June 27, 1942
There had been something too serene about today, too still, and you know what they say about the calm before the storm. The sea had been smooth, and there had been no signs of the Germans for the past 300 miles. They should have known better, but even Wynonna had allowed this false respite to sneak up on her inconspicuously.
The explosion that had rattled the ship was powerful enough that it threw Wynonna into the air before she collapsed in a heap on the floor. From the thunderous wham! following her tumble, she assumed the trucks and tanks they were transporting on the Potlatch from New York to Suez were thrown in the air as well.
“Waverly,” was her first thought, as she got up to her feet. Ears ringing, disoriented, Wynonna quickly scanned the deck below, looking for her baby sister. As the Potlatch groaned, squeaked, and whistled, she got a sinking feeling in her stomach. Poking her head out the window, she saw a gaping hole on the port quarter near the engine room. “Damn Kraut U-boats and damn their torpedoes. Fucking cowards,” she muttered angrily, not seeing any signs of the enemy vessel surfacing.
Wynonna felt the exact moment when reality caught up with the ship; it began settling on an even keel and was quickly sinking by the bow. She wanted to run, make sure that Waverly was safe in a lifeboat, but she couldn’t abandon her station, in case those Jerry bastards decided to poke their heads out and rejoice in the kill, as was their custom. Wynonna would happily send them lead from her .30-caliber chatterbox to diminish the fuckers’ hubris. The decision was swift, even if it tore her apart internally. She stayed by her machine gun and prayed to whoever would listen for Waverly’s safety.
When the seawater covered her ankles a minute or two later, and she still hadn’t spotted the U-boat, Wynonna abandoned her gunner position, donned on a life preserver, and raced downstairs to dive off. Her heavy boots clanged against the metal staircase, adding to the cacophony of last dying wails and groans of the 6,000-ton steamship. The loud thuds and her heart beating in her ears almost drowned out the pestering dreadful worries for Waverly’s safety. Almost.
Once on the main deck, ready to jump off, she spotted John Henry stood still, clearly in shock, looking around himself with unseeing eyes. “Doc! Jump, dude!” Wynonna reached the man and jostled him to gain his attention. Doc was useless on his best days, a true bunk lizard, but this reached a new low even for him. Not getting any response, there was only one choice for Wynonna – she took off her life preserver, forced it over Doc’s head, and shoved him overboard.
Since the Potlatch was sinking by the stern, the heavy cargo of trucks and tanks broke free, bucking around like wild horses on a prairie, and started sliding down the deck at breakneck speed. A piece of debris flew past Wynonna, grazing her upper arm. She didn’t even spare a second to make sure Doc stayed afloat for the lifeboats to fish him out.
“Stay cool as a cucumber, stay cool as a cucumber,” she chanted to herself like a mantra, trying to stay calm and focused. There wasn’t much space left for error, and she raced aft to her room to retrieve her personal life jacket. Just as she put it on, the ship tilted 45 degrees astern, throwing her off balance, creating a deluge, and blocking the exit from the crew quarters. Wading through the knee-deep water, she made it to the aft gunner station, where an escape ladder sat under a torrent of incoming water. She inched up, rung by rung, fighting with the most powerful of all the natural forces – running water.
Making it to the stern deck, Wynonna quickly scanned her surroundings, and – not seeing anyone else remaining on board – adjusted her life preserver and jumped into the sea. It was late – maybe even too late, she thought briefly – as the Potlatch was nearly entirely submerged within a few minutes of being torpedoed, and the suction of it sinking pulled her toward the propellers. A baggy turtleneck sweater and a loose dungaree work uniform she wore to conceal her feminine figure both soaked up water like a sponge, adding excess weight and dragging her under. Clawing her way upward, with a singular thought of seeing Waverly again, of making sure she’d escaped unscathed, Wynonna miraculously made it to the surface and swam away from the sinking trap.
She reached the lifeboat and clambered on board, coughing, hawking, exhausted. Once she caught her breath, still on all fours, Wynonna raised her head to be met with three or so dozen men standing around the boat, looking down at her in astonishment. Her long brown locks, typically hidden by the regulation cap, were now out and wet, sticking to her face and neck.
“Surprise?” Wynonna said weakly, letting her voice reach the more natural, higher tones that she typically concealed as well. Before she could crack a better joke, her eyes were drawn to a figure lying on the deck. “Waverly,” she whispered and scrambled to the girl who lay in a puddle of blood. “Waverly!” reaching her, she yelled and ran her hands over the prone body, looking for injuries in terror.
“Gunner Earp… Gunner Earp!” Doc’s voice broke through the panicked fog in her brain. “Your broth…,” he swallowed quickly. “Your sister suffered a blow to the head, hitting a tank turret in a scramble to evacuate the ship. She’s unconscious but alive.” His tone was soothing, while he set out to finish dressing Waverly’s wound.
Calming down, Wynonna noticed how her sister’s cotton chambray shirt, which she preferred over a turtleneck, was unbuttoned from the top, revealing a wet white undershirt and a clearly visible breast binding. Only a few of their fellow merchant marines diverted their eyes in respect; many looked on with a mix of confusion, desire, and – inexplicably – anger. Wynonna hastily buttoned it up as soon as Doc was done.
“Those broads are the reason we got sunk. There ain’t no space for a woman at sea. Brought bad luck, is what they did,” she heard one of the petty officers grumble, to a chorus of quiet murmurs of agreement.
“Are you shitting me, Jones?” She was up on her feet in a fury. “You and I, we served together three times already, and you had no problem with me until you discovered my tits?” Wynonna punctuated the absurdity by grabbing her breast through the soaked sweater. The man didn’t respond and diverted his eyes. Others shook their heads in disapproval.
“Gunner Earp, I’ll have to insist that we relocate you and your kin to one of the liferafts that Jensen secured to the stern of the lifeboat,” Captain Lapoint said in a collected tone. He added in a whisper, leaning closer to Wynonna, “I don’t want to lose any more of my men today, Earp. Understood?”
The implication of a potential riot sparked by the angry, confused, and soaking-wet men, was clear to Wynonna. They wanted a scapegoat, and two young women who managed to conceal their true identities from them were a perfect target. She looked among the faces of the merchant marines, many of whom she had considered friends before tonight, and discovered only disdain and contempt. Even Doc, who she had covered for countless times throughout the last few months on various ships, diverted his eyes in a silent endorsement of the crew’s intentions.
Wynonna nodded tersely at the Captain, who lifted Waverly over his shoulder to transport her to the liferaft. When he wasn’t looking, Wynonna spat at Jones’ feet. “Scum,” she murmured but was disappointed when his buddies held him back from retaliating. Oh, how she yearned to throw a few punches at that moment!
“Gunner!” Wynonna heard Captain Lapoint holler. “Board the liferaft and help me with Petty Officer Earp.”
As she turned to comply with the Captain’s orders, Doc grabbed her upper arm, “Take this kit, Earp, and change her bandages once a day.” He handed her a first-aid kit, to the general dismay of the rest of the crew. Supplies were limited, after all, and nobody wanted to waste them on a couple of girls who would likely be court-martialed for impersonating men upon their rescue.
“What the hell do you know? You were just a dentist’s apprentice before the war, Doc,” Wynonna bit back with annoyance, but grabbed the kit regardless.
While she settled in the liferaft with Waverly’s head resting in her lap, Captain Lapoint jumped back to the lifeboat, and they slackened the rope connecting the two vessels. The moonless night that enveloped them made Wynonna think back to the prairie nights in their Podunk hometown, Montana.
June 30, 1942
At least the assholes had enough decency to tow us, Wynonna thought bitterly, looking over at the lifeboat in front of them, where the men congregated under a bit of a shade generated by the sail and the jib. On the second night at sea, Captain Lapoint had attached an oil lamp to an oar, illuminating the boat, and provide a point of reference to Wynonna’s tired mind. The light had brought out the color of the red sail, engulfing the men in a bloody glow – an image she could have lived without, especially since she hadn’t dozed off yet, expecting Waverly to come to any minute.
Just as she was attempting to create a bit more shade for the two of them with an oar and her dungaree jacket, Waverly stirred suddenly. Wynonna was at her side in an instant; the jacket – thrown carelessly – caught on the nail sticking out the port side, hanging by a tread.
“Waverly! Here, have some water,” she handed her sister a canteen, scanning her face for any indication of distraught. When Waverly was done drinking, Wynonna took her in her arms, squeezing for dear life. She hid her face in Waverly’s mane, hiding the tears that invaded her eyes uninvited. “I was so worried, you doofus. They said you ran straight into that turret, like a rookie.”
After a short pause, Waverly replied in a small voice, breaking Wynonna’s heart, “Uhm, excuse me, but… uhm… who are you?”
She put her at arm’s length, searching her eyes, “I’m Wynonna… Your sister?”
“Huh…” Waverly responded unconvinced. “Why are we at sea?” she noticed her surroundings and backed up against the side of the boat in fright. “I can’t swim.”
“No, no, it’s okay. We were…” Wynonna’s explanation was interrupted by Waverly.
“Wow, it’s so pretty, though.” She rested her chin on the edge of the raft, looking around dumbstruck.
Wynonna tried to see what it was her sister was referring to, but all she could see was miles and miles of the open sea. “Lord, please tell me there is a part of you that knows me,” she whispered, more to herself than to Waverly.
The girl looked at her with such intensity and curiosity that it nearly made Wynonna uneasy. “You are my sister,” Waverly said with conviction, sparking Wynonna’s hopes. “My brain may not remember you, but my heart eventually will.”
Wynonna’s eyes welled with tears for the second time that day. “I know it must feel as if you were dropped into this narrative without a proper backstory or character development, but I swear we’ll figure it out.”
“Okay,” was all that Waverly offered back, with one of the sweet smiles she was famous for back home. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take a nap. I’m quite exhausted,” she stated, crawling underneath the bow bench, seeking any amount of shade, and curling into a ball.
Her coiled figure reminded Wynonna of all the times when they were kids, and Waverly took cover under the kitchen table at the homestead, hiding away from a belligerent Ward. She looked out onto the open sea, hopeful they’d be rescued soon and trying to banish all thoughts of their past from her mind.
July 5, 1942
Being stranded at sea for a week, with the Captain apparently using solely the stars for navigation, Wynonna’s hope for getting rescued evaporated like their sweat in the heat of the early afternoon day. Even her sister’s cheerful disposition wasn’t helping.
“We had a dog growing up, didn’t we?” Waverly asked, lounging under a makeshift shade they managed to put together. “He was a black mongrel, with cute white spots on his temples,” she recalled with a blinding smile on her face.
“Uh-huh,” Wynonna confirmed. God, how she hated that stupid dog. All bark and no bite. And boy, did it bark – constantly, relentlessly, and for no good reason.
“I remember he used to sleep at our feet when we shared the bed as kids and he would always lick my feet, tickling me, first thing in the morning,” Waverly continued, turning to her side to face Wynonna. “But then,” a deep wrinkle appeared on her forehead, as she scrunched her nose in concentration, “you left? Or we weren’t sharing the bed any longer, and he started sleeping in your spot, closest to the door. In a way, it felt like… It will sound ridiculous, but… it felt like he was protecting me from something.”
Maybe the dog wasn’t so useless after all… Wynonna’s always felt guilty for leaving Purgatory when she did, for abandoning Waverly at the homestead with Ward. She covered her face with her arm, hiding her eyes in the crease of her elbow. “Bobo,” she murmured.
“What was that?” Waverly asked confused.
“Bobo. The dog’s name was Bobo.”
“Bobo,” Waverly whispered, tasting the name on her tongue. “Yeah, Bobo,” she nodded, and laid back down.
It was good that Waverly was regaining her memories – great even. Still, Wynonna dreaded the day when Waverly would remember everything.
July 15, 1942
The tone of a military cadence woke Wynonna from an uneasy slumber and pulled her from one of her worse recurring nightmares. It seemed like their frequency intensified since they lost the Potlatch, but she couldn’t be sure with how irregular her sleeping pattern had become.
“They say that in the Army, the biscuits are mighty fine,” Jensen intoned, followed immediately by a chorus of, “One rolled off the table, and killed a friend of mine.”
“Shut up,” she muttered to herself. Why did they have to sing about the food of all things? Their supplies must have been running short as well – why remind your stomach about it? Even though Wynonna had already started rationing their portions on day three of getting stranded, they had run out of biscuits two days ago, and were left only with four cans of condensed milk and one tin of boiled mutton. The crew’s chants about jawbreakers only made her stomach grumble.
If the situation with food was, frankly speaking, FUBAR, their stores of water were in even poorer shape. She looked out to the horizon where a system of clouds was accumulating due west – they’d managed to avoid bad weather so far, but Wynonna was now trying to summon the clouds their way. The risk of surviving a storm in the flimsy raft seemed worth taking if they could collect enough rainwater to replace their supply of drinking water.
“Good morning, Nonna,” Waverly said, instantly blushing. “Is it okay if I call you that? It just rolled off my tongue, and it felt natural, but when I said it, I thought that maybe, well, you really don’t seem like a type of a person who appreciates diminutive nicknames, and so maybe you’d hate it, and I just don’t want to assume,” her sister rambled nervously, which was such a Waverly thing to do, it split Wynonna’s face in a toothy grin.
“It’s perfect, Waves. You started calling me that when you were two, and I really love it. Just – don’t tell anyone else that, okay?” she feigned the sternest voice she could muster that early in the morning.
At first, Waverly looked at her with large scared eyes, but she burst out giggling immediately after. Wynonna couldn’t conceal the adoration for her little sister, even if she tried. She didn’t remember Waverly being this carefree, this cheerful, since they were kids. It was quite a feat, considering the dire situation they were in.
“You’re such a softie, aren’t you? All dark and dangerous on the outside, but inside it’s all just mush and tenderness,” still giggling, Waverly teased. “I feel like our father was similar in that way?”
Wynonna swallowed any residual saliva in her mouth, trying to soothe her suddenly dry throat, “How do you mean?” Nobody has ever compared her to Ward, yet ending up like him had been her greatest fear in life.
Shrugging, clearly uncertain and insecure in her memories, Waverly explained, “I just remembered that he taught me to ride a horse when I was small. He was all stern and unrelenting until I learned, but after I managed to stay in the saddle for long enough, I remember him lowering me and tickling my neck with his mustache, as he told me how proud he was.”
Blinking repeatedly, Wynonna decided to change the subject, “Let’s prepare the setup for rainwater collection. I think that storm might be coming our way.”
If Waverly noticed her deflection, she didn’t mention it. Wynonna wasn’t sure if it was a real memory that Waverly recalled or if it was one of the stories she’s told herself before bed after things had turned hard at the homestead. The kid has always had a very creative imagination. Wynonna pledged to let Waverly keep those good memories – even if they were false – for as long as possible. After all, that bastard wouldn’t be able to hurt them anymore, and every day Waverly got to spend outside of his shadow was worth every white lie she’d have to tell.
July 28, 1942
Chewing ribbons of floating seaweed, Wynonna considered their options. They were out of food, and she doubted they got any nutrition from the seaweeds, even if it tricked their brains into thinking they were eating. They’d managed to capture handfuls of tiny crabs every now and again, and Wynonna swore she could feel them – or rather their vengeful ghosts – crawling all over her body at night. Seeing Waverly out of the corner of her eye – splayed flat on the bow, humming a soft melody, her feet dangling down into the sea, splashing water carelessly all around – Wynonna knew that her sister was the only reason they were still alive. That she was still alive. Without that ray of sunshine in her life, Wynonna would have likely had been ready to cash in her chips long ago.
“Nonna! I have an idea!” Waverly announced excitedly, rising on her elbows.
“No, hear me out. Why don’t we try fishing?”
“Uhm…” Wynonna opened her arms, gesturing at the boat around them. “Because we don’t have a net or even a fishing rod?” She hoped that Waverly’s legendary wit didn’t depart alongside her memories.
“Uh duh! But we can make one!” She got up to her feet with much more energy than anyone should have after being stranded at sea with limited food and water for an entire month.
“Make what?” Wynonna was still confused and preferred to stay in a horizontal configuration – at least for now.
“A fishing rod, silly. We can use this safety pin I found in the first aid kit,” she demonstrated the small sharp instrument in her hand, “and attach it to a rope.”
“Well, we don’t have a rope, per se… But… Huh…” Waverly stood in the middle of the raft, scratching her head in thought. Her position was blocking the unforgiving sun from Wynonna’s face perfectly, and so she let her sister stand there without contributing any ideas to the unexpected creative process.
“I know! Your sweater!” Waverly declared suddenly, making a beeline for the item, stored securely at the bow of the raft.
“My sweater?” God, perhaps she was the one whose brain was getting fried in the sun. But before Wynonna had a chance to question it any further, Waverly tore into her turtleneck, releasing loose thread.
“Yeah,” Waverly nodded, “like this.” She ripped a long string of wool yarn apart with the help of her teeth and started securing it to the safety pin.
“This could work…” Wynonna murmured begrudgingly, yet – as always – impressed with her younger sister’s resourcefulness and intelligence.
Assembling the makeshift fishing rod in no time, a proud smile on her face, Waverly sat back at the bow and tossed the safety-pin hook into the ocean. Wynonna lifted her achy body off the deck, groaning and grumbling the whole way, and relocated next to her sister. “Not bad, genius,” she teased, playfully bumping Waverly’s shoulder with her own. Except for a subtle blush, Waverly didn’t respond – she had always struggled with accepting compliments.
They sat side-by-side for hours, eventually watching the sun set over the horizon, but caught no fish. “Even the fish aren’t dimwitted enough to catch a hook with no bait, Waves,” Wynonna commented, throwing an arm around her shoulders. They’d never been particularly tactile, and Wynonna made a conscious effort to make the physical space between them even larger now, in case it should make Waverly uncomfortable. This side hug was probably the first contact they’d shared since the day Waverly regained consciousness, and it felt good to feel that connection. It gave Wynonna one more anchor to reality.
“Yeah, I know,” Waverly responded dejectedly but reclined her head against Wynonna’s shoulder. They stayed like that gazing at the picturesque sunset, until the tranquility of the moment was interrupted by a small thud behind their backs.
Wynonna’s protective instincts kicked into place immediately, and she was up to her feet, shielding Waverly with her body. Her mind went back to the stories of sharks, massive seals, and even mythical mermaids jumping onboard boats and decimating the crews in vicious attacks. What she saw, instead, was a small flying fish, that accidentally landed on their deck. Her gut reaction was faster than her brain, as she threw her entire body at the poor little creature thrashing hopelessly at the bottom of the raft.
“I got it!” She proclaimed victoriously, holding the fish with two hands in Waverly’s general direction. It felt so good, almost heroic, yet simultaneously savage, to catch food with your bare hands.
“Here, let me help.” Waverly walked back to the first aid kit and recovered a razor. “We can gut it with this.”
Thank god for Waverly and her brains; Wynonna was about ready to bite into the still weakly thrashing fish with her bare teeth. They sliced it in half and meticulously removed all the insides. Catching it was one thing, but eating raw meat was something different altogether.
Waverly took two bites and, already gagging, handed the rest of it to Wynonna. “I can’t,” she defended. “I’ll eat more crabs when we catch some – I know you hate them, and this is just making me sick.”
July 29, 1942
Puking her guts out over the stern, Wynonna cursed her insatiable hunger. She should have taken Waverly’s example and eaten only a few bites of that stupid flying fish. Maybe they could have sun dried the rest, and it wouldn’t have made her that sick.
They were out of drinking water again, and after emptying her stomach for the past few hours, Wynonna could feel the dehydration setting in. She would have sworn she had seen clouds gathering over the horizon not long ago, but when she blinked, the skies were pure blue again. Waverly’s sunny disposition had also visibly diminished, even if Wynonna tried her best not to look worse for wear.
A revving of a diesel engine, sounding clearly over the calm seas, caused Wynonna to crane her neck to the east rapidly. She saw an impressive motorized yacht, with a beautiful man at the helm, heading their way. Looking to Waverly, ready to scream in joy, Wynonna’s hopeful spirit was crashed yet again, as her sister sat quietly, looking down at her lap, oblivious to the beautiful vision Wynonna had just experienced. Perhaps she was hallucinating it all; perhaps she was going crazy.
The commotion from the lifeboat towing them, brought her attention. The men were standing up, as weak and impaired as she was, pointing to the east. Even Waverly raised her head to investigate, and when her features split into a genuine smile, Wynonna knew she wasn’t delirious. They were going to be rescued.
When the yacht got closer, Wynonna saw she was wrong about one thing – the person at the helm was not a sexy man, as she’d initially assumed, but a handsome woman. Her smooth face was marred by an alluring frown as if she was posing for a camera; her short red hair was slicked back; her form-fitting jacket was well-pressed.
Not having much energy even to lift her arm, Wynonna remained lying down, listening to the meager cheers from the lifeboat, and the noises of the men hastily boarding the yacht. Her heart swelled with joy, knowing that Waverly would be safe.
Sometime later – could have been five minutes, could have been an hour; the concept of time became irrelevant to Wynonna weeks ago – she felt their raft hobble with a weight of another person. “Well, hello there. My name’s Nicole. Nicole Haught. And it appears I’ll be your ride today if you’d care to join me on my yacht – Vergermere,” a stranger’s voice announced, in a pretentious and cocky tone, which immediately pissed Wynonna off and soured her mood.
“Hi!” came Waverly’s high-pitched response. “I’m Waverly Earp!” After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she added, “Oh, and this is my sister, Wynonna.”
“Ms. Earp. My pleasure.” That Haught person had the guts to kiss her sister’s hand in greeting. Oh hell no. Wynonna was about to funnel all the remaining energy into giving a piece of her mind to this presumptuous asshole when she heard her sister’s giddy giggles. What on earth?
“Would you mind helping me with Wynonna? She’s got the worst food poisoning after eating a fish that jumped onto our raft yesterday,” Waverly asked.
“Of course. Better yet – why don’t you go ahead and board the yacht, Ms. Earp, and allow me to carry your sister over?”
Wynonna looked at Nicole, dressed in baggy trousers and a pea coat, and thought that this voguish twig of a woman couldn’t possibly be able to lift her. She scoffed to herself with glee. Her happiness was short-lived, however, as she was hoisted effortlessly over Nicole’s shoulder.
The yacht was opulent – painted milky white, with tasteful wood elements – and Wynonna gaped at its beauty while being carried on board, like some sort of a damsel in distress. Remembering she clearly heard the clattering of a diesel engine, she briefly wondered who could afford to be this careless with fuel during wartime rationing.
“The rest of your crew is going to take shelter in the cabins below the deck, and I’d suggest you follow their example,” Nicole spoke to Waverly. “There is water there and some food. We’ll set off for Nassau right away, where a military hospital is set up, but it will be at least a full day – maybe a day and a half – until we get there.”
“Oh, uhm…” Waverly answered, uncertain. “That’s awful kind of you, Ms. Haught, but could we, maybe, stay on the upper deck?”
Nicole deposited Wynonna on a bench and looked at some of the marine crew who were throwing daggers in their direction. “I see.” She looked at Waverly with a sickeningly charming smile. “Most certainly, Ms. Earp. Please feel free to make use of my private cabin – it’s that door at the end of the stern cockpit. I’ll stay at the helm until we get to Nassau, so it’s all yours.”
Inexplicably, Waverly blushed and thanked Nicole in a coquettish tone. Her sister has had a terrible taste in men in the past, and Wynonna was astonished that she didn’t see right through this filthy rich woman and her phony charm.
As they laid on a comfortable bed in a quiet cabin, hunger and thirst satisfied, Waverly whispered, “Was I into chicks before? Or you know what? Don’t answer that. I sure am now.” She sighed dreamily and drifted off to sleep.
August 1, 1942
Wynonna slept a dreamless slumber for a day straight, only stirring to occasional noises of low whispers and quiet giggles. She was jerked awake when the yacht moored to a quay, and a few dozen exhausted but enlivened sailors set out to disembark.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so. Stay in this cabin, all right? I just have to make nice with the Duchess of Windsor,” Nicole said in a hushed tone to Waverly.
“You… you know the Duchess of Windsor?” Waverly didn’t even hide her incredulous reaction.
“Of course I do,” Nicole shrugged. “Her husband and I used to race horses in London before the war,” she supplied as if that was a perfectly normal reason for knowing British royalty.
As the door closed behind Nicole, Waverly finally noticed Wynonna. “Oh, you’re awake.” She clapped her hands excitedly, blushing as if being caught stealing candy. “We docked in Nassau, but Nicole agreed to take us with her to Whale Cay. It’s her personal island, and we can stay there as long as we want to.”
“What? No, Waverly. We’ll get off here with the rest of the crew, get the treatment we need, and hopefully get transferred to another unit.” Wynonna couldn’t believe that Waverly wanted to go AWOL.
Her sister sat on the bed next to her and placed a placating hand on her chest. “They were going to court-martial us both as soon as we disembarked, Nonna. I don’t know how, but Nicole managed to convince Captain Lapoint to mark both our names as lost at sea and to not mention anything about our true identities. She’s sticking her neck out for us.”
“Nicole? What – you’re on a first name basis already?” Wynonna knew her kneejerk reaction was always to react with anger, even if it was hardly ever directed at Waverly.
“Nonna, please…” Waverly pleaded.
“How can you not see that she’s just a rich broad, who’ll get bored of us – get bored of you – and cast us aside in no time? Did you stop to ask her how she’s acquired all this wealth? I know there are some things you don’t remember, Waves, but this,” she gestured all around them at the luxurious furnishings of the cabin, “this is not normal.”
Waverly crossed her arms over her chest, “I may have lost some of my memories, but it doesn’t give you the right to treat me like a child. I’m a grown-ass woman, and I can decide for myself who I want to… What! What I want to do! And there is no way in hell I’m letting you get off this yacht and get thrown in jail!”
The confident display was not a common occurrence, yet Wynonna had to remind herself that her sister was as strong-willed, as stubborn and self-assured as her, when she fought for something she truly believed in.
August 3, 1942
To Wynonna’s relief, Waverly’s attentiveness toward Nicole cooled off significantly on their way to Whale Cay. Even though things were awkward and tense between all three of them, and Nicole was clearly puzzled with the sudden change in Waverly’s attitude, Wynonna took it as a victory.
A man welcomed them when they docked at Whale Cay. “Dolls, these are Waverly and Wynonna Earp. They’ll be staying with us as long as they wish. Please show them to the guest rooms in the Great House,” Nicole ordered the man. “If you’ll excuse me,” she nodded tersely to the Earp sisters, and hastily jumped on a motorbike parked at the marina.
“What a beauty,” Wynonna whispered. After getting elbowed by Waverly, she quickly corrected, “The bike, Waves! I was talking about the bike!”
The man waiting for them seemed utterly unimpressed with their antics. “Do you have any bags I can retrieve for you?” His attitude was not hostile, but he didn’t seem all that friendly either. Clearly, he hadn’t learned about their circumstances yet, surprising Wynonna who assumed that Nicole would boast to anyone who would listen about her heroic rescue of several dozen survivors.
“Oh, no. It’s just us,” Waverly gestured awkwardly between them.
“Very well. Let me show you to your rooms. We will ensure that you are provided with clothing and supplies as soon as possible.” He was good looking, but man, what a drag!
They entered the Great House, as Nicole had called it, and it truly was great. Wynonna thought that calling it a mansion would be more appropriate and even then, she wasn’t sure that it would do it justice. The interiors of the yacht seemed pedestrian in comparison to this house, where everything from floor to ceiling was polished and shiny. Several maids bustled about, dusting and straightening things out. Waverly, overwhelmed and dumbfounded, looked around herself speechless.
Passing by an open-air atrium, Wynonna examined the odd choice for including steel bars between the majestic white stone columns, when a sudden roar erupted from behind the bars, and a lioness swung a massive paw through the little space she found. Waverly shrieked and hid behind Wynonna, who would never admit to being as terrified as her sister looked.
“Do not worry. This is CJ, Ms. Haught’s pet cat. She’s missed Ms. Haught something terrible the past several days, and she’s just acting out.” Dolls walked up to the enraged lioness and petted her behind the ear. The cat did her best to appear furious and discontent, but the minuscule movements of her head seeking more contact with Dolls’ hand gave her away.
“That’s not a cat, Dolls! That’s a lion!” Waverly yelled in a high-pitched voice from behind Wynonna’s back.
“A lioness,” Dolls corrected with a nod.
“A lioness!” Waverly scoffed. “I think I’ve had it. It pains me to admit it, but I think you were right, Nonna."
“I was right?” Wynonna turned swiftly from the capturing view of the large lioness behaving like a kitten to face her sister. She’d never expected to hear those words come out of Waverly’s mouth. Perhaps the damage to her brain was more significant than she’d expected.
“About Nicole. This house is entirely too extravagant! And she owns a lion? An honest to god lion? And… And what about all those people we saw on the way here – all of you work for her, don’t you?” Waverly turned to Dolls, before addressing Wynonna again. “It must be at least a hundred people, if not more! She’s clearly exploiting the labor of native people, who – bless their innocent souls – don’t know any better!”
Dolls measured Waverly from head to toe with a quiet intensity. “You find us naïve, perhaps even gullible, Ms. Earp, just because we’re indigenous. Let me tell you something, in no uncertain terms. None of us are native to this island, as it was uninhabited before Ms. Haught purchased it. All of us relocated here willingly, seeking employment with Ms. Haught, who not only pays fairly, but who also constructed a lighthouse, a cannery, a school, and a church for our use. What’s more, she’s been arguing for reforms regarding the treatment of all the Bahamians with the Duke of Windsor, which I believe has shoved a permanent wedge between them. Yes, she rules this island singlehandedly, so go ahead and call her a despot, but don’t project your feelings onto us.”
Stunned into silence, Waverly was evidently embarrassed. To his credit, Dolls didn’t expect an apology and continued walking toward the guest quarters, not checking whether the Earp sisters followed. As Waverly fell into steps behind the man, Wynonna noticed Nicole standing at the end of the long hallway, looking on in astonishment. Begrudgingly, she sent her a nod of acknowledgment and regards, before turning around and catching up with her sister.
August 10, 1942
They were both recovering quickly, in no small thanks to the diverse and nutritious dinners Nicole had been providing. Waverly’s relationship with Nicole hung in some awkward stage of attraction mixed with misunderstandings, of shyness mixed with fascination. It reminded Wynonna of middle school.
It was only the second dinner the four of them shared together, Nicole finding excuses to skip it thus far. Seeing her baby sister nervously chasing peas on her plate with a fork, not once looking up, Wynonna decided to take it upon herself to relax the atmosphere.
“So, Red. You know an awful lot about the American Red Cross…” she let it trail off, clearly intended as a question.
Surprised at being addressed, Nicole hastily chewed and swallowed her food, and dried her mouth with a linen napkin. “Oh, yes. I joined the organization back in Europe.”
“She’s being modest. At the age of 16, Nicole drove ambulances in the Great War.” Wynonna noticed a few days ago how Dolls addressed Nicole by her first name when in private, and it seemed like the Earp sisters quickly engraved themselves in their closest circle. She also spotted Waverly stealing a quick glance in Nicole’s direction. Mission accomplished.
“You may have a more colorful past than I give you credit for. I assumed a preppy private school, probably in Paris, followed by an arranged marriage you only entered to satisfy your bigoted mother and inherit her fortune!”
Nicole was silent for a second, and Wynonna thought she might have gone too far. But the woman burst out laughing not a minute later. “You’re actually spot on, Earp. All of those things are true, but I was also introduced to the Bohemian lifestyle, while in the preppy private school in Paris, by none other than Dolly Wilde. I went on to work at a bar, a Bugatti showroom, and a chicken farm. After the Great War, I started a company called ‘X Garage’, where I employed the former female ambulance drivers. We took our customers – mostly the families of the fallen soldiers – to the war graves in France and Belgium.”
“Bohemian lifestyle, huh?” Wynonna wiggled her brows at Nicole.
“That’s what you got out of all of that?” she laughed back.
“Nonna!” Waverly admonished.
“I’m not offended, Waverly,” Nicole clarified in a soothing tone, somehow making Waverly blush. This was hopeless.
“See, she’s not offended. I want to hear some juicy stories, not the tearjerkers from the war. I assure you, we all have some good ones in that department. Dolls, what you got, man?”
He looked at Nicole with a raised eyebrow, but when the woman shrugged noncommittedly and went on to sip on her wine glass, he cleared his throat. “One night, Nicole got awfully drunk and woke up with that stars and dragons ink on her arm,” he pointed at the obvious tattoo covering Nicole’s forearm. His tone of voice had a subtle, playful lilt to it that Wynonna was surprised to identify since his face betrayed no emotions.
“Oh, this is the story you chose to go with? Really?” Nicole threw her arms in the air and laughed lightheartedly.
“A day later, she was supposed to accompany Dietrich to a party…”
“Wait, Dietrich as in Marlene Dietrich?” Wynonna asked incredulously, although by now she should be used to the company Nicole kept.
“The one and only,” Nicole mumbled into her glass, and Wynonna could tell it was a sore subject. She decided not to push – not yet, at least. It was always good to save spare ammunition for later. The slightly wounded expression on Waverly’s face didn’t go unnoticed as well – the girl has always had problems with self-esteem.
“As I was saying,” Dolls brought everybody’s attention back to him, “Nicole went to this fancy party dressed in a gentleman’s evening suit. It was years ago before the world imploded and all the societal norms were tossed out the window, and the hostess implored her to change into something more appropriate for a young lady.”
“What did you do?” Waverly chimed in, clearly as invested in the story as everyone else. Wynonna was glad to see her brighten up.
“Well, naturally I obliged with an evening gown, proudly displaying this beauty,” Nicole answered, flexing her tattooed forearm, to a general glee of the table.
“The best part,” Dolls added, visibly struggling with keeping a straight face, “is that once they saw her exposed arms, they begged her to change back into the suit.”
The laughter than enveloped the dinner party accomplished exactly what Wynonna had intended – it loosened the tension, and drew both Nicole and Waverly into the conversation. The group stayed up late that night, exchanging stories from their lives, with Dolls and Wynonna taking charge of lightly teasing the other two.
October 22, 1942
Walking down to the beach in search of Waverly, struggling through the undergrowth that hadn’t been cleared lately, Wynonna angrily swatted at the pestering flies. People often referred to the Bahamas as the paradise, but she wasn’t so sure about that, with the heat, the humidity, and the flies. The western prairie girl in her yearned for the freedom of open space and the arid coolness that sharpened your senses. Approaching the beach, she spotted Waverly and Nicole cuddling in one of the hammocks stretched between palm trees. She wasn’t sure from this angle, but they may have been napping, with Waverly’s head resting on Nicole’s chest.
If Wynonna struggled to adapt to island life, Waverly fit right in – she stole everybody’s hearts with her sunny disposition and kindness, already knew every single person employed by Nicole by name, and even helped at the local school, when they had been short with staff. Looking at them now, tranquil and serene, Wynonna could clearly see that Waverly had found peace in this island. That she had found peace in Nicole’s arms. It was a new chance in life, a chance that didn’t include Wynonna, and the baggage she carried for the both of them since the accident at the Potlatch.
Taking a step back, retreating into the shadows of the jungle, Wynonna realized that the longer she lingered, the larger the chance that her presence would spark Waverly’s memories, that one day she would wake up and suddenly remember what Wynonna did. And she would hate her for it. Her sister was all that Wynonna had, and she couldn’t let it happen. She couldn’t stay and face Waverly’s grief and sorrow. Not again.
She took a step backward, then another. Just then, Nicole whispered something to Waverly, and her sister snorted and burst out giggling, carefree and in love. Mind made up, Wynonna tried to sear this image of Waverly onto her brain for safekeeping, and turned around. She hiked back to the Great House, packed a meager bag of her belongings, and left in search of Dolls.
“I don’t understand how you decided to just up and leave! We were supposed to be a team, Wynonna! Were you not even going to say goodbye?” Waverly’s agitated pacing could easily rival that of CJ’s on her grumpiest days. Her flowery summer dress, straight out of Vogue, rustled behind her, not at all subtracting from the image of confident fearlessness.
“Thanks, Dolls. Why’d you have to go and get them? Such a suck-up,” Wynonna shook her head in disapproval, sat on a bench with a duffle at her feet. Her wild mane was concealed yet again under a cap, and she was donning her standard issue dungarees.
“Nobody leaves the island without Nicole’s permission,” Dolls repeated calmly for the fifth time, yet something was cracking right underneath his stoic constitution as if he was equally upset with her plan.
That was a thought for another day, and Wynonna turned to her sister. Sighing, she lowered her voice, “Listen, Waves. We knew this day would come, sooner or later. It happened to be sooner. The Allies are planning a counteroffensive in the Pacific – we need all hands on deck, and my hands have already proven their worth on many a deck before.”
“I understand that, but you could have given me a warning. Can you just wait a week? We can spend time together, maybe go crab fishing? I feel like we were finally growing close again, with my… you know… my brain malfunctioning…” Waverly dropped to her knees in front of the bench and took Wynonna’s hand in hers, pleading, “I don’t want to lose you again.”
Her resolve was breaking, but she knew her decision was for the best. “You won’t lose me, Waves. I’ll always be your sister.”
“Promise to come back? Please, just… Just come back?” Waverly’s eyes welled with tears.
“Yeah,” Wynonna swallowed the lie. “I promise.”
“How come you’re not more involved with the war effort? No offense, but you have your personal well-trained army and a fleet, and I can see you’re itching for action.” Wynonna tried to fill the silence. Nicole offered to take her to Nassau after a heartbreaking goodbye at Whale Cay, while Waverly chose to stay behind.
“Oh, believe me, I tried,” Nicole answered, and Wynonna could tell there was a story behind her annoyance. “I offered my best boats to the Navies – both American and British! – on numerous occasions but they were always turned down as unsuitable. Can you believe it? Unsuitable!” Nicole shook her head in exasperation. “I’ve had it at that point, and so I asked a British Admiral, who I know personally, if I could enlist – say, as an officer, or even just a skipper on a torpedo boat. God knows I’m more than qualified. Guess what he said.”
“Ha! I can only imagine!”
“Yeah. I’m sure you can. He straight up told me, ‘wrong sex, wrong war’.”
They fell quiet again. There wasn’t much Wynonna could say to that – she was acutely aware of the raging sexism, not only in the military but also in all facets of their society. Although she was still annoyed with Nicole’s propriety and her exuberant wealth, Wynonna could understand why she chose to isolate herself on the island. She could only hope that Nicole cared for Waverly as much as she cared for Whale Cay.
“Take care of her, Red,” Wynonna said quietly, barely audible above the knocking of the diesel engine, once Nassau came into view. “I should probably give you the whole big spiel, but… just make her happy and challenge her intellect every now and again.”
Nicole looked at her from behind the helm, and for a beat, Wynonna thought that she hadn’t heard her. A short nod was all the acknowledgment she received a minute later. The one time Wynonna was ready to have a heart-to-heart, and all she got back was a fucking nod.
When they got close to the docks, Nicole killed the engine to maneuver the yacht into the marina. Seemingly focused on steering in the narrow passage, eyes scanning their surrounding but never landing on Wynonna, Nicole said, “She remembers, you know? She remembers, and she loves you, so I hope you meant it when you promised her you’d come back. We all have a past, Earp – make sure yours doesn’t break your sister’s heart.”