The morning of Temperance's eleventh birthday was overcast, a small but welcome respite from the scorching heat that had been tormenting the local farmers for the past two weeks. Birthdays in the Rooney household had never been a huge deal, at least not since the birth of child number four (out of six); Temperance had been four years at the time, Abel five and Isaiah two, and if the three of them had received special treatment on their respective birthdays before Elijah had come along and pushed the Rooney child tally from "still pretty manageable" to "starting to get out of hand", all of them had been to young to remember it now.
It wasn't like they never got presents, it was just that they tended to be disappointingly practical, necessities that their parents would have eventually had to buy them anyway. However, this year—perhaps to make up for their father's absence—Temperance's mother had gone out of her way to get something special for her oldest daughter; a brass hair clip in the shape of a bellflower that she'd purchased from a traveling vendor.
It was special in her mother's eyes, anyway. If she was being completely honest, Temperance herself didn't understand what was so exciting about it. Sure, it was very pretty, but it wasn't like she got to admire it while it was tucked into her hair. She knew better than to say anything, however, and sat obediently while her mother carefully combed and braided her long, blonde hair, finishing the hairdo with the shiny new accessory.
"Look at you." Lenora Rooney smiled, the sight of her daughter all dolled up managing to light up her gaunt face, which seemed to have aged a decade over the past six months. "You look so pretty."
Temperance stared at her reflection in the mirror. She had no opinion on the tanned, round-cheeked girl staring back at her. Her mind was elsewhere, already planning all the things she was going to do with Georgie after her mother let her go.
George Wilcox was the son of the local mechanic who helped repair various farm equipment and vehicles. He was three years older than Temperance, and much more fun to be around than any of her brothers, who seemed to be hell-bent on finding ways to get on her nerves. Georgie wasn't like that. In fact, Temperance was usually the one doing the teasing in their relationship. At the very least, she was the tougher of the two. Back when they'd been just getting to know each other, she'd dared Georgie to eat an earthworm, but he had chickened out. Embarrassed by his own cowardice, he'd dared her back, and she'd surprised him by actually going through with it. It hadn't exactly been a highlight of Temperance's life, but the look of horror mixed with admiration on his face had been worth it. They'd been best friends since.
Georgie's family was better off than Temperance's. From what she'd overheard adults talking about money, she reckoned it had something to do with the fact that his parents only had two children, while the Rooneys had six hungry little mouths to feed. Sometimes she wondered why her parents had even decided to have that many children in the first place, seeing as her mother complained about them so much. There were times when she found herself secretly wishing she only had one sister, like Georgie. The Wilcox's house wasn't that much bigger than the Rooneys', but George got to have his own bedroom while Temperance had to share with mother and little Mercy and Zachary, who were four and two years old respectively and woke up crying throughout the night.
Then there was the fact that unlike Temperance's father, neither of Georgie's parents had joined the war. They had both opted to stay on Lilac and put food on the table instead of bullets into purplebellies, which made them sensible folks according to Temperance's mother. Temperance didn't like the way her mother berated her father for going off to fight the purplebellies. She was proud to have a father who was brave enough to stand up to those "ruttin' lily-livered tyrants" as he liked to call them. They were trying to stick their noses where they didn't belong, and he was going to give them what for.
Sometimes Temperance teased Georgie about having yellow-bellies for parents, but he took it in his stride. Sometimes he laughed in her face, but she just laughed right back at him, and when she did, she didn't even mind that her guffaw of a laughter was unladylike, as some of the snootier girls around the village loved to point out.
Georgie didn't seem to mind, either.
Temperance regarded the package in her hands with suspicion. She inspected it carefully from all angles, turning it around and feeling the weight.
"Did you... did you get me a gorram branch?" She asked finally, looking up at Georgie. The boy burst into laughter.
"Yes, Nance, I got you a branch. I figured you could use it to fend off your brothers at the dinner table. Open it, dummy."
Still not convinced, she carefully peeled back the brown wrapping paper. When the gift was revealed, her jaw dropped.
Georgie's old BB gun.
She'd seen him shoot the thing many times before, and every time she'd been green with envy. He'd let her hold it once, and had Temperance lived during peacetime without having to go through the pain of her father going off to war, giving it back would have been at the top of her list of the most heart-breaking partings she'd experienced in her life.
"Reckon you'd have more use for it, seeing as you're the spawn of the mighty soldier here." Georgie watched her reaction with a kind of smug satisfaction on his face, blue eyes twinkling.
"I'm too old to play with it anyway," he added with all the world-weary wisdom of a 14-year-old.
Temperance was, perhaps for the first time in their friendship, at a loss for a snappy comeback. She gawked at the beauty in her hands, at the engraved wood handle and barrel that still retained a hint of shine despite its age. Then a dam broke inside her, and she threw her arms around Georgie. The hug was strong but brief; soon her short-lived burst of affection was over, and her attention was back on her present.
"So... you wanna practice shootin' some purplebellies?" Georgie grinned.
With no actual purplebellies in their neck of the woods, a row of empty cans and bottles set up in the meadow had to suffice. It took Temperance some struggling and almost shooting Georgie's toe off to get a hang of it, but after hours of stubborn practice, she was hitting the targets like a natural. As the sun begun to set on another drab Lilac day, she returned home with her eyes beaming and a happy flush on her cheeks. Isaiah was in the kitchen helping their mother set the table for dinner when she entered.
"Where'd you get that from?" her mother asked, eyeing the toy gun on her shoulder like it was some kind of dangerous black market weapon.
"Georgie gave it to me! Ain't it just the shiniest thing you've ever seen?" Before Temperance could go into any more detail about her best birthday ever, Isaiah was on her like a greedy little monkey, grabbing at her treasure.
Their mother broke off the ensuing fight and ushered Temperance out of the kitchen so she could get cleaned up before joining her family at the table. Dinner unfolded in a typical Rooney household fashion, with Abel telling them about his productive day; in their father's absence, some of the locals had been assisting with the work around the farm and showing the eldest Rooney kid the ropes, and he was explaining—with a level of enthusiasm completely unwarranted by the topic, at least in Temperance's opinion—how you could tell whether the harvest this year was going to be a good one. His rambling was punctuated by their mother exasperated sighs at the mess little Zachary was making and Mercy's, ever the fussy eater, complaints about the texture of her potatoes. Temperance tuned out all of it; as she picked at the bland meal on her plate, she was lost in her own world, only thinking about the BB gun that was waiting under her bed. She'd continue marksman training tomorrow, if she had time between her work around the house.
"D'you think pa will give me shootin' lessons when he gets back from the war?" Temperance asked her mother later as they were doing the dishes. Some households would perhaps have given the birthday girl a night off from her chores, but today was her turn to scrub the dishes while her mother did the rinsing and drying, and being born was no excuse to shirk your duties.
"No." Lenora Rooney's response was short and stern. She did not look up from the casserole dish she was soaking in the basin before her.
"Why not? He's gonna have so much practice!"
"You missed a spot, pumpkin." Her mother handed the casserole dish back to her, shaking her head. That was the end of the conversation between them.
But it was only the beginning of Temperance's first love.