Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

“I didn’t bring my bathing costume,” said Emmie, bravely making a joke of it. “And I don’t think this uniform would hold up awfully well in the water, do you?”

Kate grimaced at her uniform. “I don’t know. It seems pretty indestructible.”

“Just like us!” Emmie grabbed Kate’s hand, just a little too hard. “Let’s go before we miss anything.”

“Did you know nearly everyone on the boat is concerned with the war in some way?” Maud angled in between Emmie and Kate as they hurried to the saloon. “I hear there’s a whole unit of ambulance men on the boat, and also one of engineers.”

“Don’t forget the aviators!” added Liza, puffing along behind them.

“Did you know Nick Penniston’s gone for an aviator?” said Emmie to Kate.

“Really?” said Kate, as though she hadn’t seen the articles in the papers, millionaire’s son takes to the sky, as if she hadn’t stared at the grainy features half-indistinguishable in the newsprint, cursing herself for a fool.

He’d been kind to her, that was all. Sometimes, the girl who got to go to the ball wasn’t Cinderella at all; sometimes, when midnight chimed, the prince didn’t bother to give chase. She wasn’t a princess in disguise. As far as the people in Emmie’s world were concerned, she was just another Bridget: Irish, Catholic, and poor.

“The president of Andover is here too,” said Maud importantly. “We met him in Montclair last year, didn’t we, Liza? He’s frightfully nice. Do you know him? And there’s Dr. Denison of Boston College, and the president of a university somewhere in Oregon—goodness only knows, but they say he’s up for the presidency of Smith, so I suppose we oughtn’t to dismiss him. Oh, there are the ambulance men. Halloo! Those two tall ones seem rather nice.”

As Maud waggled her fingers at them, one of the ambulance men elbowed his friend, pointing to them. “What are those?”

“Women, Hank,” drawled the second man, taking a slug from a flask with Harvard’s “Veritas” emblazoned on it and handing it to his friend. “They’re women.”

“No, but what are they doing here?”

The second man shrugged. “They tell me it’s a unit from Smith College.”

“College girls?” Hank choked on whatever was in the flask and had to be pounded on the back. “D’you think they’ll send a platoon from Radcliffe?”

“I’d like one from Gimbels,” quipped the second man, snagging the flask.

Kate felt two patches of color high in her cheeks. She resisted the urge to stamp on their feet in passing.

“Harvard men,” said Emmie, whose family had all gone to Yale.

“They think we’re a joke.” It would help if she didn’t feel so much like a joke. The uniforms, which had been designed especially for the Smith Unit, were a cross between the military and the archaeological, crammed with pockets wherever a pocket could be put, an embarrassing display of utility. Kate’s was too big on her, which made it even worse. It had been tailored for the girl who had left, who had been built on heartier lines. Kate was, like her mother, short and small-boned. Easy to overlook.

“We just have to show them otherwise, then,” said Emmie bravely. “That’s what my mother would say.”

And when Mrs. Livingston Van Alden spoke, people listened. If they didn’t, she chained herself to railings. Or invited senators to tea and harangued them. Or both. Neither of these skills seemed quite applicable to their current situation.

Mrs. Rutherford’s voice boomed out over the crowd. “Smith Unit, to me!”

The founder of their Unit was five feet tall in her buttoned boots, but there wasn’t anything else small about her. Her voice made the smokestacks shake. She was an archaeologist by profession, which was probably why, thought Kate, their uniforms looked suspiciously like the chosen attire of that much photographed archaeologist Amelia Peabody Emerson.

Mrs. Rutherford waved an umbrella in their general direction, using it as a prod to herd the slower women into the saloon. “Everyone here? Good.”

Kate knew there were only eighteen in the Unit, but the room felt very full of gray uniforms, with their symbolic touch of “French” blue. Some of the faces looked vaguely familiar, but hairstyles and clothing changed and features blurred over a decade’s distance.

Except one. One woman she would have known anywhere.