The light pierced the darkness, alternating an X shape with two parallel lines in a continuous sweep of the sky.
“Not going to find her,” Lila whispered.
But the beams continued their vigil and so did she, studying each twinkling star like it might send short bursts of light like Morse code from Heaven. Instead, they blurred until the traitorous little tear leaked down her face and fled into her pillow.
“Don’t make friends.” She’d been warned on her first day. “You never know when they’ll be gone.” She’d never learned that girl’s name, but she must have known what she was talking about because the next day she was gone.
No one had given Molly the memo. She’d come, showing every emotion except shame over her tears or laughter or practical jokes.
“I like the lights,” she’d said. “I’ll bet they get God’s attention when he looks down.”
But God either hadn’t paid attention or hadn’t cared, because the only thing that came to take Molly away was polio.
Here one day. Gone the next.
All Lila had left of their two-year friendship was Molly’s little life book that she had taken before the adults cleaned up Molly’s bed, stripping the sheets and leaving it bare. Everybody knew if you left your things lying around, some other kid took it, so she’d taken it. Taken, but she hadn’t opened it. Tucked between the old magazine pictures and cut images from can labels was Molly’s dreams; everything she’d planned on doing with the life she no longer had.
Lila rubbed her face, worrying about her own future. At ten, she was too old to be adopted, yet too young to start looking for a job. Each year seemed to speed up, hurtling her closer to her eighteenth birthday when she’d be standing on the sidewalk with the orphanage behind her and the rest of her life ahead to be salvaged by sheer grit. The uncertainty was so intense that some nights she contemplated running away, just to end the suspense. But if she left for good, she wouldn’t be here when he returned.
She glanced at the other beds, listening to the various sounds of nine other breaths, slow and heavy with sleep. She pushed back the thin blanket, slipped into her gray shoes and clambered over the window sill. The lights continued searching the sky, prepared to sound the alarm if the Japs decided to drop another bomb on American soil. Lila ran beneath their shadows, feeling like one of the prisoners in the camps across the sea.
“Be good. I’ll return for you as soon as it’s safe.”
She wasn’t sure if the lie was cowardly or noble. Surely by now, he had realized that the entire world was at war. Nowhere was safe.
“Courageous,” he’d called her. “You have wit and resilience.”
The orphanage had other names for it: words like “stubborn,” “conniving” and “deceitful.” Docile, good and pleasing girls got honest work when they aged out. Everyone else ended up walking the streets.
She grasped the fence, vaulting it and landing with feline grace. If the streets were to become her home, she wanted to know what she was facing. Once every year, she’d slipped out to explore the ever-changing world. When the store displays sparkled with lights, she’d imagined herself as a window girl, modeling the latest styles. The next year, the war stole the sparkle, replacing the streets with soldiers. Uncle Sam wanted her, pointing directly at her from his poster. She’d decided to become a nurse.
This year… This year, she hugged her brown coat over her nightgown like Wendy searching for the boy who would take her to Neverland. This year she understood more about herself, more about the soldiers who crowded the streets, more about money and scarcity and what happened to girls who were alone in the world. This year she couldn’t continue to hold out for rescue, waiting for someone who may or may not be dead. God wasn’t going to see her. He’d be blinded by the lights searching the skies.
The high blare of a trumpet carried on the night air, and she stood still to listen. A note here and there. The lower vibrations of a cymbal disturbed the stillness in tiny waves. She followed the sounds, stopping at every street corner to relocate the song until the notes joined each other, creating a melody. Bursts of brass sang like people so joyous their lungs couldn’t contain the air. A beat sounded like a heart speeding in excitement, defying its monotonous rhythm of every day. The cymbal clanged like a raspy old lady who wasn’t willing to sit quietly in the corner while the young people had a good time.
The window cut its light into nine rectangles that shown across the fire escape in the alley. Lila searched the sidewalk, waiting for a lull in pedestrians before scampering to the darkest part. People rarely noticed her when she was higher than them. She climbed the rusted stairs until her face paralleled the top of the window, then peeked inside.
The hall was lit in a brilliant effort as though every dancer resented the day being taken from them, so they’d seized it and dragged it indoors. Forgoing sleep, men in uniforms swung girls with pin curls, bobbing like released prisoners.
Lila drew her knees close, tucking her hands beneath her chin.
Courage. Wit. Resilience.
This one little building defied the whole world. Tomorrow the soldiers may ship out. Most of them would be killed, some as soon as they stepped on foreign soil. The girls would return to their homes to figure out how to make do and do without. Some would work in boys’ jobs. Some would lose their men. Some might have no home, giving themselves to arms that would never hold them again.
But for tonight, the light beamed into the street, warding off the blackness the sun had left. The music continued, loud and gay in a defiant battle cry that protested the gloom of war. The dancers spun and leaped in daring moves that defied death itself.
Nobody else knew their future either. Some wouldn’t survive. Others would thrive. But Lila formed one goal. One solid goal, concrete enough to list at the end of Molly’s hopes.
I want to learn to dance.
To dance was to defy. To dance was to thrive.