Chapter 2: The Call-Up
The locomotive blew its whistle. Vasya tilted her large summer hat as she hugged Yura. Aelya looked away. On the open platform, she shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the mass of faces and the waving hands of those leaning out the windows of the carriages. She recognized a few people from the aeroclub and waved, but they were too preoccupied with their loved ones.
“Stay safe, please,” Vasya told Yura.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I had the best teacher.”
Aelya’s cheeks reddened and she cast her eyes downward. This was her last chance to say something. With his father already called up and his mother on factory shift, Yura had only her and Vasya to see him off.
“There’s still so much for you to learn.” What a terrible goodbye.
He smiled. “You sound like you want to go instead of me.”
She grimaced. She was the better pilot. With the aeroclub shut down, he’d be flying and she’d be grounded. It wasn’t fair.
“Maybe I should join up,” she said, affecting a pout.
“A girl? In the Air Force?” Yura laughed.
“Marina Raskova teaches at the Air Force Academy.”
“You’re no Raskova. Or was that you who flew non-stop across Siberia? Was that last week?”
Actually, Raskova had crash-landed short of her goal, but Aelya would never disparage the great Raskova, even to put Yura in his place.
“Stop making this about you, Spacegirl,” snapped Vasya. She was one to talk.
“I’m not. It’s just . . . why couldn’t they wait to call you up?” Aelya said.
Yura shrugged. “If they had, the war might be over by the time I joined.”
“I’ll wait for you,” said Vasya.
Aelya flashed her an angry look at her obviously empty promise.
“It might be a while.” Yura smiled. “We’ll probably be stuck for months teaching Communism to the Germans when we get to Berlin.”
Vasya leaned in for a kiss. Yura seemed surprised for a moment, then reciprocated. Aelya didn’t like standing there, watching it. If anything, Yura’s attention should have been focused on her. Stupid Yura. Now that he was in the Air Force, suddenly he thought he was better than she was. The most important things he would be doing from now on were all based on the lessons she had taught him.
Catcalls from the train broke up the embrace. The carriages began to roll. Yura frantically picked up his bags and hauled himself on board. As he waved from the door, the train slowly pulling away, a compulsion struck Aelya and she ran alongside.
“Watch the nose, then the gauges,” she shouted. “And pay attention to the checklists!”
What else, what else? Yura just nodded and waved. Seconds later, he had moved too far away to hear anything she might have to say.
At the last step, the bag of onions nearly fell out of Vasya’s hands. Aelya scooped it up smoothly and took the handles from her sister.
“You really should find something new to wear,” Vasya said. “That thing stinks.”
Aelya looked down at her dark blue tunic and skirt. “I only have the two Komsomol outfits.”
“You know what I mean.”
No, Aelya didn’t know what she meant. The problem was that Vasya had no healthy sense of shame. After seeing Yura off, they had spent the whole day with the rest of the youth leaguers accosting shoppers at the bazaar to donate goods for soldiers’ care packages. Vasya ignored their area organizer Fedor’s instructions and continued to wear a summer dress—a brilliant red number, more ostentatious than the white one she’d worn on Sunday, when the war had started. The dress that billowed in the wind as she’d kissed Yura. Why did the image of those two keep playing in Aelya’s mind?
They trudged down the corridor of their dormitory. Their mother’s voice barked through paper-thin walls, and they caught her in midsentence. “With that leg of yours? All a Nazi has to do is step to one side. Worse than useless is what it is!”
They strained to hear more as they neared their door, but their father, as always, kept his voice low.
Mama picked up her harangue once more, loud and clear as they stood by the door. “You’ll do the most good here, at the plant. This is where you’re needed.”
Aelya leaned against the door. Her sister took the bag of onions from her and plopped them noisily on the floor. She then made a show of fumbling with the doorknob before opening it.
Mama stood at the kitchen counter facing them, her hands clasped in front of her. “About time.”
Vasya kissed Papa, seated at their little round dining table, then took the onions over to Mama. Aelya sat opposite her father.
He looked from daughter to daughter, his lips trembling slightly. “My two princesses, back from their quest.”
Mama said, “Aelitochka, dear, get some water from the washroom.”
A door swung open and Babushka emerged from the bedroom she shared with her daughter and son-in-law. “I’ll get it.”
Aelya’s grandmother knew to make herself scarce when Mama was on the warpath. It always surprised Aelya. From what her mother said, Babushka had been quite combative in her youth. She grabbed a bucket from the floor and headed out into the hall, escaping the tension.
“Why is there no mince?” Mama said, rifling through the bag.
“Meat? Are you joking?” said Vasya. “There’s a run on everything at the bazaar. People are stockpiling.”
“Watch your tone, Vasilisochka. You didn’t think about simply substituting in mushrooms? I thought not. Too distracted by boys, weren’t you?” Mama turned her gaze to Aelya. “Of course you weren’t distracted, were you, Aelitochka? So what’s your excuse?”
Aelya swallowed. She was never quite sure when Mama expected an answer. What could she say? She had no clue what ingredients went into golubtsi. That was Vasya’s department.
Mama groaned and threw up her hands. “Just when there’s a war on and everyone needs to pitch in, this is the help I get.” Papa looked about to say something when Vasya flashed him a warning look. Mama continued, “You’d think, considering I have to plan a conversion of our whole factory line, that I might have a little help at home and not have everyone running off, thinking only of themselves.”
“You’re not alone in this,” said Papa. “I’m not leaving.”
Leave? What was he talking about? He was pushing forty, with a bad leg from an industrial accident. He thought he was going to join up?
A clatter at the window drew everyone’s attention. Vasya stuck her head out.
“Roman!” she cried. “What are you doing here?”
Beside Vasya, Aelya squeezed through the narrow window. Three storeys below, their schoolmate Roman was leaning his bicycle against a lamppost.
“I just wanted to check you were home first,” he shouted up, then bounded into the entrance.
Aelya and Vasya stepped into the hallway just as Babushka returned with a bucketful of water. Footfalls echoed from the stairwell at the end of the corridor. Roman emerged at the landing, out of breath. Like Aelya, he was sixteen, but the way his pale, skinny legs stuck out of his Komsomol shorts, he looked even younger.
“Big news,” he said. “We’re being called to duty. Building defences outside the city. Fedor says to pack overnight bags and extra uniforms. We’re meeting down by the train station tonight.”
He handed over a sheet with details to Vasya and Aelya, who looked at each other.
“What’s this about defences? You digging trenches?” Papa called from inside.
“Why don’t you come in, Roman?” said Aelya. “We’re getting dinner ready.”
She regretted the invitation immediately. Roman came from a family of leatherworkers, crammed into a low-rise with a dozen other families in the Iamskaya district. While he’d appreciate the luxury of a modern apartment with private bedrooms, what would Mama say to having an extra mouth to feed?
“Can’t stay,” the boy said. “I’ve got to finish my rounds.” He nodded, then disappeared down the stairwell as quickly as he came.
Inside, Papa was standing next to Mama now, with Babushka seated, drinking something clear that was probably not water.
“Why are we digging trenches?” asked Mama. “We’re hundreds and hundreds of kilometres from the border.”
Vasya looked over the information on the sheet. “It doesn’t say how long this will be for. There’d better be some way of washing our uniforms while we’re there.”
Mama dropped into a chair and slammed her palms on the table. “Why are they doing this to me? I’m going to lodge a protest with the workers’ committee. They can’t take you away like that, putting you in harm’s way.”
A protest built up within Aelya, but it caught in her throat. Mama was just blustering anyway. She would never publicly go against the Party. But Aelya didn’t like her saying it. So what if Aelya wanted to dig trenches? It was better than sitting around not being able to fly.
“The enemy’s still far away. It’s just a precaution,” Papa said, stroking his wife’s arm. “It’s a tactic. Trade space for time, then hit the enemy when they’re overstretched, as we did Napoleon.”
Babushka snorted. “Didn’t Napoleon burn Smolensk?”
This preview of Sparrow Squadron continues in Chapter 3.