The Way Things Were

A month after they came home, the town held a party. A dance. The first dance Missy would ever go to.

Eight years ago, the war had taken the men. Six years ago, the boys. It wasn’t going well, they were told. What should have been a series of quick skirmishes somewhere far across the western ocean had turned into long, drawn battles. Men dug in on either side. Firefights. Defeat, defeat, defeat. They came for the boys. Seventeen. Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. Even thirteen, if their parents signed. That’s what happened to little Davey Waller. His parents had been so proud.

Now they were back and none of it mattered. When they had left, it seemed they had taken fun with it. All of the dances and parties and sneaking off to drink in the fields her sister May always talked about, just gone. What was the point of dancing if there was no one to dance with? Who could bear the thought of parties when brothers and boyfriends were fighting in far-off fields?

Missy shook her head, her fresh curls swinging. She was wearing her prettiest dress, the pink one with the blue stitching. It’s all over, she told her reflection. The war had been won and the boys were back. Jeremy was back. Everything was going to be the way it was. The way it was supposed to be.

The dance hall in the middle of town was lit up and loud. It was exactly the way Missy had always wanted it. The front door were covered in streamers and balloons. People crossed each other, going one way and the other, passing, knocking into each other, laughing and yelling. A party. A real party. Not like her birthday last year. They had tried to have a party. It was in the backyard. Only a few people showed up. Then news of the war had interrupted the party music on the radio and everything was ruined.

The war ruined everything. But the war was over. Missy was grinning ear to ear as she stepped into the hall.

Kayla and Lottie were right where they promised they would be, around a little table next to the punch. They were so beautiful their dresses. Kayla in a light green and Lottie in blue and white checks. The three of them had made their dresses together, the very day news came that the boys were coming home. The same pattern, but different fabrics. They cooed over each other, running fingers through hair and begging to be told how to do makeup. Missy got them all punch, and then it was time to wait.

“Not much dancing going on,” Lottie said, and she was right. There were a few couples in the middle of the floor, swinging around to the band on stage. But mostly the floor was empty. This wasn’t right. The floor should be packed. People should be celebrating. It was her first real dance, there should be dancing.

“Everyone must still be warming up,” Kayla said, and Missy ignored the relief under her ribcage. Yes. Warming up. That must happen with all dances.

“What’s with Lenora?” Missy asked. She found the girl next to the far wall, half hiding behind a balloon arch. She was crying into a handkerchief while her two friends, Sissy and Doris, patted her back and tried to save her makeup.

“Oh,” Lottie said, dropping her voice so Kayla and Missy had to lean in. “They found Mickey at the port trying to board a dirigible.”

“What? To where?”

Lottie looked at her like she had worms for brains. “You know. Back there.”

Kayla took a long sip of her punch, as though she could erase what she knew with the fruit and the sugar, but this was the first Missy was hearing anything about it.

“He’s not the only one,” Lottie said. “Some of them made it. Burt Granger. Simon Towers. Simon sent Jessica a letter. I managed to read it before she tore it to shreds. He said he was sorry, but he met the love of his life there. Someone who ‘understood’ what he had gone through. He said none of us ‘silly girls’ here know what they’ve gone through.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Missy said, punctuating it with a giggle. “Of course we know. We’ve been learning all about it in school, haven’t we? They’ve been reporting on the news, haven’t they?”

Lottie nodded hard enough to loosen a curl from the top of her head. “That’s what I said! But some of them are still leaving.”

Missy opened her mouth and closed it again with a snap. She hadn’t seen Trevor yet. He always used to be late, she hadn’t thought anything of it. But what if he wasn’t late? What if he wasn’t coming? What if he was arrested, or on some airship crossing the ocean as they stood there? Missy stared across the dancehall at Lenora, still bawling into her handkerchief. Her friends had given up trying to save her face, and were now gently pulling her toward the door. Out the back, so no one would see.

Yes. Go out back. Don’t ruin this for the rest of us. The war is over and life will happen now. The dances and the parties. I can quit my job at the factory and stay at home. I will have a family. I will not be like May, living in the city in a woman’s house and working as a secretary. That will not be me, because the war is over and everything will go back to normal.

“Hi.”

The girls were finding excuses to leave, batting their eyelids and giggling to each other, and Missy knew she would find Trevor behind her. They had only talked once since he had come back.

This is it.

Trevor didn’t look happy. He didn’t look unhappy. But his face was neatly composed. Bland. Bags under his eyes. Missy barely noticed. She squealed and hugged him. Hard. Squeezing him. Enough to get an oof  out of him. But he didn’t push her away, didn’t say anything at all. He put his arms around her, lightly, and patted her back.

“Do you want to dance?” she asked, already taking his hand.

“Not really.”

Only a few couples were dancing. Older couples, she realized. None of the returning soldiers were on the floor. They were at the sides, talking quietly. Mostly with each other.

“Can we go?” Trevor asked.

“Go?”

“It’s loud in here. It’s giving me a headache.”

Missy wanted to dance. Missy wanted Trevor to want to dance. To get punch. To tell her about what happened. To listen to her. To laugh at her jokes. Things were supposed to be good, again.

“Okay.”

They walked out the front and away from the dance hall. Missy glanced over her shoulder sadly, hoping Trevor would notice. Maybe he did. He kept walking anyway, holding her hand, guiding her to the park. The new war memorial was still going up. A soldier with a rifle hanging his head. They had carved Davey’s name the other day.

Too quiet.

“I’m going to quit my job at the factory. They don’t need us anymore, now that the men are back, and they say if you quit they’ll give you a bonus on the way out, so I think I’m going to do that. Some of the girls are going to fight for their jobs, isn’t that crazy? Things are going to go back the way they were, they don’t need to work there anymore. The men do. Will you get a job? Or go back to school? I heard the high school is going to offer nights and weekends so you can get your diploma. That will be nice, right? You could have your diploma in a couple of years and then maybe still go to college like you wanted and-”

“I’m not staying, Missy.”

They were in the middle of the park. Same old park, just as it ever was, only now with a war memorial in the middle. It was quiet here. No one else. They were all at the dance hall. Getting back to normal. Like Missy was supposed to.

“Not staying?” she asked, pretending like the words weren’t his.

“I…can’t. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. Will you listen?”

Missy nodded, but she was already thinking of ways to change his mind. To convince him to stay. Convince him things were normal again.

They were supposed to get married.

“…do you understand?” Trevor asked.

“Of course not,” Missy said, anger suddenly rising. She hadn’t heard what he’d said but it didn’t matter, did it? What could he possibly say to make her understand?

“Nothing’s the same, Missy.”

“But it could be. You don’t know what it’s been like here. Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be. I didn’t get…I didn’t get…” She wasn’t supposed to complain like this. The things she lost were of course not the things he had lost. That didn’t change the fact that she had lost those things.

Trevor put an arm around her, pulling her close. “To be a teenager. I know. None of us did.”

Missy took his hands, pressing into his chest. “Don’t you want to go back to normal? We can make it happen. It might take some work, but we can put everything back the way it was before.”

Trevor held her the way he used to, let her press into him, and Missy could feel everything she had lost coming back to her. Until he stepped away so suddenly she almost fell.

“I don’t think we can. And I don’t know I even want to try.”

Other things were said. None of them mattered. Alone in the park, Missy thought about Lenora, and wondered if her crying was the same as hers.


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