We are in transit, forever walking roads choked with lifeless cars and clinging weeds. The “there” we seek may not be better than “here,” but we’re still human: we still believe in safe ports just over the horizon, in green flourishing under ash. We keep walking.
Ellen strutted across her parents’ living room, counting silently, and executed four flawless high kicks before curtsying to her audience: Georgie, lounging against one of the wingback chairs in her tweed slacks, and Cathy, perched on the sofa with crossed ankles and a expression of delight.
Cathy burst into applause. “Ellen, you’re fantastic!”
“That’s the whole routine?” Georgie raised an eyebrow.
“That’s what I’m auditioning with,” Ellen said patiently. “They’ll teach us all the dances when practices start next month.”
“Oh, Ellen, I’m so proud of you.” Cathy patted the couch next to her and Ellen sat, rolling her ankles to stretch them. She was used to dancing in heels, but these were old, the soles about as comfortable as bare floor. With the war on, though, it had become a point of pride among her fellow dancers to see who could go the longest without replacing their shoes.
“Don’t be proud yet,” Ellen said. “I still have to get through the audition.”
“Well, you’re as good as in, in my books! You’ve been dancing for as long as I’ve known you.”
“I’m confused how this helps the war,” Georgie said, folding her arms.
“It raises funds for war bonds.”
“I understand the marching like soldiers – ”
Cathy rolled her eyes. “They aren’t pretending to be soldiers, Georgie.”
“Oh, so it has to do with troop movements, then.” Georgie step-ball-changed her way around the couch. “Do the dancers represent the Western front, or the Eastern?”
“Georgie!” Cathy pressed a hand to her mouth, but Ellen could tell she was giggling.
“What’s the significance of that hip movement?” Georgie wriggled in imitation of one of Ellen’s least-favorite moves. “Does that represent the rolling hills of France?”
“Please, Georgie.” Cathy winked. “It’s to impress Steve next time he sees her.”
“Will you two knock it off?” Ellen jumped up. “It’s got nothing to do with Steve.”
Georgie grinned and leaned against the mantel. “Is it because you get a fabulous costume, then?”
“It’s for Emma.”
“Oh.” Georgie fell silent.
For a few moments, the only sounds were the curtains flapping in the spring breeze and the distant clatter of Mama’s sewing machine upstairs. Somewhere over the fields, the Albertsons’ Piper Cub was dusting their orchards. Every time Ellen heard the plane and knew it wasn’t Emma flying it, her heart ached like she’d been stabbed. Her sister had only been able to send two letters in the six months she’d been gone, and the house was quiet without her.
Cathy got up and closed the window. The sound of the plane faded.
“Do you know where she is?” Georgie asked softly.
Ellen snorted and sat back down. “They never tell us. Could be Detroit, could be Oahu.”
“She was very brave to go.”
“We both wanted to go.” Ellen clenched her hands, digging her fingers into the satin cushion. “But she’s the pilot, and the mechanic, and the only one of us who’s managed to knock down Tommy Buchanan, though we’ve both tried.”
Georgie snorted. “Haven’t we all.”
“Me, I’m just the pretty one.” Ellen gestured to her pink dance costume. “I’m not smart enough or well-connected enough for military secretarial work. Papa refuses to let me help with farm work or take a factory job. I can’t even keep Mama’s victory garden alive. The only thing I can do is dance.”
Cathy frowned. “You know that’s not true.”
“Maybe, but that’s what matters to Uncle Sam.” Ellen stood, smoothing her skirt. “And if dancing is all I can do, then I’m going to dance in a way that does some good.”
They fell silent again. Ellen poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the sideboard and drank, staring out over the fields. The Piper Cub hummed across the clear sky, its yellow wings glinting in the sun.
“When is the audition?” Cathy asked.
“We’ll come watch you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“You’re doing this for Emma, and we’ll do this for you.” Georgie squeezed her shoulder. “It’s the very least we can do.”
“And we’ll help you do more, if you’d like.” Cathy came to her other side. “There’s plenty of ways we can help, if we put our heads together.”
Ellen watched the Piper as it flew over the roof and out of sight. “Thanks, girls.”
Her feet still hurt, but her heart was lighter. Maybe they wouldn’t let her serve, but she’d fight in her own way, with her own allies – for Emma.
The lakefront cabin wasn’t quite how Marianne had envisioned it when John showed her their surprise getaway destination online. The photos had promised airy, bright rooms with sunshine streaming over rustic armchairs and polished hardwood floors. She could practically hear the fire crackling in the river-rock fireplace.
Instead, the windows were streaked with mildew, the hardwood floors creaked every time someone walked across them and sometimes when no one did, and when she sat in the armchairs trying to appreciate the view, she kept thinking she saw something in the corner of her eye, in the fireplace.
But there was never anything there, not even logs, because the property manager kept promising to bring firewood and then forgetting.
John tried to make the best of it. He found candles in a kitchen cupboard and set them in the fireplace so they could have the ambience, if not the actual warmth, of a fire. Sometimes the candles blew out; John relit them, assuring her it was just the old drafty chimney. At least when Marianne saw something in the corner of her eye, she could now reassure herself that it was only the flickering candles.
He’d brought wine and strawberries and chocolates, but Marianne found herself continually distracted by the tricks her eyes were playing on her. If it wasn’t movement in the fireplace, it was patterns in the mildew, the green rivulets morphing into gaping faces.
She’d hoped for a romantic weekend away, but as the hours ticked away, she felt less and less in the mood.
She tried to read; the faces on the windows peered at her over the top of her book. She wrapped in a blanket and watched the ripples on the gray lake; she never felt warm, and shadows moved among the candles in the fireplace.
The second night, she sat up with the candles, staring past her wavering reflection and the mildew at the night, lake and forest and sky indistinguishable in the black. Marianne hadn’t seen or spoken to another soul since they arrived; John had been the one to talk to the property manager. He was sitting by the hearth, reading by candlelight, unbothered by the faces watching him or by the darkness beyond their walls. If there were other cabins out there, she could see no lights. She felt as if the lake was growing around her, encompassing her in an isolated darkness.
The candles flickered. The mildew faces twitched. The drafty chimney – or what John had assured her was the chimney – made the candles gutter, then blew them out altogether.
“This is ridiculous,” she said finally. Her own voice sounded tiny in the dark isolation of the cabin. The soundless night threatened to smother her words with its press of black. “John, will you please just go find the manager and get some firewood?”
She couldn’t see his expression, but he got up with a sigh. Not even his outline was visible in the blackness. It was as if he was already gone. Without a word, he fumbled in the kitchen for the flashlight, pulled on his jacket, and went outside.
Marianne relit the candles. The cabin seemed cozier now that it was just her. The faces in the windows smiled down on her. It wasn’t so bad, being alone – just her and her candles and the green smiles claiming their island in the black lake.
The candles burned down, and down. Red wax puddled among the old ashes. Marianne watched them melt. John was taking a long time. Maybe the creeping lake had reached him.
Another gust buffeted the candles, and they went out again.
Outside, someone shouted, close by. Something clattered heavily on the patio, but even with the darkness, Marianne was not afraid. She was alone now, and being alone wasn’t so bad.
She opened the door to the night, letting it mingle with the darkness inside. It was all the same absence of light. She didn’t even really want the firewood anymore, but John had gone to the trouble of getting it, so she took a few logs from his limp hands and went back inside. She left the door open. It was all the same night. She set the logs in the fireplace but she just didn’t feel like striking a match.
Marianne hunched in front of the darkened hearth. She didn’t have to turn around to know the faces in the window were smiling.
They go tip-tapping along the sidewalk, formidable in their elegance, with tailored skirts hitting the backs of their knees exactly, silk blouses that stay neatly tucked, and heels that might be, strictly speaking, too tall for the office but no one would dare tell them so.
They are taller than all of the women and almost all of the men. They are clear-skinned and radiant – literally; they light up their surroundings in soft blues and greens. They are soft-spoken, except when they laugh, which is loud and clear as bells, or when they are angry, which is infrequent but destructively cacophonous.
They are impossible.
I should know better.
But there really isn’t that much difference between us – not after all the work I’ve done.
My hair matches their light-defying black, but it isn’t yet long enough. My heels are as tall as theirs, and I walk in them with almost as much ineffable grace as they do. I practice for an hour a day. I have two million followers on my makeup tutorial account; the most popular one of them only has 1.9 million. I am mistaken for one of them frequently; we take pictures together. They don’t photograph as well as I do – it’s the light they emit.
The man in the back of the nail salon has brought what he promised. The bottle glows like candlelight. I pay him in cash, as he requested, and he tells me to leave before I drink. He won’t be responsible for anything that happens after.
I go to the bar where I’m meeting my date. I’m early, but that was planned. He might not recognize me without the filters I apply to my profile; I may photograph better without their glow, but he expects it, so I use the filters. He’ll be all the more impressed when we’ve had a few more dates and he can adjust his expectations to me and I can stop drinking the solution and reveal my true self: nothing more or less than the most beautiful human woman in the country.
He’ll be pleased, when the time is right.
The bottle uncaps with a sound like windchimes. The fumes smell like a wedding day, like surprise flowers, like a perfect afternoon in a hammock under branch-filtered sunlight. The astringent bottom notes are irrelevant.
The first time I drank this, I experienced all of the side effects: blurred vision, vertigo, nausea. With long-term use, the effects will worsen into vomiting, loss of coordination, and blindness, but I won’t need to drink for that long. Only for a couple of months.
I drink it, all of it, as quickly as I can, so it hits my system all at once. It’s warm in my throat, in my stomach, and then it’s warm on my stomach, on my chest, on my arms. When it reaches my face, it feels like blushing, but I can see it now: my own glow. I am a covetable mint green.
I can’t quite see myself in the mirror. It’s my glow, surely, obscuring my beauty even from myself.
I tip-tap away, finally radiant.
It looked nothing like home, all rust-hued cliffs and coral grass. I missed Earth’s cool tones keenly.
Then, your gift: a terracotta pot with one slender green stem; at its peak, hyacinth flowers blooming like purple fireworks. It even smelled like blue – like home.
“I’ve got the grimoire.”
He’d been waiting so long for those words that he almost couldn’t believe he’d heard them. He watched, tail twitching, as she opened the crackling pages and began to read.
As fur fell away, he started to hope; as human limbs returned, he began to believe.
He spoke his long-planned words into her embrace: “I knew you could do it.”