Golden Pond, Kentucky
September 10, 1931
Helen squatted beside the road with her head down. Her mama had been sad again this morning, and sometimes that sadness seemed to trickle right through into her own heart. She knew it had to do with the new little brother or little sister that Mama was supposed to be having. Four times now, and each time there was that scary quiet in the house before her mama would start to wailing and shedding tears, which would then go on for days and days and days. The first two times, when she was too little to help with most of the chores, her daddy had told her that being a good girl was the best thing she could do. Now she was big enough to light the fire in the mornings and sweep the floors and help her brother fetch the water. But no matter how good she was or how much she tried to help, her mama’s morning hugs and good-night kisses had turned into nothing but a scarce pat on the head now and then. More frequently what she got was a swat on the behind for something she hadn’t done good enough or didn’t even know she was supposed to be doing. When her brother Sinclair tried to stand up for her, Mama would start screaming and they’d learned it was better to just leave. They’d stay gone until their bellies were growling with hunger and then they’d creep back, only to find the house empty. Or sometimes, if Mama was still around, she’d act like nothing had happened for a while and then the whole business would start over again. Just thinking about it made the prick of tears start up in her eyes, until the approaching sound of a whining engine made her head come up. There he is. Run!
The dry dirt of the road came up in little puffs from under her bare feet. She tugged at her worn, shapeless shift when it rose up her thighs as her pace increased. If she didn’t catch Mr. Hall before his truck shifted gears again, it would be moving faster than she could go. Then she wouldn’t get to ride with him and she’d have to go to school instead. The very thought made her pump her arms a little faster. The kids at school had started teasing her about the way her mama fixed herself up when she went into town these days. She didn’t quite understand it all, but she knew it was bad because of the way the older kids laughed. It was something about Mama getting money from the payroll man at the Pearcy Coal Mine. But that didn’t make no sense, because while her daddy and just about every other man in town worked for Pearcy, her mama didn’t. Her brother Sinclair told her it weren’t nobody’s business since Mama always had dinner ready for them when her daddy got off shift, and that right there proved she was a good wife and mother. But Sinclair was older, bigger, and good with his fists, so no one never said nothing to him anyway.
Now that she could see herself in Mr. Hall’s side mirror, she hollered out his name and waved. When the truck slowed and Mr. Hall’s arm motioned her forward, the weight of sadness lifted off her like the way dynamite could blow a big stone clean off the mountain. She saw him slip that small bottle into his pocket as she came around the passenger side and hopped up on the running board. “Doncha need some help today, Mr. Hall?” she asked, a little breathless.
She knew he did, even if he didn’t want to say so. They’d both seen how folks a little farther away from town tended to be more skittish when an older man in uniform came to their door. But a friendly little girl like her could hop out, put the mail on their porch with a wave, and be back in the truck before anyone got disturbed.
The postman cocked his head a little. “Ain’t you supposed to be in school, Helen?”
Her gut tightened but she made sure to keep her best smile in place. “Nah. I’m doing so good the teacher give me the day off.”
She figured he knew it was a lie, but he’d been the one to teach her about how that was sometimes necessary. Like how she couldn’t never, ever tell anyone that she helped him with his Postal Service deliveries or say anything about the little bottle that he pulled on from time to time when he thought she didn’t see him. The most important thing to her was that he not be lying about his promise to teach her to drive when she got tall enough to reach the pedals and the steering wheel both. That and those special occasions when her daddy would take her and her brother to visit with her Aunt Darcy and Mrs. Murrell in their tidy little house in town were the things she most looked forward to in life.
Fort Des Moines, Iowa
September 10, 1944
The way it was with Helen Tucker had happened so gradually that Tee wasn’t sure how to explain it. Not like she would even try. To anyone, ever. ’Cause what scared her the most was how right it felt. Like natural, almost. But of course it wasn’t. It was wrong and evil and sinful as anything. You couldn’t live your whole life as a good Baptist girl and not know that. Now, Helen didn’t care what the Bible said. Tee remembered how shocked she’d been when Helen declared that she wasn’t a believer, that she’d never given her life to Jesus or hardly even been inside a church at all. But even knowing that, Tee had secretly found Helen’s bold, daring manner inspiring and almost…exciting, in a way. As far as she could tell, the rest of the girls in her squad liked Helen, too, and were willing to allow for her occasional heated outbursts. In fact, they seemed to respect her disposition to say or do exactly what was on her mind, especially since she had so far managed to stay just this side of insubordination. No one like that had ever wanted to be her friend before, and Tee had been proud that Helen had saved her the next bunk over when they first got to the barracks and almost always sat by her in the mess hall and in classes. When the gradual thing first started happening, Tee had thought it was just part of becoming someone’s best friend. Lots of girls held hands at some time, didn’t they? And when they’d both passed their first test, that long, tight hug of celebration had felt just wonderful. But she hadn’t thought there was anything unusual about that either.
She remembered Helen from her first moments at Fort Des Moines. Thinking back about their arrival, she shuddered, remembering how the drill instructor who first greeted them was so mean, screaming at her because she wasn’t answering fast enough. The stocky Sergeant Moore had made a very unkind remark about Helen, too, just because she was thin and, well, the coal dust under her fingernails did make her look a little dirty. Luckily for them all, Sergeant Rains had come along and taken over and Tee had been able to get enough words out to answer what was being asked of her. Sergeant Rains was just as intimidating in her own way, with her piercing black eyes and black hair and serious command presence, but they soon learned that she was firm but fair, and genuinely interested in helping each of them succeed in the Women’s Army Corps. After Helen introduced herself, she’d looked straight at Tee and said that maybe being in the Army would help them not always be depending on someone else, even if they were girls. Tee hadn’t had the nerve to answer her, but she’d managed a slight smile.
That day, even before they got settled in and started learning the routines of the camp and about being soldiers, Sergeant Rains had told them that they would become like a family. Tee hadn’t been sure if that would be a good thing or not, but so far, it had been. For one thing, they ate a lot more regularly than her family had lately. The food was real good and there was plenty of it with no sign of anything being rationed. Tee also liked the way their days were arranged for them, so that they knew exactly where they were supposed to be and no one would get mad at them as long as they followed the rules. Some evenings they even had a little time for themselves, and most of her squad mates were already finding other things to do, like going to one of the bars or the movies, or joining a club or an organization that interested them. Tee hadn’t ever joined anything other than the church, so she just wrote letters home as she listened to the chatter around her, until her new friend Helen had struck up a conversation. They seemed to have a lot in common, and pretty soon she and Helen were talking about any and everything, Helen waiting with surprising patience as she stammered over her words. Tee had pretty much decided she was going to enjoy being a soldier, in spite of what some of the folks back home had said about women being in the Army.
But when their classes started, Tee was afraid that she might not get to stay in the WAC after all, because she couldn’t seem to keep up. Not doing very well at their assignments and tests was one more thing that she and Helen shared. Luckily, Sergeant Rains assigned Bett Smythe, the smart college girl, to help them both with their studies. Bett was nice and patient and better at explaining their lessons than a lot of the instructors. Once Tee began to catch on better and was able to stop feeling so anxious all the time, she began to notice that Helen always brushed her teeth or put on a clean shirt or made sure to comb her hair back out of her eyes when it was time for them to meet with Bett for tutoring. Tee started wondering if Helen would rather have Bett as her best friend, and it gave her an awful ache inside. Bett was beautiful and smart, whereas Tee was slow in lots of ways and nothing special to look at. She’d been told both of those things plenty of times. When that thought about Helen and Bett got settled in her head, she couldn’t stop feeling down and the lump in her throat made it even harder to talk, so she didn’t.
After two days, Helen pulled her aside one night as they were walking back from dinner.
“What’s the matter with you?” she’d demanded impatiently.
Tee had turned away, shaking her head. She didn’t like it when Helen got mad. It made her think of her daddy and the way he’d yell when it hadn’t rained enough or it rained too much or there was too much wind to plant or the mule went lame or any one of three dozen other things that would upset him. But Helen didn’t get madder this time. Without another word, she’d taken Tee’s hand and pulled her along until they got to the bleachers at the deserted parade grounds. There, she’d pointed insistently, so Tee sat.
Helen straddled the bench and faced her, her voice forceful. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
When Tee only looked down, Helen put her hand on Tee’s cheek, very carefully raising her face. Her voice had changed to match the touch. The anger was completely absent, and only sweetness remained. “Please, Tee. I hate it when you’re unhappy. You gotta let me know what I did so I can try to fix it.”
The thought of explaining it all in words was exhausting, so she simply stammered out Bett’s name.
Helen stood up, her fists clenched. “What about her? Was she mean? Did Bett say something that upset you?”
Tee put her hand on Helen’s arm to pull her back down, almost smiling. “Nuh-uh. She—she’s just so…pretty.” Her head lowered again and her voice was softer, even through the sputtering sounds of her words. “I know you like her better than me.”
Helen’s mouth opened a little and she sat back a bit, as if she was surprised. Tee risked a quick glance, hoping that reaction wouldn’t change to irritation. To her relief, Helen’s mouth stretched into a grin.
“Look, Tee. Bett’s a doll, all right? And yeah, maybe I put on the dog for her a little bit, okay? But it don’t mean nothin’.” She took Tee’s hand again. “You were brave to tell me that. So I’m gonna be brave, too. I’m gonna tell you something that you might not like to hear. But I’m gonna hope that maybe, just maybe, it’ll be all right.”
Tee wanted to close her eyes. Her mama always closed her eyes when her daddy was telling her bad news. But then Helen had taken her other hand, too, and that alone made the moment suddenly feel too important not to watch.
“You’re not only my best friend, Tee.” Helen took in a long breath. “You’re the person I most want to see, the one I most want to be with. You’re special to me.” She let the rest of her breath out. “I have those kinds of feelings for you. Is that all right?”
For a moment, Tee thought she might cry. She didn’t think Helen was the type to say such nice things to someone. And here she’d said it to plain, stuttering Teresa Owens from Haskett, Oklahoma. Helen was looking at her really hard, like she was trying to see what Tee was thinking.
“Please, say somethin’, Tee.”
Tee swallowed hard, trying to choke back the stream of emotions—relief, excitement, joy. Helen still likes me best. She put her hands on Helen’s face, the way her mama did to her when she was trying to soothe a hurt. “Okay,” was all she could manage, but Helen’s smile let her know it was enough.
After that, it seemed like one thing just led to another. They’d started sitting a little closer, touching a little more often, and then those touches turned into soft petting strokes. Sometimes Helen’s touch made her want to curl up in her lap and purr like a cat. But recently, more and more, she felt a wanting for something else, something beyond Helen’s fingers on her arm or hand on her thigh. She’d liked it when they’d started hugging for no real reason at all, although when her body got close with Helen’s, it made her feel both settled in and wound up at the same time. It was during one of those hugs that Helen first kissed her. It was just a little brush of lips, almost like an accident. They were close to the same height but when they hugged, Tee liked to rest her head on Helen’s shoulder, facing into her neck. They seemed to fit that way, and she never thought another thing about it until Helen’s mouth had turned into hers for that quick instant. Tee would have been upset—should have been upset, she corrected herself—but Helen’s lips were so soft and it had only lasted a second. There hadn’t been much kissing in her home, but she’d kissed each of her three older sisters on their wedding days, so she tried putting that in her mind. Yes, Helen was her best friend and her WAC sister, so it was okay to think of Helen as family.
Until the next time. On a Saturday night when they both declined another offer to join some of the girls and their escorts at the NCO club and had taken a walk around the base together instead. Tee’s insides got real stiff when she realized where Helen was leading her. Everyone said that corner of the base they called the grove was a make-out place after dark, and good girls would never let someone take them there. Why would Helen be headed in that direction, unless…? She let Helen’s words from before come back into her mind. I have those kinds of feelings for you. Was she suggesting something more than friend feelings? Suddenly Tee wasn’t sure what anything meant, and her heart began pounding like the way it did when she was fearful.
Her mind flashed to the time when she’d been most frightened in her life. They were still calling her Teresa then, and that was the name that her daddy hollered out that time that he’d come into the barn and found their hired man working his zipper down as he pushed her face toward the bulge in his pants. The look on her daddy’s face still hurt her when she thought about it, and her daddy didn’t even know this wasn’t the first time.
About six months before, she’d been putting the chicken feed bucket away in the little tack room when Morris Gallagher had come in behind her and shut the door. The room was small and he was close. Real close. Too close. She told him she wanted out and he’d nodded, putting his hand on the door like he was fixin’ to open it. Then he’d clenched his teeth, wincing like he was in pain. Teresa hated to see any kind of suffering, and Mr. Gallagher knew it. He knew she was the one who found homes for the two kittens that their barn cat had so her daddy wouldn’t get rid of them in the creek. He’d seen her mothering those baby chicks and petting the new calf that their milk cow had birthed. When he’d seen her crying over the paralyzed little rabbit that had gotten its hindquarters caught in the thresher, Mr. Gallagher was the one who’d offered to put it out of its misery for her. The rabbit had been screaming as it writhed helplessly and when Teresa began to cry, he’d pulled her to him, patting her awkwardly and telling her she was just too tenderhearted.
After that, he’d always been real nice to her, telling her how she was comely or kind or had a beautiful singing voice. Now he said, “I just need you to do something to stop me from hurtin’, pretty girl. And I know you’ll want to help, ’cause you’re sweet that way.”
She’d stopped moving toward the door and asked him what it was he wanted. “You know how your mama will knead your daddy’s shoulders when he’s tired, and sometimes he’ll massage her feet after she’s been on them all day?” Teresa didn’t really remember either of these things actually happening, but she could imagine them, the way Mr. Gallagher described it, so she’d nodded. “Well, I got this muscle here that’s swollen bad.” He’d run his hand over the front of his pants. “And I think if you’d just rub on it a little for me, it would get all better.”
Everything in her had gone real still, and she could feel a tug-of-war going on inside her. She’d been around animals all her life, and even though she didn’t have any brothers, she was pretty sure this was a private place on a man. But then he’d taken her hand and kissed it gently before putting it there on his body where she would feel something hard under his jeans. “Uh-huh,” he’d grunted, leaning back against the door, his eyes closed. “That’s helping me a lot.” Teresa wasn’t so sure that was true, because the hard place didn’t seem to be getting any softer. When he made a groaning sound, she tried to move her hand away, but he’d covered it with his, showing her how he wanted it done. “Just a little harder, pretty girl,” he told her, his voice hoarse. “That’s it. A little faster now. Good…good…good. Yeah.” After a bit he’d let out a long kinda grunting sound and breathed a few shaky breaths. “That’s my girl,” he said after a minute. As she was noticing how there was some wet on his pants now and a strange new scent was drifting around the tack room, he’d stroked her hair. “You did good.” Then he held the door and said, “You go on out now, and remember—you’re my special doctor. You can’t tell nobody else, hear?”
About two weeks later it had happened again. Even though she’d secretly liked the idea of being a doctor, Teresa wasn’t so sure that Mr. Gallagher was truly hurting. Actually, whenever she thought about what had happened, she felt kinda sickly herself. So she’d been real careful not to be alone with him, but he’d snuck in behind her that next time. She’d tried to tell him no, but that was the time when her words first started sticking in her throat and wouldn’t come out even and smooth like normal people. Not even that one word. No. She’d started shaking her head, but then Mr. Gallagher had looked so hurt and disappointed. He’d begged her, telling her how much it hurt and how she was the only one who had ever helped him that way. When he took her hand and put it there, like he’d done before, she felt powerless, like an animal caught in a trap.
Another time, he’d tried to reach for her as she rubbed him, but she’d stopped, backed away as much as possible, and managed to say no. He’d cornered her then, and that begging look he’d had before changed to something threatening. “If you don’t want me to touch you, that’s fine. But you’ll finish what you started, pretty girl, if you know what’s good for you.” After that, she’d tried to avoid going into the tack room at all, but then her daddy yelled at her for not putting things back where they belonged, adding if it weren’t for their hired man, their whole place would fall apart. That night she wondered if it was possible for a person to fall apart if they got things inside them that didn’t belong.
Each occurrence with Mr. Gallagher made her feel worse and worse, but she didn’t know what to do to make it stop. The next time, when he’d unzipped his pants, she’d hidden her face in her hands and started to cry. He’d stormed out, but later he’d made sure she saw him holding up Lula Belle, the puppy she’d gotten for her birthday, while his hands twisted around like he was going to wring her neck. So there had been twice more where she closed her eyes and tried to think of anything else. Once she’d been able to sing hymns in her own head loudly enough to cover up his noises, but the second time he’d gotten closer and she could feel his body bumping up against her, but she couldn’t move away ’cause he’d grabbed her shoulders, while he groaned bad words right next to her ear. When they were done, he’d said, “I think next time you might need to kiss it to make it all better. What do you think about that, pretty girl?”
She thought she’d never been so fretful. It seemed like her stomach hurt all the time, and even her mama had noticed there was something wrong with her speaking voice. They’d prayed about it at church but it didn’t help. Teresa wondered if it was because she couldn’t find the words to confess her terrible secret that nothing else would come out right neither. She felt like that little paralyzed rabbit, thrashing about helplessly, unable to run or hide—and she couldn’t even scream. Desperate to give herself a way out the next time, she had pried a nail out of a board in their plow horse’s stall and hammered it in crooked on the tack room door frame, leaving a bend in it so the door wouldn’t close all the way. But Mr. Gallagher was so pleased with himself for having caught her in the tack room again so soon that he didn’t even notice about the door. Maybe her daddy just happened by and saw that door not closing right or maybe he heard something that he knew didn’t belong there, but sometimes Teresa pretended that the Lord chose to look down right then and decided to help her. And even though Lonnie Owens had run Mr. Gallagher off that very minute, he’d made it clear that Teresa had done something terrible, too, something that had made their hired man treat her that way, as if she’d encouraged him to put his big rough hands on her or had wanted to hear his wheedling voice that would sound so encouraging at first and then listen to him grunting like some animal in heat at the end of it. “It would break your mama’s heart if she knew about this,” was the last thing her daddy told her before he walked away in disgust. So that was where the secret stayed. And when her talking never really got any better, the family started calling her Tee, meaning it as a joke at first, but then it stuck.
She didn’t really blame her daddy for being mad at her. She’d heard often enough how hard it was trying to run a farm with nothing but four worthless daughters to help him, even though they’d all tried to do their part. She’d just turned sixteen when Mr. Gallagher left. Her older sisters had all gotten married off already, but none of their men were interested in helping on the Owenses’ land. Teresa didn’t know if Mr. Gallagher had told the men in the town about their times in the tack room, but when she was at school, none of the boys her age seemed to want anything to do with her, with her sticking words and her shy ways. Even at church, boys would just barely acknowledge her and then keep walking. And if truth be told, she was just as glad. It upset her terribly if she even thought about a boy wanting her to do the same things that Mr. Gallagher had. About the time her mama had started fussing in earnest about her needing to get wed, the war had come and then there weren’t many men around anyway. Tee hadn’t minded the idea of being her mama’s baby a little longer, but once they’d lost the farm and moved into town, it was obvious she was going to have to do something more to help out.
There’d been a lot of discouraging talk about her joining the WAC at home and in town, but she really hadn’t had much trouble adjusting. It was probably because she’d been raised mostly in the company of women and had always felt more comfortable with them than around men. Which led her to thinking about why her feelings for Helen had seemed so familiar at first. Good. Safe. Happy. Nothing about their being together had ever worried her until recently, when she’d begun to realize that those feelings had gradually gotten much stronger than anything she’d ever felt for one of her real sisters. Sometimes, like now, it worried her, how important it was. It wasn’t just nice to be with Helen, or fun. It had become something almost…necessary.
As they got closer and closer to the tall trees that made up the grove, Helen must have felt her starting to draw back, ’cause she said, “Look, Tee. I just want us to be somewhere that we won’t keep gettin’ interrupted. We’ll just sit here on the outside edge of this place, put our backs to these nice trees, and talk for a while, okay?”
Tee had nodded with relief, except then Helen led her another few steps before turning to face her. Even in the dusky light, Tee could see something unusual in Helen’s eyes. Part fear and part…she wasn’t sure what. But she knew she didn’t like seeing Helen scared, so she’d stepped closer and put her arms around Helen’s shoulders, patting her back lightly.
“S’okay,” she whispered, liking the little sigh that Helen made as her arms came around Tee’s waist.
They stood like that for a minute, their bodies molding to each other. The bad memories that had been in her mind faded away and Tee relaxed into the closeness that had become so familiar. Warm and soft and sweet. Easy. Then Helen’s hands stroked slowly up and down her sides, making her want to wiggle with pleasure. Her insides felt tickly and she pressed closer in response.
“Tee.” Helen’s voice was a little bit breathless. “Tell me if this doesn’t feel as good to you as it does to me.”
But when Tee opened her mouth to speak, only a shaky little ah sound came out. Helen’s head turned into her and Helen’s lips pressed onto her neck. Helen’s warm breath mixed with the slight wetness of her mouth to create the most incredible sensation that Tee had ever known. The pressure of Helen’s motions streaked into her belly and somehow made its way down between her thighs. As if reading Tee’s mind, Helen shifted slightly so her leg was there to meet that feeling. When Helen’s body began moving slightly against hers, Tee’s arms tightened and she heard herself make that sound again.
Then Helen’s mouth was at her ear and she whispered, “Sometimes I stare at your mouth all day, just wondering what it would be like to really kiss you. Would you let me find out, Tee? Could I kiss you right now?”
Tee had lifted her face to say no, but Helen was already leaning toward her and that friction that was happening even through their clothes had made Tee’s lips part just a bit, and Helen must have seen that because she didn’t stop. Their lips met and it was soft like before but not quick. No, not quick at all. It was slow and deep, and for a minute, Tee only knew that she didn’t want it to end. She didn’t know anything about kissing, really, so she just imitated Helen’s movements and when Helen made her own sound of pleasure, she felt so pleased with herself that she let it go on and on. Dimly, she was aware they were both breathing faster, but then she didn’t think about that anymore because a little flick of Helen’s tongue had played across her lips and that same streak of warmth shot through her, all the way down to her feet. A wild vision danced behind her eyes as one of Helen’s hands stroked slowly down her back, pulling her closer—the two of them naked, lying together while doing these same things to each other. She pulled back with a gasp.
“I want—” Tee stopped the words because the rest of the thought was too outlandish to speak out loud. But she couldn’t stop picturing Helen’s nakedness, her body’s lean, tight lines and small, firm breasts. There was no such thing as privacy living in a barracks with so many other women on the same schedule from morning till night, so of course they’d seen each other’s bodies. During the very first week she’d felt embarrassed when she’d caught Helen admiring her full bosoms, until Helen had grinned and told her she looked like a woman was supposed to. Now, arching under Helen’s touch, she brought her hand to Helen’s chest, amazed as a hard, tight peak rose right through the material and pressed against her palm. Curious, Tee tried the same thing with the other breast, but the nipple there was already hard. Helen groaned and Tee felt a strange sense of power. She imagined herself strong enough to rip Helen’s shirt open and bold enough to put her mouth there, sucking on her small breasts until Helen begged her—
“God, Tee,” Helen said hoarsely, cupping her bottom as they both moved in time to her rhythmic massage.
The tempo matched something building deep inside Tee, until Helen’s utterance penetrated her reeling mind.
God. What would God think of what they were doing? Tee pressed both hands against Helen’s shoulders and pushed lightly. Shuddering at the loss of contact, she managed just one word. “Wait.”
Helen gripped Tee’s waist and held her at arm’s length as she steadied herself, head down. They were both still breathing roughly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Tee. I never meant to take you that far. You just—you feel so good to me.” She looked up into Tee’s eyes. “Forgive me?”
Tee’s insides deflated like the skin of a balloon when all the air had been let out. Part of her wanted to blow it back up, to keep on blowing until the thing popped, but the sound of a popping balloon had never failed to startle her, so that must not be a good idea. She shook her head, trying to bring some sense back to her swirling thoughts.
Helen let her hands drop from Tee’s waist, clenching them at her sides. “Please, Tee. I know I must have scared you, but I really didn’t mean to. I just—I let myself go crazy.” She blew out a breath and Tee thought she might have seen the glint of tears in her eyes. “I’m really sorry if I upset you,” she repeated softly.
Tee wasn’t sure what to say, but she couldn’t let Helen take all the blame. She’d let Helen do the things she’d done, and if she was honest, she knew she’d even encouraged her. But the main thing, what mattered most, was that Helen had stopped when Tee asked her to. She wouldn’t force her to do something she didn’t want to do. Helen wasn’t like Mr. Gallagher.
“Okay,” she said. “But you m-mustn’t…” She couldn’t finish and resorted to making a gesture between them.
To her surprise, Helen smiled that roguish grin, the one that usually meant she was up to no good. She stepped back in a little closer and took Tee’s hands. “Honestly, Tee, I can’t say I won’t try again sometime.”
As if in response, Tee’s rebellious heart began beating more quickly again.
Helen’s eyes met hers and her smile widened. “Because I didn’t hear you say no. I heard you say wait. So I will promise to do that.”
Tee couldn’t answer. Even if her words could have flowed as smooth as honey, she had no idea what to say. Helen seemed to know something about her that she hadn’t even known herself. She remembered her mama’s words when they’d dropped her at the train station to come here. You remember who you are, Teresa Owens. Don’t let them Army folks make you into something you ain’t. Were these new feelings about Helen part of what she already was, or were they something she wasn’t? She shivered a bit and Helen’s expression turned sympathetic.
Helen rubbed Tee’s shoulders, as if she was trying to warm her during a cold spell. “Don’t worry, Tee. Everything’s gonna be all right, hear?”
After a few seconds, she turned, and Tee automatically followed as they started back toward the barracks. Tee could hear the smile in Helen’s voice as she said, “If you don’t distract me next time, I wanna tell you about my Aunt Darcy.”
“Private Tucker?” The voice was quiet but she still jumped. Helen had been wallowing pretty deep in her own misery for the last two days, the image of Tee’s stiff back moving quickly away after she had not only told her no, but added never again, playing over and over in her thoughts. Now she didn’t have to look up to know who was speaking. Over the last few weeks she’d gotten to know that voice really well. She’d even come to respect Sergeant Rains, if not actually like her, so she sure didn’t want to think about how their drill instructor must see her now. Pervert. Queer. Dyke. Lesbo.
Dreading what was coming, she stood quickly at attention, keeping her eyes focused in the distance as she’d been taught. “Yes, ma’am.” She hadn’t talked to their drill instructor privately since Sergeant Rains had done her the biggest favor of her life. Or so it had seemed at the time. Now that things were definitely over between her and Tee, she sometimes wondered if it would have been better if they’d both gotten kicked out of the WAC. Maybe they’d still be together. At the thought, her insides about seized up again and she clenched her fists, trying to make the pain go away. She surely hadn’t found the answer in the drinking she’d done last night. Liquor only made her head hurt almost as much as her heart. At least she’d passed out right after CQ and hadn’t had to toss and turn like she’d done the night before. The night everything changed between her and Tee.
“I’d like to speak with you about an opportunity that’s come up. Would you walk with me?”
That was a surprise, but Helen stood, nodding, and they started off, falling into a comfortable rhythm. Another thing she’d always liked about her sergeant was that the woman seemed to understand that sometimes you just needed to move. Some people wanted to spend every available moment on their backsides, but Sergeant Rains wasn’t like that. Neither was she. They’d run laps together a few times when one of the officers had made her mad or when she’d been about to get into a fight with Barb, who bunked on the other side of her, because Barb was always on her case about her messy footlocker. The sergeant didn’t seem to be in any hurry, so it wasn’t hard for her to keep up with the taller woman’s stride. “It’s my understanding,” Rains continued after they’d been walking for a bit, “that you’re interested in the motor transport school.”
Helen didn’t bother to wonder how her drill instructor knew this. “Yes, ma’am,” she said again, feeling compelled to make her case. “I’ve had a little experience with that kind of driving and it suits me.” She hoped the sergeant wouldn’t ask for details since she couldn’t very well tell about her unofficial Postal Service duties. But Rains merely nodded as if she already knew this also.
“There’s a vacancy in the school at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia that begins on Monday,” she resumed in the same level tone. “A WAC who was scheduled to attend has taken ill. I’d be willing to recommend you for the opening”—she hesitated briefly and let her eyes slide to Helen’s face—“if you are up to it.” Helen supposed that the sergeant was referring to her drinking episode the previous night. She suspected that if Sergeant Rains had found her drunk again tonight, she wouldn’t have made the offer. “If you’d prefer to wait another week, you will still have the opportunity to participate here at Fort Des Moines on our regular schedule. This offer is somewhat irregular but I thought—”
“Yes, ma’am. I’d be very interested in going now.” Helen jumped in, not wanting to hear any more. Even if Rains could find a delicate way to put it, they both knew what she meant. Things weren’t going to get any better until she had some distance from this situation. She couldn’t begin to voice how much she’d been dreading the coming week. Listening to Tee’s breathing in the bunk right next to hers, trying to avoid her in the shower, finding someone else to sit next to in class and in the mess hall—it all seemed too much to bear. They’d spent every day of the last five weeks growing close, and the pain of Tee breaking it off between them was too raw. “But I guess I’d be back here for graduation. Right?” Tee might have said it, but Helen wasn’t ready for never again to be the way it really was. Not quite.
“Yes. In fact, you and the rest of your squad will have seven class days left of basic training when you return. You’ll pick up with them for the remainder of that week and then they’ll be in their individual training classes during the following week, so you can finish up your general studies with another squad.”
Perfect. It dawned on her that Rains had probably done something extraordinary to make this happen. Helen felt her throat tighten with gratitude and her voice came out thickly as a result. “Thank you, Sergeant Rains. I really appreciate—”
Rains stopped walking and cut her off with a wave of her hand. “No thanks necessary, Private. Just make the best of this new opportunity. That’s all any of us will ask.” She started away and turned back. “Your train is at noon tomorrow, so I’d recommend that you gather your things after breakfast.”
Helen swallowed. After breakfast, Tee and a lot of the other girls would be in church. Since it was their one completely free day, everyone else would probably be shopping at the PX or doing some other kind of errand. She wouldn’t have to answer a lot of questions or deal with any strained good-byes. Even if it was only good-bye for now. “Yes, ma’am,” she said firmly. “I’ll do that.”
Tee slipped into the chapel and took a seat in the second row from the back. She hadn’t been completely faithful about attending services at the WAC camp, but it wasn’t her first time there either. Right now she was just grateful that this was one place where there was no chance of her running into Helen. There was quite a bit of space between her and the next person, but she nodded automatically at the form down the pew and then put her bag and her hat beside her, hoping to discourage anyone else from sitting near her. Settling in, she began reading over the bulletin. Even though she had no hope of any real solace, it would be wonderful to sing just one or two of her favorite hymns. “Abide with Me: Fast Falls the Eventide” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” would go a long way to ease her troubled heart. Tee loved to sing and she used to be a bit proud of her high, clear voice. Now she thought that the best thing about her singing was that she didn’t stammer when she did it. There was one song listed that she didn’t recognize and then “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” That was a good one, too.
She lifted her own King James Bible and marked the passages that were to be read with the two ribbons her mama had sewn into the binding—blue for the Old Testament and gold for the New. Staring at the book in her hand, she remembered standing in front of the whole church, along with one other girl and three boys close to her age, and professing Jesus Christ to be her Lord and Savior. Then everyone had driven almost an hour to the Arkansas River and all the teens had been baptized and received their Bibles. It was a wonderful time. But sometimes she wondered if she’d done something wrong that day, if maybe her heart hadn’t actually been right or she’d been false in her promises somehow, because Mr. Gallagher had come to the farm that very spring, and that had led to so many bad things. The organ began to play and Tee forced her thoughts back to the present. She noted the pastor’s name—Dr. Harold Landover—and below that it said Guest Preacher. There had been a guest preacher the last few times she’d been here, too. She supposed with so many men gone to the war it was hard to find someone full-time at a place like Fort Des Moines.
The service was satisfying in its familiar routine. The all-women’s choir did a beautiful job with the musical offerings, and even the unfamiliar hymn was easy to sing. Tee knew she couldn’t read the Confession aloud without stuttering, so she just moved her mouth even as she repeated the words from 1 John 1:8–9 to herself with as much fervor as she could muster. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God, you know my sin as well as I. I pray you’ll cleanse me from my iniquities, she prayed silently.
Afterward, the pastor stepped up to the pulpit where he read the Gospel lesson with great zeal. He was a beefy man with a florid face, and even as far back as she was sitting, Tee could see that the fingers that came together as he offered his opening prayer looked thick and insensitive. Not like Helen’s hands. She had the sweetest touch, one that never failed to—Stop it! Tee scolded herself. Those kind of thoughts were bad enough by themselves, but they were surely heresy in the house of the Lord.
The preacher began by reminding the congregation that this was his last Sunday with them, and as such, he was finishing his series on What Happens When You Die? Tee swallowed, hoping for a message of hope and comfort, given that so many men were fighting and dying even as they spoke. She wondered if the other women present were thinking of husbands or cousins or uncles who might have already made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. For a fleeting second, she allowed herself to think of Helen again and her stories about her brother. Apparently, they were as close as two siblings could be, and up until the day he was drafted, Sinclair Tucker had made it his personal mission to care for his sister as best he could, given that their daddy worked all day in the mine and their mama just didn’t seem up to the job after she’d lost those four babies. She was glad that Helen had someone like him, and offered up a quick personal prayer for his safety. Then she brought her attention back to the pastor’s words.
“Hell is real,” he was saying, “and it is a place for people who do not make amends for their sins by asking for God’s mercy. Entrance into heaven or hell is not based on whether you’re good or bad, for the Bible says there is none righteous. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Yes, Tee thought, feeling some relief despite the seriousness of the message. I’m not the only sinner here. Everyone has done things they’re not proud of. Landover shifted his comments to emphasize what the Bible said regarding the reality of damnation, delving into the story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16. Tee turned in her Bible to follow along. She worked the meaning of the old wording out in her head, the way Bett had taught her to do with lessons from the WAC courses, and understood that those souls who were sent to hell wouldn’t get a second chance to make it to heaven, and likewise, no one in heaven could even visit hell for a minute.
Tee couldn’t help thinking about Helen again and the fact that she was going to hell because she didn’t believe. Was she herself now going there, too? The very thought made her shiver. Once, when their preacher at home had done a sermon about hell, he’d painted such a frightening picture that one woman actually fainted. For a solid year after that horrible time with Mr. Gallagher, Tee had prayed and prayed, desperately afraid that she was going to be punished for her part in it. Then one night, she’d been awakened from her sleep by the faint honking sound of migrating geese flying over. She opened the window to look out and the sight took her breath away. It was a small flock, less than twenty or so, high up in the sky. The full moon was out and the light on their wings made them look white. Like angels, Tee had thought, and in that moment she was filled with a profound sense of peace. “Thank you, Jesus,” she’d whispered, incredibly grateful to know the grace of His forgiveness.
The pastor’s voice intruded on her memory, quoting Jesus, who threatened of a place where “sin is punished and God’s wrath is poured out.” Landover continued, “It makes sense that hell exists. If it didn’t, why would Jesus have urged his followers to follow God and repent? Be warned that your good deeds alone won’t get you into heaven. Trust Jesus, and pray for forgiveness. Because without repentance, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Amen.”
As the preacher stepped away from the pulpit, Tee’s heart contracted inside her chest. Repent. Had she? Was she truly repentant for what she and Helen had done? She knew she wasn’t. Deep inside her she was still feeling the warmth of Helen’s mouth and the sweetness of her embrace and finding it good. No wonder she hadn’t found a moment’s peace for the last three days, ever since Sergeant Rains stepped out of the shadows and stopped her and Helen after they’d been together in the equipment room.
That Thursday night, as she’d followed Helen into the small room, Tee could tell that Helen had been in there earlier to set everything up, because some of the equipment was pushed to the sides and a mat was laid out on the floor. Instead of feeling ashamed, as she should have, she’d felt that tingling excitement in her belly, the urgent pulsing she only felt when she was with Helen. But when Helen went to shut the door, she’d almost panicked. Without meaning to she made a little whimper, and after one look at her face, Helen left the door open just a crack. For a minute they just looked at each other, and then Helen had taken her face in her hands and kissed her softly. Just like that, the fear was gone and everything inside her leaned toward Helen like she was a flower and Helen was the sun. Talking sweetly to her between kisses, Helen was so charmingly patient, never making her feel rushed or pressured. But soon, their kisses got harder and more insistent and her knees felt so weak that she’d willingly lain down on the mat. “Can you imagine if we had our own place, Tee?” Helen had asked as she gathered Tee into her arms. “It would be like this every night when we went to sleep.” Having Helen hold her and feeling the warmth of her all the way down her body was like having some kind of spell cast where everything in her had just wanted more, more, more.
Tee wasn’t sure which of them was more surprised when she was the one who moved first, unbuttoning Helen’s shirt and parting the fabric with her hand to give her mouth access. Touching Helen’s breast with her tongue and then taking it into her mouth was every bit as wondrous as she’d imagined that night in the grove, and hearing Helen’s soft groaning only made it better still. She’d felt so free, so immodest, as Helen’s caresses had hiked her skirt up so she could straddle Helen’s body as she fumbled with the buttons on her own blouse. They’d giggled at the way Helen was equally shaky when she tried to help, but once her shirt and bra were off, the laughter died away.
“Oh, Tee. You’re so incredibly beautiful.” Helen’s voice was almost reverent as she looked her way up Tee’s body until their eyes met.
Tee’s breasts were aching for the feel of Helen’s hands. “Please,” she whispered, her voice surprisingly sure. “Touch me.”
Helen’s hands cupped her and they moaned together. When Helen’s thumbs moved lightly onto her nipples, it was so enjoyable that Tee had to close her eyes. Without really knowing what she was doing, she pressed herself into Helen’s body as Helen gently rolled the hard tips between her fingers, over and over. Short panting sounds were coming from her mouth and Helen said her name again, almost in a growl. Tee could feel Helen thrusting up against her and she suddenly realized that her panties were very damp, almost soaked. What had happened? Had she somehow wet herself without knowing it? “Helen, wait,” she said earnestly, and something of her distress must have penetrated Helen’s awareness, because her fingers stilled, her hands simply holding Tee’s breasts, and she sat up just a bit.
“What is it, baby? Did I hurt you?”
Tee shook her head, blushing at the endearment but also because of what she’d apparently done. Helen sat up the rest of the way and pulled Tee onto her lap as she held her against her chest. Their breasts brushing together made Tee whimper just a bit as Helen stroked her back, her voice soothing. “Tell me. Let me make it okay.”
It had taken Tee almost a full minute to get enough words out to make herself understood. When she finally did, Tee could tell that Helen was trying very hard not to laugh. “It’s not funny,” Tee insisted, but she wasn’t really mad.
“No, it’s not, baby, but it is perfectly natural. That’s what women do when they’re…excited.”
Helen breathed out a little sound of certainty. “Oh yeah. I’d show you, but if you touch me there, I don’t think I’d let you stop.” She kissed Tee very gently again and then held her face, looking into her eyes. “And I want us to be somewhere special when we get to that part, because you’re so very special to me. I want it to be the best time of your life.”
Tee didn’t want to think about what that part was. She’d only wanted to believe that Helen would take care of her, and that everything between them would be good. She trembled a bit, thinking about being all the way naked with Helen, the way she’d also imagined before, lying on a big bed in a place where they were safely alone together. She nodded and then hugged Helen close, wishing she could say in words all that she was feeling. They’d stayed that way for a time and then dressed quietly, stopping for quick kisses along the way. Then Helen had taken her hand and they’d walked out into the evening, closing the door behind them. After just a few steps, Sergeant Rains had appeared as if from nowhere, and in the span of a few seconds, she’d gone from feeling amazingly wonderful to totally distraught. She’d known immediately that their being caught was punishment from God, so when the sergeant strode away after ordering them to report to her the next morning, she’d told Helen that she didn’t want anything more to do with her. Imagining what was going to happen next, she’d agonized over how she could possibly explain a blue discharge to her parents and the people of their small town. Even when Sergeant Rains had somehow found the mercy to let them stay on, she’d felt stained, damaged, and humiliated.
The organ music started up and Tee jerked back to the present, recognizing they were singing the Hymn of Response. By the time she’d found it, the song was almost over. She folded her hands and bowed her head, praying to find her way back to God’s good graces. Forgive me, Jesus. Please forgive me, she repeated over and over. Then someone near her cleared their throat and she startled to see the usher extending the offering from the aisle. Quickly she fumbled in her purse and dropped a few coins from her wallet into the plate. She was shaking so badly that the shallow platter almost tipped as she moved across the pew to hand it to the next girl, who thankfully caught it before the money spilled onto the ground. Her face hot, she moved back to her seat without looking, but then the pastor announced the Passing of the Peace and she had to stand again. This time, the girl down the pew moved to her, and after they’d exchanged a handshake and Tee had just managed to mumble enough of the words that it sounded like she’d actually said something, the girl lingered. “I’d like to invite you to our Bible study tomorrow night. It’s here in the chapel just after dinner. Our regular pastor will be back.” She seemed to be smothering a giggle and Tee looked up. The face was friendly, the expression genuine. “It’s a little different from this service,” she whispered with a quick glance at the ushers making their way back to the front. “For one thing, we always sit in the first row instead of at the back.” Smiling, she added, “I hope we’ll see you there.” Tee could only nod and the girl seemed pleased as she made her way back to her seat.
When Tee returned to the barracks, the little comfort she’d found at church vanished like mist in the morning sun. Helen’s mattress was rolled up and her footlocker stood empty. Tee’s heart began stuttering as badly as her speech at the thought that Helen was gone from her forever. She felt a hot flush of guilt as she realized she’d been so focused on her own suffering and shame that she hadn’t even stopped to consider that Helen might be hurting, too. What kind of Christian was she to act that way? She stood there staring, unable to even formulate a prayer, because she couldn’t work out what it was she should ask for. A slow rise of murmurs around her indicated the shared bewilderment that someone like Helen would wash out so late in their training. Then Jo’s voice called them to attention as Sergeant Rains entered the room. She strode midway into the long room of bunks and stopped, announcing to the group that Helen had volunteered to take someone else’s place at the driving school at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. As the agonizing tightness in Tee’s chest began to ease, the sergeant added, “She’ll be back in a little over a week.” She was speaking to the group, but Tee felt every eye on her. She nodded slightly, relieved when Rains departed so she could sit on her bed before her shaking legs gave out on her.
Around the barracks, everyone seemed determined to be extra cheery, but Tee didn’t feel much like talking. At each meal, she only picked at her food. When Monday evening came around she excused herself, collected her Bible, and walked slowly to the chapel. She knew she had almost an hour to wait and had expected to just sit on the steps and think, but she arrived at the same time as an older woman who came from the opposite direction. The simple facts that the woman was hatless and wearing a light-colored flowered dress instead of a uniform would have made her stand out, but her relaxed manner was also quite unmilitary.
Smiling warmly at Tee as she pulled open the unlocked door, she asked, “Is there something I can do for you, dear?”
Tee held out her Bible, dreading, as she always did, the prospect of talking to a stranger. Bett had told her to try talking very slowly, so she did. “I’m…here…f-for…” Suddenly her throat was so dry she couldn’t continue.
“For the Bible study?” the woman asked gently.
Tee nodded gratefully. She never minded when people helped her finish her sentences, even though they sometimes guessed wrong.
“Come on in.” The woman gestured. “You’re a little early, which is great. You can help me set up and we can get acquainted.” Tee followed her inside, wondering if she was the pastor’s wife. The woman made her way to the front of the church. “I’m right that you’re new to our group, aren’t I?” She looked a little anxious until Tee nodded. “Good. I’ve been gone for several weeks, but I didn’t think we’d met. When did you arrive at camp?”
She asked a series of easy-to-answer questions, and Tee gradually relaxed. They cleared the altar and the woman put out some cookies, encouraging Tee to take one. It was delicious.
“Mm.” Tee held her hand over her full mouth, but she wanted the woman to know that she thought the cookie was good.
“They’re my mother’s recipe. She’s the reason I was gone. She’d taken ill. Pneumonia. By the time I got there, she was in the hospital.”
“Is s-she okay now?”
The woman stopped what she was doing, a contemplative expression on her face. “I believe she is, yes. She had a long life and was a person of great light. She suffered very little. I believe the love that she showed every day will live on forever.”
Tee tried to replay the words in her head, but she wasn’t absolutely sure what the woman meant. “Do you mean she…p-passed on?”
The woman nodded. “Yes. Quietly. In her sleep. Surrounded by her family and loved ones.”
“Oh!” Tee felt terrible for asking. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Please, don’t be.” She came around the altar and sat on the front pew, gesturing for Tee to do the same. Now that they were closer, Tee could see that the woman’s dark brown hair contrasted with light brown, almost amber eyes. Fine lines at the corners of her mouth and laugh lines along the outside of her eyes made her oval face appear kind. The woman put her arm along the top of the pew, not touching Tee but almost as if she were reaching in her direction. “I see you’ve brought your own Bible, which tells me you have some religious background.” Tee nodded vigorously and the woman smiled softly, deepening the lines that Tee had noticed. “Let’s see if we can find some common ground. I believe elements of God’s Spirit and divine energy have been instilled in every human soul. You’ve read that we were made in God’s image, haven’t you? So that means that God’s light—or the seed of Christ, if you prefer—is present in you and in me and in every human being who ever has existed or ever will exist.” Tee’s brow furrowed slightly as she considered this. “All right so far?” the woman asked. Tee nodded again, but much more slowly. “So, I was taught that having a life after death is not an exchange for righteous living, nor is it a reimbursement for suffering or difficulties we may endure in our lives. And I don’t believe that we become better people by living under a threat of punishment. If you want to see the real indicator of what life is intended to be, look at the love and care that people show for one another, even in frightening times like these.” Tee frowned and the woman touched her Bible with her other hand. Her voice softer, she added, “In worship, we see proof that Jesus’s death did not lessen the impact of his life, nor did his trust in God’s love become undone. But it’s not necessary to be in church to know that. You can be in the presence of God anywhere you feel that quickening of your spirit.”
For the second time in as many days, Tee thought about the geese-angels and the peace they’d brought her. She’d always believed that God had revealed His forgiveness to her in that moment, but she’d never spoken of it to anyone, because it seemed blasphemous to assume that the Lord God Almighty would take the time to speak to Teresa Owens.
The woman was watching her closely. “You’ve had such an experience, haven’t you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Smiling again, the woman took her hand off Tee’s Bible and touched her own heart. “You know in here. And that’s what matters.”
Unexpectedly, Tee felt tears very near the surface. She looked down, a wash of emotions swirling through her. “Just listen to me go on,” the woman said, her tone lighter as she patted Tee’s leg briefly. “I know you didn’t come tonight for another sermon. I just didn’t want you to feel bad because you asked about my mother’s passing. Talking to me carries a certain occupational hazard, I’m afraid.”
Tee raised her head and blurted out her question so quickly that she didn’t stutter at all. “Who are you?”
The woman blinked once and then began laughing. The rich, genuine sound was contagious, somehow, and Tee found herself joining in. Finally, as they were both wiping tears from their eyes, the woman said, “I can’t believe I didn’t introduce myself. I’m the minister, Reverend Emily Culberson. Who did you think I was?”
Tee’s mouth opened a bit. “You’re the minister? I-I thought you might be the minister’s wife, or just…just someone helping.”
The woman nodded, still smiling faintly. “I get that a lot.”
Tee wanted to ask a dozen more questions. How could a woman be a minister? What faith did she practice? What did her husband think about her having this job? But the door to the chapel opened and the reverend stood and waved. “Hi, Casey. We’re up here.”
A stocky, masculine-looking woman in a corporal’s uniform strode up the aisle.
“Casey, this is Tee. She’s joining us for the first time tonight. Tee, this is Casey.” She lowered her voice as if telling a secret, but not so much that Casey couldn’t hear. “Casey’s real name is Clara, but if you’d ever seen her play baseball, you’d know why we call her Casey.”
“Hey, now.” Casey acted offended. “I don’t strike out that much.” Then she smiled, and her face gentled from tough to almost pleasant as she offered her hand and Tee took it. “Nice to meet you, Tee. Welcome.”
That had been the key word for the evening, Tee thought later. Welcome. No one went by rank, only by first names. Everyone was so nice, and they’d all gone out of their way to talk with her and to listen patiently to her responses. They were also very good about making sure she understood how their Bible study worked, which was a good thing since it wasn’t like any other church program she’d ever been to. Reverend Culberson had brought in some chairs and arranged them so they were facing those sitting in the first pew. Another girl named Janet explained that this was to help them be aware they were together in community. Tee was greatly relieved when two other girls brought friends for the first time, so she wasn’t singled out as the only new girl. Everyone was taking their seats after a few minutes of socializing when the girl who had invited Tee burst in the door. “Brenda!” several voices called, and she was brought into the group with hugs from a few of the other girls.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she began, looking like she had much more to say. Reverend Culberson put her hand on Brenda’s shoulder and murmured a few words. Brenda took a seat and the room quieted again. The reverend explained that they would start their meeting in silence, with what was called attentive waiting. She said the purpose was to let go of worry and seek a peace of mind and heart that would enable them to find joy and purpose in God’s creation and acceptance of their place in it.
Then it was quiet. Tee looked at the faces around her. Many had their eyes closed, but some looked up toward heaven or down, as if praying. She closed her eyes. She appreciated the reverend’s words, but she knew she couldn’t accept herself as she was. Even though she’d tried all her life to be good, for some reason she’d been punished by that awful experience with Mr. Gallagher, and now being with Helen seemed like it had unlocked some other bad thing in her. She was a lost soul, a dreadful sinner. But as the silence drew on, she found herself recalling what the minister had said about the true nature of life being revealed in the love people had for one another. She knew it said in the Bible that God was love, even though she hadn’t heard many sermons on that idea. Probably because so few people really knew what love was, any more than anyone could actually know what God was. She knew her mama and her sisters loved her, but was it only because they were family, and that was what family was supposed to do? Her daddy loved her, too, in his gruff way. She also knew what Mr. Gallagher felt for her wasn’t love at all, but some kind of sickness. And that brought her mind back to Helen.
In the safety of the hushed church, surrounded by people who had been only kind to her, Tee let herself feel again what it was like to be with Helen. She left out the physical part, because she didn’t want to be guilty of thinking about that again in God’s house. But from their first day in this place, Helen had watched out for her and made her laugh, even as they shared the difficulties of their studies and the strangeness of being so far from home. They’d told each other stories of their childhood and listened to each other’s dreams. She’d come to believe that Helen genuinely cared about her, but was it more than that? Helen loves me. Tee tried on the idea as if it were a new dress. That’s why she thinks it’s okay for us to kiss and touch each other the way we do. It fit. Tee felt like she was on the verge of something really important. And how did she feel about Helen? Why had she allowed Helen’s warm caresses and enjoyed the soft touch of her lips? She’d even touched and kissed Helen back. Was it that she was lonely? Was she just afraid of losing her best friend? Or was it something more? She gave the thought a chance because she simply had to know if it was true. I love Helen. The perfection of it struck her heart like the clear tone of a bell being rung, and for just a moment, she wanted to stand and shout it with joy. Helen loves me and I love Helen!
“Does anyone have anything they’d like to share?” The lady minister’s voice startled her back to reality.
Tee would have laughed if she hadn’t been so flustered. How could she be joyful about being in love with another woman? That was a sin, and certainly not part of God’s plan. A voice spoke up and she thought she recognized Brenda, the girl who had come late. “Anger and frustration make the silence hard. For about half the time tonight I just wanted to scream. But then I tried to seek God’s will in this, and I got real calm. So I guess that’s what God wants me to do right now, is to just stay calm.”
One person said, “Amen,” and there were some other quiet sounds of agreement. Tee realized she still had her eyes closed. When she opened them, she saw the reverend was looking at her. The woman raised an eyebrow slightly and Tee looked away quickly, not wanting to be asked to share anything. Several other girls spoke about different things that they’d experienced or situations that had happened during the week. One girl even talked about a falling star she’d seen and how she’d felt guilty about praying that it didn’t mean that her uncle had died. Casey, who was sitting next to her, patted her shoulder, but generally no one made any comments or corrected anyone about the righteousness of anything they said.
Then Reverend Culberson read a Bible verse, from 1 John 4. “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” Another long moment of silence followed this, but Tee was too agitated to even think about what had been spoken. After a time the reverend said, “I have a feeling we need to talk some about prayer next time. Would you all give some thought to praying and how and why we do that?”
Nodding and general sounds of assent followed this and then everyone stood up. Brenda came over and took one of Tee’s hands. “I’m so glad you came.” She gave the hand a little shake and grinned. “Told you it was different.”
Tee bent to pick up her Bible, so Brenda let go of her hand. “Yes,” Tee managed. “Nice.”
“I hope you’ll come back,” Brenda said. “There are meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays, too. Not everyone comes every time, but just so you know.”
Part of her wanted to get away as fast as she could before someone asked her anything more about herself, but Tee was curious about something that Brenda had said. “What were you upset about?” she stammered.
Brenda sniffed. “Oh, my drill instructor…again. She makes me so crazy. I honestly think she’s mean enough to keep me late these days on purpose, just ’cause she knows that coming here is something I want to do.”
Tee wasn’t sure what made her ask, but she had to know. “Who?”
“Sergeant Moore. Just my luck I got here the week she got back from vacation.” Brenda brought her hands together like she was praying. “But I’m going to stay calm.” They both laughed. “Who’s yours?”
“You like her?” Tee nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard good things about her.” Brenda glanced at her watch. “I’d better get going. Word is, we’re having a surprise inspection tonight.” She made a face and they both laughed again. Starting toward the door, Brenda looked back over her shoulder. “I hope to see you here again.”
“Okay.” Tee hoped she sounded more positive than she felt. When she looked around, she realized that everyone else had left and she was alone with Reverend Culberson again.
“Are you all right, Tee?”
The question took her by surprise and the casual answer she should have given refused to come to her lips. Fine, thanks. She couldn’t even bring herself to nod. After several seconds of silence, the reverend said, “If you ever want someone to talk to, my door is always open.” She gestured at the back of the church. “I have a little office where we can have some privacy. And nothing you say to me will ever go any further.” She held up the Bible that she’d read from. “I give you my word.”
When Tee finally forced her mouth to open, she couldn’t believe the rush of words that came out. “A man who worked for us made me…made me touch him. I didn’t want to but…but he told me that it would help him…so…so I did.” Not once did she stutter.
“Oh, honey,” Reverend Culberson said. Something in her tone, in her tender expression, made Tee’s tears become a flood in only a few seconds. The reverend took her in her arms and held her like a mother soothing her child. After a little while, the reverend said, “You’ve never let anyone else know about this before, have you?” Tee shook her head, sniffing as she tried to compose herself. The reverend kept an arm around her as they walked together to her office and they talked and talked until it occurred to her to look at the clock.
The small measure of calm that she’d found vanished as she jumped to her feet, almost frantic, her stutter returning as she spoke. “Oh no! I’ll be late for CQ. Sergeant Rains will put me in the stockade or something.”
“Sergeant Rains won’t do any such thing. I’ll walk back to the barracks with you and explain the situation.” She must have seen Tee’s alarm, because she added, “That you and I were talking and the time just got away from us.”
Amazingly, she did just that. The sergeant’s usually stern expression softened somewhat at the reverend’s appearance. “Go get yourself ready for the sack, Private Owens,” she ordered and Tee scurried off.
The two women stepped out onto the barracks porch. “She’s terrified of you, you know?” Culberson said.
“Which is as it should be,” Rains agreed solemnly, and the reverend laughed. Before she could turn to go, Rains touched her arm briefly. “If it won’t violate a confidence, may I ask if you feel that Private Owens is doing all right?”
Emily Culberson hesitated. “I think she has a lot on her mind and on her heart right now. More than even I know at the present time.” She looked up and Rains met the gaze of the reverend with whom she had enjoyed more than one interesting discussion on the nature of God and the purpose of religion, back when Colonel Issacson had assigned her to counsel with a younger, somewhat recalcitrant Private Rains. The reverend had surprised Rains by never proselytizing or ever suggesting that she come to church, and with her willingness to accept what little Rains shared about her own beliefs as valid. Rains had gradually come to trust her, as much as she trusted anyone on the base, and on rare occasions would even speak with her about a particularly difficult recruit or troublesome situation.
“Does she have any good friends in the squad? Is there someone she can talk to, just be herself with?”
Rains looked away. “There’s no one here now with whom she’s particularly close, but she’s well liked. I can think of several in her squad that I could ask to keep an eye on her if you think it’s necessary.”
“I’ll certainly let you know if I sense she’s in trouble. For now, maybe just give her a little extra positive attention here and there.” She nudged Rains familiarly with her shoulder. “And you might ease up on her just a tiny bit.”
“Hmm. Is that just your advice, or is there some commandment in your Bible saying it’s best to ease up on someone when they’re in some distress?”
“What makes you think my advice and the Bible aren’t one and the same?” the reverend asked, her eyes dancing.
The sergeant touched the brim of her hat. “Good night, Reverend.”
“Good night, Sergeant.”
Tee was having even more trouble than usual keeping her mind on the morning lessons. She’d hardly been able to keep pace during the exercise period earlier, and after all these weeks that part was practically automatic now. Even though her brain had known that Helen wasn’t there for the past week, her heart couldn’t seem to remember. She’d never stopped looking for Helen’s face in their group, had repeatedly caught herself waiting to start her evening studies as if Helen was about to join her, and found herself longing for the comforting sound of Helen’s now-familiar voice saying good night as the last thing she heard. Finally, it was the day that Helen was due back, and she couldn’t seem to keep her heart from jumping every time she thought about it. More than once, she’d caught herself wondering if this was what love felt like. Then she would pray that she wouldn’t have those reactions anymore, or try to pretend that everything she was feeling simply applied to any normal friendship.
She knew Helen’s train would arrive just before dinner and Sergeant Rains would go to pick her up. Tee couldn’t bring herself to wait in the mess hall, even though that’s where all of Helen’s other friends would be. She went back to the barracks and unrolled Helen’s mattress, leaving the final version of the note that had taken her most of the week and innumerable sheets of paper to write on Helen’s bunk.
I just had to write this down because it would take me too long to say it, even though you’ve always been real patient about waiting for my words to make their way out, and you know how much I appreciate that. Anyways, I wanted to say I understand about why you left the way you did. Oh, I was sad at first and even a little bit mad, but then Bett said that you had a opportunity to do something you love and you were right to take it. It got me to thinking I might have did the same in your position. On the other hand, I’m sorta glad you went to Georgia, because it give me some time to think, and I guess that’s something else you probably wanted, too.
I been spending more time at the church here, including going to a Bible study group that meets three nights a week. Did you know their real preacher here is a lady? She ain’t a Baptist, of course, ’cause Baptists don’t believe in women teaching men, although there ain’t no men that come to the Bible meetings, so I guess it would be all right. But the point I wanted to make is this lady preacher give me some new ideas about how to look at God, and I’m trying them out to see if they fit me. People back home would wonder why would I do such a thing, and weren’t the things I got taught to believe in our little church good enough anymore? They’d tell me the Bible hasn’t changed and the truth doesn’t change and God doesn’t change, so if anything’s different, it must be me. And you know what I’d say? I’d tell them they’re right. I have changed. And you know what else? It’s you that’s changed me, Helen.
Knowing you and thinking back over the time we spent together, well there’s no doubt that I’m a different girl than I was six weeks ago. I’m still not sure if I’m good different or bad different, but I just know it’s like when you pull a real big piece of material out of a box when the material’s all been folded up real tight and once it gets exposed to air and shook out a bit, it ain’t never likely to fit back into that same box in the same way again. I could say you shook me out, Helen. And I guess I didn’t quite know what to do about being out of that box I’ve been stuffed into all of my life. Tell the truth, I got scared for a lot of reasons, but you know that, too.
So I reckon what I’ve been building up to saying is I really missed you and I’m so glad you’re back. There’s parts of me that wants to tell you more than that, but then other parts don’t think I should and so the rest just don’t know what to do. All I can hope is you’ll get that and you’ll maybe even be willing to wait until I figure myself out. See, I’m scared to even guess how you might feel about me anymore. All I know is I just want to give you a big hug and ask you not to go away again. I hope you’ll let me do that. But if you can’t, I’ll understand. Just know that no one else has ever meant to me what you have, and I can’t imagine anyone who ever would.
Your friend 4-Ever,
Then she went to the parade grounds and sat on the bleachers, waiting.
Conversation at the squad’s mess hall table had abruptly gotten quiet and the girls sitting opposite her were smiling. Bett was about to turn and look behind her when hands covered her eyes and a soft twang asked, “Guess who?”
Bett considered answering Kitty Brunell, naming a famous female British race car driver, but she knew such a response wouldn’t be understood. Instead she said, “Mrs. Roosevelt, is that you?” which caused uproarious laughter all around.
Helen plopped into the seat beside her, sighing deeply. “How quickly they forget.”
Bett hugged her, whispering, “You were missed, my dear.”
Helen blushed and then everyone else joined in the hugs and greetings. Tanned and looking relaxed, she sat easily with the group, declining anything to eat. “I’m full of that fabulous train food.” Soon she was talking about her motor transport training classes, answering questions about Fort Oglethorpe, and keeping everyone laughing with her stories of run-ins with various officers, most of which were clearly exaggerated. Finally, as most of the squad rose to put up their trays and head back to the barracks, Helen turned back to Bett. “Where’s Tee?”
“I don’t know, Helen. She was in class earlier but I guess she wasn’t hungry. Why don’t you check in the barracks? I’m sure she’s anxious to see you.”
Helen’s eyes scanned the area quickly but no one else was nearby. Even so, she lowered her voice. “Do you really think so, Bett? We had a little scrape before I left.”
Bett nodded. The abrupt chill between Helen and Tee had been apparent to everyone, especially because they’d been so close before. While most speculation had the falling-out to be over a man—one of the officers or even an MP—Bett didn’t think Tee’s behavior since Helen’s departure fit that theory. “Tee doesn’t strike me as the type to hold a grudge, Helen. In fact, she’s been spending a lot more time at the base chapel lately. To me, that’s someone who’s looking for help to find their way through a problem of some kind.”
“Great,” Helen said, without any enthusiasm.
“What about you?” Bett asked.
“What about me?”
“Are you the type to hold a grudge?”
Helen looked away as she spoke. “Yeah. I am. I have a really hard time forgiving someone who’s done me wrong or hurt me. I don’t like giving people second chances.”
Bett considered her response carefully. She’d been guilty of feeling the same way on more than one occasion. Unexpectedly, it had been Sergeant Rains who had taught her many lessons in forgiveness, giving her chance after chance in the WAC and—unintentionally, perhaps—with her. “Has anyone ever given you a second chance?” she asked, finally.
Helen turned back to her, eyes narrowing, looking almost suspicious. After a few seconds she took a steadying breath. “Yeah,” she said softly. “Once.”
“And how did that make you feel?” Bett prodded.
“Kinda surprised. And really grateful.”
Bett smiled and inclined her head as if her point had been made. Helen recognized the gesture. Bett used to do that a lot when she’d led them to an answer in their studies but wanted them to make that final step of discovery by themselves.
Helen stood. “Excuse me, Bett, but I need to go find my best friend.”
She was nervous about seeing Tee again, but Helen was also distracted by what Bett had said about second chances. For a second, she’d reacted to the question with anger, spurred by the notion that Sergeant Rains had told the squad about her and Tee. But once she’d thought it through, she’d dismissed the idea, partly because she really didn’t think Rains was likely to do that, and also because everyone had so readily welcomed her back. If they knew, they might not even speak to me. Encouraged by the greetings from squad members she hadn’t already seen, she made her way to her bunk. As surprised as she was to find her mattress already rolled out, it was the envelope with Tee’s handwriting on it that made her heart jump. Of course nosy Barb was watching, so she just casually picked the note up and put it in her jacket pocket. No way was she reading it in front of anyone else. She forced herself to take the time to make her bed and unpack a few things, even making sure that her footlocker was back in order after the trip. Then she checked the clock and saw she had two hours before CQ. “I think I’ll take a walk,” she said to no one in particular, being sure to keep her pace unhurried. Once she was clear of the barracks she made her way to a quiet spot near the administration building and read the note under a light. Then she read it again. Finally she folded it back into the envelope and stared at it, thinking.
She’d had a good time at Fort Oglethorpe, considering her state of mind when she’d left Iowa. On the trip out, she’d pulled herself together, generally managing to push Tee from her thoughts so she could make the most of this new situation, as Sergeant Rains had suggested. Her motor transport school instructor in Georgia, Sergeant Washburn, was as tough as Rains when it came to the skills she expected her drivers to have, but she also had a sense of humor, and if you could make her laugh, you were in. She’d liked Helen right off. Maybe because Helen already had some skills or because Helen’s brother Sinclair had taught her all kinds of jokes. None of the instructors at Fort Des Moines seemed to care much for Helen’s jokes, but she was always looking for an opportunity to tell one. It was windy on the day she chose to test the waters at her new posting. As Sergeant Washburn was showing them the fine points of the converted cattle trucks that were used to transport the new recruits to base, everyone was holding either their hat or their skirt or both.
“Hey, Sarge,” Helen called as one of the other girls was raising the hood. “Did you know that an observant man claims to have discovered the color of the wind?” Washburn looked at her as if she was crazy until Helen added, “He says he went out and found it blew.”
After a beat, the whole group erupted in laughter and Helen felt about ten feet tall. She quickly became one of Washburn’s favorites, and sometimes she sensed that they had something in common besides a liking for motor vehicles. After the fourth day’s class, when she’d been the first one to finish and gotten the highest scores on the arduous driving test for the Willys MB, better known as a Jeep, her new sergeant had pulled her aside and murmured, “I’m having a little get-together at my house tonight. Interested?”
Helen tried to act casual. “Sure, Sergeant. That would be nice.”
Washburn looked at her closely. “It’s all women. You understand?”
Helen grinned. “Even better.”
So she’d had an introduction to the world of house parties, where women like her got a chance to meet and mingle. Many were already paired up, but there were several singles, and Helen’s company and conversation were very much in demand. She’d declined any serious offers, explaining that she was only there for the week. But by the end of the evening, after multiple beers had turned one casual flirtation into a very close dance in a secluded corner, she’d decided to put in a request to transfer to Fort Oglethorpe after basic training was over. After all, Tee had said Never again. If Baptists had nuns, Tee would probably become one. This was when she should be enjoying life, Helen told herself, not pining away for someone who wouldn’t ever be able to come to terms with how they felt about each other.
Helen had experienced her first serious crush in sixth grade, and she’d been looking for the right girl ever since. At that time it was Louise Farmer, a beautiful girl whose partial deafness had caused her to be placed in the group with other slow learners or those with poor attendance, like Helen. Helen’s increasingly short temper had cooled when she sat next to Louise, and she discovered that she didn’t mind repeating things or even writing them out for her as long as she got one of Louise’s grateful smiles in return. When she’d confided to her brother that she intended to live with Louise when she grew up, the way her Aunt Darcy lived with Mrs. Murrell, Sinclair had looked off in the distance for a moment. “Yeah, I kinda figured that about you,” he’d said. His expression suggested that she might have said something bad, but nothing more came of it except that Helen’s attendance improved, as did her grades, until she came in one day to find she’d been moved to a different group and dull-witted Teddy Herschel was sitting next to Louise, who was smiling up at him with that same special smile. Heartbroken, Helen had taken another break from school and gone back to helping her friend Mr. Hall with his Postal Service deliveries. But she’d gotten the image in her head of her perfect girl—sweet, caring, not overly talkative, and pretty.
It was true that Tee had fit the bill on all of those qualities, but Helen had been drawn to her determined, steady manner, and to the courage with which Tee faced her adversities. Someone who didn’t know her well might think that Tee was timid or unsure because she was quiet. And yeah, sometimes Tee seemed to be a thousand miles away. But Helen knew that Tee took pride in herself and her work and she had some steel in her gut. Perhaps that was why Tee’s unwillingness to fight for what they had had hurt Helen to the core. She herself would have quit the WAC or challenged Sergeant Rains to prove that anything immoral or even against regulations had actually happened, but Tee had given up on them just like that. Or that’s how it had seemed.
This note seemed to indicate that Tee was having second thoughts about cutting off their relationship. Even as Helen’s heart swelled happily at the idea, her head told her to take it easy. Talk was cheap. She knew she couldn’t expect Tee to go back to the grove or the equipment room tonight. But she’d need to lay down the law about how long she’d let this figuring myself out business go on. She had other options, after all. But when she came upon Tee, sitting slumped over on the bleachers with her elbows on her knees and head in her hands, her heart took control. She knew she wasn’t going anywhere as long as there was any chance for the two of them. Tee was the one she wanted and needed, and while she didn’t actually believe in this love business, she was willing to give it a try if Tee would.
Tee was drifting, almost asleep sitting up, when she heard Helen’s voice. “Hey, Tee.” For just a second, she thought she was back in the barracks. She hadn’t been sleeping well at all and when she did finally doze, Helen was often in her dreams. She’d talked with Reverend Culberson almost every evening, either after Bible study or just on her own. The reverend had made her feel a lot better about her encounter with Mr. Gallagher, but she hadn’t told her about Helen. Well, not exactly. The reverend seemed to know there was something else on her mind, but she never pushed. Finally Tee had found the courage to ask, “Do you think I’ll ever have a n-normal relationship?”
The reverend cocked her head slightly. “Do you mean an intimate relationship with a man?” Tee nodded. “Is that what you want?”
Tee blinked. “Isn’t that what I’m s-supposed to want?”
Smiling her gentle smile, the reverend had answered, “I think you need to listen to what your heart tells you about what you want, and not worry too much about should or supposed to.”
Then Sunday, Reverend Culberson’s sermon had been about love. She first talked about friendship, and how an easy and pleasant conversation could turn to something new as two or more people listened avidly to each other. How often interesting or eye-opening discoveries were made and you came away from the conversation lighter and happier, as if God had been with you.
Tee couldn’t help thinking of Helen. There had never been another person in her life with whom she had shared so much of herself—sometimes just in the day-to-day moments and sometimes in those deep conversations that went on for hours. Maybe it was God’s presence she was feeling, rather than love.
As if reading her mind, the reverend went on to give her definition of love. “Love is what cultivates growth and development in any relationship, enriching us both separately and together. As love magnifies perfect individuality, freeing each to be their truest, most complete self, it also binds us to all that lives. So what makes such a unique connection flourish? Tenderness in safekeeping, a shared responsibility of needs, and the mutual commitment to care. When these are present between two of us, surely God is, too.”
Tee realized she was holding her breath. There had been no specific mention of a man and a woman in Reverend Culberson’s description. Was the pastor actually suggesting that a relationship such as hers and Helen’s might be acceptable to the Lord Almighty? “Why would we be created with this ability if not to implicitly acknowledge the God in us each time we speak of love for another? Doesn’t love—this generous, open offering of one’s self to another—offer us a reflection of what God has so freely given to each of us?” she heard the reverend say. Tee’s mind was reeling. Was that the reason she felt the way she did about Helen? Would loving her somehow help her understand more about God’s love?
“For those who believe that God is working in everyone, we know it is because God loves and cherishes everyone. Are we not commanded to do the same? Anyone can know God and anyone can be a part of God’s plan. What Jesus showed us of God’s love is that it was not given because certain persons had been exceptionally good or had achieved some special status here on Earth. Rather, we are to find our worth in the knowledge that God loves us unconditionally. This is the example we follow. Because we trust that God loves and values all people, so do we love and value all people.”
Tee wished she’d found a way to ask Reverend Culberson what kind of Christian she was. The minister had a way of always keeping their talks focused on Tee instead of about herself. She had managed to ask the reverend if she ever worried about going to hell. The reverend’s smile was a bit sad as she said, “The problem with striving only to avoid hell is that it makes people concern themselves more with the future instead of focusing on the here and now. When you use Jesus as your standard for compassion, and you work to grow the love you have inside you, you are living life as you are meant to do. We mustn’t be so intimidated by avoiding punishment in hell that we miss the joy of the present.”
During one of their conversations, Reverend Culberson had told her that she judged herself much too harshly. Tee answered that she thought judging was how you gauged where you were not measuring up to what God expected of you. Then the reverend suggested that judgment was God’s job. “You don’t want to be playing God, do you, Tee?” Tee couldn’t even count how many sermons she’d heard about damnation, but that idea didn’t seem to be in the reverend’s vocabulary. One thing was certain—the lady reverend didn’t talk like any preacher she’d ever known when they were in private, and this sermon hadn’t sounded a bit like the ones she was accustomed to, either.
When the reverend came out from behind the pulpit and stood between the two aisles, holding out her arms as if embracing the entire congregation, Tee could sense the connection of community that was always emphasized during Bible study. It was almost like they were all humming the same note, and the oneness of it made her feel whole. “God’s strength is centered in creation and love, capacities which I believe are also found in all of us. There are stories of this power in many other traditions and cultures, and yet God is greater than all of them. But even God’s being cannot exist in a vacuum. God needs us to respond, to give back, so that we can be redeemed by the spirit that we share. Only then can we be freed from the heaven and hell we have created for ourselves and be truly open to the terrifying vulnerability of love.”
The terrifying vulnerability of love. The notion was so painfully beautiful that Tee had to wipe tears off her cheeks, but she tried to act like she just had a cold or something and hoped no one noticed. At the door she saw Casey, whose eyes looked a little red also, and they simply nodded to each other. She hadn’t lingered as she might have otherwise but had gone back to the barracks and rewritten her note to Helen one last time.
Now, opening her eyes without lifting her head, she could tell it was getting late. Suddenly she remembered that Helen was coming back today, so the voice she’d heard might really be her. And here I am, practically drooling, probably with those red sleep marks on my face. She raised her head slowly. Silhouetted in the last of the evening light, Helen appeared to be almost glowing. “Helen? Is that really you?” Was it possible that Helen was an angel, too? Could she have been sent like the geese, not to show Tee forgiveness, but to show her love?
Tee’s question sounded so hopeful that it made Helen’s heart beat a little faster. Play it cool, she told herself. “Yeah, kiddo, it’s me. Back from beautiful Fort Oglethorpe.” Then she noticed that Tee looked a little dazed, with dark circles under her eyes. Helen squatted, bringing her face even with Tee’s. “Are you okay? You look kinda…lost.”
Tee stood, wobbling a bit. Helen straightened, too, wanting to put out a hand to help her but not sure if she should, considering how they’d left things. When Tee steadied, she raised her gaze and Helen let herself just look at her. From the beginning she’d been drawn in by the softness of Tee’s brown eyes, and now it was like coming home. She saw welcome and worry, profound sorrow, and something deeper that she didn’t know how to name. Tee blinked and her lips parted, but she made no sound for a few seconds. “I—I am lost,” she said faintly, and stopped. Helen didn’t answer because Tee’s throat worked as if she planned on saying more. It had never bothered her, Tee’s stutter and the way she sometimes struggled with getting out everything she was thinking. No sharp-tongued, quick-thinking woman could match Tee’s heart. Helen would have stood there all night, looking at her sweet face, even as she waited for whatever judgment might come. After a shaky breath, Tee added, “I’m lost without you.” Still, Helen didn’t move until Tee stepped closer and put her arms around Helen’s neck. “I can’t fight this anymore. I don’t…I don’t want to.”
Then nothing on this earth, not even President Roosevelt himself, could have kept Helen from pulling Tee as close to her as she could. “I’m lost without you, too. So there’s not going to be any more fighting, okay? We’re gonna figure out a way to make this work, Tee. You and me. Together. That’s how it’s gonna be, okay?” Tee’s face was pressed into her neck, and in another second, Helen could feel the wetness of tears. “No, baby, no,” she shushed her. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”
Tee lifted her face enough to ask, “But what about Sergeant Rains?”
Helen hated to let her go, but she took hold of Tee’s hands, moving carefully so they could both sit back down on the bleachers. “I done some thinking about that on the train when I was leaving here. When she told us we could stay, she didn’t say we couldn’t be together. She didn’t even quote regulations. She mostly said she was going to give us another chance because we’d both improved so much and she thought we were going to make good soldiers. I think she cares more about that than about, you know, the other.”
As she thought back to that afternoon in Rains’s office, Helen didn’t think she’d ever felt as alone as she had while waiting to hear her fate. Tee hadn’t spoken to her all day, and no one else in the squad seemed to know how to act toward either of them, so they’d pretty much acted like neither of them were there. Even Bett, who could usually be counted on for a friendly smile, seemed preoccupied. At least Rains hadn’t dragged it out like she could have, torturing them with waiting to hear her decision like some creep who tested how well a grasshopper could hop each time he pulled a leg off. As soon as they’d closed the door and come to attention in front of her, she’d said, “I’m not going to remove either of you from the service at this time.” Tee had made a little choking sound, and Helen was so relieved that she’d slumped slightly as her eyes drifted to Rains’s face. For just a second, she thought she saw something like sympathy there. Just as quickly, the sergeant had resumed her usual firm expression and had gone on to stress her expectations, which really weren’t anything more than what she’d always asked of each of them—to give their very best effort and always strive for excellence as they did their duty with honor and pride. Tee was out the door the moment dismissed came from the sergeant’s mouth. Helen had the presence of mind to say, “Thank you, ma’am.” Then she’d gone and spent the evening with Maria and Charlotte and a few other squad members at the NCO club, drinking hard liquor until they’d stumbled back to the barracks just before CQ. Luckily, Sergeant Weber had done their walk-through that night, and she wasn’t nearly as observant as Rains.
“Besides,” Helen went on, pushing back the memories, “we’ve only got a little more than a week till graduation. After that, we’re not her responsibility anymore.”
“Won’t she tell our next command?” Tee had stopped crying but she still looked a little wobbly.
“Nah. She’s not blabby like that. Besides, we’ll be working in different places, so she’ll probably think things will cool down between us when we’re apart. But they won’t, will they, Tee?”
Tee shook her head, saying, “Apparently not,” with a tone that sounded so much like the way Bett Smythe said it that they both smiled at each other.
Thinking of her experience at Fort Oglethorpe, Helen added, “And you know what else? I bet there are more people like us here than we know.” It was dark enough that she felt safe to give a quick kiss to Tee’s forehead. “We’ve just gotta stay out of trouble for two more weeks.” She could just make out Tee’s indignant look, so she amended, “Okay, I’ve gotta stay out of trouble. But I can. And I will. Because you’re worth it.”
“We’re worth it,” Tee answered as she squeezed Helen’s hands, and Helen’s heart soared as she tried to remember if anything else had ever felt so good.
The next morning, Sergeant Rains pulled Helen aside after their exercise period. “Sergeant Washburn at Fort Oglethorpe has given me a very favorable report of your performance.”
Relieved that her drill instructor didn’t want to discuss something more personal, Helen let her breath out carefully. She knew Tee was probably watching from somewhere, so she nodded, somewhat enthusiastically. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“She’s also under the impression that you would like a transfer to that base when you’re finished here. Is that correct?”
Helen swallowed. In her delight at patching things up with Tee, she’d forgotten about her plan to return to Fort Oglethorpe after basic training was over. “Oh. Well, I…” Helen realized she was sounding more like Tee than herself. Clearing her throat, she started over. “I’ve changed my mind about that posting, ma’am.” She and Tee hadn’t really discussed their plans for the future beyond the fact that Tee had become accustomed to Fort Des Moines and hoped to be posted at the post exchange on base. “I believe I’d prefer to stay on here, if a position as a driver is available.”
The sergeant cocked her head slightly, and Helen could feel her gaze sharpening. Grateful that she wasn’t supposed to be looking at Rains, Helen tried to keep her face expressionless. She was quite certain that Rains was assessing this information in light of everything else she knew about her. But when the sergeant spoke, her voice was surprisingly gentle. “Are you certain that’s the best choice for your career, Private Tucker?”
Rigid now, and very still, Helen answered promptly. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And is this also the best choice for Private Owens?” Rains asked, her voice hardening slightly. “Or should I ask her?”
There was no doubt in her mind that Tee would be terrified if the sergeant called her over. “You don’t have to do that, ma’am,” Helen answered promptly. “I believe I can speak for Private Owens on this matter. She wishes to remain at Fort Des Moines as well.” She hadn’t exactly answered the question, but perhaps it would do.
After what seemed like a long pause, the sergeant spoke again. “Very well, Private. You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.” Helen took one step back and turned to go. With her back to Rains, she couldn’t be certain whether she’d actually heard the sergeant whisper, “Be careful,” or if it was just the wind. The strangest thing was that it sounded more like a blessing than a warning.
Sergeant Gale Rains had known without looking that Teresa Owens was nearby. She could practically feel her anxiety flowing past her and Helen Tucker in waves. While Reverend Culberson had indicated that she thought Tee was doing better with each of their sessions, she wondered what effect Tucker’s return would have on her condition. Deciding not to worry Owens beyond what she already had, Rains had dismissed Tucker, thinking to let the situation with the two women work itself out without interfering any further. She’d already played her part by not dismissing them from the WAC, and apparently the time away from each other hadn’t put a permanent end to their relationship. Perhaps this, too, was something that was meant to be.
She sighed as she watched Private Tucker walk away. Although she’d surprised herself with her last words, she recognized they might well be directed inward as well. For a little more than six weeks, she’d been clinging to the duty she’d accepted years ago, while fighting a rising desire that had been banished for an even longer time. She knew her counsel to Tucker skirted the line between the professional and the personal, but she’d been living in that middle place since she’d taken on this last session of recruits and begun dealing with her new squad leader, Private Bett Smythe.
The woman in question was actually Elizabeth Frances Pratt Carlton, daughter of the forty-second richest man in America. The striking blonde, who was known by her nickname Bett, had registered under the surname of Smythe after her manipulative father tried to change her mind about enlisting by convincing her that being identified as a Carlton among the riffraff of the volunteer Women’s Army Corps would put her in danger of kidnapping. Bett herself would now be the first one to admit that idea was complete and utter rubbish, as she would say in that fascinating British accent of hers. Shaking away the image, Rains brought herself back to the point, which was that her relationship with Smythe had already ventured beyond the absolute limits that she would normally set between herself and a squad member. Bett had a way of pushing past her boundaries, and something in her warmly winning manner, combined with a strong will and an equally fierce focus on what she wanted, had combined to lower Sergeant Rains’s defenses on more than one occasion. Perhaps they could have been friends, a very rare commodity in Rains’s life, except for the uncrossable divide of their roles in the WAC. Drill instructors did not fraternize with their recruits. Period.
But no matter how firmly Rains repeated to herself the need to back away from Smythe, things between them only seemed to intensify. Even as she fought to keep their association within the bounds of what she considered acceptable, there was no denying that in the two and a half years that Rains had been in the WAAC and then the WAC, she’d never found herself so attracted to someone. That Bett had made it clear on more than one occasion that the feelings were mutual didn’t make things any easier.
And now, in this matter of finding Tucker and Owens in a compromising situation, she wasn’t very far into her thinking before admitting that if she and Bett had been two different people, it could just as easily have been them. From an early age, she’d seen that her natural way of being was different from others, but she’d been readily accepted by her Lakota people and, more importantly, by her family. She pitied the Whites for their fear and their hateful attitudes toward those who were like her, but she was also aware that it was a completely different matter when someone in authority preyed on the weak and the helpless in this way. Such was not the case with the two young women in her squad and, she had to admit, neither was it so with her and Bett. Still, as a drill instructor, it was her job to find the path between a very clear violation of regulations and two who were, without question, the most improved members of her squad. She had spent many hours examining very carefully what her decision should be and why.
Even with Bett’s face and her voice and the feel of her skin in her heart as she’d fallen asleep, upon waking, the sweet sensations were quickly dislodged by a harder truth: Bett’s time here was almost over. Soon she would graduate and start her new life with the cryptography group after making the choice to work in Washington DC or possibly in New York. And Sergeant Rains would remain, in this solitary world without attachment, spending each day doing her duty and waiting for the small hours of the morning to wonder about what could have been.