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Travelin' Soldier

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“See anything you like?”

Jack jolted, his gaze jumping from the menu in front of him to the sudden intrusion. It was a boy—probably not much younger than Jack himself, despite his youthful appearance—and Jack frowned in confusion at the pink trimmed soda jerk hat and apron he wore as he set down a mug and poured him some coffee.

“Just the coffee, I think,” Jack decided as he closed the menu. There was a very large chance his stomach would not be up to handling anything else.

“Well that’d be a shame. We got some good grub here. As the cook, I can promise you that,” the small blonde argued, hand on his hip and refusing to take the menu.

“Cook?”

“Lacey’s boy is shipping out after home-leave tonight so I told her to take the day off to spend with him,” the blonde replied with a concerned frown as he tipped the apparently borrowed cap in greeting. “Looks like you’re shipping out, too?”

Jack looked down at his army greens, carefully pressed. In his lap, his hands fisted in his cap, twisting and wrinkling the fabric without his knowledge. He stared at his hands for a moment before setting the hat on the stool next to him. His fists immediately clenched again and this time his nails bit into his palms instead of fabric. “Yeah,” he admitted with a sharp nod as he looked back up at the other man.

The smile the chef gave him was like the sun, but everything was so cloudy nowadays and it faded soon enough.

“I still have two more years—pretty much exactly—thank the Lord, but my father wants me to enlist before I get a draft notice,” he admitted and Jack had to wonder how someone that small would even last training, let alone the actual war. Jack’s tongue felt too big for his mouth and he swallowed.

“But that’s enough of talk like that!”

Jack had to agree and gave a small smile back at another one of the chef’s blinding ones.

“Now, mister, you can enjoy your coffee all you like, but you are not setting one foot out that door without putting something in that stomach of yours or my name’s not Eric Bittle.”

“Your name’s Eric?” Jack laughed because the apron he was apparently borrowing clearly read Lacey.

“Lord help me, I didn’t even introduce myself,” Eric—apparently—breathed with his hand to his chest, “My mother would tan my hide. I am Eric Bittle, part-time cook and also your server today, lucky you.”

“Lucky me?” Jack chuckled.

“Yeah, lucky you,” Eric grinned, “So are you gonna order something, soldier, or am I just gonna have to surprise you with a piece of pie?” Giving Jack a once over, Eric hummed in thought before nodding to himself. “You look like a good ol’ apple pie type.”

Jack winced at the use of soldier, his stomach curdling until he managed to speak over the anxiety. “Jack, please,” he corrected, his smile gone and his gaze dropped to the countertop he sat at.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” Eric apologized. “Jack,” he corrected himself with a nod and a sympathetic smile, “Please let me get you something. On the house.”

“I really think I’ll pass,” Jack decided, rubbing his hands on his pants as he looked around the mostly empty diner.

“Apple pie it is, then,” Eric decided, writing something down on a check pad and turning away.

Jack jerked up at the order and threw his hand out across the counter to grasp onto the other man’s arm. He felt a little guilty at the way he jumped at the touch and turned back to him with wide, scared eyes and winced, but he couldn’t let go.

With a lick to his suddenly dry lips and after clearing his tight throat, Jack asked, “Then can you sit with me while I eat?” He couldn’t meet Eric’s eyes as he asked, but his hand on Eric’s arm trembled, “Talking to you is kinda helping keep me out of my head right now.”

Request made, Jack finally released his grip with a muted, “Sorry,” and brought his hand back down into his lap, clenching it until his fingers went white.

“Bless your heart,” Eric spoke. Jack didn’t like the sympathy he saw in the man’s face, but at the same time it helped to know someone understood his situation and fears. He felt validated in a way he had not since the letter came and his father launched into his own stories from the Second World War and how he earned some of his medals. For a moment Jack dared to hope, but hope was dashed on the rocks as Eric bit his lip and looked around before shaking his head.

“I can’t; I’m at work.”

“Of course,” Jack nodded, his shoulders dropping as he stared at his coffee and the fluorescent lighting reflecting off its still surface.

Eric did not leave. Instead, he stood there, across the counter from Jack for several silent seconds before taking a deep breath and asking, “When’s your bus?”

“Oh, uh…” Jack threw wide-eyes at the clock over the door, “two hours.”

Eric nodded. “I get off in a half-hour. If you don’t mind waiting, I can show you a place that always helps me feel a little better.”

Jack looked across the counter with expectant eyes and Eric smiled and leaned over the counter. “I’ll even box up a whole pie to take with us,” he winked conspiratorially.

Jack laughed and nodded his head, agreeing to the offer with the widest smile he’d made in days.

Eric’s brown eyes sparkled and he jabbed a hand at his hip as he asked, “Now, are you gonna take some sugar and cream with that coffee, or are you really going to drink it black?”


 

It was early summer, so the sun still hung high in the sky despite the time edging towards evening. Jack stared out over the slow-flowing river and farmland, his legs dangling off the dock and into the cool water, socks and boots next to him and pant legs rolled up so they would not get wet.

He used one of the plastic forks Eric had brought along to take another bite of pie straight out of the tin. The two of them had already managed to eat half of it and Jack had to admit it was the best pie he had ever eaten.

“Three time county fair award winning recipe right there,” Eric had bragged.

“Lucky me,” Jack had replied with a grin, watching in awe as the younger man laughed.

Eric was not wearing the soda jerk cap or apron anymore. He was not wearing the chef’s uniform anymore either. Instead, he now sported a pair of dolphins and a tank top that was tucked into the waistband. It was common fashion—Jack had a similar outfit himself and the markings on both the top and bottoms told Jack this was likely Eric’s PE uniform—but Jack found himself having to tear his eyes off the way the sun licked at Eric’s tanned arms and legs and glinted off his golden hair.

He was warm. So warm. Jack wondered if he reached out and touched bare flesh if it would be like touching the sun.

Instead, Eric looked his way, caught sight of the awe on Jack’s face and dropped his gaze to his lap, biting at his lower lip to hide his blush. Jack caught himself and turned his attention back to the landscape, instead, hoping his own blush was nowhere near as visible.

He cleared his throat and Eric’s attention jerked back to Jack.

Jack swallowed past the awkwardness that was starting to make his heart race and asked, “So I guess your name’s not Eric Bittle?”

“Excuse you?” Eric asked in confusion as Jack took another bite of pie. Eric frowned and pulled the tin away when he went for another without giving an answer.

Jack grinned at the petulant action and shrugged. “You said I wasn’t stepping one foot out the diner without eating or your name wasn’t Eric Bittle,” he replied, barely holding back a laugh as the light of realization lit up Eric’s entire face, “yet here we are.”

Eric’s jaw dropped as he slid the pie tin back across the weathered wood and pointed at it. “You got pie right here!”

Jack’s shoulders shook, but he still managed to keep his voice straight as he replied, “But we’re not in the cafe anymore.” He took another bite, focusing on the flavor to tame his smile once more.

Eric gasped and rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Alright, fine then,” he shook his head and laughed with his whole body, feet kicking water up into the air and glittering in the sunlight, “What’s my name?”

“Huh?”

Jack looked up from the quickly emptying pie tin with surprise at the question and wide droopy eyes that made Eric snort and throw one of his hands over his mouth.

“Well,” he said through a giggle, “if you’re gonna take my name from me, you sure as the sky is blue better give me a new one.”

Jack could see the laughter and the challenge in Eric’s eyes and the corner of his smirk and his gleaming white teeth. He pursed his lips and studied the teen, eyes tracing down his form and back up, the contemplative hand at his chin hiding his smile as he watched him suddenly grow bashful and pull his knees up to his chest.

“Well?” Eric asked, smiling at Jack and leaning the side of his head against his knees.

Jack hummed before closing his eyes and nodding seriously and saying, “Bits.”

The flutter of confusion across Eric’s brow was worth it, along with the way his nostrils flared and one of his eyebrows jumped up towards his floppy hairline as one leg slipped out of his grasp and back off the edge of the dock to plop into the water. “What?”

“Because your name is not Bittle,” Jack said seriously, keeping a very close eye on Bits’s face for the upcoming reaction as he added, “And you’re small.”

“Excuse you, I am normal size!” Bits shouted in offense, reaching out and whapping Jack on his arm for laughing. “You’re the one going all Incredible Hulk over there,” he shot back with an annoyed huff before eyeing Jack’s physique in appreciation, “My daddy’d’ve killed to have you on his football team."

Jack was still sniggering—likely because of Eric’s put-upon pout—as he shook his head. “I’m not much of a team sports kinda-wait,” he said, pausing as he processed the first part of the comment and coming up blank. “Incredible what?”

Bits’s smile fell and his jaw dropped, his other leg following course back into the water. He stared at Jack in wonderment until the man fidgeted and pulled his feet up onto the dock to dry, focusing on his toes to escape the embarrassment the stare was starting to ignite.

“Are you telling me you don’t even know the Incredi-No, we don’t even have time to get into this,” Bits finally said, holding his arms out to pause the discussion before pursing his lips, hands moving to his hips and asking, “You really don’t read comic books?”

“Uh…” Jack froze, his shoulders tensing. He opened his mouth a couple times as if to say something, before shrugging helplessly at Bits.

“Yeah,” Bits decided with a slow, pitying shake of his head, “definitely don’t have time.”

Jack let out a singular laugh, a puff of air with a shake of his shoulders more than anything, before turning to watch Bits lay down against the dock and stretch his back. Jack’s throat went dry at the arch and he asked, “What time is it?”

Bits pulled his wrist up to check his watch before sighing. “About time to head back if you want to catch that bus of yours,” he admitted with a frown.

Jack bit at his tongue as it suddenly felt like all the excitement of the moment disappeared in one sudden exhalation. “It’s not really a matter of want…” he pointed out with stooped shoulders, but he grabbed and shook out one of his socks all the same.

“I’m sorry.”

Jack shook his head, his face pinching at Bits’s apology. “If this war doesn’t end in two years, you’ll be right where I am.” He hated having to point it out, but Bits had to know he did not need to apologize. Not for this. Not as someone in the same position. After the camaraderie the two had built up, this realization developed almost a macabre companionship.

But Bits shook his head. “Doesn’t mean it’s right for you to have to be in it now,” he pointed out but since when had fairness ever favored the common man? “For anyone to have to be in it ever,” Bits continued with his arm thrown over his eyes, “Especially with the way some people have been treating soldiers.” Jack still saw the way his forehead furrowed and he reached out to pull his arm away.

Bits looked like he was going to cry and that was the absolute last thing Jack wanted to see right now, so he smiled and said, “I could’ve tried to run for Canada, eh?”

Bits rolled his eyes at the overstressed accent but Jack caught the beginnings of a smile in his and lips again as he asked, “From Georgia?”

Jack grimaced and nodded, admitting the difficulty in that one before his gaze turned east, his fingers instinctively lacing up his boot.

“Swim for a Caribbean island?” he asked while wiggling his toes to test the tightness and fit.

Bits hummed in appreciation. “That would definitely be much warmer than Canada.”

They both laughed.

Something in Jack’s chest loosened that he had not even known had been wound so tight and he stared down at Eric—eyes closed and head thrown back as his giggles began to die down in light of Jack’s silence—with affection. He wanted to reach out and touch and feel the sun again, but there was no reason to. It would be better, safer, not to.

“Jack?” Eric asked, pushing himself onto his side and reaching a hand out to brush at Jack’s fingers. Jack watched them move, fingers twitching with a desire to return the gentle contact, and swallowed.

“Hey, Eric-?” he asked, only to have the man interrupt him with a smirk.

“It’s Bits, remember? Least you can do is use the name you gave me.”

Jack chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. “Bits,” he corrected before his smile went stale and fell. “This is gonna sound weird,” he began cautiously, unable to meet Eric’s eyes for longer than it took to make sure Eric was still paying attention, “and you can say no, but…”

Eric’s hand grew heavier on his own as cautious touches turned into a comforting hold, his fingertips wrapping around and pressing into the side of Jack’s palm. Jack licked his lips and continued, pressing through his tight throat and the nerves with a force of will emboldened by the way Eric did not pull away when Jack squeezed back. “I don’t have anyone to write letters to. While I’m gone. Could I maybe...that is...write to you?”

Jack looked up from his lap and back to Eric then, with his shocked face and sudden intake of air, and mentally cursed himself at how that phrase sounded. “I know we just met,” he instantly backpedaled, pulling his hand from Eric’s, his eyes jumping over the river and scenery across from it—anything to keep him from looking straight at Eric for the refusal, “And you’re not a girl. You probably have one of your own.” Jack threw his face in his shaking hands. “I just...feel like...I feel like if I have that—have something to tie me back here—I’ll actually be able to make it back.”

It was more than embarrassing to admit he was so scared. It was downright shameful, actually. And Jack waited for the words of rejection or the sound of feet simply walking off and leaving him there. Instead, the creak of wood grew closer and gentle fingers pulled his hands away. Eric, teething nervously at his bottom lip, met Jack’s red-rimmed eyes and smiled, tugging his bottom lip out from his teeth in a silent but very visible pop.

“You write me as often as you need,” he said with a small blush and Jack’s entire body fell, drooping against Eric’s shoulder in relief that stung at his eyes and nose.

“Do you have a pen and paper?” he asked, “I left my order pad at the cafe.”

Jack nodded and Eric released his hold on Jack’s wrists with a shy grin, backing far enough away to give Jack room to stand and pull a notepad out of his pants pocket and a pen out of his shirt pocket before reaching out for both and scribbling his address on the first blank page with a bubbly script.

Jack smiled at how it fit him before tucking the address away and starting the walk back down the dock.

“Jack?”

Jack paused as he hit dry land, looking back to see Eric fidgeting half-way down the dock.

“Yeah?” he asked, eyebrows knitting together in concern.

Eric’s toes scratched at the back of his leg—shoes still in his hands—before stepping up alongside Jack. “I definitely don’t have a girl friend,” he claimed loudly, staring up at Jack with flushed cheeks.

Jack’s face colored as well as he realized what the emphasis Eric placed on the word definitely might mean. “...Oh…” he muttered in surprise. Eric dropped his head, hands worrying at the fabric of his shirt, accidentally untucking the front of it.

“I also…” he began, almost silent before cutting himself off and sending a concerned glance back up at Jack. Hope bloomed in Jack’s chest and he held his breath, silently pleading for the continuation of that sentence. His response was never verbal, but Eric seemed to catch the signals all the same as he squared his jaw and shoulders, looked around to make sure no one was nearby and admitted, “I also don’t have a boyfriend.”

The hope exploded and Jack felt his stomach pull a somersault and all he could let out was a breathless, “Oh.” Jack had never been one for words, though, not when actions sufficed, so he reached out, fingertips brushing against Eric’s arm only to have him leap away. Both of them looked shocked at that and Eric bit his lip before looking back towards the road Eric’s beat-up truck was parked on.

“Let’s get you back to your bus,” he murmured and the words as well as the dejection they held cast a wet blanket over the entire situation, “Don’t need to be missing that.”

“Yeah,” Jack admitted through a frown, feeling raw.

They walked back to the truck in silence. Eric drove them both back into town in silence. It was only once they were sitting parked on the other side of the road from a growing number of men in army greens that the silence finally broke with the clattering of the cooling engine.

“I’ll write you?” Jack asked, his hand on the door, not wanting to end things here. Eric had given him permission before but Jack was not sure if that moment at the end had changed anything. He had to confirm at least that before walking away.

Eric smiled at him, though, warm and shy and inviting and Jack’s left hand reached out a couple inches before falling back against the bench between them in memory of the way Eric had pulled back even when there had been no risk of eyes on them. Eric caught the movement, though and his breath caught even as his gaze slammed back out the windshield to the growing group by the bus.

Jack looked that way, too, and missed it when Eric reached out this time, clasping his right hand tight over Jack’s left. “I’ll be waiting,” he squeaked, face and voice hardened as he kept his attention on the group outside. Jack jumped at the touch and his heart jumped at the words and he grinned at Eric, ignoring the group ignoring them, but never completely forgetting them as he flipped his hand over and threaded their fingers together just long enough to give Eric’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Thank you,” he muttered before opening the door with a squeak of rusty hinges and untangling their hands. He did not have it in him to say goodbye as he hopped out and grabbed his bag from the truck bed. He looked at Eric once more before closing the door and Eric smiled at him. Jack closed the door, not wanting to hear goodbye, either, and went to join his fellow draftees.


 

Bits,

I’ve made it to California and am currently settled at Oakland—not that I’ll likely be here long. I’ll eventually get a set address for mail and I’ll write it to you as soon as I get it if you’d like to write back. If not, I still appreciate your letting me send letters to you.

Oakland is substantially different from Madison; it’s honestly like night and day. Not only is the size of the city—and all the other cities in the area that just kinda blend into one even larger city—on a scale I have a hard time comprehending, but the weather is...honestly, the only way to describe it is cool. I’ve seen a few other guys from the south shrugging on jackets. I’d say it’s about 20 degrees cooler here, though maybe about as humid being right up against the bay. There’s a lot of fog some mornings.

On free days, a lot of the guys go off base and across the bay to San Francisco. I’ve gone once or twice—they have a really good sourdough bread and clam chowder down by the wharf—but it tends to end up with a lot of drinking and partying which has never much been my scene. I did make it to the Mission Dolores, though, which is the oldest building in San Francisco and built the same year the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. The architecture is something else and makes my fingers itch. I wish I had brought my camera; I might have to see if I can buy one so I can share some of the sights with you.

Jack


 

Jack,

I’m so glad you finally have an address so I can write you back! Silly boy, of course I’ve been wanting to reply. And send you cookies. You better enjoy these. Also, the pictures you started sending were amazing! I can’t even imagine being somewhere as big as San Francisco (I thought going to Atlanta with my mama the once was crazy enough). And the pictures of the jungle in Vietnam are so vibrant! It looks more like a place to vacation? Is it horrible of me to say that? I mean, obviously it’s not a vacation for you guys over there. I’m sorry. I’m glad to hear you’ve been making friends with the others. That Kent Parson sounds like a heartbreaker. How many girls you think he’s writing home to?

I’m very sorry to hear about what Alexei Mashkov is facing (Tater, I think you said he was going by? Oh, Lord.) all for having family in the Soviet Union. My friend, Larissa...her family is from Vietnam and some people aren’t exactly showing proper southern courtesy to them, either. It probably doesn’t help she and B have been attending anti-war protests. I’ve been sending them out with pie believe it or not.

Anyway, football season is finally under way, so you can bet this town is all wrapped up in the first of many Friday night lights. I think Coach is still disappointed I couldn’t be his quarterback son, but the marching band suits me much better. You don’t tackle anyone holding an instrument and anyone who says marching band is easy has obviously never tried one of our routines in these crazy wool suits during a Georgian summer. The wool helps when it gets colder, admittedly.

Anyway, can’t wait to hear from you again. You should send me a picture of you and your friends.

Sincerely,

Bits


 

“Junior!”

“Yes, Coach?” Eric called from the second floor as he headed down from his room at the summons.

“Another one of your letters,” the man said from the living room as he waved the envelope. Eric swallowed his heart back down from where it had jumped into his throat and grabbed the letter with an excited smile.

“Thanks, Coach,” he added, knowing better than to skip his manners.

The middle-aged man grunted and frowned and Eric could not hightail it fast enough out of the room before the man spoke: “Just doesn’t make sense. Getting this many letters from some soldier.”

“I told you, Coach, we’re friends and he didn’t have anyone else to write to,” Eric replied as he fought against the sudden dryness in his mouth.

“I don’t remember you ever mentioning this Jack kid to me or your mother before. Spending way too much on postage for these international letters, too,” the man grumbled.

Eric bit his lip. “It’s not that much. My split of the tips is more than enough to cover stamps,” he pointed out, “Besides, no one would be bothered if it was a girl getting this many letters. Like I said, he’s my friend.”

“High school girls got no reason to be writing with soldiers,” Eric’s mother called out from the kitchen doorway as she wiped her hands off on a kitchen towel, “They are far too young for that sort of heartbreak. And girls getting letters from soldiers are not just friends.”

“And the soldiers aren’t too young to be fighting?” Eric points out, “Boys who just graduated are already in basic.”

“The soldiers are out of high school,” his mother replied with a raised eyebrow and pursed lips, “And that’s enough lip from you, young man. Up to your room and your homework better be finished by supper.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Eric replied and did as asked, glad for it as it pulled him away from his father’s disapproval.


 

Bits,

You have no idea how much each letter I get from you means to me—or how much each care package means to all the guys (they love your cookies). It’s not easy or nice or fun out here. It’s honestly hell and we’re all barely getting by. I just hope we end this war before you’re forced to take part.

I’ve been given a promotion, but the last thing I want is congratulations. It’s terrifying. Lives are dependent on me even more than before and it wasn’t exactly up to me to say no, either. But when it gets too bad, when I’m so scared I can’t breathe, I think about you. I read your letters. I daydream about that pie you made or your next care package. I wish I had a picture of you like so many of these other guys have pictures of their wives or girlfriends. I know we only met in person for a really short time, but I can’t help but love you more and more with each letter. When I get back to the states, yours is the first face I want to see.

I know this might be a lot to you, but I had to say it all the same. I love you.

Jack


 

“Lookie here, boys! It’s Little Bittle!”

Eric froze, his shoulders tensing and knees locking as the lazy footsteps hit his ears and he tried to just breathe. A hand slammed his locker shut in front of him as three bodies hemmed him in. Eric pulled his hands out of the way just in time.

“Coach Jr. am I glad I ran into you,” one of the bodies said and Eric did not need to see the football player’s face to recognize the sneer broadcast in his voice, “See, I was hoping you’d have a look at my tackling.”

The body rammed into him, slamming him up against the locker and Eric flinched, begging his knees to hold him up as he was given some space again and the three football players around him laughed.

“I mean, you do like to watch, after all,” the first voice snickered.

“Is that why you joined the marching band? So you could watch us practice? Fuckin’—”

“Bros! I didn’t think I’d run into you this fast!”

Even with his eyes closed, Eric could feel the fourth body tower over him, but he held his breath now, waiting hopefully on relief.

“Pretty sure I saw VP Waller hunting the halls for you, Carter,” the new voice added, “Should I go flag him down for you?”

Eric could feel the moment the group’s attention shifted off of him as the vice of panic around his lungs eased and he could breathe again.

“No need, Knight,” the voice that belonged to the Safety that had shoved him into the lockers replied. Even as the crowd of bodies pulled away and Carter walked off, Eric’s knees shook in relief but he managed to at least stay standing.

A flash of white on the khaki tile of the hallway flashed in the corner of Eric’s eye, but before he could pick up the envelope, the Running Back, Karl Meehan, grabbed it.

“What’s this? A letter?” he asked before flipping it over to see the sending and return addresses. Eric had planned on dropping it off at the post office after classes on his way to the diner.

“Vietnam?” Meehan read in surprise before sneering, “What, you got a soldier? Does he know you’re a boy? Do you send lipstick kisses?”

Eric kept his eyes on his shoes and hands clenched as he replied, “He’s a friend.”

Meehan snorted.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Billy Weller, the Right Tackle, added his own opinions to the situation.

“You know, for someone not interested in men, you two sure seem a little too interested in Eric’s love life, bros,” the fourth person to join the group continued to snipe and Eric winced before finally turning around to send B telepathic pleas that he not start a fight with jocks.

“Fuckin’ hippie,” Meehan thankfully sneered, instead.

“Make love, not war, man.” Eric actually smiled at this new voice and leaned over to peer around his friend, B, to spy Larissa on the other side, sending a grin right back in his direction. These confrontations rarely lasted long once Eric’s friends had joined the mix.

Already Meehan was backing off, his attention slipping down the hall as the boredom of a fight he might not win set in. “Oh, look at that, the gook girlfriend arrived,” Weller continued, always happy to pick a fight win or lose, “Why don’t the two of you ship off to the commies you have a hard-on for.”

“Dude, I didn’t know you were even looking,” B said back with a lethal smirk, “Sure you don’t want a date? It’ll take at least two before I put out.”

“Just leave the freaks, man,” Meehan finally cut in as he shouldered Weller away from the trio, “I hear the girl carries a knife and isn’t afraid to use it.”

Eric did not watch the two football players leave, but he knew when they finally slipped out of sight when the threatening glares on Larissa’s and B’s faces finally slipped off and they turned to him.

“You okay?” Larissa asked, immediately stepping up to him and pulling him into a hug.

“Yeah, thanks Larissa,” he promised as he hugged her back, slipping a small smile up at the man who threw arms around the both of them and adding, “B.”

“Of course, bro,” B replied, “We got each others’ backs here.”

“Larissa, how about you?” Eric asked as the hug broke up, but Larissa only shook her head.

“Not the worst I’ve heard and definitely not the most creative,” she promised before taking a few steps and picking an envelope up off the floor, hiding her eyes in her downturned face and bangs and Eric wondered if she had the sour taste in her mouth, too. “Here, they dropped this,” she added instead of saying anything else, handing the letter from Jack the football players had gotten hold of back over to Eric.

“Thanks,” Eric mumbled as he took it from her, the roiling in his stomach that had started with the first locker bang still not fading. He would make the Duans a pie with his mother this afternoon. Hand it over in front of the entire damn town.

A heavy hand slapped down on his shoulder and Eric looked up at B, not realizing that he had been glaring down at the letter while going through his mental recipe box. “You know you can talk to us, right?” B asked, his eyebrows furrowed in concern.

Eric saw the same concern on Larissa’s face when he turned to it, as well and he sighed while looking back down at the envelope. “It’s kinda nice to have as my own little secret,” he finally admitted before tucking the letter back into one of his books and sending the both of them a real smile, “but I’ll keep that in mind.”


 

Dear Bits,

Things are getting a bit crazy over here. I hate to do this, but I won’t be able to send you any letters for a while. That doesn’t mean I’m stopping writing by any means. Expect a big letter—or lots of letters, maybe—the moment I get the chance to send it.

Love,

Jack


 

While Jack might not be able to send any letters, Eric did not stop sending his own. He was not sure if Jack would appreciate checking his mail to find such a large stack of letters, but writing each one helped the fear that had begun to eat away at his stomach after receiving the last letter from Jack.

Work helped keep his mind occupied, too, but school and homework had never been good at keeping his attention, so he spent most of his days after the first two weeks wondering what Jack could be up to and if there would be a letter in his mailbox today.

He started baking even more at home, staying up late and whipping out batches of cookies and brownies and cupcakes and at least a pie a day. Some of the food he sent with Larissa and B to their anti-war protests and meetings. Most of it, however, he left for his mother to hand out at neighborhood meetings or pass along to whoever had a food train going through church after childbirths or family member deaths or illness or injury. If he remembered correctly, Molly had given birth to her second girl two weeks ago and the Hannahans had lost their son in Laos recently. Jacob was supposed to be shipped back for them on Thursday. A number of soldiers were due back in Atlanta that day.

Eric bit his lip and made up his mind before starting in on a batch of blondies.

Two days later, Eric ditched school for the first time in his life to ride to Atlanta with B and Larissa.

Less than three hours after hitting the Atlanta airport, he was hiding back in B’s car on the verge of tears because while B and Larissa and a group of others were holding signs calling for the return of all troops, another group had someone that actually spat on a coffin while others continued to scream profanities the news had always censored.

He was mostly calm by the time Larissa and B slunk back and the trio headed back to Madison.

“I’m coming with you from now on,” he said and Larissa and B agreed despite the worried looks they sent each other.


 

Three weeks later, Eric ditched school again to drive to the army base in Athens. He was going to end up with his hide tanned by his father most likely, but he had yet to receive another letter from Jack and he could not just sit still and wait. Not when there was something he could do. Besides, it was not just Jack he was thinking about as he rode in the back of B’s car next to a pile of boxes containing baked goods.

“How can you fault someone for fighting for their lives?” he asked Larissa as he first handed cookies out to some of the kids waiting for family members to return, “They weren’t the ones who chose to go over there.”

“Exactly, brah,” B jumped in as he snatched one of the cookies for himself, “The problem is with the military-industrial complex and the blood-thirsty fuckers who run it. But on the other hand, who draws the line over there between fighting for your life and genocide, so, like, I get where these people are coming from. There’ve been some pretty grotesque stories coming our way from over there.”

Eric clenched his jaw because B didn’t have letters to read from someone over there actually fighting for his life and Eric was pretty sure Jack tried to keep his letters much lighter in the first place. But the noise from the protesters started up as the first young man in military dress appeared and Eric went to greet him with a muffin.

By the time Eric opened his second box of muffins, most of the soldiers had passed through.  Some had smiled at the offer and thanked him. Some had turned him down, looking appropriately distrustful with the crowd of people screaming Baby-Killer at them and Eric could not find it in his heart to fault them.

A lot of soldiers looked tired. Eric gained a new appreciation for the term dead-eyed when so many of them walked out with glazed eyes that reminded the younger teen of the deer his father or uncles or cousins would bring back every year, tied to the roof of their Jeep or thrown in the back of their pick-up.

He walked up to another soldier—this one blonde, not much taller than Eric and with one dead eye that Eric thought was maybe supposed to be hazel while the other was hidden behind bandages—and smiled as brightly as he could.

“Welcome home,” he made sure to say loud enough to drown out the shouts from the protesters, “Here, have a muffin. I promise they taste amazing.”

Instead of taking the muffin, or turning it down or even ignoring him, however, this soldier stopped and stared at Eric as if he had three heads. “What the fuck, kid?” he shouted, “Go run your bake sale somewhere else.”

“They’re not….” Eric began to explain only to have the soldier shoulder past him and send the muffin in his hand tumbling to the ground. “They’re a welcome home,” he called out after the soldier, who paused to stare at a rotting apple core, launched by one of the more vocal protesters, that had landed on the ground in front of him, “None of y’all deserve what some of these people are saying about you...throwing at you.”

The spiteful disbelief was still on the soldier’s face when he turned around once more. “You have no fucking clue what we deserve,” he argued, taking a step towards Eric that made the smaller teen take a step back in turn.

“Hey, Parson! Keep moving!” a large, older black man said as he stepped between the two and placed a hand on the blonde soldier’s chest. Eric shivered at the glare sent his way around the black soldier’s shoulder before he stormed off.

“Don’t worry too much about what he said, kid,” the black soldier continued as he turned around and spoke to Eric this time. His uniform said Robinson on it and he had a kind smile. “He lost a really good friend over there right before coming back,” Robinson explained, nodding his thanks at the muffin Eric handed him and peeling off half the paper to take a big bite. “The sentiment’s appreciated,” he said after swallowing his first bite, “and the muffin tastes great.”

Eric smiled his own gratitude at the man before watching him greet a woman and little girl who couldn’t be older than five or six and who had made Eric laugh when asking for a cookie earlier.

The last of the returning soldiers filed through and none of them were Jack. In the car on the ride home, Eric fought the tears and fears that tried to wrap around his throat.


 

Eric was half-way down the stairs when the knock fell—slow and measured in cadence—and he paused, each foot on different steps, to stare at the door in confusion. From the kitchen, his mother’s head poked out with her own curiosity.

“Dicky, get the door,” she ordered as soon as she saw Eric on the stairs, however, and Eric looked to her in surprise before nodding and slipping the rest of the way down the stairs in his stockinged feet.

“Yes, Mama,” he said once close enough to hand her the empty plate from his afternoon snack. The knocking sounded again, faster this time, and shorter: impatient. “Coming!” Eric called out loud enough for the person to hear, ignoring his mother’s scolding about indoor voices as he swept through the living room and swung open the front door.

Only to immediately close it.

“Dicky?” his mother called from the kitchen at the sound of the slammed door.

“It’s nothing, Mama.  They must’ve left,” Eric replied, ready to run back upstairs and forget the person on his porch, but he was interrupted by yet another knock.

“Dicky!”

Eric cringed at the anger in his mother’s voice and sighed in surrender. “I got it, Mama!” he called back, returned to the door and stared at it for all of ten seconds before pulling it open to find the rude blond soldier from yesterday poised to knock again.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?” he asked, pasting a smile on and hoping this person was not here to pick the argument back up from yesterday. Eric was in enough trouble for skipping school again, as it was.

“Uh…” the blond soldier said, seeming as thrown off by Eric’s presence as Eric was by his. His unbandaged eye slipped behind Eric, peering into the house, but after not finding whatever it was he seemed to be looking for he cleared his throat, looked Eric back in the eye and said, “I’m looking for your sister.”

“My sister?”

“Yeah,” the soldier continued, his eye slipping back behind Eric and into the house once more—apparently searching for a sister that did not exist. “She was using the name Eric to write a soldier—”

“A soldier?” Eric interrupted as pieces began to fall into place. “Jack?” he asked, forcing down the sudden hysteria climbing up his throat from his lungs, pushing his voice up until it cracked, “Is this about Jack?” The soldier’s name badge read Parson on the right of his service uniform and his mind made the connection. “Oh, Lord, Parson,” he realized, raising a hand to his mouth as his eyes widened and the hysteria climbed just that little bit higher, “You’re Kent Parson.”

“Uh, yeah…” the soldier, Kent Parson, confirmed before asking, “You know Jack?”

“I do!” Eric gave a strangled shout as he stepped out onto the porch and grabbed onto Kent’s jacket sleeve, twisting his fingers into the fabric in an attempt to physically pull the answers to his questions from the other man, “I haven’t heard from him in over a month, do you have news? Is he okay?”

Kent, for his part, tore himself away without shoving Eric more than a few inches, though his steps would have sent him toppling off the edge of the deck if it were not for the guardrail Eric’s father had him help rebuild and paint over the summer before football pre-season had started.

“Shit! You’re Bits!”

Eric’s face went instantly pale at the wild look in Kent’s eyes, every ounce of blood draining and leaving him dizzy and nauseous.

Kent tore off his hat, ran his hands through his hair, sending a cowlick in wild directions, and paced back and forth along the porch. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself, “Fucking-!”

“Don’t you mean my sister?” Eric shouted, his heart in his throat and voice cracking. Kent froze at that and looked at him in confusion and Eric spoke again. “Bits,” he said through what was probably the fakest smile he’d worn his entire life, “That’s her nickname alright. Just tell me what you’re here for and I’ll pass it on to her.”

Kent just stared at him for a second, his mouth moving like he was going to argue before he shook his head and shoved his cap back on. “Fuck. I don’t have time to deal with this shit,” he finally grumbled before pulling a stack of letters tied with twine and shoving them into Eric’s chest. “I can’t access his mail, so this is just the old stuff.”

“What?” Eric asked as his hands closed around the stack and pulled it down enough to read his name and return address on the upper left corner of the top one. He ripped off the twine with a now shaking hand and he dropped all of them. They spilled across the floor, covered in his writing and Eric brought a shocked hand up to cover his dropped jaw. “These are all from me—I mean my sister,” he pointed out and Kent tightened his jaw and looked away.

“Yeah. Look, I figured you probably wouldn’t get a notification or anything, so…” he began before pausing and clearing his throat. “And it’s not like Jack…” he started up a second time only for his voice to die out once more half-way through the sentence.

“It’s not like Jack what?” Eric pressed, his voice already going raw and his eyes already filling with tears, “Why would I need a notification?”

Kent still would not look him in the eyes. “I think you already know,” he said, instead, before turning around, “I gotta go.”

“Kent Parson!”

Eric lunged at the man, barely missing grabbing onto the back of his jacket, slipping on some of the letters and falling to the ground. Kent refused to look back and walked down the porch’s steps and continued along the walkway towards the street.

“Kent Parson!” Eric shouted after him as the tears began to fall and his hands clenched into fists, “You get back here! You tell me!” There was no way he could believe just like that. Not without hearing the words, not without seeing proof. “Tell me!”

“Dicky! What are you shouting about?”

At the sound of his mother’s voice, Eric looked up from where he knelt on the floor, surrounded by spilled letters, tears running down his face.

“Oh,” Suzanne gasped and Eric scrubbed at his eyes with his forearm, trying to force shuddering breaths into something calmer. His other hand began sweeping the letters into a pile.

“It’s noth-” he began to say before his voice cracked and he broke out in sobs again.

“Oh. Oh, honey!” his mother cried out, rushing over to him and pulling him into her arms before closing the front door to nosey neighbors already beginning to peek from the sidewalk. She wrapped both arms tight around him and rubbed his back as his crying continued. “Oh my baby!”

“Mama,” Eric bawled into her shoulder, his hands clinging to the fabric of her blouse, and Suzanne buried her face in his hair.

“Oh my Sweetheart,” she whispered, her hands still rubbing at his back even as weeping slipped into hiccups, “I’m so sorry. You go ahead and cry. Let it all out.”

Eric shuddered in her hold, his jaw shivering until the pain of the secret pushed it out into the open. “I loved him, Mama.” And, having finally given voice to the words he had only dared think and write before, he cried all the harder.

Suzanne’s arms loosened, for the slightest moment, and she pulled away to look at her son in surprise. It was enough for Eric to realize just what he had admitted and whom he had admitted it to and he ducked his head, hiding red eyes and a red face covered in tears and snot.

He pulled into himself and Suzanne pulled back, tugging him into his lap and tightening her hold against his huddled form as she dropped her mouth down next to his ear. “I know, Sweetheart,” she soothed, smiling in commiseration and rocking the both of them back and forth, “Those soldiers do nothing but break hearts, but we can’t ever seem to help but love ‘em all the same.”


 

Roberta Flack crooned over the radio up front as Eric turned off the industrial washing machine after its last round of the night. He hummed along through the last refrain of being killed softly, putting dishes back where the opening chef would need them. He bopped his way through some Elton John and hummed to himself through a commercial break and finally dusted his hands off as Stevie Wonder kicked in.

“Eric?!”

“Lacey?” he called out in reply, slipping out of the kitchen and into the restaurant proper, “Is Davey here?”

“His car just pulled up,” Lacey replied with a shrug as she threw the mop back in its bucket.

“I’m surprised I didn’t hear it,” Eric teased and Lacey laughed like he knew she would at the ribbing Davey had been getting ever since buying his Supercar.

“He actually went and traded it back in today,” she shrugged, biting her lip through her smile and toeing at the black and white tile floor.

“Oh, really?” Eric asked with his arms crossed and a raised eyebrow.

“Well,” she admitted, watching her feet, “we need something with a back seat.”

Eric clapped in excitement. “So did he actually propose, then?”

“He wants to ask my parents first…” Lacey said and Eric visibly deflated.

“Lacey, honey,” he tried, eyeing her stomach, “I think it’s a bit late for that…” and Lacey blushed but laughed as she wrapped her arms around her midsection.

“I know,” she admitted with a soft smile and a shrug, her fingers running along the seams of her shirt before dropping back down to her sides, “but it’s sweet. He’s going to ask them at Sunday dinner and then we plan on kinda dropping the bomb on them after that.”

There was a knock on the glass before the door opened, ringing the bell above it and Lacey walked the mop and bucket back to the counter where Eric had been standing.

“Hey, Lace. Ready to go?” the man asked as he popped his head and shoulders in, waving a quick greeting at Eric, as well. “Hey, Eric.”

“Eric, y’alright if I head out?” Lacey asked almost simultaneously.

Eric waved back at Davey with a greeting of his own before turning back to Lacey. “Honey, you’ve done more than enough,” he quickly waved her off while pulling a pie box out and slipping the last whole pie they had left from the day into it, “I got the rest. You go home and rest your feet.”

Lacey laughed. “Eric, I’m not even showing yet.”

“Doesn’t change the facts,” Eric wagged a finger at her before passing the boxed pie over, “Now, you two take this home and save it for Sunday night dinner and hopefully it’ll help smooth things along.”

“You’re too sweet,” Lacey said, but took the box, anyway, before grabbing her purse and jacket from under the counter and walking over to where Davey held the door open for her.

“Thanks, Eric,” he added with a nod as he took the pie box from Lacey and followed her out. Before the door could trigger the bell and shut, however, he popped back in with a concerned look on his face. “By the way, you might want to keep the door locked. I thought I saw someone prowling about when I drove up.”

Eric’s eyes widened in surprise, slipping out to the sidewalk out the windows, before he pursed his lips and nodded. “I’ll get it right behind ya. Thanks for letting me know.”

This time the bell did ring as the door closed behind the two, leaving Eric in the empty diner, with the radio having switched to The Temptations at some point. Eric sighed and swallowed the sudden wave of loneliness before picking up the pie stand and walking it into the back, wiping the crumbs off it and into the trash before walking it back out front and setting it on the back counter.

The door opened and the bell above it jangled and Eric’s blood ran cold at the reminder of Davey’s warning.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” Eric spoke as clearly as possible, refusing to let his voice waver and slipping his hand below the counter for the wrapped silverware and a steak knife. Things might have been easier for him since graduating high school and this might be a small, peaceful town, but that did not mean Eric had not been threatened before and it did not mean crime did not still happen.

There’s a shuffle of feet on the tile and the door and bell ring shut as Eric wonders how fast it would take him to reach the phone and call emergency. Rather than head his way, however, the person spoke from over by the door. “That’s too bad. A couple years ago, I was waiting here to ship out after home-leave and had the best pie in the world. My bus just got in and I thought I’d see if the chef who made it was still working here.”

As the stranger spoke, scratchy and slow and barely loud enough to be heard, Eric couldn’t help but feel like he recognized it. The base of it—timbre and lilt creating a familiar melody that pricked at his eyes and nose and wrapped around his chest and throat. His breaths came faster and he clenched his jaw, closing his eyes against the pain and loss that had barely faded over the past two years.

“His name wasn’t Eric Bittle,” the stranger continued and Eric could swear he heard an actual smile in the man’s voice as he turned around, his face ashen, “I called him Bits.”

The steak knife clattered to the ground as Eric brought his hands up to his mouth to muffle the immediate sob that tore through his throat.

“Jack!”

With as fast as Eric’s vision blurred with tears, it was a miracle he recognized the man in the first place. Scraggly youth had turned into malnourished adult. Nerves and fear of the unknown had hardened and broken through survival. His eyes, once a soft and droopy blue were now a steel that flickered constantly around the cafe and Eric wanted to tell him he was safe here, but every time he opened his mouth, he just cried all the harder.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t write for a while,” Jack said, but his jaw quivered and his hands shook against the cane he leaned on and he could not say anymore.

He did not need to, because Eric rushed up and wrapped his arms around him, pressing his face into Jack’s chest and sobbing and clinging to the man he thought he lost. Jack held Eric just as tightly, managing to hold back the lump in his throat for all of two seconds before silent tears began running down his own cheeks as he crushed Eric in his arms.

“I thought you were—!” Eric began, pulling away just enough to look Jack in the face, but his voice broke off as his fingers twisted tighter into the fabric of Jack’s shirt. He had never quite been able to say the word, itself.

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but had to clear his throat before the words came. “Apparently pilots and people with high enough rank were worth keeping alive,” he said softly, the flippant words unable to hide the truth of his experiences his grimace spoke of. Eric could feel the tears, which had been starting to slow, pick right back up.

“You mean—” he asked, thoughts of the stories he had heard of what prisoners of war had faced, his face going ashen. But, before he could say the words, Jack interrupted him.

“—I’m sorry I couldn’t get word to you,” he said, face grim and hands tight around Eric’s upper arms.

“Oh, honey, no!” Eric said, pressing himself in as close as possible while still looking Jack in the face. “You have no reason to apologize. Especially not for that.”

Jack’s hands moved up his arms before cupping his face, rough thumbs wiping the tears from his heated cheeks. “You’re crying,” Jack argued and Eric closed his eyes and sank into the touch.

“I...All the news I had said you were—” he began, but even know that he knew it was wrong, Eric still found his throat closing around the word. He cleared it and frowned, hands slipping up to hold Jack’s to his face before opening his eyes and looking up at Jack once more. “Our school played yours,” he explained, “I was there when they read your name. As far as I knew, Missing in Action just meant your body didn’t get to come back. I spent the rest of the game crying beneath the bleachers.”

Eric sighed and pulled his and Jack’s hands away, cradling them in the space between them, watching as their fingers twined. “It wasn’t even a surprise. The news, not that your name was called or that it was your school,” he licked his lips and explained, “Kent Parson returned the letters with your things to me earlier that week. Just...showed up on the doorstep and handed over the stack. I’ve gotten most of the other ones back from the military through mail in the intervening years.”

“Bits...”

Jack wanted to say more; Eric could tell that much, but he bit his lip and furrowed his brow and squeezed at Jack’s hands until his voice trailed off and did not pick back up again. Eric needed to say this now and, while Jack probably did not need to hear all of it, it was the only way Eric could think of to make him understand.

“My mother?” he continued when Jack gives him the silence in which to do so, “She was there when Kent stopped by. I told her about you.” When he realized how tightly he was still gripping onto Jack’s hands, Eric let go, moving to wring his own hands and watching the color return to Jack’s. “I was a mess and I couldn’t keep it in,” he said, his hands shaking until Jack’s moved to cover them. The contact was grounding and sent comfort and warmth shooting through his anxiety. “She and Coach didn’t kick me out like I’d always worried.” Eric finally looked back up at Jack and gave him a small smile. It did not glow like the ones he had given years ago, but it was real and the first one Jack had seen in far too long. “It hasn’t exactly been easy, but at least I still have a family.”

Jack’s face crumpled then, but Eric’s smile only grew stronger as he reached a hand up to smooth the furrows in his forehead. “I have had a lot of time and reasons to cry,” he finally promised, “But these tears? These are definitely not tears you need to be apologizing for. I cannot believe you are here. Every prayer and every dream from the past two years has suddenly come true.”

They stood there, Jack shocked and Eric smiling, his tears finally stopping, staring at each other as Eric’s words and two years of shared longing filled all the nooks and crannies of the silence. It was not until Jack’s lungs began to burn that he realized he had stopped breathing and he jerked away with a sharp breath before his hands began searching his pockets.

“Here,” he said while searching. Eric rubbed his eyes dry and blinked away the burning. When he looked back up, Jack was holding out an envelope for him.

“I have…” he tried to explain before frowning, shaking his head and shaking the envelope, “This is for you.”

Eric took it, watching Jack with confusion as he asked, “A letter?”

“I promised you one,” Jack reminded with a shrug and drifting gaze as Eric tore the envelope open, “Bit late I guess.”

Eric huffed and rolled his eyes, but pulled out and unfolded the paper to read it, instead of arguing.

 

Dearest Bits,

I don’t know if this letter will ever reach you. I don’t know if it’ll ever be anything more than words in my head. But each morning I see the sun rise and know I made it through another night, each evening I see the sun set and know I made it through another day, I know it’s because of you. Thank you, Bits, for giving me a home to write to. Thank you, Bits, for writing me back. Thank you, Bits, for giving me a reason to fight until I make it back.

“I promise I’ll make it back. When I do, the first thing I’ll do is kiss you, I swear it. I don’t know how long it will be. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I don’t know how long I’ve been writing this letter. But I swear it all the same.

I love you,

Jack

 

Eric was crying again. His hands crinkled the edges of the letter and he pursed his lips.

“I recited it every day,” Jack explained, his words small, trying to be unobtrusive. They drew Eric’s attention all the same and he looked up at Jack in awe as the man continued to speak, “Whenever I could, I said it to myself or in my head. When they released us back into US custody, I wrote it down the first chance I had. I wanted to deliver it in person.”

Eric tried and failed to find the words to reply to that; to express the pain he felt at the thought of what Jack must have gone through while under the North Vietnamese Army’s imprisonment, the awe that he was alive after years of believing otherwise, the tumultuous knot of emotion he was still attempting to unravel after reading the letter. Instead, he closed his dropped jaw and smiled, let out a singular chuckle and said, “You liar.”

With a jerk, Jack pulled away. His mouth twisted into a frown and his eyes searched Eric’s face for an explanation. Instead of answers, however, Eric just continued to smile at him, open and warm and— “What?” he croaked, his hands beginning to shake. Eric’s eyes widened in surprise as he realized the panic Jack was slipping into, each breath causing his shoulders to heave, and he threw the letter onto the nearest table to grab Jack’s hands, instead.

“Oh, honey, no,” he promised, squeezing Jack’s hands before running up his arms to squeeze at his elbows, “It’s not bad.” He smiled and laughed again, tugging at Jack’s arms to bring him closer once more. “Your letter promised me a kiss, Mister.”

Jack blinked owlishly, his eyes slipping once to the crinkled paper before jumping back to Eric, his mouth moving soundlessly before he grinned. “I should probably fix that,” he suggested, hands reaching up to cup Eric’s face and, just as he bent down, Eric pushed onto his toes and their lips pressed together and two lives began again.