The street lamps have already been lit by the time John drags himself away from the recruitment poster. Electric lighting had always seemed exciting to him, common though it had become, but today he wishes he could see the last verges of sunlight, hidden behind the thick London clouds. These lamps make John’s hands look small and sickly the way real light never could.
John opens the door, unwinding one of Rose’s scarves from his neck and sorting through the pile of mail on the sideboard. The only things left are a number of bills and Prankster’s Weekly, the magazine John to which has been subscribed since age thirteen. Not even the jovial smile of the jokester on this week’s cover can quite soothe the sinking pit in his stomach.
Rose sweeps into the entryway, a smile on her lips and a notebook in her hand. John can’t help but take a minute to admire every bit of her - pale hands and sharp collarbone, the calluses on her fingers from her pen and knitting needles.
"Jade is attempting to create some semblance of a meal for us," she says, her tone light in what John can recognize as affection, a small smile gracing her dark purple mouth. Her expression dims, however, as she takes the chance to get a better look at him. "You look tense. Did something happen?"
The last thing he needs is for Rose to drag him off for a therapy session, so John just shakes his head. "Not really." Her lips draw into a thin line - she knows he’s lying.
"Dinner’s ready!" Jade’s voice comes as a welcome distraction, and John gratefully makes his escape to the dining room, Rose trailing along behind him.
Dave and Jade are already seated, bickering enthusiastically about the name of the pasta Jade prepared. Rose seamlessly joins their conversation, stating rather emphatically that the noodles are linguini, but John just listens, admiring the color of Jade’s green eyes and the jutting slope of Dave’s shoulders in a way he had never thought to before, feeling the heavy and unmistakable weight of loss settle in his throat. He eats and watches and feels empty and alone, aching for everything under his fingertips.
"I enlisted," John says, so abruptly he surprises himself and so calmly that no one speaks for several heartbeats.
Somehow, it is Dave’s flat "What?" that hurts the most, even more than Jade’s silence and Rose’s whispered "John." Out of them all, John knows that Dave will have seen this coming least, will be least prepared.
"I enlisted," John says again, because, really, what else is there to say? He had thought so hard, composed an entire symphony of words to console them, to reason and explain, or at least a joke to lighten the mood, but he knows there is nothing that will satisfy them. Maybe there never was. Maybe he needs to hoard every ounce of conviction for the bathroom mirror.
"Yeah, we heard," Dave snaps, sarcasm falling into place as thick and oblique as his dark sunglasses. "Question is why? Wars aren’t like your beefed up radio action stories. People don’t become heroes and save the world and get the girl, they go and get shot or-"
"I know, alright?" John is on his feet before he can think, pacing round and round, wedding or funeral the walk is always called a march. "Jesus, Dave, I know all of that, okay?"
Without another word, Dave pushes away from the table and stalks off to the bedroom. John casts a pleading look Rose’s way, but she is already moving, crossing the room gracefully after him. Rose was always the only one who could calm Dave down.
There’s a sound behind John, and suddenly Jade’s shoving him back in his chair, fingers massaging circles into his shoulders.
"You don’t have anything to prove, you know." John closes his eyes. Jade had always had an uncanny knack for seeing through him.
"Take- take care of them for me, okay?" he asks. "While I’m gone."
"Until you come back, I will. I promise."
"And- and if I don’t come back, you’ll-"
She makes a sound, somewhere between a whimper and a sigh, and there is a wetness in John’s eyes and on the collar of his shirt.
The morning John sets off for training is overcast and gray, and their breaths steam as they stand together on the train platform to see him off. Their desperate last kisses goodbye have already been exchanged within the privacy of their own home, leaving nothing but lingering hugs to attract the attention of others.
"You’ll write us," Rose tells him, leaving no room for question. "As often as you can."
"Of course I will!" John assures her. "I’ll write as often as they let me! You know that. And they know to notify you if- if anything happens to me."
"Please don’t say that, John." Jade clutches his wrist so tightly he’s sure she’s cutting off circulation. "I want to come back to this train station to pick you up again once we’re done with the war, alright?"
"So you’re going to come back."
"I’m going to come back."
Jade bites her lip, as though there’s just one more thing she wants to say, but all she does is let his wrist go, leaving Dave to do the talking.
"If you decide to go be a deserter or something, you know you’ve got three people willing to hide you in their bomb shelter for the rest of your life," he offers. "Promise we’d kept you well fed and watered, take you out for walks at midnight when nobody can see you, get you a nice fluffy dog bed..."
John just rolls his eyes as the train rolls in. "I’m not deserting, Dave. I’ve made up my mind. I’m doing this. I’m making it happen."
Dave looks almost physically pained at the use of his own phrase, and he catches John in one last, tight hug, whispering in his ear, "Don’t die."
John doesn’t know what to say to that, and so he leaves them with a half-hearted wave and silence.
Once John is gone, Rose becomes scarce. She’s not home when they return from work, and when she does finally make an appearance, it’s to do little else but grab something to eat and curl up in bed. Dave and Jade can only speculate as to what she’s doing all day until one morning, only two weeks after John’s departure, they wake up to another empty spot in bed and a letter on the bedside table.
"I’m sorry --
I couldn’t let him go alone."
Jade turns the letter over and over; Dave traces the words until they become unrecognizable. When the two of them go hand-in-hand to Rose’s study, it is immaculate. The corners are neatly squared away, and there isn’t a speck of dust. They find no clues there and read the letter again. When they have worn all possible meanings out of the two meager sentences, they finally put it away.
It’s shocking how quickly their lives fall into normalcy, despite half of their family having left. It’s almost more shocking how utterly mundane Dave’s request is.
"Damn are you ready to see a movie because I sure as hell am ready to see a movie."
"You’re ready to see this movie, Dave? Is that what you’re telling me?"
He certainly had been telling her. Dave’s particular relationship with the film industry had only grown in fervor since the war began, developing from passing interest to effective obsession. With John and then Rose gone, cinema, now under the direction of the Ministry of Information, was what pulled him through the week. (Jade saw him through to the end of each day.)
They are not the only ones; film, which had once been so famous for its novelty, has become a standard of life for the ones left behind. Some of its popularity is due to how cheap film is; there is no gas to go for a drive and there is too much work to go on holiday. But for the price of a half penny there is a double showing and a bag of popcorn and two hours where they can sit in the dark and watch someone else’s life. Surrounded by people but not having to pretend everything is alright is the best source of comfort they can think of.
But, more importantly, films almost always include information. The Ministry of Information’s producing hundreds of shorts to keep the public informed and encouraged. Dave often wonders how much of the information they provide is true, but at the end of the day, some information is better than none. So every week, without fail, he drags Jade out of the house, making the same lame excuses and the same lame jokes, and they spend their evenings in the dark, Dave sneaking in two bags of M&Ms and Jade plucking his glasses off his face and hanging them on his collar two minutes before showtime. It’s worth it, all in all, even though they have to go home and pretend that Jade didn’t reach for Rose’s hand during the scary parts and Dave wasn’t waiting for John’s stupid enthusiasm for the worst of the acting and the most obvious of the effects.
Dave squeezes Jade’s hand, their fingers entwined on the armrest on the right, and ignores the empty ache in the palm of his left hand, clenched into a fist and shoved in his coat pocket.
Finally, the lights dim and the voices of the audience fade to a dull murmur. The screen flashes with the sounds of explosions and gunfire, with dirt and debris flying.
"Out on war front, our men are doing all they can to keep their country safe from the Nazi threat..."
"Well shit, if that wasn’t one hell of a movie. I don’t think I’ve ever spent two hours of my life better." The sky is dark and the air is has taken on a bit of a chill as film goers spill back out onto the street and into the noise of daily life.
Jade brushes absently at her skirt as she walks. "The sets sure were something! That bit at the beginning though... it makes me kind of worried, to be honest."
"Yeah? About what?"
"Dave, please don’t pretend to be thicker than you are, you know perfectly well what I’m talking about!"
"What, John and Rose? They’re fine. Bet they’re living it up right now, Rose getting shit-faced on her favorite wine, and they probably set up a private theater just for John. He’s probably sitting there right now going ‘damn, wish the others could see me now, they’d be so jealous.’ Both of them are being treated like royalty, like the fucking king and queen. Two ain’t coming back with medals of honor, they’re just gonna be wearing crowns and carrying around royal scepters. Gonna rule all of England from the comfort of our bomb shelter. We better start working on our bowing."
She laughs and tucks his arm under hers. "Of course! I’ll rely on you to show me how it’s done, sir knight."
They both jump as thunder rolls overhead, though neither mention it. Dave stands just a little closer to Jade, and she has her gaze fixed on the sky, intent and watchful. Then she wrinkles her nose as a raindrop hits her face, shakes her head.
"Let’s get home," she says, tugging his arm as she sets off at a brisk walk. He takes a few quick steps to keep up with her, protesting in a steady mutter. She winds her fingers through his, and they start running as the rain begins to pour. "I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon!"
While their lives march on, the act of waiting for the post becomes one wreathed in anxiety and reverence in equal measure. Jade’s the one most likely to turn the letters over five times, searching every crease for hidden messages, but Dave is the one who leans casually (in that very forced, pseudo-disinterested way that says he is anything but casual) against the banister everyday like clockwork, waiting for the postman to arrive.
John writes first, a simple note from training that was obviously scrawled mid-meal based on the grease stain on one edge. Jade pins this to the wall next to their radio. His penmanship is more atrocious than normal, but his message is light-hearted and hopeful. Training is going well. He’s popular with the other recruits. Jade grins and Dave rolls his eyes, both imagining worn playing cards and ridiculous jokes.
Rose is the first to write an actual letter. The paper is smooth and smells faintly like her, so Dave keeps it on the bedside table. His eyes take in every line a thousand times until he’s memorized the whole thing. He can recite to Jade every detail of the hospital where Rose is tending the wounded, and he does so often enough that she has the letter memorized, too.
John’s next missive comes from closer to the front. He’s seen action, he says. He might even come home with a rakish and manly scar. The implications of the words yawn so cavernously that they swallow most of the conversation in the house for two days. The letter lies on the table in the dining room like an unwanted guest that no one has the heart to throw out.
The quiet is broken by an envelope addressed to Jade specifically. It’s made of heavy paper stock, as is the letter inside. "My dearest Jade," she writes, "(and dearest Dave, I suppose), you would not believe some of the fascinating things I’ve learned from the soldiers who come from the front." Enclosed is a locket, engraved with the image of Joan of Arc. A French soldier, she says, gave it to her. His left hand had been lost to some shrapnel, but with his right hand he sketched a tiny portrait of Rose in her Red Cross uniform. The chain is so thin, though, that she daren’t wear it. Dave is stunned into silence upon seeing the sketch, the first new image of Rose in what feels like forever, and Jade’s eyes water with some combination of hope and despair. She puts the locket around her neck, and keeps the letter hidden in her desk drawer.
Then there is nothing.
They live their lives on pins and needles, going through the motions with their minds ever turned toward the mail slot in their front door. The rations make them lean as they eat only what they must. Jade’s hands grow rough in the factory. The mail remains stubbornly devoid of any word from their loves abroad.
Until, one day, it suddenly isn’t.
The letter is very plain, and it is addressed to "Ms. Harley/Mr. Strider" in script so neatly printed that only an errant ink-blot reveals its handwritten nature. The return address begins with "Red Cross," and that’s enough for Dave to let it slip through his fingers. It flutters to the floor in slow motion. Like a butterfly dying.
When Jade comes home, she finds Dave frozen in place, and it is with shaking fingers that she retrieves it from the carpet.
For the next few days, both of them fall into silence.
Dave can’t stop imagining what her last moments much have looked like. They aren’t told much - only that she’d been on a vehicle which had met with a bomb. No when, where, why, or with whom. He makes that all up on his own, playing the moment in grainy black and white like a movie reel. Sometimes John’s there by narrative coincidence, rushing to Rose’s side and holding onto her hand so she doesn’t die alone.
Jade runs test scenarios - if she’d noticed Rose distancing herself, if she’d gone with Rose, if she’d been there somehow, if she could have done something. In the end, she knows she was powerless to stop it. That’s probably the worst thing of all.
It takes four days for them to remember each other again. When they do, Dave clings to Jade like his last lifeline as she cries ugly, messy tears onto his chest, ruining his shirt.
Bit by bit, they emerge from their grief.
At first Dave remains clammed up, loose limbed and relaxed in that deliberate way that screams of effort, and thin-lipped and stoic and never asleep, no wonder from the noise. Jade tightens up, brightens up, until she all but sparks at the joints for the way she forces things to hold together, maximizes the efficiency of their shelter, redoubles her efforts at the factory. After drawing unbearably apart, they come back together. Dave begins to talk, and Jade can almost smile again.
Through the long cramped nights in the shelter, they whisper to one another, their prayers for Rose, their hopes for John, and somehow they sleep through the raids. The two empty spots in their bed still linger like ghosts, but they manage to pick up the pieces, make a life with just the two of them, accept a world that’s been broken down and rewelded with place settings for three instead of four.
Later, the unfairness of it all will be meaningless. There is no warning and it isn’t even night. The bombs usually come at night, but not always. The sirens usually manage to sound out, but not always. At any point in time, either of them could have been home. Either of them could have not.
Jade is returning home from a visit to the hospital when she sees an unmistakable glow from above, and the shadow of one particular bomb bearing down. The too-late crackle of gunpowder does not change its course. Her arm rises, unbidden to cup the burning light in the curve of her hand, casting her face in shadow.
And for a single, glittering moment, it is as though she could pin it against the sky, spinning gently on its axis, its momentum tuned to the twitch of her fingers, its weight held sway by the strength of her will. She can see the deepening gravity well and the curve of space and in that moment, she feels power rising inside of her, a means to save them both.
And then the moment is over and time resumes, along with her common-sense and instincts of self-preservation.
The blasts send dust and debris flying in all directions. Ducked into an archway, she waits them out breath tight in her throat and hands clutched over her ears until the All Clear sounds. And then she is on her feet, hair streaming out behind her as she pelts down the crumbling road towards the rising smoke in the distance and the unmistakable remains of the fire bomb in their yard.
She doesn’t need to come closer. The shelter door gapes open and she can already see.
He didn’t make it down the stairs.
Weeks later, though not many, Jade returns to the house that she can’t quite bear to think of as a home anymore. The mail has become a hateful thing in the absence of a loved one with whom to share it, so she nearly misses the unassuming envelope on the top of the tiny hill of paper gathering near the door. Like the last piece of goodness to come through the mail slot, it is addressed to her alone.
She picks it up and uses a fingernail in lieu of a letter opener. She doesn’t have enough of a heart left to catch in her throat when she sees the army’s letterhead.
She has to read it three times before the words actually mean something.
They’re sending John home.
The train journey isn’t smooth by any stretch of John’s imagination. He feels every imperfection in the rails and ties in his thigh (fancies he can still feel it in his leg, too, but the sensation’s just a mirage). Still, the diamorphine his surgeon gave him takes enough of the edge off that his hands aren’t bunched into fists when he goes to pick up the newspaper from a few days ago. At least, not from the pain.
His eyes keep drifting back to the headline. "BATTLE FOR BRITAIN RAGES," the letters stand larger than life on the page. The Luftwaffe assholes grow bolder by the day, it seems. The article is much like the others John read in the hospital: how brave the RAF recruits are, how they fight to push back the Nazi scum, how resilient London’s folk are... Nothing about casualties. Nothing about which streets lay in rubble and which streets remain whole. His hands smooth over the text for maybe the millionth time since he bought the thing. The ink has started to smudge off on his fingertips.
Outside his window, countryside rolls by. Stretches of heath yield to farmland as far as he can see. Soon, they’ll give way to the outskirts of the city. He’ll be home.
John closes his eyes, lets his head fall back against the top of the cushioned seat. He stretches his legs-- leg-- and forces his palms flat against the paper in his lap. In his mind, a succession of memories play like something at a cinema: the line of Rose’s neck as Jade helps her don a favored necklace; the heady aroma of Dave’s aftershave when he bows his head close to whisper something about Jade’s "gams" in John’s ear; how it feels when Jade lathers his chin every Sunday and carefully shaves it clean. If he forces his mind quiet, he can imagine that they’re with him now, that he’s already home. He can imagine Rose’s perfume wafting through the cabin, can almost hear Dave’s voice over the sound of the train rushing along the track.
God, he’s missed them.
He finally opens his eyes. The train starts to slow, and outside the window he can see London start coming into view. The brakes screech as the train nears the station, and thick plumes of steam billow up to obscure John’s view of the platform as it pulls in. Just imagining his loved ones’ faces makes John’s heart beat faster. When he stands to disembark with the rest of the passengers, his knee shakes and nearly buckles, but he manages to catch himself on the seat in front of him.
The steam’s cleared some, but the platform seems strangely empty. Only a few folks mill about, and none of their faces are familiar. Still, he’s sure they’re here somewhere, and if they aren’t, he fancies surprising them at the front door.
He leaves the paper on his seat as he hobbles down the aisle to disembark.
He’s glad to be home.