The telegrams come on the same day, early in the morning. Not terribly early, but either way Esther is the only one up to hear the mail poke through the little slot on the door and fall with a thump onto the floor of the hall. She'd been drowsing in bed for what felt like hours, watching the curtains drift on the breeze. It was warm the night before, and quiet, but all nights feel quiet now that she's the only one still living at home.
Through the open windows, she listens to the neighborhood wake up. A few weeks ago, the streets were filled with dancing as the high holidays came to a joyous end, but this morning is a morning like any other. The noises are familiar, comforting: the man two doors down starting the daily abuse of his haggard Model T. Women passing underneath her windows on their way to the market, their low, wide heels clicking on the sidewalk. The hiss and snap of the trackless trolley a block south. Somewhere, someone's playing music.
It's been more than two weeks since they last had a letter from Bucky, the longest ever. Frank has written exactly two letters, one from boot camp and one the night he arrived on his ship, but they've had a steady stream of letters from Europe. Sometimes they've gone a week without, and then a bundle of three or four letters come all at once - a happy occasion. Two nights ago, Rebecca had come for dinner and remarked that the Army was getting awfully lazy about the post, but that's all that's been said about the matter.
The little gate outside shrieks as the postman opens and closes it behind himself, and her heart leaps. A moment later, the satisfying creak of the letterbox, and the imagined thump of letters, too soft to actually be heard. Esther shrugs on her dressing gown, her hair floating around her head in a frizzy blonde halo, and pads downstairs. She sneers at the middle room as she passes through it, like most mornings - it had been her bedroom until Rebecca got married, finally, and it lacks both windows and privacy. She'd moved her things into Rebecca's room - almost twice the size as the hated middle room, with beautiful bay windows that faced the street - the very next day after the wedding.
Her parents are awake in the back room; she can hear them talking quietly to each other as she steps into the hallway. Her mother laughs, soft, and Esther rolls her eyes. The second and sixth stair creak badly and Esther jumps over each one rather than risk her moment of aloneness.
She scoops up the mail, feeling for grimy, travel creased envelopes - nothing. Letters from cousins, business partners of her father's, and one lavender scented envelope from her grandmother: endlessly disappointing. She drops the whole mess on the side table and violently reties the sash on her gown. Time for some coffee, if Sgt James Barnes is too important to write to his worried sister.
The front gate shrieks again. Esther pauses, and draws around on one delicate foot to look out the peephole. She sees the uniform first and for a second she can't breathe: for just a second she actually sees Bucky, his cap cocked just so on his head, just like the day he left. No wonder he hadn't written!
She yanks the door open, dressing gown be damned, and startles the hell out of a Western Union messenger coming up their steps. The smile slides right off her face.
She can feel his eyes move reflexively up and down, taking in the dressing gown and the frizzy halo and the bare feet. "Can I help you?" she asks, aggressive, and he blanches.
"Telegrams for Steven Rogers and," he checks the second slip in his hand, "Naema Barnes?"
He says her mother's name like it's a sound a horse makes, and she glares at him. Dimly, she's aware her heart is pounding, loud enough that he must be able to hear it, even from where he's standing two steps down from their door. She feels like she's been dipped in ice water. "This is the correct address," she informs him, and holds out a hand. He looks at it, and then back up to her face.
"Miss, I'm," he starts, and she sticks the hand out further, shakes it once.
"I'll take them," she says, and as soon as they're in hand she slams the door behind her and leans up against it. She stares into the dim hallway, frowning: wondering why the whole world looked so strange. The telegrams are crumpled up against her breast. The gate grumbles as the Western Union man sees himself out of their little yard. There's sunlight on the bare wood of the hall, streaming in through the windows at the back of the house.
She's going to feel so silly in a second, when she opens the telegrams and they're nothing. She'll tell Rebecca all about it tonight, when Esther goes to see her and the baby after work: how silly she was, scaring the poor telegram man like that with her bare face and night clothes. She'll tell Bethany and the rest of the girls at the Yard about it too, and they'll all have a good laugh at her expense.
She tears the cover of the first one, getting it open.
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT SERGEANT JAMES BARNES WAS REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION ON OCTOBER 8TH IN ITALY, AND IS PRESUMED KILLED. IF FURTHER DETAILS OR OTHER INFORMATION IS RECEIVED YOU WILL BE PROMPTLY NOTIFIED.
No matter how long she stares at it, the words don't change.
She sucks in a deep breath and sits down right there in the hallway hard enough to bruise her tailbone. She scrabbles open the other telegram but it only says the same horrible words, and she grinds both fists into her eyes and starts to wail.
She doesn't hear the door to her parents' room open, or feet pounding down the stairs, and for a second she doesn't even feel her father's arms around her. She's crying so hard her hands and face have gone numb from it, and she can't take a breath long enough to tell them what's wrong. But they know, they must know immediately, because her mother starts to scream, and they're all in a heap on the floor of the entryway of their home, and her mother's hair is in her nose, and her face is pressed against her father's bare chest, and their arms are crushing all the air out of her lungs, and the doorbell starts to ring.
It rings and it rings, and they cry and they cry and finally her father leans back and shouts, "Go away!" at the closed door.
Whoever it is lays off the bell and starts hammering on the door. "Go away, for the love of God!" her father shouts, and as long as Esther lives she never forgets the way his voice breaks on the name of God.
"Mr Barnes, I'm Private Capello, with the Strategic Scientific Reserve," comes a muffled shout from their doorstep, "I have an urgent message about your son James!"
Her mother chokes on a sob, and is up on her feet so fast she almost takes a hank of Esther's hair with her. On the other side of the doorway, Pvt Capello is young and in his hands is another telegram. He's panting like he'd run all the way across Brooklyn to give it to them. He goes dead white when he sees the three of them and the state they're in.
"Please," Mother whispers, and from the floor Esther can't help the whimper in her throat. "Please."
"He's alive," Pvt Capello says.
Everything after that is a blur of crying and shouting and laughing and more crying and more laughing. When she finally gets a look at the telegram it's the best thing she's ever seen.
PLEASE DON'T WORRY I AM SAFE. STEVE IS WITH ME. WILL EXPLAIN SOON AS I CAN. LOVE BUCKY
It's strange, though - she can't stop crying. It feels like an endless, depthless river, and it comes pouring out of her in between all the laughter and hugging her parents and hugging Pvt Capello, dressing gown be damned. It's all so stupid; she knew Bucky would be okay. Of course Bucky was okay, and he'd probably laugh like hell to see them all upset over nothing.
That's how she tells it to Bethany at work the next day, on a cigarette break, standing on the water watching train cars come off the river barge from Jersey. She leaves out all the crying, and makes her boring cotton nightgown a silk negligée, and Pvt. Capello a dead ringer for Don Ameche, only younger.
Bethany rolls her eyes a little, but laughs enough that Esther tells some of the other girls about it after lunch, and the next day when she's visiting with her cousins. For fifteen months it's a funny story, until abruptly it's not.
The whole family gets the rest of the tale a few days later, in a dour little building near the waterfront that looks like it got caught in the Blitz. There's paper stacked everywhere and Esther could swear there were bullet holes in the wall coming in. They'd heard about a shooting down here, a few months back: a man had fought off a group of saboteurs trying to infiltrate the city power grid. They'd come right near the Navy Yard, and Esther had been terribly disappointed to miss all the action. Maybe this building had caught some of it, which was a thrilling idea.
Pvt Capello escorts them to a waiting room, where the family is taken in one by one to be interviewed by a trio of very serious looking people in lab coats and one friendly looking man in a neat suit. The lab coats don't introduce themselves, but the man in the suit does, as a Mr Warren Bird.
"How long have you known Steve Rogers?" one of the lab coats asks, very seriously.
"As far back as I can remember," Esther answers when it's her turn, a little uncertainly. The last time she'd been sat down and quizzed about something Steve Rogers had done, she'd been in grade school and it'd been by her mother. She and Rebecca are being interviewed together, which is a relief; Esther certainly didn't wake up that morning expecting to sit alone in a scary little room with four strange men.
"Steve's been a part of our family forever," Rebecca says. She'd left the baby out with their mother in the waiting room, and her empty hands twist anxiously in her lap. She looks thin today, and tired - like maybe the baby is eating her up from the inside. "He and Bucky have been inseparable since grade school.'
"So we've heard," Lab Coat says, dryly. "And what, exactly, would you say is the nature of their relationship?"
Esther frowns, confused. The question doesn't make much sense. "Steve is Bucky's best friend," she says, and misses the way Rebecca's eyes dart down to the floor, expressionless. "They're like brothers."
"Now now," Mr Bird says, one hand lifted negligently up to stop Lab Coat from asking anything else. "There's no need to be coarse in front of the ladies, is there?" He turns a sunny smile to them. "What a lovely family you have. You must be very proud of your brother, I’m sure.”
He has a flat sort of way of speaking, like he’s from nowhere in particular. His teeth are very white and Esther feels a little better when he turns the force of them on her. “I see you’re quite the little patriot,” he says, gesturing at her shirtfront.
She brings a hand up to touch the pins there, self conscious. “Yes sir,” she answers, with a little smile. “Just doing my part.” A pin for blood donation, one for her participation in the rubber drive last month, and the red white and blue V for Victory! pin that Steve gave her a year or so ago. Her work badge just below it, forgotten when they’d been all bundled into a car that morning. It was a nice photo of her, at least.
“You work down at the Navy Yard, is that correct? As a shipfitter?”
“Yes sir,” she says again, and blushes when the man’s smile only broadens.
“We’ve got a regular Rosie here,” he says to the other men. “The Senator will be thrilled. How about you, sweetheart? You doing your part to win the war?” he says, switching that smile over to Rebecca.
Her fingers clench the fabric of her skirt. “I,” she says, and stops.
“She's married,” Esther informs them, leaping to the rescue. "She just had a baby."
"Motherhood," Mr Bird says, "the most important job of all."
Two of the lab coats snicker. The third rolls his eyes impatiently. "We're on a schedule," he says, and Mr Bird nods, like it'd slipped his mind.
So they ask: have you ever been contacted by a member of HYDRA? Have you ever heard of Project: Rebirth? Have you ever harbored seditious thoughts towards the US government? Have you ever met a man named so and so, or a woman named such and such. It's like something out of a spy novel, or one of Bucky's pulp magazines. It goes on and on until Esther's head is aching from it. It starts to feel like these men are playing a practical joke on them, which is confirmed when they're brought back out to their parents (Rebecca reaching for the baby like a lifeline), and a manila folder is slid across the table to them, with two photos inside.
The top photo is of Steve Rogers. So is, they tell the Barnes family, the second one.
Father picks up the second photo and studies it for a long moment, and passes it to Mother without comment. She lays it back down on the table after barely a glance, and Esther picks it up, holds it so Rebecca can see too. There's a stretch of contemplative silence. Rebecca rocks the baby, still sleeping, on her lap. The men on the other side of the table - in Army uniforms this time - stare at them, waiting.
"That's stupid," Esther tells them flatly, and her mother hisses sharply at her. "It is stupid, though," she hisses back, flushing. The man in the second photo has Steve's face, sure, but a body like Charles Atlas or a Coney Island strongman. It's a trick with cameras, she's seen it done before.
They knew Steve had gotten into the Army, somehow - he'd shown up at the house early one morning in a big rush, handing over the keys to he and Bucky's little apartment, and asking them to look after the place or pack it up if Uncle Abraham needed to rent to someone else while they were away. He wouldn't tell them where he was going - said he couldn't, with that little grin of his, like it was his little secret. He'd barely stayed long enough for a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs, and even that much Mother had had to coax him into.
"It's impossible," Father says. "Steve is - well, I don't know if you've met him, but he's certainly not - " He makes a gesture with both hands, but leaves the sentence unfinished.
"It was an experiment," one of the soldiers says. "One that can't be repeated."
"Have you heard of," - this soldier sighs, heavily - "Captain America?"
Of course they have. He's been in all of the reels lately. His posters and comics blanketed Brooklyn a few months ago. There's one outside the men's washroom at Esther's work, reminding folks coming out that disease is an agent of sabotage, and they should wash their hands. Esther has one of the nicer ones pinned up in her room, next to the Saturday Evening Post cover with Rosie on it. He'll Never Quit! it says, And Neither Shall We! Esther and Bethany had gone to see the USO show at Madison Square Garden only last month. Esther had wanted to go and get his autograph, but Bethany had put her foot down and said no, absolutely not.
Twelve days ago, Captain America had landed in England, on a ten stop tour to cheer our boys in service, one of the first USO shows to ever brave the front. Seven days ago, Captain America had gone AWOL in Italy after learning that the 107th had been decimated, and many of its forces captured by the Nazis. Three days ago, he arrived back in the Allied camp, having crossed thirty miles of heavily fortified enemy territory with nearly two hundred POWs in tow, chief among them one Sgt James Barnes.
"Well that - that does rather sound like Steve," Mother says.
The next steps are still in discussion, but Captain America is a public figure - and he'll continue to be. As Captain America's family has all tragically passed away, the Barnes family may be asked to participate in efforts to promote the war effort on the home front. They will be required to report if any suspicious characters approach them, or if they suspect they are being watched, or if someone tries to harm them. For their own safety they'll be monitored by agents of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which seems at odds with being asked to report being spied on, in Esther's opinion. On his ship, Frank is receiving similar information, and similar instructions.
"But what about Bucky?" Rebecca asks, and the soldiers all look at each other. One of them nods, and then turns to look over his shoulder and sends a nod to Pvt Capello, waiting quietly in the corner next to a metal door, opposite the one they'd come in. Pvt Capello goes into the other room, nods at someone inside, and shuts the door behind him.
"Just a moment," the soldier says, and unexpectedly smiles kindly at them. "We have a nice surprise for you."
"Are Bucky and Steve on the other side of that door?" Esther asks, and this time gets a reproving "Esther," from her father, but the soldier only laughs.
"Just in spirit," he says. "We've arranged for a call to our headquarters in London, so you can speak to him."
The resultant noise wakes the baby, and they spend a few minutes hushing her back to a sleepy, boneless state before Pvt Capello returns with a smile on his face, and ushers them into the back room.
There are seats set up for each one of them, huddled in a little ring around the radio, which is smaller than Esther was expecting, to call all the way across the Atlantic. The operator glances over his shoulder when they come in, and smiles at them. Everyone's all smiles now, like it's their special surprise too. Esther's gripping her father's hand so hard she feels she might break his fingers off.
"Copy," says the operator, into his microphone, and then, "hold the line." He stands up and pulls his chair back a little, gesturing for Mother to take it. She does, tucking her skirt carefully under her legs and then smoothing it down her knees. Her hands are steady when she looks up at the operator for instruction.
"It's connected," he tells her, as the rest of them take their seats, the men with the SSR standing a respectful distance away. "They'll speak when they're ready."
The radio squawks to life with a horrible burst of static, and then is quiet for a moment. Nobody breathes.
The last time Esther saw her brother was at the Navy Yards, three piers away from where she works every day. The day had become hot afterwards but that morning it was cool and pleasant on the water, and all around them were people kissing and hugging and crying. The baby was a month or so from being born but even so Rebecca had seemed absolutely enormous, swaying tiredly on her feet as the crowd surged around them. Everyone had come except for Frank, who'd been just finishing up his training all the way in California: their parents, Uncle Abraham, Steve, Rebecca's husband Sam, Sam's parents (and even at the time she'd noticed how glad they seemed, that it wasn't their son getting on the boat and sailing off to war). Bucky had looked so handsome, so neat and well turned out, and Esther could have burst with pride. He'd hugged her long and hard, and hugged Rebecca so carefully, and saved his longest and tightest hug for their mother.
"See you soon," Steve had told him, and Bucky had shaken his head and hugged him too, just as tight as the rest of them.
"Hello? Anyone there?" says the radio, with the same voice that used to read her stories and sing her to sleep. Esther grips the seat of her chair, tight. "I was told there'd be some Barnses on this radio."
Both their parents talk at once. Father in English but Mother with a torrent of Yiddish, half in tears. Esther opens her mouth but is cut off with a vicious pinch to her thigh. "They already know we're Jews," Rebecca hisses into her ear.
"No, we're not," Esther retorts, but Rebecca's already turning back towards the radio with one last angry shush. Esther risks a look over her shoulder at the men from the SSR - they're frowning a little, but not like anyone thinks they're German spies or something terrible, and anyway Bucky's answering in kind.
"Slowly, slowly," he's saying, "one at a time. The connection's not too good, I can hardly hear you. Hey, hey, it's all right, I'm all right. Mame, please don't cry, please?"
"They told us you'd been taken prisoner by the Nazis," Father says. He doesn't speak it too well, and he says prisoner in English. Mother gasps out a little sob, and Father puts an arm around her, blocking out Esther's view of the microphone. It doesn't matter - it's not like she can see Bucky, but she twists forward in her seat anyway, trying to get close.
There's a gusty sort of crackle, like Bucky's exhaled into the microphone, on his side of the Atlantic. His voice sounds strange: it fades in and out like an ocean wave, but even when the radio signal is strong he sounds ... different. "I'm okay now," he says. "You don't need to worry about any of the rest of it. I'm fine. Didn't they tell you? Steve came all the way from Brooklyn to save me."
"Is that really him?" Esther asks, in English, a little loud so maybe Bucky can hear her. "They showed us pictures. Is it a trick?
"No trick, Bug," he answers, and laughs. It hurts to hear him laughing, in a strange way; for a few minutes she'd really thought she'd never hear that again. "It's really him. I guess I'd know, if anyone would."
"Well," Esther says, "tell him he looks very handsome."
"I ain't telling him nothin'," Bucky vows, but faint over the radio they can hear Steve laughing, there somewhere, wherever Bucky is. "Yeah, yuck it up," they hear Bucky say, presumably to Steve and whoever else may be in the room with him, and something unintelligible in reply.
"Steve says hello," Bucky says, back to them, "and I'll say hello back to him from everyone. We got Steve to thank for this call - he's got some Senator who's trying to pin a bunch of medals on him, I guess. They're lettin’ us have the run of the place. The other guys are getting calls to their family too, later on, and we all got leave for tonight. Perks of being a celebrity. Second hand, I mean."
There's some muffled noise on the other end of the radio, like someone's talking to Bucky, but it's too low to make out.
"Sorry about that," Bucky says, after a moment. "I don't got too long to talk. They got a lot more important things to do with this radio than let me yammer at it."
"Are you coming home?" Mother asks. "Surely they'll send you home, you've done enough."
"I - I don't know, Ma," Bucky says. "They're still figuring it out. I don't know that I'm allowed to talk about it. I'll send you a good letter in the next few days and explain everything I can, okay?"
"But you've given enough," Mother says, and Father passes a soothing hand over her hair, around her shoulders.
"It's," Bucky starts, but the next few words are lost to noise: a sharp snatch of orchestra music, a few low words in an English sounding voice. "- don't have a choice," Bucky's saying, when the his voice cuts back in. "I can't go home without seeing it through."
There's not much to say to that, though of course Mother tries to anyway. "They sent us a telegram saying you were dead," Mother says. "You'd put your mother through that again? James, please - come home, we need you here."
Esther shakes her head, sneaks a little glance over at Pvt Capello and the other men from the SSR. They're all standing and listening, heads bent forward, like they're watching something important instead of their little family drama playing out over the radio. It makes Esther proud, to see them in attendance, with all the gravity Bucky deserves, him a war hero and all that. It's fitting.
It's so easy to imagine Bucky, what he must be doing right now, how it must be over there: the wry, indulgent smile on Bucky's face as he listens patiently to his mother over the radio, still as a statue in the middle of a swirl of wartime action. Like Humphrey Bogart, a cigarette in his hand, important looking maps strewn all over tables with serious looking Army men bending over them. Steve at Bucky's side, like always, but tall and strong and more handsome than ever. The two of them just as good as anyone, even if maybe they were poor and with Jewish relatives. Maybe even better.
"I saw - Ma, I saw a lot of bad things, when they had me," Bucky says. "The Nazis, they got weapons you wouldn't even believe exist. I can't - I'm not able to say too much about it. But we can't let them win this. It'd be the end of everything. I'm sorry, Ma. Unless they order it, we gotta stay."
"But why does it have to be you?" Mother says, soft.
Bucky's silent for a moment. "I don't know," he says, and he sounds tired. "But it does. If it was anyone but Steve, you know I'd -"
He's interrupted by a squeal of noise - this time from their side of the radio. The baby's woken up, and is squirming upright with a rumbly, displeased howl.
Immediately there's silence from the radio, and then a crackling noise as Bucky breathes out. "Is that - is that Becca's baby?" he asks, hushed. They all look at Rebecca and the baby, propped in her lap, and as if on cue the baby laughs loud and long. On the other side of the world, Bucky laughs back, and for the first time sounds just like her brother again.
"Oh my god," he breathes. It's hardly much more than a whisper. "That's the most gorgeous sound I ever heard. What's her name, Becca? What do you call her?"
"Leah," Rebecca says, and Father stands so she can take his seat, bring the baby up closer to the microphone.
On the radio there's a burst of static and then Bucky, repeating eagerly, "Leba? Her name is Leba? That's beautiful, Becca. Leba, honey, I'm your uncle. Welcome to the family, sweetheart. Oh my god, oh my god."
"It's Leah," Esther says, but Bucky doesn't hear. The baby burbles in Rebecca's lap, reaching for her toes, and Bucky laughs again. It's a ragged, watery sort of sound - distorted by the speakers and the millions of miles it had to cross to get to them.
Gusty, crackling silence on the radio. "Bucky?" Rebecca asks.
"Yeah," comes the response, quiet. "I'm here. What's she look like, Becca?"
"Like me," Rebecca tells him, and the baby grumbles a little bit in her grip. "She looks just like me. She's got the bluest eyes and she's so good, Bucky. She's so smart - she wants to walk and talk already. I wish - Bucky, I wish so much you could meet her."
"I am," Bucky says, sounding wounded. "I'm meeting her now. You got no idea how - I'm the luckiest guy in the world today, Becca. You got no idea. I thought I'd never -"
More silence. Faint, in the background, they hear Steve's voice: "Buck? You okay?"
"James?" Father asks, here at home in Brooklyn. "James, are you there?"
"My time's up - they need the radio back," Bucky says, after a moment. His voice comes clear and steady through the radio. "Please write to me. About every little thing, I wanna know about all of it. I'll write back as often as I can. And don't worry about us, okay? I got Steve looking after me now."
"You look out for him too," Mother says, as sternly as she can while she's still wiping tears off her cheeks. “You look after each other.”
"Can't help doin’ that," Bucky says, and sighs. "I love you," he says, in Yiddish this time. "I love you. And I miss you all so much more than I can tell you. I'll dream about coming home every night 'til I can. Every single night."
"You do that," Rebecca says, firm. The baby reaches out for the microphone and gasps when she has it in her hands, just the softest little sound - too soft for Bucky to hear, probably. "You come home and you meet your niece for real. You hear me, James Barnes? You get home safe for us."
"I guess I have to," Bucky says. The radio crackles again, a long buzz of quiet like maybe Bucky's gonna say something else, but it cuts off abruptly - no goodbye or nothing.