The Long Path Home - Ellen Lindseth

Chapter 1

August 1944, Chicago

Snow-white feathers, delicate as moths, fluttered around her in the spotlight. The inevitable castoffs from her fans tickled her as they fell, whisper soft. A few lingered long enough to become stuck to Violet’s sweaty skin. While the band’s clarinet player wailed the melody, the large plumed fans in Violet’s hands covered and uncovered her body in a practiced tease of fantasy and suggestion as she spun. Out in the dark house, the pulse of the audience’s hearts pounded with expectation, urging her onward, driving her faster and faster. Perspiration trickled down her back as she let the audience’s breath become her own. Her blood tingled, the heated gazes caressing her bare skin like an invisible lover’s.

Exhilaration sang through her veins. Gone were the nagging exhaustion and pain of the past few weeks. Gone was all worry about the war that seemed no closer to ending than it had three years ago. Self-recrimination, regret, loneliness . . . all gone. She was—in this moment—loved, adored . . . accepted.

The percussionist picked up the pace, cuing the climax. One breath. Two. She sucked in the smoky blue air, even though it made her lungs burn. Then all at once she stopped her spin, her hands dropping to her sides, baring all. Right on cue, a stagehand cut the lights, leaving her enveloped in a steamy, sultry darkness. The audience roared to life, as they always did. The storm of masculine voices, catcalls and whistles, and the clapping and stomping of large, heavy feet both awed and thrilled her.

Reveling in the moment, she closed her eyes and soaked in the sounds of all that love and appreciation, let it fill every crack of her battered soul. Let it reverberate in her bones.

She savored the high, knowing it would fade all too soon.

Sal would be annoyed, of course, by her delay in clearing the stage, but he would also forgive her. He always did. Or he would once he finished counting the night’s take. She was one of the revue’s most dependable draws.

On the other hand, based on what she could hear out in the dark house, the crowd was smaller tonight than it had been even a month ago. There was just no getting around the fact that more and more boys were being called up on account of the war.

Her elation faded as reality shouldered its way back in. The audience continued to stomp and whistle, but she could almost feel the silence of the empty seats. The adoration of dwindling numbers—no matter how heartfelt—wouldn’t keep the lights on. At some point the well would run dry. And then, no matter how much Sal loved her, the show would close and she would be let go. And be back on the streets, without a dime to her name. Again.

Not thinking about that tonight, Vi.

Lifting her chin, she called up her performer’s high again and sauntered off the stage as if she didn’t have a care in the world. A teenage stagehand waited behind the heavy velvet curtain to take her fans. His gaze never made it above her breasts, which were naked, save for the glittery, star-shaped patches glued to her nipples. He seemed mesmerized by the way they swayed with each step.

Once, years ago, walking around basically naked, exposed to the ogling of unfamiliar men, would have distressed her. Now she could barely remember why it had bothered her. Strange what a girl could get used to when her survival depended on it.

Sal glared briefly over his spectacles at her as she walked by, making sure she knew he was displeased by her tardy departure. Then his attention returned to the trio of female jugglers who had taken the stage. Relieved that he didn’t seem too upset, she grabbed her threadbare silk robe off a painted wooden moon and headed toward the dressing room. Despite the crush of backstage workers, she carried the garment over her arm, reluctant to put it on. The air was so stiflingly hot and humid, she couldn’t bear the idea of fabric on her skin, no matter how light or silky.

August in Chicago was always beastly hot, but this past week had been particularly bad. Sal had finally broken down and installed two big electric fans backstage yesterday to keep the performers from passing out before they even reached the stage. Still, rumors had been circulating that he was considering temporarily halting performances until the heat wave broke. Not only was the sweltering