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The Last Night in London
Author: Karen White



   APRIL 1941

The cool, clear night shuddered, then moaned as the fluctuating drone of hundreds of engines eclipsed the silence. A wave of planes like angry hornets slipped through the darkened sky over a city already wearing black in preparation for the inevitable mourning.

   She tasted dust and burnt embers in the back of her throat as she hurried through a crowd of stragglers running toward a shelter. A man grabbed her arm, as if to correct her movement, but an explosion nearby made him release his hold and hurry after the crowd. She shifted the valise she cradled in her arms, the pressure on her chest making it difficult to breathe. Fatigue and pain battered her body, both eagerly welcomed, as they disguised the bruise of overwhelming grief. She staggered forward, the blood dripping unchecked from her leg and forehead, the acrid stench of explosives mixed with the sharp smell of death.

   Gingerly, she moved through the darkened high street so familiar in the daylight but foreign to her now. The night sky blossomed with fire and scarlet light as the loud bark of the antiaircraft guns answered the banshee wails of the warning sirens. Pressing herself against a wall, as if she could hide from the noise and the terror, she closed her eyes. Moonlight Sonata. Someone—she couldn’t remember who, in an underground club, perhaps—had whispered that that was what he called the music of the nightly bombings. She’d thought then it had been a beautiful sentiment, that it was a wonderful way to make something good out of something so terrible. But she’d been younger then. More willing to accept that the world still held on to its beauty when everything lay charred and smoldering, with roofless structures like starving baby birds, mouths open to a useless sky.

   Another incendiary bomb fell nearby. Another fireball lurched upward. Another building, another home, another life destroyed as the haphazard finger of fortune pointed with random carelessness. The sidewalk rumbled beneath her, causing her to stumble into the street, almost losing hold of her precious bundle. The shrill whistle of an air raid warden rang out, the sound padded into near oblivion by the thunder of the engines above them. The baby lay still as she ran, the partially closed top of the valise protecting him from the ashes that drifted from burning buildings.

   She ducked into a doorway to catch her breath, oddly grateful to the fires for lighting her way. Fairly certain she was on Mac Farren Place, she flattened herself against a recessed door, imagining she could hear approaching footsteps coming for her. She needed to keep running until she reached her destination. She wasn’t sure what she’d do after that, but she’d think about it then.

   Another wave of planes slithered overhead, the rumble of their engines echoing in her bones. She was tempted to collapse on the doorstep and remain there until dawn or death, whichever came first. But she couldn’t. She felt the heft of the valise in her arms again, a small movement within it reminding her of why she couldn’t give up.

   She stood, planting her feet wide for balance and for the false sense of strength it gave her. As the world vibrated beneath her, she clung to that tenuous spark of will that wouldn’t allow her to stop. It pushed her out onto the street again to begin moving as the roar of the next approaching wave of planes swelled behind her.

   She hid in another doorway as the planes flew overhead, letting go of their bombs as they neared Oxford Street. Her shoulders and arms ached from carrying the valise. How could such a small thing seem to weigh so much? But she couldn’t stop. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. One more loss would be insurmountable, the largest and final hole in her cup of luck.

   Her ears rang from the cacophony of destruction raining down around her, the coppery tang of blood filling her mouth from biting her lip to keep it from trembling. A stray bomb could explode on top of her and her precious cargo regardless of its intended target, the erratic hands of fate never quite sure where to land.

   Avoiding wardens and anyone else who would veer her off course, she continued to hurry forward until she reached Davies Street and the square of beautiful Georgian terrace houses now sheathed in black, the windows darkened like sleeping eyes. She knew the house, had been inside it even. Knew that the basement was being used as a private bomb shelter, one complete with electricity and stocked with food and soft mattresses and blankets. But that was not why she was there. She wouldn’t be staying.

   The flashing white undersides of an air warden’s gloves beckoned two women dressed as if they’d just been dragged from a party; they stumbled toward him as he guided them to a public shelter. Holding the valise closer, she pressed herself against the wrought iron fence of the house, ducking her face to hide its paleness. When the three disappeared, she moved cautiously along the fence, then unlatched the gate. She carefully took the steps down to the lower level, then turned the doorknob, not thinking until she did so of what she’d do if it was locked.

   The door opened to an unoccupied room, filled only with mattresses and cushions piled against the windows and walls, the flickering firelight from outside showing her a closed door across the room. Memorizing her path, she shut the door behind her, enveloping herself in complete darkness. Soft, murmuring voices came from behind the door opposite as she approached. She stopped in front of it and raised her hand to knock, then paused to mouth an old prayer she remembered from childhood to a God she no longer thought listened. “Amen,” she whispered to the dark when she was finished, then brought her knuckles down sharply against the wood.

   The voices stopped, and she held her breath as footsteps approached.

   “Hello?” A woman’s voice, clear and refined. English.

   Her knees almost buckled with relief. “It’s me. Please open the door.”

   The door was jerked open, allowing her to see inside the small room with the tidy cots around the perimeter, a small crystal lamp sparkling from the polished surface of a round table with cabriole legs. If she hadn’t been so exhausted, she might have laughed at the absurdity of crystal and fine furniture in such a place, at such a time, when the world above was being smothered with ashes and blood. The person she’d been might have been amused. But she wasn’t that person anymore.

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