For an entire year Virginia Collier had avoided this trip. Tomorrow would mark a year to the day, in fact, since the life she'd known had ended.
But the clerk in the ticket booth would not know this. He stared back, impatience and puzzlement creasing his brow. It was Virginia's turn to approach the counter, yet her strappy heels had melded with the marble tiles of Grand Central.
"Miss?" he said, and expelled a sigh. A presumption of incompetence. Virginia had grown well accustomed to enduring that sound from a slew of male Army pilots, even after General Hap Arnold himself had pinned shiny silver wings onto her starched white blouse. A pretty dame like her couldn't possibly have the brains, let alone the gumption, to operate something more complex than a pop-up toaster. If they did not say this to her face, it blared in their snickers, their mutterings, and, yes, irritated sighs, until her butter-smooth landings of any aircraft from P-38s to B-24s silenced their derision, or at least reduced it to a low-level hum.
"Come on, lady," came a gruff voice in her queue. "Are you buying a ticket, or ain't ya?" Grumbles of agreement arose from other suited men. They had trains to catch. They had lives to live.
A woman touched Virginia's sleeve from behind. She wore a black dress and matching hat with netting. Wrinkles crowded her eyes as if accumulated from the wiping of countless tears, further hinting to her rank as a wartime widow. "Don't you pay them any mind," she said. "I'm in no hurry." In her voice lay a depth of understanding, a message that the hammer of grief had once shattered her own compass, too, leaving her lost and alone in a world that kept on spinning.
"Miss," the clerk repeated. Before he could spout an ultimatum, Virginia salvaged her strength and stepped forward with her travel bag. She produced a thin stack of dollar bills from her pocketbook and traded them for a voucher.
"Thank you," she said, and the man grunted. She started away before turning toward the widow to nod in gratitude, but the woman was already at the counter, occupied with her own journey.
Overhead the destination board shuffled its letters. Friday afternoon marked the start of the weekend bustle. The long arms of the four-faced clock ticked in unison toward departure time.
Gripping her ticket, Virginia ventured through the main concourse and descended the terminal stairs. She snaked through the dim stretch of tunnels and located her platform. The cool underground air prickled her skin, a warning. Yet she proceeded to weave through the crowd as if stitching a patchwork of strangers: a porter lugging a monstrous trunk, a mother soothing a crying infant, a couple meeting in an ardent embrace. Now a month past war's end, Virginia had prepared herself for the sight of such reunions, but not for the lone soldier emerging from the train ahead. Eagerly he scanned the teeming platform with crimson roses at the ready.
The memory of a similar bouquet, a similar serviceman, slammed into Virginia. A punch to the chest. All at once, she again saw the burst of flames and smelled the gaseous smoke. She heard the agonizing screams that had plagued her dreams for months.
The conductor's voice yanked her back to the station. She strained to regain her composure, masking the anger and sorrow festering within. Her locomotive would soon be leaving, yet doubt spiked over her ability to board.
One step at a time. This was the advice offered by her instructor in a kind, grandfatherly tone just moments before Virginia's first flight. Between shallow breaths, she had muttered regrets for thinking a college socialite like herself was fit for such an adventure. But once they had gone airborne, in a turquoise sky wispy with clouds, a fresh wave of emotion overtook her. It was peace and freedom and danger all rolled into one. It was the thrill of truly living. She'd had no inkling the world could look so beautiful, its problems seem so small, from a simple change of view—one she had experienced only by taking a risk.
Emboldened by the thought, she squared herself with the train and finally entered the coach.
Inside, cigarette smoke hung in a veil of gray. Anxiety and excitement further thickened the air. Uniforms of all military branches adorned the space, clean-shaven veterans heading for home. They were the perfect models of a thousand propaganda ads. It would take days, even weeks, before their loved ones would sense the wounds that went unseen.
Virginia stored her luggage and settled by the last available window seat. She noted several fellows, most aged around her twenty-five years, tossing smiles in her direction. She did not return the gestures. Rather, she held her purse to her lap, firm as a shield, keenly aware of the missive inside. For on that page were the last words she'd received from the man she had planned to marry. Words engraved in her mind from countless readings.
She angled toward the window to hide the emotion welling in her eyes. She pulled a long breath, let it out. A glimpse of her reflection reminded her of the extra effort she had devoted to her appearance: the navy belted dress and cream sweater, the rouge and lipstick, the smoothing lotion in her platinum blond hair. As if a polished look could reassemble the shambles of her life.
The transport suddenly creaked, its muscles being stretched. With a shudder, the wheels began to churn. Each rotation would bring Virginia closer to a collision with her past. She bridled the impulse to escape as standing passengers located their seats. Chatter continued among those not engrossed in their books and periodicals. It was difficult to recall which topics had filled daily papers before the outbreak of war.
In the row ahead, twin girls with double braids broke into an argument, battling over a Hershey bar.
"Good gracious," snapped a woman in a beige brimmed hat, presumably their mother. She reached across the aisle to confiscate the candy. "How is it you two are best of friends or worst of enemies, and never in between?"
The comment sent a shiver up Virginia's spine, for the same could have been said of her relationship with Millie Bennett. At one time, they, too, were like sisters, as close as twins. Who would have imagined the price they would pay for interweaving the strands of their lives?
If only they had stayed enemies. If only they had never met.