The war may have begun in 1939 for the rest of the world, but for Evelyn McIntyre, the war didn’t begin until that cold, clear night in 1943. And, in all honesty, she wasn’t ready for it.
She’d been feeling unprepared since the beginning of that week, when she was told that she was going to be deployed for France to help take down the Germans from the inside. She’d gone through two years of training for the SOE, learning the art of sabotage, learning to blend in and disappear amongst civilians, and yet, she didn’t feel prepared; she just felt terrified. She’d known for two years that she would have to leave her friends and family behind for a mission they couldn’t know about, but now that the time had finally come… she just wasn’t ready for it. That was why, the night before she was to leave for France, she found herself sitting outside her barracks with her blanket wrapped around her, staring at the star-filled sky.
They’d greeted her like old friends when she first stepped outside that night, after writing letters to her parents in Yorkshire and to Will in Scotland, where he was still going through basic training. When she was younger, her father would take her outside on clear, summer nights to show her all the stars and constellations he’d learned from his years in the navy. He would tell her the stories behind them as he helped her find them. He would tell her the story of gallant Perseus, of beautiful Andromeda, of brave Heracles; ever since those nights all those years ago, she’d always venture out there when she was nervous or scared about something, and that night was no exception.
However, they couldn’t seem to comfort her that night; her fear of dying in France seemed to be too potent, even for them. As she sat there, Evelyn kept reminding herself that her fate wasn’t neccesairly sealed - after all, an agent that had been stationed in France had just come back that morning, safe and sound - but no matter how much she tried, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that that night would be her last in Britain, and not just for the next year.
“Can’t sleep?” Evelyn looked to the side to see the care-free Gene Rosenburg standing there, his hands shoved in his pockets.
She wrapped her blanket tighter around herself as she looked down at her bare feet. Even after all these years, it smelled like Quinteros, Papa’s preferred brand of cigars.
“I’m too nervous to sleep,” she said quietly.
Gene sat down next to her, pulled out his cigarettes and a lighter and lit up. In the dim light from the lighter, she could see that he now had a black eye and his knuckles were bloody and swollen.
“What happened to you?” Evelyn asked.
“I got into a fight at the pub,” he said, as if it wasn’t that big of a deal. “There was a pilot in there with enough cock to call me a dirty Jew after he bumped into me and spilled his own drink.” He held the cigarettes out to her. “Want one?”
“No, thank you,” she said. He shrugged and shoved them, along with his lighter, back into his pocket.
“How much trouble did you get into?” Evelyn asked.
“For the most part, I just got a lecture about how I need to save the fighting for the krauts and how I’m letting them win by getting into fights with my comrades,” Gene said as he waved his cigarette around, drawing lines of pale, wispy smoke in the air. “They even threatened to hold a court martial for assaulting an officer, since the pilot happened to be a captain. That’ll be a lot of fun, holding a court martial on a plane bound for France.”
For a few seconds, neither of them spoke as Gene smoked and Evelyn watched the man that she’d have to trust with her life from then on out. He had one hand behind his head as he looked up at the sky, the other lazily holding his cigarette, one leg was bent upward, the other outstretched in front of him; he looked so relaxed, as normal. It was almost as if he wasn’t afraid of what could happen, tomorrow.
“You don’t seem nervous about tomorrow,” she asked. “Are you?” Gene sighed, letting a puff of smoke out of his mouth and into the air.
“A little,” he admitted. “It wasn’t so bad, until I called mom.”
“I take it that it didn’t go very well,” Evelyn said. He nodded.
“Rabbi Friedman and his wife happened to be there when I called,” he said. “He had to take the phone from his so his wife could calm her down, she was so upset.
“I’m sorry,” Evelyn said. Gene was really close to his mom; he wrote to her every day and told her everything he could, to the point where the censors would just send a lot of his letters back to write it again, without so much information that the general public wasn’t allowed to know.
“It’s alright,” he said. “She told me she was proud of me when she calmed down, and my little brother told me that I made him want to enlist next year, when he turns eighteen. For his sake, I hope the war’s over, by then.” He looked over at her. “How did your call home go?”
“Mother’s upset with me,” Evelyn said, looking down at her feet. “She’s embarrassed to know that her daughter’s going to war like some low-born barbarians; no offence, of course.”
“None taken,” Gene said with a shrug. It wasn’t like he’d never heard anything like that, before. “How does your old man feel about this?”
“He said he was proud of me, before he had another coughing fit,” Evelyn said as a lump began to form in her throat. A few months before, her father had gotten tuberculosis, and even though the doctors had been doing everything they could to help him, he hadn’t been getting better. One of them had sent her a telegram the previous week to tell her that her father had started coughing up blood, a sign that her father was on the last leg of his life. Gene knew about it, but she didn’t tell him just how bad things were with him; she didn’t want to burden him with that.
“So, we both have family members that aren’t exactly happy with us,” Gene said. “I guess that’s one thing we have in common.”
Evelyn nodded in agreement. She’d only known Gene for a few weeks, but in that short amount of time, it had become apparent to her that they couldn’t have picked two people that were more different than the two of them: she was an only child, he was one of six children; she was Catholic, he was Jewish; she was quiet and unsure, he was loud and oozed self confidence; as much as Evelyn liked Gene, she just wasn’t sure how well the partnership would work out, especially since they were supposed to be madly in love.
“I guess,” she said as she tucked a stray chunk of her blonde hair behind her ear. Gene looked over at her.
“You really are nervous, aren’t you?” Gene asked. She sighed and pulled her legs to her chest.
“I’m scared about tomorrow,” she said. “I-I just can’t stop thinking about what would happen if we were to…” She swallowed, hard. Her family would probably forget all about her; her mother was close to disowning her over this business, and her father was close to death. Will would certainly mourn for her, but eventually, he would move on. Out of the two of them, it was Gene’s family that would suffer the most from his death, and he was the least worried of them.
“I’m worried about that, too.” For a few seconds, neither of them talked; they just sat and stared at the stars. It was calm and peaceful, like the sea before a storm. Evelyn couldn’t help but wonder if it was some sort of omen for what she was about to face in France.
“We should probably get to bed,” Gene said as he smashed what was left of his cigarette into the ground. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.” He stood up and offered his hand to her.
“Alright,” she said as she took his hand. He pulled her to her feet and the two of them walked into the barracks.
The barracks were dark, with the only sounds being the sounds of their snoring barrack mates as they slept and Gene and Evelyn’s soft, quiet footsteps against the wooden floorboards. She made sure to avoid the floorboards that had a tendency to creak when stepped on as she made her way to her bed, but even if she had, she didn’t think any of them would have woken up; most of the people in their barracks had gone through a day of rigorous training. Only a few of them, she and Gene included, had gotten out of training, due to the fact that they were about to be sent into occupied Europe.
Once Evelyn got to her bed, she reached underneath her pillow and pulled out her rosary beads. They were glass, made out of pale blue beads, with a small, metal crucifix in the middle. She held them close to her chest that night as she knelt and prayed in her bunk.
She didn’t know how long she spent praying that night. She prayed for her and Gene’s safety, peace of mind for them and their families, forgiveness for the sins she’d confessed to Chaplain Clarke earlier that day. Unlike the stars, though, it managed to bring her enough peace for her to try and sleep.As she lay awake that night, she learned that she wasn’t the only one that was turning to prayer for comfort: she would end up drifting off to the sleep to the sound of Gene quietly praying in Hebrew.