Kate sees Gladys first, before she sees her.
The shock is as sudden and paralyzing as a spark in VicMu, everyone holding their breath and waiting for the whole place to go up. Kate does the same, her breath catching fast in the hollow of her throat and the song she’d been singing fading—if it can even be called a song, all of its notes hollow and soulless, fluttering like the wings of a dying bird against the bars of its iron cage. Her gaze flicks to her father, once, twice, and then he is looking back at her, the force of his gaze as rib-breaking as a punch to the sternum.
Sing, his eyes say, demand—sing, my little songbird, or I’ll break your useless wings for you.
Her voice starts again, trembling; if one were so inclined, he might take it for earnest piety. Her father nods at her. The Bible in his hands bears the imprint of his fingernails from all the times he’s so devoutly clutched it.
Don’t come over here, Kate thinks, begs; please, let her stay away. If God is listening, perhaps for once in her life He will hear her. He’s never answered her prayers before now, but that’s all right, perhaps she simply had not been praying hard enough.
And that’s when Kate finally sees her.
“God is a right bastard, don’t you think?” Betty asks, sprawled easily across her bed, lounging back easily against the headboard. Kate is only half-listening, her fingers quick and light in Gladys’ hair as she twists it into delicate braids and runs it through her fingers, smooth. This new turn of conversation jerks right behind her navel and pulls her from her reverie, hard, her father’s voice already murmuring in her ear—blasphemer.
Gladys’ mouth quirks at the edges, amused. “I doubt hearing that makes Him any more inclined to stop whatever it is He’s doing that has you so upset,” she says, and Betty rolls her eyes and flicks ash off the end of her cigarette, right onto the bed sheets.
“I don’t think—not that I put much stock in God, anyway, not since I was little,” Betty says, “but I don’t know how you can believe in Him when you see the things we see every day.”
She’s talking to Kate, looking straight into her eyes, unflinchingly, but it’s Gladys who answers her. “And what sort of things would that be?” Gladys asks, her voice sardonic at the edges, like singed paper. “What horrors have you seen lately, o sagacious one?”
“Oh, lay off.” Betty flicks ash at Gladys this time, and Gladys flails when it lands in her hair.
“Betty, you insufferable—give me that cigarette and we’ll see how you like it!” They fight over the cigarette and Kate pulls away, into herself—don’t let Betty ask again, please, let her have forgotten what started this.
Gladys emerges triumphant, Betty’s cigarette hoisted high over her head like the banner of a conquering army, and she stubs it out ferociously in the ashtray on the bedside table as Betty curses at her.
“There you go.” Gladys throws it back at Betty, breathless. “Teach you to mess with me.”
“Lesson learned,” Betty grumbles.
“I assume this is the sort of thing you were talking about when you mentioned all the terrible things you’ve seen,” Gladys says. “I understand. Being so roundly and effortlessly defeated in glorious combat can be difficult, or so I hear. I wouldn’t know. Because I won.”
“But that’s exactly what I mean,” Betty says, and Kate inches farther away from her, hating Gladys a little for bringing this up again. “Take this war and everything that comes with it—death and heartbreak and loss and grief and despair, newspaper headlines that might not be telling us the whole truth, and what they are telling us is terrible enough—hospitals that are never empty, bomb factories all over Europe and Canada—don’t you ever wonder, if there is a God…how could He let this happen? How could He allow this?”
“It’s the Devil’s work,” Kate says, but it sounds like her father’s voice—forceful, hateful, acid dripping from every syllable and burning down the back of her throat.
Betty scoffs. “Well then, God’s not very good at His job, if He can’t keep the Devil from meddling.”
“This is not God’s will,” Kate says. “We have let the Devil in. All of us—because of our sins.”
Betty looks as if she’s been slapped. It’s a look Kate knows well. Gladys shifts on the bed, uncomfortably, and looks at Kate before glancing at Betty.
“I—you haven’t finished my hair, Kate,” she says, her voice too bright. “And my dinner with James isn’t long off.”
“Of course.” Kate’s words sounds strange to her own ears, still tainted by someone else’s voice. “I—sorry. Let me finish for you.”
Gladys smiles at her, genuinely, but there’s something else in her eyes—like she’s scared for Kate, or of her. Kate does not like to think about it. She does not want anyone to be sorry for her. Let them be sorry for themselves.
She resumes braiding Gladys’ hair, and Gladys—a good friend to the end, for the both of them—makes no mention of how badly her hands tremble.
Kate thinks about that conversation a lot after she leaves the boardinghouse. After—well, after her father finds her again, as she had known he would. (Sometimes she thinks that even if she ran to the ends of the earth he would still find her, like some sort of bloodhound, his pulse racing and teeth bared, slavering for her blood.)
Betty had made it no secret that she did not believe. If I had a voice like that, I might actually believe in God, she’d said once, but Kate had known that she’d only meant it as a compliment. There was nothing, perhaps, that could make Betty believe in God, not even if she were able to sing more sweetly than the angels herself. Kate cannot fathom it.
She knows what her father would say if she were to ask him about Betty. Godless heathen, he might start with, only to add depraved deviant to the list, right before he backhands her across the face. Not that he has done so since bringing Kate home. He has not laid a hand upon her, not even when he caught her staring out the window at the busy street that first time, her nails digging hard into the sill, her throat dry, every glimpse of blonde hair a shock.
No, he had not touched her then.
He’d reached over and tugged the curtains closed, the set of his shoulders tight and strained like the line of a kite stretching towards the sky, right before it snaps.
He’d said, Have you been saying your prayers, Marion?
And he’d smiled when she said yes.
Betty does not believe—perhaps that is why her sins are so many, and so unashamed. There was a time when Kate had thought they were friends. That Betty was the first and truest friend she had ever had, the one person she could place her trust in.
That’s what makes it hurt the most, Kate thinks. Because for the first time in her life, she hadn’t been expecting the betrayal.
How much of it meant anything in the end? How much of what Betty did—what she had said, what she’d done when Kate needed new security papers, the Billie Holiday records she’d given to her—how much of that had been real?
How much of it had been calculated from the start?
I was seduced. To find a true friend for the first time, only to be proven so wrong—to be kissed without expecting it, without knowing what to do with it, without understanding what Betty was looking to gain from her—it had hurt. Nearly as much as the ways her father has manipulated her all these long years. (Nowhere near as much, if she’s being honest with herself, but she tries not to be anymore.)
From where Kate stands, it’s clear that her entire friendship with Betty had been manipulated from the start to serve Betty’s own ends.
And the worst part is Kate can’t even hate Betty for it, despite how desperately she tries. Her father will make sure she burns for that.
She’s waiting for one of the girls to ask for a break so that she can take their place in the production line. The song Leon had been singing last night is still playing in her head, a few perfect bars of melody layering with the sounds of his voice and repeating as she stands there, her toes itching to tap in rhythm with the beat. She stands still anyway, her hands clasped behind her back, her chin up—it’s not how she’s used to standing, her shoulders so effortlessly thrown back, the long line of her throat exposed but in no way vulnerable. She likes it. It feels powerful.
One of the girls puts her hand into the air, calls for a sub—rolling her shoulders as she does so, an easy grin crossing her face. It’s Betty, and Kate suddenly realizes where she’s learned to stand like this. This is how Betty stands, day-to-day; her hands not clasped behind her back, necessarily, but the same bold, strong stance—the same set and weight of her shoulders.
Kate shrinks in on herself, visibly; she wonders if Betty sees it. Her shoulders go forward and her chin tucks down, and she thinks—yes, this is what she was taught. This is what she has learned so well.
“Kate?” Betty gestures down at her station, one eyebrow raised. Her voice is impatient. “Hurry it up, yeah?”
Kate goes over and takes her place, all too aware of the red flush on her face. “Sorry, Betty.”
“Nothing to be sorry for.” Betty smiles at her, brilliantly—it’s hard to look at—before walking away, the line of her jaw catching the light just right, her few wisps of uncovered hair suddenly gold in the awful factory lighting, the most beautiful thing there.
It’s like appreciating a painting, is all. Aesthetic beauty. God does not forbid the appreciation of beautiful paintings.
That Betty is not a painting, well—Kate does not dwell long on that. Her hands are already moving, another cog in VicMu’s well-oiled machine, and for now that is all she focuses on. The rise and fall of her hands, and the bombs she’s building beneath them.
Her mother is, true to her father’s word, terribly ill. (Deathly ill, even, though Kate will not think of that.) Kate does not ask whether her father has taken her to a doctor—he will only see it as insolence. And she already knows the answer, anyway.
Her mother looks old for the first time in Kate’s life. Kate has never seen her this way—her eyes glassy and distant, her hands unsteady. Her mouth moves and her words are hard to hear, like whispered conversations in a crowded room, only no one else is talking. Kate sits by her side as the days go by, holding her hand, pressing a cool washcloth to her fevered forehead, singing songs she would never dare to voice before her father.
“I learned how to sing, Mother,” she says one day when he is not there. “Truly sing, just like you always wanted me to but never thought I would. A man named Leon was teaching me before—” Her voice catches.
Her mother says something, and Kate has to bend closer to her to catch what she’s saying.
“I—yes, he is a very nice man,” Kate says, uncertainly. “I don’t….”
Her mother looks at her, steadily; her gaze, for the first time in days, is clear, focused. “He would—take care of you?”
Kate swallows, her mouth dry. “It wasn’t like that, Mother,” she says. “I swear, we didn’t do anything we shouldn’t have.”
Her mother jerks her head to the left, sharply. “Not what I meant,” she whispers.
I know. “There was—someone,” she says. “Who I thought might have taken care of me. Who I thought I could take care of, too.”
Her mother just looks at her, waiting.
“You want to know what happened?” Kate looks away, unable to bear her mother’s gaze unbroken any longer. “I don’t….you know what happened, Mother. He found me, and I had to come take care of you.”
And she betrayed me. But for the first time, those sound like her father’s words instead of her own—and she wonders, unhappily, whether any of her thoughts will ever truly be hers.
Seeing Betty and Gladys again for the first time in five long months—it isn’t anything like Kate thought it would be. She does not feel disgust or hatred or hurt or excitement; instead there is only crippling, all-consuming fear. She clutches her younger brother’s hand so tightly that she’s afraid she will break bones, and she forces herself to sing anyway, all the while hoping neither Betty nor Gladys will hear her—a fool’s hope, but she cannot help it.
Her father is standing just behind her, his hand on her shoulder. His fingers dig into the dip below her collarbone when she hits the high notes perfectly—better than he was ever able to teach her.
If they cross the street, I shall run, Kate thinks. Away from all of them, Father and Gladys and Betty and VicMu and everything else. So far that no one will ever be able to catch her—to the very ends of the earth, and when she reaches them she’ll jump off, too.
Betty does not cross the street. Gladys starts to, her whole face lighting up like a Christmas tree, but Betty grabs her by the hand and pulls her back, muttering something that only Gladys can hear. Gladys nods, smooths down the front of her dress. She does not meet Kate’s eyes again, though Kate does not look away from her.
Betty, though—Betty looks. Long and intensely, as if she might never look away. Kate looks back and thinks, fiercely: don’t come over here, Betty McRae. If you meant what you said about keeping me safe—if that wasn’t a lie you used to try and trick me into friendship, or whatever it is that you wanted from me—then you’ll go back to the boardinghouse and never look for me again.
Betty’s gaze moves above Kate’s shoulder, to her father. Her father’s fingernails dig into the point where Kate’s shoulder and neck meet—but that could just as easily be explained by the note Kate has just hit, piercing and unwavering, the highest note she can voice.
Betty turns away and pulls Gladys with her. Relief warms Kate, right down to her toes, and she thinks: don’t look back.
Two days later, her father leaves the house for the first time all week. Kate does not know where he goes, and she does not ask. Instead, she goes to her mother’s bedroom—it smells like roses, sickly sweet, to mask the decay beneath—and dips her hands into the bowl of water beside the bed, drawing out the washcloth. Her mother’s forehead is cooler, now, but that doesn’t mean anything. Kate has seen the turns this illness can take. Whatever it might be, it is far from done with her mother.
She is soaking the washcloth for the fifth time when a knock sounds on the door. The bowl slips and falls to the floor, spilling water everywhere—“Sorry,” she whispers to her mother, who has opened her eyes. “I’ll clean it up.”
Kate dries her hands on her skirt as she rushes from the room and approaches the door, cautiously; there’s no window for her to peer through and see who’s standing on her doorstep, but she already knows who she’ll find there. When she opens the door and sees Betty with her hands shoved deep into her pockets, Gladys hovering behind her, Kate is not surprised—only dismayed.
“What are you doing here?” she asks, her voice low and urgent; she does not know when her father will be back. For all she knows he could be walking down the street at this very moment, watching her.
Betty blinks, her teeth catching on her bottom lip. “I—”
Gladys cuts in. “I thought you’d be happy to see us, Kate,” she says. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” Kate says, absurdly. She can barely keep track of what she’s saying—all she knows is the pounding of her heart behind the cage of her ribs, over and over, as her blood whispers in her veins.
“You live with us,” Gladys says. “You live at the boardinghouse. Well, I don’t live there, but—you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.” Kate’s hands fidget with the doorknob; she contemplates slamming the door and locking it and running upstairs and hiding beneath her bed like she did when she was a child, too young to know any better.
“Kate.” Betty’s voice is nothing like Kate remembers it, hushed and broken and filled with something that, if Kate wanted to analyze it, might have been agony. “You have to come with us. You’re not safe here.”
And Kate is suddenly so angry—so completely, uninhibitedly furious—“You think I don’t know that?” she demands, her voice rising. “Do you really think I am that stupid, Betty? I know how to take care of myself. I don’t need you to do it for me.”
She throws the door open wider, her empty hand closing into a fist at her side. “Get in here,” she says. Betty’s face brightens before Kate continues. “If my father comes back and sees you, I don’t know what he’ll do.”
Betty ducks into the house and Gladys hurries after her, obeying without question. Good, Kate thinks, and closes the door soundly behind them. I’m the one in charge here this time.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” Kate says, “or rather, I do, but I don’t care. You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have followed me.”
“What were we supposed to do?” Gladys looks shocked, almost as angry as Kate feels. “Abandon you to—this?”
“Yes.” Kate presses her lips together. “This has nothing to do with you.”
“This has everything to do with us!” Gladys reaches forward and takes Kate by the shoulders. Kate flinches away. “Kate—we’re your friends.”
Are you? Kate thinks. Or are you simply using me?
But—using her for what? Gladys did not have anything to do with the things Betty had said the night Kate had left the boardinghouse (don’t leave, I love you, as if those words meant anything at all). And now both of them had followed her over hundreds of miles—how, Kate had no idea—to make sure that she was safe.
That seems like the sort of thing friends might do. And not just friends who are using her for things she is not sure she can give—but friends who are genuinely concerned for her well-being, unselfishly.
She deliberates, then says: “I want you to meet my mother.”
Betty and Gladys stare at her.
“Come on.” Kate takes them into her mother’s bedroom, directing them around the puddle of water still spreading on the floor. Her mother has gone back to sleep again, sunken into her bed as if she might never leave it, which...at this point, Kate does not expect her to.
She kneels at her mother’s side, taking her hand in hers. “Mother?” she whispers.
Her eyes flutter open. “Marion?”
“I’m here, Mother.” She clutches her mother’s hand, too frail, the knuckles too bony. “I—I want you to meet Betty and Gladys. They’re other girls from the factory. They’ve come to see me.”
Her mother looks up, finds it difficult to focus. Betty and Gladys move closer and crouch at Kate’s side.
“Hello, Mrs. Andrews,” Betty says, and then looks at Kate. “I mean—I’m sorry, suppose that’s not actually your name.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Gladys takes Kate’s mother’s hand and shakes it, gently, as if they aren’t all crouching around her sickbed and talking in whispers in case Kate’s father comes back.
Kate’s mother smiles, wide and honestly, for the first time in longer than Kate cares to remember. Kate’s eyes fill with tears, and for a moment she has to turn away, unable to bear it. She looks at Betty instead, who appears to be similarly on the verge of crying herself.
“Same to you,” her mother says, and her voice does not shake. “I am comforted to see that my daughter has made such wonderful friends.”
She looks at Kate, and sees Kate watching at Betty—and when Kate looks back at her, her mother’s eyes say what she cannot: I approve, my darling.
“I can’t leave,” Kate says when they’re standing in the entry room once more. Her mother has gone back to sleep, weakened by extended conversation. “Not while my mother is so sick.”
“We understand, Kate,” Gladys says. “But—how will we know that you’re all right? How will we know if….”
If he hurts you, but she does not say it.
“I’ll try to send letter,” Kate says. “As often as I can, when I can do so without my father noticing. And when—when my mother doesn’t need me anymore, I will find my way back to VicMu. I’ll come back.”
“You’ll need our help,” Betty says.
“Maybe.” Kate considers, and then reaches forward—taking Betty’s hands in her owns and gripping them, tightly. “I’ll let you know in a letter. Or…if you don’t hear from me for longer than two weeks—then you’ll know.”
Betty nods, tightly, and squeezes Kate’s hands in response. “We’ll be waiting for you,” she says. “Don’t let us down, Andrews.”
Kate smiles, tremulously, and makes her a promise. “I won’t.”