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Chapter 23

Melissa Mailey ate with the refugees, still wearing her own robe. She felt foolish and awkward in that garb, eating in the same cafeteria where, over the years, she had shared thousands of meals with thousands of students. Dressed properly! Ed Piazza had obtained fresh clothes for her, but Melissa had refused to put them on. Not, she insisted, until the refugees were settled for the night and it was time for the committee meeting. The same stubbornness which had once sent a young Boston Brahmin to share a lunch counter with black people in the Jim Crow south, caused her older self to eat a meal in a robe with German refugees. Barefoot, just as they were, even if her own toenails were painted.

She had intended, also, to be there in order to guard against the inevitable danger of the half-starved refugees overeating. But there was no need. Not with Gretchen there, watching like a hawk.

Gretchen imposed food discipline with an iron hand. Melissa winced, several times, at Gretchen's methods of imposing that discipline. She had been opposed to corporal punishment all her life. But she did not protest.

Melissa Mailey was undergoing a conversion, as it were. Her mind was roiling, as she stolidly ate her meal.

She still did not approve of corporal punishment. But Melissa Mailey was not a fool, and could recognize reality when she saw it. Her eyes flinched, but she would not close them.

Gretchen, not she, had seen people eat grass to stay alive. Gretchen, not she, had seen those same people gorge themselves when unexpected plenty arrived. And then seen them die of surfeit, writhing in agony. She watched Gretchen buffet another child, stuffing food into his mouth with both hands, forcing him to sit with his hands in his lap for three minutes before he took another bite. She winced—the child's little face would be bruised tomorrow, and he was weeping bitterly—but she did not protest. Gretchen had kept that boy alive, again, in a world which would have slaughtered Melissa Mailey like a chicken. The boy was not even hers. Gretchen's baby was perched on her lap, feeding happily at her breast. Her own child was a rapist's bastard. The other—who knows? Nothing. Nobody. A piece of dust, sent swirling across a raging landscape by the hooves of noble chargers, until by good fortune it rolled against the dirty feet of a camp follower.

Melissa winced, too, seeing the glances which Gretchen continually sent to Jeff, sitting at the other end of the table. The glances were demure, in a way. Which only made them all the more effective. Jeff was a well-bred country boy. A leering, garish, raucous street prostitute would have scared him off. A young woman in a robe, poised, self-confident—her breast exposed only to feed a child—guiding her family through a meal—

Sending glance after glance—soft, shining, promising—to a boy only two years younger than she in age, but eons in experience—

Melissa almost laughed. Leave aside that incredible figure!

The conclusion was foregone. Given. By now, Jeff would be nothing but a raging mass of hormones. Burning with desire. Would he take advantage of the offer? Ha!

Melissa had a sudden image of herself, standing on a beach, ankle-deep in seawater. Queen Melissa—imperious, righteous—ordering the tide to retreat.

Melissa was opposed to sexual harassment. She was opposed to men taking advantage of the weaker position of women in society to satisfy their lust. She was.

She still was. But—

Despair washed over her. The world she had been plunged into was so far removed from the one she had known that no answers seemed possible. How could she condemn? How could she could reprove? And, most important of all, how could she point a way forward?

The boy Gretchen had buffeted was no longer crying. To the contrary, he was smiling. Looking at Gretchen, eager to catch her eye. Utterly oblivious, now, to the bruise forming on his cheek. Melissa realized that his Gretchen-imposed time limit was over. Gretchen, as if guided by some internal clock, met his gaze, smiled gently, and nodded. The boy stuffed a handful of food in his mouth. Started to reach for another, paused, glanced warily at Gretchen. Sure enough, she was watching him. Frowning.

Angels never sleep. The boy sighed and put his hands back in his lap. The angel smiled. The eyes moved on to another child, another woman—weaker than she—to a crone, feebler than she—and then, to a large American boy at the other end of the table. The promise in those eyes was not angelic in the least.

The eyes moved on. Watching, watching. Sheltering, protecting. Steel eyes, forged in a furnace Melissa could hardly imagine. The eyes of the only kind of angel that could possibly exist in such a place.

Melissa was paralyzed. In the showers, she had been firmly determined to speak to Jeff. Warn him—in no uncertain terms!—that he was absolutely forbidden—

Forbidden? Why? On what grounds?

The answer was a serpent, a snake, a scorpion. A cure far worse than the disease. Good intentions be damned, reality would be something different. Forbid American boys to copulate with German girls—girls who would be throwing themselves at them in order to survive—and you take the first step on the road to a caste society. The copulation would happen anyway, in the dark. On back stairs, in closets. Between noble Americans, and German commoners. Whores again.

Everything Mike—and she—were determined to prevent.

So what to do? Is there any light in this darkness?


Abruptly, Melissa stopped eating. Thoughts of corporal punishment and sexual harassment were driven aside by a wave of nausea. She closed her eyes, trying to control her stomach.

The nausea was not caused by the food. It was simply high-school cafeteria food, the same food she had eaten times without number. Nutritious, bland.

The nausea was caused by sheer horror. The horror, by a memory.

She had been able to block it out, for a time. The difficulty of coaxing the women and their children through the sanitation process had kept her busy. The fretting worry over how to handle the situation developing between Gretchen and Jeff—them, today; all the other girls, she knew, within a week, with other American boys carrying the guns which could protect them—had kept her mind preoccupied. A schoolteacher's habit, forged over decades, of maintaining decorum and discipline had kept her tightly focused.

But enough time had elapsed, now. The memory could no longer be held at bay. The memory of three boys, none of them more than fourteen years old, squatting at her feet like animals, their eyes blank, their faces numb, while their mothers and sisters and aunts wailed and shrieked like banshees. All of them, except Gretchen, utterly certain—

Utterly certain!

—that Melissa Mailey had come to murder them.

* * *

She was going to vomit.

Not here! They'll think they've been poisoned.

Abruptly, she rose and strode away from the table. She waved away Jeff's look of concern. Just thought of something I need to do, that's all. Jeff, she knew, would reassure the others. He was a reliable boy. A good boy.

Once she was out of the cafeteria she turned left and pushed through the big doors leading to the outside. Melissa was almost running now. She couldn't hold it down much longer and she was determined to be completely out of sight of the refugees. Night had almost fallen, but there was still a bit of purple sky to illuminate the area.

She turned right, away from the cafeteria windows. Now, in the semidarkness, she began to run. Her bare feet slapped the walkway running alongside the school.

She couldn't make it to the bushes near the technical center. Not a chance.

This is far enough.

She stepped off the walkway and fell to her knees. Guiltless cafeteria food surged up, spewed, splattered innocent grass. Murder came out, rape came out, torture came out; cruelty beyond imagining covered the land. Horror spilled, anguish spread. The acrid smell of her own digestive juices was perfume, covering a stench so vile it could not be given a name.

By the time Melissa Mailey finished, her conversion was complete.


She leaned back and took a deep breath. Clean air filled her lungs. She probed her mind, pushing beneath the rage, searching for herself.

Still there, she realized, sighing with relief.

Barely. But still there.


Mike and Rebecca found her a few minutes later. They had arrived for the committee meeting early, as usual. What was not usual was that they were walking hand in hand. The sight of that affectionate handclasp helped to drive despair out of Melissa's mind.

Mike knelt by her side. "Are you all right?" He glanced at the vomit, glistening in the light of the rising moon.

Melissa nodded. "I'm fine." Then, realizing the absurdity of the statement, she chuckled harshly. "Physically, at least."

Her eyes welled with tears. "Oh God, Mike, they thought I was going to have them killed." A moment later, her head tucked into his sheltering arm, she began babbling the tale. As she spoke, Rebecca knelt alongside her also, listening closely.

When Melissa was done, she took another deep breath. "You know, I'm finding myself in a strange place. Mentally, I mean. Never thought I'd be here."

She tightened her jaws. The next sentence came between clenched teeth. "The way I feel right now, I'd have every single man in that army—both armies—lined up against a wall and shot. Tonight."

Mike smiled, and stroked her hair. "Take it easy, lady. You're the worst person in the world to have to make a decision like that."

Melissa tried to stop herself from laughing. Couldn't—and then realized she didn't want to stop. The humor was cleansing. "God, isn't that the truth?" she demanded. "Nothing worse than a convert when it comes to self-righteousness."

Mike was grinning, now. "Lord save us!" The grin faded. He shook his head. "Melissa, I just talked to James. He spent the last two hours checking over those men. The Scots took the Protestant prisoners into Badenburg. We've got the Catholics under guard out in the fairgrounds."

He blew out his cheeks. "You want to know what he told me? He said those men reminded him of all the tough kids and wild young men he grew up with, that's all. He comes from the ghetto, Melissa. You don't. A man like James understands a lot better than you do how men like that get produced. Put anyone in the right circumstances—wrong circumstances—and you'll get the same result. Some of them are genuine monsters, and probably would have been anywhere. The rest? Most of them?" He shrugged. "Just men, that's all. Fucking up in a fucked-up world."

She giggled. People were always so careful not to use profanity around her—schoolteacher! from Boston!—that it was refreshing to hear it. The truth was, for all her prim-and-proper appearance, Melissa Mailey was very far from a prude.

Mention of James caused her thoughts to veer aside, for a moment. She stared into the darkness, bringing his face to her mind. And now, for the first time since she'd met the man, realized how much she liked that face.

Immensely. Those rough, hard, blunt features would have been ugly, perhaps, on a different man. But with James' intelligence and humor shining through, they simply seemed very masculine.

Her thoughts must have been closer to the surface than she realized. "James," she murmured. The sound had a certain—considering air.

She didn't notice the quick, half-amused glance which Mike and Rebecca exchanged. Rebecca cleared her throat.

"A very attractive man," she said softly.

"A widower," added Mike.

Melissa snorted. "Michael Stearns, there is something absolutely preposterous about you being a matchmaker for your former schoolteacher."

Mike grinned. "True," he admitted. "So what? You could do worse than James Nichols, Ms. Mailey."

"I have done worse," said Melissa. "God, my husbands—"

She shook her head ruefully. Since Melissa's second marriage had failed—as quickly and disastrously as the first—she had restricted her romantic liaisons to occasional, and very brief, encounters. Always out of town. Usually with other schoolteachers she met at union conventions. Very distant, very casual, very—safe. She was fifty-seven years old, and the last such occasion had been—

Again, she was startled. That long ago? Five years?

Old, familiar, half-forgotten sensations began welling up. Very powerfully. Melissa did not even try to stop the smile from spreading across her face. Not at all.

Well, by God. Whaddaya know? Guess I'm not such a dried-up prune after all.

Her spirits were lifting rapidly, now, as these new thoughts drove horror into the shadows. "I'll have to look into that," she murmured. Then, chuckling: "I notice that you two seem to have stopped dancing around."

Rebecca might have flushed a little. It was hard to tell, between the darkness and her own dusky complexion. But when she spoke, her voice was level and even.

"Yes, we have." She hesitated. "I hope my father—"

"I wouldn't worry about that," interrupted Melissa. Using Mike's shoulder as a support, she levered herself back onto her feet. "I'm glad to see it, myself. And I don't think Balthazar will feel any differently."

Mike and Rebecca rose with her. Slowly, all three of them began walking toward the school's entrance. Before they got there, moved by an impulse, Melissa walked out onto the parking lot. She wanted to see something bright and clean. She felt like looking at the moon. Mike and Rebecca followed.

"It's still so weird," she said, "seeing it come up from that direction. The Ring of Fire twisted us around, on top of everything else."

Her eyes came down, and fell on the cafeteria's windows. Beyond, she could see Gretchen and her family. They had finished eating, and were now staring at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Ogling them, to be more precise. All of them were standing, to get a closer look at these new marvels.

All except Gretchen. She was standing also—she stood taller than any of them—but she was not looking at the lights. She was looking at Jeff, smiling.

"Twisted us around," Melissa murmured. She probed, again, looking for herself. The rage was almost gone, and she found what she was looking for immediately.

Relief came again, and with it a sudden and clear understanding. She knew what to do, now. Melissa Mailey was teacher, not an executioner. A builder, a guide. A person who showed the way out, not a censor who barred the door.

She extended her hands. They were very slender, long-fingered. Elegant hands, for all that the nails were trimmed short.

"What do you think, Mike? Do these look like the right hands to hold the sword of retribution? Lay down the law? Ban this, ban that?"

Mike snorted. "Not hardly." He took a deep breath. "Why don't you leave that to me, Melissa? If there's one advantage to being a former professional boxer, it's that I'll know when I can pull a punch." He glanced at her aristocratic hands. "You won't."

She dropped her hands. "I have come to the same conclusion." The words were final, definite. She took Mike and Rebecca by their arms and began leading them to the door. "Wisdom begins with knowing your limitations. I know mine. I know what I can do, and what I can't."

Mike suddenly slowed. Melissa glanced at him, then followed his eyes.

Gretchen was clearly visible through the window. She was scolding one of the children, shaking her finger. Apparently, the boy had started to climb onto one of the cafeteria's tables in order to get a closer look at the lighting. The celerity with which he climbed down was utterly comical. The imp obeying the goddess.

She looked like a Teutonic goddess, thought Melissa. Bathrobe be damned. Clean, her hair was blond. Dark blond, but definitely blond. The long tresses framed a face that fell just outside of beauty simply because the features were so strong. The finger was shaken by the large hand of a shapely but powerful arm, attached to a shapely and powerful shoulder. Everything about her was cut from that cloth. Her breasts, as large as they so obviously were under the thin bathrobe, looked as if they were held up by armor. Melissa, remembering Gretchen's naked body, knew that the rest of her matched what was visible.

"Who is that?" asked Rebecca. Her eyes widened. "Is that the woman—?"

Happily, Melissa nodded. "Yeah, that's her. You heard the story, I take it?"

Rebecca nodded. "Michael told me. The woman who hid her sisters in a cesspool—and then stood there, straight up, waiting for—" She shuddered. "I can hardly imagine such courage."

Mike stared at Gretchen through the window for a moment longer, before adding: "Jesus, what a Valkyrie."

Melissa shook her head. "No, Mike. You're very wrong." She scowled. "Valkyries!" The word was almost a curse. "Leave it to the sick and twisted mind of Richard Wagner to glorify a Valkyrie."

Again, she took her companions by the arm and began walking toward the door. "A Valkyrie is just a vulture. A death-worshipper. 'Choosers of the slain,' they were called, as if that were something to be proud of."

She stopped abruptly, almost yanking them up short. Her finger, extended, pointed to Gretchen.

"That young woman, on the other hand, is something truly grand and glorious. That woman is a chooser of the living."

She sighed. "I know what I can do, and what I can't. I know what we need, and what I can give. I can help. I can teach. I can guide, hopefully. But I can't do it." A little shrug lifted her slender shoulders. "Even if I wasn't too old, I couldn't do it. I don't come from that world, and even if I did—"

She twisted her head, looking to the north. Beyond the hills was a battlefield. Her next words came in a whisper. "I never would have been tough enough, or had the courage. I'm not a coward, but—not a chance. I would have died myself, much less been able to save anyone else."

Melissa smiled. The expression was one of unalloyed satisfaction—the smile of a person at peace with themselves. "What this new world of ours needs is not a superannuated sixties radical. Except, maybe, as an adviser. We're back at the beginning, where it all started. The days of the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Seneca Falls and the pioneer women."

Her smile became a grin. "Melissa Mailey will sure as hell lend a hand, but she's not what we really need. What we really need is a new Harriet Tubman."

She beamed at the woman in the window. "And I do believe I may have found her."

Gretchen was glancing at Jeff again. He was no longer shying away from those glances. Oh no. He was staring back at her like a lamb. Begging to be slaughtered. "Of course, first I've got to stop her from selling herself to another soldier in order to keep her kids alive. That'll hurt her image, starting off her new life as a camp whore. Again."

Now Melissa was marching them to the door. Her bare feet struck the pavement like boots.

Mike chuckled. "I can't wait to find out how you're planning to do that."

"What is Seneca Falls?" asked Rebecca. "And who was Harriet Tubman?"

By the time they reached the door, Melissa had begun her explanation. She only had time to broach the topic, before the meeting started. But her words were enough to get Mike chewing on the problem, and Rebecca. And that was enough. The two finest political minds of the day—which they were, though they did not realize it yet—would take that germ and transform it into something mighty and powerful.


So, in the time to come, Melissa Mailey would take great comfort in the memory of a pool of vomit. Out of that nausea would come something precious to her soul—and just as precious to the souls of thousands of others.

The Inquisition, of course, would feel otherwise. So would a multitude of barons and bishops, and every witch-hunter in Europe.



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