Georgia was as much of a swamp as it had ever been. The colonel had brought his boys to his old CO’s farm, a place close enough to home that the four of them knew Leo’s girls, but far enough that Leo’s old lady had insisted on making up rooms for the four of them. They had arrived on Thursday, and been informed the next morning at breakfast that the town wanted to throw them a little party to share their gratitude. Ben, privately, had felt like screaming. But Claude lit up and Pedro had politely but weakly tried to decline and, well, John hadn’t scowled more than normal, so he couldn’t very well complain about it then. But now it was Friday evening, and someone had just had the positively brilliant idea to set off fucking fireworks in the front yard in a house full of jumpy soldiers. Fantastic. Fucking fantastic. It’s something he might have done a year or two ago, found funny if he wasn’t one of the soliders. Now, he just felt too old and too annoyed.
The party only got worse when people started talking around him. The last straw, he thought, was when he heard Beatrice talking shit about him from across the room, laughing. Then, when he turned into the hallway to get out and was confronted with Claude making out with Hero in a way that would probably make Leah faint, now that was really the last straw. Phenomenal. This was probably in the top three worst parties he had ever been to. Definitely top five. Ben, feeling a little smothered and a lot annoyed, went out the front to smoke. Another happy couple. Ben was running out of patience for happy couples, and he could still hear Beatrice’s laugh across the great room of the comfortable old house. So that was totally the final last straw.
With no other options, he went up the back stairs. The window was half open, though, the books normally propped up on the sill knocked over. Ben pushed the sash further up and climbed through onto the roof of the back porch. It was cooler outside than inside, even if Georgia was a swamp in the summer, hot and heavy. Inside, there was cheering. Outside, there were bugs humming. The party sounded distant, underwater. Ben took a deep breath of the thick air and leaned back against the whitewashed siding of the house. A plank was rotting, or maybe one of the nearest trees. There was a sweet, woody smell of dry decay. He didn’t know how long he sat outside, but he heard the books fall over again on the sill when the party was quieter again. He turned around to see Beatrice trying to set them back up, a little annoyed at the books not staying put.
“Hello,” she said, as if the past few days hadn’t reached catastrophic levels of tension, awkwardness, and incivility between the two of them. “I see you didn’t remove yourself from the whole farm.” She tried to push the books up again. He could only see her up to the armpits, really, as if he was looking through a drive-through window. Beatrice had an odd expression on her face. Her mouth twisted into something resembling a smile. “Hero and Claude are engaged.” Her tone didn’t suggest if he should be happy or not.
“Engaged?” he repeated. Beatrice didn’t really nod. She tipped her head. Jerked it. Raised her eyebrows as if she was joking.
“To be married.” Ben remembered Claude and Hero in the pantry between the dining room and the stairs and nodded.
“Oh.” Beatrice examined the spine of one of the books. This might be the quietest they had been since Ben left for California and the Pacific. Her dress was conservatively cut, clearly one of her aunt’s choices. Beatrice liked bright colors over pastels and jewel tones. This dress was a pale, summery blue. Something more Jackie O. than flower power. “Come on up?” Beatrice looked up at him. Ben offered her a hand. She climbed most of the way up herself before taking it, nearly kicking the books over again as she ducked through the window. Ben slid down a few feet, enough to drop down on his back. He didn’t have to look at her if there was the option of the sky. Beatrice slid down next to him, bare feet planted on the rough roof tiles. It had been dark for hours, but the roof was still warm from the heat of the day. Beatrice sighed, twisting her gold bracelet around her wrist. Leah had dolled her up for this party, and here Bea was, sitting on a dirty roof, barefoot and hair down. Alone with a man, too. Maybe Claude and Hero had been caught and then pushed into this by good old Southern honor. Maybe they’d be the next engagement. He snorted.
“What?” Beatrice asked. She was staring up at the sky, too. Good. He had wanted a smoke, that’s what had started all of this leaving-the-party shit. At least, if anyone asked. Certainly not the happy couples. Or Beatrice.
“Can you believe it?” Ben asked. Beatrice shook her head.
“They’ve seen each other for what— two days?”
“They’ve been writing letters for a while,” Ben said, offering Beatrice a cigarette. She shook her head again. He put the box away. “At least a few months.” He pushed himself up on one elbow to light the cigarette. Beatrice still didn’t look over.
“She’s practically been in love with him for a year,” Beatrice said. “That part’s hardly surprising.”
“A year?” She nodded, smiling a little. “Did he know?” Lighter away. He took the first drag, still propped up in this awkward way. Beatrice shrugged.
“I doubt it.” She shot a glance at him. “Why?” Ben coughed.
“We made a pact. Not to marry until we got back.” He tried again. “I mean, nobody likes a vet, not even Uncle Sam.” Beatrice rolled her eyes.
“You’re upset your friend found a girl he liked?”
“I’d only be mad if he’s been planning to marry her this whole time,” Ben said. He exhaled. Beatrice nodded. “I don’t know. He’s different now. I wouldn’t want to change because of a woman.”
“Hero isn’t making him change,” Beatrice said sharply, pushing herself into a sitting position. Ben shrugged. “She isn’t making him do anything. And maybe there’s a reason women don’t like you, if you’re so set in your fucking ways.” She scooted back. Ben rolled his eyes. He blew out the smoke he’d been holding.
“Christ, Beatrice, I was just saying I wouldn’t want to be a new person—” He spun around to look at her, brow furrowed. “I thought you didn’t like the whole marriage thing? I thought we had that in common.” Beatrice had her arms looped over her knees, which were pulled into her chest. This conversation was so tense. Not civil. They did not get along.
“I’m defending my cousin, not marriage.” Ben nodded slowly.
“Sure. Yeah.” He turned back to the horizon and took another drag. “I’m sure they’ll be great.” It only sounded a little bitter, just enough that Beatrice snorted. “I meant— I’d be happy to change for a woman if I really loved her, you know? But she would have to be the perfect woman for me to marry her.”
“The perfect woman—” Ben waved his hand, careful not to get ash on Beatrice.
“I know, doesn’t exist. My perfect woman.”
“I doubt she exists.” Ben sighed.
“I mean, she has to be gorgeous. That knocks out a solid chunk of the candidates.” Beatrice looked like she was considering pushing him off the roof, but she didn’t do anything more than raise her eyebrows. Shame. He was hoping to get a bigger reaction. “And smart. I need a girl who can read and write.”
“Do you mean a woman?” Ben rolled his eyes.
“I’ve been saying woman, you know what I mean—”
“Well, I didn’t know if your perfect girl was practically a minor—” she said, giving him a harder time than he deserved.
“Bea, would you quit?” It was so familiar he could choke. She rolled her eyes but rocked back onto her palms. Ben leaned back on the roof. “She has to have some money. God knows I can’t do anything profitable.”
“War is profitable.”
“Not where I’m standing.” He took another drag. “It would be nice if she could play an instrument,” Ben said. “She’d at least have to like music.”
“Finally, something achievable. Everyone likes music. How generous of you to give so many women a chance at marrying the awe-inspiring Lieutenant Benedict, who has just so much to offer in return—” It was at this moment, too late in the game, that he realized she was trying to get him to crack just as much as he was trying to get her.
“Mild-mannered,” Ben said, at least pretending to be annoyed. It didn’t take much. “She has to be nice , or she should stay away from me.” Beatrice rolled her eyes.
“Are you sure you don’t want a high schooler?” she drawled.
“Beatrice, that’s disgusting.” Silence, a tense silence as heavy as the humidity. The party was still going. Claude, in another time where he hadn’t just gotten engaged, might be looking for him. Pedro probably thought he was just off being a dick somewhere else. He had bigger problems. Who knew what that bastard of a brother Pedro had was doing? Probably trying to break into someone’s bedroom to smell their clothes or something. Maybe not in a woman’s house, though, if the woman was the wife of a friend of their CO. The cicadas crescendoed.
“Hair color?” she said, as if they had never stopped.
“What?” Ben asked.
“You’ve demanded so much of this woman, I can’t imagine you don’t have a hair color in mind for her.” Ben looked at Beatrice for a little too long. In the gray light of the pre-dawn, it looked like she was the first colorized part of a film strip. Her hair was glowing, even in the light, richer and thicker than Hero’s fine light hair. It was like fruit, or something. Alive. Vibrant. It matched the end of his long-dead cigarette ember. Beatrice was waiting for an answer. He turned back around.
“Doesn’t matter.” He stubbed out his cigarette properly. “I don’t discriminate.”
“Are you serious?” He couldn’t stop thinking about her hair. Fucking horrifying. He shook his head, scooting back up the roof to the open window.
“Dead. I’ve gotta piss.” Beatrice rolled her eyes again, turning away from him to look at the sky. Ben went and pissed. He went back to the kitchen the back way and had another drink. He ducked Leo’s conversation, saying he had to go piss, and went back upstairs. As he was creaking his way back up the back stairs, he realized he probably could have gotten Beatrice a drink. That wasn’t something he did anymore, though. He climbed back through the window. Beatrice was still there. He wasn’t sure if he was surprised or not. She made a little grunt-adjacent noise in her throat. He sat back down and lit another cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke so much,” Beatrice said. “The Surgeon General—”
“I really don’t care,” Ben said, more annoyed than he felt. “He probably smokes, too.” Beatrice sighed, then held out her hand. “Oh, you want one? What about the Surgeon General?”
“Just for a moment,” Beatrice said. “My cousin just got engaged. Now Leah’s going to have nothing better to do than tell me I’m an old maid.” Ben handed her the cigarette. Beatrice took a drag, just one, and handed it right back. He accepted. A year or two ago, he would have thought about their lips sharing a space. Tonight, he just didn’t want to light another. That was certainly it.
“You’ll find someone,” Ben said. “Hell, I probably could.” Not for her. For himself. Whatever. He’d never find someone she liked. Beatrice laughed.
“‘Die a bachelor Ben’ is thinking about feeling something?” she teased. “Did you get hit over the head in Vietnam?” Probably. That was probably all this was. Being home again.
“Beatrice, when I said that, it was because I didn’t think I would live long enough to marry.” Her smile froze, wilted. Her eyes flicked down to his sternum, where the vaguest impression of his dog tags were under his shirt. He couldn’t sleep without them now, a ball and chain that he panicked upon waking up without.
“We’re old enough to marry?” she asked, trying to cling onto the joking tone that he had been wringing out of the conversation. She was grimacing.
“Your cousin’s getting married, and she’s two years younger.” Hero seemed leagues younger than Beatrice, who was still trying to decide if she was more angry or sad about this whole thing. Her nails were digging into her palm. “I mean, I’m old enough to die.”
“You’re not old enough to die,” Beatrice said, still trying to sound like she was joking a little. Her voice was tight, though. “You’re not even old enough to play soldier.” He couldn’t.
“I don’t play soldier, Beatrice, I am one. I can’t take that back anymore.” Her shoulders rolled in a little. For a moment, a split second of moonlight that could have been a flickering light on the porch, she looked grief-stricken.
“Ben—” She glanced at his dog tags again. He couldn’t take them off. He’d feel more like he was playing at something without the weight around his neck. “You shouldn’t be old enough.” He shook his head.
“But I am. I have.” That pushed her. She slid up, sitting over him, bent, bruised knees almost at his elbow.
“I know!” she cried. “I know you have, and you are, and you will, and that it’s something that can’t be undone, I know that! But it’s— it’s stupid , isn’t it?”
“Sure,” he said. He had gotten what he normally wanted, a reaction, but now he felt too empty for it. There was a knot in his stomach, something that pulled. “Stupid enough.” She was being sincere. He couldn’t be sincere anymore, even if he had started it. “Maybe you can join the USO. Meet a nice man.” Normally, this would spur on four different lectures. Instead, she just shook her head. He blew smoke up at the stars.
“I won’t be a soldier’s wife. I’ve never wanted to be a wife in general, I think I’d be horrible at it.” Now he wasn’t sure who was joking and who wasn’t, but at least their usual veneer of plausible deniability was back. Downstairs, the front door slammed.
“I don’t think you’d be that bad,” he said. Beatrice shook her head.
“I’m not quiet. I don’t like being told what to do.” She tipped her head. “I can barely sew, I hate cooking, and I would rather die than sit at home like a doll all day waiting for a man to come home and treat me like a maid.” Shook her head again, red hair spilling over her shoulder. “I’ve been a maid, and I’m good at that, but I— is it so much for me to want to be a person? If I marry, the moment that I marry, I’m just Mrs. Whoever. I don’t get to be myself ever again. The only way for a woman to be seen as whole is for her to be alone.” She had thought about this. He had no answer. He wondered, briefly, if other people got Beatrice. If she had ever talked to someone who wasn’t her uncle who had remotely tried to understand her.
“I don’t mind your cooking,” was all he could manage. It said too much. That earned him an eyeroll, a precious gesture.
“Hero does all the cooking here,” Beatrice said. “And you didn’t ask me.”
“Ask you what? You seem to have gotten the thread anyway.” He’d marry her if she asked. If she motioned towards it. She just had to say the word, even if he wasn’t convinced they wouldn’t be miserable. He wouldn’t be miserable, if she wasn’t.
“Prince asked me,” Beatrice said. “To marry him.” Ben’s blood ran cold. It froze in his veins. His throat closed, his heart stopped. He shouldn’t care.
“He did?” Beatrice didn’t seem to notice his distress. Or she was kind enough not to poke fun at it, for once. He didn’t care, not really. Pedro was a good man. Or something. Prince of a man, he had an on-the-nose nickname and everything. He had laughed at Beatrice’s jokes before. Ben was kind of fucked, if he cared.
“I said no.” She still didn’t look at him. “You were going to ask?” Was she hoping he would? Was he hoping that she had caught the thread? He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to or not. He wasn’t sure if he was hopeful or terrified or some other third thing. It was starting to feel like he really did care about her. The cicadas faded away.
“I wasn’t,” he said. “Even if I wanted to, you’d say no.”
“I thought you knew.”
“I didn’t.” He was paralyzed. What did he know? “I don’t know anything, Bea.” He knew her, he was sure of that. Beatrice, sitting on the roof, hair bright and uncharacteristically not taking up much space, was worried about being alone almost as she was worried about being nobody at all. The pale dress her aunt had picked was high around her legs, cool-colored and a little ill-fitting against her sun-warm farm-muscled legs. Beatrice stopped worrying the inside of her cheek enough to smile down at him, small and a little tight.
“I know.” She looked out at the driveway. Ben couldn’t look away from her. He couldn’t kiss her, couldn’t move closer to touch her leg or comfort her, couldn’t do anything. He was a coward when there wasn’t a war to fight, apparently. Smart, sharp, beautiful Beatrice sat next to him, and he didn’t move to tell her that there was someone out there who’d like to understand her, and maybe already did a little. The wanting was the problem. The cicadas screamed.
“I can’t cook, either,” he said, heart still pounding. The corner of Beatrice’s mouth quirked up. He had wanted before, and gone about it the wrong way. And then he had left the country, which he was sure was great for both of them.
“You’ll make a great housewife,” she replied, bone dry.
“Better than you,” he shot back. She swayed in his direction. If he had been sitting up, she would have pushed him off balance. As it was, she just bumped his shoulder with her hip. He smiled up at her. She shook her head, mouth still twisted into something like a smile. They had never been this easy with each other. It just took being the two most bitter and lonely people in a given room to get along, apparently. She reached for his cigarette again. He handed it to her, since this was something they did, apparently.
“Have they gotten into the good liquor yet?” she asked. “Leah’s been saving this one bottle of gin for years —” Ben folded his hands behind his head.
“You want me to go get you a drink? Aren’t you worried I’m going to spit in it?” She rolled her eyes. Below, the party got quieter. A screen door slammed. A car started.
“Shut up, you’re supposed to be an American hero, and you can’t even get a girl a drink?” Ben got up onto his elbows then, grinning.
“Last night, you said the idea of war heroes made you sick to your stomach—” Beatrice turned, pressing a hand to her chest, just below the high, flat neckline, desperately fighting her smile.
“Benedict, I am a woman, and I have needs.”
“And those needs are a bottle of gin.” Beatrice dropped her hand to the roof between the two of them. She looked a little pleased with herself.
“I’ll accept whiskey if you can’t get the gin.” Ben raised his eyebrows.
“How gracious, Your Ladyship.”
“I’m known for my benevolence,” Beatrice said. Ben sighed, picking himself up another half of the way to the awkward crawling position he’d need to be in to drop onto the back stairs.
“Do you, as a woman, need anything else? The Man’s head?” He turned to look at her, expecting a laugh, but they were so close, and her mouth was ever so slightly open, and now here was a moment where Ben was really a coward because, although he did not claim to be an expert on many things, especially and including women, he did know that Beatrice looked like a goddamn case study of a woman who thought she was about to get kissed, if you didn’t count the little pinch of confusion between her eyebrows. Neither of them moved. Beatrice blinked, one-two quick, and her face was reconstructed.
“The bottle will do for now,” she said, eyes flickering around his face lightning-fast, like she was trying to figure something out. “But getting my own credit card would be nice.”
“I’ll head to the capital tomorrow,” Ben said, trying not to sound like something was crawling out of his throat. “God forbid women have a limited right to spend money they don’t have.” Beatrice kind of breathed out her laugh instead of barking it. He climbed out the window as quickly as he could, went to the bottom, and waited behind the kitchen door until he could stop feeling dizzy. He had almost kissed Beatrice. He had wanted to kiss her. Beatrice hated him, except for right now. He had practically proposed to her. His CO had actually proposed to her, unsuccessfully. Fucking fuck. He was fucked. He might be in love with Beatrice after years of telling everyone how much he couldn’t stand her. He had practically proposed after years of railing against marriage. Was a man still a hypocrite if he was just growing from his mistakes? Beatrice was waiting on the roof, smoking his cigarette. Their cigarette? The cigarette. God, he was going to be sick. People change. People figure out they might want to do something before they die. The party the the cicadas cresendoed again, this time in perfect sync. If this was what love was, Ben felt sick.