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Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes

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BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
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“They said
missing
. They tell you when they’re killed. It’s called KIA. I hear these things in school. I’m not living on the moon.”

“I understand,” Pearl conceded.

“So he’s still
alive,
but missing.”

“Alive indeed,” her father said emptily, and Juliet saw that a tear had welled in his eye.

“Let me see that.” Juliet grabbed the paper and studied the words. It was a Western Union telegram, with a few sentences typed in purple. Tuck had been missing in Italy since November 11. “If other information or further details are received,” it ended, “you will be promptly notified.”

“I know this is frightening,” Pearl said. “I know you think I am being cruel, you think I am being heartless. You want me to tell you that everything will be okay. You think
that
is love,
that
is kindness. So that you can grasp at little shreds of hope for years, always listening for the doorbell, always feeling your heart pound as you approach the mailbox, thinking, maybe today, then fighting back tears as you go to sleep each night because you still know nothing. . . . Child, I am telling you a very ugly truth to save you from unending despair. Let us slowly begin to shed our tears, to grieve your brother.” At this, Pearl set her hand on Juliet’s arm but Juliet pulled away.

“Don’t go digging my brother’s grave just because you lost your husband.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Pearl stood, smoothing her apron. “You’re right, I am sure he is fine,” she said, with such determined flatness that it scared Juliet more than anything else.

“I’ll be in my room,” Juliet said quietly, heading slowly up the staircase. All feeling, all life seemed to be draining out of her. In the hallway, she opened her brother’s door. The room was dark and shrunken. She heeled off her shoes and padded across the carpet where a year and a half earlier she had sprawled on her stomach watching Tuck remove a picture of her from a glass frame, set it between two folded shirts, and place it carefully at the top of his duffel.

“We’ll still be inseparable,” he’d said with a grin.

Juliet now climbed into his bed and lay very still.

Juliet remained at home for several days, seated at her desk, rereading Tuck’s letters. The paper gave her comfort—he’d touched those pages—and his descriptions of weather and food made her smile; she could hear his voice clearly. And as she came to the end of each page, Tuck felt entirely alive. Juliet was certain that if Tuck had been killed, she would have sensed some absence, some loss—a glass would have shattered in her hand, her chest would have cramped. A devastation of such magnitude simply couldn’t occur without a person noticing it.

Still, the idea of what he might be enduring terrified her. Her mind conjured up images of dank prison cells and rusty shackles. Was he hungry? Sleep deprived? Laboring beneath a ruthless sun? How long before he was set free? And how long before she heard from him again?

By the time Juliet returned to school, she had determined to bury her worries in the daily muck of bandaging and suturing. The first morning back, striding into the dormitory’s pale-blue common room, she shrugged aside questions as to where she’d been—“Juliet, we were worried!”—believing that to mention the telegram would only etch it further into reality. She didn’t want pity. She didn’t want concern. She wanted to live in the world
before
the telegram, the world where Tuck was safe. So fierce was her resolve not to discuss her brother that she was momentarily annoyed when she spotted a letter from him that night on her dorm-room pillow.

Hope surging, she tore open the letter, but when she noticed the date her hands went slack. One month before the telegram. Juliet almost threw the letter down before the strangeness of it being addressed to her at school in
Savannah—where Tuck had never written—registered.

Dearest Jules,

It’s late here and I’m the only one awake except for the sentry and I wanted more than anything to write to you. It’s hard to say much in these letters, to tell the truth about anything, because anything that says too much about our movements or would lower morale will get struck right out. But so much has been buzzing through my head, and I didn’t know who else to talk to. Being over here has changed the way I think about so many things, and what I think about people, about myself. I used to believe in everybody’s fundamental goodness, and then came the Nazis, who seemed fundamentally evil. I never really believed in God, the idea of a God who made us and everything and watches over us, but now I think maybe we’re the ones responsible for making God. We can
create
justice if we make the right choices. But you have to keep making those right choices, even when it’s hard and scary, and it’s so easy to lose your way.

What am I saying? I don’t know. Do you understand? Is it too much to think we can steer ourselves toward a better world? I thought that’s what I came over here for, to get the world back on course, to get history right, but sometimes I feel like the world is steering me.

I wonder what you’re doing, Jules. It’s been so long since we talked.

Sometimes when I’m scared I remember holding you in my arms when you were little. I remember the way you looked up at me, the trust in your face. That was the greatest feeling in the world. The memory keeps me calm, it keeps me safe. It’s why I’m here, to protect you and everything that hasn’t yet gone to rot.

I’d really like you to pay Miss Van Effing a visit if you get a chance, show her this
letter. Okay? We can’t keep Raven Point a secret anymore. I know what happened to Cher Ami. We never should have let him go.

Love,

Tuck

Juliet studied the handwriting—uneven, the end of each line sloping downward. Her eyes returned to his final sentences.
Pay Miss Van Effing a visit
 . . . s
how her this letter
 . . .

What on earth was he talking about?

She set the letter in her lap and gripped her bed. She had the same feeling she once had standing on the prow of a boat, when the ocean unexpectedly surged. After all those dutifully composed letters detailing encampments, after all those months of silence—this. It was confusing; he
sounded
confused. Tuck wasn’t one for pessimism, and he wasn’t prone to rambling. The only thing that was clear was that he was reaching out for help. The trouble was, she couldn’t for the life of her think what it was he wanted her to do. There was no Miss Van Effing to visit. There was nothing she could do at Raven Point. And what did he mean about the secret? And about Cher Ami?

Juliet tried to imagine her brother there in her small dormitory room, seated in the wooden rocker. When he was seven, he had fallen from a tree in their yard, and she remembered now the wild and desperate look on his face as he’d shrieked for help.

She sat down at her desk, pulled the chain on her lamp, and extracted a small envelope from her drawer. The birth certificate was soft, grayish; she stared at it for a moment and then, with an eraser, gently rubbed at the final digit in her birth date until enough of it had vanished so that with a pencil she could change the
6
to a
5
.

Then she crouched beside her bed and pulled out her blue suitcase.

PART II
1944
CHAPTER 4

JULIET STOOD PERFECTLY
still, listening to the scrape of the saw; small metal teeth were tearing at brittle bone. The boy on the operating table couldn’t have been more than nineteen. His eyes were closed, his face as pale as alabaster. A beauty mark punctuated his right cheek.

“The limb, Nurse Dufresne.”

Juliet grabbed the leg by the ankle, where it was coldest—warm flesh still gave her the willies—and wrangled it across her forearms, making sure its hairs didn’t rub between her cuffs and gloves. She hurried to the corner and set the limb in a pail clogged with legs and feet. Jesus, when was someone going to empty the trash?

Back at the operating table, she avoided looking at the boy. It seemed wrong to stare at a patient splayed so vulnerably unless her immediate task required it.

“Blood,” pronounced Bernice, the nurse anesthetist, as she plucked the ether cloth from the patient. “These two pints won’t cut it.” Bernice watched supplies like a sailor watching weather. She was short and pale and kept her red hair cut like a man’s. The long-time nurse at a school for wayward boys, she had the rigid stare of a woman prepared, at any moment, to ruler-smack your knuckles.

“I’ll go check the fridge,” said Juliet, peeling off her gloves. Outside, she loosened her mask to suck in the damp air. Another breath of gangrenous rot and she’d faint.

She gazed out at the mud-splattered city of tents. The field hospital had been pitched thirty miles north of Rome. Having finally claimed the bottom half of Italy, the US Fifth Army was pushing north of the capital, toward the Arno. Along the mountainous route, the Germans had fortified nearly every church and farmhouse, fighting intensely. Further complicating matters were the Ombrone and Cecina—two small rivers—and an elaborate lattice of gulches and gullies, heavily mined.

That morning, the 120-bed hospital had reached capacity, but casualties were still arriving. In the warm drizzle, a double row of litters snaked nearly a hundred yards beyond the receiving tent; Juliet groaned. On shift for more than forty-eight hours, she was about to collapse. Her back ached, her feet were blistered, and her arms were numb from shaking plasma and saline. And when had she last eaten? A deep hunger splintered her stomach, but breaks were only to change clothes (the sight of blood-soaked nurses panicked patients). Just as well. Anything in her stomach might come up during an amputation.

Lowering her head against the rain, she trudged toward the Sterilizing Tent, where her tent mate, “Glenda Texas,” stood rattling a steaming pan of needles and scalpels. Over her mouth Glenda had knotted a red silk scarf, a shiny crimson triangle that lent her the appearance of a glamorous bandit. Glenda had taken acting classes and liked to refer to herself as an ingénue.

“Sugar, you tell them they can have their supplies in five. I’m not playing any games with gas gangrene. And tell that hotshot new surgeon this ain’t the Mayo Clinic; if he wants to use every last instrument on every patient, he can get his knives from the mess.”

Juliet tugged open the fridge. “Only
eight
cans left?”

“I told them to get blood from those prisoners before they shipped them to evac. But Mother Hen sang on about protocol.” Mother Hen was their nickname for Chief Nurse Madge Henfield. “Like protocol has any place in this bedlam? And she won’t let the staff donate until the incomings quiet down. Not that I’m volunteering. Delicate constitution.”

“Too delicate to help with these cans?”

“Not at all, sugar.” Glenda Texas flicked off the steam sterilizer and stifled a yawn. “Double double boil and trouble.” She tilted the pan, and the needles rattled onto a tray. With one quick yank she loosened her scarf, revealing two bubblegum-pink lips.

Despite Glenda’s size, her claims of a delicate constitution, and her holding the tray in one hand, she hoisted the cans with ease. “Every time I carry these on a different side. That way my figure’ll stay balanced. Have you noticed Mother Hen’s right arm is twice the size of her left? Like it belongs to Joe Louis. Two years lugging packs and bedrolls and plasma cans, she should have thought it through. Anticipation and imagination, my mama always said.”

Outside, in the gray afternoon light, they carried the blood across the muddy field. A sudden shriek came from the surgical tent and Juliet dropped the cans.

“I’ll bet right now you’re wishing you were back in Naples!” Glenda laughed as Juliet wrestled the cans off the slippery ground. “Sug, I gotta say, it takes a real nutter to request a transfer to the front.”

Juliet smiled with embarrassment; she could hardly argue.

In late May she had arrived in Italy just before the Americans took Rome. She had been working at a general hospital in Naples when she heard that the Fifth Army was being reorganized for a northern assault. Hoping to get close to Tuck’s division, she requested a transfer, which—Glenda was right; few wanted to work the front lines—was readily granted. But leaving Naples had been surprisingly upsetting—Tuck had once been stationed there, and each night Juliet reread his letters from the city, staring out her dormitory window, wondering if he’d gazed upon the same jagged skyline. She wandered the greasy cobblestone streets, hoping she might, by accident or fate, retrace some of his steps, catch a wisp or shadow of him. But her attempts to get practical information—
If someone is declared missing, how often are they found? Where do Germans take their prisoners? How do you find out who, exactly,
reported someone missing?—
had met with such uniform failure that she felt she had no choice but to transfer. If not British, South African, or Polish, her patients in Naples were from entirely different divisions or had idiotically, if not intentionally, succumbed to gonorrhea before reaching the front. Any hope of getting information about Tuck depended on her catching up to where his unit was fighting.

BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
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ads

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