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The German Woman

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Tracey was not surprised to see Ray waiting for her as she pushed her bicycle around the corner from the pub. “Can I walk you home, Tracey?” he asked, snatching his cap off his head with an endearing nervousness.

Tracey smiled, earning a dazzling smile from him in turn. “Sure, okay,” she agreed. Even though she was used to dealing confidently with customers in the pub—who weren’t always on their best behavior—she felt her heart flutter a little as she walked down the road with Ray, her bicycle between them. Several girls in the village had their eye on him—a nice lad with a grocery store to inherit—but for the last few months he had only been interested in Tracey, even though she was a bit younger.

They chatted about work, their steps lazy to draw the journey out. Then Ray got quiet and gave her a little sideways look, and she knew he was going to ask her one of his strange questions again. “I had a dream last night, where I lived in a different time,” he told her. “I was in America, before their civil war, and I lived on a plantation and owned slaves.”

“You’re so imaginative, Ray,” Tracey responded. “You should write your dreams down, maybe you could write a book.”

That was not what he was looking for, however. “Have you ever had a dream like that, Tracey?” he asked her. His striking blue eyes bored into her, and somehow they were not the eyes of a teenager from Hastings. “A dream that felt so real, it was more like a memory?”

They had stopped walking by the side of the road, and after a moment Tracey started again, her mind spinning. That happened sometimes when she talked to Ray—a certain disorientation that was uncomfortable but exciting, like she was on the precipice of a terrifyingly high cliff. “I don’t know, Ray,” she finally said. “I don’t think I have. Certainly not one where I owned slaves!” she added, trying for a lighter tone.

Ray grinned—his lips were so red, she found herself staring at them all the time—and put his hand on her bicycle. “May I push this for you?” he asked, and she let it go, wishing the walk home was longer.

**

One night Tracey had a dream, that she actually remembered the next day, imagining herself as Jane Eyre, or some similar figure from an earlier age, wandering around a gloomy old mansion. Then Ray appeared, looking very dapper in the fashions of the time, and bringing light and life to the staid land. But they were still waiting for someone else, and one day he appeared—tall and striking, with piercing blue eyes, not someone Tracey had ever seen before yet she recognized him instantly. He was like the storm to Ray’s sunshine, but in a complimentary way, as a garden needed both light and water to grow, and the land blossomed around them.

Tracey woke up disoriented and exhausted, and as she stumbled through dressing she realized she finally knew what Ray meant, about a dream feeling so real, and she could hardly wait to tell him.

She stopped by the store in the mornings for a piece of fruit, before going on to work; Ray didn’t like her working at the pub, thought she was too young and shouldn’t have to deal with drunken men. Which Tracey thought was sweet, but impractical—everyone had to work now, at least for a while, and Mr. Judd took care of the toughs. She didn’t even work there much in the evenings, when the more raucous behavior occurred. She was saving up her money, for what she wouldn’t say.

Ray smiled when she came in, like he always did, and reached for a pear from the box of bruised fruit that they couldn’t sell, carefully cutting off the soft spots for her.

“Good morning, Tracey,” said Ray’s father at the register, where he was helping an early customer.

“Good morning, Mr. Pritchard,” she answered cheerfully, though inwardly she wished he would go away so she could talk to Ray. His father was very particular about him not neglecting his duties.

“How are you today, Tracey?” Ray asked, handing her a pear slice.

“Very well, thank you,” she told him politely. Glancing at his father, who had turned away to the window display, Tracey leaned over the counter quickly to whisper in Ray’s ear. “I had a dream last night!” Then she pulled back, innocently eating her fruit when Mr. Pritchard looked over.

A sly smile slid onto Ray’s face, and then suddenly his father decided to go into the back room, and Mrs. Mendecott, who was about to enter the store, changed her mind and went on to the butcher. Which was very strange, but convenient.

“Tell me about your dream,” Ray encouraged, so Tracey did, describing the house and the grounds, how she could feel the heaviness of the clothing, smell the smoky candles. Then, blushing a little because maybe it wasn’t quite proper to admit to, she told him that he’d been in her dream as well. He liked that, of course, but his next question startled her. “Was anyone else there?” She somehow knew he didn’t mean the dour servants.

“Yes,” Tracey answered faintly.

“A man or a woman?”

“A man,” she replied, and Ray smiled and nodded.

“Tall, with dark hair and high cheekbones, and blue eyes and a crazy grin?” Ray described, as if he had just seen him yesterday.

Tracey stared at him, not understanding how he could know the person who had been in her head. “I didn’t see him grin,” she admitted, conceding the rest, and Ray laughed. Tracey did not find it funny, however, and took his hand. “Who is he? How can we both know him? I’ve never seen him before.”

Ray laid his hand gently over hers, which was clutching a bit hard. “That’s Roman,” he answered. “He’s our friend, and we have to look for him.”

“Yes,” Tracey responded, because it seemed suddenly right, even though it didn’t make sense. She’d never been friends with anyone like that, such a person could never exist in their little village.

“We used to be other people,” Ray added, so matter-of-factly that Tracey found herself nodding before she suddenly shook her head and pulled back, losing the warmth of his hands.

“That doesn’t—I don’t know what you mean,” she insisted, though she could feel the knowledge knocking at her brain like an important but frightening visitor. “I have to get to work,” she decided, and hurried away, though Ray called after her.

**

Ray didn’t ask if he could walk her home anymore; he just showed up at the pub, sometimes before her shift ended, and nursed a pint while he waited patiently for her, always giving a look to any man who spoke to her in too familiar a way. It seemed very normal to Tracey, right and proper, in contrast to the universe they were discovering inside themselves, where very little made sense. Ray had had a little more time to sort things out, at least.

“I’m thinking of joining up,” he announced on their walk home, and Tracey nodded soberly.

“You’ll be drafted soon enough,” she countered, her knuckles white where they gripped the bicycle. Everyone had hoped the war would be long over by now, but it wasn’t, it seemed to have only gotten worse with the bombing raids, and patriotic sentiment ran high.

“I know,” Ray agreed, “but a lot of my friends have already gone. I was only staying because of Dad and the store.” His eyes slid sideways to Tracey. “Would you miss me if I left?” he asked her in a lighter tone.

“Of course,” she answered immediately. Some of her dreams were about wars now; whenever she woke up she wanted to find her loved ones and hold them close, keep them away from that madness. If everyone did that, you couldn’t have a war, could you?

“I mean, really miss me,” Ray persisted significantly, and Tracey finally caught onto his meaning, her cheeks coloring faintly.

“Sure I would, Ray,” she told him, and he gave a dazzling grin, for a moment looking like just the young man of good prospects who worked in his father’s grocery store, in a small village. But now Tracey understood that neither of them were ‘just’ anything.

“I think I need to go to Europe,” he went on in a different tone. “To find Roman and Raven. They might be in trouble.”

“They can get out of trouble,” Tracey pointed out, and Ray smirked.

“I think Roman usually causes it,” he commented, and Tracey rolled her eyes.

“They can come here,” she countered. “It’s safe here.” Why did Ray have to leave, go to them?

He sighed, prepared to convince her. “I can fix it so nothing happens to me,” he promised. “You know I can.” Alright, so he had demonstrated a few things that suggested this was true; but she didn’t think he had to go risking that as a soldier, with bombs and guns and everything.

“I suppose we ought to be together,” she conceded, and he grinned again.

“Would you wait for me, Tracey?” he asked her, stopping outside her house. “If I went away for a while.”

She smiled at him. “I suppose I might,” she replied coyly, and he grinned, leaning in as if to kiss her.

“Tracey?” her father called suspiciously, opening the front door, and they jumped apart. “Who’s out there?”

“It’s just Ray, Dad!” Tracey answered with some exasperation, which was perhaps a little dismissive.

“Hello, Mr. Stephens,” Ray told him politely. Her father, who was not known for his manners, rolled his eyes.

“Come in for supper now, girl,” he summoned, explicitly not inviting Ray.

She gave the young man an apologetic look and he twisted his lips into a wry smirk. “I’ll see you later, alright?” he suggested.

“Alright.”

**

Ray had a bad feeling about something. He was still slow to pin these things down, but he was getting faster. Once he got an inkling of it, however, he dashed from the shop, startling his customers, and raced towards the pub. As he ran, his enhanced hearing detected the whine of an airplane engine, automatically identifying it as a German bomber. Then the air raid siren began, then the engine grew loud enough for regular people to hear.

Ray burst through the door of the pub, unnoticed in the commotion of others hurrying for cover, and located Tracey. He called her name and she turned to look in surprise, then there was a whistle and he didn’t think, just threw himself on top of her and knocked her to the ground.

There was a tremendous roar and an impact that jarred Tracey’s bones, and the world went black. When she came to she started to cough, choking on dust in the air and pushing at the weight crushing her. After a moment she realized it was Ray, shielding her from the debris of the collapsed roof.

“Ray,” she said, shaking him. He didn’t respond. “Ray!” She didn’t want to cause him further injury, but she had to get up, get help for him. He couldn’t die, could he? Not like this, when they’d barely had any time—“Help!” she shouted, hearing people moving around. “Help us! Someone, help us!”

After what seemed a long time, several men hurried over, grunting as they pulled chunks of wood and plaster off Ray, then moved him to help Tracey sit up. “Is he—is he alright?” she asked faintly.

“He’s still breathing!” one of them announced, and Tracey felt light-headed with relief.

**

Ray saving Tracey from the stray German bomb had greatly impressed Mr. Stephens, who suggested inviting him around for tea, once he was feeling better. “Finally!” Ray joked from his hospital bed. “If I’d known this was all it would take—”

Tracey hushed him, still too shaken by the event to make light of it, and he took her hand. He hadn’t been hurt badly, mainly a concussion, but the doctors wanted to keep him a few days for observation. Amazingly no one had been killed in the incident—likely a bomber that had gotten lost from its squadron—but the pub was heavily damaged, and local sentiment against any nearby Germans was running high.

“People are saying such ugly things,” Tracey murmured, dispirited. She was gaining a new, long-term perspective on the absurdity of hating any one group.

“I know, love,” Ray soothed her, and her human heart warmed to the endearment. “I think I should join up as soon as they declare me fit,” he went on, which she had been expecting though not looking forward to. “I really need—” He stopped talking as a doctor walked by. “I need to go to Europe to find them,” he continued. “Can we—can we make plans, before I go?” he asked tentatively.

Tracey smiled. “Why do you think I’ve been saving my money?” she asked. She wanted to bring a little something to their life together, especially now that her job was gone.

Ray grinned. “You’re my best girl, Tracey,” he declared, looking like he was about to burst with happiness.