Chapter 1: 1923
“What is all this racket!” Winifred shouts over her squabbling children – Marjorie and James, specifically. Dorothy and Louise are crying after being woken by the noise. Sitting down beside her two eldest, she fixes them with a stern look while she quiets the younger ones. Lula settles down in the cradle after a moment’s tending to, and Dotty cuddles into her lap. So much for the afternoon snack she was making them all.
“Bucky thinks he can get married,” Margie huffs using all the superiority in her eight-year-old self, “to his pal Steve!”
Winifred feels her heart leap into her throat. She’s flooded with fear. She looks around to make sure no one could hear such things about her boy, despite the fact that they are at home.
“Tell him he can’t, Ma, he’s gotta marry a girl!” Margie says.
“Tell her I don’t, Ma, I don’t wanna marry no girl! Girls are disgusting,” Bucky whines.
Winifred needs to address the issue of Bucky entertaining the idea that two boys can, can marry. She also needs to know where he picked up such a damned fool idea. At six, he’s had to have heard it somewhere before saying it himself.
“Bucky,” Winifred says sternly, “your sister is correct – two boys cannot marry. That is a sin in the eyes of G-d. It is very, very wrong.”
Margie crows in triumph; Winifred narrows her eyes, silencing her. She allows the girl to get away with too much, being the oldest and a cripple. She thanks the Lord that at least her daughter has all her wits, even if the polio that had taken her Harold had made her legs weak. She runs a hand over Dotty’s hair as she falls asleep. She’s extremely thankful all of her younger children are healthy, too.
“But why?” Bucky asks.
“Because two men together is a sin, Bucky. I’ll not hear another word of such nonsense!” Winifred snaps. It’s dangerous, immoral talk, and she’ll not let her family have any part in it. “Where did you hear such things anyway?”
“I heard Mr. Paulson and Mr. O’Malley talking and they said you oughta know the one you marry properly before you go down the aisle, um, and that you need to give ‘em nice stuff to make ‘em like you, and that you gotta share the good and the bad when you’re married,” he explains. “I also heard Mr. Murphy saying that there’s fellas down by the… the Navy Yard that go with boys instead of girls.”
Bucky stops and bites his lip. “And me and Steve, we’re already best pals. I give him some of my lunch and he gives me pictures he drawed; and we share our marbles and jacks. So, so I figured we’d get married proper when we was big!”
He stares at his feet as he lays out his plan for her. “I was gonna get him a ring, like yours, Ma! And when we get big I’m gonna be a doctor! I’m gonna figure out how to stop the polio, and I’m gonna fix Margie’s legs and Stevie’s lungs. Then I’d be rich, and buy us a nice house. I’d take care of us real good! We’d have lotsa toys!”
He sniffles, looking down at his feet again, and Winifred’s heart aches. He’s such a good boy – always thinking of others. It’s a nice dream he has, and she’ll encourage all of it but for his ridiculous ideas about Steve. She’s hesitant enough about their friendship. She doesn’t want her boy to lose a friend so young. There’s no doubt that Steve Rogers isn’t long for this world, for all that he’s a good, kind boy.
Steve’s a good influence on Bucky, it’s one of the main reasons she’s let their friendship grow. Instead of getting up to mischief after school they typically spend time drawing or, on Steve’s good days, playing catch. The two of them are practically inseparable. She’s seen the other boys in their class nicking apples and splashing passersby with puddles; she’s glad her boy doesn’t behave that way. The only mischief he and Steve get up to is trying to keep bullies away from other kids - like that fight with the Dooley twins because they’d been making fun of Elsie King for wearing glasses.
“You can still have all of that,” Winifred assures him, “except for marrying Steve. It isn’t right, Bucky; it’s a sin that would condemn you straight to hell. You and Steve can still be friends, but that’s all. You’ll marry a nice girl instead.”
He pouts. “Girls are disgusting. The only one I like is Margie, and she’s my sister.” He pauses, and then looks over at his sister. “Maybe Margie and me can marry!”
“I don’t wanna marry you!” Margie wrinkles her nose. “You can’t marry me anyhow; you’re my brother, that ain’t allowed neither.”
Bucky pulls a face and sighs.
Winifred ruffles his hair and forces a laugh. “You’ll find a nice girl to marry when you’re older, my James.”
He juts out his chin stubbornly. “No, I won’t. I’ll just not get married if I can’t marry Stevie.”
Winifred forgets herself and slams her hand down on the table, startling the babies awake again. “I’ll hear no more of this!”
He looks away and crosses his arms, so she grabs his chin roughly and makes him look her in the eye. “It is a sin, and I’ll not have talk of such things in our house. One more word out of you and your father will hear of it when he gets home.”
Bucky nods reluctantly, fear flashing across his face at the thought of being belted. “Yes, Ma.”
Winifred watches as he looks down at the stationery he’d been drawing on. Her heart stops when she sees what he’s been drawing. It’s the house he’d just described, with him and Steve out front. She snatches the paper away, tossing it into the stove. She feels better once it’s destroyed.
Bucky sniffles again, on the verge of tears. Good paper is expensive and the children rarely get to draw on real, clean sheets of it. With a sigh she retrieves her stationery kit and hands him a new piece of paper. He looks at her in surprise.
“Just this once,” she warns. She’ll ask Father Donavan to have a talk with him after church, to make sure he understands.
He grins, showing off the gap where he’s missing a tooth. “Yes, Ma! I’m gonna draw me and Stevie at a baseball game instead,” he says, looking for approval.
Winifred nods, a small knot of fear wending its way into her heart. He’s so…fixated on the Rogers boy. She swallows around the lump in her throat. Bucky is a good boy from an upstanding Christian family. He’s not like that. It isn’t possible- they’re raising him properly.
He’s just a confused little boy. He likes sports, and playing soldiers and cowboys with the other boys. He says all his prayers, memorized the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Gloria Patri, and he goes to catechism twice a week. And he’s bright, good with numbers like his father. He doesn’t try to play with his sisters’ dolls or dresses. He isn’t one of them. He can’t be.
Chapter 2: 1928
It’s been a hard winter. That’s nothing new. But Winifred will concede that this is one of the worst yet. There had been a measles outbreak at the school, and on its heels scarlet fever struck the already weakened children. All of her children pulled through, thanks be to G-d. And, thankfully, Bucky is finally well enough to be off bed rest. It had been hard to keep him abed while he was ill; he’d kept trying to get up and nurse his sisters. When the measles outbreak had died down only Lula’s class had lost any children. The youngest are always the worst off, it seems. But with the scarlet fever outbreak many more children have passed, G-d rest their souls. Winifred hasn’t told the children yet, but they’ve all lost classmates now.
Bucky’s class has lost three children, and there’s soon to be a fourth if the news about Sarah Rogers sending for the priest is true. She hates hearing about the children dying, but can’t help but be grateful it isn’t one of hers this time. She’d be far more grateful if Bucky, who had apparently been eavesdropping, hadn’t gone tearing out of their apartment like a mad fiend, while his sisters are still abed.
“James Buchanan Barnes, your bottom is going to be bleeding when your father finishes with you!” Winifred shouts as she chases after him- the little fool hadn’t bothered to put on a hat, coat, or shoes, and it’s been less than two days since his own fever broke.
“Bucky!” Winifred finally has to stop and lean onto her knees to breathe, the bitter air hurting her chest. She prays he doesn’t catch pneumonia from this stunt.
A police officer asks her, “Problem, ma’am?”
Winifred shakes her head. “My boy’s run off. His best friend’s got scarlet fever and his mother just sent for the priest.” She crosses herself.
The officer winces. “I’m sorry to hear that ma’am.”
Winifred sighs. “So am I.” She pauses, looking at the hat, coat, and shoes in her hands. “If you’ll excuse me, officer.”
He tips his hat to her. “Ma’am.”
Winifred nods back, lifting her skirts and following her son to the tenement slum that Sarah and Steve Rogers are occupying this month.
She should have discouraged Bucky from playing with Steve, she knows it, but he is never happier than when he is with the other boy. What kind of mother would she be to take away her son’s happiness?
And, though she’ll never admit it, she’s always expected Steve to die young or Bucky to become frustrated with his ailments. If that were to happen it wouldn’t be her taking happiness away from her boy.
But, now that the moment is here, she finds herself even more miserable than she had expected. Not just because no child deserves to die, but also because of poor Sarah. Her only son, her only child, is deathly ill. Sarah’s too devoted to her late husband to remarry. Winifred has lost one child; watched him wither away with illness. She empathizes with the other woman.
And what of Bucky?
He’s only ten, yet hovering at his dying friend’s bedside. The world can be a cold, cruel place. How can she explain such a thing to a child? What explanation can she give? What reasoning is there when the Good Lord claims a child’s soul?
“No!” A high, reedy voice shouts, “I won’t let you!”
It’s Bucky. She quickens her pace, worried that the worst has happened and she hadn’t been there.
“No! No! No! You can’t say it!” Bucky’s terror is obvious in his voice, and Winifred lurches around the corner. The scene she sees stops her heart.
“Boy!” the priest, Father Donovan, is bellowing, “Boy! Get off me! You little rat! Get off me, you hoodlum!”
Bucky’s arms and legs wrapped around the Father, holding him immobile in the doorway to the Rogers’ tenement. Sarah Rogers hovers in the shadows, one eye on what must be her son’s sickbed and the other on Bucky as he fights tooth and nail with the priest.
Literally. Winifred winces as Bucky bites one of the Father’s hands, still screaming, “You can’t say it! If you say it he’s gonna die! Stevie can’t die!”
“You little bastard, get your grubby mitts off of me! I’ve never seen such a thing, you damned hooligan!” the Father hurls invectives at her son, while Winifred stands frozen in horror.
Her son is fighting with a priest.
“JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES!!!” Winifred doesn’t think she’s ever screamed so loudly before in her life.
Bucky lets go of the priest in shock, turning to stare at her. Father Donovan turns to her, enraged, “Mrs. Barnes! Never - in all of my years - I cannot believe -”
Winifred needs to know what notions lie behind her son’s actions today before she can properly correct his behavior, so she cuts the Father off, demanding, “Bucky, what on earth were you thinking?”
She can’t handle Father Donovan’s blustering at the moment. He’s a good man and an excellent priest, but if she let him start ranting he won’t stop. She marches up to where Bucky is sitting and maneuvers him like an infant to put his coat and shoes on. He’s so hysterical that he lets her do so.
“He’s gonna say the words Ma,” Bucky starts sobbing again, “and then Stevie will die like Harry did! And like Billy Ryerson last year! He can’t say the words! He can’t!”
“The wor- Bucky, do you mean the Extreme Unction?” Sarah Rogers asks from her spot by her son’s door. Her voice is hoarse and nearly unintelligible, her Irish accent is so thick, and her face gaunt. Winifred’s heart aches for her.
Bucky nods pitifully, still crying.
Sarah sighs, hand at her throat. “Bucky, love, the Extreme Unction is for just in case Steve,” she chokes on a sob, “Steve passes. To protect his soul and make him stronger. It-it won’t make him...” she trails off, eyes returning to her son.
“Do you understand what Mrs. Rogers is saying, Bucky?” Winifred asks.
“Yes, Ma,” Bucky says quietly.
Winifred takes him by the elbow and starts tugging him to his feet. “Stand up, Bucky; you’re too old to be carrying on like this. Up. Now, I won’t tell your father you were crying because of the, um, circumstances,” she nods to Sarah. “But he’ll certainly hear about you running off from your own sickbed and attacking Father Donovan here.”
She looks at the still-fuming priest, promising, “His father will whip him good for this, Father.” She’ll also be giving him a long lecture, but that isn’t what the Father will want to hear, he’s the type who thinks the only cure for a child’s troublemaking is a good whipping and prayer. She jerks on Bucky’s elbow. “Apologize. Now.”
“I’m sorry, Father,” Bucky says, “I thought you was gonna k-kill Stevie, not protect him.”
“Well,” Father Donovan huffs. “So long as the boy’s father takes care of it. And I’ll be seeing you after Mass this Sunday.” He points a finger at Bucky.
“Yes, Father,” Bucky nods. He looks up at her and then over at Sarah. His lower lip wobbles. “C-Can I? Please.”
Winifred meets Sarah’s eyes over the boy’s head. She isn’t sure if Sarah will want him there. She’s even less sure she wants him in there. Winifred doesn’t want her son to have to live with the memory of watching his best friend die.
“He- his fever broke?” Sarah asks, watching Bucky. He’s still pale-faced and red-cheeked.
“Two days ago. I started letting him walk around today. He, um, overheard the news,” she says, “and rushed out of the house to come save Steve, apparently.”
“Let him try, then.” Sarah gives her a watery smile. There’s no hope left in her eyes, not even the slightest glimmer. The poor woman.
Winifred nods and nudges Bucky’s shoulder. “Go on.”
Bucky doesn’t hesitate. He bolts for Steve’s room, pausing only to wrap his wiry arms around Sarah. Winifred sighs and follows him into the tenement, preparing herself to console her son.
By the time she reaches Sarah’s side, Bucky has curled himself around Steve’s frail, near-motionless form. If it wasn’t for Steve’s rasping breaths, Winifred would have thought him gone already.
Winifred rubs her hands together to warm them. Steve is buried under what appears to be all of the blankets in the Rogers’ tenement. She hopes he’s warm. The stove’s meager heat isn’t enough to warm the room entirely.
Bucky is sniffling. Winifred just barely makes out his whispered pleas as he wraps Steve in his arms. Its obvious Sarah hears his soft words too. She makes a sound of distress, pressing one hand over her mouth.
“P-please don’t leave me,” Bucky begs through his tears. “Please Steve. You’re my best friend! I don’t know… I can’t lose you, Stevie.” He starts to sob, “I don’t want you to – you can’t d-die. I love you.”
“Oh,” Sarah says brokenly. A tear rolls down Winifred’s cheek.
Father Donovan shakes his head and mutters, “Oh my. I see now why the boy was so upset.”
“G-d,” Bucky pleads, “If… if you’re listening, please don’t take my Stevie away. He’s my very best fr-friend and I don’t…he just...p-please G-d!”
Steve lets out a weak cough and Bucky tucks himself more tightly around his friend, one arm lying protectively over him. Winifred flinches as Bucky whispers, “I love you,” again.
Her son doesn’t sound like he’s speaking to a best friend or even a brother. He sounds like a husband speaking to his wife. But Sarah’s face shows no recognition of such a thing; nor does Father Donovan’s, who says, “They’re just like young David and Jonathan.”
Winifred shakes herself slightly, watching her son hold another boy to him desperately. If the priest sees nothing of the sort who is she to question it? David and Jonathan shared such a covenant between them that they were as one.
Father Donovan steps past them, and Sarah draws in a shuddering breath. Winifred doesn’t hesitate to put her arm around the other woman. They aren’t particularly close, no, but they have become well acquainted with each other because of their boys.
“Asspérges me, Dómine, hyssópo, et mundábor; lavábis me, et super nivem dealbábor, Miserére mei, Deus: secúndum magnam misericordiam tuam. Gloria Patri, et Filii, et Spiritui Sancti,” Father Donovan begins the Extreme Unction over Steve. The pitying look he casts at Bucky as he clings to his friend tells Winifred all is forgiven.
Father Donovan simply maneuvers around Bucky as he continues praying. Sarah weeps silently into her shoulder as Bucky’s sobs taper off into gasps. Winifred bows her head and prays, too.
Making the sign of the cross, she prays that her son, her Bucky, will not lose Steve. Steve who has become the brother to him that Harold never had the chance to be. She prays that Sarah will never know the pain of losing her son. She prays that Steve, only nine years old and fighting for his life, will not be taken from this Earth tonight.
Steve lets out a weak cough, and Bucky shudders. Sarah presses her head into Winifred’s shoulder as Father Donovan anoints Steve’s eyelids, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet.
Standing there, it feels as if an eternity passes. All of them caught up in a strange, silent tableau. It reminds her of an old Italian painting she once saw in a museum. Steve, prone on the bed, with Bucky clutching him wretchedly to his chest as the Father gave last rites, while mother and friend watch from the doorway.
Chapter 3: 1932
“How was school, Bucky?” Winifred asks as she pulls the chicken out of the icebox for dinner. If she uses it sparingly there will be enough left to mix with last night’s liver to make a loaf.
“Good, Ma,” Bucky tells her. “I’ve got a math test on Tuesday and a science essay due next Monday. Need to finish it up tonight - Mr. McCaffrey wants me in straight from school tomorrow and the hospital said to come in early on Saturday.” His voice cracks half-way through, and she hides a smile - he’s sensitive about it.
“Speak properly, Bucky,” she corrects. “High school graduates do not say ‘gonna’.” He nods, and she looks over at him with a smile. She’s glad to be able to teach him that much, since she’s lost whenever he speaks of his studies now. Her own mother had been from a well-to-do family, and she’d insisted that Winifred and her brothers speak properly.
“Don’t know what this nonsense about high school is,” George slurs from the living room. “I never needed no fancy diploma. The boy’s fifteen, put him ta work. Get him a trade!”
Winifred sighs as Bucky stiffens in his seat. George is an iron worker, and he’d been laid off after the new Empire State building had been completed the year before. Not many skyscrapers are going up these days and he’s taken to filling his days with drinking.
Work has been hard to find ever since the Crash, but to her relief, George has finally found a new job. He’s starting work with a crew at the Rockefeller Center on Monday.
As a family they’ve been lucky. Winifred works as a clerk at the nearby elementary school. And all of the children have found jobs, too. Bucky works sweeping and stocking at the local grocer’s after school and at the hospital on Saturdays, Margie works as a switchboard operator, and Dotty and Lula wash and mend clothes. It has kept them afloat for the past year. But George has taken it as an offense to his manhood and his duty as husband and father to rely on his wife and children to support the family.
More than that, though, the house is nearly always fraught with tension. George is certain that Bucky should drop out of high school and learn a trade- plumbing or carpentry, perhaps. Bucky is equally certain that he will become a doctor. While his dream was born out of his desire to help Margie walk better and Steve breathe easier, he’s discovered a true passion for medicine. He wants to go to college.
Winifred isn’t sure how she feels about that. College is awfully expensive, though Bucky has said repeatedly that he’ll find a way to pay for it himself.
“Ta hell with his pansy schoolin’.” George staggers to his feet, an empty bottle rolling across the floor. Bucky hunches his shoulders, waiting for a blow that doesn’t come.
As her husband pulls on his coat and hat Winifred says softly, “Where are you off to, George?”
“Goin’ ta get more hooch, celebrate the new job. Don’t wait up.” He slams the door shut behind him.
Bucky looks up at her warily and Winifred smiles encouragingly at him, “Start your homework, Bucky. You need good grades to go to college.”
He smiles back. “Yes, Ma.”
She walks over and kisses the top of his head. “You’re a good boy, Bucky.”
“Ma,” Margie says, shuffling into the kitchen, Lula helping her by her elbow. Dotty follows them in and all three girls join Bucky at the table.
“Yes, Margie?” Winifred raises a brow at the girl.
Margie folds her hands in her lap. “Ma, I…there’s a boy I met on break today. He’s asked me to supper.”
Winifred freezes and turns to face the table fully. Margie meeting a boy is the last thing she expected to hear. As Margie is a cripple, it had been hard to keep her in a regular school. They couldn’t afford any fancy school for her, either. So once she’d finished eighth grade, she’d gone to work as a switchboard operator. Winifred has never expected Margie to be courted or be able to marry with her polio-weakened legs; she just thanks G-d that her daughter is alive.
“A boy?” Winifred asks, “At work?”
“Not at work, Ma,” Margie clarifies. “At lunch. Maria, um, Maria Castellano and I were eating outside, it was such a lovely day. When this boy, well, he’s a man, really, since he’s twenty, asked me to go to supper with him.”
“What’s this fella’s name?” Bucky narrows his eyes.
“Not that it’s any of your business, Bucky, but his name is Walter. Walter Meyers, and he’s an electrician. He wants to take me to supper on Monday after work.” Margie turns her nose up a bit at him before flushing. “Please, Ma, can I go?”
“Margie’s got a boyfriend,” Dotty bounces in her chair from delight at the idea.
“Margie and Walter sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Lula giggles.
Winifred looks heavenward. However did she end up with such mouthy children?
“Ma, I think I oughta, um, chaperone them on their date, make sure Margie’s not taken advantage of or nothing,” Bucky says earnestly.
Margie squawks a protest. “Ma, no!”
“Ma, yes!” Bucky counters.
Lula claps her hands over her mouth to muffle a gleeful squeal as she and Dotty watch as their siblings square off for a fight. Margie and Bucky butt heads often, no matter how much they love each other. They’re too similar by half. The younger two tend to treat their friendly spats as the finest form of entertainment around.
“I’m seventeen years old,” Margie snaps. “I’m older than you and a grown woman and you don’t have no say in anything, James.”
“I’m your brother, Marjorie,” Bucky says back, voice cracking on his sister’s name, “It’s my job, my – my responsibility to make sure you’re treated right!”
“Enough,” Winifred stops them before it can really begin. She doesn’t want to deal with this today.
All four turn to her with wide eyes, attempting to plead their innocence.
“If this Walter Meyers wants to take you out, he’ll be coming by the house first,” Winifred says. “You’re a good girl, Margie, but I won’t have any of my children’s reputations sullied, so he’ll be coming to meet your father first. If your father approves,” and Winifred will make sure he does unless this Walter is some sort of low-life, “you may go out for the evening. You’ll be back by eight o’clock sharp.”
Margie nods eagerly. “Yes, Ma! Walter seems like a real gentleman. You’ll see.”
Winifred hopes she’s right. The thought of any of her girls being taken advantage of terrifies her – it’s one of her worst fears. She prays every night for them to remain safe from such horrors as they grow into young women.
Margie plucks at the metal joint of her leg brace, before asking plaintively, “Eight o’clock?”
“Eight o’clock sharp or I let your brother hunt you down,” Winifred tells her firmly.
Margie whines even as Bucky says, “I’ll make sure she’s home at a proper time Ma.”
Winifred says, “Margie will make sure she’s home at a proper time. Won’t you, Margie?”
“Yes, Ma,” Margie agrees immediately.
“Good girl,” Winifred murmurs with a smile, and she is. Winifred has been blessed with four good, if mouthy, children. She hums along to the tune of Minnie the Moocher as it plays through the walls from the Donovans next door, skinning the chicken, before deciding to pull out potatoes for the girls to peel.
As she places them onto the table along with knives for Margie and Dotty, she gives Lula a stern look that has her slinking into her room to grab her own homework. Of the two youngest, Dotty is the scholarly one with her nose in a book, while Lula would rather be gabbing with her girlfriends.
“You did your schooling, Dotty?” she checks, just to be certain. No child of hers will have a poor work ethic.
“Yes Ma,” Dotty nods as she carefully spirals the knife around the potato, attempting to remove the peel all in one go. She isn’t successful. Part of the peel falls to the table just over halfway done with the potato, and she mutters, “Darn it.”
“Language,” Winifred chastises.
“Sorry, Ma,” Dotty says as Lula slouches back into the kitchen, her sums and writing exercises in hand.
Lula slumps with a loud sigh into her chair, and Winifred says a silent prayer asking for patience at her youngest daughter’s attitude. “No more of that.” Winifred points a finger at her from where she’s cutting the chicken into pieces. “I get any more lip about your schooling Louise, and I’ll be telling your father about that attitude, and about your poor grades last term. You won’t be sitting properly for a week.”
“Yes, Ma,” Lula ducks her head and tugs her writing closer. “Oh no!”
“Lula, what’d I –” Winifred starts but Lula jumps in.
“No, no lip, Ma,” she protests. “I just forgot to grab my pencil from school.”
“Here, Lula,” Bucky says kindly. “I’ll study for my math test, you go ahead and use my pencil for your homework.”
“Thanks, Bucky,” Lula beams up at him. Her broad grin quickly turns into a scowl as he leans over to tug her braid.
“No problem, kitten,” he grinned.
“Don’t call me that!” Lula whines.
Bucky smirks and opens his mouth but Winifred warns, “Bucky.”
Bucky closes his mouth and pouts. Winifred says another quick prayer for patience. The children remain blessedly silent, long enough for her to finish preparing the chicken and move on to the sauce. Once they begin speaking again she almost wishes she’d stopped them all from talking for the night, somehow.
“So, Bucky,” Margie smiles slyly. “What about you? Got any girls you wanna take dancing?”
“Huh?” Bucky doesn’t look up from his math book.
“A girl, Buck,” Margie rolls her eyes. “Do you have one you’re looking to take out?”
“No,” Bucky says immediately, before turning the page of his schoolbook.
Winifred swallows without looking up. Her throat feels as if it’s closing up. He hadn’t even thought about his answer before speaking. It was automatic.
“Not a one that suits your fancy?” Margie arches her eyebrow in disbelief. “No doll you’re dizzy over?”
“No one in particular.” Bucky wrinkles his nose slightly as he answers, “I mean, going for a spin around the dance floor is nice, but I don’t want to go steady with anyone. What do I need some girl for, anyway?” He grimaces, tapping the fingers of his left hand irritably on the table.
“Ugh, algebra.” His voice cracks again.
Winifred turns to look at him, taking a deep breath. He’s still young, just hasn’t met a girl that caught his eye yet. He’s only just fifteen. Winifred forcefully pushes away the memory of Clarence Sutherland bringing her flowers at fifteen, and how she mooned over Frank Donegal the year before that.
Margie gapes. “What are you playing at? What do you mean, ‘what do you need a dame for’? To marry, of course! Who else but a wife would put up with your ugly mug once you get old and nasty like Mr. Holloway?”
Bucky shrugs. “I don’t know if I want to marry. What’s the point?” He shakes his head, wrinkling his nose again. “Besides, Stevie will be with me. We both promised, you know,” his voice softens slightly even as one corner of his mouth quirks up.
Winifred wants to rage against every word leaving her only son’s lips. She wants to grab him and shake him and demand he find himself a girl today. Wants to marry him off using a matchmaker, like her grandmother had always threatened her and her sisters with. She prays; staying silent, knowing no good will come of speaking; she’ll just give him ideas. He’ll grow up right. He’ll learn to appreciate a good woman like every other man, Winifred tells herself.
Neither Lula or Margie notice anything out of the ordinary about what Bucky said, the way his face looked as he said it. But Dotty does. Her eyes narrow, ever so slightly, and her lips thin as she cocks her head to the side. Of the three sisters she’s the closest to her brother, and reads him best.
“You and Steve, huh?” Dotty asks, putting weight on the question in a way no thirteen-year-old ought to be able to, leaning forward and resting her chin on one hand.
The others don’t notice, not even Bucky. Winifred bites her lip, wanting to curse her daughter into silence.
“Sure,” Bucky says easily. “Figure we’ll get a place cheap somewhere, live together. I’ll go to college, be a doctor. Steve will go to art school, become real famous for his painting.” He grins. “The two of us will be a pair of confirmed bachelors.”
Winifred flinches at the term, and Dotty’s too-keen eyes flash in realization.
“Sounds like you got it all figured out,” Dotty smiles at Bucky but her eyes pierce Winifred, who can’t look back.
Bucky’s smile is brittle as glass. His eyes flick uncertainly between his sister and mother. Winifred isn’t sure if his hesitance is because he doesn’t know what he said, or if it’s because he does know.
Margie snorts and rolls her eyes. “You’re such a child.” she tells Bucky imperiously, every inch the eldest. “Claiming you won’t wed, you’ll just live with your best pal! You’re a little boy who ain’t never grown up.”
She glances meaningfully down at his schoolbooks, her tone turning snide as she strikes back for his perceived earlier offense of asking to be made her chaperone. “Still clinging to his little boy dreams. Playing doctor. Ha! Like any of that will ever come true.”
Bucky leans back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, nostrils flaring. Winifred breathes heavily through her nose, biting her lip harder. The problem with siblings is that they know exactly where to strike to land a killing blow.
She could stop them, separate them, send Bucky or Margie off before the fight worsens. But it will do no good – not when they’re like this. They’ve got the Barnes stubbornness, the pair of them, and Winifred, tired from a busy day of work, doesn’t possess the energy to separate them now. Not with Bucky’s earlier words spinning through her mind like a top, leaving her dazed with fear and anger.
Suddenly, Bucky slumps. His uncrosses his arms and rests them dejectedly on the table. His body moves forwards, hunching into itself. “I didn’t ask to chaperone you because I get some sort of…pleasure from being a nuisance, Margie,” Bucky says quietly. “I did it because if this Walter turns out to be the sort that…that won’t take no for an answer, you can’t run away, Margie.” He glances at the brace on her polio-weakened legs, before looking away.
Margie stares at him, wide-eyed. It’s obvious the idea of such a thing had never occurred to her. It had occurred to Winifred, which is one of the reasons she had insisted the boy come meet George first. As well as why she’d set Margie’s curfew so early.
“Bucky,” Margie whispers. She swallows, fear evident on her face.
He sits up straight, puts his hand atop Margie’s, and says earnestly, “I’d kill him. I’d kill anyone who ever hurt one of you girls.”
Dotty and Lula are watching silently. Dotty seems to understand what the conversation is about but Lula is obviously confused. Winifred’s glad.
“Bucky,” Winifred says, “while your… protectiveness is admirable, I’d rather my son not end up in prison for murder.”
“I can’t…I won’t let anyone hurt my sisters, Ma.” He looks at her evenly, his blue eyes icy. Winifred shivers a little at how matter-of-fact he sounds.
“Maybe,” Margie swallows and looks at the ground. “Maybe you should come.”
“No,” Bucky shakes his head. “You’re right. Having me as a chaperone would ruin the mood. But what about calling on a friend who’s got a fella? Make it a double date.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Bucky,” Winifred says. She’s relieved. She tries to keep up with the times, but the idea of a girl on a date (particularly a first date) unescorted is mildly terrifying.
Lula is looking between them rapidly, confused. She goes to ask a question, but Dotty kicks her in the shin as soon as she opens her mouth. Dotty looks at Lula in a warning to keep silent. Winifred is relieved; she doesn’t want Lula to know about such things yet.
Dotty meets her eyes briefly before going back to trace the grain of the table with one finger, eyes distant as she retreats into her thoughts. Winifred breathes slowly, evenly, for just a moment, letting the silence stretch.
Finally, Winifred says, “That’s enough of that talk. Why don’t you stop in on some of your friends tomorrow, Margie, see if any of them want to go on a double date with you and Walter.” She pauses to look at her eldest daughter. “I think there’s something you ought to be saying to your brother.”
Margie says softly, “I’m sorry, Bucky. I misjudged you, and your reason for suggesting a chaperone.”
“I’m sorry too, Margie,” Bucky takes a deep breath. “I wish…I wish it wasn’t like this. That you girls never had to think twice about anything more than what dress you’re wearing when a fella takes you out on the town.”
Winifred smiles slightly. He’s such a good boy. He’ll be a good man, too.
Of course, then Bucky adds, “I do want you to know I meant it when I said I won’t let anyone hurt any of you like that.” He looks at all of his sisters with a fierce protectiveness. “Anything ever happens, you tell me.”
Lula and Dotty both nod; they all know how protective Bucky is. He glances at Winifred. She arches an eyebrow.
“I ain’t,” Bucky rubs the back of his neck. “I ain’t trying to scare you girls. I just want you safe. Safe and happy. I don’t want you ending up like Gertie Maslanka.”
Margie nods, but doesn’t look up from her hands. “I’m sorry too; I shouldn’t have said that about you becoming a doctor, I know it isn’t true.” She looks up at Bucky with a soft smile. “You’re gonna be a fantastic doctor someday – helping folks all over the world.”
“You think?” Bucky asks quietly, uncertainty coloring his voice.
Margie smiles wider. “I know it. You’re too darned stubborn to fail.” She puts her hand on top of his. “Too good of a fella, and too smart of one, to not be helping sickly folks out. You’ll cure all sorts of diseases.”
Bucky smiles and flips his hand over to squeeze Margie’s hand back. “Your date’s going to go swell. I’m sure Walter’s a fine man. He’ll surely see what an amazing lady you are. Just you wait and see, he’ll treat you like a precious jewel or something.”
Winifred’s heart constricts with pride and love. She is truly blessed to have such wonderful children. She smiles down at their dinner as the tinny sounds of the Donovans’ radio leak through the wall, and Mrs. Blumberg above them is yelling in Yiddish at her daughter, who yells back even louder, and the Sampson boys are singing a bawdy drinking tune down in the alley below. She’s basking in the feel of her peaceful kitchen, the scratching of pencil on paper, the creak of the old wooden chairs, the rustle of fabric, and the occasional bit of chatter between the –
“BUCKY!” Lula bellows. “Give it back!”
Bucky is cackling and holding her hair ribbon over her head.
Winifred heaves a sigh.
Chapter 4: 1934
Winifred sweeps and hums along with the wireless. She looks over at the table when the signal turns fuzzy before cutting out. She pinches the bridge of her nose. Dotty has her little tool set out and is fussing around with it again.
“Dotty,” she says.
“Just a minute, Ma, it’ll sound better soon.”
Bucky had found the radio in the trash over by Prospect Park. She isn’t sure what, precisely, her boy was doing in that area of town (far too rich for the likes of them), but she had decided not to ask. He’d brought the broken wireless home for Dotty to tinker with – always interested in technology and science and such, that girl.
Using the broom to reach into a corner, Winifred sends a metal something flying across the room. “You and your brother,” she says, “between your technological bits and bobs and those medical journals of his laying about, I’m surprised no one’s broken their neck tripping on them.”
“Oh! I was looking for that!” Dotty follows the piece to where it now lay. She looks over with a grin. “Besides, we have to put things somewhere.”
“I’d prefer it not to be in the kitchen,” Winifred says, though she allows a teasing grin on her face.
She shakes her head in bemusement as Dotty goes back to fiddling with the radio - it’s a bit odd, a girl liking such things, but it did no harm to let her poke at wires and knobs. Even if it is unladylike.
Well, it did no harm so long as George didn’t see. Winifred knows a woman could do many of the same things a man could – it’s why she’d supported the suffragists, even if she hadn’t been out there marching – George, however, is old-fashioned. He doesn’t like Dotty or the other girls doing anything he sees as a man’s job. So they all tell him Bucky had been the one to fix the radio (and the toaster) up.
“Do you think Bucky could find me a broken electric icebox?” Dotty asks.
Winifred raises her eyebrows. “That would be very useful if you can get it working.”
“Ma, I’m sure I can figure it out. I been looking at some books Bucky checked out from the library for me. I got the Prestons’ car working, didn’t I?”
“See. We’ll get an icebox, tell Pa that Bucky wants to tinker with it,” Dotty scoffs and Winifred smiles a bit at the thought of that. Bucky’s talented in many things, but technology certainly isn’t one of them. “I’ll fix it up and Bucky can go back to reading those medical journals he’s so in love with.”
“Every other day he comes in spouting about this new medical discovery, and that new technique! Trying to diagnose us with some illness every time someone so much as sniffles!” Winifred says, exasperated. “I rue the day he struck the deal with that doctor at the hospital to buy old medical journals off of him for a penny.”
“His girl, Edna Wilkins, was not happy when Bucky spent the quarter she’d been expecting him to use on her to buy more journals last week.” Dotty says. “You know what he said to Edna when she pestered him about it? ‘But I never said I was going to use that quarter on you.’ Can you believe it?”
Winifred sighs. “That boy.”
Dotty pokes something and the radio squeals loudly. Winifred drops the broom and covers her ears. “Dotty!”
“Sorry, Ma!” She pokes something else and the squeal stops.
Winifred’s so used to things like that happening by now that she just continues the previous conversation. “What happened after that?”
Winifred looks up from her sweeping. Dotty’s lost in her bits and bobs again. “With Edna and Bucky, Dotty.”
“Oh, Edna stormed off in a huff, and poor Bucky still doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. It seems to go that way quite often, actually.”
Winifred frowns as she considers Bucky and his girl’s relationship, broom stilling. She had been so happy and relieved that Bucky is finally going on dates with a nice young girl. Has her happiness made her blind to how unhappy her son is? She prays not.
The front door opens and Lula rushes into their apartment. Bucky, following behind her, barks, “Louise Elizabeth!” His hair is sopping wet.
Lula flinches. Bucky scowls at her. She turns around slowly, her chin thrust forwards in pure defiance.
“I ain’t sorry,” she snaps. “I hate her! She makes you sad, and you weren’t doing nothing about it.”
Winifred looks over at Dotty, arching a brow in question. But Dotty shakes her head silently, lips pursed. Winifred scowls, that look on Dotty’s face means she knows exactly what’s happened.
Bucky practically growls, low in his throat, before turning sharply on his heel. “I’m going to Steve’s. I’ll be out late. Don’t wait up.”
He yanks the door open again, and Winifred winces as he slams it shut behind him. A figurine falls off the table near the door. It shatters as it hits the floor.
Winifred sighs. She honestly doesn’t care that the ugly thing broke. George’s aunt had bought it for them, and Winifred loathed both the woman and the figurine. And it’ll be simple enough to clean up.
Lula shakes herself a bit and lets out a loud huff before stomping off to the girls’ room. This time nothing broke when she slammed the door behind her. Winifred is going to have to have a talk with her children about slamming doors. Again.
Dotty sighs, standing from her place at the table to pick up the head of the figurine. She stares off into space, obviously thinking. Knowing her daughter, Winifred is certain that she’s retreating from the world around her, focusing on her own thoughts to avoid dealing with other people.
Winifred looks over at her. “Whatever happened?” she demands, shaking Dotty out of her thoughts.
“Dorothy,” she warns. The girl is obviously trying to think up some lie to keep one, or both, of her siblings out of trouble.
Dotty slumps a bit. “Lula was to make sure Edna knows that Bucky thinks she’s stupid, a liar, and, um, that she’s a loose girl.” She scuffs one foot on the floor. “And, this is purely speculation, but when Edna confronted Bucky about that he was probably too surprised to say anything. ‘Cause he’s Bucky. So she hopefully broke up with him.”
Winifred gapes at her in shock. “What? Dear Lord!” she gasps, crossing herself.
“Lula did! Bucky said! You planned!” Winifred flutters a hand through the air. “Did he say? To Lula?”
“Well,” Dotty hedges.
“He was talking to Margie at her place the other day,” Dotty blurts out in a nervous rush. “You know she’s lonely – being on bed rest for the baby – so we all stopped by to visit. Lula and me decided to make Margie and Walter a nice dinner, so Margie gave us a dollar and we went to the market while Bucky stayed back to keep her company.”
Winifred waits impatiently as Dotty wrings her hands. “When we came in we didn’t hear anything at first and thought maybe Margie was sleeping while Bucky read or something. But then we got closer and heard Bucky telling Margie.” She pauses, cringing. “Telling her that he didn’t know what to do about Edna – he wasn’t sure whether to end things with her or not. He was complaining something awful about her, but still was too good of a fella to want to hurt her feelings. So, well, Lula and I decided to take matters into our own hands.”
Winifred’s hands clench around the broom handle until her knuckles are white. She understands that children… date around now far more than they used to when she was a girl. She knows that proper courting has practically disappeared these days. Bucky not wanting to date his girl anymore is understandable. After all, now that she’s thinking on it, he seemed unhappy. But if he’d said such awful things about her that Dotty and Lula decided to take action, well!
“What, precisely, did Bucky tell Margie about Edna?”
Dotty huffs angrily and says, “He was real upset Ma. Edna seemed like a nice girl, but it turns out she’s really nothing but a – a lying tramp!” And suddenly her most level-headed child is on a right tear. “And a dumb one too! She doesn’t know nothing about anything, and you know Bucky, he’s smart as a whip. He deserves a girl as smart as he is. And Edna, well she only talks about makeup and film stars, Bucky said. He said he tried talking to her about other stuff, but she told him to stop boring her.
“Edna’s a floozy too! Bucky said that she didn’t enjoy a nice date at the soda parlor or dancehall unless they spent half of it necking behind the shop. And then she got upset when he told her it wasn’t appropriate, that he wanted to talk more. I’m not sure how she doesn’t have a bad reputation. Bucky don’t need a steady like that.”
Dotty balls her fists and says furiously, “Plus, it seems that Edna don’t like Steve at all! She was lying about thinking he was a swell fella! And Bucky, well, he’d pick Steve over Edna any day. His exact words were, ‘Girls like Edna are a dime a dozen, but pals like Steve are one in a million.’”
She pauses, considering. Dotty’s eyes meet Winifred’s. The moment stretches and twists like taffy being pulled – sticky and heavy in her hands. Winifred stills, nervous. The room, the moment, it all feels poignant, heavy.
“His face as he said it, Ma,” Dotty says with a curious look, one Winifred can’t quite read. Isn’t sure she wants to. “His face said it all. Bucky loves Steve.”
Bucky loves Steve.
Bucky loves Steve.
Bucky loves Steve.
The words echo through her mind, chilling her down to her bones. A creeping sensation skitters along her skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake. Her heart lurches in her chest before beating twice as quickly. Winifred is quite certain it’s about to beat its way free of her bosom. Those words are her deepest nightmares realized, her worst horrors bared before the world, a certain condemnation from the Lord.
She’s heard those same words before, years ago, uttered by Bucky himself. She’d dismissed it then, after seeing the Father’s lack of concern. She had pushed it from her mind, almost completely forgetting it. She doubts she’ll be able to do so a second time.
“What…” she croaks out, forcing herself to speak. “What do you mean?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Bucky loves Steve so much, Ma. He’s –”
Dotty stops then, considering her. Winifred is certain her face is white with fear. Dotty’s too-bright eyes soften, and her smile turns pitying. She watches Winifred solemnly. She knows something. Knows something with a certainty that makes Winifred tremble.
Winifred swallows roughly. It doesn’t matter what Dotty knows, or thinks she knows. Doesn’t matter that Bucky is undoubtedly closest to Dotty, and if he’d told Margie of his girl troubles, who knows what else he’s told Dotty. It doesn’t matter. Winifred won’t have it. Won’t hear such nonsense about her boy. He’s a good boy, they’re a good family. She’s raised him to be a proper Christian. It simply isn’t possible. She won’t let it be.
Dotty clears her throat, not looking near her face. “He’d, uh, never take a girl dancing, Ma, let alone, um, marry her if she didn’t love Steve just as much as he does.”
It rings horribly false. Dotty never could lie.
Winifred looks away, her eyes shutting briefly. “Of course not,” she says at last. “After all, Steve’s practically Bucky’s brother. You, you can’t go courting a girl that hates your brother.” She swallows back the sharp tang of bile in her throat. “Bucky will find a good girl to marry one day soon, nothing to worry about. Most boys don’t marry the first girl they go steady with.” She takes a deep breath, and prays. “He’ll marry a good girl, you’ll see.”
Her words ring even falser than Dotty’s had.
Chapter 5: 1938
“You’re sure about this?” Winifred frets.
“I’m sure, Ma,” Bucky repeats, running one hand through his hair. “I’ve got a good job at Abraham & Strauss, and I’m still picking up shifts at the hospital, too. Steve’s got that new gig with the Federal Art Project. We’re both going to make good money now, and we’re putting away our spare change. Soon enough I’ll be able to go to college! Steve’s taking classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan too, becoming a real fancy sort of artist.”
George snorts at her fussing as he hauls in the last box. Her husband approves of the fact that Bucky’s setting off on his own. “Boy’s a man now, Winifred. With a decent job and all. I’d be surprised if he weren’t chafing to cut the apron strings!”
Bucky smiles at his father’s approval, and Winifred sighs. Ever since Bucky went on to high school, things had been tense between him and George. His tune changed after Bucky got a good, solid job working at a fancy department store.
It helps that George is back to his old self – how he was before he lost his job and started drinking more a few years back. He’s been so much better ever since he was promoted to crew supervisor at the Rockefeller Center two years ago, even cut his drinking back.
Things have been much more tenable in their home over the past couple years, even with Steve occasionally staying with them when he’s between tenements. Winifred isn’t surprised that Bucky’s moving out. Nor that he’s moving into a place with Steve. She’s become more resigned to their…attachment to one another as they’ve grown from boys to men.
This past winter, after not hearing from Steve for almost a week, Bucky had made his way to Steve’s place. He’d found the younger man delirious with fever. Bucky had realized he had pneumonia. He’d bundled Steve in blankets and carried him to the hospital himself. He’d dipped into his college fund to pay for Steve’s treatment. Without Bucky, Steve likely wouldn’t have survived.
Now that its spring, and Steve is well, George has been making noises about Steve moving out. George has never really cared for Steve, thinking him a burden since he was always so sickly. Although he’s warmed up to him a bit more over the last few years, he’d confessed to Winifred that he kept an eye on Steve when the boys were young since he feared that Steve might be a fairy – what with his art and how fine-boned he is.
Winifred hadn’t been able to do much more than make reassuring noises during that conversation; her throat had closed up in a panic. George, seeing her distress, had reassured her that Steve was as interested in dames as the next fellow. He’d caught him eyeing up a girl or two on the street a few years back. Winifred can’t help but wonder if George ever thought such things about their own…no.
No. Bucky, like Steve, is a perfectly normal young man.
As if thinking of Steve has conjured him, he appears in the doorway, a stack of blankets in hand. He smiles broadly at them. “Mr. Barnes, Mrs. Barnes, thank you for helping us move everything over here.”
George claps Steve on the back, light enough that he doesn’t stumble but hard enough it won’t offend Steve’s prickly temper. “Not to worry, boy!” he booms, with a grin. “Like was telling Winifred, it’s time for you boys to cut your teeth out here in the real world, rather than being coddled at home. Besides,” he says, elbowing Steve’s side conspiratorially, and winking at Bucky. “How’re you to impress your future wives if you ain’t got a place to bring ‘em back to?”
“George!” Winifred says, scandalized. “To say such things!”
Steve manages a laugh.
Bucky says, “Right! Good one, Pa.” He gives Steve a brief, amused look. Steve just looks panicky.
George clears his throat. “Speaking of girls,” he says seriously, looking hard at Bucky. “I don’t want to hear of you getting no girls into trouble, you understand me?” He glances at Steve beside him, adding, “Either of you.”
“George!” Winfred repeats. “Stop it! The boys won’t –”
“Now, Winifred,” he says, placating her before looking at the boys sternly. “I know they’re smart boys, but well...just so as they both know if an accident does happen I’ll be the one marching them to the church – their new bride’s father needn’t bother! And they’ll be marched there by the ear, you can be sure of that. Best way to ensure a scene like that don’t happen is to make sure you’re both careful with your girls, you hear?”
“Yes, Pa,” Bucky says smartly.
Steve echoes him, half a beat behind. “Yes, Mr. Barnes.”
“Good lads.” George ruffles Bucky and Steve’s hair a bit. Steve looks shocked, and Winifred can’t blame him. George isn’t the most affectionate of men. That’s not to say he’s a cruel one like her father had been, or a violent one like Mr. Houlihan down the block. But he isn’t particularly warm either. He hasn’t been demonstrative in his affections for Bucky since he turned fourteen, and he’s never touched Steve with any affection at all.
George clears his throat and says, “Now, lads, I know you chose this part of town because it’s cheap, but…well, I want you both to be careful. There’s a reason this part of town’s so cheap – it’s filled with fairies.”
Steve makes a strangled noise.
George nods at him seriously. “It’s G-d’s honest truth, boy, this area –” he huffs in disgust “– fairies and pansies and queers of all sorts. Now, my pal Bill, he says he lived over here for nearly five years and none of the queers gave him no trouble other than the occasional, uh,” he glances at Winifred and swallows before saying, “proposition.”
Bucky is staring at his father, wide-eyed, and Steve looks seconds away from one of his breathing fits. Winifred would feel better about their shocked looks if they didn’t also look guilty as sin. She fights the urge to recite the Pater Noster for strength.
“Uh,” Bucky stumbles over his words. “Thanks for the warning, Pa?”
George reaches out and claps him on the shoulder. “Now I know you boys can handle yourself against a few faggots,” he snorts derisively. “You’re real men, so you shouldn’t have no trouble. Just make sure to stay clear of those fairies, and if they give you any trouble make sure and teach ‘em a lesson they won’t forget, lads!”
“Right.” Bucky won’t meet his father’s eyes.
“Yeah,” Steve says through a clenched jaw. His eyes dart back and forth between George and Bucky, and Winifred swallows heavily when she catches sight of his balled fists.
Steve’s always had a temper. But at the moment she isn’t sure if he’s riled up because George had gone out and beaten up queers and it offends his moral sensibilities, or if he’s angry because he is a queer.
Bucky lets out a strangled laugh. “I think we’ll, uh, just try and avoid those areas, Pa. No sense, uh, making trouble when you don’t have to.” He moves and puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder, and Winifred has no doubt it’s to restrain the smaller man if need be.
“Sensible, best to avoid those freak shows,” George nods, oblivious to the boys’ mounting tempers and the tension.
Winifred wishes she didn’t see it. Didn’t see the furtive and slightly panicked looks the boys had shot each other during George’s speech, didn’t see the small wave Steve had given to their new neighbor – a man in lipstick – when they’d passed him in the hall. Didn’t see hidden smiles and light touches as they’d passed by each other while carrying boxes up the stairs, didn’t see the happy looks they exchanged while surveying their apartment. Wishes she didn’t see the way they had leaned into one another, only to spring apart as she’d turned the corner into the bedroom.
Winifred wishes she’d never seen any of it.
She forces herself to dismiss it. The Lord knows, the boys are close, but it’s simply a particularly close friendship – like Jonathan and David, Achilles and Patroclus, Laurel and Hardy. They're simply excited to be moving out, to be making their way on their own, as adults.
It’s not anything else.
She inhales slowly, closing her eyes briefly. “George,” she scolds. “Let’s not talk about such… things.”
She can’t be sure of why the boys are upset, of course. But Bucky, he’s a sensitive soul, and Steve. Well, Steve. Always fighting and protesting and marching for one cause or another. It wouldn’t – it doesn’t, in fact – surprise her any to know he’s fighting for the queers.
The relief in her son’s eyes when she changes the subject makes her look away. He’s only relieved because talking about queers is an unseemly topic, Winifred assures herself. It couldn’t be anything else.
No other reason at all.
Chapter 6: 1945
Her hand hovers, unable to place the key into the latch. If she does, then… then it’s real. It’ll all be real.
“Ma,” Dotty says softly, taking the key from her shaking hand.
Winifred lets her daughter enter the small apartment first, before following with the empty boxes. Dotty’s the only other member of the family who’s able to come and help. George is drinking again, has been since they’d gotten the news. He’s devastated and dealing with it the only way he knows how to. Margie is busy caring for her one-year-old daughter; her little miracle the doctors had said she’d never be able to have, born after a stillbirth and two miscarriages. She’d fainted when they’d first heard, but then pulled herself together for little Patty. Lula, well, Lula has always been delicate. She’s barely stopped crying since they’ve gotten the news, and only manages to get out of bed to go to work at the factory.
Winifred had cried at first, but she’s a practical woman. She knows carrying on won’t change anything. It won’t – it won’t bring her boy back to her. He’s with G-d, now. Dotty has always taken after her that way. She’s always been a level-headed child.
As Dotty opens the door, a wave of stale air greets them. The apartment hasn’t been opened since Steve had come home briefly on leave, after his training, but before whatever procedure he’d had. That had been nearly two years ago. He’d only had a day. While he had been visiting with them, he had arranged for Dotty to collect his pay and use it to keep paying for the apartment he and Bucky shared. A place to come home to, he’d told Dotty. He hadn’t known Winifred had overheard.
There is no reason to pay for the apartment anymore. Steve is gone. Bucky is gone. Officially, they’re missing in action, but one of the men they’d served with had stopped by. He’d told them that there was next to no chance either of them survived. The government wants to keep those dratted ‘Captain America and the Howling Commandos’ comics alive to keep morale up. But, in reality, they’re searching for bodies to bring home, not men.
Winifred hopes they find them so she can bury her Bucky next to her Harry. They are surely enjoying each other’s company up in heaven, Steve tagging along as always. She’ll bury Steve beside his mother. He’d have wanted that, and there’s no one else to do it for him.
She sighs heavily as she looks around the apartment. It’s not as bare as she expected, what with two bachelors living here. Steve was bright enough to throw blankets and sheets over the furniture before he’d left. She’d rather she was here to see the boys home again than to box up their things.
Dotty’s hand lands light on her shoulder to give it a squeeze. “Come on, Ma. Let’s… let’s get this over with.”
Winifred clutches her hand and presses a kiss to the back of it. With another sigh, she goes to the center of the main room. She looks around, assessing how much there is to pack in the small space. There are frameless paintings on the walls – mostly landscapes and scenes from around Brooklyn, with a few scattered oddly surreal pieces and some prints mixed in – and the kitchen is neatly organized.
Dotty is removing the dustcovers from the furniture, and Winifred is startled to realize that the only item she recognizes is the kitchen table. Everything else, including what little furniture Sarah Rogers had and the various junked pieces she and George had helped the boys find, has been replaced. None of it is new, but it’s certainly of better quality than what they’d had before.
When did they replace the furniture?
“Before the war,” Dotty says quietly, folding a striped sheet that was over an armchair. Winifred realizes she must have spoken aloud. “They were –” Dotty chokes a little, “they were so excited. It matches and everything.”
“I didn’t know they’d gotten new furniture,” Winifred whispers, looking at a lovely bowl on a small table by the door.
Dotty is watching her. “You were there when they said so. It was at Sunday dinner one day.” She looks away. “I was the only one who ever came to visit them.”
Winifred swallows heavily. It’s true. She had only come by once, when Steve had been ill and Bucky had had to work. That had been less than a year after they’d moved in. The rest of the family, well. George was always busy working, and Margie had her husband, and Lula had always been too busy with her own friends to bother much about visiting her brother when she saw him for church and Sunday dinner every week anyway.
They work in silence for a while. Dotty is carefully pulling the paintings off the walls, sorting them into two piles. Winifred is boxing up the various books the boys had collected. There are books on art, medical texts, a large collection of Bucky’s medical journals, and a good many novels. She smiles sadly at the Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and Dashiell Hammett books. Bucky loves… loved detective novels. The collection of English poetry and Oscar Wilde novels are, she assumes, Steve’s.
“Ma,” Dotty says.
“Hmm?” Winifred looks up from the novel Better Angel, which she had begun to flip through.
“I’m going to start in on the boys’ room, if you want to finish packing the books and records?”
“Of course,” Winifred replies, setting the novel in the box. But she follows Dotty into the boys’ room. She isn’t sure why.
She will always regret that she did.
It’s the same small, cramped bedroom it had been when they’d moved the boys in. Except instead of the two beds being pressed up against opposite walls they are shoved together in the center. A single, large quilt is spread over them.
The only nightstand has a framed photograph of both boys bent over laughing, arms wrapped around one another. It was probably taken in 1940 – Steve had had to cut his hair particularly short that summer after an incident with one of the neighbor’s children and chewing gum.
She crosses herself and looks away. She can’t bear the sight. She would argue that perhaps it was due to the cold. Steve has never had any meat on his bones, catching cold easily. But it had been June when Bucky had shipped out. It was August when Steve had been home for his one night of leave.
She’d written to Bucky once. She asked if he and Steve had been certain they’d wanted to spend their pay keeping their tiny apartment. He’d written her back about wanting to have someplace to come home to. A place to picture in their minds while they marched through the muck of Europe. As much as he loved her and knew he could move back into the family house, his home was in the place he shared with Steve. She knows now what he meant.
Winifred’s eyes catch on the chest of drawers. Atop it are several more photographs. She stares at them, torn between dismay and mourning. There’s their family portrait from right before Bucky shipped out, a worn and tattered photograph of Sarah and Joseph Rogers on their wedding day, a picture of young Bucky with the girls, a picture of Sarah with Steve as a child, and a picture of the boys as adolescents, arms around each other’s shoulders while attempting to stay straight faced.
“Ma,” Dotty says plaintively.
“Did you know?” she hears herself ask. “Did you know they were…?”
She can’t say it.
Silence is her only answer for a long time. “No,” Dotty says eventually. “Not for certain, but… I suspected. Whenever I came over, the beds were separate with their old quilts. There were…signs, though. You never thought that…?”
Winifred purses her lips and doesn’t respond. Instead, she goes to the chest of drawers, opening the top drawer roughly.
“I’ll, um, I’ll pack up the bedclothes,” Dotty says softly.
Winifred nods stiffly as she pulls the boys’ shirts from the drawer, refolding a few that had fallen open, before placing them in bags. What’s still in good shape can be given to Walter or sold off. The rest can be given to the Sisters for the needy.
She empties the chest of drawers methodically, mind numb with the revelation. She can’t claim to be too shocked. She’s had thoughts over the years that her boy was, well, that he might be a little queer. A mother knows these things. Bucky had been preoccupied with Steve Rogers his entire life, it feels like. But she’d expected Bucky would ignore such perversions and marry a nice girl, as he ought.
Not this. Never this.
She’s emptying the bottom drawer of winter clothes when she finds a wooden box. Pulling it out, she stares at the lid, biting her lip as she attempts to determine whether she ought to open it.
“Ma? What’ve you got?” Dotty asks, standing behind her.
Winifred glances at her before looking back at the box. “I’m not certain.” Her knuckles are white around it.
“Here,” Dotty says quietly, helping her to stand and leading her over to sit on the edge of the bed. Carefully she removes the box from Winifred’s hands and opens it. “It looks like it’s full of letters.”
She pulls out the top one and reads, “‘December 24, 1942.
“‘My dearest S,
“‘We’ve arrived safely in CENSORED. I can’t believe I’ve been gone six months already. It’s the day before Christmas, and all I can think of is what we’d be doing if I were home. I’d be keeping you warm, I suspect, whether you’d caught cold again or not.’”
Dotty trails off, eyes skimming the page.
“Ma do you want me to keep reading?” she asks quietly. “It’s, well, it’s a love letter… in Bucky’s handwriting.”
Winifred swallows roughly. She doesn’t want to hear about her son’s perversion. But…
He was in love. Her only son had been in love, and she’d known nothing of it. And yes, perhaps it was a sinful love, but if he’d been happy? If her Bucky, her precious James, had been happy and in love, it was no more than what she’d prayed for when he’d been a boy.
She wishes he’d been in love with a girl, but she can’t go changing it. Bucky is… Bucky is dead. He’s already serving whatever punishment he’s been meted out for his sins. She cannot change anything. And…
“Yes,” Winifred says quietly. “If, if your brother was…I want to know he was at least happy after choosing this lifestyle.”
Dotty studies her for a moment before nodding. “Right.” She clears her throat.
“‘Did I ever tell you winter was my favorite time of year, for that very reason? I’d be able to hold you near as often as I liked. Particularly in the night. I’d wake up before you, as I always have, and just watch your sleeping face. You’d be curled into me, and I’d be wrapped around you, and there’s no greater feeling in the world.
“‘At home, after waking Christmas morning we’d ready for the holiday. Pulling on our best clothes for Church, and eating the lovely cold cereal you’d fixed. I adore you, sugar, but a good cook, you’re not. After our meal we’d bundle up to meet my family at church before going to my parents for Christmas dinner.
“‘My favorite part of any holiday is after we leave my parents. We get home and I get my present from you. I’m picturing it right now, babydoll. Turning on the radio and watching as you slowly strip off your clothes, one piece at a time. We’ll…’ um –”
Dotty blushes bright red.
Winifred’s horrified. Absolutely appalled. She shudders in disgust.
Bucky was an unrepentant sodomite. It hadn’t quite felt real until Dotty had read the letter. She will always love her son, but she’ll never be able to forgive him this. Never be able to not look back and wonder what he’d really been doing all those times he’d missed church because Steve was ‘ill’ or skipped family dinners, claiming he was taking a girl dancing.
Her memories of her darling boy feel tainted. Tears prick in the corners of her eyes, and she holds in a sob. How could he? How could he have made such disgusting choices? Hadn’t she raised him properly? Taught him right from wrong? Made sure he went to church and knew his scripture?
What other perversions was her son hiding? He had obviously been an invert, a fairy. What else was there? What else was hidden in this apartment?
She’s so ashamed. Yesterday she could, at least, hold her head high. Yes, her son was dead. But he’d died a hero. His name was known to every man, woman, and child in America.
Today, she knows her son was nothing but a sinner. A hero in name, but not in deed. A smear upon the family name.
Winifred lets out a sob. “How could he?” she asks Dotty. “How could he do this?”
Dotty doesn’t answer. Winifred sobs in earnest.
After a long few minutes Winifred hears the rustle of papers. Eventually the box is closed.
Dotty rests a hand on her shoulder. Winifred resists the urge to bury her head in Dotty’s stomach, like a child, as she finally breaks down and cries.
Her son is dead. Her son is dead, and he’s never coming home. Her son is dead, and she will never, ever forgive him for –
Her son is dead, and she will never see him again. She will never be able to hug him again. She will never again be able to tell him she loves him. And she does.
She loves him so much, no matter what. And she’ll never get to tell him that.
“Bucky,” Steve calls as he comes in the front door, “I’m home!”
“Redrum!” Bucky shouts back, “Redrum!” He grins as he leans in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.
“Fuck off, Barnes,” Steve comments as he toes off his shoes and lines them up neatly by the door.
“Fuck you maybe,” Bucky says. “But only if you ask me real nice, sugar.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “We got company coming at three, so save it for later.”
“I’m holding you to that.” Bucky smirks at him, heading back into the kitchen. He’s making his Ma’s old recipe for pineapple upside-down cake, as well as a variety of tea sandwiches, and a sweet Jell-O mold. Apparently savory Jell-O is considered ‘nauseating’ in the 21st century. He’s seen the BuzzFeed articles.
They’re living in Wakanda these days. T’Challa has kindly, and officially, granted them asylum. Bucky and Steve both agree that they’ll never be able to repay the King, but they try anyway. And yet any time they attempt to do more than cook dinner for him he finds some way to redirect their attention to other things. The most they’ve managed to give him in return is the portrait of King T’Chaka Steve had done.
“How was your morning?” Steve follows him, sitting at the table. A square of bright sunlight filters through the window, framing him. Bucky itches to pick up a paint brush and capture the sight.
“It was good.” Bucky smiles as he cuts tomatoes for the sandwiches. “T’Challa stopped by with one of the Dora Milaje. The university’s hosting Dr. Mae Jemison as a speaker in a few weeks. She’s a real famous doctor and an astronaut! First African-American woman in space too! T’Challa says he’s got a pair of extra tickets if we want to go listen to the talk.”
Bucky may never be able to go to college and become a doctor like he’d once dreamed of – he’s too broken for that, and who’d want the Winter Soldier as their doctor anyway - but he’s still interested in medicine and medical advancements. He’d never said anything to T’Challa about it, but the other man had figured it out.
Or Steve had told him. (Probably Steve.)
“Really?” Bucky can hear the happiness in Steve’s voice. He’s always thrilled when Bucky shows interest in things he used to like. “Sure, sounds swell. We oughta invite him back here for supper afterwards.”
Bucky nods. “I can fix us something nice. How were classes?”
Steve grins, bright and real. “It was great! Professor Bankole did a fantastic lesson on light and shadow. I learned a ton.”
Bucky looks over and laughs. “So I see.” He gestures to a smear of dried paint on Steve’s neck and says, “You missed a spot.”
“Ugh.” Steve feels where Bucky had pointed, chagrinned. “Lemme go clean up a little better. It’s nearly three.”
“Change your shirt too!” Bucky shouts after him as he disappears into their bedroom.
“Damn it!” Steve swears. He’d finally noticed the orange paint on his collar.
Bucky rolls his eyes. It’s his own fault for falling in love with an artist. Paint, charcoal, and pencil shavings are everywhere.
“Hey, you have therapy tomorrow, right?” Steve pops his head out of their room.
“Mmm-hmm,” Bucky says, “and an appointment with the robotics team right before. They’ve got a new prototype they want me to test out.”
“Neat,” Steve says as he wanders back in, scratching at his chin.
“Not shaving?” Bucky arches an eyebrow.
“No, Ma,” Steve rolls his eyes, settling back into the sunny seat. “I’m keeping the beard.”
“Lazy,” Buck accuses.
It’s true. When they were young, Steve only had to shave once every few days, and he’d never gotten into the habit. After the serum, during the war, Steve had shaved more regularly. Mostly because they’d never known when reporters would show up. ‘Captain America’ needed to always be, at least, presentable, if not camera-ready. He’d never bothered while on missions though. According to Romanoff, he’d been the same while working for SHIELD.
Now that they’re living in Wakanda and Steve doesn’t bother shaving at all. He’ll take a pair of those electric clippers and trim his beard once a week or so. Bucky knows he’s still enjoying the relative novelty of facial hair, and he can’t say he’s too upset with the way it looks on his guy. The one thing he could do without is the beard burn in awkward places.
Glancing at the clock, he realizes they’ve only got thirty minutes until their guests arrive. “Steve.”
He’s sketching. Bucky rolls his eyes.
“Steve,” he says louder.
“Rogers!” he barks.
“What!?” Steve jerks in his seat.
Bucky sighs. “I’m hopping in the shower to get ready. Pull the cake outta the oven when it dings.”
“Sure, Buck,” Steve agrees, eyes darting back to the sketch he’d been doing.
Bucky rolls his eyes. “Right,” he mutters, setting the alarm on his phone to make sure he gets the cake out. Steve wouldn’t notice an air raid if he was involved in drawing something interesting. (He has, before.)
After washing up, Bucky wraps himself in a fluffy towel and stands in front of the mirror, styling his hair. He pulls and tugs at the strands, running cream through it to make it lay right. It’s not as short as he’d worn it during the war, but nowhere near the length it was when he was still the Winter Soldier.
“My darling I am dreaming of the days gone by,
When you and I were sweethearts beneath the summer sky;
Your hair has turned to silver, the gold has faded too;
But still I will remember, where I first met you.”
He sings the song softly as he fiddles with his cowlick. It was his mother’s favorite.
Wandering into the bedroom, Bucky starts pulling on his clothes. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, he pauses to smile and brush his hand over his chest where the words ‘’til the end of the line’ are tattooed over his heart in Steve’s handwriting. Steve has a matching one in Bucky’s handwriting. They had gotten the tattoos in lieu of wedding rings.
His heart warms as he fastens the bracelet Steve had bought him for the anniversary of their first kiss, and the necklace and watch he’d chosen from a nice shop. The earring he never removes glitters in the mirror. Every time he puts on frivolous jewelry he gets a thrill. They’re his choice, his idea, and totally unsuitable for combat. He loves it.
He wishes he could wear rings, but the feel of them on his flesh hand disturbs him for some reason. And they slip right off his metal fingers. Not to mention he gets a new model every few weeks or months, and they’re never quite the same size.
He’s happily agreed to play test dummy for the Wakandan scientists who are working to develop advanced prostheses. They were the ones kind enough to help him with the busted arm (and his stay in cryo) in the first place. They’re not all the same doctors, but he’s just glad to give them something, anything back to the people who have done so much for him and Steve.
As he adjusts his collar, his phone alarm beeps. The cake is ready. He casts an ear towards the kitchen to see if Steve is actually going to take out the cake, and then rolls his eyes and sighs. The only sound is that of a pencil scratching on paper.
He walks to the kitchen and glares at the back of Steve’s head as he’s hunched over his sketchbook. Kicking one of Steve’s chair legs as he walks to the stove gets him a loud “Hey!” in protest.
“The cake?” Bucky glances back over his shoulder at Steve as he pulls on an oven mitt.
“Yeah, oops.” Bucky mutters as he pulls out the cake and turns off the oven.
“I’m sorry, Buck,” Steve says. He’s using his puppy-dog eyes to go along with his ‘I’m being sincere, please trust me and say I’m not in trouble’ voice. Bucky can tell without looking. “I just got so caught up in this assignment. It’s due next Tuesday and-”
“Save it, Rogers,” Bucky interrupts. “That shtick hasn’t worked on me since 1928.”
Steve laughs, “Yeah.” He’s dropped the stupid tone. “I suppose not. I am sorry about the cake, though.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky mutters.
Steve grins, obviously realizing he’s been forgiven. “How’s the cake look?” He sniffs the air. “It turn out alright?
“Perfect,” Bucky grins. “Ma would be proud.”
Steve looks contemplative. “Do you think I oughta try making my Ma’s apple cake?”
“No.” Bucky says, too quickly. He clears his throat, beginning to ‘plate’ the tea sandwiches, as the chefs on that fancy food channel say. “No, no, that’s, um, not necessary. Besides, don’t you hate apple cake?”
Steve had managed to get the fire department called on them a few weeks after they’d moved in, in his attempt to boil potatoes. No way is Bucky going to allow him to make something more complicated than a salad ever again.
“I mean, it’s not my favorite,” Steve admits.
“You made faces behind your Ma’s back. Every. Damn. Time.”
“Still, it’s an old family recipe. She made me memorize it and everything. I should make it at some point,” Steve argues.
No, he damn well shouldn’t.
“Well then,” Bucky says tartly, “how about we also make some tripe and drisheen if you’re feeling nostalgic.”
Steve gives him the most horrified look. “Um. I’m good,” he says weakly.
That’s what Bucky thought. “If you really want to revisit your hatred of cinnamon, I’ll make apple cake for you next week.”
“Maybe not,” Steve concedes, pulling a face.
Bucky hides his triumphant look. It’s not often anyone wins an argument with Steve. There’s a reason his name in Bucky’s phone has the ‘fight me’ emoji next to it, along with the kissy faces and hearts.
He’s just finished putting the Jell-O mold on a plate when the door buzzes. Quickly, he arranges the food in the living room and pulls out the pitcher of fresh-squeezed juice Steve had made the day before.
“Yes?" Steve calls down through the intercom. He’s finally stopped answering every caller with ‘Rogers-Barnes residence’ while beaming like a kid in a candy store.
“Um, hi,” a woman says uncertainly, voice distorted by the intercom. “I’m Patty Keene, is this the Rogers-Barnes house?”
“Sure is,” Steve says pleasantly, hitting the button to let them in. “Come on up.”
Steve turns to look at Bucky, concern showing on his face. “You ready?”
“Probably.” Bucky takes a deep breath. “Yeah, I think I am.”
The knock on the door means his answer doesn’t really matter anyway. The look Steve gives him says he’s willing to bar the entryway if it’ll make Bucky feel better. Even though their guests flew all the way to Wakanda from Portland, Oregon. Stepping past Steve, he opens the door, prepared to smile and greet their guests.
“Holy shit.” Bucky stares at one of the women before him, mouth slightly open. Behind him, Steve sucks in a sharp breath.
“Um,” the woman says, shifting awkwardly.
Bucky shakes himself. “Sorry,” he says, “you just look like – please, come in. Both of you.”
“Thanks,” the woman in the back says. “I’m Susan Keene, you’ve spoken with my wife Patricia, Patty, on the phone, right?” She guides Patty in with one hand on the small of her back.
“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” Bucky greets, “I’m Bucky, this is Steve.”
“Pleasure,” Steve says with a smile. “We have refreshments prepared, if you’d like?”
“We?” Bucky mutters with an eye roll. “Remind me: who the hell’s been in the kitchen since 0900 and who can’t boil water?”
Susan snorts and shoots him an amused look. Apparently he’d said that louder than he’d thought. He offers her a wink as they all settle in the living room.
“Is that Grandma’s pineapple cake?” Patty asks, eyes wide.
Bucky studies the woman who is supposedly his niece. He’d been doubtful when he’d first received her letters, and even as they exchanged phone calls and arranged a visit, he could not quite bring himself to believe it. However, there’s no doubt in his mind now, as she sits here before him. She’s twenty years older than he’d ever seen his mother, but they looked practically the same. Patty wears her age well. It’s plain that she’s had an easier life than his mother, or even Margie.
“Yes,” he says, “I’m sorry. I know I must be staring but you look so much like my Ma.”
Patty smiles, and Bucky’s chest feels tight. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“You should,” Steve says. “Winifred Barnes was a lovely woman.”
“I always loved visiting Grandma as a kid.” Patty grins and pats Susan’s hand. “Aunt Dotty used to bring me to Brooklyn to visit every summer.”
“So it was Dotty that raised you, then?” Bucky’s throat feels tight.
From there the conversation turns to Patty, and the rest of the Barnes family’s lives. When Bucky had come back to himself, one of the first things he’d researched was what had happened to his family. But hearing it now, from someone who lived through what he missed, makes everything more real somehow.
Margie had died from post-polio complications less than five years after his fall. It had nearly broken his heart. At least Dotty and Lula had lived good lives, passing away in their seventies.
But Margie. It hurts to know she’d died young, only thirty-five. She’d left her young daughter and husband behind. Walter had passed three years after that, in a car accident. Dotty had taken Patty in and raised her alongside her own son, Jimmy.
His Pa had made it to seventy. His Ma had passed the year after him, at sixty-seven. She’d spent her last years doting on her grandchildren – Patty, Dotty’s Jimmy, and Lula’s Dave and Debbie. Bucky has to smile at that; his Ma had been harping on her kids to give her grandkids since the day Margie married. His Pa had always just rolled his eyes and grumbled into his paper.
Of Patty’s cousins, Bucky’s other nieces and nephews, Jimmy is a retired high school teacher, Debbie lives an ecovillage and works on the communal farm, and Dave is a lawyer. Patty and Susan own a small antique shop. Bucky feels a swell of pride at how well they’ve all done, at how much each of his sister’s kids have made of themselves.
Eventually their reminiscences wind down, after Steve and Bucky give a rousing rendition of Dotty’s Only School Play Ever incident. Patty is wiping away tears as Bucky describes the ‘great crash of the trees’, while Steve acts it out.
“So,” Susan says, giving Patty a look.
“So,” Patty sighs. “When I wrote, I know I mentioned I had some things of yours to return.” She stands and makes her way to her luggage.
“You did,” Bucky agrees. Steve rests a supporting hand on his thigh.
Patty turns around, an old wooden box in her hands.
Steve makes a startled noise. “That’s the box I kept your letters in.”
“Yes,” Patty agrees softly as she sits back down. Her fingers trail absently over the lid, its once varnished surface now battered and worn. “After the war, when it became clear that no miracle would bring you back... Either of you,” she looks at Steve. “Grandma took Aunt Dotty to pack up your apartment. When you’d left for the war, Steve, you’d, um, forgotten to separate the beds.”
“Shit,” Bucky mutters. Steve hadn’t forgotten- he’d been too weak back then to push them apart, and Bucky had forgotten to do it after he’d finally collected Steve from his latest (and successful) attempt to enlist. They’d gone home and desperately fucked before clinging to one another the rest of the night. And then he’d slept in the next day and had to run to make the train.
“My Ma,” he croaks. “She saw…?”
“Yeah,” Patty says.
“Damn it,” Steve says, face in his hands. “Do you know what she, how she –”
“According to Aunt Dotty, not too well,” Patty admits. Bucky grimaces, but it’s not surprising. “She, uh, wasn’t pleased. But eventually…well, as far back as I can remember, Grandma wouldn’t let anyone around her ever say a bad word about ‘the queers’.”
Bucky’s head jerks up. “What?”
Patty nods. “She used to say, ‘They may be sinners, but their sin hurts no one but themselves and their punishment is up to G-d, not man. So long as they’re happy with their sinful ways, it isn’t our job to judge.’ It’s not rousing support, but –”
“Are you kidding me?” Bucky says. “From Ma that was damn near the equivalent of marching in one of them Pride Parades.”
Steve winces, but nods in agreement. “Winifred was very… traditional.”
Bucky nods as well. It’s a nice way of saying his Ma was very religious, and extremely concerned with keeping up appearances.
Patty blinks a few times. “Right,” she says after a moment’s pause. “Well. While cleaning out your things, Grandma came across your box of letters, Steve, and she decided to have Aunt Dotty read her one of them.” Patty smirks. “You’d, um, left a rather graphic and detailed letter on top.”
Steve groans. “Of course I did.” He covers his eyes with one hand, but his red face is still visible below it. Bucky’s always loved Steve’s blush.
“Aunt Dotty, well, she said Grandma wasn’t happy. Not at all. But Grandma told her to pack up everything anyway: the letters, the paintings you both did that were on the walls, and the pictures under the mattress Aunt Dotty had found. She said to keep them safe.” Patty pauses for a long minute.
“Patty,” Susan prompts her, “sweetheart.”
“I’m glad she did, you know,” Patty says quietly. “Because when I was seventeen, I was terrified out of my mind. Scared that Aunt Dotty and Uncle Tom would realize I was staring more at the cheerleaders than the football players – that they’d kick me out of the house and disown me. Aunt Dotty realized what was going on – and she pulled down this box.”
She pats it. “She pulled out a few of the paintings and pictures, and a few of the tamer letters, and she told me about you. About her Bucky. Not the Sergeant Barnes we learned about in school, but the real Bucky Barnes.
“She told me about you, Bucky. That you had a temper and a sharp tongue, and that you tended to speak before you thought. She talked about her brother – said that you were sometimes ridiculously overprotective, and quite frequently a stubborn ass. But Aunt Dotty swore you had a heart twice the size of Texas. She told me that you'd always dreamed of being a doctor, not a soldier, and that you wanted to find the cure for polio and asthma to help your family. But most importantly, Aunt Dotty told me about her brother Bucky, who was queer and in love and happy. And she said that I could be too, someday.”
Bucky swipes at his cheek as a tear rolls down. “Oh Dotty,” he whispers wetly. Steve grabs his hand and squeezes it.
“Grandma had just died the year before. We’d always been close, and I remember asking her if Grandma would hate me for being queer,” Patty tells him. “You know what she said?”
Bucky winces, and Steve grips his hand tighter. They’re both well aware of his mother’s views on queers – unseemly, sinful, disgusting, to be pitied at best. Even if she’d lightened her stance on such things as she aged, he still finds it doubtful she’d be accepting of his relationship with Steve, or Patty’s with Susan.
“Aunt Dotty said that when they found out about the two of you, she asked Grandma about whether she’d ever had any suspicions. Grandma didn’t say anything then. But Aunt Dotty said that, years later, Grandma told her she had. That there’d been times in your life that she’d wondered, but no one else seemed to notice anything. She thought maybe you were a little queer, but no one else did. So she dismissed it. The only other person who had ever seemed to suspect anything was Aunt Dotty herself,” Patty says.
“Ma knew?” Bucky voice sounds hoarse, startling him a little. “She always knew?”
“Yes. She suspected,” Patty confirms gently.
“She must’ve been –” Bucky cuts himself off. Furious, horrified, ashamed, filled with hatred at the sight of him. There are so many ways to finish that sentence, none of them good.
“There’s one thing Aunt Dotty told me about Grandma,” Patty says, seemingly out of nowhere, “that stuck in my mind. Perhaps it’s because it’s something Grandma made sure to tell me and my cousins, and even my aunts, whenever she saw them.” She swallows audibly. “Aunt Dotty said it was a lesson Grandma learned after your, uh, death. A lesson she wished she’d learned earlier. Aunt Dotty said the first time Grandma ever said it, she was sitting on your bed, crying. She didn’t think Grandma even knew she’d said it aloud. But Grandma… she always made sure to tell all of us. Because you were gone, and she never got to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Bucky feels like there’s gravel caught in his throat. He sounds like it too.
“She never got to tell you that she loved you, no matter what.”
Bucky folds into himself suddenly, as if he’s been stabbed. His chest feels like it’s tearing apart and knitting back together, all at once. His eyes burn with tears and his shoulders shake with his sobs. Steve snakes an arm around him, grounding him. It keeps him from drifting off into the shadowed corners of his own mind. He grinds the heel of his flesh palm into his eyes, hearing the couch rip beneath his metal hand.
Despite all that he has lived through, Bucky has never felt raw pain suffuse him like this. Not when it’s countered in equal measure by joy.
He feels like there’s a pocket of air, moving from his gut to his chest, swelling up.
There is little more a child wants in life than unequivocal love and acceptance from their parents. For a boy like him. For a boy who has heard his whole life that he is sick, wrong, twisted, and disgusting.
To find out his mother loved him, no matter what?
That she would have loved him, regardless of the fact he is queer, that he’s been twisted and broken and remade into a murderer and assassin. That she would still love him even though he can barely bring himself to look in a mirror some days, let alone love himself.
Bucky sobs. Unrestrained and unrepentant. His mother loves him.
His mother loved him, and even if he has nothing in this world besides Steve and that one small bit of knowledge, he is happier than he has been in decades. The weight that he’s carried in his heart for years, since he kissed Steve for the first time and then, a few days later, watched his mother make them cross the street to avoid a fairy, has finally lifted.
That had been the first time he’d realized he’d someday have to choose between his family and the man he loved. Something in him had broken that day. And now, more than eighty years after that realization, that shattered piece is finally, slowly, knitting back together.
“You okay?” Steve asks quietly, as Bucky’s sobs taper off into the occasional hitching, gasping breath. Patty and Susan are quietly but determinedly talking about the plants out front while casting anxious, worried looks over at him every few seconds.
Bucky thinks about it. Uses the techniques his therapists have been teaching him for the last year to examine himself, his feelings. He wipes at his cheeks, aware that he’s a mess. He doesn’t care.
He hadn’t realized until now just how much his family’s disapproval has been weighing on him all these years. How he’s craved their acceptance even decades after their deaths, after his death. And yeah, he knows he’ll never be the same guy he was. He’ll be in therapy for the rest of his life. He’s broken, tattered and worn.
For the first time since he came back to himself, one of those broken pieces is mending, has been mended. It gives him back something he had thought was gone for good. That swell of emotion in his chest had been so unfamiliar he hadn’t recognized it at first.
At long last, or perhaps far too late, Bucky feels hopeful. Feels like there’s hope for the future. For his future.
“You know what?” Bucky says after a minute. “I think I am. I really think I am.” He blows out a deep breath, a small smile on his face. “Hey, Steve?”
“Yeah, Buck?” Steve’s voice is soft, concerned.
“You still got that medical school brochure hidden in your underwear drawer?”
Steve stares at him for a moment. Slowly, and full of awe, he smiles. His entire face lights up.
Bucky stares at him, and it feels like the light at the end of tunnel is finally in sight. He smiles back, helpless to do anything else. He’s so in love with this man, this amazing man who never stopped hoping for him.
“Yeah,” Steve breathes out. “Yeah, I do.”
“Hey, Stevie?” Buck rests his head on Steve’s shoulder. He smiles. “I’m going to be a doctor.”
Well, folks, that's it. I'd like to once more thank @clauackerman, @spectralprongs, @chalk-baphomet, @theyretakingthehobbits2gallifrey, @samthebirdbae, and Evelyna. I couldn't have done it without you!
** It was pointed out to me that not everyone would get the "Redrum" joke. It's from the 1980 horror film The Shining, which was based on the book by Steven King. The main character goes insane, and while attempting to kill his wife, shouts, "Wendy! I'm home!" (It's often misquoted as "Honey! I'm Home!") Another part of the movie has the word "Redrum" written in blood in various places. Redrum is Murder, backwards. It's a great movie, a true modern classic. I'd highly recommend it.