Spencer Hastings did not believe in coincidences. In her opinion, only the unobservant believed in them. Only the unobservant failed to notice happenstances clicking together like so many puzzle pieces. And only the unobservant went about their days without pondering the forces shaping their lives from a distance.
Coincidences were about as real as ghosts.
Maybe less real; ever since the Great War’s conclusion, Spencer seemed to spot ghosts in every corner.
"I wonder if Aria is going to show up," Hanna mused.
Within a few short weeks, the calendars would flip over to the year 1920. People would tick down the minutes, praying that the next decade would not be as blood-soaked as the last. They would drink their (non-alcoholic) beverages, and give thanks to the end of rations and frugality. It also happened to be the day before the four of them were scheduled to go on a sojourn to Boston. At Spencer's behest, they were meeting in the Hastings' residence. In this particular room, the atmosphere was sedate and elegant and Spencer did not trust it. At Hanna's question, she looked out the window and atched pedestrians going about their business. People ambled along, greeted their friends, and shivered even in their coats. A year or two ago, there would be a sea of people wearing influenza-repelling white masks, but these were new days
“Oh, there she is,” Emily said. She had always been the peacekeeper, and caretaker of memory.
Yes, there she was, some distance away but walking closer. Small, dark-haired, with a determined spring in her step. She had been in Philadelphia for several months- having rushed home from Iceland ahead of her husband- but they had seen little of her. It was understandable. The death of her father had thrown her family into considerable chaos.
“Aria doesn’t look like a married woman.” That was Hanna, who was admiring the gold leaf on her tea cup.
Spencer laughed. “What does a married woman look like, exactly?”
“No, no,” Emily said, quickly, as though she wouldn’t let this conversation wither and die. “I know what she means. Sometimes the married women have this… way about them. As if they're comfortable with their place in the world.”
“Or they look like they know their identifies have been swallowed up by their husband’s family.” Spencer snorted.
“Alright then, Miss Suffragette.” Whenever Hanna shook her head, her blonde tresses would come out of whatever binding she had placed them in.
Spencer tilted her head. “As though you didn’t celebrate when the voting amendment passed.”
Hanna actually giggled a bit. “You’re not wrong about that.”
The observation was cut short, as Aria was shown in the by the Hastings' servants. Up close Aria did, indeed, look much the same as before. She’d tied her hair out of the way, and there was an unobtrusive wedding ring on her left hand. Her clothing might be less conspicuous than it had been in their youth, but that struck Spencer as a result of wartime habit more than anything else. She still wore the expression of one who saw everything in the world, but gave very little back. Aria eyes were not- and never had been- anything like two-way mirrors. She was the reason they were all scheduled to go to Boston, though. She was meeting Ezra for his return, and their mothers had decided that the other three should accompany her.
“So,” Hanna said, smiling, accusatory. “You never did bring back any viking men.”
Spencer examined her nails. "You didn't bring back any for me either.”
Emily just looked at the ceiling, as though asking God to spare her from such embarrassing friends. “I don’t think there are Vikings in Iceland anymore.”
Aria laughed the way one did at a long-forgotten, but very dear joke. "I'll do better next time."
All the while, Spencer felt the letter sitting there in her pocket, and it was as obtrusive as holding onto a hot coal. Since discovering it, the find had had a place of prominence on her desk. She could recite it backwards and forwards and inside out. She could probably translate it into French without even trying.
Some weeks ago, she had discovered the letter among the things she brought home from Bryn Mawr.
When her parents had written to her of Alison’s death, she had tucked it into the owl shaped lantern the school had once imparted upon her (and all Freshman.) On armistice day- while all the world screamed and cheered outside her window- she had opened the lantern’s glass panels in order to light the candle and consign that small fragment from the Great War to flame.
Instead, she had discovered a different piece of paper, and a completely different letter.
And for different paper, a different message;
You were, by far, the easiest and hardest to crack. It’s not because you’re so different from me. Actually, you’re much too familiar. As much as I love looking in the mirror, it’s unnerving to see yourself reflected completely in another person.
To that effect, I will not spell out your particular mission (Look at me writing in terms associated with war! Well, consider this a call to arms.) Spencer, just because you’re on break from classes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your nose to the grindstone. Look around for what’s always been there.
Officially, I was cremated. I think my parents said that so no one would have to think about me rotting. They’re considerate in that way. Just know that secrets have a way of rotting one’s soul, therefore you must burn them away too. Maybe that’s why I put this note where I did. Call me whimsical.
P.S. Do watch out for Jason. No, not in that way. This saga might bear resemblance to a Greek tragedy, but I wouldn’t want you to go that far.
Spencer had read the letter just before this meeting. She had thought of blonde hair and spiteful, infectious laughter. She considered walking out the door taking getting on a completely different train. One to California, or one to Canada.
Instead she had folded the paper with careful precision and placed it in her pocket, taking it with her to tea time with her friends.
Aria, Hanna, and Emily all sat on the couch across from Spencer. The four traded leaden small talk, while the setting sun created long and eerie shadows out of the Hastings' furniture
“For God’s sake,” Spencer said, at last. “It’s like I’m a king and I’m receiving three commoners who’ve been told to keep three feet from me.”
Emily bit her lip, Aria sighed.
“Can you blame us?” Hanna rose to her feet and clomped over to sit next to Spencer. “Everything about you screams American royalty-“
“That is not true.”
“But I’ll sit next to you, even if I risk having my head chopped off.”
Yes, it had always been like this; Spencer and Hanna could be counted on to bludgeon a conversation until everyone dropped pretenses. After their little comedic exchange, there was a general loosening of attitude and posture.
They listened to Aria talk about life in Iceland, and no one asked what prompted the sudden elopement with her former teacher.
They listened to Emily talk about her ambitions to one day qualify for the Olympics, and everyone kept their peace about the careful pauses surrounding mentions of a girl who had worked in her wartime munitions factory.
They listened to Hanna talk about the difficulties she was facing meeting eligible men, and everyone danced around the topic of her father dodging the draft
And, of course, they listened to Spencer talk about her time in college, and everyone studiously avoided mentioning the tragic train of events that had led to her family purchasing the DiLaurentis manor. It sat next to the Hastings' home, now. Boarded up, possibly decaying on the inside. Jason was in town, but he stuck to his small apartment and spoke to no one.
They fell silent after they had exhausted the narrative detail of the past year. It struck Spencer as similar to the silence in a church before the communal confession of sins. Her impression only strengthened when she took note of the way everyone’s gazes turned inward.
“Have any of you received any strange letters recently?”
The effect on the room was as instantaneous as an anarchist’s bomb. Hanna nearly fell off the couch, and Emily seemed to shrink in on herself. Aria- steady, unflappable Aria- barely changed, but even after all this time, Spencer still knew her. She caught the way Aria’s eyes glanced down at her wedding ring and back up.
“Should I take that as a yes?” Spencer asked wryly, sipping on her tea.
“I don’t know, Spencer. Have you received any threatening letters?” Hanna squished a small pastry between her fingers, and dropped the crumbs on one of the Hastings’ plates.
“She said strange, Hanna. Not threatening,” Aria pointed out.
“Can we just say what we mean?” Emily said and, despite it sounding a bit like a wail. That being said, there was a hint of authority in her voice and Spencer noticed it. “That will make everything easier.”
“Yes, I got a letter, recently,” Hanna said. “It was a prank, though. Right? It couldn't be real.”
“Was it signed by Alison?” Spencer asked. She tried to sound comforting but the way she loomed over Hanna belied the attempt.
“Mine was,” Aria said, and with that Spencer’s world narrowed to her alone. “It had her initial, at least.”
“What did it say?”
Aria shook her head, and Spencer knew she would not pry that detail from her right now. “What matters is that whoever wrote it made me think it was from Alison. Did the same happen to you?”
Spencer nodded. At once all three turned to look at Emily.
“I don’t know why someone would pull such a stunt.” Their friend was wide-eyed, and she clutched at the arms of her chair. “I thought I was alone in dealing with this…”
Hanna leaped from her seat and puts and arm around Emily’s shoulders. “Never. Not with us.” She looked like she would punch anyone who disagreed. Spencer recalled that between her leaving for college and Aria’s rushed marriage, that Hanna and Emily might only have seen each other during the waning years of the Great War.
Which- other than forging a certain bond- meant that they must have been around for Alison’s final days as well. “What happened to Alison, exactly?”
“It was very sudden,” Emily said.
“She had the Spanish Flu, of course it was sudden,” added Hanna.
“It was so horrible when I got the letter about that,” Aria whispered, and Spencer wandered it would be like to be on a foreign island, knowing that nearly ever piece of correspondence received would detail the death of someone she knew. At least when Ian had died, and his body had been shipped back in pieces, Spencer had been able to take the train home. (She had had to resist the urge to spit on his grave, but that was another story entirely.)
Her three friends made a tableau of perfect misery, and Spencer felt like an intruder with her next words.
“Were any of you there when she, you know…”
“When she what?,” Emily asked.
“When she died,” Aria supplied, surprising Spencer. “I think that’s what she’s getting at.”
Emily and Hanna shook their heads. “We went to her funeral, though,” Emily said.
“Was there-“ Spencer swallowed. “Was there anything in the casket?”
“Does it matter?” Hanna asked, and Spencer expected her to drop a tea cup and trample it beneath her shoes. “She died just like half the people we knew.” With that declaration, she stormed out of the room, and out of the house.
Emily stood up. She was quiet, but no less troubled. “This is too morbid a discussion for me,” she said, and swept away to follow Hanna.
This left Spencer and Aria.
“That went well,” Aria said. “I guess tea time is over?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Spencer said, all in a rush.
“I know,” Aria said, and it lightened the weight on Spencer’s shoulders. “I’ve never seen you be cruel.” She paused, and grinned. “Not to them, at least.”
“What should I do?”
“We’re going to be on a train for hours. You can talk it through then.” Aria reached out and squeezed Spencer’s hand. “There’s sensitive information in all of our letters, I think. Add in how this is clearly trying to get us to hope that Alison is still alive and... well...”
“Hope does tend to breed eternal misery, doesn’t it?”
The hour before dawn, found Spencer rummaging through her father's study. The foundations of her house tended to be noisy by night, and each creak and groan in the walls made Spencer hurry faster through her task. She rifled through gathered pieces of correspondence, and placed them next to the letter from A. None of the handwriting matched.
There was a note stuffed in among other pieces of paper, and it made her heart clench.
Jason. Add to will?
Her world went gray and icy at the edges, whenever she thought about... certain possibilities. Somewhere in the house, the clock boomed the hour, and Spencer decided she was done with snooping for now. Her timing was perfect, because, just after she stepped out into the hallways, her sister whirled in through the outside door. Five seconds, maybe, after she might have caught Spencer. Even from this distance, the cold seeped under the door, creating invisible shackles around Spencer’s ankles. She did not relish the thought of being out there soon, turning into a human icicle.
“Oh you’re still here,” Melissa said, lighting a cigarette. The smoke wreathed her head, but it didn’t hide her tired eyes. Spencer thought her sister woke so early, nowadays, so she could wander the empty hallways, mentally playing house. Imagining a domestic sphere she once had, and had since lost. Sometimes she went outside, too, and Spencer imagined that must be for the pleasure of seeing a world devoid of people. It was dangerous, of course, and their parents had no idea.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Spencer said.
“Don’t be like that,” Melissa said. She hesitated and then offered the pack to Spencer. “Did you get the announcement from dad?”
“This is the first time I’m hearing about... anything,” Spencer said. And isn't that the story of my life? She set a lit match to her cigarette. The acrid taste woke her up, made the world that much sharper. “What’s going on?"
“He’s going to have Jason work in his company, despite there being dozens of veterans more deserving than him.” Melissa took a drag and red sparks burst into life. “Apparently dad did not want us to be surprised.”
“You had an idea?” The gaslights outside beamed through the window and cast a golden glow over Spencer’s elder sister.
Spencer stood as still as a marble column.
(“I don’t see why you’re reacting this way, Veronica.”
“What can I say? Caring about these things is one of the luxuries of peacetime.”)
“I overheard something once.”
Melissa flicked some ash away. “And you waited until now to tell me?”
“It was just a suspicion. Did you want me to burst into your room, yelling ‘our parents are probably keeping secrets again.'"
Melissa smirked. “The situation does sound like something out of a gothic novel, doesn’t it?”
Spencer hesitated a bit, trying to navigate their peacetime dynamic. She remembered the time that Melissa had written to her, tersely, about Ian’s death in a distant front. Some of the ink had been smudged, and Spencer had had to wonder if it was from tears.
Her memories were going backwards, like a cinema picture in reverse. Now she saw the time, early on in the war, when Ian and Melissa had both come home on leave. Ian had kissed her unexpectedly, Melissa had seen, and...
“How are you?” Spencer asked.
“Ah, the usual.” Melissa smiled in a way that showed off her teeth. Artemis might have smiled this way before unloosing hounds on Actaeon. “Still widowed. Still at odds with the world.”
Spencer couldn’t do anything about the former, but the latter… “It wouldn’t be that hard to continue working as a nurse. It doesn’t just have to be on the battlefield.”
Melissa gripped the banister, and Spencer thought she could see reflections of shrapnel in her sister’s eyes. “I only did that because of the war. What makes you think I want to continue sewing up dying men? Or listen to them moan about tear gas? My god, I’m just starting to shake the nightmares from that.”
Spencer thought of the time last week she had come across their father happily talking about how times no longer called upon Melissa to do such undignified work. How she would find a husband in peace time. How Melissa had seemed to shrink at each veiled order.
“All the same, I think you miss it.” Spencer said, never taking her gaze from her sister.
For a second Melissa held her hands to her temples, and she gave Spencer a fleeting fond expression. It melted away, like snow on someone's coat
“And you miss your little vegetable garden,” Melissa snapped. “But life won’t let you dig around in the dirt forever.”
“It was a victory garden,” Spencer said, almost stomping her foot. Sometimes her sister brought out the toddler in her. “It fed our soldiers, Melissa.”
“Yes, just before they inevitably were gunned down.” Melissa made a scoffing noise, and turned to walk away.
“You weren’t here when Alison died, right?”
“I was still in Europe…” Melissa turned to look over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised. “And I would be the wrong person to ask for tender details about her final hours.”
“No, it’s just…” It had been so easy to talk about the mysterious letter with her friends, but now the words stayed locked up inside. “We know for sure she died, right?” The instant she said the words, she wished to take them back. Sans context, they were baffling, at best, and downright delusional at worst.
Melissa just laughed. "Are you trying to be Nellie Bly?" she asked, before leaving the hallway.
And that, it seemed, was that.
For a while after, Spencer sat on the couch and listened to the clock tick, and tick, and tick. She had purchased a second train ticket for this day- without anyone's knowledge0 and mailed it its recipient with specific instructions. She wondered if he would follow them.
I really am like whoever sent me that letter.
When Spencer arrived at the train station, the world was in that strange place between deepest night and earliest dawn. The sky was a deep indigo, the train and the street lamps illuminated the gas poured forth from the train. As they said goodbye to their parents, Spencer eyed her friends with some wariness.
When they were alone, Hanna tugged on Spencer’s sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” Spencer blurted out at once. It was true, after all.
“Me too,” Hanna murmured. “You probably could have been more sensitive but…” A shaky laugh. “So could I.”
“And someone has to ask these kinds of questions, or we’ll never know.” That was Emily. She wrapped one arm around Spencer in a quick hug. Her profile was silvery in the waning moonlight.
“We’ll have time to talk all this out, at any rate.” Aria proclaimed, before climbing up the stairs and ascending into the train without a second look back.
Spencer clung the railing and hauled herself up after Aria. Even below her gloves, she could tell the metal was cool, dew-condensed. She looked back to take in the still quiescent city and the starless horizon. Squaring her shoulders, she stepped into the train, this space that would be her world for the next few hours.
Hanna yelped when they stepped into their compartment.
There was a porcelain doll one each seat; three brunettes and one blonde. And on the table between them there was a miniature box.
It looks like a coffin.
Wordless, they walked forward as one. When they flipped the lid, there was a fifth figurine. Blonde, and clad in a red dress. There was an influenza mask tied over her face.
“I’m going to be sick,” Emily said, and sat down heavily. She pushed the doll to the side gingerly, as though it might infect her with a disease as well.
Spencer immediately stomped out into the hallway in order to ask some questions about the dolls in the room. She didn’t ask her friends if this was what she would do, nor did she invite them along with her. After a round of questioning, all they could say was that a woman in a red coat had approached - her hair had been quite hidden by a hat, thank you very much- and she had paid a handsome amount of money for the setup. Had said it would please her friends immensely. They had such gallows humors since the war, you know how it was.
(Who was bold enough to wear red nowadays?)
The personnel lacked in essentials; no names, no contact info. Nothing that would let Spencer know for sure if it was Alison that had done it. When she slid open the door to their compartment, she pursed her lips and shook her head. Her three friends wilted visibly.
“If she’s alive this is something Alison would do,” Hanna said. She leaned back against the wall and folded her arms.
“Give us… party favors?”
Hanna sighed and raised her eyes to heaven. “No. I mean she would let us know in such a showy way.”
“She definitely enjoyed attention,” Emily said, and there was a hint of a smile on her face. “Sometimes I hated that about her. And sometimes…”
There was a lurching motion, and all four women nearly jumped out of their skin. The train’s gears were whirring into motion, and setting the train upon its way.
The rising sun coaxed reddish tones in Aria’s dark hair. “I’m guessing we should go to the dining car for the meantime? To calm down?”
Emily and Spencer spoke at once.
“Yes, I can’t be here right now.”
“Just remember that we can't throw the dolls out. They’re evidence.”
The two of them stared at each other in dismay and then amusement. Hanna opened up one of their cabinets and tossed them inside with utilitarian grace. “Better?”
Spencer ran her fingers over the roses placed on the table. The vase had a design of fish swimming in a circle.
“Should I count my blessings that we weren’t greeted by a dozen dead roses?”
“Maybe it’s poison ivy in disguise,” Emily grumbled.
They all snickered in giddy exhaustion. Aria asked the waiter for a coffee with something extra and was regretfully denied.
“I think it’s a shame that the whole country is going dry,” Spencer said, at last. Somehow, this comment made Hanna look even more uncomfortable than before. “We made it through a war, you’d think we could get to drink for our efforts.”
“Not all of us made it,” Emily said, as if from far away.
Aria propped her head up on one hand. “You miss Alison the most don’t you?” Her eyes were soft with sympathy.
“I miss a lot of people,” Emily sighed. “So, yes, it would be nice to be able to drink.”
“Can we talk about why we’re here, thought?” Hanna said. “You know, those godawful letters.”
It had been easy to decide in the compartment, but now they all traded glances and didn’t move. Not even to touch their coffee.
“Oh, fine. I’ll even go first.” Aria reached out and pulled her letter out. She did not unfold it. “What do you know about my elopement?”
“Were you pregnant?” Hanna blurted out.
“Hanna!” Spencer and Emily yelped.
“I’m sorry,” Hanna said, jiggling her foot a bit. “But I’ve always wondered. Ever since my mother told me you left.”
“She wasn’t,” Spencer said, and then blinked. “Were you?”
Aria shook her head. “No. I mean, when we married, I wasn’t exactly… Let’s just say I wasn’t some innocent fragile flower.”
“Are any of us?” Spencer asked, in a mock world-weary voice.
“So how did it happen?” Emily asked, keeping them on track.
“Well, he came back from the war injured. You knew that right?” All three women nodded in response. “God… He used to laugh about how he had agonized when he was drafted, but then he only saw a minute of action before being shot. I heard about his injury and went to visit him, and then I kept an visiting him. And, well, over time we fell in love.”
Aria said much of this in one breath. She spoke like someone who had not gotten to slowly savor a romance. Spencer ruminated on how part of the fun of a love affair was getting to turn over the details with friends. The war had robbed Aria of that, it would seem. At least she got to have that now, here.
“All that being said… as much as I love Ezra, I mostly married him in order to get away.” She lowered her voice, even though her husband was not anywhere on the train. As if miles upon miles of ocean didn’t separate them.
“Because…” Aria swallowed. “Because of my father. He was having an affair.” She almost snarled this. “Alison and I caught him. She was the only one who knew. He demanded I never tell my mother, and… I did. I helped him with his lie. But I couldn’t accept my loyalties being torn that way. I had to get out of that house.” The words spilled forward, like the breaking of a dam.
“Oh, Aria.” Hanna sighed.
“And, well, you heard what happened next.” Aria reached for her cup. (Her drink must be cold, by now.)
Spencer, Hanna, and Emily all looked at one another in mutual understanding. Aria’s father had died of influenza, while Aria was still abroad. Any chance of reconciliation would have to be saved for the after life, if there was one.
“Your turn now.” Aria said. Her hand shook, (or, perhaps, that was the train) and coffee spilled over the edges. “As good as I feel getting this off my chest, I don’t appreciate it being forced out of me by someone I can’t see. I think we need to act together to discover who sent these letters.”
“And that includes finding out if Alison is still alive.”
Spencer’s insides roiled at constantly pressing this suggestion but, at least, this time Hanna and Emily quietly murmured in agreement. By mutual, unspoken, decision they decided to shelve the topic until after breakfast. But discuss it they must.
“Can I see your letter?” Spencer asked Aria, when they had returned to the apartment. “I want to compare it to the handwriting on mine.”
“You mean you want to read it,” Aria said, with a dry smile. She spared the Spencer the need to justify by handing the paper over.
Spencer smoothed it out and laid it side-by-side with hers. Yes, indeed. The same wiry, spidery feel to the letters. The same barbed sentences, and lively accusations.
Remember why I chose you?
Also, I’m laughing as I write this. You always did have a thing for older men (something I understand) and a thing for teachers (something I never understood. I prefer to teach myself things!) This probably was the only possible outcome. We both managed to get away. I had to die, of course, but you might manage to live. Speaking plainly: You’ll be free only when you tell your mother the truth. No sooner and no later. Make sure you do it before someone else takes that choice from you.
Next to Spencer, Aria was sitting like a woman at prayer, her heads clasped together and resting on top of her thighs. Though Aria had always been subtle, Spencer still caught on to how her friend was trying to read Spencer's letter.
“Same writer,” Spencer said, at last, returning the paper to Aria. In response, Aria shrugged and handed her letter over to Hanna and Emily. “I’d probably bet money on that.”
“That would be quite a bet, given that you’re a Hastings,” Hanna said in an offhand sort of way. She was writing her name in the fog on the window.
Spencer opened her mouth to protest, and then thought better of it. Always wealthy, her father had managed to profit on the war via his manufacturing company. Every stitch of clothing that Spencer owned was paid for in blood.
"What does Alison- if it is Alison- mean by 'remember why I chose you?" Emily asked, cutting through Spencer's mental floundering
"Honestly?" Aria sighed, bunching up the fabric of her skirt beneath her hands. "I have no clue. It's something I wondered about when she was still alive. We had so little in common, and our parents scarcely knew one another."
Spencer turned this over in her mind. Alison had always managed her friendships the way supervisors managed munitions factory. To each companion, a different role; affection, contention, or the power gained through assertion of authority. Aria fit none of these roles, and her bohemian streak seemed to have confused Alison. However, Spencer mused, Aria was so very different that that might have been the attraction. Alison might have wanted to keep Aria close the way entomology professors kept exotic butterflies pinned in boxes.
“What do we remember about the week Alison died.” Spencer asked. “I wasn’t here.” It had happened during autumn, she remembered. When reading the news about Alison’s death, she had been curled up in a window seat of her dormitory room, watching autumnal leaves rot on the ground.
“It was awful,” Emily said. “She had visited me that day and seemed fine. I went to her house later than evening to return a book she had accidentally left at my house. When I arrived, her mother cracked open the window to say that Alison had taken ill and they weren’t going to let me in.” She forced out a shuddering sigh. “Ali was dead by morning." Or so they claimed. Their eyes all suggested this thought, but no one spoke it aloud.
“They burned her clothes out in the lawn,” Hanna added. “You could see the smoke all the way from our house.”
Spencer tapped her fingers against the plush material of the seat. “What I keep hearing is that no one saw her body.”
“No one would think to ask.” Emily explained. “The disease was so infectious, that if you heard about someone dying suddenly you tended to believe it.”
“Yes.” Hanna tucked a blond strand of hair behind her ear. “I was there when Jenna began coughing up blood on the street. The next day everyone in that family was found dead.”
Aria blinked. “I didn’t know Toby had died, too.”
“That one I know about. Somewhat.” Spencer interrupted. “He never died from the flu because, ah, he never returned from Europe.” She never spoke it, but the phrase Missing In Action hung there in the air between them. But maybe he had survived, Spencer wondered. Maybe he had returned home in stealth and poisoned his family, thereby taking advantage of his status as a man among the presumed dead. She tried to think on what she remembered about Toby, but she could only recall sad eyes and his hunched over posture. She hadn;t known him, not really, and now she probably never would.
It was no better when her thoughts returned to Alison. (Was it ever better to think about Alison?) She tried to picture Alison’s parents burning their daughter’s clothes, as if they were excising their child along with the disease that had- allegedly- claimed her life. Chaos followed in Alison’s wake, no matter how much people tried to paint it over. No matter how much they tried to declare armistice.
“Speaking of men who disappeared, Ali’s letter is about my father.” Hanna massaged her temples. “Specifically the effect he’s had on my mother. Thank god cowardice isn’t infectious, or I would be in trouble.”
“What did she say?” Emily asked. Below them the train shuddered and shook.
Hanna held her eyes shut for several moments “Since my father deserted it’s been and my mother, you know?”
Everyone murmured assent.
“Well, sympathy’s been low, because of him, and so has the money.” Hanna shrugged. “It got even worse when all the men came back, because mom lost her wartime job at the factory. I found out a few months ago that she intends to take advantage of the dry laws.”
Hanna smirked in a tired sort of way as she allowed them to work it out.
Aria got it first. “You two are going to be bootleggers?”
“Right in one.” Hanna whispered. She looked from face to face, as if expecting someone to slap her or lecture her. Something must have reassured her, because she squared her shoulders, instead, and kept going. “My mother tried to keep it from me but I told her we’re in the same boat and if she was going to be an outlaw, then I wanted to help her.”
“Is the letter blackmailing you?” Emily asked.
Hanna sighed. “Not quite. It does have a joke about how I'm too unattractive to marry well and get money that way. But the letter writer also wishes me luck.”
Spencer winced. The alleged contents lined up with Alison’s treatment of Hanna in life.
And If she wanted to see it, she would have been most unfortunate. “I loved her but she always tried to make me doubt myself. Whoever wrote this is trying to do the same.” All at once, Hanna stood up and opened the window. The cold breeze roared through the cabin, as Hanna tore the letter, held her hand out, and let the wind snatch the pieces away. This accomplished she slid it closed and sat down once more.
“Yes, I know that was dramatic.” Hanna smiled, in a grim, self-conscious sort of way. Emily reached out and touched her on the shoulder.
“Dramatic, but necessary,” Aria said.
“And Alison might have been great at making sure she was heard, but that doesn’t mean what she said was right.” Spencer said at last. Because Hanna was lovely; from the way she tossed her hair while teasing a friend, to her vivacious smile, to her resilient spirit, Hanna was beauty personified.
“Oh, Spencer, I…” Hanna looked as if she were considering laughing it off, but then thought better of it. “Thank you. I’ve missed you.”
For a while, they sat in utter silence. After a certain point the train came to a shaking halt, and porters began roaming the halls and explaining that there were engine troubles that could delay them for up to an hour.
Spencer groaned out loud.
“Easy there,” Aria giggled.
Emily rummaged through her things and handed out cigarettes; Spencer’s second of the day. This time, however, there was a small piece of paper wrapped around it. but as she lifted it to her lips she saw that a piece of paper coiled around it. Judging by the way Emily’s face went white and then red, she was not the culprit. All four of them huddled around and examined the short message.
I may have been too hard on you. You’re in luck, though. This delay will let you talk for a long while. Make the most of it!
They left in pairs, in order to examine as much of the train as they could, and try to catch the merest hint of anyone suspicious. Emily and Spencer searched after Aria and Hanna, and they returned just as empty handed. They velvety floor muffled the the clacking of their heels. The gaslights flickered and spluttered as they made their way up and down the halls. Some passengers had their blinds pulled down, and it was impossible to tell who stayed within them. No sign of Alison, and no sign of Spencer's invitee.
“I wish I could get the conductor to let us off the train, even if we are in the middle of nowhere.” Spencer murmured to Emily. “That way we’d definitely get to see if Alison is here”
“On the other hand,” Emily replied, “that might let A escape. Whoever they are.”
On the way back, she looped her arms through Emily’ She felt her friend lean against her. Oh no, I’m not meant to be anyone’s pillar.
“What did your letter say?” She asked. Her curiosity had long since clamped down on her, like a vise.
Emily clenched hard on Spencer's arm. "If I show you, do you swear not to kick me off the train?" Her laugh was more like a pained gasp. It was a laugh more commonly heard in battlefields than on leisurely journeys.
"I swear," Spencer said, without a second thought.
Emily handed over the folded letter. When Spencer opened it, the sounds of the un-crumpling paper sounded as loud as gunshots in the stalled train. Spencer glanced over the words, expecting taunts or accusations.
Instead, Spencer found verses of love.
Celestial visitant, once more
Thy needful presence I implore.
In pity come, and ease my grief,
Bring my distempered soul relief,
Favour thy suppliant's hidden fires,
And give me all my heart desires.
P.S. I probably shouldn't take credit for that. It belongs to Sappho.
Emily stared up at the ceiling. Spencer thought about the students at her women's college who found love with one another, and seemed to have no interest in men. There were terms about them, vulgar, or clinical and scientific. Terms usually spoken by people drunk on liquor and gossip. But none of those words seemed right for the happiness her classmates found together, and none of them seemed right for Emily. None of them diminished her urge to reach out to Emily and tell her nothing had changed.
"Sappho sometimes wrote about men," Spencer said, testing the waters, just in case she misunderstood
Emily gave her a searching look, as if to say well, that may be, but I would always write about women. She slid open the door to their compartment, leaving Spencer to follow.
Aria and Hanna were perched on the same chair, staring out the window. They truly were in the middle of the nowhere, swallowed by dull green, snowless fields. The few trees were brown skeletons against the chalky gray sky.
“This is nothing compared to the fjords in Iceland, right?” Hanna asked. “Or all the snow.”
“It actually didn’t snow quite that much,” Aria said. “I think you’re thinking about Greenland.”
“Huh. Go figure.”
Emily shot Spencer a certain look, and Spencer sat down instead. Emily appeared to want to steer the course of this conversation, and Spencer knew how to step aside.
“So, in my letter…” There was a watery sheen to her dark eyes, but Emily refused to look at the ground. “Alison reminded me about how I was once in love with her.”
Are you going to kick me out into that frozen world, now? her face seemed to say.
“You said 'once,'" Hanna said slowly. "Are you... in love with someone else?"
She knew! This should not have been surprising. Hanna, more than anyone else, seemed to have a better grasp on emotional truths.
Emily sat down, slowly, and seemed to relax the more she looked into everyone's eyes.
"Are you in love?" Aria, asked. And Spencer thought that belonging to certain artsy circles had likely made Aria more open-minded than most.
"I might be. I'm not sure." Sometimes Emily seemed to shrink within herself but now, even with tears in her eyes, she sat up tall and certain. Something within her had changed in the last five minutes, and changed for the better.
"You should find out," Spencer said. There were too many widows nowadays, and she would not have Emily deny herself affection. "There's not enough love in this world."
The time came when her three companions were all sleeping. Aria had her head resting against the window, and Hanna was lolled against her shoulder. Even Emily had her eyes closed, her expression perfectly serene.
Even if she had wanted to sleep, Spencer would not be able to do so. The clanking of the train would have kept her away, and fevered thoughts would have interrupted peaceful dreams.
Instead, she saw the opportunity to slip away, and she took it.
Rising with anxious stealth, she stepped out of their compartment. The train’s whistle hollered and shrieked, effectively disguising any noise she might have made.
In the hallways of the train, Spencer sometimes thought she saw things out of the corners of her eyes. When she looked properly, it would often be trees zipping past the windows, or small children peering out the doors of their cabins.
If trains could be haunted, this would be a good place to start. Of the men she knew that had never returned from war, so many had traveled away on these very tracks. So many people trumpeted advances in technology, and the new speed and convenience of American transportation. But what good was any of it, if it only hurried people to their deaths?
In the dining cart, Spencer noticed a man reading a newspaper and obscuring his face. Taking a deep breath she walked towards him. At the sound of her footsteps (as if he recognized them!) he lowered his reading material.
“Do you know how long I’ve been sitting here?” Jason gestured for her to sit across from him. He had ink on his hands from the newspaper.
The pair of them had grown up in such close proximity, that familiarity bred a lack of questions. But now she could see echoes of her father in him. And something about the way he was staring at her was like looking straight at a reflection.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t leave my friends until now.” Despite the distraction of her nerves, Spencer warmed at the thought that she wouldn’t have wanted to leave her friends until now, anyway.
Jason made a conciliatory gesture. “What was so important that you bought me a train ticket just for the pleasure of talking to me? Or, should I say, why such a need for secrecy?”
In any other occasion Spencer could have brushed it off, refused to speak the question. Out of fear, out of complacency, who knows? But she had paid a considerable sum for this, and she sensed that part of him wanted to be asked.
(Secrets have a way of rotting one’s soul…)
“I had to ask if my father…” Spencer swallowed. “Is also your father.”
“Who told you?” Jason asked, quietly, almost gently. It was a tone she rarely heard from him.
“Ali,” Spencer said. “But I only figured it out just recently.”
In some ways, there was little more to be said after that. They hashed out specific details (“when did you know?” “when did you know”) and then sat in uneasy, yet congenial silence.
“I’m also wondering about Alison,” she said, at last. "What really happened to her?"
"I wish I could tell you." Jason’s expression grew stormy though not, it would seem, because of her. “Something about her death doesn’t make sense.”
“I agree.” She almost wanted to reach out and grab his hands. “Do you remember that day?”
Jason shook his head. “Not at all. When I got home from the war, I was pretty fucked up.” He winced. “Sorry.”
Spencer brushed it aside, just as he had brushed aside her own apology.
“And I was drinking constantly that summer and fall.” When he sighed he sounded 90-years-old, and something about him reminded her of Melissa and her demeanor since the war. “There’s very little I remember. She was arguing with our parents a lot, though-”
“Oh?” Spencer leaned in even closer, eyes narrowed, holding her breath the way one did when they stared over the precipice of a cliff.
“They wanted her to get married, especially when there were so few young men left. She wanted to wear lots of red, and our parents said that made it seem like she supported the Russian revolution. And so on. Lots of conflict, over just about anything.”
So, she liked wearing red… “Who did they want her to marry?”
“I don’t know.” Spencer scanned his face for any sign of a lie, but could see no trace of one. Either he was telling the truth, or he played his cards incredibly close to his chest. Fair enough. She could understand.
“I wonder if-“
Spencer looked over her shoulder and met three very familiar gazes.
“Erm.” She bit her lip, and turned back to Jason.
“Is this your cue to leave?” If anything, he seemed oddly entertained.
“We’ll talk later,” she vowed. “There’s still more to discuss."
“Oh, isn’t there always.”
For this last leg of the journey, Spencer was aware that she owed her friends an explanation. She was equally aware that this could be painful. For the second time in as many days she found herself seated across from them. The first time she had felt like an interrogator, but now she felt like one soldier among many.
“Your turn, Spencer,” Hanna said, while Emily nodded.
“Don’t be greedy,” Aria said, smiling a little. It was then that Spencer realized all three of them were expecting her to confess about a secret romance with Jason. The thought made her laugh, and it almost cut through her fury at her parents.
Spencer dug the paper out of her pocket, and cleared her throat. “Be warned, it’s pretty damn opaque.”
Hanna, Aria, and Emily listened with glazed eyes and furrowed brows. Spencer suspected she must have looked the same the day she first laid eyes on it.
“She’s saying that Jason’s my half brother,” Spencer explained, sparing them from inevitable confusion.
At once she was met with three wide-eyed stares.
“Are you sure?” Emily asked.
“Yes. He confirmed it just now.” Spencer could no longer handle sitting down. She jumped to her feet and paced over to the window.
“How are you handling all this?” Aria asked and, oh yes, that was right. She had recently been forced to come to terms with her father’s own lies, too.
It was not an easy question to answer. Sometimes Spencer wanted to scream at her parents for allowing their familiar foundation to be built on quicksand. The war was over, but the walls were caving in, and they would all be too refined to stop it. Sometimes part of her wanted to draw Jason and Melissa closer to her, and say they did not have to carry on with the previous generation’s mistakes.
“I have no idea,” she said finally. Her voice cracked a bit. “None at all.”
“Spencer,” Emily said. And there was so much genuine affection in Emily’s voice, that Spencer felt her eyes burn.
“Come over here,” Aria added, and Spencer did as asked. The end result was that they were crowded awkwardly on the same row of seats. Emily and Aria slung their arms over Spencer's shoulders, Hanna reached over to squeeze her hand, and Spencer wound up laughing instead of crying. Thank god for small miracles
“I wonder if… A is telling you that we will need to watch out for each other,” Emily mused.
“Are you sure about that?” Hanna asked, incredulous, suspicious. "I think that's a bit too optimistic."
“Well, If we’re meant to be detectives, then I’d rather not go it alone,” Aria admitted, as Spencer and Emily murmured agreement.
“Alright,” Hanna said, “but which of you is going to keep the dolls? Because I do not want those things in my house.”
On the platform, a woman in red watched as Spencer, Emily, Hanna, and Aria departed from the train. They were going to be fine. This wasn’t the first time they had stepped into an entirely new world.