Disclaimer is on the Introduction page
May 8th, 1945
Hilary Booth Singer watched Maple Comstock carefully. She was nodding off, even as she read the part of Daphne Danvers' long lost daughter Annabelle. Hilary would never admit it, but she was worried about the redheaded actress. Maple was doing her best to not think about her husband, Victor, who was declared missing in action. She worked at radio station WENN during the day, worked the evening shift at the munitions plants while Mackie and Scott read the news, and danced at clubs and canteens with various soldiers until dawn.
She stopped her in the hallway after "Valiant Journey". "Maple," she said, "you can't keep doing this. You have to sleep some time. You're trying to act like everything's fine, and it isn't."
"Hilary, nothing is wrong," Maple began. Hilary knew something was wrong. She got the munitions job the day after she'd heard the news about Victor, and had her hair cut short two days after that. She danced and flirted with every man in uniform she could find. Her smile was forced, fixed to her face. Her brown eyes had the usual make-up, but no sparkle. Her performances were as interesting as the daily war news. "I'll be all right."
"Maple, that's what I said when I thought Jeffery went up in smoke." She took her next script from her. "Come on, Maple. Let's go out to eat. I'm so famished, I could eat Gertie's pot roast and clams."
"Jeff took Lia to the park down the street. Giselle and Eugenia can do 'Millie and Molly', and neither of us are in today's episode of 'Our Marshall Family'. Cheri and Sandy are handling the soap operas on the W.E.N.N this afternoon. I think we have time for a nice, quiet lunch at Bella's."
Maple shook her head. "Thanks, Hilary, but no thanks. I've really got to study this script. Betty will have my head..."
"Betty is at the Buttery with Scott and Agatha. What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
Maple couldn't stiffen a yawn. "I'm not that hungry, Hilary."
"Since when do you have time to eat? When I see you, you're either sleeping, reading your script, or on the air. I'll even drive you. I do have a license, as amazing as it may seem, and I know my way around a car. Jeff and Lia walked to the park."
Maple yawned again. She was tired. She hated saying as much. She'd slept maybe two hours in over a month. If she told the others that she could barely stand, they'd worry about her. She didn't want anyone worrying about her, but she had so much on her mind that she didn't want anywhere near her mind.
"Aw, Hilary, it isn't important enough for you to waste the gas rations."
"Jeffery, Lia, and I mostly take the trolley. I have plenty of gas to get to Monroeville and back in time for your evening shift."
She shrugged. "What the heck? It couldn't hurt, right?"
Hilary smiled. "That's the spirit, Maple. That's more spirit than I've seen on you since Jeff came home...." Maple's face darkened, and Hilary wished she hadn't mentioned it. ...And Victor disappeared, she finished in her head.
They gathered their purses and hats in silence and took the elevator. Maple rested against the walls and closed her eyes. The trip downstairs couldn't take long enough. She wanted to go home, but she barely had a home to go to. She'd given up her and Victor's apartment to an officer and his family and now lived with three other girls in a joint not much larger than the green room. She spent as little time there as possible.
Hilary stood on the other end of the elevator, watching Maple. Wisps of short, thick, red curls stuck out of her hat. She clutched her purse to her as if it were a lifeline. Hilary knew the signs. She was trying her very best not to think of Victor, of how much he meant to her and how she didnít want him to die twice. She was in a state of shock, not unlike Betty when theyíd first heard about Victorís "death" in the London Blitz. "Maple," she said quietly, "you canít go on like this."
"Not sleeping, so you donít dream about him. Trying not to think about him. Trying not to show that youíre afraid of losing him, and being miserable because you donít know if heís alive or not."
"Iím not thinking about Victor, if thatís what you mean. I hardly knew the guy. We werenít married for that long." She gave Hilary what she hoped was a convincing smile. "He left before we could spend any real time together."
"Thatís what I thought about Jeffrey at first, too," Hilary admitted. "By the time I finally admitted to myself that I cared about him, I almost lost him to the Blitz, and then that double-sided trollop tried to get her trashy little British-Czech paws on him."
"Me ní Victor, weíre different," Maple claimed. "We ainít like Jeff ní you. Jeff would stay by your side, no matter what." She gulped. "Victor has his work. He wasnít always there, even when he was there, you know what I mean?"
"Thatís what I thought, too, before Jeff took off for London," Hilary explained. "He and Victor have a lot in common. They both have high-minded ideals that turn them into little boys. They want to do whatís right for their country, even if it hurts the ones they love." She sighed. "In some ways, itís part of the reason I love him. Heís so dedicated to what he believes in. In other ways," she grinned, "it drives me insane. He wonít stay still as long as thereís a war on."
The elevator arrived at the bottom floor. Maple let out a sigh of relief, Hilary of frustration. She wasnít getting through to Maple, but no one else seemed to be able to, either. She never was much good at this, but she couldnít stand seeing Maple so despondent. It reminded her of Betty after Victor "died"...or herself after the BBC was cut off during the "American Way" broadcast.
They drove to Monroeville in silence, Maple gazing broodingly out the window. She had nothing to say to Hilary. She didnít want to admit that she hadnít been sleeping because she couldnít sleep. The nightmares were too horrible, not to mention the noise her roommates made.
They arrived at Bellaís Restaurant, a small room in an old building. A wizened little man greeted them. "Ah, Senora Booth-Singer, how wonderful to see you! And how is your beloved husband and dear little daughter?" the man asked in a heavy Italian accent.
"Theyíre fine, Joseph. Out and about, and probably messier than a pair of puppies by now." She turned to a perplexed Maple. "This is Joseph Martineli, the owner and head chef of Bellaís. Weíve known each other since Jeff and I first came to Pittsburgh."
"Mama mia, you and Senor Singer are some of my best customers! We were all so happy when we heard the news that he was safe!" He took Mapleís hand and kissed it. "And you are Senora Comstock, the wonderful actress who plays alongside Senora Booth-Singer in so many of her programs. Your beauty almost surpasses that of the great Senora."
Maple blushed. This guy sure knew how to make a lady feel like a lady. "Thank you, Mr. Martineli."
"Of course," Joseph added quickly when he saw the look on Hilaryís face, "no actress is as great as Senora Booth-Singer, our finest radio prima donna. You bring the role of Daphne Danvers to such life!"
Hilary laughed. "You do know how to flatter a girl, Mr. Martineli." She got down to business after that. "We would like your best table and a bottle of the finest wine you can get within wartime restrictions."
"Of course, Senora! Anything for our prima donna!" He settled Hilary and Maple down at a cozy table near the window. "You like, senoras?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Martineli. This will be fine." The eager Italian went to get Hilary her wine.
Maple looked around. The place was tastefully decorated in heavy red draperies and heavier, dark walnut furniture. The tablecloths were red-and-white-checked, as were the seats, and made a nice contrast to the rest of the room. The checks werenít loud, but stood out without announcing themselves.
Maple opened the menu. She wasnít really hungry, so she just ordered spaghetti. Hilary asked for the clams and pasta in marinara sauce when Mr. Martineli returned.
"How did you get to know Mr. Martineli?" Maple asked after he left. Hilary poured herself and Maple a glass. "He was practically kneeling at your feet."
"Jeff and I have eaten here so much, we probably could have bought the place ourselves by now," Hilary told her. "Joe Martineli loves radio. It amazes him. He says that he never even heard of radio until he arrived in Naples, and never heard a radio program until he came to America. Thatís why he was so enthusiastic to sponsor Mr. Eldridgeís news show when we were sharing our programming with WEEP. He loves anything that has to do with the airwaves, including the actors."
There was awkward silence for a few minutes before Hilary could bring herself to say the reason she took Maple out to lunch in the first place. "Maple, you do know that you love Victor." It was a statement, not a question.
Maple frowned, but Hilary went on. "You can deny it all you want, but I saw how you two looked before he left. Iíve been in love enough times to know it when I see it. You are passionately in love with Victor Comstock, and when he vanished, part of you disappeared with him."
Maple stared at her bread plate. She didnít want to look at Hilary, or anything else. When she finally did lift her head, there were tears in her eyes. "Hilary, Iím scared. Iíve never loved anyone like this before. Victorís already Ďdiedí once. I donít want to lose him the way Betty almost did."
Hilary nodded. "Thatís understandable. I was scared, too, that time that Jeff and Victor was in the Blitz. I thought Iíd never be able to tell Jeff how I felt about him. Iíd never told him how much he meant to me, or how much a part of my life he was, and for a few days after the bombing, I thought Iíd never be able to tell him at all."
A young woman brought them their breadbasket, filled with steaming bread sticks. Hilary took one. Maple continued to look at her plate, the tears spilling over. "Those were the worst days of my life. I didnít know where he was, or if he was alive or not. I wasnít like Betty, though, who almost shut down after we got word. I couldnít just shut myself in a room and forget about the world. I was an actress, and the show had to go on. I couldnít hide, and I didnít want to. Acting, even acting in Bettyís horrible scripts, kept me from thinking about Jeff."
The tears splashed onto the plate, creating tiny pools that reflected the distressed woman. Hilary handed her a handkerchief. "Hilary, I thought if I changed everything, Iíd feel better, and I wouldnít feel like there was a big black hole in my life." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "I donít feel better. I feel lonely, and silly with this new hair do. I know the work at the factory is for the good of the country, but it doesnít replace Victor. He was the only man who ever treated me like a woman, instead of a kid sister."
She looked at Hilary. "Hilary....Iíve been having nightmares. Thatís why I havenít slept."
Hilary looked worried. "What kind of nightmares?"
"About Victor. In some, heís trapped in debris somewhere, and I canít get to him. I can hear his voice, but I canít find him."
"That sounds like Jeffís nightmares when he came back from London," Hilary admitted. "He still has them occasionally, and they've gotten worse since he came back from Manila."
"Yeah, but thatís not all," Maple added. "Someone usually stops me from finding Victor. They tell me that I shouldnít bother, that heís property of the Nazis, or some such. Theyíre always in shadow, so I canít see their face, but they sound like a woman."
Hilary made a face. "Probably Pavla. I donít blame you for being afraid. I wouldnít wish a dream about Pavla on my worst enemy, or even Grace Cavendish." Hilary sipped her wine and thought that last part over. "Well, maybe on Grace Cavendish."
Maple smiled and shook her head. "Itís not Pavla, or Grace, for that matter. I donít know who it is, but they scare the wits out of me. I usually wake up after that." She shrugged. "Not like I can actually sleep in my place, anyway. Iím sharing one room with three other girls. Not the nicest place, but itís cozy."
Hilary took another sip of her wine. "Maple, Iíve discussed this with Jeff, and we would be happy if you moved in with us for the duration of the war."
"Wow, Hilary, youíre being generous today," Maple exclaimed. "What brought all this on?"
"Jeff, Lia, and my mother-in-law," Hilary confessed. "Lia likes you. You could baby-sit her when youíre not at the station. It would give you something to do until you can find a real place, or at least decide what to do next. Marguerite is moving in with Jeffís brother and his family in Allentown, now that Jeff is home."
"Liaís a real cutie," Maple said. "Iíd love to be her other mama. And I promise, Iíll leave you and Jeff alone when you want some quiet time." She sighed. "I was hoping to have a bunch just like her. I guess not, now."
Hilary sighed again. "You still can, Maple. Your life isnít over just because Victor isnít here. Who knows? He may still come back."
"Yeah," Maple agreed, but she didnít sound hopeful.
Joseph Martineli and the young waitress arrived with their meals. "Is everything right now, Senoras?" the little Italian asked.
"Yeah, Mr. Martineli," Maple said, as she smiled at Hilary, "everythingís fine."
This war wonít last forever....
To Be Continued
What did happen to Victor Comstock? How are Jeff and Lia getting along? Is this the end of the sabotage, or are there still spies at the station?
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