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The year was 1942. An unusual year and an even more odd setting for this story, but it is not a lie, and I cannot lie, so I won’t bother changing the time to 1845 or 1923. It’s not something I could do. Besides, my time as a liar has long since passed, so why bother changing thing to impress people? If there’s anything I’ve learned in my long life, it’s that stories are much more interesting when they’re true.
I was in the first grade. I was five— no, six— and I remember the day being chilly. Quite considerably brisk, in fact. Freezing.
But despite the weather, the closeness of Christmas, there had been no beauty. There were wilted flowers buried under ice and snow at every corner and the sky was a sickly grey. Clouds flowed lazily overhead, tumbling, rolling, bumping into one another, and settling in their own place in the sky.
But there was more than that. The usual laughter wasn’t echoing down the aisle and the marchers merely slumped in their seats with an unsteady ease that gave you Goosebumps even to look at them. No smiles, no jokes, or gossip, or whispers, or secrets. Nothing. The war had taken even that from us all.
Everyone on the bus was tired, exhausted even. They had done beautifully in Detroit, or so I thought. I didn’t know what the songs were supposed to sound like, so I thought it was lovely. Father didn’t agree. He merely scowled at me when I told him what I thought, and pushed it aside. What did the thoughts of a six-year-old matter?
But the marchers, the name I had assigned to the musicians in the band, always tousled my hair and laughed when I told them they were lovely. And I loved them for it. My father, the director, wasn’t usually too cheerful or fun with them.
The bus hit a pothole and I bounced in my seat. Some of the marchers groaned, but I let a giggle slip. It was just so fun!
I sat next to one of the high school girls on the bus. I think her name was Rachel. Her hair was short, cut evenly just behind her ears, and more yellowish than blonde. Her skin was pale, but her nose was a deep pink from the coldness outside. Her uniform was wrinkled and withered upon her body. She stared at the back of the seat in front of us with those icy eyes of hers.
“Just another day, Luce,” Rachel whispered to me. She turned to the window. “Just another miserable day.”
Someone in front of us coughed something horrendous and let her long, silky, dark curls fall over the back of her seat and into ours. I stared at them, but talked to the girl.
“Why’s that?” My voice sounded so much smaller than hers.
She laughed weakly. “You don’t suppose Richard is coming home any time soon, do you?”
My eyes never left the curls. Richard. The name rang a bell. “Your boyfriend?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her nod.
“He will. He’ll come home and be healthy and handsome and in one piece.”
She turned back to the window. “I can remember a time when I didn’t have to worry about things like that.”
The first time I glanced at Rachel, a single tear ran down the surface of her pale, frostbitten cheek. I looked back to the curls and gripped them in my tiny fists. I didn’t pull, no, but I grasped to them with such determination, such wistfulness, that even my fingernails went white.
Rachel glanced at me, but a word never left her lips.
I didn’t pull the hair or tear it out, no. Of all things, I separated it into fifteen strips. I had learned to count to one hundred this year, so fifteen was nothing. And my mother taught me how to braid before I could talk. It was simply something fun she passed on to her only child.
I picked up bits of hair and delicately wrapped one over the other. Wordlessly Rachel stared at me, watching my small fingers move so intricately. Pretty soon, I realized the familiar sound of heavy breathing behind me. Yes, I was right. Eight girls stood behind me in their white uniforms with mouths either agape or tightly glued shut.
Five braids, long and smooth ran down the length of the seat in front of me. I smiled at my work. No one could do a better braid.
The girls behind me laughed slightly and patted my head, arguing over whose hair I should do next. The only one that didn’t speak was the only sixteen-year-old I knew well— Rachel. She stared at me, her mouth moving, the words dripping off her lips, but nothing came out. The words lodged themselves in her throat.
I smiled at her and instead of words, tears burst from her pores, her eyes, her heart. She wrapped her arms around the little girl in front of her.
“Oh, Lucy,” She wept. “How do you do it?”
“I can show you how to braid,” I said casually.
She laughed through the tears. “No, you silly girl. How do you make so much beauty out of such misery?”
And to this day, I still don’t know how I did it.