Late May 1917
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
At four in the morning, it wasn’t always easy to remember why the hell I was trudging alone down a deserted beach in the gray murk of pre-dawn, the sand cold on my bare feet, my kit bag heavy in my hand.
But the relentless rhythm of the waves to my left—slapping the shore then hissing and foaming in retreat—reminded me what I was doing down here today and every morning for the past few weeks.
They were out there, somewhere, hiding in the dark waters. The enemy.
And it was my job to find them.
The United States had been at war with Germany not quite two months, but there were already signs that Germany would very much like to bring the fight to our side of the Atlantic. We’d seen U-boats skulking just offshore since April, slipping in close to the beaches then darting away. Just trying to frighten us, maybe. Or scouting the coast in preparation for putting a more sinister scheme in motion.
The thought made me walk a little faster.
By mid-summer, the ports of Boston and New York would commence sending ship after ship of soldiers and supplies and food to our Allies in Europe, and the prowling U-boats would be on those ships like the wolf-pack they’d been likened to, torpedoes at the ready. There was a brand-new navy installation here on our island, set to guard the sea lanes leading to those ports, but the aviators with their seaplanes and dirigibles could see only so much from their bird’s-eye view.
That’s where I and my friends came in.
I swung my bag as I strode down the firmer sand just above the water-line. This had all been my father’s idea originally. I think he came up with it as a way to keep me from high-tailing it up to Boston to enroll in officer training. My going off to fight on another continent was not something he would countenance; doing nothing wasn’t an option as far as I was concerned. But guarding our home against the threat of attack was acceptable—mostly—to both of us. Father was nothing if not clever.
In the growing light, I spotted the scrubby beach rose thicket at the top of the beach, near where the dunes began: the place where we left our clothes when we were going for a swim. It was far enough from my family’s hotel that guests almost never wandered near, but out of sheer habit, I paused to take a long look and listen. Good, I was alone. I hurried up to the thicket, dropped my kit bag and took off my sweater, then got to work unbuttoning my shirt.
It had taken me a week or two to forgive my father; at first, I was just plain mad that I wouldn’t be joining Mitchell, Chambers, and the other men from my college crew team to go to war. But I felt better about staying once I started recruiting my friends here to help, and even more so when the commanding officer of the air station, Captain Abbott, enthusiastically welcomed our help when Father and I approached him. Once his initial shock wore off, that is. I grinned, remembering his expression as he’d watched me demonstrate exactly how we would guard the shore. Good thing he didn’t have a weak heart.
The eastern sky was brighter now, the deep blue beginning to fade into that strange colorlessness that would resolve into the gold of sunrise. I stood still for a moment to watch the subtle blooming of the light, then quickly finished taking off my clothes and dropped them on the sand. I took another look around to make sure I was still unobserved, then bent to my kit bag and pulled out a length of sleek, dense fur, warm in my hands, before bundling my clothes away and—
“Gods, Malcolm, what’s taking you so long? We’re waiting for you!”
I lifted my head and looked down the beach. My friend Luthais stood waist-deep in the water, a length of fur like the one I held tossed over his shoulder, hooked casually by one finger. When he saw me looking, he waved.
I smiled to myself and yelled back, “I’m coming already!”
I shoved my bag into the thicket, then went quickly down to the water’s edge. The sand behind me was just warming from gray to tan as I slipped my sealskin over my head and shoulders and sank into the waves, to join my fellows in watching for the U-boats that threatened my other home.
Late May 1917
Dad and I watched a stream of laughing, jostling young men pour onto the platform of South Station from the New York train. A few of them were already in uniform. They were bound for basic training at Camp Devens, a couple of hours west of the city…and after that for France to join the fighting, I supposed.
“There must be hundreds of them,” I said, raising my voice so that Dad could hear me above the clamor of voices and trains. The boys looked sturdy and so blithe, as if they would dance rather than march into battle. “Do you think they’ve all enlisted?”
“I expect so. Almost all my students have,” Dad said. He himself was wearing a brand-new uniform with the insignia of a captain; tomorrow it would be his turn to get on a train. “I hope Helen was able to get a seat.”
Or hadn’t missed the train altogether. Or changed her mind about spending the summer on Cape Cod with me. For heaven’s sake, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the summer on Cape Cod. But Dad didn’t have to know that.
“I hope we’ll recognize her,” I said. “It’s been—what, six years since we saw her? Seven?”
A passing youth lugging a duffel bag caught my eye and winked. I felt my cheeks grow hot and looked away, then wished I hadn’t—civilians were supposed to be supportive of our soldier boys, even if they weren’t yet in uniform. I hoped I hadn’t hurt his feelings.
Dad squinted after him in the afternoon sun slanting through the frosted glass ceiling over the platforms. “Maybe I should go with you after all. Two young women traveling without a chaperone—”
“Yes, and you’d miss your train to Washington and be declared AWOL and get clapped in irons, and then what good would you be?” I took his arm and squeezed it, to belie my scolding tone. “Helen and I will chaperone each other. And Gran’s already arranged for a wagon to meet us in Mattaquason and bring us to the ferry. We won’t have to lift a finger.” I nodded toward my trunks stacked on the platform, marked with my and Dad’s identical initials, ELV—Emmeline Laura and Ernest Lowell Verlaine.
Dad sighed and examined his watch then slipped it back into his pocket. “I can’t help worrying even though you are a young lady now. I suppose I’d better get used to it if you’re going to college in the fall.”
I pretended I hadn’t heard him—which wasn’t hard in the din of the station—and resumed scanning the crowds. “Oh! Is that her?” I gasped. Before Dad could respond, I darted into a mass of people. I’d spotted something all right, but it wasn’t my cousin.
I wormed my way around more boys carrying everything from carpet bags to cardboard suitcases, trying not to lose sight of my goal—a Red Cross booth near the far door to the main waiting room, adorned with a big, eye-catching bouquet of red roses and festooned with posters. It was one of those posters that had caught my eye: “FIVE THOUSAND BY JUNE” it read, above an illustration of a calm-looking, beautiful nurse in cap and cape. “GRADUATE NURSES YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU.” I wasn’t a graduate nurse, but surely they would take trainees. Five thousand was an awful lot of nurses, after all. Here was my chance—and the reason why I didn’t really want to go to Cape Cod.