Betty pushes her drink around the top of the bar, idly watching the slick trail it leaves behind. A whoop from the dancefloor draws her eye; Gladys and Vera have both found dance partners, and are kicking it up with the best of them, skirt hems flying. They’re all in good spirits today, and a few drinks in, after the celebrations at the factory earlier. VicMu had made its five-thousandth bomb, and to commemorate the occasion had pitted the shifts against one another to see which could complete the most devices in five minutes (with dummy explosives, of course). Blue Shift had won, with now-rationed chocolate as prizes, and as it was possible there had been a few side bets, more than one member of Blue Shift had snagged a few free drinks.
Betty not included; she didn’t gamble, not after her father’s example, and besides, she could buy her own drinks. In fact, she thought, gulping down the remains of her Manhattan, what’s another? Waiting for the bartender to finish and come around to her side, she caught the eye of a CWAC leaning on the corner of the bar. Even after months, the sight of the uniform and the neat, dark curls made her gut clench, hot; but of course it wasn’t Teresa, just another pretty soldier. Betty gave her a smile, anyway, something about the way she leaned on her elbow, shoulder sharp under the pressed lines of her uniform keeping her eyes. The woman smiled back – Betty thought – maybe – and then a glass clinked down on the bar next to her and Reggie slid onto the adjacent bar stool.
Biting back a scowl, Betty says, “Drinking away the sorrow of your loss?”
Reggie snorts. “Not hardly, McRae. It takes more than one silly competition to best me.” She drinks from her glass in ungainly gulps, and Betty has to keep herself from making any remarks about her age. The CWAC has moved away from the bar, and Reggie seems to be settling in. Betty sighs.
“What do you excel in, then? Pie-eating contests?”
“What about you, farm girl? Corn-shucking?” They mutually glare for a moment, then Reggie knocks back her drink and thunks the glass back on the bar. “Arm-wrestling.”
“I’m good at arm-wrestling,” Reggie says. “I could beat half the boys on my shift, back at my old factory.”
Betty rests her chin on her fist and looks at Reggie. “Really?”
It comes out a little more disbelieving than she intends, and Reggie juts her chin out and says, “Yeah. Do you want a demonstration?” Her mouth is set at the corners and she’s already started flexing her hands. She might be baby-faced, but Betty’s seen her lug casings in the factory and remembers how long the shiner she gave Betty lasted.
“Yeah, alright,” she says anyway, pushing off of the stool.
At a high-top table, Reggie props her elbow, gesturing to Betty to do the same. They’ve attracted some attention at a beat between songs, and Vera, Gladys, and a couple of girls from Red Shift have gathered.
Taking Reggie’s hand, Betty braces her feet. Reggie’s hand is warm, smaller than hers; her nails are cut short and neatly clean. Vera rubs Betty’s shoulders like she’s readying a boxer, and a tall redhead from Red Shift has appointed herself referee, holding Betty and Reggie’s hands centered as she counts down from ten.
“Two…one…go!” Reggie’s grip immediately tightens, and Betty feels resistance in her wrist as she tries to keep her arm upright. At the press and press and press of Reggie’s arm, Betty’s first thought is that she, perhaps, shouldn’t take on challenges of strength when three drinks in; her second is that Reggie’s face, screwed tight in concentration, is like a shock to her system, intent and glorious.
That’s all she has time to think before Reggie’s slamming her hand down on the table and crowing with victory. Reggie throws her arms up in the air to the cheers from Red Shift; Betty rubs her sore knuckles. When she turns back, Reggie’s face is split by a gleeful grin, and her laugh is so delighted, so free of malice, that Betty has to grin back and hold out her hand to shake.
“Well done,” she says, finding it not even begrudging. If her pride smarts a little, it’s dulled by alcohol and by the wide spread of Reggie’s grin.
Excitement over, the group disperses, Gladys patting Betty’s back in consolation before being whipped away by a man in a navy suit, tie loosened just enough to make him look rakish. Gladys’s type, exactly.
“Buy the winner a drink?” Reggie says, bumping Betty’s elbow with her own.
“Yeah, alright,” Betty says, and gets them both beers. They don’t really speak while they drink them down, and Betty wonders if that was it, if that was all the camaraderie they’ll get.
“I don’t want to be in the factory my whole life,” Reggie says, suddenly, into the silence. Betty blinks.
“Nah, me neither.” Betty glances around the Jewel Box. “But it’s –” she gestures, to the rest of the gals from VicMu, giddy and sweaty, dancing and drinking. “It’s more than I’d have at home,” she says, reluctantly. Reggie nods.
Silence. They’re the only two in the bar who have slipped into this strange moroseness, sitting off on their corner of the bar. She does that a lot, she thinks: sits to the side and feels apart.
Draining the rest of her beer, Reggie thumps down the bottle and says, “Let me walk with you back home.”
“I don’t –” Betty starts, but Reggie cuts her off.
“Just say okay, McRae,” she says. Betty blinks; there’s a strange sort of urgency to Reggie’s voice, and that as much as anything makes her nod her head yes.
Outside, the cool air sharpens her, brings her senses back from the slowed, slurred place they had been. Reggie strides with purpose; Betty keeps up more due to her longer legs than any agility. The street is quiet, near deserted, but Betty finds herself scanning for any drunk groups of men, anyway, not eager to repeat her late-night experiences on this street.
Three blocks down, Reggie grabs her hand suddenly and tugs her into an alley. Before Betty can quite react, Reggie shoves her against the wall, and Betty’s heartbeat is hard and fast in her throat, bracing, but instead of hearing shouts, she just hears the muffled exhale as Reggie pushes close up against her and smashes their mouths together.
Blood throbbing, mouth sour with fear, Betty doesn’t react – can’t react – until Reggie pulls back, minutely, and the whites of her eyes are wide and bright. “What –” Betty says; Reggie doesn’t pull away.
“I – I –”
“No, I mean – what the –” Betty wants to shove her away and doesn’t; against her, Reggie is hot, heat from the drink and the bar and the press of bodies and the pride of winning thrumming on her skin. And she’s panting, like she’s out of breath, and each exhale skates wetly across Betty’s mouth.
“I – I’ve seen you. You’re like me.” Reggie’s eyes, wide, her hand still gripping Betty’s wrist, her soft baby cheeks bright with a sheen of sweat. Betty should shove her away; should tell her they’re nothing alike; should hustle home and not speak to her again. Instead she ducks her head, kisses her, and shoves her hips hard against Reggie’s pelvis.
Reggie’s body slackens, her grip falls away, and she opens her mouth to Betty’s with a pliant sort of eagerness. Betty spins them around, pushing Reggie up to the wall and shoving her thigh between her legs. Reggie bucks up her hips and moans into Betty’s mouth, a thrum that finds her very core.
She wants to tear Reggie’s trousers open, to shove her hand in her knickers, to feel the fullness of her breasts in her mouth, but instead she rocks her thigh hard and kisses harder. Reggie clutches her, her champion’s grip, and pushes back, teeth hard on Betty’s bottom lip. All her skin is humming, attentive, and she knows this is recklessness but it feels like bravery.