By Tatiana Morand
Charlotte stared into the mirror, willing herself to focus. With a soft clicking, her eye narrowed in on her bright red lips, and she raised the brush to dab on the finishing touches. The colour was shocking, a fire burning against her dark skin; it was exactly as she wanted it.
She dropped the brush on the counter, ignoring the stain of crimson that spread slowly over the granite. Spoilt, in this time of privations, yes- how many girls were making do with beetroot juice?- but it was also an act of rebellion. Let Annabel deal with it; let her have a final reminder of her recalcitrant stepdaughter before she left for the last time.
The last time. The words smacked of prophecy. With a shiver, she turned away from her reflection and allowed her eye to refocus. The other girls were jealous of her impeccable makeup; when they’d demanded her secrets, she was unable to reply. How to explain that such a talent was merely the result of accident? A lady could hardly discuss her… other parts in polite company. She could imagine Annabel’s reaction; either a prompt faint or a horrified glare, depending on whether or not there were gentlemen in the room to catch her. Her tendencies tended towards the Victorian, decades ago and corsets away.
But she didn’t want to think of Annabel. She’d have plenty of time for thinking later, trapped deep in the trenches; she’d need a distraction from the screams. Even lipstick could only go so far, when you were spattered in blood and your tidy uniform ripped. This early in the morning, the sunlight had yet to begin its assault against the shadow battalions that lined the room. Glancing out the window, she could see a spark of orange brushing against the treetops; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Was there such a rhyme for soldiers?
Probably not. They were expected to be brave, not indulge in silly superstitions… or so said the commanders with their shiny medals and buffed boots. They’d never had rats scampering across their faces; they’d never had to eat those same creatures. Somehow, she suspected that if they ever visited the trenches superstition might seem a whole lot more satisfying. The war had dragged on for years already, and Hitler’s troops showed no signs of flagging; superstition might offer the only way to make sense of a world spinning on its head.
She turned back to the mirror, straightening her private’s uniform one last time. It was so clean; returning home after her long shift of duty, the simple fact of baths had come as a surprise. The first time, she’d cried, salt mingling with soap as the water slowly cooled around her. She’d had to draw a second one just to be entirely clean. She washed her hands, simply to enjoy the feeling of soap- wasteful again. It stung as it cleansed her half-healed cuts.
But she couldn’t procrastinate forever.
With a stiff upper lip- something she’d learnt from the British troops; at least being constantly in company with them had taught her something other than snobbery- she turned away from the mirror. Down the hallway, down the stairs. Just a few more steps and she’d be home free.
Her heart dropped lower than her toes. She was only half-human; why couldn’t she have lost the part that enabled her to feel such regret, engendered by such a little boy?
“Yes, Martin?” she said, forcing herself not to look back. There was still a chance, if he didn’t ask…
“Were you going to leave without saying goodbye?”
“Of course not,” she lied, manufacturing a smile as fake as her arm. “I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to you.”
A smile, far wider and far more real, appeared on Martin’s face. “I knew it.”
Inside, she marvelled that such little lies could make him so happy. It was simply more proof of his belonging here, in this house of Victorian antiques and delicate vases, protected along with them. Even if they looked nothing alike- her thick mass of curls, his fine blond hair; her tawny complexion, his fairness- she would have liked to say that they shared that one trait.
Even so, she needed no recognition to feel the pull of blood and bone.
How had the hateful Annabel created a creature of such perfection?
They walked down the hallway together, and he slipped his hand into hers- her real one. He’d explained long ago that he wasn’t afraid of the steel; he simply wanted her to feel the contact as he did. “It’s only fair,” he had said with the seriousness only a five-year-old can muster. Then, as now, she’d merely smiled, heart too full to speak.
How could she leave him?
“Come on, I’ll make you bacon.” Without looking down, she knew a grin had formed on his face. His hand quivered within hers and he pulled her forward, leading her to the ultra-modern kitchen in which she always felt slightly uncomfortable. She looked more like the newfangled refrigerator than she did a resident.
This early, none of the kitchen staff were up; Annabel preferred her breakfast late, under the pretext that it was better for her figure. Charlotte had always believed that it was instead a way to sleep in later. Either way, she was grateful for it now. “Set the table, and I’ll start cooking.”
Martin raced to obey her commands. If only the members of my unit listened so well, she thought with a rueful smile. The only reason she, a mere female, had her position at all was through the strength of her metal arm- fascination at such an experiment had won it for her, and her own dedication had kept her there. He caught her looking and brandished a butter knife like a pistol. “You said you’d start cooking! I’m hungry!”
“You’re always hungry,” she returned, amused. Had anyone else said such a thing, she would have lashed out, listing the instances in which she’d had nothing to eat but hard biscuits and salt pork for weeks… but with Martin, she’d let anything pass.
She took the bacon out of the fridge mechanically. With Martin momentarily silent, her thoughts returned to her imminent departure, like iron to a magnet.
Simply put, she didn’t want to die.
But die she would. She’d heard enough about the latest technology- whispers of war machines, couched in clouds of mustard gas- to be certain of that. She was a sacrifice on the altar of Duty; someone had to be, after all, and it always seemed to be the beautiful young maiden. She was merely continuing the tradition begun in so many Greek tragedies. In that light, it was less painful and more of a bore. But of course, she imagined herself saying with an affected yawn, it was all the rage in those days, or hadn’t you heard?
“Char? The bacon is burning.”
She came back to herself with a jolt. Without turning, she could feel the reproachful eyes of a boy who had never known what it was to be truly hungry drilling into her back. How would he live if rationing didn’t soon end? Would even this house, currently a testament to his father’s position in the government, be forced to enter this modern age of privations? “Sorry,” she said, catching her breath and flipping the meat. “You’ll still be able to eat it. This way there’s more… iron.”
She turned to catch his reaction, and saw him nodding. The simple motion left yet another crack in her heart. Why did he have to believe so easily in her every lie? She played with the spatula, pretending that she was doing something. Anything to avoid his gaze.
But she couldn’t avoid his questions.
“Why did they send you home, anyway? Will said he hasn’t seen his brother in years.” And there it was: the moment she’d been dreading. It was asked oh so innocently, barely looking at her as he finished devouring the bacon. How could he know it cut like shrapnel?
What could she tell him? Certainly not the truth, that she’d been sent home for a final goodbye because they were sending her off to her death; a death that, admittedly, she had chosen. Martin was still too young to understand honour and loyalty as more than abstract concepts in adventure stories, things heroes on the radio- and now the television, with images of proud patrols and dutiful salutes- proclaimed and upheld. They weren’t made for his sister.
Instead, she said, “They wanted to tune up my arm.” She held up her left hand with its glittering mass of gears and wires. “Make sure it wouldn’t explode on the field.”
That he could understand. He’d accompanied her to enough doctors’ appointments, shabby affairs that had generally left her in tears on the cable cars. He would always curl up in her lap like an oversized kitten, there only to provide comfort.
After such love, how could she break his heart?
“Can I come with you to the train station?” he asked, bouncing on his chair as he ate her last piece of bacon. “I could hide in your suitcase.”
If she said yes, it would never end. Once there, he’d attempt to leap on the train and become the other soldiers’ pet. He wouldn’t make a scene, but his green eyes would fill with reproach and she’d never be able to leave him behind.
Some things, though, she couldn’t confess. Instead, she said, “Annabel wouldn’t like it.”
He nodded, digesting the truth of it. Even to her son, Annabel made no secret of her dislike for her husband’s first child.
“But you’ll come back.” He said it with such certainty that she couldn’t bear to contradict him. She smiled through her veil of tears.
In that instant, she decided: she wasn’t going to die. It was as simple as that. She couldn’t leave him alone here, in this house where the only source of warmth was the fireplace. She couldn’t leave him to become another of Annabel’s trophies, married off as a source of political power just like she’d done. Like she would have done to Charlotte, if she hadn’t found her own deadly escape- and lost an arm for the privilege. She wouldn’t- couldn’t- leave him to fight as she had.
“I’ll always be there for you, Martin.” She bent down and kissed the top of his head, holding his tiny body tight in her arms. “And that is the honest and absolute truth.”
Tatiana Morand is a grade 12 student from Ontario who intends to study literature. Her poetry and short stories have been previously published in several anthologies. She hopes one day to become a published novelist and, until then, her general musings on life can be found at singing-blue.blogspot.ca.