Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
She carried everything back into the front room where Johnny slept and placed the paraphernalia on the floor next to the sofa.
“Johnny.” She laid her hand against his cheek. “I’m going to take care of you, okay?”
His breathing was labored. His lips looked dry, cracked. She went into the kitchen and filled a jelly glass with cool water. Back in the living room she knelt by his side and held the glass to his mouth. “Come on, Johnny. Take a sip.” She dipped her fingers in the water and ran them across his lips. He swallowed reflexively, his tongue touching the moisture on Catherine’s fingers then darting away. Her breath caught for an instant, then escaped in a long shaky sigh.
His lids fluttered open. She’d forgotten how blue his eyes were. Even glazed with fever, they were as deep and beautiful as lapis. Hands trembling, she pulled down the covers and draped them over the back of the wing chair near the fireplace. His chest was bare, save for the light layer of bandages Dr. Bernstein had placed across the shrapnel wounds, and she was horrified to discover that only a pair of army-issue boxer shorts covered him below the waist. Even his feet, long and narrow and pale, were bare. Somehow the sight of his bare feet seemed more intimate, more disturbing, than his bare chest and legs.
The Johnny Danza she had met that long-ago night at the Stage Door Canteen had been brash and cocky and funny. The kind of guy you imagined would breeze through life with a smile and a wisecrack for everyone. Through his letters she had slowly come to know a different Johnny Danza, one who was sometimes vulnerable, sometimes angry, sometimes a better friend than she thought she deserved. But eighteen months of letters hadn’t prepared her for the sight of him, helpless and sick, on her mother’s sofa. She felt as if she was invading his privacy and she was sorry about that, but it was unavoidable.
She tested the wash water with her elbow, then soaked a clean face towel and lathered it up with soap. “I’m going to give you a sponge bath,” she murmured as she brought the cloth to his chest. “This will make you feel so much better....”
He winced as the fabric touched his skin but—thank God!—he didn’t shiver. Working swiftly, she moved the towel across his shoulders, over the unbandaged portions of his chest, down to his rib cage and—
No! She bypassed the narrow portion of flat belly exposed above the waistband of his shorts and drew the soapy towel over his lower thighs and legs. Despite the fact that he was skinnier than when she saw him last, his legs were still strong and well muscled, heavily furred with crisp curling black hair. They were also covered with goose bumps, so she quickly finished and rubbed him dry with a large towel she’d left near the fireplace, then massaged rubbing alcohol on his burning flesh. The important thing now was to keep him warm.
A low sound of contentment broke the silence, and Catherine smiled as she covered him again with the afghan and quilt. The worry lines between his thick dark brows had eased, and she could almost swear that color was coming back into his face.
She picked up the makeshift washbasin, then started for the kitchen to empty it in the sink.
She stopped in the doorway and tilted her head. No. It must have been her imagination. Once again she headed for the kitchen.
She put the washbasin down and was beside the sofa in an instant. His eyes were closed, his lashes casting shadows on his cheeks. She touched his hand. “I’m here.”
A smile, shaky but very real, flickered across his face as his fingers linked with hers. “Stay with me.”
Tears blurred her vision. “Don’t worry, Johnny,” she said, her voice soft. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The grandfather clock tolled seven, then eight, and still Catherine sat on the floor next to Johnny. He slept as if drugged, awakening only to hold her hand more tightly and reassure himself of her presence. Her back ached, the fire needed tending, and she knew she should give her mother a call at the hospital and tell her of their unexpected visitor, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave his side.
With her fingers linked with his, she felt connected to another human being for the first time in so very long. She willed her strength and warmth to become his. She wanted somehow to communicate how important he was—and how she would do anything in her power to make him well again.
Outside the winds howled and rattled the windows in their casings. From her spot on the living-room floor she could barely make out the Weavers’ house beyond the window, for the falling snow obscured everything beyond the foot of their front path.
But inside, the radiators glowed with blessed heat and the lamps blazed merrily and, as she held Johnny’s hand and prayed, Catherine felt her icy heart slowly begin to thaw.
* * *
“Thank heaven for the subways!” said Dot as she adjusted her scarf and smiled at her daughter. “We’d be stranded at the hospital all night.”
“If it wasn’t Christmas Eve you wouldn’t have been able to drag me out. I was having a swell time at the party.”
“Now, none of that. You know we couldn’t leave your sister home alone tonight.”
“She’d never notice,” said Nancy, grabbing for the railing as they climbed the slippery cement steps to street level. “She’s probably still at the factory.”
Dot glanced at her younger daughter. “Are you two having difficulties?”
“Things are fine, Mom, but you have to admit she works longer hours than President Roosevelt.”
“Your sister takes her responsibilities seriously. She’s determined to make Daddy proud.”
Nancy looked down at her feet in their battered rubber galoshes. As if Catherine needed to do anything special to make their father proud. All Catherine had to do was smile and all was right with Tom Wilson’s world. And now she was running Wilson Manufacturing single-handedly—and turning a profit to boot! Nancy had been working there since her return home from her Long Island adventure, and half the employees still didn’t know her name. She bet she could tap-dance on top of the tool-and-die machine and not one person would take notice.
The street was deserted and it took a second for them to gain their bearings. It was difficult to tell earth from sky; everything, everywhere was a uniform shade of white.
“Well, one good thing,” said Nancy as they made their way down Hansen Street through knee-deep snowdrifts. “At least we got a white Christmas.”
Dot looked at her and laughed despite the cold. “You’re right, honey. A white Christmas! We should be happy we’re healthy and together to enjoy it.”
Of course they weren’t all together. For months they’d waited in vain for a letter from Tom. This was their second Christmas without him and the old saw, Absence makes the heart grow fonder, was truer than Nancy had ever imagined. How she missed the way things used to be, with the whole family gathered around the fireplace, singing carols and sipping eggnog. Last year she had wanted to run as far and fast from Hansen Street as her legs would carry her. This year she was glad to be home.
James F. Byrnes, the director of War Mobilization and Reconversion, had placed a ban on horse racing, effective January third of the new year. Severe meat shortages were predicted, and citizens were being asked to save their Christmas wrappings for salvage because “paper is too precious.” Across the ocean, the Maginot Line was cut as the Twenty-sixth and Thirty-fifth Infantries united and the Seventh Army was only four miles from the Reich.
Peace on earth, good will toward men
... Nancy thought.
Her mother looked up at the snow-laden sky and frowned. “I’m afraid we might not make midnight mass, honey, if it keeps up like this.”
Nancy peeked at her graduation watch snuggled under her mittens. “It’s not even eight o’clock yet, Mom. It might slow down.”
“Strange,” said Dot as they approached their house. “I’m surprised Cathy doesn’t have the blackout shades drawn.”
“I know what’s even stranger,” Nancy offered. “The only light on is in the living room.” Usually Catherine was holed up in Tom’s den, working on budgets or forecasts or whatever other boring things were necessary for running a business.
“Will you look at these front steps,” her mother exclaimed as they struggled their way up to the front door. “We’d better get these shoveled before somebody breaks a leg.”
“I’ll do it after supper. It’ll be fun.” That was most likely the biggest fib Nancy had told in her entire life and it made her mother smile. Catherine’s time was considered to be more important than Nancy’s, what with the factory and all, and no one expected her to go outside and shovel snow like the rest of the world. And Nancy certainly couldn’t imagine her mother doing it when a perfectly healthy girl of eighteen and a half lived under the same roof. Besides, Aunt Edna and Uncle Les were coming over before mass, and the last thing she wanted was for either one of them to slip and get hurt.
The two women stomped into the hallway in a swirl of icy air and snow. Nancy leaned against the wall and struggled with her galoshes while her mother simply balanced first on one foot and then the other and neatly removed her ankle-length fur-trimmed boots. If Nancy had tried that, she would have fallen on her head. There truly was no justice in the world.
Nancy sniffed the air. “I don’t smell dinner cooking.” She couldn’t keep the note of satisfaction from her voice. “I’ll bet she forgot.”
Her mother lined their boots in a neat row next to Catherine’s on the straw mat by the doorway. “Cathy’s been working very hard lately.” She aimed a sharp look at Nancy who looked away. “She probably fell asleep on the sofa.”
Dot turned and headed into the living room, no doubt to tuck a down pillow under Sleeping Beauty’s head. Nancy hated feeling jealous and ugly like that, but there were times she simply couldn’t help it. Wasn’t she the one who’d spent her whole day off helping their mother at the hospital? Everyone forgot that she had loved ones overseas, too. Tom Wilson was her father, as well as Cathy’s. She loved Mac Weaver as much as anybody on the block and prayed for his safe return when the war was over. And Gerry Sturdevant—well, what could she expect? No one believed you could fall in love through the mail, especially not if you were only eighteen and had never met the boy in question.
She started up the stairs to change into a nice cozy robe and slippers when her mother’s voice stopped her.
“Cathy! What on earth...?”
Nancy cocked an ear in the direction of the living room. She heard her mother’s voice, low and animated, and Cathy’s sleepy mumble. Curiosity got the better of her and she headed downstairs to the living room where she got the surprise of her life.
Her sister Cathy, the paragon of virtue, was curled up on the floor, holding the hand of a sleeping—and possibly
—man. Who said there wasn’t a Santa Claus? This was the most exciting thing to happen around the Wilson house in a very long time.
“Well, big sister,” she said, unable to keep the giggle from her voice, “who’s your friend?”
The man, whose face was hidden by a large down pillow, roused for a moment and Catherine glared in her direction. “You wake him up, Nancy Wilson, and I’ll tar the hell out of you.”
“Catherine!” Their mother sounded scandalized. “Your language!”
“I mean it, Mother. If that twerp wakes Johnny up, I’ll—”
“Johnny?” Nancy stepped closer to the sleeping man. “That’s not Johnny Danza, is it?”
“Yes, it is.” She had never heard Catherine sound like that, all fierce and fiery. It made Nancy feel young and terribly backward and she didn’t quite know why.
“But how...?” She stared down at the man stretched out on the sofa. “I thought he was overseas. I thought—”
“We all thought the same things, honey.” Dot put an arm around her younger daughter’s shoulders. “Cathy doesn’t have any answers yet.” Dot quickly told Nancy how the ailing soldier had popped up on the doorstep, barely conscious and burning with fever, and how Cathy had managed to drag him inside and call Dr. Bernstein.
That still didn’t explain the soft expression on Cathy’s face or the way her hand was entwined with his in such a possessive manner, but Nancy knew better than to ask. There was one other question, however, that she simply couldn’t put aside.
“Daddy,” she said, meeting her mother’s eyes. “Is he on his way home too?”
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth, for the stricken look in her mother’s eyes was something she wouldn’t soon forget.
“I don’t know, honey.” Her mother’s hand trembled as she stroked Nancy’s hair off her forehead. “We won’t know until Johnny is well enough to tell us.”
Cathy scrambled to her knees and placed her ear against the soldier’s lips. “He’s hungry,” she said, smiling up at them as if FDR had just announced that the war was over. She met Nancy’s eyes. “Would you sit with him while I make some scrambled eggs?”
Nancy felt cold all over. She had just spent an entire day doing volunteer work at the hospital, but nothing she had seen there came close to the reality of Johnny Danza there in the living room. “I... I guess so.” The men and boys in the hospital were strangers. She’d never seen them drink beer or laugh at Bob Hope’s jokes or dance to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” They were patients in a hospital, meek and mild and doing their best to get well so they could go back and serve their country.
Johnny was different. She had seen him do all of those things. She had even danced with him once herself. She could still remember the way the black taffeta skirt had swirled about her knees and thighs as he swung her about. Her sister, she knew, had sent him letters and scarves, and not once had it ever occurred to Nancy that anything could possibly happen to him.
“Come on,” Cathy said as she rose to her feet. “I don’t want to leave him alone even for a minute.”
Nancy took her sister’s place on the floor beside Johnny. He shifted position slightly and a low moan issued from deep in his throat. “What does that mean? Is he in pain? Should I do something?”
“I’ll bring him his medicine with dinner,” Cathy said, straightening out the tails of the big white shirt she was wearing. “Just sit with him. Hold his hand. That’s all.”