Over the past few weeks, Rita’s days, nights, and dreams blurred until they were indistinguishable.
The typewriter punished her fingers as she hammered its oversized keys. Her eyelids grew heavy, but she held them open, grateful for the work yet longing to return to her modest but comfortable London flat.
Her charming wit was only matched by her beauty. She found solace in the strength of the city, comforted by supportive women in similar circumstances after the devastating loss nine months earlier.
For a moment, cries of the dead filtered into the office, but she knew better. It had happened before.
Each time it turned out to be a phantom whisper playing an emotional heartstring, an echo of her husband, Victor, who died in the Battle of Mons. She hated the Germans for it, bastards.
Her face had tightened and her stomach wrenched when she discovered he was missing. She wasted away for days afterward.
It wasn’t fair. He was kind, yet strong-willed, gentle, but passionate. And then, he was gone.
The emptiness left by his absence crowded out all other emotions and oppressed her spirit. She would never get over Victor, never. He was her soulmate, the way he spoke to her, touched her. He was everything.
The following week, she hated God, her family, and everything else.
She hated the world for it, and then she put back on her face. She had to. God save the Queen. It was Britain’s first major battle in the "War to End All Wars."
Rita heard the whisper again. She’d been hearing it for several days, but she knew it was just her imagination, her longing for Victor. The long nights didn’t help. The sleep deprivation was unbearable.
The evening lights dimmed the ruckus stirring outside.
“Rita, Goddammit, Rita. Get the hell out here. The Germans, they’re above the city.”
“What do you mean, ‘above’ the city?’”
“There’s no time. We’ve got to go, now.”
Mr. Clark wanted Rita more than anything he’d ever wanted. She wasn’t interested. He possessed neither the demeanor nor the face for someone of her caliber. He knew it. The entire office knew it.
He tugged on her arm, nudged her off the chair, and broke the muddle of her unsettled mind.
“Alright. I’m going,” she said.
They ran as fast as the obstacles in front of them allowed. A slew of people ran through the stairwell. They dodged and weaved through the bodies that hugged the precarious, rusty railings on the way down. Shouts and screamed peppered the stairwell as they clambered closer to the bottom.
Mr. Clark was a homely fellow, but in that moment, he wore the bravest face she’d ever seen, save her dead husband.
An odd smell filtered in from the outside. It reeked of burnt rubber and metal, and something otherworldly.
Darkness gave way to light. Shouts grew more strident. Bangs and rattles ricocheted from the outside with increased frequency. Several bodies scuttled past them and pushed them aside. Rita recognized most of them, but the terror on their faces was wholly foreign, frights that seized even the closest of friends and made her invisible.
They approached the exit. Mr. Clark rammed open the door. Her uncomfortable, high heels snagged on the cobblestone crevice as they exited the building. Rita fell. Mr. Clark stooped to retrieve her.
More bodies shot past them. A few people tripped and swore as they fell.
“Get up, we have to go.”
Police officers sped on their bicycles shouting at pedestrians along the way. “We’re under attack. Take shelter.”
Explosions erupted. Fires lit up the horizon.
“I’m going to get you to safety, Miss Rita.”
That was the first time he called her that, a slip of the tongue. If he had said that five minutes earlier, she would have hated him for it. She still wore her ring.
Many suitors tried and failed to garner her favor, but there were none to her liking. She would have declined regardless.
The sky whistled and flashed.
“Mr. Clark,” Rita shouted, craning her neck.
A chill shot up her body. Flashes illuminated the edges of the city. Smoke in the distance thickened, obscuring the horizon.
“Mr. Clark,” she cried again.
Police crisscrossed the streets. One of them cycled past her.
“You need to find shelter, Madame,” the officer said.
“Mr. Clark,” she shouted again, ignoring the officer.
Rita lurched forward. Stragglers continued to trickle out of her building and onto the street, but as the bombs fell, the roads cleared.
Rita stumbled forward. The sky shrieked. A crackle emerged behind her. She looked back then moved forward and collided with something, someone.
“Sorry Miss,” he said. She ignored the collision and ran ahead towards the direction of her home.
Talk of a German invasion was everywhere. Terror gripped the wandering faces. Rita ran unprotected.
“Take cover,” policeman in the area repeated with each barrage.
The sounds grew louder, the flashes brighter, the smoke more opaque.
“A Zeppelin is over us right now. It’ll kill you if you don’t get out of here,” said the man she ran into earlier.
“I can’t see anything,” she said.
“It’s too high to see, but it’s there. We need to get off the street.”
He had a surety about himself, a confidence he knew what he was doing.
“It won’t be long now before the bombs reach us. We have to get off the street.”
“And go where? Where in the city is safe? They can hit us wherever we go. Can’t they?”
A flicker of light blinked from atop a nearby building. The sky lit up and revealed men mounting long metallic cylinders on an adjacent roof.
“Don’t stop,” he said as he grabbed Rita’s arm. She pulled away and stopped.
Her heart thumped through her chest. Her pulse raced. She wondered if that’s what it was like for Victor. But he was brave and wouldn’t have run away. He would’ve stayed, entrenched wherever his commanders instructed.
“If you stay here, you’ll die. And I don’t want you to die.”
Bullets fired into the sky from the hollow tubes mounted on the rooftop. The sound was deafening.
“What does it matter? I don’t even know who you are, and you don’t know who I am. So why do you care?” she said after a pause in the firing.
He hesitated. “Your life matters. Every life matters. I don’t want you to die,” he said with a certainty he couldn’t possibly mean.
Drywall and white flakes from the nearby building snowed on top of them into a thin coat. Shock waves from a volley of exploding bombs rippled towards them. Rita’s bones shook to the core.
“I’m looking for Mr. Clark. He disappeared behind me. I need to find him.”
“I’m sorry Rita, but Mr. Clark didn’t make it.”
“How do you know my name? How do you know Mr. Clark, and how do you know he didn’t make it? He was here with me a second ago.”
“It’s too complicated to explain right now. There’s no time. It’s not safe.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you Mr…”
“Kershaw. Walter Kershaw. Call me Walter.”
“Well Mr. Kershaw, I don’t know how you know Mr. Clark, but I have no idea who you are, and I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“I’m trying to save your life.”
“Like I said, I don’t know who you are, so I don’t know how, or why you would expect me to trust you.”
“I know Victor, and I know something the government didn’t tell you.”
“Who are you?”
“I told you. My name is Walter. I came here to save you.”
“I need to get home.”
“That’s straight into the German’s firing line.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“That doesn’t matter. Just come with me.”
“I’m going home.”
“Then I’ll escort you there.”
Rita said nothing. Her chest thumped. The patches of skin not covered in debris glistened from sweat.
The noise of the bombs amplified as they ran. The flashes grew closer, brighter.
“We won’t make it if we keep going this direction.”
“I have to. I have to make it home. It’s all I have left.”
With the destruction of her office building, she was right. She had no living relatives, and the German’s just destroyed her only employment.
“That’s not exactly true.”
The air whistled. The sky fell. Walter shoved Rita away from a blinding light.
The instant his hands touched her skin, images flashed before her. They were alien, unrecognizable. People wore risqué clothing. Palm trees lined beaches adjacent to a towering cityscape. Impossible automobiles drove faster than anything she’d ever seen. People spoke in Spanish and an unfamiliar American English dialect.
A burning impression that she knew this man, Walter Kershaw, overcame her. She sensed he was somehow related to her. She turned her head to the hole in a ground where he once stood. She didn’t know Mr. Kershaw except for that vague intuition, but he didn’t deserve that fate.
A roar arrested her from the vision. The concrete and metal from the building crumbled above her and cascaded down. A moment later, she was gone.