As always, thanks to Tess and her devotion to tickling our Muses.
"C'mon, spill! What's going on around here?"
Tilly leaned against the side of the porch seemingly oblivious to Hobie's angry demand. "Nothin's going on," she said, the lightness of her tone belying the heaviness of her mood.
"I'm not stupid, Till."
"Didn't say you were."
"Then why's Mama acting like she don't even know who I am? And where's Pop?"
Tilly closed her eyes and sighed. Why did Hobie have to go and spoil everything?
The guilt slammed her almost immediately It wasn't her brother's fault that he'd returned from the war straight into a horrible mess. She opened her eyes and smoothed her hands down the front of her little ruffled skirt. This was the first day she'd worn her new bathing suit, the first day that Wally Johnson actually noticed her walking by the open door of the pool hall at the end of the boardwalk. She'd felt his eyes follow her the whole way to the Shake Shack, which was exactly what she wanted. He was the reason she'd bought the suit. It had cost her almost two-and-a-half week's pay, but with a reaction like that, the money had been worth it.
But the euphoria she'd felt on the boardwalk had been short-lived. Mavis Burke had come flying into the Shake Shack, out of breath, screaming, "Hobie's home!"
Tilly hadn't believed her at fist. There'd been no letter, no warning. She'd dropped her spoon and stumbled outside, around the back of the Shack and stared across to the post office. She had to wait for the big Greyhound to pull away before she saw him, in his dress uniform with the shiny buttons and creased pants, his dufflebag propped on his shoulder. As if in a trance, she'd crossed the street, ignoring Mr. Doohan honking the horn of his delivery truck as she stepped in front of it, unable to comprehend that her oldest brother, whom she hadn't seen in almost two years, was standing on the corner looking lost and hopeful.
Tilly heard her mother's soft sobs drift out through the open window. She knew Hobie heard it, too. He was her brother -- he deserved an explanation. "She does that every night," she told him, her voice barely above a whisper. "Has done since the chaplain came. She lays in her bed for days or sits in her rocking chair, crying for Kip."
"Jeez." Hobie winced and bowed his head. Tilly couldn't help smiling at him. Even though she knew that, as her big brother, he would seriously curtail her fun, she was glad he was home. He'd changed in so many ways, had gone places and seen things and done things that she couldn't even begin to imagine. And yet, in so many ways, he was so familiar; the same Hobie, who liked dry toast without butter or jelly, who fussed more with his hair in front of the bathroom mirror than she did and who smiled like he was just dying to be naughty but was afraid he'd get caught. She'd sat on his bed and watched him him peel off the layers of his uniform, laying aside Sergeant Thompson who knew all about soldiering, and becoming just Hobie, who knew about things like cars and leaky faucets, and who'd taught her the words to "Chattanooga Choo Choo." He'd showed her his medals and she'd showed him Kip's purple heart, the one Senator Rollin's aide had brought not long after The Telegram.
She'd showed him the letter, too, the one that said Kip was buried in France.
"Papa wasn't much better. Only instead of sitting around the house crying, he parked his behind on a stool at Mulrooney's. When he started drinking at work, they fired him. He ran off about six months ago. Don't know where. Jack Miller thought he saw him in Roanoke, but ..." She shrugged.
Hobie ran his hand back through his closely cropped blond hair. "Oh, man. Oh, holy cow! Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Why?" she asked, a spiteful edge creeping into her voice. "So you could ride in on your white horse or your Sherman tank or whatever and save the day?"
"I could've gotten a hardship discharge. I could've helped out."
She shrugged again and looked off down the street as the neighbor's porch light came on. "We ... I've managed."
Tilly wasn't about to tell him about Mr. Loy, who kept his mouth shut, knowing she skipped school to do his office filing and barely paid her anything because she wasn't eighteen yet. Or about the deal she made with Billy Anderson to keep the grass mowed if she let him watch her sunbathe. He also didn't need to know that when she was hungry and there was no food in the house, she'd go down to the boardwalk and, for the price of a kiss or two, she'd find more than enough boys willing to buy her a hot dog and a soda pop.
And hopefully, after today, she could add Wally Johnson to the list; Wally Johnson, who drove a 1940 Packard convertible and who had enough money to buy her dinner and take her to the pictures at the Rialto and out for a milkshake afterwards.
Ignoring his question, she said, "You can't just waltz in here and fix everything. You being home ain't gonna change nothin'. It ain't gonna bring Kip back. It ain't gonna bring Papa back. It ain't gonna stop Mama from crying. It ain't gonna make the old bitties that pass me on the street stop thinking how it's a shame about poor Tilly, so young to be so burdened."
Hobie grabbed her hands and drew her into a fierce hug, refusing to lessen his grip until she relaxed in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and felt the hot tears welling in her eyes. "I know I can't fix everything," he whispered into her hair. "Maybe I can't fix nothin'. But at least you won't be alone."
Tilly sighed. Maybe Wally Johnson could wait. After all ... Hobie was home.
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