“Papa and Louis will be here soon,” Adele said, breaking the comfortable silence that had fallen between them.
“I know.” Kenneth stared off up the creek, eyes half-shuttered. “Good to have them here at the same time as me, I guess.”
Adele cocked her head. “You guess?”
“Yes. I guess.” He ruffled her hair again, and she swatted his hand away.
“But why aren’t you sure? Don’t you want to see Louis and Papa?” she asked.
He sighed and ran a hand over his face. “Yes, Della-bell. I want to see Louis and Father. But at the same time, I don’t.” He cocked his head. “When I was in London with a few schoolmates, we met a group of women on the streets. They gave me this.” Kenneth handed her the flowers again, reached into his well-cut jacket, and pulled something out of the inside pocket. He extended it to Adele.
Wonderingly, Adele accepted the object from her brother and twirled it in her fingers. “What is it?”
“A white feather.”
“I know that.” Adele laughed nervously. She sensed something strange in the air between them, something she couldn’t quite pin down. “But why do you have it?” She hesitated. “Is it … a present for me?” Sometimes Kenneth brought her things home from London, but usually they made sense. Like a new doll or sweets or ribbons—one could never have enough ribbons.
He chuckled, the sound grinding on her ears oddly. “No, Della-bell. Not a present.” He took the feather back from her and tucked it into his coat pocket again. “How old would you say I look, Della-bell?”
“You’re seventeen.” Honestly, Kenneth asked the silliest questions sometimes!
“No, but … what age do I look to you? Could I pass for eighteen? Nineteen? Twenty?”
Adele looked up at her big brother’s frowning face, then regarded his long legs and broad shoulders. “Nineteen, but not twenty,” she said at last.
“That’s what they thought in London. That I was a man.” He clenched his teeth. “And, really, seventeen is a man, I think.”
She was cynical of this—though he was much older than she, he wasn’t quite a man yet—and shrugged her shoulders. But if Kenneth said so.
“You see, Della-bell—” He patted his pocket, but his face quickly turned to a scowl. “Oh, never mind. Let’s go back to the house.” All the sunshine had gone out of his face and voice. Adele stepped to his side and took his hand, allowing her bouquet to fall to the ground unheeded.
“Are you all right, Kenny?”
“Yes, I’m quite all right.” He sighed. “Come now. It’s almost time for tea.”
“No, it’s not. It’s hardly two.”
“Well, anyway, I have some reading to do before the holiday’s over.”
Adele wrapped her fingers tighter around her brother’s hand. “What is it, Kenny? Can you tell me? I can keep a secret. I promise.”
Kenneth hesitated, staring at her face, then knelt in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Della-bell, you know how the first thing Louis did when the war started was sign up?”
“Well, he was going to be in the army, anyway,” Adele said. Like his father before him, Louis Collier was strictly military. Unlike her precious Kenneth. Kenneth was going to be something grand, she was sure—a doctor or lawyer or Prime Minister.
“Yes, but …” Kenneth’s words trailed off. “Della-bell, I want to join up.”
Adele wrinkled her nose. “Join the war, you mean?” That didn’t make sense. “I thought you were going to go to college.”
“Yes, but … everyone else … everyone else is joining up. My older schoolmates are planning on it.” He shrugged.
“But that doesn’t mean you should.” Something like panic tightened in Adele’s chest. He couldn’t join the army. He was her Kenneth. He belonged to her, and she couldn’t let anyone who belonged to her go off to France where, well, anything could happen.
One couldn’t live anywhere in England now and avoid hearing about someone’s son or brother or husband dying. It was dangerous over there, and therefore not a place for Adele’s big brother to go. Ever.
Louis and Papa were different. That was their job. Her father, Papa, had been going off to strange faraway places all her life, and Louis had started doing that, too.
But Kenneth was precious. Kenneth was hers. The only person who really belonged to Adele all the way. No one else loved her like Kenneth did.
“Yes, but …” Kenneth sighed. “I think it’s rather my duty to join up.”
“I don’t think so. Besides, you can’t until next year.”
Kenneth’s hand was in his pocket again. She knew he was fingering the feather. “I could forge documents. I was raised in a military home—I know what they will want from me and how to get it faked.”
“But you could go to prison for that!” Adele exclaimed. “Besides, Mother wouldn’t like it.”
“Yes, she wouldn’t like it. But if I were to do this, I’d be rather beyond what Mother would like.” His hand dropped to his side. “I feel as if … as if I want to do something useful. Like Father and Louis.”
Adele could understand feeling useless, but that wasn’t any reason to run off and join the army. “But why?”
“Because … it’s difficult to explain, Della-bell. You wouldn’t understand.”
Adele’s brow wrinkled. “But I love you. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Kenneth chuckled and squeezed her shoulder. “I love you, too. But I need to go. Can’t you see? This would … this would make me as capable and strong and brave as Louis—or even Father. And that’d be … that’d be everything I ever wanted.”
“But what about me?”
He grinned down at her. “What about you?”
“What … what will I do while you’re gone?” she asked. She couldn’t put it into words, quite, but Kenneth was her best friend. She loved her parents and Louis, but Kenneth was different. He was so important, so much a part of her life.
“What you do when I’m here, I imagine, only without me. You’ll be fine.” Kenneth turned back toward the house, and Adele followed him.
She didn’t know what to say. Nor what she could do to deter him.
“You can be brave, too, Della-bell.” A smile quirked about the edges of his lips. “You can keep the homefires burning.”
Adele scowled. “I don’t want to.”
“Well, you’ve got to, so there you go.” He glanced at her. “And, er, don’t tell Mother.”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
“Go a few towns over and join the army.” He reached over and tugged at a lock of her hair. “Not until Father and Louis leave, though. So don’t worry about that. I’ll wait until they’re gone to make my exit.”
“All right,” Adele said after a moment. “I won’t tell Mother. But you have to promise to be very safe and come home.”
“Of course, of course. How could I not when my Della-bell is waiting for me?” he teased.
Adele beamed. Kenneth didn’t seem worried at all. Everything would be just fine.