Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
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A hospital alone shows what war is.
—Erich Maria Remarque,
All Quiet on the Western Front
THE GERMAN PUTS
his hands behind his head, biting at his lower lip, and gets down on his knees. He’s looking at the ground, and his helmet tilts forward over his eyes, but he’s too scared to move it. “
” he says. “
” He keeps repeating that in these short, stabbing whispers, like he’s talking to himself, talking to God. Sergeant McKnight’s watching him, kicking at the dirt, that vein in his forehead getting fat. He orders Rakowski and Dufresne to take the Jerry to the rear, so they each grab an elbow and haul the German off the ground and start heading back toward the wall. . . .
McKnight’s looking at me. “Stop batting your fucking eyelashes at every Jerry,” he says. Just as Rakowski and Dufresne get close to the wall, McKnight signals them to let go of the sniper. So the German’s standing there all alone, his helmet still tilted, and McKnight trains his rifle on him. McKnight’s just waiting, waiting for him to start moving, and finally the Jerry takes one step, then another, and soon he’s walking, walking faster, staring at the ground, breaking into a run, and I hear a gun go
WHERE HAD HER
brother gone? wondered Juliet, staring out the window at the empty football field.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early December, and Juliet Dufresne was alone in the school chemistry lab, preparing for the South Carolina Science Fair. Tuck had been glancing up at the lab window throughout practice, awaiting her signal. But now the entire team had vanished.
The sky was pale gray, the window’s thin glass cold against her palm. A late-autumn chill seeped through the bubbled cracks along the windowsill, and Juliet crossed her arms for warmth. Beneath the pink pillowcase she’d fashioned into a lab smock, she wore a thick cream-colored sweater. Her black shoes were dusted with flour. Tendrils of dark-blonde hair, having escaped her braids, clung to her safety goggles.
Well, he wouldn’t go far,
she thought. She’d find him in the locker room and tell him what he’d missed. She looked at her watch: time for one more run-through.
Returning to her worktable, Juliet arranged her funnel of flour, the white dust tickling her nose. She struck a match, lit her candle.
she thought excitedly. A complex series of chemical reactions between a fuel and oxidant, creating heat or light. Inert elements, when combined, could generate a wilderness of power, releasing their full potential.
—Juliet grinned. Having taken second prize two years in a row, she was certain this experiment would win the blue ribbon. She loved being in the lab. She loved the silence of the corkboard walls and the cavernous
aluminum sinks. She loved the room’s glittering precision: tidy shelves of thick-glass beakers, rows of test tubes suspended in metal drying racks. Bright, orderly, the lab always had the feel of
. Here she could do as she pleased without being shunned or gaped at.
For as long as Juliet could remember, the mauve birthmark on her left cheek had rendered her something of an outcast. The mark wasn’t awful—the size of a strawberry, perhaps—and it had faded with time. But in the quiet southern town of Charlesport, it had been enough to elicit exhaustive commentary from classmates throughout her childhood.
. The words still clung to her, although the remarks ended when her peers, struck by puberty, had themselves become pimpled and unpredictably puffed. By then, Juliet had come to take comfort in seclusion. She devoted her time to
Women in History
biographies (having read the Marie Curie volume four times), to “boyishly unwieldy” chemistry experiments, according to Mr. Licata, her favorite teacher (now lurking supportively in his next-door office), and, late at night, she disappeared into the delicious misery of Henry James’s heroines. Juliet’s sole confidant was her brother, Tuck. “Tuck here!” had been Juliet’s first sentence, shrieked through the house, a toddler’s garbled and passionate plea for her brother, two years older, to remain constantly by her side.
Glancing once more out the window, clouded with her handprints—how could Tuck miss this?—Juliet gently hammered a lid onto the can. “Please be careful . . .” she whispered to the empty lab, “as you witness the power of combustion.” She blew into a rubber tube attached to the funnel, and a tremendous
erupted. The can’s lid soared in flips and flutters like a giant tossed coin. Perfect! The judges would be dazzled. Tuck would love it.
Juliet mopped up the traces of flour, gathered her things, and rushed down the dark back stairs, across the silent gymnasium. A weak band of afternoon sunlight lit the planks of the basketball court. At the threshold of the
locker room she called, “Tuck? You in there?”
Heavy footsteps thudded toward her, and Beau Conroy appeared, his hair wet from the shower, his face scrubbed a raw pink. Beau was the team’s linebacker. He had the shadowed, flattened face of a boxer, and his hair had been shaved close to his head. His eyebrows were thick and dark, his eyes a shade of green that Juliet, when first meeting Beau at age ten, had told her brother she thought looked like emeralds. A bright white T-shirt hugged his sloping shoulders.
“Tuck took off,” said Beau. “Everyone scrammed in some kind of hurry. Me? I like my showers. Here. He left you this.”
As he offered up the folded page of a magazine, Beau studied her.
Off to see Miss Van Effing!
Juliet sighed and slid the note deep into her pocket. This had been happening quite a bit lately.
“This Van lady have a first name?” Beau asked.
She did not, because she did not exist. It was a code Juliet and her brother had devised years earlier. To say Miss Van Effing meant,
Help me, cover for me, tell Papa something to keep me out of trouble.
Juliet suspected Tuck had once again gone to hear the radio broadcast at Sammy’s Soda Shop. Their father, who had served as an army surgeon in the Great War, forbade listening to broadcasts about Hitler at home.
“You shouldn’t read private notes,” said Juliet.
Beau smiled. “Then you gotta make them longer. I never read anything long.” He lifted his gym bag. “You goin’ home? I’ll walk you.”
“I’m perfectly able to walk home alone.”
“Jeez, Juliet, why you
gotta be so difficult?”
Juliet did not mean to be difficult. She liked Beau. She liked his deep voice and his big-toothed smile. He lived alone with his grandmother and had even built her a special wheelchair. But she had only ever seen Beau alongside Tuck. If they walked home together, what on earth would they talk about?
Beau blinked hard, his green eyes studying the rim of the basketball hoop above, and Juliet wondered if he was having the same reservation. She inhaled the steamy traces of mildew and sweat seeping from the locker room. From the darkness beyond, a lone showerhead hesitantly dripped.
Beau settled his bag on his shoulder. “You’re getting womanly, Juliet; I can see when it happens to the girls. First they get a few pimples and pretty soon their heads start goin’ topsy-turvy. Every girl needs a little something to calm her down. To get her on course. A first kiss is like bourbon.”
Juliet stepped back, registering what Beau had said. Years earlier a friend of Tuck’s had suggested a game in their yard—
Last one to the tree has to kiss the sister!
The sister. The boy didn’t even remember her name. Juliet had forced herself to smile, and would have stoically suffered the degradation of his game had Tuck not told the boy to go eat his own crap.
Now, looking at Beau, Juliet straightened her posture. “Beau, I’ve kissed so many boys”—she worked her jaw in an exaggerated ellipse—“my mouth is sore.”
Beau laughed. “So, little Miss Difficult is a liar.”
Did he actually find her awkwardness amusing? Charming? Juliet had read of such unexpected attractions but never imagined herself a participant. Beau impatiently adjusted the strap of his bag, and Juliet realized she did not want to lose this opportunity. “Have you brushed your teeth?” she asked nervously.
Beau walked across the darkened gymnasium to the water fountain, gargled, and spit out an arc of water. “Will that do, ma’am?”
Juliet felt her breath quicken. “Let’s go outside.” Taking the stairs two at a time, she pushed the door open into the chill of the empty parking lot. She set her books on the ground and leaned back against the school, propping her foot on the wall—a pose she’d seen other girls strike. If she could only get
Juliet thought, just arrange her legs and arms in some vaguely mature stance, she wouldn’t feel so ungainly.
“Listen, you won’t tell your brother . . .” Beau hesitated in the doorway.
“Staring into a dozen barrels of the guns of a firing squad,” she said dryly, “I will not speak of this.” But there was nothing Juliet didn’t tell Tuck, and she was already wondering how she would relate this incident.
Beau set down his bag beside her. “You know, Coach said we got some college recruiters coming to see the state championships. I might get myself an athletic fellowship. Tucker tell you that?”
Juliet looked away and licked her mouth. Her lips gathered delicately in what she knew was called a Cupid’s bow, but the air against them now made them feel enormous.
“Look, it’s like jumping into a pool,” said Beau. “You just gotta one-two-three-
. But turn your face in my direction.” He leaned into her, and Juliet closed her eyes, her palms stiffening against the rough bricks behind her. The darkness comforted her; she was nowhere, she was in outer space. She could smell Beau’s aftershave, thick and lemony, and felt his hand on her chin. His mouth pressed into hers and in a startled gasp, her lips parted. His tongue was warm and alive and insistent, a creature unto itself. She felt the smooth edges of his teeth and worried at the sharpness of her own. Then his fingers, thick and strong, slid up her face, stopping to cover her birthmark.
She pushed him back. “Hey.”
“Oh, come on, I thought it’d be nice.”
“Nice for who?” she yelped.
“Juliet, it’s not even that noticeable
anymore. I bet it’ll disappear completely.”
“And if it doesn’t disappear?”
Beau’s mouth fell crookedly open, and the thought of what he might say filled Juliet with such dread that she gathered her things and walked off. “Hey, I’m sorry!” he called after her. She wanted to run, but fought the urge. She had two rules when dealing with tormentors: no running; no tears.
In the grainy afternoon light, she trudged through the old part of town, passing the formerly grand homes of Hancock Street. She glared at the ruined mansions, withering under buckled beams; strips of paint peeled off at irregular intervals so that the façades seemed to be suffering from a bout of measles or chicken-pox scabs. Around the turn of the century both a hurricane and a fire had ravaged Charlesport. But Juliet found it difficult to imagine these events—the noisy, wet drama of a hurricane, the roar of buildings aflame. It seemed impossible that a town standing in such dreary slumber had once built massive ships to sail the world.
Nothing here now,
but small-town bores.
Soon she passed the thickly wooded area where years earlier she and Tuck had rescued a wounded raven. “Raven Point,” they called the woods. Together they had nursed the bird back to health and kept it as a pet. Juliet had grown attached to Cher Ami, who would follow her to school. But at Tuck’s insistence, they eventually released the bird back into the woods. He belonged to the wilderness, Tuck had said. But for months afterward, Juliet and Tuck would lie side by side at the edge of Raven Point, staring up at the thick canopy of trees, calling Cher Ami’s name. Several times, they thought they spotted him on a distant branch. But the woods had changed the bird; he wouldn’t come down. Eventually, when she called his name, Juliet wasn’t even certain she could tell him apart from the other birds. She wept at this, and Tuck held her close. He said maybe it was their mother she was weeping for, and Juliet thought perhaps he
was right. She had died when Juliet was only three years old. Over the years, she and Tuck grew accustomed to lying at the edge of Raven Point, listening to the scratch of squirrels climbing the bluff oaks, talking into the early evening. It became their secret hideaway. Here they had shared their first cigarette, sipped their first bourbon. Here they had conjured up the fictional Miss Van Effing.