Back again for Emily Ann Putzke’s historical fiction link-up! It’s funny how the ideas come; I couldn’t think of anything at first, and then everything fell together all at once last night. Anyway, here’s my take, a rather lengthy preamble of sorts, to the picture.
The commanding contralto of Eileen Duffy, lead singer for the USO show, swept through the tent, hushing the three girls chatting within. The woman’s taut features relaxed as she perceived their timid hesitation.
“Why do you girls always think you’re in trouble for something?”
“Because we usually are,” sighed the closest, touching her blonde curls lightly.
“And that,” responded Eileen, as a smile softened her face, “Is why you’re my favorite. You’re honest. Really though, Peg’s not in trouble. But,” she held up her hand. “She will be if she’s not outside by 1400, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the girl since lunch.”
“Lunch!” laughed one of the girls sarcastically. “Is that what it’s called?”
“At least it makes it easier to keep to a diet,” offered another, practically.
“Really girls, does anybody know where Peg is?” Eileen punctuated each word with force, her patience wearing.
The blonde stepped forward. “Last I saw her was after mail call.”
A glance to the rest confirmed the verdict.
“Very well.” She turned away from the door, the hum of voices starting up again. “Incidentally,” Eileen peeked back around the curtain. “I hope you haven’t forgotten that all the girls have to be outside at 1400, and looking sharp too.”
One of the girls frowned, tapping against her fingers quickly. “Oh that drat military time,” she finally muttered, making a dash for the single table of cosmetics. Eileen turned away with a smile. They were good girls, all of them; traipsing through mud, sickening on long turbulent plane rides, sleeping on hard floors, and still managing to look every inch the girl back home at the same time. She couldn’t ask for a better group of performers, though sometimes they were a handful. She frowned as her thoughts focused back to Peggy Moore. She was a talented dancer and singer, but the quiet one of the group; never seeming at ease, Eileen mused, as she began to search the camp’s kitchen, dark but not very cool, under the humid afternoon sun. An ache settled over her heart as her ears caught a soft sob coming from a heap of empty crates. She stepped over quickly, finding Peggy curled up behind, though her relief was checked by the intermittent hiccoughs shuddering the girl’s frame. Homesickness? Most of the girls had already suffered through the brunt of it. Her quick eyes fixed on a small missive on the girl’s lap. Something else then, thought Eileen, sinking down onto the dusty floor, her light touch on Peggy’s plaid skirt making the girl start.
“Oh.” Peggy’s hands brushed quickly at her eyes, squinting up tightly. “Miss Duffy. I didn’t mean to stay away so long…I was just looking for a place to be alone and I didn’t think anyone would mind…I’m sorry.”
Eileen nodded kindly. For the quiet one of the bunch, the girl was certainly talking a lot. For a moment, the girl seemed completely determined to hold her composure tight; she shifted away from the crates, starting to rise.
“Don’t forget this,” mentioned Eileen, holding up the envelope, released from the folds of Peggy’s skirt.
“Oh Miss Duffy!” wailed the girl, her head falling against Eileen’s green dress.
“There now,” she murmured, twisting her free arm round to stroke the dark hair. Her eyes shot suspiciously to the rejected envelope as she rocked rhythmically on the hard floor. “News from back home?” she prodded gently, noticing the stateside address. The head bobbed against her shoulder before pulling back, eyes red and hair flattened.
“My brother,” she whispered softly, her lips quivering, “is missing. His B-17 went down a month ago and they don’t know whether he’s a prisoner or…”
A deep sigh from Eileen lifted the girl’s weight slightly as she continued to pat her. It was one thing to receive such news at home with family, but alone in a foreign country? She held Peggy until the tears ebbed.
“What’s your brother’s name?” she asked gently, beginning to dab her handkerchief skillfully around the damp eyes.
“Andy,” answered Peggy softly. “Well, Andrew really. I’m the only one that still calls him Andy. He says it’s a little boy’s name, but I don’t care. He is a little boy – my younger brother.”
“General Duffy?” yelled a cheeky voice outside, and the girl jumped again.
“What is it,” Eileen called back, not bothering to chastise the impish sergeant for his lighthearted address.
“Oh, you’re in there?” it answered curiously. “It’s five past – the fellas are starting to think you gals don’t want to meet them.”
“We’ll be right out,” she answered, scrambling to her feet as Peggy clutched her arm.
“I can’t go out there! The other girls can manage without me, can’t they?”
Eileen paused as she surveyed Peggy’s panicked expression.
“I promised we would all go out and talk with the enlisted men before the show starts. I’ll understand though if you don’t want to.” Looking down at the girl’s stricken face, a sudden chord of kinship struck within her, and she crouched down beside her. “Peggy, wars are won as much by smiles and music as guns and battles – morale the higher ups like to call it, but it’s more than that.” Her finger absently traced at a pair of solo wings pinned to her collar. “Morale is remembering what you’re fighting for; a noble idea to carry you through when the mortars fall, or your leg’s shot off.” Her hands stretched out to Peggy’s, holding them tight. “It’s your heart breaking open, but beating on; a smile through the tears, a song above the gunfire – it’s the very least, and the very best, that we can do, here and now.”
One final sniff, and she nodded slowly.
“Oh Peg, I know, I know…” Eileen whispered with a quick hug, her own eyes watering. “Well,” she finally spoke, steeping back. “We shouldn’t keep Sergeant Punctuality waiting.” She brushed stray bits of straw from the plaid suit, then expertly smoothed the wayward waves back in place. “Now,” she said, slipping her arm around Peggy’s shoulder kindly. “Let’s give them our best smile, shall we?”