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letters of war

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Beca, sixteen and orphaned for years, signed up for the army.

They didn’t ask for her age. Not like they cared, anyway, with their patriotic hearts and toughened hands, all they wanted was fresh blood, fresh meat.

And when they called her a one-of-a-kind soldier, they were right, because only people who had nothing to lose were willing to take risks as much as she did. Her captain called her in for a talk, told her that her life belonged to her squad too, but nothing went into her ears; not when the soldiers in her troop took every chance they had to tease and rile her up for being a girl.

The second world war was already over when she got deployed.

-

She got stationed in West Berlin. A place divided into three, nicknamed Trizonia because America doesn't know how to keep its nose out of European business and got involved.

At night on the seventh day, Beca slipped out of the barracks, squishing her feet into uncomfortable, army-issued boots. She was silent as she snuck past the guards, years of training finally useful.

She cut a hole in the chain-metal fence surrounding the camp. It rattled when she crept through it, wanderlust finally catching up to her. Germany was dead silent at two in the morning, except for the crickets, which reminded Beca of America.

She wasn’t homesick. Never would be, because if you asked any hardened soldier, home was the only word they needed to forget.

It could have been a desert for how dry it was, the gravel crunching against her feet as she setted off for the nearest town. Beca hoped no one could see her, with the dead giveaway camouflage uniform she was wearing. She had enough problems without a supervisor breathing down her neck at every moment.

Every step felt like freedom, and yet, they could realise she was gone anytime.

There was a fork in the road. She took the left.

Finally, when she saw artificial, white lights in the distance, she grinned.

-

A café was open in the small village she stumbled her way into, even at this hour. She didn't expect that, she didn't want anyone catching her and asking her for her identity.

Was it worth it? Hell fucking yeah.

(But she didn’t really fit in here, a girl in non-girl clothes and, and, and-)

Instead, Beca slipped between alleys and listened out for any approaching footsteps. She breathed in the air - smelled like home, the bakery must be nearby -  and wondered, at how far apart two places could be, and yet so similar.

She didn't realise how much small towns could look alike. The sound of nature was so weirdly nostalgic, like the time a friend from her childhood town snuck into the orphanage and stayed over and they escaped-

She got caught up in memories.

Too caught up, in fact, because she didn’t hear the girl approach.

“Psst!”

Beca jumped, landing on the metal grate she was standing on and making a loud clang. “Shit,” she whispered to herself, whipping her head from side to side to look for an exit.

The girl cleared her throat awkwardly, her head tilted slightly to the left. Beca saw the red hair falling down her back in loose curls.

Beca opened her mouth to defend herself, but before she could say anything, the girl cut in.

Are you from here? ” she asked, the harsh German language somehow sounding soft in her voice.

I- am just- passing ,” Beca said, brokenly.

She fled before the girl could ask anything else.

-

The next morning, Beca was in a bad mood, and not just from the lack of sleep.

Now, socialising with her troop wasn’t something that Beca particularly enjoyed. Captain, however, decided that she was too detached from her fellow soldiers and that was a “bad thing”, so he he pulled her aside and made her join one of their nightly trip to a nearby pub.

Beca sighed. The only person she could stand here, sort of, was Jesse, the youngest man who followed her around like a lost puppy most of the time.

The captain, turning around, gave her a meaningful raise of his eyebrows. Beca considered flipping up her middle finger at him, but decided that she’d rather swallow her own pride then do another thirty laps around camp.

She siddled her way closer to Jesse.

“Sup, Swanson.”

He looked at her with a deer-in-headlights expression. “Su- sup?”

Internally, Beca sighed. She missed the sharp banter she used to share with people in the orphanage, even if they were kind of assholes most of the time.

She forced herself to continue with the stilted conversation, not even noticing when they reach a place that looked familiar-

Oh, fuck.

Fuck.

Beca was an unlucky son of a bitch. She was in the same town she ran away from less than five hours ago.

To make things worse, they were heading quite near the alley where Beca had seen the redhead. She hadn’t realise how close the alley was to the cafe, or how pretty the sign on top of the shop was, but in daylight, everything was clear.

(Clear-as-day, she thought to herself. Heh.)

The so-called pub was the cafe. Double fuck.

God hates Beca. Beca hates God too.

She tried to school her face into a neutral expression as she followed Jesse into the cafe, with the others following them.

“How many?” The waiter asked them in stilted English. Jesse held up ten fingers, then realises it wasn’t enough.

“Uh- twenty-four,” He stammered.

Again, Beca tried to muffle her disappointment. Jesse felt too- different? dampened, that's the word, compared to the people she used to know.

They crowded into a booth, bodies squished together. Beca thanked her lucky stars that the girl from last night wasn’t there. She watched as the soldiers around her jostled each other playfully, being too loud for the otherwise quiet cafe.

Here, she was a bystander. She didn’t fit in.

When the captain waved a hand in the air to order, instead of the first waiter coming over, a girl with red hair comes their way.

Beca had spoken, as usual, too soon.

At least she was hidden quite well among her squad, a tiny five foot woman camouflaged in-between men.

The redhead said, “I’m Chloe and I’ll be your server today,” in a lilting accent, like she’d been watching too many American movies. “How can I help you?”

Ordering took a long time. Beca was the last one.

“And you?” Chloe said, turning to her.

The second Chloe saw Beca, her eyes widened with recognition. Beca tried her best to convey the message of shut up with nothing but her face, while still being subtle enough that Jesse wouldn’t pick up on it. From the girl’s conflicted expression, she’d succeeded.

Beca said, “Just a coffee,” and sunk back down in the chair.

She watched Chloe for the rest of the hour, hoping that she wouldn’t tell anyone. Chloe looked too busy to do anything weird.

(Beca sighed, relieved.)

A blonde brought them their food in several trips. When Beca looked up, she caught Chloe staring at the blonde’s butt as she walked, biting her lip as if she was repressing too many emotions at once.

Beca tears her gaze away. It wasn’t her thing to know.

When they left, she left a big tip in neat blue bills, stacked.

-

Beca started following the guys to the cafe after that day. Chloe served their table each time. Beca kept her head down and missed her ratty hoodies that she could hide in.

“Coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.”

-

The blonde was gone the next time they went in. And she remained gone the time after, and after after; and Beca saw Chloe wilt a little more with each passing day.

She made her mind up.

-

A ring on a girl’s thumb, back in America, was a code for being gay. Beca didn’t know if it was the same in West Berlin, but the next time she goes to the cafe alone with Jesse, Beca made sure her ring was sitting firmly on her thumb.

She was the first to order, sliding her hand across the menu, the metal ring glinting under the sunlight streaming in through the window.

“Oh,” Chloe said, sounding surprised, under her breath.

Beca met her eyes, steely. “Oh?”

They grinned at each other, ignoring the clammer of people around them.

(Outsiders, Beca mused, always managed to build back their own community right from the ground. The struggle, the pain; it was just for outsiders.)

-

Just before they left, Chloe chased after them, her stained apron flapping with each movement.

She stopped in front of Beca.

Does your friend speak my language?” Chloe asked, in German.

Beca shook her head mutedly.

Chloe leaned forward, closing the distance between them. She tugged on the cuff of Beca’s sleeve. “ Are you the girl? From the alley?”

“Ja,” Beca said. “ And thank you for not telling anyone.

Chloe’s eyes lit up. “ What is your name?

Beca.

Chloe said, “Hello, Beca,” and Beca realised how much trouble she was in when her heart gave a little leap at how her name sounded from Chloe’s lips.

-

Chloe started giving her special cupcakes every time Beca came by. Beca left behind a scribbled thanks on a folded paper towel that she hasn’t used yet.

And soon, the thanks Chloe turned into Beca leaving Chloe anecdotes about her life in the army, and letting her learn more about past Beca in general.

Beca came alone one day. When Chloe passed her a cupcake, their fingers touch.

“Give me your address,” Beca said, soft. “So we can be official pen pals.”

Chloe paused for a moment, then-

“Alright.”

-

Chloe,

I’ve never done anything like this. Give me your letters under my plates when I’m at the cafe.

B


My friend,

I am not brave enough to refer to you by name, for fear that my parents may see. Address me as Bella, if you wish to do so. We cannot risk anything, in this wartime, anyone could find us.

Do you have another name?

C

-

Dearest Bella,

You can call me-

 

Beca frowned. Everyone in her squad called her Mitchell, and the occasional Madam if she was being particularly snippy that day.

A sudden memory came back to her. Her mother, picking her up from under her armpits when she was a child, flinging them across the room until they were a blur of laughter and happiness and safety.

My little DJ ,” she had said. “ I can't believe you made me a mixtape! For my birthday !”

Was she really ready to give this up to a stranger? A possible lover?

Will she ever find someone like her again?

She crosses the last few words out.

 

My mother used to call me her DJ. I trust you with this name.

With much love, B

-

Letters fly back and forth, until Chloe became Beca’s safe place, and Beca learnt more about another person than she thought she ever would.

(A confession this time.)

 

Dear Bella,

I should not be telling you this. I smuggled someone into West Berlin.

They were a child, love, and I could see their ribs.

DJ

-

Three days later, Beca received another letter. Shorter this time, written on a piece of paper that looked like it'd been torn from a paper plate.

DJ, I think you may be a better person than I could've imagined.

Two kisses underneath.

 

Beca held the letter tight in her hand, and dreamt of falling asleep next to red hair that night.

-

Months pass. Beca sneaked out in the middle of the night to post letters to Chloe, and tried to shove Chloe’s letters into the pockets of her trousers as quick as possible.

They fall in love, slowly but surely.

 

Wouldn't it be lovely , Beca wrote one day, if our letters could be shown to the world one day? So they could see that we are people too, and not just- forbidden?

Chloe said, “I like that you come alone,” the next time they saw each other; and Beca understood - I’m glad you’re here.

-

Six more months flew by.

Summer passed, the flowers outside the cafe bloomed and wilted under Beca’s watchful eyes.

It was a slow day today. Beca waited until her shift is over, then snuck out to meet Chloe. Chloe was locking up the cafe when Beca arrived.

“Chloe,” Beca said from the shadows, leaning against a wall. Chloe jumped.

“You asshole!” Chloe said playfully, and went in to swat her on the shoulder.

Beca caught her wrist before her hand could make contact. She said, “not so fast, Beale,” and flipped their positions and pinned her against the wall. “I win.”

Chloe said, “Do you, now?” and her eyes flickered down to Beca’s lips.

When they kissed for the first time, it felt like going home, and it was in the same alley they met in.

-

My dearest Bella,

I am going home soon. What do we do from here?

DJ

-

Chloe answered, I am madly in love with you.

Beca wrote back and said, I can't do this anymore.

-

Things Beca was: Twenty. A soldier, best of her troop. A legend among women, shunned by men.

Things Beca was not: brave enough.  

She cried, alone in her bunk, and flew back to America the next day.

Her sergeant didn’t question the red rims of her eyes.

-

Chloe wrote letters, but she had no way to give them to Beca.

-

There were stories about people falling in love on different sides of a war.

And yet, this time, it wasn't a war between countries. It was a fight against oppression, what happens when you cage a wild animal and a girl tames it with a soft voice and kindness, the first shown in a long time.

Beca didn’t see Chloe again for years. She wondered what would have happened if she had stayed.

-

At fifty, Beca still wasn’t married. Her neighbours, when they gossiped about her in their white suburban homes, blamed it on the war. She didn’t tell them she never fought in one.

How could she, when it wasn't just her secret to tell?

She kept a locket around her neck, clasped tight, a lock of curly red hair nested safely inside.

-

An old woman opens the door when the mailman knocks. There are wrinkles around her eyes, but not happy ones, like the lines on people who laugh.

Those were lines of fatigue, of something that was beyond him.

“Madam,” he greeed, tipping his hat. She gives him a slight nod, watching him with piercing eyes as he dug around his bag for her letter.

“For DJ Mitchell,” he said. “From Bella Beale.”

He turned around after he gave her the letter, but not before catching the woman clutch the letter to her heart with tears starting to form in her eyes.

A soldier, the family down the road told him.

It wasn't his business, anyway.

-

(In green ink, in slanted handwriting too neat to be a man’s-)

Dearest love,

Hello again. I found you.

Are you good? How is life treating you? I’ve been thinking about you since the day you left without a word. I’m hurt. But I understand why, it wouldn’t have worked because we weren’t in a time of peace.

I married. And I divorced him, DJ, because he wasn’t you. Do you understand?

I forgive you, DJ. Or Beca, as I can call you now. I love you.

Yours, forever.

Chloe