War Bonds

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by serenity_winner

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/211655.html)

It was the war’s fault that she was there, in dungarees and with all her wavy red hair tied back in a kerchief, her hands grubby in the crevices of her knuckles and palms, holding pneumatic tools she hadn’t known had existed two weeks before, wearing a gold locket with Tom’s picture in it the way his letters promised he kept what few pictures he had of her wedged in the crevices of the metal that held his bunk to the wall. The war was responsible for how the nails she’d always kept so nice were ragged at the tips and cuticles, and rimmed around and beneath with heavy black-brown grease; the war was why she came home to an empty house and cooked supper for one and jumped in the middle of the night at every unexplained noise and sometimes stayed awake until dawn, hugging Tom’s pillow to her chest and telling herself it was going to be all right.

She wouldn’t complain; she was a good girl who never complained. She just wanted God and the rest of the universe to be clear on the point of the matter of her suffering. She had done nothing wrong; it was the war.

She wouldn’t even blame the Germans, even though all the posters and politicians told her to. She’d never much had a head for things like this, anyway, and even though she didn’t doubt what the newspapers and newsreels told her, she suspected it was all more complicated than that. When she’d been home in California, it had been the Japanese’s fault, and now here in New Jersey, it was the Germans’, and after a while she’d come to the conclusion that fault was a complicated thing. So she did her part for the war effort, and in doing so she imagined that every rivet she tightened wasn’t going toward stopping Germans or stopping Japanese, but stopping war. Thus she remained cheerful and steadfast.

But she was only human, which was how she missed the last bus on the day she couldn’t leave the washroom because she was concentrating too hard on crying without making a sound. The long chain that held the locket with Tom’s picture also kept her wedding ring safe while she was on the job, and she gripped them both so hard that they left marks in her palm as she pushed a wadded-up ball of toilet tissue to her mouth and nose, muffling her sobs until long after she’d heard all the other women leave. She couldn’t let them see her like that, even though she didn’t know them that well; she couldn’t go out without wearing the same brave face the rest of them did.

At last, she pulled herself together and blew her nose, then transferred the ring from the chain to her finger again. She washed her face, hoping the cold water would take away the red blotches that had swallowed the freckles on her pale face. It didn’t, but she supposed it was all right. She’d never been what the boys had called a pretty girl anyway, and now the only person she had to look pretty for was in some great grey ship a million miles from her, so she told her reflection that it didn’t matter and walked away before her vanity could get the best of her.

By the time she made her way outside, the sun had already disappeared behind the factory buildings, and the shuttle bus that took the navy wives from the base to the factory and back had long since departed. That alone nearly brought her to tears again, except that that had been her fault, and she’d had enough self-pity for the day. Her feet throbbed in her too-large borrowed work boots, and her joints ached from the memory of the machinery’s rattle, but she could still walk, so she would. Four miles to the base, and another two to the house the Navy had assigned Tom when he’d gotten married, where they’d lived together as husband and wife five weeks and four days before he’d shipped out six months ago. She’d use the time to compose a letter to Tom, and she’d eat last night’s dinner cold at the table while she wrote it out on the stiff stationery Tom’s sister had given her as a wedding present. And then tomorrow she’d get up and do it all again, because she had to, because of the war.

She’d barely made it in sight of the factory’s gate when she heard the roar of an engine, and she turned in time to see a motorcycle round the corner. Startled, she staggered back and nearly tripped into the ditch by the side of the road, and as she looked back after finding her footing again, the motorcycle stopped beside her. Its rider dropped the kickstand on the bike and pulled her goggles up around the brim of her helmet. “You’re Patty, right? You need a ride?”

illustrated by serenity_winner

~*~

Truth be told, all she’d wanted to do when the motorcycle had pulled up in front of her house was to go inside and fall over, but it had seemed beyond rude not to invite her savior in for supper, and if there was one thing Patty had been raised not to be, it was rude.

Actually having Lou at the kitchen table, though, made Patty’s hands tremble as she put the roast in the oven to heat. “I’m sorry if it’s not any good,” she said, adjusting the dial. It was good, Patty knew, as she’d made it Sunday and made a plate of it for herself every night since, but she was plain and liked plain things. Lou, however, had dark hair pinned back in a very modern style and rode a motorcycle and spoke with an east coast accent and wore lipstick the shade of a ripe tomato, and thus was probably used to things far more cosmopolitan than Patty’s mother’s pot roast recipe.

But Lou just smiled and shook her head. “It smells delicious already. Mrs. Kingsley — it’s her boarding house, and she runs it like the Kaiser — cooks for us girls, but she’s lost all her tastebuds, if she ever had any in the first place.”

“Oh,” said Patty, smoothing her apron; she’d excused herself after they’d arrived home to change out of her work clothes. She supposed she’d had no reason to assume all the girls at he factory were military wives, but then again, she’d had no real reason to assume they weren’t. “So you’re not married?”

Lou shook her head again, sending her soft curls brushing back and forth over her shoulders. “Not even a steady. Yours is overseas, I take it.”

“Literally,” said Patty, and when Lou frowned, she clarified, “stationed on an aircraft carrier.”

“Oh, over— I get it.” Lou laughed, and Patty had to keep reminding herself not to stare. It was like she’d opened her front door and invited some exotic animal to dinner, a giraffe or a zebra, something slender and delicate that Patty had only ever seen in grainy newsreels from darkest Africa. She was astonishing, as narrow as Patty was round, and looking nothing like she’d just finished a full day assembling war machinery. Even her mouth was captivating, and Patty wanted to sit across from her at the table and just watch those painted red lips form words.

This was, Patty supposed, what happened to girls who grew up without many friends: they became strange women and terrible hosts. “Can I … would you like something to drink?” She tried to think of what her mother, herself a military wife, would have done, confronted with the prospect of entertaining guests. “I … well, there’s no tea made, but I could make some, or coffee, or maybe some lemonade; there’s no milk delivery today, if that changes your opinion on the coffee or the tea, or….” She trailed off, trying to think what else she might have to offer.

“Tea’s fine, coffee’s fine. Anything’s fine, really.” Lou folded her hands atop the table; even though they were short and chipped at the tips, they were as red as her lipstick. “Or something stronger, if you have it.”

Patty couldn’t stop how wide her eyes went at that, and she blushed as Lou laughed again. “No, I mean, I just don’t know if–”

“Honey, it’s fine, I’m sorry. You’re already so sweet to have me over. I guess I’m not very good at being a dinner guest.”

“No, no, you’re–” Patty took a deep breath and sat down in the chair opposite Lou, keeping the small, square, butter-yellow formica table between them. “You’re just the first guest I’ve had. Here. Ever. So it’s probably just that I’m not a very good host.”

When she looked up, she expected to see something in Lou’s worldly, motorcycle-riding eyes — pity, most likely, or maybe even disapproval at what an ill-mannered woman she’d had the poor fortune to come across. Instead, though, she found Lou reaching for her, moving to take Patty’s hand in her own slender fingers, which were shockingly cold. “Make a deal with me, you won’t tell anyone how bad I am at this and I won’t tell anyone how bad you are at this, and we’ll go to our graves letting everyone else think we’re normal?”

For the first time since she’d watched the horizon until long after Tom’s ship disappeared over its edge, Patty felt an unfamiliar noise choke forth from her chest and realized it was the sound of her own laughter. “Our secret,” she promised, and she squeezed Lou’s hand back.

~*~

She’d seen Lou at the factory before, of course — Lou was hard to miss, as she was loud and funny and always surrounded during breaks by a crowd of the younger, more daring women. Frankly, what had shocked Patty most about Lou’s first offer of a ride hadn’t been the offer itself, but that it had been accompanied by Lou’s knowing Patty’s name.

Patty had operated the majority of her life under the assumption that she was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. It hadn’t been her family’s fault, of course; her father and four older brothers, all military men themselves, weren’t shy in their adoration of her, and her mother loved her only daughter and all the things she could do with a girl that had been denied her with her boys. But they’d all been loud and she’d been quiet by nature, and as she’d grown older and the family figure that was ‘husky’ on her brothers and ‘chubby’ on her had earned her the nickname of ‘Fatty Patty’, she’d decided that her best course of action was not to draw attention to herself.

But Tom had thought she was beautiful from the start. He’d passed by her thinner, prettier friends at the USO dance and gone straight to her, and when she’d said she wasn’t really comfortable dancing, he’d sat with her and talked for hours until she’d at last agreed to let him try to take her out on the floor. He was tall and lanky, and the top of her head barely came to the middle of his chest, but he’d spun her around as gracefully as though they’d been made to fit one another, and by the time he’d walked her home and kissed her good-night on her porch, she’d known she was in love.

Six weeks later they’d been married, and less than six weeks after that he’d been gone, meaning that now she’d been apart from him twice as long as she’d been with him. She didn’t regret an inch of it, but that didn’t stop her from getting so lonely she felt Tom’s absence as though he’d taken with him some part of her chest. She’d thought she could keep this all to herself, and indeed she had done just that for months, not even mentioning it in her letters to her mother beyond variations on ‘I miss him, but I’m doing fine.’

Lou, though, was the pin that, removed from the machine, made it all fall apart. Ten minutes after the roast had come out of the oven, Patty had found herself talking out her loneliness over five-day-old leftovers, and Lou had listened to every word. The next day, when the girls all took lunch, Patty looked up from her sack of cold cuts on white bread to find that Lou had taken the seat across from her. The next week, Lou sat with her every day and gave her a ride home from work twice more, and much to her shy surprise, Patty found she’d made a friend.

“He’s handsome,” said Lou, looking at the framed photographs Patty had placed atop the bookshelf. One was of Tom alone, looking stern into the camera as the photographer captured his uniformed likeness for the US Navy’s official records; in the other he wore the same dull dress uniform as he did in the first, but in this one he beamed as he wrapped his arms around Patty, who had just seconds before promised to love, honour, and obey him in her new role as Mrs. Thomas White. “I promise, I won’t try to steal him, but if he weren’t yours … well, I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers.”

“Is that … something people do?” Patty set her grandmother’s silver tea service on the coffee table in the den, then smoothed out her skirt beneath her as she sat on the couch. She didn’t think much of hot tea in the afternoon herself, but it had been what her mother had insisted upon whenever they’d had visitors over after Sunday morning church, and Patty was bound and determined to continue that fine tradition. She’d been to church herself that morning and played the piano for the Sunday school choir, which she preferred to sitting through even the most well-meaning of the dull chaplain’s sermons about defending the faith and keeping the home fires burning.

“Just an expression, honey.” With a laugh, Lou sat opposite her in one of the den’s plush armchairs. Patty had made none of the decor choices herself, and in fact found whatever stylist had designed the standard base housing to have far too severe of an eye for her taste, but she couldn’t fault how soft those chairs were, even if she’d never have chosen to upholster them in white. Twice a month the base inspectors came around to make sure that everything was shipshape, which also meant critiquing her cleaning. “You must miss him terribly.”

Patty nodded as she poured the tea into the cups and added two cubes of sugar to hers, a slice of lemon for Lou’s. “All the time.” She ran her left thumb over the plain gold band on her ring finger; Tom had promised he’d get her something better someday, and she allowed that promise because she knew it would make him happy, but deep down her plain heart she hoped he never did.

Lou smirked, her red lips a wicked fingernail-moon over the horizon of her cup. “Especially at night, hm?”

“It is a little troubling sometimes, with a new house and–” Patty stopped mid-sentence and caught the way Lou was looking at her, and her cheeks went pink to beat the sunrise. “Oh! Oh, you mean–” She brought her hands up to the sides of her fire-warm face, though she couldn’t beat down the giggles Lou had drawn out of her. “Oh, you are terrible! And on Sunday!”

With a laugh, Lou recrossed her legs, and Patty couldn’t help staring. They’d only seen one another before during and after work, and as such, Patty’s entire understanding of Lou’s body had been tempered by how she looked in factory attire and the way she felt as Patty wrapped her arms around Lou’s waist and pressed her cheek into the soft leather of her jacket as they drove. She’d shown up for this social call, however, in a bright red dress with a sharp boat-neckline and a pencil skirt that rode above her knees when she sat, revealing her miles of slender legs beneath. “Babies get made on Sundays same as any other day,” Lou laughed, wiggling her dark eyebrows.

The quip had been meant as a joke, she knew, with not a hint of malice or venom in it — but something about it broadsided Patty, and instead of laughing along, she burst into an unheralded flood of tears. “Oh, shit, sweetheart!” Lou flailed her free hand for a moment, then set down her teacup, grabbed the cloth napkins from the tray, and came around the coffee table to sit beside Patty; she draped one arm around Patty’s shoulders and dabbed at her cheeks with the lacy cloth. “Oh, Christ, honey, don’t cry. Don’t cry.”

“It’s–” Patty gripped the napkins in her hands and pressed them to her eyes, trying to steady her breathing as Lou rubbed circles against her back. She wanted to say something, to promise Lou that it was all right, to apologize for having come with her own minefield, but none of her wants managed to make it into action. Instead, she let Lou tug her close and placed her head on Lou’s shoulder as she cried, sobbing out all the fears she’d managed thus far to swallow down both around others and alone. Of course she’d cried when she’d gone to see Tom’s ship off, she same way she’d cried the night before as he’d made love to her and promised her he’d be thinking of her all the time: controlled grief, just enough to let him know that he’d be missed, not enough to make him worry that she’d fall apart without him. Now, though, in Lou’s arms she was a wreck, and that was rude and horrible of her, to take this lady she didn’t even know that well and mortify them both by turning into this blubbering, sniffling mess.

Lou kissed her hair. “I am so sorry.” She smelled exotic, like some French perfume or powder Patty had never considered herself fancy enough to try. “It’s all right. Shh, it’s going to be all right.”

Patty clenched her hand into a fist until the ache of the gesture drew her back into some semblance of control, and she forced herself to breathe on command until her hitching sobs quieted into ragged but even respiration. “I’m so sorry,” Patty moaned, the noise muffled against the napkin, “I just — and you — you didn’t–”

“Shh. It’s okay. It’s okay, everything’s going to be okay.” Bless her, despite the mess Patty was making of herself, Lou never once let her go. “You cry your eyes out if you need to. Our secret.”

That, at least, made Patty laugh, though what came out of her mouth was more of a wet snort that even the napkins couldn’t muffle. “I just–” She took the napkin away from her mouth and was horrified to see a trail of snot go with it, so much so that she clamped it back to her face and bonked her nose with her fingers, sending a white jolt of pain across her face.

With a tug, Lou helped her to her feet. “Why don’t we go get you cleaned up?” she said, and when Patty nodded, Lou walked with her all the way back into the master bathroom.

Several splashes of cold water against her face later, all the makeup she’d put on earlier was gone and her cheeks were a horrible blotchy pink, but Patty was feeling much herself again — apart from feeling foolish, that was, though she did have to admit, she felt like that much of the time too. “I’m … just so sorry.” She combed back a long strand of her bright red hair and pinned it behind her ear where it belonged.

“Quit apologizing. Sounded like that was a long time coming.” Leaning in the doorway of the bathroom, Lou folded her arms across her chest. “Was it the baby part?”

Patty shook her head, then sighed and nodded. “We, um … we tried. Before Tom left. We tried a lot. It was what we both wanted — we both come from big families, and we … well, we thought….”

“Thought it’d be a little less lonely with a little someone to distract you?”

Satisfied that she looked almost presentable again, Patty nodded at her reflection in the mirror. “I’ve … I’ve only done that, that crying, I’ve only done it once, and that was … two weeks after he shipped out, my … well, my period came, and I….”

“Come on and sit down,” said Lou, and when she gave Patty a tug on her sleeve, Patty followed. She expected Lou would lead them out into the front of the house again, and was thus surprised when Lou didn’t take her any farther than her bed, where they both sat. “I only ever cry like that when my Aunt Flo doesn’t show up, but I get where you’re coming from anyway. That might be different if I had a man like yours, but … well, you could say that about any number of things.”

Patty spun her wedding band around her finger as Lou talked, and as they sat there together, he embarrassment shifted from being over her crying jag to being over her messy house; she’d overslept that morning and hadn’t even made up her bed properly before dashing off to church. “I just, I mean, I can’t believe, I invite you over and you’re not here five minutes before I’m sobbing all over your pretty dress and showing you what a terrible housekeeper I am.”

“Terrible housek–” Lou looked around the room, frowning. “This is bad? Honey, I’d love for my place to look this good. Mrs. Kingsley is always getting on me to pick up better and not leave my needles and thread all over the floor. I tell her if she doesn’t like it, she can just stay out, but, well, it’s like anything else she doesn’t want to hear, in one ear and out the other.” With the hand that wasn’t resting at the small of Patty’s back, Lou made an airplane noise and mimed the entrance and exit from her own head of some imaginary thing with an earnestness that made Patty giggle.

“You sew?” Patty asked, looking at Lou’s dress. It seemed too perfect to be handmade, but Patty had to admit, she’d seen nothing like it in the stores around here.

Lou nodded and tugged at her hem. “I just finished this this morning, so I feel like every time I sit down, I find another pin I forgot.” As proof of her point, she reached her fingers up along the seam of the skirt that ran up her thigh and pulled out a straight pin, which she deposited on Patty’s nightstand. “You’d think I hadn’t checked at all, but no, they’re just sneaky.”

“You really made this?” No wonder it fit her so well, hugging her slender body at all the right angles. The red was the same as her lipstick and fingernails, that perfect bright shade that someone meant when they said ‘red’ and meant nothing but. Patty brushed the backs of her knuckles up against the fabric, feeling how smooth it was beneath her skin, how warm it was from being so close to Lou’s body.

“I like sewing. It relaxes me. And it’s cheaper than going to a boutique every time I want a new dress. Before the war, I worked in a dressmaker’s shop, but the owner closed it down, so … I decided to do my part for America.” Lou fired off a salute that made Patty giggle again. She’d met people this carefree and funny before, but they’d all been boys — her brothers, mostly, and her brothers’ friends. Lou might easily have been a boy too, if not for how one look at her told the story of how she was every inch a lady.

Patty pointed to one of the three buttons that fastened the front of her dress shut, the one fixed on with thread a darker blue than on the others, because she hadn’t been able to find a match in the store. “I can sew, but … mending, mostly. Fixing, not making. …And I’m not even so good at that.”

“Do you have things that need to be fixed now?” asked Lou, and Patty nodded. “Well, just set anything aside in a pile, and I’ll come over sometime and do it.”

The enormity of the offer took a minute for Patty to realize, and when she did, her jaw fell open a little. “Oh, no, I can’t, that’s just too much–”

“Don’t be silly. Isn’t that what normal ladies are supposed to do, anyway? Don’t we get together and sew things and complain about men we know?”

“We quilt, too. I think we quilt. And cook.”

Lou laughed and squeezed Patty’s knee — a friendly touch, but there was something electric about it all the same, the way Lou’s slender, cold fingers felt through the thin cotton of Patty’s dress. “There you go! I’m a terrible cook. I’ll come over, you make dinner, I’ll fix your clothes, and we’ll complain about something together. How does that sound?”

“That…” Patty swallowed hard so another bubble of emotion didn’t burst in her throat and bring her back to tears. “That sounds amazing.”

Though Patty had every intention of moving them back out into the main part of the house, away from the part she thought of as belonging to her and Tom alone, they wound up sitting there for another two hours, laughing and talking, with Lou’s hand atop Patty’s knee all the while. They chattered on about nothing of substance or any real emotional weight — work at the factory, movies they’d seen and enjoyed, fashion and hairstyles — until Patty’s stomach rumbled and Lou broke into a fit of giggles. Patty hadn’t planned on having Lou stay all the way to dinner, but as she explained while Lou tried to make her apologies, cooking for two was so much better than cooking for one. The meal wound up being canned tomato soup and cheese toast at the kitchen table, and even though Patty promised she hadn’t added a thing to it, Lou still swore up and down it was better than when she heated it for herself.

Lou left when twilight had just started to coax the streetlights on, and Patty walked her to the door and hugged her good-night, then stood on the front stoop and watched until long after her motorcycle had sped off into the coming night. Summer well was on its way out, but the weather was warm enough that a few brave crickets still sang. This winter that was coming would be her first in the northeast, her first away from California, and she shivered to think of what her front lawn would look like covered in snow. She’d have to pay one of the neighbourhood boys a dollar to come clean her walks for her, and maybe to shovel it off her roof if too much fell. Or was that something that even had to be done? What would she have to do to survive a east coast winter on her own?

Or maybe she wouldn’t be on her own. Maybe the war would be over by then and Tom would be home, and she’d be standing in the same spot she was now, only bundled up in her coat, watching the plumes of white rise from his mouth as he swung every athletic shovelful of snow away. Since this was her fantasy and she got to say what was what, she folded her hands across her belly where a child would be growing then, hers and Tom’s, the start of their family.

Maybe Lou could be there too, helping out as Patty got bigger and bigger and less able to take care of the housework. She seemed so sad, Lou did, and Patty couldn’t quite put her finger on why that was true, but it was. She was bright and cheerful and capable of making Patty laugh until she got the hiccups, but beneath those lurked something else just out of Patty’s field of vision. When Patty had cried, Lou hadn’t tried to shush her or change the subject; Lou had let her cry, had seemed to know why it was important to let her cry. Having someone to take care of might help them both scare that sadness away.

So it was settled, at least in Patty’s mind, that Lou would be there then. Tom would like her, no question; they were both so alike, after all, so smart and funny and strong. Hands resting on her stomach, Patty closed her eyes and imagined her house full of people and noise and life.

~*~

Some things in Patty’s life just happened so fast that it wasn’t until they were well underway that she realized they were happening at all. She was going to have to amend that list to include this: standing in her house’s second bedroom with the shade drawn, holding up her hair, wearing nothing from the waist up but her brassiere, as Lou wrapped a measuring tape around various dimensions of her anatomy. “You have such beautiful soft skin,” said Lou as her hands stretched the tape measure along the distance between the far ends of Patty’s shoulders.

“I don’t do anything to it,” said Patty, trying not to shiver as Lou’s cold hands brushed over her flesh. “Well, I do take baths a lot, I suppose.”

“That’s probably it. I’d love a good long soak, but you can never get two minutes in the bathroom at the boarding house before someone’s beating down the door trying to do their own business.” Lou planted one end of the tape at the nape of Patty’s neck and stretched the other down to where the hem of her skirt began, then jotted the number on the little notepad she’d been using. It was full of numbers now, but every time Patty tried to see them, Lou turned the pad over so her measurements were out of sight. “Of course, I had three sisters growing up, so I guess it’s a lot like home.”

Lou was making Patty a dress, even though Patty had sternly insisted that the last thing she needed in the world was a new dress, what was she going to do with it, she didn’t have anywhere to wear it anyway, it’d probably just hang in the closet and collect dust. But for every inch of Patty’s stubbornness, Lou had three, and thus all her resistance had been called forth in the service of a losing battle.

Despite how appealing the offer of getting together again had sounded, real life just hadn’t cooperated: one weekend, Lou had needed to go home to see her mother in Delaware; the next, Patty’s period had come again, causing her to declare herself unfit for human company; the one after that, one of the girls on the base had thrown a bridal shower that Patty knew it would be only neighbourly to attend; the one after that, Lou’s bike had broken down midway, and she’d had to borrow the phone from the garage to tell Patty, sorry, this wasn’t a quick repair. Thus well over a month had passed since their earlier time together, and every day since had only amplified Patty’s worry that the closeness she’d felt had been a one-time thing. They’d been together at the factory every workday since, of course, and seeing Lou at lunch brightened each day for Patty — but everyone was friendly there, and there were other girls around too. Maybe Patty had been so desperate for companionship that she’d dubbed Lou her best friend without much consent on Lou’s part.

She needn’t have worried. The second Patty had opened the door, Lou had wrapped her in a strong hug and kissed her cheek. Lou had a grey-green duffel swung over her shoulder, and she’d spread its contents out over every empty flat surface in the guest bedroom. Her sewing machine had stayed home on account of its being ‘a real bear to lug around’, in Lou’s words, but she’d still come equipped with more pins and needles and thread and bobbins and scraps of fabric and patches and scissors and what-not than Patty had ever seen in her whole life. And somehow, Lou’s working her way through Patty’s pile of mending had turned into Lou’s declaration that her next project would be something in Patty’s size.

“I’m thinking green,” Lou said as she placed one end of the tape measure between Patty’s fingertips and ran the rest of it up the length of her arm. “And not just some pale spring green. Big bold green. Dark green. Something that sets off that amazing hair of yours.”

For as long as she could remember, nothing in Patty’s closet had ever met the description of ‘bold’, not even her wedding dress, which she’d picked based solely on the criteria that it: a) had been white, b) had been a dress, and c) had been in her size. In fact, it had been the only one she’d put on in the shop, and when it had zipped up the back without corseting her until she passed out, she’d put on her most enthusiastic face for her mother just so the expedition could be over with as quickly as possible. The idea of dressing to attract attention was completely anathema to her because the idea of attracting attention, period, was much the same. “I was … thinking something plain. A small print, maybe.” At Lou’s urging, Patty raised both arms and set them atop her head, holding her hair away from the back of her neck. “Nothing special.”

“Oh, no. Special it is.” Lou reached her arms around Patty’s stomach with the measure, and Patty resisted every urge to squeeze in her tummy fat, knowing that the more she did, the more uncomfortable the final dress would be. “You’re beautiful. You’ve just got to show it off.”

Patty felt the pink in her cheeks travel all the way down to the tips of her toes. “No, I’m really, really not.”

Lou frowned as she came around to Patty’s front and drew the tape measure just under the cups of her brassiere. “Who told you that? Because they were so wrong.”

Under Lou’s combined scrutiny and flattery, Patty longed for the floor to open up and swallow her whole — or at least to swallow her nipples, which had decided that the best response to being half-naked and complimented by someone as gorgeous as Lou was to turn into little bullets that stuck out in sharp relief against the white lace intended to rein them in. “Oh, stop,” she mumbled, turning her face toward the wall.

“Come on, who said it? Was it one of the girls at the job? Because I could give her a bloody nose.” Lou mimed popping someone in the nose, complete with funny-pages sound effect, then crouched in front of Patty and dropped the measuring tape from Patty’s hip to the floor. “I’m not fooling, though. Look at you. God, if I looked like you, I wouldn’t even have to put on makeup. Or stuff my bra.”

“Oh, I….” Patty’s face was hot, and she was sure that if she could have seen herself in the mirror right then, she would have been the strawberry in strawberry blonde. “I’m really not–”

“You know what I should do?” Lou popped back up to her feet, a move that had her reaching for Patty’s arm for balance; Patty tried not to gasp on account of either the fact of the touch or its temperature. “One of the girls on the floor has a camera. Well, she’s got a journalist sweetheart, and he’s got a camera, and a darkroom to boot. We should get you all dolled up like this again, in your nicest underthings, and take a few shots to send to that sailor of yours.”

Patty opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was a little mouse’s squeak, and as Lou rolled up the tape measure and walked away laughing, Patty found the end of the guest bed a very good place to sit down. The idea of getting undressed like this in front of a camera, in front of Lou, of getting those shots developed by some stranger and sent off to Tom, of what Tom would probably do when he saw them…. “Would, um.” Patty smoothed her hands across her lap and hoped that there wasn’t something about her appearance she was missing that might give away how damp her panties were. “Could … we really?”

Now it was Lou’s turn to look surprised — her bluff called, her lips in a big red O — but that melted away into delight. “I’ll sure as hell ask!” She clapped her hands together with glee. “Give that man a taste of what he’ll be getting when he gets back home. Let him know you’re thinking about him.”

“I, ah, I am.” Patty folded her hands in her lap, pressing them into the well made by her skirt as she crossed her legs beneath her. “A lot.”

Lou’s beautiful mouth quirked up ruby-painted side into a devious smirk. “Oh, are you?” She picked up a ball of thread that had come undone and began winding it back around its spool. “Has he got a lot to miss, then?”

With a giggle, Patty looked down at her hands. “Oh, yes.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, but couldn’t keep down her smile. “More than most men — or so I hear.”

Lou let out a delighted laugh and plopped herself down on the end of the bed next to Patty, close enough that the sleeve of her blouse brushed against Patty’s bare shoulder. “You know, when I first saw you, I thought, she looks like a good little girl, but I bet there’s more to that than meets the eye — and I was right! Look at you,” Lou said, brushing a curl of Patty’s hair away from her face, “just as bad as me.”

“You’re not bad,” Patty protested, because she truly believed that. In the conversations they’d had, Lou had made more than a few references to soldiers, dances, and having to sneak boys both in and out of her boarding house, and Patty didn’t have a speck of illusion about what might have taken place between both parts of that sneaking — but she’d never once considered that a slight against Lou’s character. It wasn’t anything Patty could have seen herself doing, especially not now that she was a married woman, but that didn’t make it bad. “Truth be told, I’m a little jealous sometimes.”

“Jealous?” Lou raised an eyebrow.

“That you get … touched. And … more than touched.” Biting her lip again, Patty shrugged.

Lou took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips, then shook her head. “Got another secret for you. I don’t think I’d mind if it … just stopped happening. Getting with men, I mean. You know what my dream date is? We go out, go dancing, go back to my place, he feels me up a bit, and then he just goes the hell home and I finish myself off. That’s how the nights usually go, even, except there’s always an extra step in there where he’s just got to stick it in, move it around a bit, and make some big manly show about it. I used to be good about playing along, too, getting all, oh, big boy, you feel so good, you big strong man, give it to me.”

The way Lou dropped her voice when she did her impression of herself, the way it got all husky and soft, made Patty have to cross her legs to keep her wet panties from soaking through all the way to the back of her skirt. “Used to be?” she asked once she’d managed to find her capacity for speech.

“One time I was so tired, I didn’t even bother, and you know what? It didn’t make a damn bit of difference.” Lou snorted derisively, then laughed. “So now I don’t usually make the effort, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think any of them notice. If I could just somehow … leave my ladyness there and go take a shower or listen to the radio, I bet any one of them’d just go on with out me.”

Lou’s take on sex was beyond alien to Patty, who’d declared to Tom (to his great amusement) on the third day of their stay-at-home honeymoon in their new house that if she could get paid just to do that all day, she’d do so in a heartbeat, and never retire. “They’re not all like that, are they?”

Shaking her head, Lou sighed. “No, not all, but … a lot. Most. They’re just….” With another great exhale of air, Lou lay back on the bed, and Patty followed her there, until they were both stretched over the lower half of the bed, hanging their legs from the knees down off the end. “They’re kids. They’re five, six years younger than I am, and they’re scared and lonely, and they don’t know if they’re going to die before they get the chance to do this again. So I think about that, and … I guess it’s not such a big deal, lying there, letting them … work it off. Forget tightening bolts on airplane wings; that’s my real contribution to the war effort.”

Patty laughed at that and gave Lou a little half-hug around her waist, and when Lou didn’t chase her off after that, Patty didn’t let go. Lou’s stomach was flat where Patty’s made two soft rolls, and her hand rose and fell in time with Lou’s easy breathing. “You’re a true patriot.”

That made Lou laugh as well, and the sound vibrated through Patty’s fingertips, all the way up her arm and down the rest of her body, until it seemed to settle right between her legs. “My point here is,” said Lou, turning to face Patty, “that if you’ve got a man that’s good both in and out of bed? As soon as he gets back, handcuff him to the headboard and never let him out of the house again.”

“Just have to get him back first,” said Patty, her smiling clouding over.

“Then we’ve got to get him some sexy pictures of you!” Lou reached over and placed her hand on Patty’s hip, just below the waistband of her skirt. “He sees those and I guarantee it, he will shoot down every Nazi submarine that gets in the way of getting him back home to you.”

Patty laughed again — and that was the amazing thing about Lou, that she could come into Patty’s life during a time she when she feared she might never be happy again and make her laugh, not just once but every time they were together. She was so strange and marvelous: a new song in a language that Patty didn’t speak, played from a building across the street, drawing Patty in with every verse. Only once before in her entire life had Patty ever met someone who’d understood her so quickly, who’d made her feel loved and safe so instantly, and that someone had been Tom.

With a quick sigh, Patty sat up and smoothed her skirt. “I’m, um, having feminine troubles today,” she lied as she scooted off the end of the bed. “Is it all right if I go take a quick hot bath? I promise I’ll be right back and I’ll make dinner after.”

Lou waved away all of Patty’s concerns with one delicate, slender hand. “Take as long as you want, honey. I’m not hungry just yet and I’ve got plenty to keep me busy. Go have a good soak.”

“Thank you.” With a little wave, Patty scurried off toward her bedroom and locked the door tight behind her.

Alone at last, the first thing Patty did was slip a hand down into her panties, and she nearly wept with relief as her cool fingers found the hot, wet center there; she pressed against it and little orgasmic tremors spread out all over her body, making her shake so hard she had to lean against the wall and bite the heel of her other hand to keep from making noise. It was good, but it wasn’t enough, and by the time she withdrew her hand, she was ready to go again. This was going to take some serious work.

She stripped off the rest of her clothes, flinging her sodden undergarments straight into the laundry basket, and started up the tub. As the water heated up, she went and got a hairbrush that she’d left on her nightstand, a plain one that she’d picked up in some dime store or another, whose short bristles had no hope of making their way through even her lightest tangles, but whose long, smooth wooden handle more than made up for any failings on the other half’s part. When the water was to her desired temperature, she dropped in the rubber plug, poured in half a cap of rose oil, and slid right on in.

Patty’s upbringing had been decent and conservative, of course, but somewhere around her twelfth birthday, she’d been washing herself in the tub when she’d brought a soapy wet washcloth down between her legs and nearly drowned herself with surprise from the electric shocks set off by the friction of that contact. She’d done it again, and had only just managed to keep from crying out as she came and came without even having a name for what was happening to her. Explorations had commenced over subsequent baths, first with the washcloth, then with fingers, and finally with a hairbrush much like the one she owned now. She’d been surprised at first just how much of it fit in there, and surprised as well at how doing so had never caused her pain, despite the horror stories the girls told at school about brides on their wedding night staining everything in a six-foot radius with gallons of blood. If there’d ever been blood, Patty hadn’t noticed — she’d been too busy on her back in the warm water with her knees and feet in the air, pumping that brush handle in and out of herself just as fast and hard as she could.

While her technical loss of virginity had been a worry when Tom had started calling on her seriously, she’d decided not to beat around the bush, and had just, one one of their long walks together, come out and told him what she’d been up to behind locked bathroom doors — and had watched with delight as his eyes had grown the size of dinner plates and he’d walked straight into a tree. Once he’d recovered from the jolt and she’d cleaned up the small gash on his forehead, he’d told her that that’d been about the best thing he’d ever heard a woman say, and oh, if she hadn’t been in love with him already, that would have done it a thousand times over.

She thought about his penis and where she wished it were right now as she slipped the hairbrush inside as a poor facsimile. Her mother had warned her gently that it might hurt and that she should be brave because it would get better with time, but the second she’d had him inside her on their wedding night, she’d never wanted him to leave again. She pinched her nipple between her fingers and thought about how Tom’s hands had shaken when he’d finally been allowed to touch his wife like that, how she’d teased him and told him that a girl built the way she was wasn’t going to be fragile. She wanted him here so badly, to lay his long, lean body atop hers, to hold her hands in his and move against her body until she couldn’t remember her name, to come inside her and remind her how much they belonged together.

This time, though, her fantasy was different: when she shut her eyes, she still imagined Tom on top of her, but she saw Lou just to her side, naked as she was and kissing her breasts. Patty couldn’t imagine that Lou would ever be amenable to such a thing, especially with the way she’d expressed her feelings about sex with men, but this was Patty’s fantasy and no one else ever needed to know. She braced her feet against the side of the tub and leaned back, making that hairbrush work hard for her. She could come just like this, she knew, from only penetration, but it would be so lovely to have Lou there as well, smelling good and feeling better. Patty wanted to kiss those lips of hers until the red paint was gone, leaving the flushed skin beneath exposed. With Tom between her legs, sweating and moving and making all his beautiful sounds, Patty could still wrap her arms around Lou and feel her breasts. They were so small, especially compared to Patty’s, but Patty bet they were sensitive. She wanted to make Lou writhe and moan and gasp just by sucking on her nipples; she wanted to see how many times she could make Lou come — maybe even once for every man in uniform who’d left Lou keyed up and unsatisfied. She wanted to make Lou say all those dirty pretty things she said to boys, only she wanted to make Lou say them to her and mean them.

Thinking of Lou brought her off faster and harder than she’d come in a long while, certainly since before Tom had left. She could feel her inner muscles pulse around the hard wood of the brush handle as she climaxed, tugging at her nipple even as she bit her lips together and tried not to make a sound. Tom inside her, Lou beside her — she’d never before wanted something so badly or with such crystal clarity. Of all the things she’d been given cause to dislike about herself, her very active sex drive had not been one of them, particularly not in light of how much delight Tom took in it. She was a dirty bad naughty girl who needed to be given the what-for, and she knew just who to give it to her.

At last she settled down into the water, much of which had been splashed over the side of the tub and absorbed in the bathmat, and pulled the hairbrush out of herself before its presence could get unpleasant. Already, though, she could feel how much her sensitive parts still wanted to be touched, fondled, stroked to climax again. If Lou hadn’t still been there, Patty might indeed have dumped more warm water in the tub and gone for another round, perhaps one with an even more detailed, narrative fantasy. Ah, well, that would have to wait for another time.

By the time Patty got back out into the main part of the house, Lou was deep in a sewing project, stretched out on the floor with a yard or so of gingham draped across her lap and a half-dozen pins pinched firm in the corner of her mouth. Lou looked up at Patty, standing in the doorway in a plain pink dress and with damp tendrils of her hair clinging to her bare neck, and her face broke out into that wicked grin Patty had seen earlier. “Good bath?” she asked, her words muffled by the pins but her tone still clear.

“Oh, yes,” said Patty, and though she couldn’t stop blushing, she found she wasn’t embarrassed at all.

~*~

From time to time, she could almost forget about what was going on elsewhere in the world. The radio said that bombs were falling all over Europe, but the bombs weren’t falling on her, and if she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that the news stories were terrible radio dramas, sad fictions meant to evoke an emotional response without having to represent reality. Tom might be away on business anywhere in the world, not just on an aircraft carrier in the north Atlantic. Everything might still somewhere be okay. Even though she felt terrible guilt for distancing herself from the fact of war, she had to, or else she might have fallen apart.

Even her best wishes couldn’t keep it out forever, though. She was alone at home that Wednesday evening, washing down the picture window that opened up from the living room onto their front lawn, when she saw the black Ford pull up in front of her house and her heart stopped beating. Out of the car stepped two men, both in uniform, both wearing grim expressions, and Patty used what little strength she had to open the front door ahead of their ringing the doorbell. Surely they had the wrong house, she told herself, all the while knowing that was a lie: men like that never got the wrong house; that was why everyone was afraid of them, because they were never wrong. Every woman who had a man she loved overseas knew what those men meant; every nightmare featured them, two regular human men, with their uniform hats tucked under their arms and identical looks of sorrow on their faces.

Patty didn’t remember walking the steps to her kitchen phone or dialing the number to the boarding house. The person that picked up the phone had an unfamiliar voice, a woman who sounded as young as Lou and had Lou’s accent but wasn’t Lou. Patty couldn’t quite remember what she’d said to that woman, only that her legs had given out beneath her as she’d said it, and she’d wound up in a puddle of legs and skirt on the linoleum floor, trying to her hardest to speak sense when the world didn’t make sense anymore. Whoever that nameless woman was, bless her, she’d managed to grab the gist of Patty’s otherwise incoherent call and had promised Lou was on her way over right then.

The drive from the boarding house to Patty’s generally took about fifteen minutes by car, twenty by bus; Lou was there in five. Helmet hanging from one hand, she pushed her way through the open front door, calling Patty’s name. Patty could only sob in reply, but it was enough to bring Lou to her, and Lou fell to her knees beside Patty and wrapped her up in a broad hug and stroked her hair. “Oh, baby, sweetheart,” she murmured against Patty’s hair. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Patty wanted to say something, say anything, but for the second time in their acquaintance, she found herself reduced to great wailing sobs in Lou’s arms. This time, though, Lou didn’t try to hush her or encourage her to get cleaned up; Lou just held her and let Patty cry out her grief. Patty grabbed for Lou and wound up with great fistfuls of her leather jacket, which she liked because she could squeeze as hard as she wanted and not hurt it or herself. There was one thing in the entire world that was resistant to damage, and it was Lou’s jacket, and so Patty clung onto it for dear life. As long as she had it, she would be safe.

Minutes or hours later, Patty couldn’t tell which, she’d cried herself so dry that she wasn’t even making tears anymore, nor did she have the strength left to sob. As she took a shuddering but quiet breath and came to a rest, Lou helped her up and guided her back toward the bedroom, where she lay Patty down on the bed and curled up right next to her, face to face. Exhausted, Patty still managed to place her hand across the side of Lou’s face, and Lou folded her own over it, squeezing it tight. “They– they came this afternoon,” Patty stammered, trying to force the situation into words. If she could say it, she could deal with it. “They came a-and they said … Kevin–”

“Your brother?” Lou’s eyes went wide, and Patty could see they were rimmed with red; she’d been crying too. “Oh, God, honey, I’m so sorry for you, I’m so sorry, but … I thought it had been Tom.”

Despite her weak state, hearing Lou verbalize that possibility combined with the actual news of her brother’s death drew another crying jag out of Patty. It was so awful, to be sad about someone’s death but to be at the same time so relieved it hadn’t been someone else. “No, no, not … not Tom. No.”

Lou let out a great whoosh of breath and drew Patty close, pillowing her arm beneath Patty’s cheek. She smelled of perfume and motor oil now, a combination that might have been noxious under other circumstances but on Lou was the most wonderful thing in the world. Patty lay her hand on Lou’s side, between her jacket and her shirt, and focused on matching her own ragged breathing to Lou’s steady, clean respiration. “I’m so sorry,” Lou said, and it wasn’t clear it she meant sympathy or apology, but either way, it felt good for Patty to hear.

Twinned grief and relief pushed her forward until her mouth was against Lou’s, and they were kissing, long and slow. She thought it might be a dream, and then she was embarrassed for having cried so much beforehand, but Lou never faltered or backed off. Lou’s mouth was smart and her lips were quick, and she moved from kissing Patty’s mouth to kissing all over her face, overlaying trails of tears with hundreds of tiny kisses. Patty wanted to protest, to explain, to make her own apologies, but she was so tired, and Lou was so strong and safe. As long as she was here, Patty would be all right.

She didn’t remember falling asleep like that either, but she shut her eyes and the next thing she knew it was morning, and the light was coming in through the open window, and Lou was gone but her leather jacket was still there beneath Patty’s cheek. Patty rubbed her eyes and sat up, feeling the residue of every tear she’d cried the night before; her head pounded and her mouth was bone-dry. She picked up the jacket and held it to her mouth, breathing it in before she set out to face the day.

Lou had breakfast going when Patty got out to the kitchen, and she explained as she put the toast and eggs on Patty’s plate that she’d called the supervisor at work and explained what was going on, and that he understood the situation. She’d also called Greyhound and asked about fares and schedules to San Francisco and back again. “And if you want,” she added, pouring Patty a tall glass of milk, “I’ll stay here and take care of your house until you come back.”

“You don’t have to do that,” said Patty, talking about the offer of house-sitting but really meaning any of it.

Lou folded her arms, spatula still in hand, and shook her head. “I want to.”

Lou even wound up being the one to speak to Patty’s parents, as Patty got only as far as hearing her mother’s voice before she broke down and couldn’t continue the call. She sat there at the table, holding Lou’s hand as Lou first told Patty’s mother that Patty was being looked after, then gave Patty’s father a sense of what the Greyhound schedules would be like. Patty pulled herself together at the end just long enough to promise her father that she’d be home as soon as she could be, but even that was a feat of monumental strength. She’d have to have it together by the time she got home, because her parents needed her to be supportive, not a giant mess. Perhaps the long bus ride ahead had its advantages.

They didn’t talk about how they’d kissed the night before, nor did they kiss again, though Lou barely let Patty out of arm’s reach as they packed and prepared for her journey — or really, as Lou packed and prepared, and Patty wandered through in a daze. Kevin had been her closest brother in age, only barely two years older than she. He’d been the first one to warm to Tom, the gentlest of the boys, the one whose heart broke over baby birds that had fallen out of their nests. He hadn’t been cut out to be a soldier; he’d chosen the life because his fathers and brothers had, and because his country had needed him. Now his country couldn’t give him back.

While Lou ironed her dresses, Patty sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a short letter to Tom, a process that took three times as long as it should have for how often she had to stop and dry her eyes. I love you, she wrote. Kevin was killed somewhere in the Pacific; they say they can’t tell us because of national security. I’m going back to California tonight. I miss you so much I can’t stand it. I pray every night that you’ll come home safe to me. She didn’t want to burden him with so much of her own sadness when she knew he had important things to worry about, so she told him again how much she loved him and signed it, Always and forever yours, Patty.

She didn’t set out to say anything in the letter about Lou, because she didn’t know where to begin, and she knew that right now was not the time to start that explanation. It seemed ungracious to leave her out entirely, though, so she added at the bottom: P.S. I have made a friend named Lou and she is going to watch the house while I’m away. She’s amazing. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I’m so grateful. She paused, then added, I think you’d like her. With one last kiss, she sealed the letter in the envelope and addressed it to Tom, then placed it in the mailbox and popped up the flag.

The next three weeks of Patty’s life might as well have happened under anaesthetic, for all she really felt or registered any of it. All of her crying that first night and morning after seemed to have gotten it out of her system, and though she certainly grieved with her family, she didn’t dissolve. She was strong for them the way Lou had been strong for her. After the funeral was done, she stayed after to make sure everyone was all right — yet even as she did, she was beset with a type of homesickness that seemed odd, considering how she was back in the place she’d called home for the first eighteen years of her life. But this wasn’t her home anymore; home was back east, the place where Lou was waiting, the place where Tom would return to her someday when all the fighting and dying was done.

She fell asleep as soon as the bus pulled out of the San Francisco station, and when she woke four days later, after what seemed like a million legs and layovers, she was at the main depot on the base and it was well past dark. Her house was only a mile away, so she hiked up her suitcase and started walking, and as she did, the fog seemed to clear. This was real; this was where she belonged. Somewhere between being Fatty Patty alone on the edge of the dance floor and going back to bury her twenty-two-year-old brother, she’d started living.

She turned the key in the door quietly, just in case Lou had already gone to bed, but she needn’t have worried — Lou, by nature almost as much of a night owl as Patty herself, was to the front door and turning back the deadbolt before Patty could even finish unlocking it herself. Without saying even a word of greeting, she tossed her arms around Patty’s shoulders and buried her face in the soft curve of Patty’s shoulder. Patty wrapped her arms around Lou’s waist and they just stood there together for a long minute, holding on for dear life.

Lou didn’t ask the obvious questions about how the trip had been, just lifted Patty’s suitcase and shuffled her back inside where, despite Lou’s horror stories about her own housekeeping skills, the place was spotless. Patty kicked off her shoes and didn’t care that they fell in the middle of the living room. It was good to be home.

Without comment, Patty took Lou’s hand and led her back to the master bedroom, and Lou followed. Patty stripped off her coat and travelling dress, then gave up and took off all her undergarments as well, until she was completely naked before Lou; she pulled back the covers of the bed and climbed beneath, then patted the pillow on Tom’s side. Someday she’d have to explain to him why it smelled like perfume and motor oil, but someday she’d have to explain all of this to him anyway, so that was all right. With a quiet smile, Lou took off all her clothes, folding each piece neatly over the chair in the corner, and turned off the light before getting into bed as well.

Patty was horny and hungry and lonely and relieved and so many things all at once, but mostly she was exhausted. She took Lou’s arm and turned away from her, until they were both facing the same direction and Lou’s bare breasts pushed up against Patty’s back. Lou hugged Patty’s waist where Patty had placed her arm, and Patty closed her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re back,” Lou said, her lips brushing the back of Patty’s ear.

“I thought about you every day,” Patty said, her voice barely louder that a whisper but resonant in the quiet dark.

Lou kissed the back of her neck. “So did I.”

Patty took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Stay here. With me.”

There was a pause, and then Lou hugged her tight. “I’d love to,” she said, and every word was a puff of warm air against Patty’s skin.

~*~

She slept the whole next day through, waking up only twice while the sun was still up, once to use the bathroom, and once to find something to nibble in the kitchen. The bus had made her motion-sick to the point wher she’d barely eaten anything the whole trip home, but now that she was steady again, she was starving. She found three chicken sandwiches with mayonnaise on a plate in the icebox, with a dishtowel over them and a note on top of that which read Off to work, but we’ll have the weekend! See you when I get home. –L. Patty ate all three without really tasting them, drank two tall glasses of cold milk, and went back to the bedroom to fall right asleep again.

The noise of Lou’s motorcycle in the driveway woke her some hours later, and Patty sat up in bed, still naked. She ran her fingers back through her hair, wincing as they hit snags only a few inches in. She was a mess, but she was home again, and could be a mess if she wanted. What was remarkable, though, was that for the first time she could remmeber since the men had come to her door that awful evening, she didn’t feel like rolling over and going right back to sleep at the first opportunity. She was awake and, what was more, she wanted to be. She’d spent the past several weeks waking up, getting dressed, and performing tasks not because she had ever once wanted to, but because all those things were things she’d needed to do. She’d imagined herself as being like Tom, a good soldier, following orders even when they broke her heart. But now she was back where she belonged, and though she still carried her grief, she no longer felt swaddled in it, wrapped and smothered until the best she could hope for was hibernation. The world kept going.

Despite her best efforts to rouse herself, though, she was still finding her feet when Lou walked back into the bedroom, still in her work clothes and jacket, her goggles pushing back her windblown hair. “Good morning, sunshine,” Lou said, hanging her helmet on the hook by the closet door where Tom had sometimes kept his uniform cap. Her jacket and goggles went just beneath it, and then she was there, really there, and Patty rushed toward her and threw her arms around Lou’s waist, resting her cheek against Lou’s shoulder.

The euphoria of the embrace was short-lived, though, as Lou’s overalls had metal buttons on them that had just come in from a windy ride on a cool autumn day, and Patty still wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing; thus, after barely a second’s hug, Patty yelped and stepped back, rubbing the tops of her breasts where she’d most felt the frost. “Cold!”

Lou laughed and unhooked the straps, letting them fall back over her shoulders and exposing the grubby white shirt she wore underneath. Lou wasn’t wearing a bra now, Patty could tell, as she’d long been envious of Lou’s ability to go out into the world without heavy-duty architectural support around her chest. Seeing the suggestions of where Lou’s nipples were in soft relief beneath the fabric sent Patty’s brain ablaze. She’d gone over a month now without an orgasm, which was ten times longer than she’d preciously gone without one since she’d figured out how to make them happen, and seeing Lou like this made her realize just how long a month really was. “I’d better get cleaned up, huh?” Lou scratched her dark hair loose from its tight wave. “At least get into something less filthy.”

“Sure,” said Patty, and she took another step back, clearing the way for Lou to get to the bathroom. Her dressing-gown lay draped over the end of the bed from where she’d tossed it off after her earlier kitchen venture, and she put it on again, tying the cord snug around her waist. “Want me to start dinner?”

“If you’re hungry, yeah. That’d be great.” With a grin, Lou reached for the hem of her shirt and pulled it up over her head, revealing without question how little she was wearing beneath. Patty hadn’t gotten a good look that night before she’d left, owing to a whole host of distractions, and she couldn’t help staring. Lou’s breasts were small and of the same nut-brown shade as the rest of her skin, and her nipples were pert and darker. Black tufts poked out from beneath her armpits, darker than the rest of her hair. Her frame was boyish in a lot of ways, but only so far as it highlighted how much womanly the rest of it was, and Patty wanted more than anything to touch her.

Instead, she smiled and folded her hands in front of her, and Lou gave her a pat on her shoulder before walking off into the master bathroom and shutting the door. Patty realized that she hadn’t told Lou where to sleep or which facilities to use, and as such she surprised herself at how pleased she was to find that the guest bed was still made (and covered with Lou’s sewing implements) and the hall bathroom looked as neat as it had the day Patty had made it that way. No one could take Tom’s place, of course, and she never wanted anyone to, but … having someone there with her to fill the space, to keep it warm, that was a comfort beyond measure.

On inspection, her pantry and refrigerator appeared to be much in the same order as that in which they’d been left. She wondered if Lou had gone shopping on the base or if she’d had to go into town; probably the latter, as Patty hadn’t actually spoken to anyone before she’d set out for California, and therefore no one had been warned that the part of Mrs. Patricia White would be played by one Miss Louisa Ward for the forseeable future. Patty wondered if Lou had met anyone in the area during Patty’s absence — surely she’d had to explain her presence in the Whites’ house a time or two, but that wasn’t the same as meeting people. Not for the first time, she wished she hadn’t been in such a mad fog before leaving, or else she might have realized exactly what an offer Lou had made for her. Could Patty truly claim that if (God forbid) their places had been reversed, she would have done the same?

The clock on the wall told her it was well past seven in the evening, but she’d just woken up, and thus she declared it time for breakfast. She didn’t have quite the resources to make a full breakfast — Lou had been shopping for only one, after all — but she could still make the best of it. Into the pan went butter and bacon, and she cracked eggs to whisk with milk in a bowl. Before she could pour them into the skillet, though, her eye caught on something fixed to the front of the icebox: a letter to her, bearing the customary postage and stamp declaring that its contents had been checked for coded material by military censors and found safe.

She put down her cooking implements, turned off the gas on the burner, and sat down at the table. The end of a butter knife slit open the top, and out fell two pages filled front and back with Tom’s cramped print. Dear sweet beautiful lovely Patty, it began, and Patty felt her eyes prick with tears as she imagined Tom’s voice saying those words — though not tears of grief now, but of happiness and longing. He’d dedicated the whole first letter to recounting his memories of Kevin, writing about how pleased he’d been to be able to call Kevin family, even if only for a short while. Tom was closer in age to her third brother, John, but he and Kevin had enjoyed giving one another a delightful hard time over Tom’s marrying Patty. He was a fine man and a good brother, Patty read, and then she needed to stop to grab a napkin and wipe her eyes before she could continue.

The rest of the letter was much as his letters ever were: reminding her just how much he loved her and missed her, and telling her how often she was in his thoughts. They’d both learned to keep their letters simple, lest comments about what had happened that day incurred the black strikethroughs of men trained to suss out even the slightest hint of espionage, and as such long declarations of love were both common and welcome from Tom’s end. In particular, he seemed pleased by the news of Lou: I’m glad you have a friend to be with you. I worry that you might be too lonely without me, and don’t want you to be lonely ever. If you like her I am certain I would too. The letter concluded, I know you have to go back to California now for a time, and so I wait patiently until your next letter and go to sleep every night wishing you were in my arms. All my love, Tom.

Patty read the letter three times through, committing every word to memory, and became so distracted that she lost all track of time until Lou came padding into the kitchen, wearing a pair of loose men’s pajama pants and a t-shirt, tucking a towel snug around her hair. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” said Patty, scooting out from the table and turning back to the stove; she fired up the burner and took up the whisk again. “I got distracted.”

“Don’t worry,” Lou said, smiling at the open letter on the table. “You need a hand?”

“Absolutely not. You sit right down.” Patty pointed to a seat with authoritative fervor, then broke into giggles as Lou saluted and obeyed.

The bacon cooked quickly, and Patty lifted the pieces from the pan with a fork, then poured the eggs over the greasy remains. “So, did I miss anything important?”

Lou shook her head. “Pretty quiet on the home front. June’s engaged and Willa’s expecting, and Hilma’s husband Bernie took a bullet but lived to tell the tale, so they’re sending him home. The lady across the street, Mrs. Barker, every time she looked at me I swear she was thinking about calling the cops, until one day I got her cat out of a tree, and now she thinks I’m Mrs. Jesus. My mother seems convinced that my middle sister’s twins both have some nasty swamp disease, which probably isn’t true, but she still resents my sister’s husband for moving them to Florida. You’ve got two stray cats, one tabby and one grey, that like it when I leave scraps of chicken on the back stoop. …It’s kind of a nice change for me, stepping into this normal married life that’s got everything but the husband.”

Patty scooped eggs and bacon onto plates as Lou talked, then toasted and buttered three pieces of white bread each and topped the whole meal off with good dashes of salt and pepper. She felt a bit awkward realizing that the portions she’d dispensed were so uneven, but she was starving and Lou ate like a bird even under the best of conditions. “And here I was afraid it might have been strange and lonely for you.”

“Not in a bad way,” said Lou, who picked up a piece of bacon with her fingers and bit the end. “When I was younger, I thought about being like this — married, a house, kids, or at least kids on the way — and it was like if someone had asked me if I wanted to live the rest of my life in concrete shoes. So I ran for the biggest city in the vicinity and swore I’d do whatever I wanted. And I don’t regret it, but … I like your life too.”

With a smile, Patty reached across the table and took Lou’s hand with her own. “I can’t tell you how much better it is with you in it.”

Lou took a deep breath and let it out in a rush of air that included the words, “Good, because I already moved out of the boarding house and brought all my stuff here and I can leave again if you want and I swear I was planning to but–”

Patty squeezed Lou’s fingers, cutting her off mid-sentence. “Stay,” she said, an offer and a plea at once, and there were no words for how happy she felt when Lou turned those dark eyes on her and nodded.

They finished their breakfast-for-dinner and put the dishes in the sink, and then there in the kitchen, wearing only a robe and with her fingers still damp from the faucet, Patty touched Lou’s face with her hands and kissed her. She’d thought about this in her few conscious moments on the trip to California, had imagined a million ways she might have orchestrated events to come to this point, but in the end it was only as simple as doing it. Fresh from the shower and without makeup, Lou’s face was as beautiful in its natural state as it ever was all done up, and when Patty kissed her rose-brown lips, she was delighted to feel Lou kiss back.

The kitchen windows faced only the garage and a high fence, but having them at all still made Patty nervous, and when she pulled back from the kiss, she took Lou’s hand and tugged her toward the bedroom. “Come on,” she said, leading the way as Lou followed close behind.

When they got to the bedroom, Patty shut the door behind them but didn’t switch on the lamp, leaving the only light in the room the yellow-white glow from the streetlamps beyond the curtained windows. She sat down on the bed, back up against the pile of pillows that cushioned the headboard, and Lou knelt astride her hips and brushed her hands over the knot that tied Patty’s robe shut. In the dimness, Lou’s dark eyes looked infinitely deep; when she pulled the towel from her head, long strands of damp black hair pulled down over her shoulders. She took her t-shirt off over that, revealing her beautiful breasts, and this time Patty reached up to touch one, smiling when her fingers brushed across one of Lou’s hard nipples and Lou gasped. She did it again, this time eliciting a whimpering sound that made Lou bite her lower lip. “That was exactly the noise I’d hoped you’d make,” said Patty, not wholly aware she’d spoken aloud until she saw Lou’s mouth twist into a smirk.

“Thought about this a lot, huh?” Lou tugged open Patty’s robe and put her hands on Patty’s chest, just at the top of her breasts.

This was no time for playing coy. “Kind of a lot, yeah,” Patty laughed. “You’re just … so pretty, and I wanted you to touch me so badly.”

“Like that time you excused yourself to ‘take a bath’?” asked Lou, and she laughed as Patty’s cheeks flushed upon hearing the accusation. “You’re just ready to go all the time, aren’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, she bent down and took one of Patty’s nipples in her mouth, catching it with her teeth as she licked it to hardness.

Surprised by the sensation and wanting more of it, Patty arched her back from the bed and grabbed great handfuls of the comforter. “Oh, oh,” she gasped, “oh, yes, please, yes.”

Patty parted her legs and Lou changed her position until she was straddling only one of Patty’s thighs, leaving herself room to lay across Patty’s body and suck at her breasts as she let one hand trail up the length of Patty’s leg, starting at her knee and travelling to the soft inner skin of her thigh. The touch set all of Patty’s nerves on edge, and she felt herself soaking through her robe to the bedspread — she’d have to wash both later, of course, but tomorrow’s laundry was entirely not her concern at the moment. Lou’s icy fingers brushed across the folds of skin between Patty’s legs, and Patty could feel how they’d come in dry but come away wet, until they could slide across her flushed, sensitive skin without resistance.

Doctors had names for all the bits and parts down there, and Patty knew this because once she’d seen an anatomy text in the public library and had secreted it away to a corner, glancing at shots of the parts that men and women alike kept under their clothes for the few seconds she could stand to see each page, before the terror of discovery had grown too great and she’d had to put it back lest anyone find her reading up on it. No one she’d ever heard hold court on the subject, including her doctor, had ever acted like there was anything down there but a deep dark hole, though, and Patty knew that simply wasn’t true; she’d been down there herself, after all, some intrepid deep-sea exporer like Captain Nemo, charting unmapped territories. That hole was fantastic to have, of course, and she loved the way she felt when Tom was inside her there, but that wasn’t where Lou’s hand was now. Lou’s fingertips brushed the little knob just before Patty’s puff of darker-red curls began, and Patty squeaked, clutching the bedspread so hard she pulled the sheets awry. “Right there, right there, just keep touching me right there–”

Bless Lou, she was crackerjack at taking directions. She pressed right where she’d been when Patty had told her to stay in place, not right on the money of where she needed to be but close enough, and Patty contributed her own share of the work, rocking against the touch and pressure until the buildup could push her right over the edge. “Yes, yes!” Patty shouted, tossing her head back against the pillows so hard that the headboard pounded against the wall behind it. Thank heavens for a house with no immediate neighbours. At the sound of Patty’s cries, Lou began to draw her hand away, and Patty grabbed for her wrist, forcing her to remain in place as the further waves of Patty’s orgasm crashed over her, lessening and then subsiding altogether.

At last, Patty exhaled and slumped back against the bed; after a moment’s thought, she let go of Lou’s wrist. Lou sat back, looking pleased with herself but a still a little alarmed. “That … was good?” she asked, rubbing together her slick fingers.

“That was great,” sighed Patty, who wasn’t satisfied, but was placated for now. She ran her fingers over her nipple where Lou’s mouth had been moments before and sighed. “…Have you ever done that to another woman?”

“I’ve barely ever done that to myself,” said Lou. “But … no. Sometimes, some girls I’ve known and I, we’ve kissed one another for the boys who asked, but never anything more than just a kiss. You?”

Patty shook her head. “Tom’s been my first and only everything. We waited right up until our wedding night for, you know, the big thing, but….” Her fingers teased her nipple to hardness again as she sighed with pleasure at the memory. “Let’s just say that if my parents had known how many dark patches behind toolsheds and gaps between very tall hedges there were in our neighbourhood, they would never have let Tom take me on as many long evening walks as they did.”

“Oh, you bad girl!” Lou laughed and lay down against the bed, until she and Patty were side by side, Patty still half-wearing her untied robe and Lou naked only to the waist. Patty placed a hand on Lou’s flat stomach, smiling as she hit a ticklish spot that made Lou squeak and clutch her belly. “Bad! Bad!”

“Very bad,” said Patty, and she took the opportunity to slip her hand beneath the loose waistband of Lou’s pajama pants, down to the juncture of Lou’s thighs. It was like flipping the switch on a machine: Lou’s protest stopped mid-sound, and the rest of the air rushed out of her lungs in a great wordless rush. Emboldened, Patty reached for the pants themselves, then scooted down the bed to yank them all the way off Lou, down and off her ankles. She’d done the same to Tom before, but her prize then had been very different from what she saw now: the dark, wide thatch of hair just above where Lou’s legs split, and something hidden by the darkness and shadows just beneath.

That anatomy text and a few awkward experiments with a hand mirror aside, Patty really had no idea what things looked like down there; she knew the topography the way a blind woman might know her surroundings by touch alone. For this and other reasons, she regarded this as an unmissable opportunity. Settling herself on her stomach, Patty parted Lou’s thighs and got her face down right there between. “What are–?” asked Lou, scooting her hips up closer to the headboard and bending her knees, but otherwise complying with Patty’s positioning.

Patty smiled and kissed the inside of Lou’s thigh. “Looking at you.” Lou’s thighs were taut and close-shaven, as opposed to Patty’s, which were soft and pale and covered with little hairs almost too pale to see. Lou smelled wonderful, which Patty found odd, since she didn’t smell that different down there from the way Patty did, and Patty didn’t care for her own scent. But on Lou it was a sweet smell, dark and salty at once, making Patty wonder what she tasted like. Well, she supposed, there was only one way to find out. “Just trust me,” she said. She brushed back the thatch of hair and found a little pink bud peeking out of the folds of flesh there, one that Patty assumed corresponded to her own. Taking her cue from what she herself liked, Patty flicked her tongue across its surface.

Lou tasted as sweet as she smelled, which was lovely to discover, but what was even better was finding out how much licking Lou was like poking her with a live electric wire. Moaning, Lou thrust a hand into Patty’s hair and balled it into a fist — at first, Patty feared, to pull her away, but then Lou pushed her back in and Patty went to work.

She feared she might have some difficulty determining what Lou did and didn’t like at first, as Lou made plenty of sounds, but none of them turned their way into words. However, she needn’t have worried; every time Patty’s clever tongue did something right, Lou’s hand tightened in her hair and her whole body trembled. Her hips thrust around so much that keeping contact was a bit difficult, but Patty had a solution: she took two of her fingers and pushed them inside Lou’s warm, wet slit, anchoring her to the bed. Lou clapped her hands across her mouth, but Patty reached up with her free hand and tugged them down. “Nobody can hear you,” she promised, her lips brushing the inside of Lou’s thigh as she talked. “Nobody but me. And I want to.”

That was all the encouragement Lou needed, it seemed. When Patty put her mouth on Lou again, sucking at that little bud of hardened flesh, Lou let out a great gasping moan that surely would have penetrated the walls of any multi-room dwelling. She was so wet that she soaked Patty’s chin and lips, and Patty was delighted. Testing the waters, Patty slipped another finger inside Lou, drawing out another cry of pleasure from her. She was gorgeous like this, consumed with passion and sensation, and Patty wondered if anyone had ever gotten to see her like this before. She curled up the tips of her fingers and sucked hard, and that was the end of Lou — she cried out louder than she had before and her inner muscles clenched hard around Patty’s fingers, pulsing with shivers that jolted the rest of her body. Her thighs clamped together, pressing against either side of Patty’s head, and that show of enthusiasm made Patty giggle against Lou’s skin, causing Lou’s hips to thrash so hard that Patty’s fingers slipped right out of her.

Even though she’d only gotten off ten minutes or so before, Patty was as aroused right then as she’d ever been in her life, and she knew exactly what she needed to satisfy her. Giving her face and hand a quick wipe on Lou’s discarded towel, she climbed up astride Lou’s waist and grabbed Lou’s fingers. For all that Lou’s hands were well-manicured and gorgeous, they weren’t small, and that was just how Patty wanted them to be. “Now,” she said, folding Lou’s four fingers into a point and bring them down between her legs. “I need this, please, I need you.”

Hazy though she was from her orgasm, Lou didn’t hesitate. She let Patty guide her to where she needed to be, then pushed all four in at once. Patty gasped with delight and rocked forward until she was on all fours, giving Lou as much access as she could. “Please,” she said, moving her hips up and down on Lou’s hand so that Lou would get the idea. “And please, I want your mouth, please.” Perhaps she wasn’t the best at dirty talk in bed, but her need for release pushed past any potential embarrassment and loosed her tongue.

At least Lou was a girl who could take a hint. She craned her neck up and caught one of Patty’s breasts in her mouth as they hung pendulous above her, then began to suck the way she had earlier, only this time with more force and teeth than she’d employed before. Patty rocked herself back and forth against Lou’s fingers, gasping every time they pushed deeper inside her. “Yes, just like that, yes, don’t stop, don’t you dare stop,” she murmured, a litany where she wasn’t paying attention to every word she said, but she meant every one nonetheless. She was so wet that Lou slid in and out of her with ease, stretching her better than any hairbrush ever could.

On the surface and to all other eyes, Patty was a good but plain girl, proper and tightly buttoned, a model of purity and chastity if for no other reason than the general presumption that any man who wanted to be with her must have a list of reasons that did not prioritize sexual desire. But her frank, strong sexuality had been part of what had won Tom over to her in body as well as in mind and heart, and it was what had just helped bring Lou to an overwhelming orgasm, and as such, it was the secret about herself that she loved best. She felt frumpy and awkward everywhere but like this; here, she felt beautiful, wild, desirable. She came just like that, rocking back and forth on Lou’s hand, kneeling over Lou’s body, crying out in pleasure.

And then it was done and she collapsed next to Lou, shivering for a moment before taking decisive action and moving them both beneath the covers. It was an awkward sort of shuffle, especially considering how sticky and damp they both were, but at last she was curled up in Lou’s arms, her head pillowed against Lou’s shoulder, petting her slender hips. “I think everyone in the town might’ve heard you there,” said Lou, kissing her hair.

“Let them,” said Patty, only because she knew there was no way the sound had traveled any farther than the strong walls of the military-built house. “I’ll bet you a thousand dollars most of them have never come like that.”

Lou laughed and hugged her close. “That … was really good.”

“Good!” Patty puffed up, feeling a sense of pride at a job well done. “So we’ll maybe do it again?”

“I’d love to,” Lou promised, bending down to brush another kiss at the edge of Patty’s hairline. “…Not right now, though, right?”

“I … could go again,” Patty confessed, nuzzling Lou’s shoulder.

Lou pulled back and looked at her, reading her face as though testing for lies, and when Patty gave no indication that she was joking, Lou sighed and pulled her close again. “You’d need an army of lovers to keep you satisfied.”

Patty giggled, partly because it was a funny thing to imagine — she, mild-mannered navy wife, installing a revolving door in her bedoom — and partly because Lou hadn’t been the first to make that accusation. Tom was a sailor in peak condition, after all, a man of twenty-three who often had been forced with the rest of his group to run the whole perimeter of the base two and three times at a go, and more than once he’d had to cry uncle at moments when Patty herself could still have gone another round or two. “Maybe just half an army,” she joked back, tossing her arm over Lou’s waist and smiling as Lou laughed.

~*~

“I still feel silly,” she admitted, but she still let Lou pose her into place, putting one of Patty’s arms up over her head to hold her hair away from her neck.

“You won’t feel silly when you see these. I promise.” Lou leaned over her and planted a kiss in the middle of her forehead. “You look beautiful.”

As one who’d spent her whole life avoiding photography whenever possible, Patty still wasn’t sure how whatever Lou saw right now would translate to still images. She was wearing the green dress Lou had made for her, though ‘wearing’ was a generous estimation of her relationship to it right now, as Lou had left all the buttons down the front undone such that the tops of Patty’s breasts spilled out the front. Not a nipple was showing, but only by the thinnest margin of fabric. “Are you sure?” With her free hand, she smoothed the fabric of her skirt over her knees.

“Oh, trust me, I’m going to want to keep some of these for myself.” With a villainous cackle, Lou hopped off the bed and went over to the chair where she’d propped up the borrowed camera. Though Patty had been nervous about whether or not this would actually go off as planned, Lou had come back from her meeting with her friend’s boyfriend with the whole kit bag in tow, telling her that not only had said boyfriend not been surprised by the request, it hadn’t even been the first time the camera had been used for that purpose that week. Patty was grateful for that news, not just for how it made the man seem far less like a weirdo, but for how that had made this whole practice feel more normal. Taking pictures for your man off at war wasn’t just for oversexed young wives with exhibitionist tendencies — it was the red-blooded, all-American thing to do.

As she settled into it, she thought of what it would be like when Tom opened the letter with the photographs inside. “Do you think he’ll show these pictures to anyone else on the boat?”

“He’d be stupid not to brag on be married to someone like you,” Lou said, but then she stopped and looked up from the camera. “Unless, of course, you don’t want him to. You could write him saying you wish he wouldn’t, and I’m sure that’d be fine.”

“No, I….” Though she knew this was about the naughtiest thought she’d ever had, the idea of a group of sailors all leaning over Tom’s shoulder and seeing her like this, making catcalls and talking about what they’d like to do to her … well, what she felt was the opposite of repulsion. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind.”

“You mean, you’d like it.” Lou winked at her. “You should write him and tell him that, then. I bet that’d make him enjoy the pictures even more, don’t you?”

Still holding her pose, Patty wiggled a little with pleasure at the the idea. “I know he doesn’t get much time alone. He complains about it sometimes in his letters.”

“Say cheese,” Lou ordered, and though Patty didn’t actually say anything, she smiled for the camera and held still as the shutter clicked. The journalist had given them some basic instructions about what made for a good picture — most of it came down to having enough light and holding the camera steady — so they’d turned on every light in the bedroom and thrown open the shutters for good measure, and now Patty just hoped no one peeked in, for their sake as much as her own. “That one’s going to be great. Now sit back a little and let your hair down.”

“How do you know it’s going to be great?” asked Patty as she readjusted herself accordingly.

“Because it’s you and you look beautiful, that’s how. Spread your knees apart a little.”

Patty did, and then, deciding that if they were going to do this they might as well do it all the way, hiked up the skirt so that the places where her stockings connected to her garters were visible against her pale skin. Like most women, she’d learned to go without nylons for the duration, but she’d saved this last pair for a special occasion, and what occasion was more special than this? “This work?”

“It’s working for me, definitely.” The shutter double-clicked as Lou saved that moment for posterity twice over. “Good girl with a naughty streak. Lean forward, now, and let the camera see what you’ve got.”

Tilting toward Lou caused Patty’s breasts to fall even more precipitously out of the unbuttoned top, far past the point where her brassiere would have been visible, had she been wearing one. She tried to put on her sexiest face, but just wound up giggling as Lou fired off another few shots. “How much film do we have left?”

“Two shots, why?”

“Okay, one more from me,” said Patty, who, before she could change her own mind, pulled the dress off over her head and tossed it aside, until she was left wearing nothing below her waist but her undergarments, and nothing above her waist at all. “Quick!” She folded her arms across her chest demurely, but still just underneath her breasts, which spilled over the top of her linked arms in a way so obscene that she couldn’t help grinning.

illustrated by serenity_winner

With a laugh, Lou took the shot. “Okay, one more. You want to take off the rest for that?”

“No, I want you to trade me places.” Still shirtless, Patty hopped off the bed and grabbed Lou’s arm, pushing her toward the spot she’d just vacated.

“What? Me? I look terrible!” Lou protested, even though it was an absolute lie; she’d done her hair and makeup that morning the same gorgeous way she always did, and the dark brown dress (another of her own creations) that she’d worn to go retrieve the camera hugged her lovely pear-shaped body, making the most of her flat chest and fuller hips. She sat on the bed with her legs tucked up beneath her, fixing an exaggerated scowl on Patty. “Nobody wants pictures of me.”

I want pictures of you. Now what button do I press?” From the lens side of the camera, what Lou had been doing had looked easy enough, but now that she was in place, there were more options than she’d counted on.

“Maybe I just won’t tell you.” Lou mimed zipping her lips.

Patty stuck her tongue out at her the same way she’d done so many times before to her brothers. “I bet it’s the big one right here. I’m going to press it, ready or not….”

“Fine! Fine, hold on.” Lou brushed her dark hair over her shoulders and folded her hands in her lap, then curled her mouth into a her wide, beautiful smile. It seemed like every time Patty looked at her, the more amazing she could see that Lou really was. There was a time Patty would have been envious, and might even have hated Lou because she looked like that and Patty never would, but now Lou’s beauty made her happy, because it was as much Patty’s to treasure as it was her own. “Okay, you can have your photograph.”

“Three, two, one–” Patty pressed the button and heard the shutter snap as the film inside captured the moment for good. “There we go. That one’s for me.”

~*~

The last burst of fireworks had died down almost twenty minutes previous (which was a blessing, as they made all the dogs in earshot just go insane), but some of the younger people still had sparklers to burn, and they ran back and forth down the sidewalks and in the middle of the street with their bright cargo in hand, laughing and carrying on. On the empty lot near the end of the street, whatever card tables and folding chairs the residents had been able to procure on short notice were still arranged hours after the mid-afternoon celebration they’d been pressed into service for; Patty could see from her porch that every seat was still filled, and casserole dishes and serving trays hung around them in abundance. A piece of her own was down there, a large tin platter Tom’s aunt had given them as a wedding gift, and last she’d seen of it, nearly every ham sandwich she’d arranged on it had been taken. Some of the other women had made fancy dishes and elaborate jelly casseroles, but Patty had decided that simple was the best — and besides, she’d been crying too hard to read a recipe.

She was still crying now, as she sat in the porch swing and watched the festivities from a distance, though now the streams from her eyes had dried up to thin trickles that she mopped up with the occasional dab of her handkerchief. She’d cried enough for the past two years for a lifetime, and now that the war was over, she wanted that to be over too.

Beneath the streetlamps, a figure was coming down the street toward her, and though Patty knew she should get herself together and go back to the celebration, she couldn’t find the will to move from where she’d curled up against the slatted wood. There was no mistaking that walk for anyone else’s, either; even dressed like a man in the trousers and jacket she’d worn for giving kids rides celebratory joyrides around on the back of her motorcycle earlier, Lou still walked like a lady. “Hey there, good-looking,” she said as she turned up the walk to the house. “Lila said you’d headed back to powder your nose but she hadn’t seen you in a while, so I thought I’d come back and check.”

“Oh, I’m–” Patty cleared her throat, chasing both emotion and phlegm from her voice. “I was going to go back. I just got comfortable here.”

In the year and a half or so since she’d move onto the base with Patty, Lou had become a darling of the neighbourhood, defeating all suspicion about her sketchy past and unmarried present by having charisma to spare. In fact, she’d been one of the only ones who, when the news of Germany’s surrender had reached the base, hadn’t been so overwhelmed with emotion that she couldn’t plan a block party. It was her event as much as anyone else’s, and Patty more than half-suspected that Lou had come to drag her back to the festivities; instead, though, Lou sat down on the other half of the swing and took Patty’s hand in her own. “How is it that you can cry those blue eyes out and still look so pretty?” she asked, brushing Patty’s hair from her face.

Patty laughed despite herself. “Oh, no, I look like an angry pig,” she said, pressing her fingers to her puffy cheeks.

Lou shook her head. “Still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” She brushed her thumb across the back of Patty’s knuckles, tracing small circles almost in the way one friend might comfort another, except that Patty knew those hands and knew what they were capable of. That, after all, was part of why she was crying.

There wasn’t anyone in earshot, but Patty dropped her voice anyway, and though she tried to meet Lou’s gaze with her own, she couldn’t make her chin lift that far. “Lou, I love you,” she began, before her voice caught and she tripped over the air as it came out of her lungs.

“I love you too, honey,” Lou said. She reached over and put her other hand on Patty’s knee, atop the skirt of blue organdy that had been Lou’s present to her that past Christmas.

“I mean,” Patty swallowed, “I love you.” She screwed up her lips, trying to thing of a way to say what she meant without repeating herself, and after a moment continued, “Like I love Tom. But … not instead of loving Tom.”

Lou’s face remained a still, lovely mask, but she took a deep breath and let it out in a long, slow sigh — and all at once, Patty’s heart sank. This had been so cruel to Lou, living with her like this, falling in love with her like this, when they knew nothing could ever come of it. The bitterest little part of herself, the voice she hated but couldn’t silence, accused her of having ensnared Lou as an understudy for Tom, someone waiting in the wings just in case Tom didn’t make it back from war. But despite a single terrifying — and incorrect, Patty was informed after two hours of incoherent fear — rumor that his ship had been sunk that past November, Tom had made it through unscathed, and now was on his way home. Patty was the happiest she’d ever been in her life, but that wasn’t the only reason she couldn’t stop crying.

“I know,” Lou said at last, staring at some point off in the distance where Patty wasn’t. “And he’s a great guy, I can tell, and you two are going to be happy like crazy when he gets back. This has been your life from the start. I was just visiting.”

It was a ridiculous claim, considering that Patty had lived with Tom only a month and a half, and Lou had now been staying with her for a year and a half, but what stung most about it was that it was true. This was Tom’s house, maintained by Tom’s pay and position, and everything in it was rightly his to return home to. Even if they could have run off, where would they have gone? Lou made fair money at the factory — a fraction of what a man doing the same job would’ve earned, but money nonetheless — and that had given Patty the freedom to stop the manual labor she’d hated and instead offer piano lessons to the children on the base for the past year, which brought in its own well-meaning pittance. But they’d always known the women’s jobs wouldn’t last the men’s coming back home, and Patty couldn’t just strap her piano to the back of Lou’s motorcycle as they rode off to parts unknown.

Her heaviest anchor, too, was her love for Tom. She loved him even more now than she had when she’d kissed him good-bye that summer day nearly two years previous. His letters were full of affection and funny stories and real interest in her life, and she could imagined how much he’d smiled as he’d received every one of hers in return. Nothing that kept her here was obligation or duty; she wanted more than anything to be here, to be his wife, to have his children, to grow old together as she’d promised when he’d married her.

From the first time she’d kissed Lou, she’d had to rationalize it to herself, what they were doing: this wasn’t cheating, she had to believe, because any other thought was an unbearable betrayal of Tom’s trust. But her heart wasn’t a finite thing, where loving one stole love from the other; if anything, loving Lou had made her love for Tom stronger. She’d spent long nights telling Lou all about him, and Lou had come to the point where she was as excited to see Tom’s letters in the mail as Patty was. They’d developed and sent off the first set of photographs, and when Tom had responded with a letter full of very proper prose that still left no doubt as to what he’d been doing while he was looking at them, they’d borrowed the camera for a second set, and then a third. Taking the measurements from clothes he’d left behind, Lou had helped Patty make Tom a shirt, and when it had come out all wrong and a frustrated Patty had wanted to throw it away, Lou had kissed her and made her save it as proof of how much effort she was willing to put forth for him. With Lou’s help, she’d become a better, stronger, more independent person, and now when Tom came home, she’d be ready not to depend on him, but to share his life with him.

Grabbing Lou’s hand tighter, she scooted closer on the porch seat until their knees were touching. “I love you,” she said again, and she knew it wasn’t enough, but she at least had to try.

“I know,” Lou repeated, and this time she leaned over to kiss Patty’s hair in an almost-sisterly fashion, then lay Patty’s head on her shoulder and stroked her hair back from her neck. “I do know. I’ve never doubted that. You … just have the biggest heart in the whole wide world. We could all fit in there if we tried. That’s why you’re going to make such a great mom someday, I know it. You just don’t have a selfish bone in your whole beautiful body.”

Patty sniffled and shook her head. “I’m all selfish. I want both you and Tom.”

That made Lou chuckle, the sound low and dark. “You’re confusing selfish with insatiable.” She gave Patty a poke in the middle of her belly, and Patty giggled despite herself and wrapped her arms around her own waist. “I mean it, though, when I say I love you. I do, no strings attached, no matter what. You’re the one who taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about love, which is that it doesn’t have to happen when you’re both in the same room.” A little drop of water fell across into Patty’s hair, though Lou’s voice remained steady. “If I’m living in your house or three thousand miles away, it doesn’t matter, because either way I’m going to love you for the rest of my life.”

For a long moment, Patty couldn’t speak; all her words had climbed into her throat and expanded in unison, blocking their own exit until she could hardly even breathe. Instead, she hugged Lou around her waist and just sat there on the porch swing, listening to Lou’s heartbeat with one ear and the sounds of the warm evening with the other. A trio of ladies walked by with their children, and when they smiled in greeting, Lou gave a little wave back on their shared behalf. Emotions ran high tonight everywhere, and no one would question such a public display of affection given the circumstances. “I don’t know what to tell Tom,” Patty said at last, her voice muffled against Lou’s top.

“I’m afraid you’d know better than I would.” Lou’s fingers stroked little circles against Patty’s arm. She was such a comfort; everything she did eased Patty’s worried soul. “If you want to tell him nothing and have me just go, I’ll go.”

Patty shook her head again, shutting her eyes tight. “No, please, don’t.”

With a gentle laugh, Lou hugged her tight. “I’m not going anywhere, shh. Not if you don’t want me to.” A bang sounded from the end of the street, followed by the dog chorus; perhaps the fireworks weren’t all gone after all. “I don’t know him in person, but from all his letters and everything you’ve told me, he’s crazy about you. But even more than that, he wants you to be happy. And so do I. So if you want me to stay here and we’ll just go back to being friends like we were before, that’s fine.”

“That’s not fair to you.”

“Not fair?” Lou pulled back enough to see Patty’s face, her pretty dark brows pointed down in a V of confusion.

She’d had the thought before several times, that it would be beyond cruel to put Lou into the position of playing the chaste friend while Patty resumed her married life, but now that Patty found herself having to wrestle it into words, she kept coming up short of where she wanted to be. “You … should be able to go out and have a family too.”

The scoff Lou made at that was so full of scorn that had Lou not hugged her at the same time, Patty would have assumed she’d managed to offend her. “There’s not a man alive who’d want me for a wife. And even if I could find one, I wouldn’t want to be his wife anyway. That’s okay here with you, though, because you don’t want a wife — you’re a very good wife yourself, and you like being a wife, and that’s great, that you’ve found something that makes you so happy. But you don’t want me to be your husband, because you have a husband already, and that’s okay, I wouldn’t make a very good husband either. That’s why I struck out on my own in the first place: to live my own life, do what I wanted to do, get drunk and sleep around if I wanted to, ride a motorcycle, wear trousers, not answer to anyone or be anyone else’s anything. Except the flaw in that plan was, I wasn’t happy alone either.”

“Oh,” said Patty, who’d suspected all these things before, but still had to process hearing them straight from Lou’s mouth. Neither she nor Lou was stupid (and Lou had threatened to paint Patty blue in her sleep if she ever heard Patty suggest that about herself again), and Patty suspected that Lou, like herself, had been aware of all these truths and issues long before this moment. But as with almost everything else normal in their lives, the war had drowned them out, made so much light and noise that even the most obvious of concerns could go ignored. Now that the fighting was over, though, everything would have to change. Everything could be normal again, so everything would have to be.

Five more great bursts sounded off in the distance, cracking like gunfire and filling the sky with red, white, and blue light as Lou held her hand. “I’ll tell him,” Patty said at last, her words pushed beneath the loud booms that echoed through the streets. “Not right when he’s home. But after. He deserves to know. And you’ll stay here until then, and after then if it’s okay with him. But–” Her voice trembled and she bit the inside of her cheek until she found her nerve again. “But it has to be over. We have to be over.”

After the space of a deep breath, in and out, Lou nodded. “I promise,” she said, and Patty could hear the but I’ll still love you behind it.

They stayed out there for an hour more in silence, rocking on the porch swing and listening as the evening quieted down and all the revelers went to their homes. The night air still carried the faint smell of exploded gunpowder, the memory that lingered long after the moment that had caused it had passed. At last, foregoing what personal effects she’d left at the end of the road, Patty took Lou’s hand and drew her inside. Lou followed her back to the bedroom, where they both undressed quietly and made love without speaking, foreheads pressed to one another as hands went to work drawing pleasure out from one another’s bodies.

Though she only came once, Patty was so exhausted emotionally that as her orgasm subsided, she collapsed back against the bed; she barely had strength enough left over to bring Lou to climax by teasing her clitoris (a word Lou had taught her, and one she loved to say, not least because Lou giggled every time she heard Patty pronounce it) between two of her fingers until Lou dissolved into shudders. Lou drew her close after that, in their shared bed that wouldn’t be theirs to share for much longer. Patty wanted to stay awake for this, to remember every inch of how it felt to be loved like that, in Lou’s particular way, but her body had no appreciation for sentimentality, and the moment she closed her eyes, she was fast asleep.

~*~

She smiled as she felt him thrust one last time between her legs, then collapse beside her on the bed, pressing kisses all over the back of her neck and shoulders. “God, you’re beautiful.” To punctuate this compliment, he reached over and rubbed her enormous belly, which now at eight months was larger than her other three pregnancies had been at nine. She loved being pregnant, loved every inch of how it made her feel, but still was glad they’d made the decision to stop after this one — he was going to be a big, big boy.

“And you’re wonderful,” Patty said, turning in his arms with a burst of huffing, ungraceful effort. Tom waited patiently for her to get settled, though, and when he did he kissed her lips. His cheeks were prickly with the end-of-day stubble, and the fingers he caressed her body had turned thick over the years with a contractor’s calluses, but she loved the way they felt against her skin. “Even he thinks so.” She nudged his midsection with her own.

Tom laughed and reached down to stroke her round stomach. “What makes you so convinced we’ve got another son cooking in there?”

She took his hand in hers and pressed it down below her navel. “I carried Anne and Betty down here, and Tommy and this one are up here,” she explained, moving his hand as she did up toward the top of her belly. It was an inexact science at best, but something about this pregnancy just felt the same way her first had, though she couldn’t put her finger on it. “So, boys’ names it is.”

A sudden jolt knocked the wind out of her, and she saw Tom’s face light up in the way that let her know he’d felt it too. “I think he heard you. Or he’s declaring he’s going to grow up and be the kicker for the ’49ers.”

“I think he’s just happy that his daddy makes his mommy so happy,” said Patty, tossing one of her ankles over Tom’s legs. “And if he’s anything like his daddy, someday he’s going to make a nice girl very happy too.”

Tom laughed in kind and kissed her, long and deep and slow. He was tall and strong, and even five years out of the service he still did push-ups every morning and went on runs for miles at a stretch, but he was still the gentlest man she’d ever met, and every bit the wonderful father she’d dreamed he would be. “I love you,” he promised against her lips, “more than anything, but–”

“But you have to get up early tomorrow, I know.” Patty stuck out her tongue at him, which made him grin, then kissed him on the tip of his nose. “I just guess I’ll have to go somewhere else to satisfy my horny pregnant needs….”

“Your threats don’t work with me, you hussy. I know I’m the only one who’ll ever be man enough to satisfy you.”

“I’ll tell her you said that.” With one more kiss on his mouth, then one to his forehead for good measure, Patty tucked him in and turned out the bedside table lamp. Her thighs were still slick where they touched, but she didn’t mind. She pulled on a thin nightgown over her shoulders, amused at how its customary calf-length was arrested by her belly until now its hem came barely to her knees. Well, that wouldn’t be for much longer anyway. She turned back to tell Tom good-night one last time, but as she leaned closer, she heard the snores that had already swallowed his breathing. Smiling, she stole out of the room as quietly as she could. He worked hard and loved the work he did, but it wore him right out, and he deserved his rest.

As she stole out into the hallway, she couldn’t help bypassing the door at the top of the stairs, the one closest to the master bedroom, and peeking into the other two bedrooms down at the end of the hall. All three children were sound asleep, as was only appropriate for the late hour: the girls side by side in their matching tiny white beds in one room, and Tom Jr. alone in the other. If her predictions were correct, he’d be sharing soon as well — though given the level of six-year-old enthusiasm that he’d shown for his upcoming sibling, she didn’t suspect he’d find much cause to object to the arrangement. And if her guess were wrong, well, it didn’t matter; that baby would be loved more than it knew what to do with, no matter what.

Satisfied that three of her children were sound asleep — and the one that was awake, well, there was nothing to be done about him, but at least she knew he was safe — Patty crept back to the door she’d skipped earlier and knocked once before slipping inside. “Two seconds,” said Lou, who was sitting up at the head of her bed and had the lamp beside her focusing its beam on the fabric she had in her hands. She made a few more quick stitches, then cut the thread with her teeth. “And Mrs. Miller can complain all she wants about how it’s not how the girls in Brussels did the edging in the first place, but you know what? It’s done and I don’t care.” With a triumphant gesture, Lou placed the mess of sewing on the bedside table, then mimed washing her hands clean of it.

Patty giggled as she pulled off her nightgown before climbing into the bed; Mrs. Miller was one of Lou’s best clients, an elderly widow who insisted that everything Lou did was horrible hackneyed work and still brought every bit of tailoring and mending to her anyway. Lou lay an arm across the pillows, and Patty snuggled up close to her, lying flat on her back. “How’s the little one?” Lou asked, pulling out a jar from the drawer in the nightstand.

“Doing cartwheels.” Patty closed her eyes and tried not to squeak as Lou rubbed the cold cocoa butter across her belly.

“So he’s going to be a night owl like his mama, is he? Stay up carousing until dawn, sleep past noon, put on clothes just in time for giving afterschool piano lessons?”

“There are worse fates.” Beneath even Lou’s cold touch, the lotion warmed up as it settled across Patty’s skin. Four pregnancies — well, three and eight-ninths — later, and Patty didn’t have so much as a stretch mark that she hadn’t had beforehand, thanks to how Lou insisted on putting so much effort into preserving what she called Patty’s perfect skin. Patty had heard many of the mothers she’d known complaining how miserable their pregnancies had been for them, and Patty had just smiled sympathetically and never once mentioned that the real secret to feeling beautiful while carrying a baby was to have a loving husband and a devoted lover on hand, and then to make sure those were two different people.

She’d lasted only five weeks after Tom’s homecoming, five weeks of living as his wife while her chaste friend Lou kept residence in their guest bedroom, before he’d kissed her one night after making love to her and she’d just dissolved into tears. He’d held her there in the dark as the whole story had come out, peppered with tears and apologies and declarations of her love, and to his incredible credit, he’d stayed quiet and let her tell it all. When she’d finally finished, he’d put his arms around her and told her that it was a little strange to hear, and that he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about all of it, but that he loved her and, what was more, he really liked Lou. “And if she makes you happy, that makes me happy too,” he’d promised her, and she’d drawn him close to her again, needing to feel him on top of and inside her. Two months later, her doctor had confirmed that Tom Jr. was on his way.

As they always did, Lou’s hands found their way up to Patty’s breasts, which were sensitive but not painfully tender at this stage, and when Lou’s lotioned fingertips teased one of Patty’s nipples into a point, Patty smirked. “You know, he said tonight that he was the only one who’d ever be man enough to satisfy me,” she said, cracking one eye open to see Lou’s reaction.

Lou screwed up her face in comic indignation. “Oh, he knows now I’m committed to proving him wrong,” she said, squaring her shoulders. Patty had dreams of getting both Tom and Lou in bed with her someday, but for now she was more than content with being the cause of their loving yet antagonistic relationship toward one another. Lou never butched up quite so much as when Tom teased out her competitive streak.

“No, he’s right,” said Patty, and when she felt Lou’s hands still against her skin, she laughed a wicked little laugh. “So it’s up to you to be woman enough to satisfy me.”

“Challenge accepted.” With a quick kiss across Patty’s mouth, Lou tossed back the covers and knelt between Patty’s legs. As Lou’s fingers teased her open, Patty closed her eyes and rested her hands across her belly, feeling in that moment at the center of everything good in the world.

Author’s Notes

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