A Telephone Operator Is Haunted by Her Wartime Past In This Excerpt From The Brightwood Code

Books Features Monica Hesse
A Telephone Operator Is Haunted by Her Wartime Past In This Excerpt From The Brightwood Code

Despite the booming popularity of young adult fiction, YA books with a historical focus are still relatively rare. Maybe that’s because, as a genre, YA tends to explore more contemporary problems and issues, but for whatever reason, there’s not nearly enough of it. This is what makes books like Monica Hesse’s The Brightwood Code so interesting, which not only help bring the past to life but centers the unique experiences of young people during tumultuous eras of history. 

A psychological thriller that explores a little-known area of World War I history, The Brightwood Code focuses on the story of the Hello Girls, women employed by the U.S. Army to operate phone lines in France. Told across two timelines, it follows the story of Edda, now an American telephone operator in Washington, D.C. in 1918, who is haunted by a mistake she made in France that cost her her job, and may have led to others losing their lives. But when she gets a mysterious phone call urging her to tell the truth about what happened—along with the mysterious code word Brightwood—she’ll be forced to revisit the most harrowing time in her life as she struggles to get answers. 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

Seven months ago Edda was on the World War I front lines as one of two hundred “Hello Girls,” female switchboard operators employed by the US Army. She spent her nights memorizing secret connection codes to stay ahead of spying enemies and her days connecting calls between platoons and bases and generals, all trying to survive—and win—a brutal war. Their lives were in Edda’s hands, and one day, in fateful seconds, everything went wrong.

Now Edda is back in Washington, D.C., working as an American Bell Telephone operator, the picture of respectability. But when her shift ends, she is barely hanging on, desperate to forget the circumstances that cut her time overseas short. When Edda receives a panicked phone call from someone who utters the fateful code word “Brightwood,” she has no choice but to confront her past.

The Brightwood Code won’t be released until May 14, but we’ve got a first look at the story for you right now. 

THE CODES CHANGED EVERY DAY. That was the point of them, the entire point. Each night we received two pages of code names to memorize. The next day we sat down at our switchboards and when a caller asked to be connected to Montana or Buster or Wabash, we would know that they really wanted to be connected to the Third Infantry, maybe, or to the Thirty-Fifth Division or to General Pershing’s chief of staff. We drilled one another to make sure we knew the information cold. We drilled through wailing shrieks of air raid sirens; we drilled through the vibrations of shrapnel. In English and in French, drilling.

Our job was not in itself complicated: Answer the line, match the code name to a number, insert the right plug into the right jack, connect the telephone call.

Number, please? I must have asked that a thousand times a day.

But we were on the front. It was so hard to understand that later: that two hundred American girls had not been merely sent to France but sent to the bloody, bloody western front of the Great War.

We were doing the job while bombs rang in our ears. We were doing it while working twelve-hour shifts. My old classmates were still celebrating our high school graduations and I was in France, where the German Army was sometimes close enough to intercept our ground wires, and I was listening for the dull thud signifying a compromised line, and I was remembering two pages of daily codes so that if the line had been tapped, listening spies couldn’t make sense of what they overheard.

I would eventually learn whathad happened. I would live in fear of being discovered.

But in the moment what I knew was that it was 1918 and I was just five months beyond my eighteenth birthday and I was a telephone operator with the American Expeditionary Forces and the ocean separating me from home was dark and deep salt water.

And it is possible for lives to be lost in ten seconds. It is possible for a life to be ruined in ten seconds. It is possible for a life to be ruined and to realize the story you thought you were telling was a different kind of story. I knew that, too.





Jack Albertson


“Edda. Your blouse.”

Miss Genovese’s voice behind me pierces through my headset, and I know the rest of her lecture before she begins it: Here at Central switchboard, if we wear dresses, they must be black or navy, and if we wear skirts, our blouses must be white. Mine today is yellow, my last clean one, excavated from the crumpled piles on my wardrobe floor and pale enough that I’d hoped it would go unnoticed.

“This is your third infraction this week,” my supervisor continues, wedging herself in between me and the operator next to me. Helen manages a sympathetic peek before turning back to her own switchboard. “I don’t enjoy disciplining my girls, but it’s a matter of dignity. Every day, you are representing not only Bell, but all girls like yourself who are trying to prove that this is a respectable profession for respectable girls. Dignity is the—”

In front of me a small electric bulb, one of hundreds on the board, lights up and I lunge for it with relief: The only thing that will put an end to Miss Genovese’s lecture about the seriousness and dignity of the job is me actually doing the job.

“Number, please,” I say in the syrupy voice they taught us in the training I was forced to go to even though I’d already been trained by the United States Army. Number, comma, please. The army had wanted to make sure I could remember complicated instructions, in English and in French, while translating information crucial to the war. Bell wants mostly to make sure I can use my voice to smile.

“Say, didn’t I talk to you last week?” asks the staticky voice on the other end of the telephone line— young, male, swaggering.

“What number, please?” In my right hand, I ready a long cord, preparing to plug it into the corresponding jack for whichever telephone number I’m given. Miss Genovese has folded her arms over her chest, clearly meaning to monitor this call to make sure my infractions don’t extend beyond my wardrobe.

“No, I’m sure I talked to you,” the boy on the line says. “I can tell when the voice belongs to a pretty girl. What’s your name? Is this your usual shift?”

“You could have spoken to any number of operators. There are hundreds of us working around the city. What’s the number you’re trying to reach?”

I can see a frown out of the corner of my eye; Miss Genovese is trying to figure out how I must have encouraged this conversation even though she’s heard all the words coming out of my mouth. She can’t be more than a few years older than I am. What she lacks in age she makes up for in sourness.

“Yes, but if I wanted to make sure I got you next time, how do I reach you?”

“May I place a call for you now?” I ask a bit desperately.

“My friend and I have a theory about the kind of girls who become telephone operators. It’s—”

“Tremont 4246?” I blurt out the string of numbers as if I’m repeating them. “Please hold.”

“Wait now, I didn’t—” The caller begins to protest, but he’s too late; I’m already jamming the other end of the cord into the corresponding jack for the telephone number. I didn’t pull it from thin air; I connect to it at least twenty times a day. When I hang up my line, the boy will find himself talking to a taxicab company.

That call dispensed with, I turn toward Miss Genovese again and hope that my face doesn’t reveal my deception. Deliberately misdirecting a call would not be an infraction, it would be grounds for dismissal.

“That call could have been directed more expediently.” She frowns.

“You know that sometimes they just want to make conversation.” Flirting boys call every day, less often on Sunday nights like tonight, the slur of gin in their voices. But we also hear from widows or shut-ins or schoolchildren, each of them calling to ask whether we know the correct time, or the capital of Idaho, or if we can connect them to the lobster restaurant they ate at two weeks ago, the one they can’t remember the name of. Some older women call in every day to ask about the weather, so they know if they should wear their furs.

“Conversation isn’t protocol,” Miss Genovese says. “There is still a war going on. We must be disciplined.”

Under my workstation, I ball my hands into fists. As if any of us need reminding about the war. As if I, especially, need reminding about the war.

But instead of saying anything I nod my head. I need this job. I’d thought that the war might allow me to find a different profession, but even with thousands of boys overseas, most employment advertisements still specified that applicants must be men. A girl like me can expect to be a teacher, a nurse, or now, this new job of telephone operator.

Once Miss Genovese leaves, I feel the soft nudge of Helen’s sleeve against mine. Our workstations are narrow enough for this clandestine communication; we all had to pass weight and height exams upon hiring to make sure we fit in the chairs.

Her eyes staring straight ahead, Helen jiggles her arm so I know the brush was intentional. “I have a navy cardigan in my locker. You can borrow it at the break.” She speaks in the same pitch of voice she uses for callers and keeps one hand on a cord so that anyone watching her would think she was connecting a call.

My knee-jerk reaction to Helen’s earnest, missionary-daughter kindness is often unearned irritation, but this time I’m grateful for her concern. I bob my head up and down—Yes, thank you, I’d appreciate that.

“Some of us are going out for breakfast at the end of shift,” Helen continues, and then pauses to answer a call. “Butterfield six- nine-three-seven? Please hold. Tillie found a diner.”

It’s not hard to imagine the relationship Helen thinks we ought to have: two eighteen-year-old girls living in Washington, borrowing cardigans and hairbrushes, drinking sodas at the end of a shift. I think I used to do that sort of thing once. Now it seems unfathomable. Seven months ago, Helen was attending her high school graduation and seven months ago I’d skipped my own to run to France under some misguided notion that I was proving something. I’d been home for two months and had spent them all praying that nobody would learn what I’d done.


No. I shake my head enough so Helen can see it. I can’t go out for breakfast.

Then I nod meaningfully toward my switchboard, trying to convey that it requires my full attention.

What must she and the other girls think of me? Showing up to my shift late and without stockings (infraction number one) and then showing up with untidy hair and dark eye circles (infraction two), refusing their attempts at socialization, nodding off in the retiring room while the other girls drink coffee or crowd around the piano. She must wonder what makes me so tired; she must assume that my off-work hours are exciting or scandalous. And maybe that’s what explains her determined friendship, the idea that I need help or saving.

How disappointed she would be to see my room at my aunt’s boardinghouse— a perilous stack of tinned peaches and corned beef hash, a nest of an unmade bed. My only visitors are my aunt or Theo, borrowing something or returning something.

In my peripheral vision, Helen bites her lip. “I’ll check in later in case you change your mind.”

Evening creeps into the quiet, foggy hours of midnight. The night shift means fewer calls, two hundred an hour instead of three times that during the day. This is how the night shift was sold to me when I was hired a month ago: slower pace, fewer calls, and we’ll move you to day work as soon as we’re sure you can handle it.

But while the calls are fewer they can sometimes be sadder, odder, less routine. During the day, telephone calls are meant for business: banks and couriers and department stores and the post office. But nights can mean frantic calls for the police, or for an ambulance or the hospital. Each of us has a paper posted at our workstation containing the numbers for these emergency services so that when we’re asked to patch someone through, we don’t have to think twice.

I still find my hands shaking at random times, stilling them after my shift with a cigarette and then passing out unconscious. The job guarantees that I’m awake for at least eight hours at a stretch. Otherwise I would sleep twenty-three hours a day.

At one a.m. we get our mid-shift break, which is still called lunch even though it’s in the middle of the night. I retrieve Helen’s cardigan and then flop onto the break room sofa while the girls around me eat sandwiches and exchange glances over my prone body. Someone makes an announcement about a birthday cake; someone else makes an announcement about keeping our lockers tidy.

This last announcement feels pointed directly at me so I slide off the sofa and open my assigned locker. It’s not just mine. I share it with two girls I’ve never met, other random girls on opposing shifts whose names come where mine does in the alphabet, our hats and coats hanging in turn in the slim wooden cubby. On the floor of the locker the only mess is mine: a broken bootlace, a hat pin, and a scrap of paper with handwritten text, which I bend to pick up.

Join you at Bell.

My body recoils. My hand flings the paper back to the ground as if it were filthy. Even when the letter fragment is back on the floor of my locker my hand still feels the filth, the invisible sick on my fingers. It crawls up my arm.

It’s a piece of the reference letter used to gain my job here. The one I showed Miss Genovese in my interview. I didn’t even know I’d kept it— why did I keep it?— but of course, I kept it. Miss Genovese would have immediately handed it back to me after reading it, because if I didn’t get a job at this dispatch location I would have needed the reference letter to show to another supervisor in another job interview. I must have torn it up in my coat pocket after my interview and then done my best to forget about it. I must have knocked a fragment of the letter loose onto the locker floor when I started my shift last night.

I should throw it away now.

If I don’t pick up the paper again, it’s just going to be in my locker at the end of my shift, and then be there still tomorrow. But I can’t. I can’t pick it up, because I can’t think about why I am working here and why I have this letter and why I am not in France.

Just pick it up, I instruct myself. Pick it up, it’s only paper.

But then the bell rings, signifying the end of my break, and I leave the paper fragment closed in my locker.

I am very good—expert, really—at leaving things closed in locked-away spaces.

The rest of the night is uneventful. I don’t get requests for ambulances from injured people, I get requests for taxicabs from partygoers. I get giddy couples asking for champagne delivery, and apologetic businessmen telephoning home to announce their delayed arrivals, and tired mothers searching for all-night chemists to provide cough syrup for sick children. Tiny emergencies in the lives of people having them, but not really emergencies at all.

Number, please. A young woman with tears in her voice ringing a little after two a.m. to a private number in Cleveland Park. A call to her mother, I imagine, seeking comfort after a broken engagement.

Number, please. A collection of men, middle-aged, calling at a quarter to three: the dialer on the line asks whether there’s a pair of us available to be dates at a dance, while others guffaw in the background.

Number, please. The caller at four thirty wants to know if I have any good cobbler recommendations and without even bothering to answer I recite the Tremont exchange and connect that caller to the taxi company.

At 4:45 a.m. my collarbone is hurting from the heavy weight of the mouthpiece that rests there. Over the drone of the operators on my shift in this room, I can hear the chatter of the girls on the next shift as they arrive and empty their belongings into the break room lockers, the only small overlap our belongings will ever have in the shared cubbies. At 4:55 they’ll line up single file and enter the control room, church-mouse quiet, and stand behind each of us at their assigned stations. At 5:00 a.m. on the dot, we’ll slip off our chairs to the right and they’ll slide in from the left, a ballet we’re required to practice dozens of times in training, so there’s not even five seconds of time in which a station is left unmanned. I can’t wait to leave even though I have nowhere to be except my bed. It’s Monday morning. My nights off are Fridays and Saturdays, so Monday morning means I have four shifts left until my weekend.

At 4:59 an electric bulb in front of me lights up, the last call of my shift.

“Number, please?” I croak. As always, my voice is sandpaper by the end of the night; I long for a throat lozenge but instead pick up my cord for one last transfer.

“Help,” says the voice.

“What number, please?”


I sigh. So I’ll end the night with one of those calls. What restaurant did I eat at/What’s the distance from Nova Scotia to British Columbia/Do you know the time in London? Briefly, I scan the room; Miss Genovese is nowhere to be seen.

“I cannot help you,” I say testily, “if you don’t have a number.”

“You have to tell the truth. The fa—”

“Tell the truth?” My irritation builds; this person is clearly drunk. “I’m not lying when I say that I cannot help you if you don’t have a number.

One day I’ll be fired, and probably not long from now, and I wish I could bring myself to care more, the way I wish I could bring myself to care more about everything.

Behind me, the line of fresh operators steps forward en masse; the girl who will take over my shift is already sliding in at my left, reaching for the cord in my hand so she can complete this annoying transfer. The voice is slipping from my headset, my headset is slipping from my ear.

“You have to tell the truth before it’s too late,” the voice says one last time, and then, in a final insistent shout: “Brightwood.”


Carmen Barbosa


I claw desperately at my headset but it’s already being ripped from my grasp, halfway onto the bobbed hair of the new operator. She pauses uncertainly, baffled by my lack of protocol as I rise from my chair and reach again for the wire headpiece.

“Give me back the headset. It’s an emergency,” I bark. “I need to finish that call.”

Hastily, she hands me back the headpiece, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

“Hello?” I call into the headset. “Hello, I’m here.”

But there’s nothing on the other end of the line, a silent chasm of nothing. The caller is gone.

The Brightwood Code will be released on May 14, but you can pre-order it right now. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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