Mary Ann could hear the whistle of the wind through the trees from the open window. She closed her eyes, imagining the soft breeze blowing through her curled hair and the tickling of the grass beneath her feet. She smiled as she breathed deeply, wishing the dust that burned her nose was instead the sweet smell of blooming roses from the plantation’s yard just up the street. The jovial trumpet of an American recruitment ad roared out of the radio on the corner of her desk, forcing her back to reality. “Don’t forget,” the voice on the other end of the radio called, “you too can help protect America from the Japs!” She opened her eyes; she was still in Mr. Monroe’s Law Office. Stacks of files and letters still littered her desk. She still sat facing the polished front door of the office. She sighed and reached over to turn the volume down.
Mary Ann looked down at the files and forced herself to flip through them. Mr. Johnson was not coming into the office until next week, that file could go back in the stack to the left. Mrs. Love was coming in that afternoon, that file needed to be processed. She placed it to the right. Mary Ann’s eyes shifted from the files to the open planner and back again- this file to the left, but those three to the right. Finally she sighed, leaning back in her chair and glared at the two piles that sat before her, daring them to say she made a mistake. Mr. Monroe’s office door burst open, sending Mary Ann into the air with a fury of scattered letters.
“Well where the hell is he?” Mr. Monroe drawled. “Shoulda been here by eleven o’clock!”
“Robert,” Mr. Monroe pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at the time. “It’s nearly half-past, where is that boy?”
Mary Ann sighed and smoothed out her dress. Robert was Mr. Monroe’s son. Mary Ann had known him since the day she had found Robert crying behind his house holding his math book uselessly in his fingertips. Mary Ann remembered taking the book from him. She remembered soaking in every word the page had to offer. She remembered the countless hours she and Robert would spend after school simply going over equation after equation until he got them all right. And she remembered him leaving her behind the day he left for college.
Mary Ann scooped the letters off the floor and placed them gently on her desk, “When did you hear from him?”
“Sent a telegram last night,” Mr. Monroe mumbled, lumbering to the door and opening it. “Said he was getting on a train right then to come down.”
The breeze rushed into the room as if running to safety, Mary Ann could feel the sweat on her back cool against its icy fingertips. Mr. Monroe leaned against the doorjamb, gazing out into the town. Across the street stood the barbershop with Old Thomas sweeping the porch, he nodded to Mr. Monroe when he saw the door open then quickly went back to his work. He stepped out slightly from the doorjamb and looked up to street towards the market and butcher and then down the street towards the bookstore and the woodshop before he leaned against the jamb again.
“Mr. Monroe,” came a call from outside.
Mary Ann held her breath as Gerald Ray came into view. His bright eyes sparkled as he regarded Mr. Monroe with a wide smile. “Mr. Monroe,” he panted again, running a hand through his blonde hair to pad it down. “Would Mary Ann happen to be on lunch?”
“Gerald Ray,” Mr. Monroe mused not taking his eyes off the road behind Gerald Ray. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the woodshop?”
Gerald Ray shrugged, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Day off, sir.”
Mr. Monroe grunted. “From what I hear you had a day off yesterday. Don’t you go on slacking, young man.”
“No, sir. I was out making deliveries in Vichy with Charlie. Just got back this mornin’. Willie thought we should get a day off on account of that.”
“Uh huh,” Mr. Monroe grumbled.
Gerald Ray peered inside the office and winked. Mary Ann continued to shuffle through files that littered her desk, hiding a smile. “Take your lunch, Mary Ann,” Mr. Monroe called behind him. “Those papers aren’t going anywhere.”
Mary Ann smiled at Mr. Monroe as she grabbed her purse and headed out the door. “I’ll be back in an hour, Mr. Monroe.”
She didn’t wait for his reply. Mary Ann grabbed Gerald Ray’s hand and took off down the street. They had hardly rounded the corner when she pulled to a stop. She slipped off her shoes and wiggled her toes into the cool air. “What’s wrong with your shoes,” Gerald Ray asked.
“Too new. Mama made such a fuss about me needin’ some fancy shoes but it doesn’t help if you can hardly walk in ‘em.”
He laughed and took the shoes from her hands. “Come on,” He took her hand. “Charlie has everything all ready.”
He didn’t answer as he continued to lead her along the main road that ran along the woods. They passed the small shops that left doors open to let in the breeze. Gerald Ray ducked into the trees.
“Almost there,” Gerald Ray muttered.
“Why all the secrecy?”
Mary Ann sighed. Stepping over roots and ducking under low hanging branches she tried to keep up with him. They stepped into a clearing. Soft grass coated the ground and the trees formed a neat ring around them. Mary Ann laughed. “We used to play here. Long time ago.”
Gerald Ray smiled down at her. “Four years ago.”
Mary Ann shoved him lightly. She could hear him laughing as he quickly caught himself. “If you two love birds are finished,” came a call from the other side of the clearing. “I would like to eat. I’m starving here!”
Mary Ann turned and waved. “Hi, Charlie.”
Charlie stood near the center of the clearing with his hands on his hips in a mock show of irritation. His sandy hair was flipped back like one of those poster boys that advertised the war and his over shirt was unbuttoned as if he had been waiting for a while. He nodded to her. “Hello there, Mary Ann. Hope you’re hungry.” He motioned to the ground.
Mary Ann glanced down. At his feet was a blanket laid out with a basket, three plates, and napkins. Mary Ann looked back at Gerald Ray and cocked an eyebrow, “What’s this?”
“Thought you might like a picnic,” Gerald Ray said with a grin. “Nice day for it, don’t ya think?”
Gerald Ray walked up to the blanket, knelt by the basket, and began digging through it. Mary Ann followed and sat on the other edge of the blanket. “Here,” Gerald Ray said handing her something wrapped in a napkin.
“Gerald Ray, did you actually cook?”
“I can pile groceries onto bread as well as the next man,” Gerald Ray sat up with as much dignity as he could muster as he handed Charlie another wrapped sandwich.
“Uh hum,” Mary Ann unwrapped her sandwich. “Tell your Mama I said thank you.”
“Will do,” He smiled and took a large bite.
“You want a soda?” Charlie asked, his mouth full as he leaned toward the basket.
“Where did you get a soda?” Mary Ann put her sandwich down and leaned forward, trying to see into the basket before Charlie could begin digging through it.
“Willie gave us an advance in the shop,” Gerald Ray shrugged. “The corner store sold us three for ten cents with us being friends and all.”
Charlie held out the glass bottle of soda. Mary Ann looked at it for a long moment. It had been ages since she had seen soda in the local store. The rations from the war didn’t permit special things like that. Something like that would only be in big cities. She turned to Gerald Ray, ignoring the bottle of soda Charlie continued to wave in front of her face. “Where were you yesterday?”
“I told you. Charlie and I went on deliveries. Got back this mornin’,” Gerald Ray didn’t look at her; he took another bite of his sandwich.
“Malarkey,” Mary snapped. “Try again.”
“It’s just soda, Mary Ann,” Charlie pleaded from beside her, she could hear him move slightly closer but she ignored him.
He sighed and finally looked up at her. “Can we just have a nice picnic?”
Mary Ann glared over at him. “There hasn’t been soda in this county for weeks. You would know that if you listened to the news once in a while. You also wouldn’t have stayed the night in Vichy on Willie’s dime. Where were you yesterday?”
He took a deep breath. “We were in St. James, Mary Ann.”
“Gerry-” Mary Ann shot Charlie a warning glance as he began to stand; he quickly sat back on his heels.
She looked back at Gerald Ray and cocked an eyebrow. “Well?”
She watched him. She watched the uncertainty draw across his face. She saw the mischievous gleam in his eyes turn to doubt. She knew thought she knew what was coming before he opened him mouth. “There is an enrollment office there.”
She was wrong.
Mary Ann froze. Her hands numbly clutched the wrapped sandwich. She felt her face grow hot as she clenched her teeth shut. “You didn’t,” she growled.
He didn’t have to say anything. She glanced at Charlie, his eyes were fixed on the trees to his left, as if he found something fascinating in the way they grew. She threw the sandwich on the blanket, stood up, and marched toward the other end of the clearing.
“Mary Ann,” Gerald Ray called from behind her. “Now wait!”
“Why should I? You obviously have no desire to listen to me, why should I listen to you?”
“I can explain.”
His voice was closer now. She stopped. She was near the trees, all she would have to do is duck into them and she could run back to the office and pretend that this had never happened. Instead she turned and faced Gerald Ray. “Explain what exactly? Explain why you have this burnin’ desire to kill yourself? Explain why you feel that your self-worth is somehow tied to whether or not you die doing what stupid men in the government are too terrified to do? Explain why you want to leave? There are better ways to do that, Gerald Ray, you don’t need to prove you’re some how brave enough by going off to war.”
“Damn it, Gerald, you’re seventeen. You’re not even supposed to go to war-“
“I lied on my enrollment form. Said I was eighteen.”
“Well that’s genius reasoning. You’re brave and stupid. How are the girls ever gonna keep their hands off you?” Mary Ann moved to turn away but Gerald caught her and held her gently.
She looked up at him and saw his eyes burn into her. His stare was almost a glare; she felt some of her anger start to melt. “You’re fifteen,” he said almost gently. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“Two years isn’t-“
“It’s enough. You can be mad at me if you want, you can hit me, scream and shout if it helps. But I need you to know this: I’m doin’ this for myself. Not for you. Not for Charlie. Not for my dad or mama. Me. I got nothin’ to prove. I’ve got something to fight for. Now you can take all your fancy thinkin’ and run back to the office if you like, but I just need you to know that. I did this because I wanted to,” he waited. When she said nothing he took a deep breath, “Charlie and I start basic next week. We leave Monday.”
He let her go. They stood like that as the seconds ticked away and turned into minutes. She could hear Charlie on the other side of the clearing shuffling from foot to foot. She could see the uncertainty that had been on Gerald Ray’s face moments ago had hardened into cold determination. She swallowed hard. She walked around Gerald Ray back towards the blanket and picked up her shoes. She nodded to Charlie with a sad smile, “Charlie.”
He slowly nodded back stiffly, “Mary Ann.”
She turned and walked past Gerald Ray and ducked into the trees. She gripped the shoes in her hand until her fingers slowly started to become numb. Her feet quickly wove around roots, past mud puddles, and through fallen leaves until she could just make out the main street. Once she was out of the trees, she looked down either side of the street at the stores that lines the lane. There was no one.
Mary Ann slowly walked down the street toward Mr. Monroe’s office. She wasn’t sure if she wanted Gerald Ray to catch up to her, she wasn’t sure what she would say if he did. But she walked to the building without anyone calling after her, without smiling at familiar faces, without someone coming from behind and grabbing her shoulder and saying it was all a joke. By the time she made it to the office she wasn’t angry anymore. Her shoes hung loosely from her fingers, her march had turned into a wandering stroll. As she stopped in front of the office door she heard another pair of footsteps. She turned.
Gerald Ray came strolling up the street, hands tucked in his pockets and a slight smile curling his lips. “I’m still mad at you,” she said regarding him as he came slowly closer.
“You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t,” he grinned.
“You better come back, Gerald Ray. You hear me?”
He nodded. He stepped closer and pulled out one of his wrapped sandwiches. “Someone didn’t eat lunch.”
Mary Ann took it and shoved it in her purse. “Thank you,” she snapped.
“I should go help Charlie,” he mused as grinned down at her. “Someone made a mess of a nice picnic a few minutes ago.”
“Well how thoughtless of them,” Mary Ann turned on her heel and marched up the steps into the law office, as Gerald Ray chuckled behind her.
As she shut the door, she slipped her shoes onto her feet. She set her purse on her desk and turned her attention to her open planner. The radio was playing again. “This is going to be a war like no one has seen in decades!” a man’s voice was saying. With a snarl Mary Ann snapped the radio off. “You’re early, aren’t you,” asked a voice by Mr. Monroe’s door.
Mary Ann gasped and turned quickly. Robert stood in the open doorway, an amused grin on his face. He was taller then she remembered. His usually unruly hair was slicked back with a shining gel and instead of his usual second-hand clothes he wore a blue three-piece suit. Mary Ann unconsciously straightened her dress. “Maybe a little,” she admitted before turning back to work.
“It’s been a while,” the floor creaked as he walked closer to her desk. “What’s new in Rolla? Still seeing that Ballor boy?”
“His name is Gerald Ray,” she snapped, flipping through letters so she didn’t have to look up.
“And you’re still seeing Gerald Ray?”
Mary Ann did look up, “I just saw him, in fact. He should still be outside if you’re so interested. Why don’t you talk to him?”
Robert held up his hands in surrender, his face breaking into a cheeky smile, “Just catching up.”
She glared as he slunk back into his father’s office and shut the door.
It was raining. The drops of water fell off the roof of the station house and onto the dirt road. Mary Ann had watched as the dirt road had turned into a swamp of mud in a few hours. At times the rain got so heavy that it was impossible to make out the trees that stood a few yards away. She sat on a long bench under the station house’s roof and watched. At her feet lay her only suitcase with as much of her clothing that she could stuff into it. At the bottom of the suitcase was a bundle of letters held together with a neatly tied piece of string. Some of the letters were worn from months of reading and re-reading, the creases on those threatened to tear every time she looked at them. Other letters, the ones on top, hardly had any discoloration. Sometimes the ink still looked like it was wet.
In her hands she held another letter. It wasn’t delivered by the post office. It had come to her with a familiar face. She could still feel the amazement she had felt when Charlie had walking into Mr. Monroe’s office.
She had been sitting at her desk, like she always had for the past two years. She had been filing. To the left, files that could wait. To the right, files that had to be processed. Robert had been making notes in a case file in the corner and Mr. Monroe had been out on an errand. It had been cold in the office despite the small stove giving off heat in the corner. She had started to walk toward it to warm her hands when the door opened. Charlie had stood on the other side of it.
He had grown. His face had hardened and he was skinnier but when he looked at her his eyes were the same. He had taken off his hat the moment he entered and nodded to her, “Mary Ann.”
She had smiled and run to him, throwing her arms around him. “Charlie,” she had gasped.
But he hadn’t hugged her back. It had taken her a moment to realize that. And when he stepped away he had handed her a letter. It was already opened. “I’m sorry,” was all he said when he turned on his heel and marched away.
At first she couldn’t believe it. Gerald Ray should have been with him, they were in the same platoon, on the same missions. She didn’t remember falling but she remembered Robert holding her as she screamed for Charlie to come back. He didn’t. She remembered Robert wrestling with her as she tried to fight her way to the door so she could run after him and demand answers. But Robert held firm.
The letter still held the creases from when she had baled it up in her fists fighting against Robert’s grip. Now she unconsciously smoothed out the paper over and over. She had memorized it. Word for word, down to the letter.
‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ballor,’ the letter read. ‘We regret to inform you that during a mission on a strike against Germany your son, Gerald Ray Ballor of Squad 2509, has been deemed missing in action since August 29, 1945. Men had been sent out in force to recover any evidence or sign of life. At this time it is unknown his status and all additional information will be sent to you. You have our sincerest sympathy in this uncertain time.’
The letter seemed to go on and repeat in her mind as she watched the rain continue. ‘Missing in action’ may as well have been a death sentence but she still felt a tinge of hope despite herself. Her fingers continued to smooth the letter, turning it around in her hands as if smoothing it out would make the painful words wash away. She heard someone splashing through the mud but she couldn’t bring herself to look and see who it was.
“There you are,” someone breathed from behind her.
Mary Ann sighed, snapping herself out of her memories, “Go away Robert.”
She looked over at him. He was soaked. His dark hair sticking to his face, large black coat dripping, and his shoes covered in mud. He looked at her and smiled, “May I join you?”
She glared, “No, go away.” She turned back to the trees she had been staring at, her hands continued to smooth.
“I ran all the way from town, can I at least share your roof for a moment?”
He sighed, “Alright.”
She didn’t hear him splash away, after a few moments she turned back to him. His hands were stuck in his pockets and he was looking off in the same direction she had been, squinting as if trying to see something far off in the distance. “What do you want,” she snapped.
“To share your roof?”
“Robert,” she growled.
“Fine,” he sighed and turned back to her. “Everyone is worried.”
“Okay, fine,” he held up his hand in surrender. “Everyone is celebrating the end of the war. I was worried.”
“What if it’s the truth?”
Mary Ann didn’t answer; she turned away from him again. She watched the rain for a while, “I’m leaving.”
“I figured that out from the suitcase.”
“Then what do you want? Say it and then leave me alone!”
“I want to talk,” he snapped back. “Talkin’ to you is like pulling teeth, you know that you wild bronco? Lord.”
“Wild bronco,” Mary Ann looked over at him, he rolled his eyes.
“A wild bronco is-“
“I know what it is, Robert, I grew up in Missouri too.”
“Well have you ever seen one? I can gladly offer you a mirror so you can see one first hand.”
Mary Ann smiled despite herself. “You really know how to win the ladies.”
“At least I know how to make them laugh,” he smirked up at her. “Seriously, roof?”
Mary Ann sighed, “Fine. You look like a wet rat.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said as he jumped under the covering of the roof. “Where are you planning to go?”
“Away from here.”
“Wow, that is a wonderful plan. So detailed and laid out, it must have taken you weeks to plan out.”
“Robert,” Mary Ann growled. “I’m very tempted to push you back into the rain.”
“Fine,” he stayed silent for a few moments, squeezing the water from his coat and shaking the droplets from his hair. “What will you do?”
She shrugged. “Work in another law office? Maybe I’ll go to Colombia and work for an important lawyer. That’ll be a change of pace.”
Robert chuckled, “That it would.”
He sat down on the other side of the bench with a contented sigh. Mary Ann shifted and pulled her coat tighter around her, slipping the letter in her pocket as she did. They were silent for a while just watching the rainfall. At times it would thicken but mostly it was a steady stream falling from the sky. Mary Ann remembered running through the rain many years ago, just her and Gerald Ray. She remembered squealing as he kicked a puddle of mud at her, she remembered jumping into an even bigger one to get him back. She could almost see them running through the rain. Smiling, laughing, very much alive and extremely happy. Nothing could’ve touched them then. Not even war.
“You should go,” Robert said suddenly.
Mary Ann looked over at him. “ I am.”
Robert shook his head, “No you’re not. You’re sitting on a bench waiting for a train that left a dawn.”
Mary Ann started to protest but Robert held up at hand. He took out his pocket watch, “In thirty minutes there is going to be a train passing through here. It’s going to be heading towards St. James. I want you to go on it.”
“No,” she whispered.
“You don’t have to get off at St. James,” he said putting his watch away and looking back out into the rain, “But you can go to Arkansas or Kentucky for all I care. But you’re too smart for this town.”
“I thought you were supposed to be convincing me to go back to town,” she chuckled at him.
He shrugged. “I would like you to come back. I know your Mama would love for you to walk back into town with me,” he grinned. “Just think. Us walking back into town arm and arm, what would people say?”
“That I’d lost my mind.”
He laughed. “Probably. But you won’t be happy here. Hell, I’m not sure you ever were.”
Robert got up, set a pouch on the bench, and stepped off the station houses porch. He turned back to Mary Ann, smiled, and nodded before turning back the way he had come up. She watched him go. She didn’t call out to stop him, she didn’t yell and scream that he was wrong. Did tell him that she had been happy here once because it was true. She reached over and picked up the pouch. Coins clinked together as she lifted it. She smiled as she tucked the pouch away inside her coat.
Thirty minutes later she heard the screeching of the rails at the train neared the station. She heard it stop and hiss as the doors opened. A pair of shoes clicked on the cement behind her as a porter came out of the train. “Ma’am,” the man called out to her. “You boardin’?”
She turned towards him, “Where’s it going?”
“St. Louis, ma’am.”
Mary Ann stood, grabbed her suit case and nodded to the man with a smile, “Yes, sir. I’m boarding.”