gotten used to the distant sounds of the chattering Maxim machine guns. The Bosch shot off bursts of fire at random intervals throughout the night, and initially she’d spent some time envisioning what was happening. She’d pictured the Bosch overwhelming the forces in front of them and then sweeping in to take them all hostage, and had crazy fantasies where she was spotted by some haughty Bosch officer who was immediately besotted and who she had to resist because of Mother England, patriotism, loyalty and all that. Sometimes, though, she imagined some of the soldiers she’d seen that day, heads poking up above the trench line only to see bullets screaming their way, and she liked those thoughts least of all.
She’d seen trenchworks, had passed by some that had been long abandoned, and she wasn’t entirely sure how human beings could live in such a place. She knew it was miserable, and had seen the soldiers heading back from the front lines on those occasions when they’d been replaced for a few days of leave. Most of them looked exhausted beyond comprehension, swaying tiredly on their feet as they marched slowly forward. They were covered in mud, filthy from head to toe, with their fingers scratching at every place they could reach. Someone had told her that as soon as they got back to camp, they were stripped and scrubbed down to kill the lice that infested everyone in the trenches, and she’d found the notion so disgusting that she’d nearly tossed. But no matter how bad the thought was, nothing compared to the horror of the passing ambulances, with the smell of death drifting out of them along with the screams and cries of the wounded men. There were women at the hospitals, she knew, who had signed up with the Red Cross to be nurses, and she could only be glad that Naomi hadn’t been stupid enough to try and do that.
The one thing she hated most, though, was the artillery barrages. Her mind told her that the shells weren’t falling anywhere near her, but each one was so loud that it was as if they were screaming down at the little hut, ready to blast it to bits. They usually came in the pre-dawn hours, which meant she was pulled out of a nice comfortable sleep and tossed straight into pounding terror, and she’d grip the sheets tightly and try to pull her pillow over her head, but there was nothing thick enough to shield the sound. It set her teeth on edge for the whole day, and she’d glare at Emily and Naomi both, cursing them for the idiots she knew them to be.
“Will you be abusing more coffee later?”
The softly murmured question startled her, and Katie looked up quickly, brows knit in confusion. It was Effy, and she was talking to her as if it was a routine activity between them. “I just don’t like it when they do that,” Katie muttered, then realized that it wouldn’t make any sense. The shelling had been early that morning and it was now nearly mid-afternoon, and Katie had been stuck inside the sweltering kitchen all day long. She wasn’t even that good of a cook, anyway. It was Emily who liked to bake, and the truth was that she was better suited to smiling and flirting with soldiers, even if she hated doing that too, but Naomi had devised a schedule where they rotated through the tasks, and so at least once a week, Katie found herself mixing together batter until her arm was ready to fall off. She wasn’t left to do it alone, but she didn’t much care for the other girl who’d been assigned to help. She didn’t much care for any of the other girls, really, because they were mostly rather pious and sweet and kind in ways that made her want to punch someone.
She realized that Effy had been staring at her, seeming to know everything she was thinking.
“Yeah,” was all she said, before leaving.
The shelling started up again around 4:00 am the next morning, and Katie screamed into her pillow. The hut shook as the aftershocks from the shells impacting the ground not three kilometers away rolled through the countryside, and all she wanted was to be back home in Bristol. They were at the stupid front because of course Naomi had managed to get them to the front, and she’d never wanted to strangle the girl more than she did right then.
She felt her cot dip and nearly jumped out of her skin, sure that the Bosch had finally punched their way through the British line, but it was only Effy sitting on the edge of her mattress and looking at her curiously. She said something, but Katie couldn’t hear it over the scream of the shells still in flight and the boom of those that had managed to find their targets, so she just rolled her eyes and collapsed back down into the bedding, bringing her pillow over her face and pressing down tightly.
When cool fingers pried one of her hands away and twined with hers, she nearly jumped out of her skin yet again. Flinching, she pulled the pillow away from her face, though the gesture was useless, really, because what little there was of her pillow did absolutely nothing to muffle the sounds of the shelling. There was very little light in the inside of the hut, but it was as if she could see Effy plainly, the paleness of her skin making her somewhat luminous. The girl wasn’t smiling but there was something comforting about the expression on her face, and so Katie let her stay there and she didn’t pull her hand away. When Effy sighed and sort of melted down onto the cot, Katie let her. There was no sense in not taking comfort when it was offered.
“Why are you here?”
She’d found Effy smoking behind the hut again. When she’d first seen her, she’d blushed, because they had spent the early morning hours laying side by side, jumping slightly with each loud explosion, hands clasped together between them. It was the kind of thing Katie had wanted a friend for in the first place, but something about the way Effy watched her, with those eyes that never seemed to blink, made her uneasy in a way that was neither good nor bad.
The question brought her up short, because she didn’t have the will to give the same lie she’d given to all of the people back home in Bristol who had asked her the same thing. And besides, she hadn’t behaved in a way that would make it believable, so she settled on part of the truth instead. “I’m here because Emily’s here.”
As far as she knew, Effy didn’t talk to anyone, and that included Emily. Katie had found it odd, because Emily was about as non-threatening as a person could be, and it seemed like people ended up sharing their life story with her without her asking and without them knowing why they were doing the telling in the first place. She had a way of worming her way inside, and Katie hated it for her sometimes because Emily was the one person she couldn’t bear to hurt or to see hurt and yet Emily seemed to get hurt so easily.
“And Emily’s here because Naomi’s here.”
Effy said it casually, so casually that Katie thought that maybe she didn’t mean it in the way that Katie knew it to be true, but when she chanced a glance at Effy, she found the other girl staring back at her with a knowing look. She didn’t quite know what to say, so she simply stared back dumbly, silent.
“I don’t mind,” Effy said diffidently, taking another long, slow draw on the cigarette.
Torn by indecision, Katie watched Effy closely for a long moment before shrugging. Then, in a way that was neither abrupt nor outraged, she simply turned on her heel and left.
They’d gone to school. It was what middle-class girls their age did, and they’d studied mathematics, science, economics, history, modern languages, and Latin. They’d studied other things too, of course, like art, music, and literature, and to be honest, those were the things Katie liked best. She didn’t much care for science, with all its rules and curiosity, and Latin had already been dead for years, so she didn’t quite understand why anyone thought it was important that she could conjugate verbs and whatnot in a language no one even spoke anymore. Emily had loved it all, of course, and she’d always earned marks that were at or near the top of class. It had both pleased and worried their parents, because Emily was smart, yes, but they didn’t want her to be so smart that she scared away all of the boys.
Katie had never really thought that Emily was overly worried about snagging a suitable husband. It would have to happen someday, of course, because that was the way of the world, but if Emily wanted to spend her time reading Theory of Economic Development instead of giggling over boys, who was she to stop her? Besides, Katie was sure that Emily would grow out of it someday, that the time would come when she’d stop carrying around books that were nearly as big as she was.
When they’d turned 15, their school had merged with another as a result of the toughening economic times. It brought in another small compliment of students and scattered them among the grades, and Katie had been annoyed at first, because she had already gone through all the effort of establishing herself as the most popular girl at the old school and wasn’t entirely thrilled with the idea that she was going to have to indoctrinate yet another group of girls, but whatever. She enjoyed a challenge. There wasn’t much to the new girls in her grade anyway. The one girl, Pandora, couldn’t be counted on to keep a single thought in her head. The other, Naomi, was even more bookish than Emily, if that was possible, always spouting off about nonsense like workers’ rights and suffrage, and was probably the most boring person Katie had ever met.
She didn’t notice the change at first. She didn’t notice how Emily hung on the girl’s every word, how she soaked in pompous lectures about Bolsheviks and the hijinks of something called the Duma and some tosser named Lenin who, from what Katie could tell, seemed to be good only for running around stirring up a lot of trouble. England had been more than two years into the war by then, and Katie thought that if Naomi was going to be worried about anything, it should be that. Not what the crazy, stupid Russians were doing, certainly.
It was impossible not to notice over time, though, because Emily followed Naomi around everywhere she went. It had never been that way before, because Emily had always followed Katie around, and she found she missed it. She’d been one of two for so long that the division of the two into separate wholes felt like she’d had a piece of herself torn away, so it was just as well that something between Emily and Naomi seemed to sour. Naomi was always scowling at Emily and Emily was always staring back, hurt, and Katie didn’t bother to ask why because she didn’t really care so long as Emily was hers again. Even if Emily seemed miserable, it had to be better than trailing around after Naomi, with her ridiculously blonde hair and her sharp, clever eyes that had always seemed to judge Katie and find her distinctly lacking. She could only think that Emily had finally come to her senses and told the irritating bitch to shut it, pushed past the brink by one too many disapproving diatribes on the plight of some fucking unfortunate, whatever the choice of the day might have been.
Besides, with no one to listen to her every word, Naomi didn’t prattle on quite as much as she had before. Katie had been well pleased by that, because she’d had about as much as she could take. Naomi’s latest cause célèbre had been the monarchy, and how the stupid, warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm was actually somehow in line for the British throne because they were all incestuous bastards and related to one another. Not having to hear any more about that had been a relief, because Katie was well aware that she couldn’t have cared less. If they abolished the monarchy, like Naomi seemed to want, then there wouldn’t be princes any more, and Katie had always liked thinking about the castles and fancy dress balls, and about how maybe someday she’d marry some disgustingly rich member of the royal family and be set for life.
For a while, things had been right. Emily was back at her side. Naomi was always skulking and looking miserable, which Katie enjoyed well more than she probably should have, and there was no one about always talking in ways that made her head hurt. But then they’d made up, and Emily had been simpering at her feet again, and it was back to the misery of before.
She’d told herself that she didn’t miss Emily the second time it happened. She’d found other things to do, had made new friends and started flirting with a boy too wild for his own good. Emily could have her stupid annoying friend, Katie told herself, and she’d be better off without her.
She’d been utterly miserable, of course.
The house had been empty the day she’d walked in on them. Their dad had been at work and their mum had been off at the doctor’s with James, and Katie had told everyone she was spending the day with friends, but really she’d just wanted a bit of peace and quiet. So, she’d started off from the house and then circled back around, planning to lock herself in her room and draw the curtains shut and figure out how to get her sister away from the clutches of that irritating harpy. She’d thought Emily would be gone, too, off somewhere staring up at Naomi adoringly while the other girl waxed on about socialism or something equally stupid, but when she’d thrown open the door, there had been a mad dash and utter panic, and she’d found herself staring, wide-eyed, at her sister and Naomi, in bed together and clearly naked.
There’d been tension, and she’d asked, “What’s this?” as if it wasn’t rather clear what it was. And Katie had heard about close friendships between girls, and how sometimes a girl might become confused and how she might think she felt things for another girl that you were really only supposed to feel for blokes, but she’d always thought it was a load of rubbish. Ridiculous, really, because she didn’t entirely know what happened between men and women after they got married, but she did know that it was men and women who got married, which was as it should be.
Emily had run after her when she’d started to turn away, and she’d taken a sheet with her so she wouldn’t be naked, but it wasn’t as if Katie didn’t know what had happened. “Katie, please,” Emily had said pleadingly, catching Katie’s forearm in her grasp, and Katie had shrugged her off in disgust.
“What can you even say?” she’d asked harshly, though she’d stopped and turned to look at Emily. The house had been deadly quiet. She could hear everything, from the small noises Naomi was making back in their room to the way Emily was breathing, rough and uneven. “You can’t say anything, Emily. You know it’s not right. You have to stop it.”
“But I love her,” Emily had said, voice trembling, and her eyes had gone dark and liquid. “I don’t want to stop it. I love her, Katie.”
It had been too much, Emily saying she was in love with the stupid bint. Katie had felt the urge to slap her, and her hands had curled into fists at her sides and she’d had to fight down the wave of rage that rolled through her. “You can’t,” she’d grit out. “Think about it, Em. Think about what people will say. Think about what our parents will say. They’ll throw you out of the house. You’ll be shunned. You’ll be disgraced. You’ll be nothing.”
Emily had started crying in earnest then, but Katie hadn’t felt guilty about what she’d said. It was the truth, and she’d always been the conduit keeping Emily connected to the real world.
So Emily had started moping around, always on the verge of tears, and Katie hadn’t talked to her at all. She knew they were still seeing one another, sneaking around and courting disaster, and she wasn’t going to have any part of it. Her sister could ruin her life if she wanted, but Katie wasn’t going down with her.
The memories made her laugh, because she’d followed her stupid sister all the way to France just to make sure she didn’t get herself killed. She didn’t know when it had stopped mattering so much that she was still in love with Naomi and that they were still together, but she did know why.
It was true that they’d all seen enough loss for her to know that cutting her sister out of her life just wasn’t worth it, but the truth of it was that Katie couldn’t stop loving Emily, no matter how much easier it would have been.
She didn’t ask Effy about what she’d said, about how it didn’t bother her that Emily and Naomi were lovers. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, but there never seemed to be a good time for it.
They were all out on the serving line, and she was thinking about it, trying to put together the question in a way that would let her gloss over it like a misunderstanding if Effy really hadn’t meant what she’d seemed to mean, when she heard the familiar distant, low buzz. They’d seen the airplanes before, darting around like little black birds, twisting this way and that. She’d seen them fall out of the sky, a column of smoke trailing behind them, and she’d always shuddered, because she’d heard stories from the passing soldiers about trapped pilots burning to death, and it seemed like an unnecessarily awful way to die.
“They’re close,” Emily murmured, looking up and taking a break from pouring coffee. Katie tended to agree with her, because they were close enough that she could make out the outlines of people in the planes, little heads with white silk scarves trailing after them, and that made them real in a way that seeing them darting among the clouds did not.
They’d been assigned helmets, ones much like the soldiers wore, but they always kept them on the table behind them. It was hot enough without them, and Katie hated the way they made her hair stick wetly to her scalp, but she reached for it now. She could hear the blasts of machine gun fire from the planes, and neither of the pilots seemed to be hitting anything which meant those bullets were going to have to come down somewhere, and she’d prefer that they not land in her skull.
“Here,” she said, pushing Emily’s helmet into her hands and then, when her sister didn’t take it quickly enough, plopping it down on her head instead.
The planes were close enough that they could see the black crosses on the underside of the wings of one of them, and it seemed like the whole place had stilled. The soldiers were frozen in place, watching the air battle play out in front of them, and Katie put down the carafe of coffee she’d been holding to stare up with them.
“It’s a two-seater,” one of the soldiers murmured. “An observer.”
Katie had been around long enough to have heard stories. She knew what the observers were, pilots tasked with the job of spying on the enemy’s positions behind their lines, and she knew the purpose was often to guide the artillery shells that fell later.
The observer was flying as fast as it could, trying to outrun the two British planes chasing after it, but the two-seater planes were heavier and slower, and without a fighter escort, fairly vulnerable.
“Get the bastard,” another soldier muttered, and Katie could only agree with him.
There was another burst of machine gun fire, and she heard the distinctive tinks of metal hitting metal. The observer seemed to wobble in the air, and then there were more hits, and she saw the cloth of the wings begin to tear away. The plane began to spin almost lazily, and she watched as the British planes chased it down, still firing. There was a jerk of motion, and the German plane seemed to settle for a moment. It was trailing smoke behind it and coming in low now, and it looked to Katie as if it was headed straight for them.
“Move,” someone shouted, and seconds later she heard the chatter of gun fire again. Not fifty meters away, the ground began to kick up in the air in great clumps, and men scattered, running wildly, as the observer began emptying his guns into the lines, one last ditch effort to kill the enemy from a pilot who knew he was going to crash. At the first dull thwack of bullet into flesh, she’d shoved Emily under the table behind them and crawled in behind her, hugging her sister from behind. There was no one left standing in line in front of them, all of the men seeking out cover of their own, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Effy, standing there as if she didn’t have a care in the world, eyes following the plane as it continued to dive.
“What the fuck, Effy?” she called, panic sending her voice up an octave. The question didn’t seem to have any effect on the other girl, and it took her only a second of indecision before she darted out of the cover of the table. She grabbed Effy’s arm and tugged hard, and when Effy stumbled back into her, she used the momentum to pull her down to the ground and underneath the table alongside Emily. “Are you fucking mental?” she screamed, the look on her face seeming to indicate that she already knew the answer to the question.
Any answer Effy might have given was swallowed up by the sound of the dying German airplane crashing hard into the ground. At it, men seemed to pop up all around them, some fixing bayonets to their rifles and charging toward the downed plane, but even though it had managed to make it several hundred meters before finally plowing to a stop, Katie could see the flames shooting up from it from where she was.
“Jesus,” she whispered dully, watching as men rushed up to the plane only to be propelled back by the heat of the fire, and she thought of the two small heads she’d glimpsed earlier and tried not to think about what they looked like now. She was vaguely aware of Naomi rushing out from one of the huts and throwing her arms around Emily, and thought, yeah, real fucking timely, but couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from the flames long enough to shoot the blonde the scathing glare she deserved for getting them all into this mess in the first place.
“It’s sort of beautiful, isn’t it?” Effy murmured, and Katie finally managed to look away long enough to stare at the other girl in disbelief.
“Beautiful?” she screeched in disbelief. “It’s fucking horrific, is what it is.”
She could hear calls for medics, and looked around to where the German’s gun had cut through the line of men waiting for their cup of coffee. A few were laying on the ground as if they’d carelessly been flung there by the hand of an angry god. Men were gathering around them, sliding down onto their knees, and she could see the bright red bloom of blood spreading across the khaki of the men’s uniforms.
“Christ,” she muttered hoarsely, the blood draining out of her face.
“That’s what happens in war, Katie,” Effy said, her voice strangely dreamy. “Men die.”
Katie didn’t know where Naomi had gotten the small bottle of whiskey, but she was glad for its presence. She’d swallowed enough on her first sip to sputter and cough, the liquid burning a path straight down to her belly. It was easier the second time she tried it, and by the time they’d passed the bottle between them a few times, she could drink it without feeling as if she was going to gag.
“They were so close,” Emily said, and it was maybe the fifth time she’d said it that night. Katie was tired of agreeing with her, so she didn’t say anything, but Naomi reached over and wrapped her hand around Emily’s and Katie hated her for it. Emily didn’t need to see some doomed Tommy bleeding to death on the ground in front of her, no more than she needed to see Bosch pilots roasting to death, and none of them would have even been there if it hadn’t been for Naomi, with her stupid ideals.
She left them behind in the hut, stumbling out the back. The world was spinning around her, and she leaned back against the wall, drawing in long breaths.
The words made her jump nearly out of her skin, and she turned with a curse to see the burning tip of Effy’s cigarette. The other girl’s face was a shadow behind it, but her eyes seemed to glow in the reflected moonlight.
“Where do you get them?” she asked stupidly, unable to take her eyes off of the red glow and unable to think of anything else.
“The cigarettes, you mean?”
She could barely make out the outline of Effy’s shrug. “I passed by some Americans on the way here from Amiens and stayed with them for a while. They had loads of them.”
Katie’s brow scrunched in confusion. So far as she knew, the Salvation Army units trailed after soldiers from their own army. American soldiers would have American girls serving them their coffee. “What were you doing with the Americans?”
“Following them,” Effy replied, as if the answer was sufficient to answer the question.
It seemed like too much to puzzle out, especially with thoughts slipping into and out of her mind like ghosts, and so Katie slid down the side of the hut until she was sitting on the ground. “Why are you so fucking strange?” she asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Do you want to die? Is that it? Or, are you some kind of fucking sicko who likes to watch people die?”
Effy slid down the side of the hut to sit beside her, and the smoke from her cigarette drifted Katie’s way, making her nose itch. “My brother Tony flew for the air service,” she said, and it took a moment for Katie to make the transition, her mind slowed by the alcohol and not reacting the way it did normally.
“Yeah,” she replied, then waited, instinctively certain that whatever Effy was planning on saying would come out on her own schedule.
Effy didn’t speak again for nearly a minute. She smoked the cigarette down as far as she could before tossing it carelessly into the night. “His plane was shot down behind enemy lines.”
Katie wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so she offered a soft, “Oh. Sorry.”
Effy shrugged again, but this time Katie caught the tension in her shoulders when she did it.
“He’s still alive,” Effy said firmly, then turned to look at Katie with eyes that blazed with an almost crazed intensity. “I know he is. I’m going to get him.”
Katie shook her head, not quite sure she understood. “Get him from where?”
“From wherever he is.”
And, yeah. Katie had seen this back home, wives and mothers and sisters and daughters who refused to believe that their loved ones had died. She’d seen the way they clung to any hint of hope, stubbornly refusing to believe the truth that was staring them straight in the face.
“I thought about following the Americans, since the British and the French don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Effy?”
“After Amiens, I thought about following the Americans. They were headed toward Saint Mihiel, but it was too far away from where Tony was stationed when he went down.”
“Follow them where?”
She couldn’t look away from the brightness of Effy’s eyes. “He’s still over there, somewhere on the German side of the line. He’s in some Bosch hospital, waiting for someone to come and get him. So what I need is to get to the other side, you see, and I’ll follow which ever army will take me there.”
“You are mental,” Katie muttered.
“Right now, this is the front of the British line, so I came here.”
“And you what? Served coffee across the whole of the front while you worked out this suicidal plan?”
“Of course not,” Effy muttered, finally looking away. “I’m not in the Salvation Army, Katie. Christ.”
She said it as if Katie should have known better, which… why?
“You’re here. You’re dressed in one of these bloody stupid uniforms. You’re passing out cake and lemonade, the same as me,” Katie said accusingly.
“I stole the uniform off a girl on the train,” Effy muttered dismissively. “I found the outpost closest to the front, showed up, and told them I was here to help. No one questioned it.”
“So you can find your brother,” Katie said dully, disbelievingly. “Your brother who crashed his plane behind Bosch lines.”
“If something happened to Emily, you’d know it, wouldn’t you?” Effy asked quietly. “If something really, truly bad happened to her?”
Katie’s face blanched at the thought. “It’s not the same.”
Because we’re twins, Katie wanted to say, but it sounded silly.
“You should learn to trust in things,” Effy murmured, sliding over so that she was pressed against Katie. “You shouldn’t be so closed off all of the time.”
It struck her as hilarious, hearing that from Effy. “Me?” she snorted. “I’m closed off? You’re the one who’s barely said three words to anyone since you got here.”
“You should live a little.”
Katie wanted to shout at her, wanted to point out that she’d left home and come to France, that she was sitting right on the edge of the Western front. She wanted to ask just what about that implied that she wasn’t living, given that most girls her age were knitting socks for the war effort or sleeping in their comfortable beds under the proud, watchful eyes of their parents.
“You’re a very pretty girl, Katie,” Effy continued, her voice mild, and Katie started slightly when she felt cool fingers on her cheek.
Katie was about to ask Effy just what the fuck she thought she was doing when she felt soft lips press against hers.
“You can’t live out here without hope,” Effy whispered when she pulled back, then leaned forward to kiss Katie again.
Katie awoke to a raging headache and tingling lips. Effy had pushed up to her feet after the second kiss, and Katie had let her go without protest, the other girl slipping almost soundlessly back into their hut. She’d stayed where she was until the night air grew cool, and then she’d washed up quickly before slipping into bed, surprised by the way the room continued to spin even after she closed her eyes. She’d slept fitfully, though the early morning hours passed blessedly free of the unpredictable artillery barrage, and she woke up nearly as tired as she’d been the night before.
She splashed her face with water from the basin. It was lukewarm and less than refreshing, but she’d become increasingly used to managing with what she had.
“I thought you could use this.”
“Christ,” Katie hissed, jumping. “Why can’t you make a little noise?”
“Sorry,” Effy said, though she didn’t sound at all sorry.
Katie took the cup of coffee Effy held out her way. She blew on the top, watching curls of steam rise up between them, and tried not to meet Effy’s eyes.
“I hate coffee,” she muttered, though she took a tentative sip. She winced at the bitter taste, then took another sip, the second going down easier that the first, just like the whiskey had the night before. “You think they’d serve tea.”
One of the more immediate impacts of the entry of the Americans into the war had been the sudden influx of goods. Before then, Britain had been limping along on what its merchant ships had been managing to sneak past the German U-boats, but just as much cargo was laying at the bottom of the sea as was reaching their ports. The Americans had devised a new system, sending a much more impenetrable convoy of ships across the ocean, and so food and other goods began pouring into England and France, much to the delight of the slowly starving populace. Of course, it meant that some things changed, that a distinctly American flavor slipped into the flow of items, and so they found themselves with crate upon crate of coffee to brew.
“It’s just as well,” Effy said, a faint smile on her lips. “Out here, they’d both probably taste the same.”
“So, about what you did last night…” Katie began bluntly, not waiting for a way to bring up the topic naturally.
“You mean when I kissed you,” Effy clarified, making the transition with her easily.
Katie frowned, annoyed. “Of course I mean that.”
“You’re going to tell me not to do it again.”
“Yeah. I am.”
Effy tilted her head to the side, seeming to take in the rebuff with disinterest. “It won’t work.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“I meant, what you’re trying to do won’t work. I don’t scare easily, Katie.”
“Well, I’m not interested.”
Effy’s smile slid into a smirk. “Of course you are.”
It was the kind of infuriating weirdness she’d come to expect from Effy. “You’re obviously delusional, in more ways than one.”
“Don’t think about things so much,” Effy murmured, and the smirk turned back into a smile. “You’re always calculating the odds, aren’t you? Adding up the consequences. “
“Somebody has to,” Katie shot back, then shook her head, angry that she’d let herself be drawn into the conversation. “Whatever. I’m just here to pour coffee and keep Emily out of trouble.”
She’d never met anyone with more variations on a smile, but each twist of Effy’s lip was a revelation. “It’s what you want most, isn’t it, to make people believe you’re stupid when you’re not?”
“Whatever,” Katie said tiredly, then slipped past Effy and out of the hut, back out into the blazing sun.
August slipped into September, and as quickly as the crowds of men had grown, they just as quickly shrank. Soon they found themselves with slightly more time on their hands, and Katie spent most of it plotting ways to get Emily to agree to go home. She was tired of it all, the dirt and heat and misery of being there. She was tired of baking, of smiling and exchanging pleasantries with fresh faced soldiers and of ignoring the searing wretchedness in the eyes of the veterans. And then there was the way Emily and Naomi seemed to slip off into the dark, leaving her alone in the hut with Effy.
Effy had taken to conversing with her about normal topics, such as the war and its associated politics, and to relating humorous tidbits from her day, and Katie hated the way it humanized her. She seemed almost real, and it made Katie think that she’d been the crazy one for dwelling on the soft kisses Effy had given her. Effy had accused her of thinking too much, and it was true, because she couldn’t shake the memory of Effy’s voice when she’d called her beautiful, or of the way her lips had felt, so soft and warm. She’d pondered what it meant, that part of her wanted Effy to do it again, and wondered if, deep down, she was just like Emily. And then she’d grow angry with herself, because it wasn’t true. It just wasn’t, and the only reason she’d even contemplated letting Effy kiss her again was because she was lonely and because she’d been trapped there for so long.
September passed by almost without her notice. It moved from stiflingly hot to decidedly cooler, but Katie was beginning to think she was getting used to whatever misery life threw her way. The days were growing more and more monotonous, just an endless litany of tasks and chores, of fake smile and empty words, and they blended into one another seamlessly.
“What’s that?” Emily asked, and Katie looked up at her blankly.
Emily nodded her chin in the direction of the road leading to the camp. “That noise.”
It took Katie a moment to hear it, the dull rumbling that seemed to grow slowly, like thunder from a storm moving ever closer.
“I don’t know,” she murmured, because she didn’t like surprises and she didn’t like sounds like that.
“It’s the tanks,” Naomi said, suddenly appearing behind them. “I just heard. They’ll be moving past us today.”
Katie had no idea what a tank was, though she found out nearly an hour later when the hulking beasts rolled slowly by. The vehicle that churned past them was enormous, and the noises it emitted were almost deafening. It was an oddly oblong thing, and its edges were ringed with wide tracks that moved as the vehicle moved, the whole thing clanking down the road at a speed roughly approximate to a walk. Small guns jutted out from the side and a huge one protruded from the front. A portal was centered dead on the top of it, and Katie was struck by the notion that it looked like a heavily armored, motorized house. Each one had a number painted on the side, though the procession didn’t seem to be arranged in any sort of order she could determine, and the whole thing was vaguely absurd and strangely terrifying.
“What the hell are they going to do with those?” she asked shakily. The ground rumbled underneath their power, and her teeth were close to vibrating out of her jaw.
“Scare the shit out of some Bosch, I imagine,” Effy shouted back at her, and for once Katie wasn’t surprised that the other girl had managed to sneak up behind her. “Would you want to fight against one of those?”
Katie didn’t have any particular urge to fight against anyone, and so she said, “No. Not really.”
She didn’t sleep well that night. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw tanks rumbling past. She imagined men crushed beneath the giant tracks, because ever since the pilot had shot those men not far from where she’d stood, her dreams had been filled with images of dead soldiers. Some of them were laying on the ground, much like the men had been that day, their bodies broken, their blood slowly leaking out of them. Sometimes they’d rise up and chase after her, their skin pale white and spattered with red, and sometimes they’d pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and trudge off back to the trenches, leaving puddles of blood behind them as they went.
She thought she might be losing her mind.
The shelling started up just before daybreak, and they’d gone for a few days without it which seemed to make it even worse. Katie sat up with a gasp, dream images of mangled corpses slipping away from her, and put her hands over her ears. It did little to muffle the noise, only amplifying the sound of her ragged breathing and the steadily increasing thump of her heart. Arms wrapped around her from behind, and she struggled for a second before relaxing back into the embrace because there were times to stand firm about things and times to just get over it, and this situation was one of the latter.
“It’ll be over soon, Katie,” Effy murmured, her lips so close to Katie’s ear that she didn’t have to shout the words.
Katie disagreed, but she kept the assessment to herself.
The day was full of bustling activity, but little of it rested with them. The road was jammed with ambulances, half carrying their burdens back to the aid station nestled further away from the front line and half of them headed straight into the fray. Katie stayed well back, because the first thing she’d managed to see had been a man with a bloody stump where his leg had once been, and she’d promptly tossed up the food she’d just eaten for breakfast.
“It’s something big,” Effy said, settling in beside Katie at their unofficial post behind the hut. “Maybe this is it.”
So much blood had seeped from the ambulances bouncing down the rough road that it was starting to turn the dirt in front of the camp into a muddy mess, and the iron tang of it was thick in the air. Katie could almost taste it, sharp and hard against the back of her tongue, and her mouth was dry but she didn’t dare swallow because she was filled with the irrational notion that to do so would be to drink it in.
“It must be going our way,” Effy continued, head tilted to the side as if she was trying to divine the nature of things from the sounds of the fight. “We’d have been overrun by now if they weren’t.”
And Katie hadn’t even thought of that, too wrapped up in the things she’d seen before she’d known better than to look.
“They should have pulled us back,” Katie said hoarsely, because it made no sense to her that they’d still be there. The crack and pop of rifle fire was growing more distant, but she couldn’t imagine that the officers would have wanted their little camp in the middle of the fight had things gone badly.
“Maybe they tried,” Effy said with a shrug. “Maybe Naomi told them she’d be out here with her coffee serving anyone who passed, until the Bosch were at our door.”
Katie could almost picture it. She had the suspicion that if Naomi had her way, she’d have marched straight up to Field Marshall Haig and told him her grand plan for ending the war after running down the laundry list of things he’d done wrong. Afterward, she probably would have left him there, jaw agape, and gone straight to the front, fixed her bayonet, and charged a Bosch machine gun nest all on her own, because she figured that some part of Naomi thought she could win this damn war for them if no one else would, as if everyone else who had gone before had just been tragically misguided.
“More likely they just forgot us,” Katie said darkly, then, “It’s too bloody hot for this coat.”
It was against the rules, because they were supposed to be in full uniform at all times, but if she was going to sit there with a war waging on within earshot, she was at least going to be comfortable. She shrugged out of the garment almost violently, and underneath all she had on was her silky slip. They were supposed to wear the stiff white button down shirt, but Katie had abandoned that part of the uniform ages ago, sure that whatever wanker had come up with the notion of wearing three layers of fabric in the middle of summer had been well off his nut. She pulled the skirt up over her knees, and she thought it probably looked slightly ridiculous, with her pale white legs and the clunky black boots she was wearing, but the hint of a breeze passed over her skin and she let the thoughts go with a sigh.
Effy watched her for a moment, then did the same.
“So what’s your brother like, then,” Katie said, leaning her head back against the hut and closing her eyes, trying to ignore the constant pop of gunshots and the sporadic booms from mortar shells and grenades.
She didn’t see Effy’s smile, which was unfortunate. It was probably the most genuine she’d ever given. “Tony’s the best at everything he does. He always has been, and it would be maddening if he wasn’t also best at being a brother.”
Katie wondered if she’d gush about Emily like that if she were to die, or to be as closed to confirmed as dead as someone could be after crashing an airplane behind enemy lines.
“A real hero then?”
“Maybe,” Effy said, shrugging. “He’s not a saint. He has a way of getting girls to do what he wants, even when they shouldn’t, and he likes causing trouble just for the sake of seeing what happens.”
“Sounds like a real prince, then,” Katie mumbled, before remembering that she was speaking ill of someone who was very probably dead.
To her surprise, instead of growing angry, Effy merely laughed.
“A person doesn’t have to be perfect to be loved,” she replied, a hint of bemused affection in her tone. “Tony’s the best friend I have. I’ve gotten him out of scrapes and he’s done the same for me. Neither one of us is a pillar of goodness.”
“Obviously,” Katie retorted, smirking. “You’re a liar and a thief.”
“That’s a matter of opinion, and I’m afraid yours might be skewed. I’m not sure you’re a good judge of character.”
Katie opened her eyes, then tilted her head so that she was looking at Effy out of the corner of them. “That so?”
“Without question. It seems obvious to me, for example, that you should be much fonder of me than you are.”
“Right,” Katie murmured, snorting. “Trying to make a move on me again?”
Effy merely shrugged.
“Ever consider you have shit timing?”
“There are no perfect moments, Katie,” Effy said seriously. “You have to take what you’re given.”
Katie turned to face Effy fully, her expression blank. “Well, this moment is shit.”
Effy held her gaze for a long moment before shifting so that she was resting against the side of the hut as well. “Point taken,” she conceded.
Seconds later, Katie felt Effy’s fingers twining with hers. She considered protesting, but didn’t.
They were crammed into the inside of the ambulance, bouncing around the interior wildly as the wheels rolled over rutted stretches of dirt that could barely be called a road. Naomi had flagged down the driver nearly an hour before, had convinced him to let them load the back with as much equipment as they could fit and then slot themselves in the spaces remaining. The day was turning into night, though beneath the canvas covering the back of the ambulance, it wasn’t as if they could see anything anyway. The smell of death seemed to have seeped into the floorboards and seats, and Katie had to take in deep breaths through her mouth to keep from tossing.
Effy was across the way from her, nearly swallowed by the helmet sitting off-kilter on her head, and the ridiculous sight was the only thing that kept Katie’s mind from racing off in dark directions. The day had seen heavy fighting, and the various Allied armies had been able to push the Bosch back from their positions along the front what some claimed to be nearly twelve kilometers. Katie hadn’t believed it but Naomi had, and her eyes had flashed with something like madness as she directed the few ragged volunteers at their small camp, ordering them to gather supplies and ready for movement. It had taken her five tries to get someone to agree to transport them, and the rest of the women had refused to leave the camp. Naomi had left them behind with a small cache of supplies, under the direction of a new leader. Emily had scampered up into the back of the ambulance and Katie had taken a deep sigh and followed her. Effy was already there, of course, because they were headed toward the front and it wasn’t a chance she was going to miss.
It was so hot inside the back of the ambulance that Katie felt as if her entire body was as slick as if she’d just climbed out of the bath. It was well disgusting, and she had the sneaking suspicion that wherever they were going wasn’t going to be fitted with showers.
When she got out of there, she didn’t care if she never saw France again.
She’d been right about the accommodations, because at a certain point they’d been kicked out of the ambulance. They’d found themselves in the middle of a makeshift aid station. Men on litters were scattered across the ground, some already dead and others bearing hastily wrapped bandages, once white, that had long since soaked through with blood. The smell was overwhelming, and she gagged, closing her eyes to escape the sights around her.
“Thank god you’re here,” someone said, and it took her a little while to recognize that the stranger was speaking to her.
“Me?” she asked, looking around her nervously. Effy was lingering behind her, looking over the chaos with her usual cool expression, and Emily was somewhere off to the side, bent down over a soldier who was grasping hard at her hand.
“You can bring clean cloths,” the voice said, and when Katie managed to focus enough to find its source, she found herself looking at an older woman with high cheekbones and eyes that looked ready to flay her alive if she dared to disagree.
“But I’m not a nurse,” Katie said dumbly, confused. “I’m with the Salvation Army.”
“Look around you,” the nurse said, and Katie finally took in her blood soaked outfit. “Do these men look like they need coffee?”
“Then you’ll take this basket,” the woman said, shoving the basket she had been holding into Katie’s hands. “You’ll fetch the clean cloths from that tent there and bring it to that one there.”
She pointed, the movement quick, and Katie tried to follow the motion of her hands. The basket was near to overflowing with bloodstained cloths, and she looked down at them blankly for a moment before looking back up at the nurse, eyes wide.
“You,” the nurse said, pointing to Effy behind her. “You bring water.”
And so Katie spent the night carrying baskets of cloth back and forth, trying to pretend that she wasn’t seeing the soldiers laying in pieces around her. She caught sight of Emily occasionally, often perched on the edge of a litter, her hand resting calmingly on the forehead of a dirty-faced soldier. Naomi was flitting to and fro, even carrying litters on occasion, but Katie stuck as closely to her designated path as possible. She walked from one tent to the other, over and over, until her arms ached from carrying the basket and her feet burned in her boots. She wondered if she’d gotten used to the smell, as she didn’t feel as if she was going to vomit every single second anymore, and then nearly cried at the notion that she had.
By the time dawn crept over the horizon, she was exhausted. She located one of the pup tents Naomi had ordered be brought with them, found a clear patch of earth, and assembled it quickly and haphazardly. It tilted slightly to the side and looked as if a strong wind would send it collapsing in on itself, but she didn’t care. She found a blanket, crawled into the tent, and fell promptly to sleep.
At some point, she became vaguely aware of motion near her. She looked up groggily, saw Effy staring at her with those huge, bright blue eyes, a finger to her lips to shush Katie’s confused protests. She felt the other girl slide in behind her, wrapping her arms around Katie’s waist, and Katie relaxed into it, uncaring.
She awoke near midday. The aid station was still bustling, and she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to sleep through the noise. Men were being offloaded in droves, the litters stretching as far as she could see, and before she could even locate some food to fill the pit in her belly, she was pulled back into service.
By the time night started to fall again, she was swaying on her feet, exhausted and starving. She was filthy, her once presentable uniform now stained and dirty. She realized she hadn’t even taken off her boots since the morning before, as she’d slept in them that morning.
“Here,” Effy said, appearing beside her. There was a tin plate in her hand, and it was piled high with something Katie couldn’t quite identify. It was hot, though, which was good enough to make up for the taste of it, and minutes later she was scraping the last bits of it off of her plate.
“I want to go home,” she said as soon as she was finished, abruptly sitting down in the same place where she’d just been standing, hitting the ground hard. Effy sank down beside her, infinitely more graceful, and offered Katie an opened canteen.
“Where is home?” she asked when Katie finished drinking, reclaiming the canteen and taking another swig herself.
Katie laughed, though she wasn’t sure why. Nothing was funny, not anymore. “Bristol.”
Effy’s laugh sounded more genuine than hers had. “Well, isn’t that ironic. The last letter I got from my mum said that dad had moved them there in April. He’d gotten spooked by the German advance in the spring. He’d heard about the way the Bosch had shelled the hell out of Paris, and was sure that London was next. Had you and I stayed in England, we might have met one another as neighbors.”
“What?” Katie asked, her mind moving sluggishly.
“I mean that my family lives in Bristol now. I’ve never been there, but apparently it’s my home.”
“Yeah, well, why don’t we relocate back,” Katie muttered bitterly. “I’m serious, Effy. I can’t take this. I’m not suited for this.”
“You’re suited for more than you think.”
Katie looked over at Effy and glared. “This is another shit moment, alright Effy.”
Effy laughed again, and Katie wondered how she still had the capacity for it. “I’m not trying to seduce you. At least, not now. Even I have some sense of the inappropriate nature of this particular moment.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you’re just like your brother,” Katie said crankily, exhaustion settling into her bones now that she’d stopped moving. When she was tired, the lisp she tried to hide came out in full. Normally she was embarrassed by it and struggled hard to make her words come out right and proper, but at that moment, she didn’t care. “Always trying to get girls to do what you want them to do, even when they know they shouldn’t.”
“Just one girl, Katie. Just you.”
“And fuck if I know why.”
Effy smiled gently. “I find you very interesting.”
Katie simply stared at her dully, blinking slowly, eyelids drooping.
“Come on,” Effy said, pushing up to her feet with effort. She reached down, beckoning with her hand. “Let’s find the tent and get some sleep.”
She was barely strong enough to help Katie up off of the ground, but somehow they managed. The tent was where they’d left it, still listing off to the side, but it at least offered a modicum of privacy.
Once again, Katie slept in her boots.
There wasn’t really any way to go back to brewing coffee after that. The first few days were the worst, and men poured into the camp as if it were the delta of a river. Katie got used to the exhaustion much like she’d gotten used to the smell. She got used to the way she always felt dirty. It slowed, eventually, the front pulling further and further away, and she finally got enough time to clean herself up properly and to give her uniform a make-shift washing. Effy, Emily, and Naomi joined her, and it felt as if they’d created a brigade of their own, only she could see by the dull detachment in Naomi’s eyes that she didn’t really want to lead it anymore. She and Emily were always together when they weren’t drifting among the rows of cots that had finally been assembled into something resembling a proper field hospital.
Emily would catch her eye on occasion, would look at her sadly and make a move her way, but Katie normally shook her head, stopping her. She figured Emily didn’t have the reserves to comfort the both of them, and at least she had Effy, who had decided to take up the role. It was Effy who brought her food, who pulled her away from their newly assumed duties long enough to make sure she was not only fed but also appropriately rested. It was Effy who had somehow fixed their tent, rearranging all of the things Katie had done wrong. She found them a spare blanket, and when the rains started, as they always did in France when September began to transition over to October, it was Effy who procured them a cot and a studier tent, one made with canvas, no matter that it was still ridiculously small. They slept together on the uncomfortable cot, pressed into one another out of necessity. It had started getting colder with the rains. The ground slowly melted into mud, making everything messy, but at least all of the coffee they’d brought with them turned out to be useful at fighting back the chill.
Katie had graduated from plain and simple cloth-carrier to something more glorified. The nurse they’d met upon their arrival at camp had snapped at her to follow one day, and Katie had. She found herself trailing after the other woman, holding her basket out for soiled linens as bandages were changed, and soon Effy joined her, her own basket full of clean ones. It made it easier, seeing the men laying listlessly in their cots, to have Effy there with her. Effy never seemed distressed by any of it, not the men with amputated limbs who moaned in agony after the ether wore off. Not the men with their heads completely wrapped in bandages, deaf or blind or both. Not the men with nasty bullet wounds, calling out for morphine.
None of it.
“How can you not care?” Katie asked her one evening. Effy was behind her, snuggled up close to her back, and their combined body heat was the only thing keeping them from shivering under the cover of the blanket.
“I care,” Effy said softly, then pressed her face into Katie’s hair. “Not all of us can let the world see what we’re feeling like you can.”
Katie was silent for so long after that Effy thought she’d gone to sleep. She was near it herself, unable to keep her eyes from drooping closed, so the sound of Katie’s voice startled her. “Why are you doing this?” Katie asked softly. The words weren’t accusatory. They were curious, instead, and a little hesitant.
“Trying to take care of me.” Katie shrugged, then got to the point of her question. “Chasing after me.”
“I told you,” Effy replied, her voice just as quiet as Katie’s. “I find you very interesting.”
“You don’t even know me,” Katie scoffed, and she wiggled in Effy’s hold so that she was facing the other girl. There was a scowl on her face, and Effy brought her hand up to trace it over Katie’s brow, hoping to smooth it away.
“I know enough,” she said with a slight smile, “and what I know makes me want to know more.”
“It’s Emily who likes girls, not me.”
Effy seemed distinctly unconcerned. “You don’t have to like us all, Katie. Just me.”
“Is that why you’ve done all this? Brought me food, found us the tent… Is it because you’re hoping you’ll get what you want out of it in the end?”
“Of course I’m hoping I’ll get what I want out of it in the end,” Effy said dryly, though for some reason, Katie wasn’t offended. “That’s not why I’m doing it, though.”
Effy shrugged, then dropped her eyes, embarrassed. “I guess I want to.”
“Is that a lesson you learned from your brother?” Katie asked, voice dipping into a hoarse rasp. When Effy just looked at her in confusion, she continued, “Saying things like that so the girls who know better forget they know better for a little while.”
There was a moment of hesitation before Effy surged forward, emboldened. Her lips met Katie’s softly, but the kiss had more heat than the previous two. It lingered, building slowly, and by the time that Effy’s tongue brushed against her bottom lip, Katie had her hand twisted into the fabric of Effy’s jacket.
“Right then,” Katie said moments later, when Effy had pulled away and was looking at her warily. “We should probably get some sleep.”
Effy didn’t relax until Katie burrowed her head into her shoulder and sighed against her neck.
They got the news the next day
“Did you hear?” Effy asked, eyes glowing.
Katie looked up and frowned. “Maybe you could be a little more specific.”
“They’ve taken the Hindenburg line,” Effy said breathlessly. “This is it, Katie. We’re close now. So close.”
“Close to what?”
“To winning the war. We’ve got to be.”
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you,” Katie said dryly, unable to help the pessimism that rolled through her.
Effy seemed to freeze, drawing up into herself. She stiffened, looked at Katie as if what she’d said was the most disappointing thing she’d ever heard, then walked away.
“Christ,” Katie cursed. She looked around for someone to take her basket and then finally just put it down, letting out an irritated noise as she wound her way through the rows of cots, following the other girl’s path. She caught up with Effy near the edge of the camp and reached forward, wrapping her hand around Effy’s arm to pull her to a stop. Effy stopped walking, but she didn’t turn to look at Katie, not even when Katie said her name in a low, urgent voice.
Katie heard the soft sounds first, seconds before she circled around so that she was looking Effy dead in the face. When she saw the tears coursing down the other girl’s cheeks, she felt herself grow instantly queasy.
“Come on,” she said roughly, giving Effy’s arm a tug. She pulled them into the cover of the tree line, ducking behind the trunk of a massive oak. She pressed Effy against it, trapping her there, then forced the other girl to look at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently. When Effy’s expression didn’t change, she said it again, forcefully. “I’m sorry, Effy.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Effy said, and there was something desperate in her voice. “I’ve been waiting, and I’ve been searching, and I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I have to know, Katie. I have to find Tony. I have to know that he’s safe, that he’s alive. I can’t fail everyone.”
Katie’s eyes narrowed. “You haven’t failed anyone.”
“Don’t patronize me,” Effy hissed.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Me? Me be stupid?” Effy looked as if she was well on her way to a full-fledged rant, eyes widening and shoulders stiffening, when suddenly she shut down. She pulled into herself again, growing sullen and silent, and glared at Katie.
“What were you going to do?” Katie challenged. “Were you going to tell me how stupid I’ve been? How I was an idiot for following my sister here, and then for staying here once I found out how sodding miserable it is? I understand, Effy. I understand about doing things for people we love that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. I followed Emily to France. You believe that you’re going to find your brother and take him home. We all tell ourselves whatever we need to keep going. And, yeah, I can’t tell you that you’re wrong. I can’t say that Tony’s gone, because I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find him. Maybe it will all be worth it.”
“What are you trying to do, Katie?” Effy asked, irritated. “Is this your way of making me feel better?”
Having expended more emotion than she would have guessed she had left, Katie merely sighed, then rolled her eyes. “I’m shit at making people feel better, just so you know.”
Effy looked away, blinked rapidly to clear away the remaining tears in her eyes, stifled an unexpected smile, and murmured, “From recent experience, I never would have guessed.”
There was another moment of silence before Katie said shakily, “So maybe you should show me how to do it.”
Effy did a double take, blinked again, then turned slowly. “How to do what, exactly?”
Katie ducked her head, a blush creeping up her cheeks. She shrugged, then looked away, embarrassed. “How to make you feel better, obviously, since my way is shit.”
Whatever she’d been expecting, it hadn’t been the way Effy’s arms wrapped around her in a firm hug.
They left the next week, following the troops as they advanced. The men from the aid station found their way onto transports heading toward the coast, and Effy, Katie, Emily, and Naomi found themselves in the back of another ambulance, crammed in between crates of supplies. Naomi had sent back to their previous camp and gotten them new uniforms, and Katie had happily burned the one she’d worn day in and day out for the past month. Naomi had gotten them long overcoats, too, and she felt a little more human with the new clothes, as if she’d taken a step back toward civil society.
They split off naturally at each stop. Effy and Katie had managed to keep the canvas tent, though they were dependent on circumstances as to whether there was a new cot. Naomi and Emily did the same. It hit Katie that she hadn’t really talked to Emily in weeks, not the way they’d talked before they’d left home, but there was something about the silence between them that was comfortable. She could catch Emily’s eye for a second and know what she was feeling, much as she’d always known. If Emily had needed her, she would have seen it.
Nights with Effy were becoming increasingly less restful. There was a goodnight kiss every night, now, and it had been steadily growing in intensity. The week before, Effy had slipped her hands under Katie’s clothes, and they’d been so cold against her belly that Katie had yelped. They’d frozen, convinced that someone was soon to come charging into their tent to see what had happened, but when no one came, they dissolved into giggles.
The next night, Effy deliberately warmed her hands before the small wood stove before they headed back to their tent, smirking at Katie all the while.
Their days changed. There was still a steady flow of wounded soldiers, but the Bosch were retreating and so the causalities slowly started to decrease. Conversely, the number of prisoners increased, and sometimes Katie would stand in wonder as an endless line of defeated, bedraggled figures in gray marched tiredly down the road, surrounded by armed British soldiers. It was the first time she’d seen any of the Bosch up close, and she was startled by how all it would have taken was a change of uniform for them to look like any number of the boys she’d seen ship off to war.
Effy’s German was atrocious, but she tried as hard as she could to get information from the prisoners. She collected the names of towns where hospitals were located, inquired after her brother, and about the treatment of downed pilots. Katie was surprised that she was allowed to talk to the prisoners at all, but for all that she was generally sullen and antisocial, Effy had an effortless way of convincing people to let her do as she wanted.
She’d share the tidbits of information with Katie, her voice low and excited. Katie tried as hard as she could to remember them, and she gave in to the heat of Effy’s kisses and started to return them in kind.
The abdication of the Kaiser sent a jolt through everyone, revealing the sort of hope Katie thought she couldn’t have anymore. When the armistice came two days later, it brought with it feelings of a different kind. Word rippled back to them by noon of that day, and the activity at the aid station stopped. It was eerily quiet for a moment and then the first cheers came, shouts of thanks and victory from the wounded soldiers. There were sobs from some of the men, and Katie sank to her knees in the midst of all of it, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
It was over, she thought numbly. Over.
“I want you to come with me,” Effy whispered fiercely. Katie had her face pressed in the curve of Effy’s shoulder. It was freezing inside their small tent, and she didn’t want to leave the cocoon of heat she’d created, but there was a seriousness to Effy’s voice that she couldn’t ignore.
“Come where?” she asked, pulling back far enough so that she could see Effy’s eyes.
“It’s over, Katie. I can find him now.”
“I don’t think it’ll be as easy as all that,” Katie murmured, though not unkindly. “They’re not going to just let you go where you please.”
“Maybe not, but I can try.”
Katie sighed. She had no more hope now that Tony was alive than she’d had when she’d first heard Effy’s plan, but other things had changed since then. She couldn’t let Effy go alone, couldn’t let her be by herself if she were to find out the worst. Not after all they’d been through, and not now that they were…
Well, whatever they were.
They waited a week. Katie wrote Emily a note, because she knew she couldn’t say good-bye to her face. Emily would look at her and beg her to stay, and she’d be torn in half.
Effy managed to procure a soldier’s pack, and in it she stuffed a few cans of rations, a bayonet, two tin plates, two tin cups, two tin spoons, two canteens, and a small pack of coffee. With it all together, Katie was amazed she could even lift the thing, as scrawny as Effy’s was, and she wondered if she was going to end up being the one shouldering it. In the remaining space, Effy had stuffed a blanket and what few personal items she wanted to take with her.
“How are we supposed to get there?” Katie asked the night before they were to leave.
“There’s a train that passes a few kilometers away. We’ll meet it early tomorrow morning.”
Katie didn’t know how she’d arranged it, but it happened just as Effy said. They left before dawn. Katie slid her letter into Emily’s bag and tried not to cry, and they’d skirted around the edges of the aid station and slipped into the surrounded forest without notice. The ground was frozen. It crunched under their feet, and Katie tucked her gloved hands into her coat. Their breath fogged the air in front of them, and it was eerily quiet. Her mind raced, filled with thoughts that what she was doing was crazy, but Effy was beside her with a determined look on her face and she found she couldn’t turn back.
Their space on the train wasn’t a cozy one. They were boosted up into a car carrying supplies, and made their way to the back, behind a row of boxes to a small space that had been left clear. Effy had put her hands on the shoulders of the soldier who had helped them, putting her mouth just by his ear and whispering something that made him blush, and Katie tried not to notice just how jealous it made her. It was so cold inside the boxcar that Katie couldn’t keep her teeth from chattering. Effy pulled free the blanket and wrapped it around them, and they pressed close together. It did little to cut the cold.
She thought the train would never stop. They continued through most of the day, the roll and jostle of the train over the tracks finally lulling her to sleep. Effy shook her awake some time later, and she looked up groggily to see the soldier from before standing over her, offering her his hand. She stood slowly, her muscles screaming as they stretched out of the position they’d been inhabiting for hours. She stomped her feet to get feeling back into them, and rubbed at her nose with the wool of her glove to warm it.
A rutted road ran away from the tracks, and Effy started down it. Katie followed, looking around in confusion. They were surrounded on all sides by farmland that seemed to stretch on forever. They walked for nearly an hour, past the ruins of demolished houses and cottages. The fields were devoid of livestock and the few people they saw looked haggard and exhausted. A little further and the ground started to show increasing evidence of past battles. The fields were pocked with shell holes and the trees were splintered into bits, and the houses were reduced to rubble.
“We should stop for the night,” Effy murmured, and Katie looked around helplessly.
“Stop? Stop where?”
Nearly half an hour later, they found a stone hut that was still mostly standing. The owners appeared to be long gone, and Katie didn’t want to think about what that might mean. It had been stripped bare by the armies that had advanced through the area. All of the furniture was gone, with the exception of broken bits. Effy gathered together as much of the shredded wood as she could find and piled it by the crumbling stone fireplace. It took her a while to get a fire going, and it took even longer for the fire to chase the chill out of the room, but Katie’s feet slowly began to regain feeling. She scooted as close to the fire as was safe, making sure to keep her skirts out of the way of any popping cinders, and sighed.
She was tired and she was starving, but at least she was finally warm.
Effy spread the blanket out on the floor and searched through the pack she’d brought, pulling free some of the rations she’d managed to secret away. They stared at them in confusion for a bit before realizing that they’d have to use the bayonet to pry them open, and after a half dozen unsuccessful tries, Katie finally managed to peel enough of the lid back for them to see the contents.
The substance inside was some sort of unidentifiable meat, and as hungry as she was, Katie only managed to eat a few bites.
“That’s disgusting,” she said, mouth pursed in a frown. “You’d think the war would have ended sooner, if that’s all the boys had to eat. Getting home to get a good meal would have been reason enough to charge an enemy trench.”
Effy laughed, took one last bite, and then pushed the tin away. “Just a few more kilometers tomorrow, and we reach the hospital where I think Tony may be.”
Katie still harbored substantial doubts that they’d find Tony anywhere, but she kept them to herself.
“About bloody time,” she said instead. “I’m not particularly fond of hiking through the fucking tundra.”
She expected some sort of smart retort, but Effy grew silent. She looked up at Katie with a lopsided smile, and said, “It means a lot to me, that you’ve come. I know you think it’s silly.”
Katie shrugged one shoulder, and murmured, “Whatever. It’s what friends do.”
Effy scooted infinitesimally closer. “But not just friends, right Katie?”
Katie blushed a deep red, but shook her head. “I guess not.”
“I don’t mean to be crude about this,” Effy said, and her smile stretched into something more self-deprecating, “but it’s the first time we’ve truly been by ourselves since we met.”
Katie couldn’t help but laugh. “So you’re telling me this has all been an elaborate plan to get me alone?”
“Too much effort, do you think?” Effy replied, eyes sparkling mischievously.
Katie laughed again. “Is this another tip you’ve picked up from your brother? Disarm the girl with humor before trying to get in her knickers?”
Effy’s pupils dilated suddenly, and Katie drew in a sharp breath. “Enough about my brother for the moment,” she said, and her voice was silky and deep. “Not to push or anything, but I’ve been dreaming about this for the past month.”
“Dreaming about what?”
Effy’s smile turned downright devilish. “You letting me into your knickers.”
The words elicited a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. “What if it all changes when we go home?” Katie asked suddenly, nervousness bubbling up inside of her. “What if this only matters over here?”
“I don’t know,” Effy said ruefully, “but I don’t think it will.”
She’d stopped worrying so much when Effy slowly unbuttoned her uniform jacket. They were standing, the air in the small hut oddly still, as if it was holding its breath along with Katie. She whimpered slightly when the jacket slid off of her shoulders, because Effy was looking at her without blinking, her eyes serious and unfathomable. Katie felt oddly vulnerable, though she still had on the blouse and undergarments she’d worn underneath. Effy seemed to sense it. She smoothed her palms over Katie’s arms until their fingers were twined together, and she leaned forward to kiss her. The kissing seemed to last forever, or at least it felt that way to Katie. The more time passed, the deeper Effy’s kisses became, until she was clutching so hard at Effy’s fingers that she knew it had to hurt.
“It’s okay now,” she said, because some part of her knew that Effy was waiting for her to feel comfortable straddling the edge of the jumping off place. It was the way Effy always was with her, not cautious, necessarily, but patient.
Her clothes seemed to melt away under Effy’s fingers. It was still cold enough in the hut that she shivered when her skin was bared, but when Effy pressed up against her, naked also, everything shifted so suddenly that it was, instead, almost too hot.
They sank down onto the rough woolen blanket. Effy hovered over her, eyes flitting between the skin she’d bared and Katie’s eyes. Katie let her fingers trace over all the skin she could reach, startled by the softness of it. Her shyness hadn’t completely disappeared but she found it didn’t quite matter anymore. As far as she could tell, they were the only people left in the world.
The first touch of Effy’s finger against her clit ripped through her. She tightened her grip on Effy’s shoulders, startled by the intensity of it, and so Effy found her lips again, kissing her until she relaxed back into the blanket. The second time, she knew what to expect, but the sensation was still somehow so much more than what she’d felt in those times when she’d touched herself like that. Effy was hovering above her, her hair tumbling down over her shoulder, and she’d drawn her bottom lip between her teeth. It made Katie feel something almost primal, feel a desire to pull Effy closer to her so that there was no space between them.
She didn’t know what prompted her to do it, but she slid a hand between them, fingers blindly searching until they slipped into wetness. Effy’s eyes widened and she looked at Katie with something like amazement, and it was hard to remember what she was supposed to be doing, but the expression on Effy’s face remained a constant prompt.
She was surprised when Effy tensed and cried out. It was the look on Effy’s face, though, a look that seemed to suggest that she’d been made whole, that sent her tumbling after her.
“I wish I had something better to offer,” Effy said the next morning. She’d set out their tin cups and filled them with water and had warmed up the rusks of toast she’d taken from camp and placed them on the plates. The fire was beginning to die and the room was growing slowly colder, but Katie barely noticed.
“You’re sweet,” she said, darting forward to give Effy a long, slow kiss.
Katie knew it was ridiculous, but she didn’t even feel the cold for the first hour of their walk. She couldn’t stop looking at Effy, and felt warmth shoot through her every time she saw that Effy couldn’t stop looking at her. It made her want to disappear into every crumbling hut they passed, and she thought that maybe Effy could see it in her eyes, because she laughed.
“What?” Katie said, embarrassed.
Effy just smiled in return. “Nothing. Just… me too,” was all she said, before reaching for Katie’s gloved hand. She drew their joined hands into her pocket, and even though she couldn’t feel her feet, Katie had never been happier.
The last bit before they reached the hospital was a rather steep incline that lead down into a valley, and when they reached the top of it, they were both panting. Laid out below, they could see the trappings of encamped soldiers. The town was literally buzzing with people, and with the trucks that were running in and out along the one main road, and Katie wondered which of the buildings was going to be the place where Effy got her heart broken.
“Let’s sit for a minute,” Effy said, brushing a light dusting of snow off of a fallen log. She settled down with a thump and then looked up at Katie, who liked the expression on her face so much that she continued to stand for a moment, just so she could see it.
“I can’t believe you actually managed to navigate us to a town,” Katie murmured, eyeing the town below them with amazement.
“That’s a lot of faith,” Effy said, though her tone was clear and bright.
They lapsed into silence after that. The sense of anticipation was building, and with it, the gnawing anxiety in Katie’s gut. She reached over, searching out Effy’s hand, and squeezed hard.
It was nearly five minutes later when they finally began to stir, and Effy sat up straight. “Oh,” she said aloud, though it was clearly directed to herself, “I nearly forgot.”
Katie was about to ask her what it was she’d forgotten, as it didn’t seem as if Effy was planning on following up her exclamation, when the other girl began to dig through her pack. After a great deal of rustling, she found what she was looking for, and extracted it with a smug smile.
“There,” she said, holding up a plain gold wedding band. For a moment, Katie’s heart caught in her chest, because she thought that this might be the culmination of some grand romantic gesture and she wasn’t entirely sure how she was going to handle it, but then Effy stripped off her glove and slid the ring onto her finger.
She held her hand out in front of her, looked at it with an odd expression for a moment, then pulled back on the glove. “It’ll come in handy, I think. At the very least, maybe it’ll ward off unwanted attention.”
Katie couldn’t stop staring at Effy’s hand, though the ring was no longer visible. “Christ, Effy,” she said, confused and a little surprised. “Who’d you steal that from?”
Effy stilled, then looked at her strangely. “I didn’t steal it, Katie. It’s mine.”
Katie blinked in shock. She opened her mouth to speak, found she couldn’t, swallowed hard and then tried again. “Yours?” she finally managed, her voice hoarse.
Effy said the next part calmly, as if it wasn’t just like one of those artillery shells that had kept Katie up nights. Unlike the others, though, this one was a direct hit. “I did tell you I was married, didn’t I?”
Katie pushed as far away from Effy as she could, and her voice went shrill. “Married? Fuck, Effy. No. No you didn’t. You didn’t mention anything about being bloody married, you fucking cunt.”
Effy blinked in surprise at the anger in Katie’s voice, then smiled slightly, as if this was all a small misunderstanding. “I was married, Katie. I’m not anymore.”
Katie felt lightheaded, unable to breathe. “You will explain this to me right the fuck now.”
Effy sighed, then scooted a bit closer to Katie and reached for her hand, holding tight when Katie moved to pull away. “There was a boy. Freddie. He loved me very much.” She paused there, and Katie nearly screamed at her to please fucking continue. “He’d gotten called into the army as a conscript. He was set to ship out to training camp and he asked me to marry him.”
She paused again, and Katie blurted an irritated, “And you said yes?”
Effy looked at her coolly, eyes blank, and the contrast with the expression that had lighted them earlier was enough for Katie to feel the full force of the chill in the air. “I said yes. We were married the day before he shipped out.” She paused, shrugged, and began to stroke the back of Katie’s hand with her thumb. “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Though there were several things she wanted desperately to say, Katie forced herself to remain quiet, not quite sure what would come out if she spoke.
“The French were taking a massive beating at Verdun, if you’ll remember.” Effy looked at Katie expectantly, as if Katie was supposed to be able to remember the names of towns and battles, which she clearly didn’t. But, whatever, she nodded as if she did and arched a brow impatiently, willing to physically pull the story out of Effy if necessary. “So Freddie got sent out to a position near the Somme. The plan, I think, was to divert the attention of the Bosch and get some relief for the soldiers at Verdun.”
Which, fine, Katie thought. As a history lesson, it was brilliant. As an explanation for why Effy was bloody married, it was well flawed.
Effy was quiet for another long moment. Then she sighed, gave Katie another small smile, and stilled the motion of her thumb. “He was killed his first day on the line in a gas attack.”
Katie felt a wave of sickness wash over her, her jealousy immediately morphing into pity. “Jesus, Effy,” she murmured, tightening her fingers around Effy’s. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s…” Effy cleared her throat, then looked up guiltily. “I didn’t love him. He went off to war thinking he had a happy wife waiting for him back home, but it was a lie. I just… he was so sweet, and he loved me so much, and when he asked, I couldn’t think of a good enough reason to say no.”
Katie wanted to point out that the fact that she didn’t love him seemed like a good enough reason to her, but she didn’t. Instead she stayed quiet and thought about what Effy had just said, about how it made her feel, and about how it changed things, if any. The one thing it did do was explain a lot. Effy was a mixture of the guilt she carried over the lie she’d told to a boy long dead and the fanatical determination to find the brother she adored, and maybe that’s why she seemed mental sometimes. Then again, maybe she was mental sometimes, but fuck. It was war, and they were all mental.
“Is there anything else you’d like to share,” she said finally, keeping her eyes fixed on the village.
The wool of Effy’s glove was rough against the underside of her chin, but she followed its prompting and turned to look Effy straight in the eye. “I didn’t love him,” Effy said slowly, deliberately, “but I think I do love you.”
Katie felt tears rush to her eyes. Effy was looking at her steadily, as if trying to impress upon her that she really meant it, and Katie wasn’t in a place where she felt comfortable saying the words back, but that was okay. Momentarily unable to speak, she just nodded, then tilted her head forward to accept Effy’s declaration with a kiss.
The harried clerk barely had time to acknowledge them. “Tony Stonem? No. He’s not a patient here.”
Katie watched Effy literally deflate, and she wrapped her arm around Effy’s waist to keep her from sinking into the floor. It took effort to guide her to the bench lining the wall, because Effy was nearly a dead weight in her arms.
“It’ll be okay, Ef. It will,” she said, pulling Effy to her in a tight hug. She could feel tears against the skin of her neck, and she’d known this was going to happen, had known that Effy’s hopes were going to shatter. She’d known it and yet she’d let her come anyway.
“I don’t mean to intrude.”
The soldier standing nervously in front of them had a messy mop of dark hair and oval, wire rimmed glasses that made him look even more sheepish than he probably was. Katie glared at him, because they were obviously in the middle of a moment, but he just continued to stand there, twisting his woolen cap between his fingers.
“Well, what is it?” she snapped, glaring at him over the top of Effy’s head.
“It’s just… I thought I heard you ask after Tony Stonem.”
At that, Effy’s head snapped up and her eyes bored into the young soldier’s with enough intensity to burn.
“Do you know him?” she asked, standing so that she was toe to toe with him, her voice rough and demanding.
The young soldier blushed slightly, his eyes darting from left to right before finally coming back to settle on Effy again. “I’m a mechanic with his air squadron. Do you know him?”
“I’m his sister,” Effy said dismissively. “Do you know where he is?”
The soldier’s blush seemed to deepen. Katie glared at him, because there was really no time for this kind of dithering about, but the boy seemed to pull it together enough to speak again. “I’ve never really thought… That is, Tony wouldn’t…” He trailed off, paused, then said in a burst, “Tony wouldn’t just die.”
It made no sense to Katie, because she’d seen planes crash before, and she was certain that the pilots in them didn’t just decide whether or not they’d prefer to die that way, but it seemed to resonate with Effy, who nodded with determination.
“I’d heard that some of the prisoners, that is to say, men who had been prisoners, had been brought through here for medical examination. I thought Tony might be with them, but he wasn’t.”
Which, fucking fabulous, Katie thought, because if there was no pay off to this sad story of woe, then he should have just left them the fuck alone.
“And then someone told me that some of the prisoners, the ones who were still in German hospitals when the armistice was signed, had been transferred over and were being transported back to British hospitals…” And the story just seemed to drone on and on, and Katie only snapped back into it when she heard the name of a specific town, “…so I was going to go there. Do you think you might want to come along?”
No, Katie thought viciously. They’d just traipsed through half of the frozen French countryside to stop here. Fucking idiot.
She could feel the excited tension in Effy’s frame, though the girl had stepped away from her, so she forced herself to appear as docile and as interested as possible. “Can you get us transport?”
“Tomorrow,” the soldier said, then gulped under the disapproval in Effy’s eyes. “There’s a supply convoy headed there tomorrow. It leaves in the morning.”
“You’ll make sure we have seats,” Effy said, the words not a request at all.
“Of course. Certainly.”
There was another long pause, and then Effy seemed to visibly relax. She smiled, and the boy shuffled nervously. “What’s your name?” she asked finally, and he seemed to calm somewhat.
“Oh,” he said, drawing his wool cap onto his head and pulling it down over his ears. “Sid.”
Sid somehow managed to get them a room for the night. He got them food, too, and it was warm and vaguely tasty, and Katie revised every negative opinion of him she’d had.
“Not bad,” she said, looking around the hotel room where, according to Sid, they’d been billeted for the night. “It has proper furniture and everything.”
Anything else she might have been planning on saying was forgotten, as Effy tackled her to the bed.
Riding in the supply truck was much like riding in the back of an overstuffed ambulance, only this time they had Sid sitting opposite from them, smiling apologetically every time they jostled over a hole. It took most of the morning to reach their destination, but Katie had a full stomach, Effy’s hand in hers, and memories of the night before to keep her company, so she didn’t care. She’d been surprised by Effy’s aggressiveness, the tenor of her kisses and touches so drastically different from the gentle sweetness of their night together that it had taken her a while to adjust. When she had, she’d grown aggressive herself, and when she’d spotted the little blue bruise on the curve of Effy’s breast that morning, she’d blushed but hadn’t regretted it at all.
She’d just dozed off when the truck ground to a halt with a symphony of pings and clanks, and they’d piled out of the back. The sun was unusually bright. It made her eyes water, and she was wiping away the tears when she heard the truck driver giving them directions. They seemed horribly complicated, with quite a few ‘turn right then turn lefts’, and she wondered why he hadn’t just taken them to the bloody hospital himself.
Effy found it with no problem, of course, and Sid trailed after her, letting her take the lead. They found themselves in front of another hospital before Katie even had time to prepare herself for how she was going to handle another round of disappointment, and she was hoping that another hug would suffice because it was really all she had at the moment.
She was thus surprised when a stranger’s voice cut through the buzz of the lobby.
Effy was off like a shot, skidding to a stop in front of a boy only just older than they were. He was wearing a white robe, had a thick white bandage wrapped around his head, and was leaning on a cane, and Katie stared in dumbfounded confusion for a moment until he flung one of his arms around Effy and pulled her in close.
“Is that Tony?” she asked Sid, her voice thick with disbelief.
He didn’t answer her, but the idiotic grin on his face did.
Tony had mischievous blue eyes and a devilish grin, and he reminded her of Effy so much that it hurt. It wasn’t hard at all to remember all the things Effy had said about him and apply them to the figure lounging on the bed in front of her, because Tony seemed like he could do everything Effy had said and more.
“It’s a new part line,” he was saying, smiling so widely that she could see dimples. “I couldn’t have been any luckier, I don’t think.”
He told them how his plane had crashed near a Bosch aerodrome, and how he’d managed to keep it steady until the last minute so that the impact wasn’t so bad. They’d pulled him free of the fire, some sort of odd camaraderie between pilots making the exchange almost cordial, as if he hadn’t just been up in the sky trying to shoot them. He’d been sent to a nearby hospital, though no one expected him to survive, and had slipped into a coma just seconds after smiling winningly at the doctor who received him and offering a charming, “Well, hello there.”
“Max said it was a combination of my eyes and the wound,” Tony said, grinning rakishly. “I reminded him of his best friend from childhood, apparently, and so even though the rest of the lot were willing to write me off, he sent me into surgery. The way he tells it, he picked bone chips out of my scalp for hours, then sewed it all back up as prettily as he could manage. And this friend of his was in the German air service and went down the same way, with a bullet scraping away part of his skull. He lived, so Max figured I could too.”
“Max?” Effy questioned. She hadn’t let go of her brother’s hand since he’d laid back down in the bed, citing exhaustion.
“He’s a nice fellow, actually. I’m probably the only British airman with a private physician who is now formerly of the German army.” He sobered for a moment, and Katie saw something dark flit across his gaze. “Seriously, though. If it weren’t for him, I’d be dead. I hope they’re treating him well. I haven’t seen him since we took over the hospital.”
What followed was a great deal of ridiculously happy smiling from Effy and a lot of awkward stammering from Sid. She felt left out but not particular upset by it, because she was an interloper in the whole scene and was well aware of it. Besides, she still felt rather guilty for not believing that Tony could have survived a fucking airplane crash, for fuck’s sake, because apparently he was the cleverest, luckiest bastard to ever have lived.
“Tony likes you,” Effy told her later. They were in another hotel room, though they’d had to pay for this one. Effy had surprised her by pulling out a crumpled pound note, but they’d been treated to a decent meal and put in one of the nicer rooms, so Katie didn’t ask any questions.
She fought the urge to roll her eyes at Effy, because she’d exchanged only the barest of pleasantries with Tony and that’s all. They’d been kicked out of his room by a decidedly angry nurse, but Effy had promised to come back the next day. As far as Katie could tell, she was planning to stay there until Tony was transported back to England.
“I didn’t even talk to him. How can he like me?”
“He likes you because I like you.”
“As if relying on you to act as a judge of character is in any way wise.” Katie paused, then snorted. “Like I’m one to talk. I followed you to… where the fuck are we, anyway?”
“Cambrai,” Effy supplied helpfully.
“Right. I followed you to fucking Cambrai, and it’s not until we were almost in fucking Belgium that you remembered to tell me you’d been married.”
She’d thought she was over it. She thought it hadn’t ever even started, actually, because she hadn’t known Effy then and the poor bloke was dead anyway, but now that she’d had the whole day to think about it, she found she couldn’t stop. She wanted to know what he looked like, and if Effy ever missed him even if she claimed she’d never loved him. She wanted to know what the wedding had been like and if his family had liked her, but alternatively, she didn’t want to know any of those things at all.
“Katie,” Effy said softly, sadly, bringing her hands up to cup Katie’s cheeks. “It was a lifetime ago, and I’m a different person now. Tony had just joined up with the air service and things weren’t going very well at home. My mum and dad were always fighting, and it only kept getting worse. Freddie was nice to me, and he was a steady sort of boy – no drama involved – and it seemed like my life was just one massive drama after another. I wanted to get away, and he was offering me that. I shouldn’t have said yes, but I did.”
Katie knew it was an entirely rational explanation, but that did little to soothe her. She felt entitled to a little bit of anger, as Effy had chosen to drop this down on her head with no warning whatsoever, and it wasn’t as if she’d thought she knew everything there was to know about the other girl, but she’d at least thought she knew the major things.
“I just wish you would have told me earlier,” she said sadly, because that was what had hurt the most.
Effy looked away, then shrugged. “I don’t really like to think about it.”
And the most maddening part of it all was that Katie could get hurt and she could get angry, but it wouldn’t do any good. This would still be something from Effy’s past that she couldn’t change, and it was all so fucking traumatic and sad that yelling at her about it might make Effy feel worse, but Katie suspected it wouldn’t actually make her feel any better either.
One of Effy’s thumbs drifted down her to lips, tracing softly along the bottom one. “Are we okay?” she asked quietly, a quiet hopefulness in her eyes that made Katie’s heart hurt.
“Well, I can’t yell at you proper over this, now can I?” Katie muttered, frustrated, already softening. “All your problems are so fucking massive that it doesn’t even help to get angry with you, which, just so you know, is well unfair.”
Effy lips quirked up into a smirk, and Katie rolled her eyes, because the other girl got away with everything and knew all along that she was going to, and this was just going to be one more thing to add to the tally. “If it will make you feel better,” Effy said demurely, pulling back from Katie slightly and sinking down so that she was laying flat on the bed, “I give you full permission to punish me in any way you want, and please, feel free to take your time with it.”
Katie slapped weakly at Effy’s thigh, glaring at her, but the other girl just moaned softly at the touch and ran her tongue slowly over her bottom lip. She let her eyes fall halfway closed, and Katie knew it was all a deliberate act, but it still made her stomach flutter and her hands clench with anticipation.
“Whatever,” she huffed, slowly lowering herself down so that she was hovering above Effy, “but only because you deserve it.”
Tony’s convalescence was nearly over. He’d been well on his way to full recovery by the time they’d arrived, actually, as the bandage was going to be something of a long term thing and the cane was merely to steady him. He’d broken his leg in the crash as well, and it had grown weak, but his daily walks around the large hospital were slowly helping him build back his strength. He always looked at Katie with an amused smirk on his face, probably because she blushed bright red almost every time she saw him. It was generally Effy’s fault, as she had a habit of whispering something deliciously naughty into Katie’s ear just before they walked into his room, and she had tried but just couldn’t be as blasé about it all as Effy.
“I almost wish we could stay here,” Katie said wistfully one night. They were curled around each other, naked beneath the covers. Effy had already rather thoroughly had her way with her and Katie had done her best to outdo her, so she was quite relaxed and very drowsy, and perhaps not in the best frame of mind to be initiating conversations about their future.
“Changed your mind about France, then?” Effy teased lazily.
“More like I changed my mind about Bristol, I think.”
There was something in Katie’s voice that let Effy know there was a serious undercurrent to her words, and so she rolled up onto her side so that she could see Katie’s eyes. “What’s going on in there?” she asked, her eyes flicking up briefly in question before returning to Katie’s.
“Well, this isn’t real, is it Effy?” she said softly, tilting her head to the side. “We’re by ourselves here, and no one cares what we do, so it doesn’t matter. But back home… there’s my parents, and your parents, and everybody else, and they’re going to care. When we get back to Bristol, it’s going to matter.”
“It only matters if you let it matter,” Effy said with a sigh, reaching down to push Katie’s hair back off of her forehead.
“You say things like that, but you know they’re not true. You can’t create the world to be like you want it to be, Effy. It’s going to be like it is, and you just have to manage.”
Effy shrugged. “So we manage. It’s that or end this, Katie, because there aren’t that many options.”
Voice strained, Katie murmured, “Are you saying you want to…”
“Of course not,” Effy interrupted, bemused. “You can be such a stupid cow sometimes.”
Katie narrowed her eyes and glared. “Like that’s any way to talk to me when I’m having self-doubts and a massive fucking crisis.”
“It was meant in love, of course.”
“Yeah. You and your love,” Katie scoffed. “That’ll keep my belly full and my bills paid.”
“Well, I’m the one who has to think of these things,” Katie muttered. “No one else ever does. Everyone else just follows their feelings, or something equally stupid, and I’m the one who has to take care of them and clean up their messes.”
“That’s fair,” Effy murmured, then leaned down to kiss Katie gently. “Why don’t you let me take care of you for a bit, then? I’ve got some money. We’ll get an apartment. Find jobs. We won’t be rich, but we’ll be happy. It’s better than the reverse, I think.”
Katie tried to ignore the way Effy’s promise made her feel a little giddy, and instead asked, “How do you have any money?”
Effy looked away for a moment, then said reluctantly, “Freddie’s death benefits.”
“Oh, bloody brilliant,” Katie said, rolling her eyes. “That’s an auspicious way to start off.”
“I’ve been trying to impress upon you the imperfect nature of most things in life.”
Katie sighed, then smiled fondly. “Yeah, well, if you weren’t so fucked up, I wouldn’t have to try so hard to learn it.”
Her parents were thrilled to see her. Emily was angry, but only just for a bit, because she hadn’t liked finding out in a letter and she hadn’t liked being left behind.
“You and Effy?” she asked, amazed, as they sat together in their room later that night. Katie was packing, because Effy had stayed true to her word, and she’d found them an apartment, tiny though it was. Her parents had been confused but vaguely supportive, because it was a whole new world after the war and girls were doing things like that, taking jobs and being independent and carving out lives for themselves that weren’t already written. And besides, Katie had already grown up and left them behind, had seen things they couldn’t even contemplate, and they’d felt awkward enough around this new version of their daughter that it almost seemed to be a relief to them.
Effy had seemed like such a nice girl, too, so surely it would all be fine.
“You should leave too,” Katie said, hiding a smile at the dumbfounded look her sister was still wearing. “You and Naomi. You should get a place for yourselves.”
“How did it happen?” Emily asked, stuck, because she still couldn’t quite wrap her brain around it.
“I don’t know,” Katie offered, then shrugged blithely. “It must have been some kind of perfect alignment of the stars, or something like that.”
Later, when she told the story to Effy, the other girl laughed and kissed her, then kissed her again.