You remember that Rat Patrol fanfiction I warned you about? Well, you’re about to be reminded.
What makes home so special anyway?
“I can think of a dozen things I’d like to do right now,” Hitch announced, clambering over the dilapidated remains of a border wall, Tommy in hand, “and this ain’t a single one of ‘em.”
His red-headed companion only shrugged, taking the time to make his own careful way over the wall’s crumbling edge before giving a typically taciturn reply. “It ain’t so bad. Lotta worse things we could be doin’.”
“Clearin’ minefields. Runnin’ a ball turret somewhere over German ack-ack. Swimmin’ around in some tin can of a submarine with people lobbin’ depth charges at us.”
Hitch swiveled on his heel to fix his fellow private with an exasperated stare. “For gosh sakes, Tully, where do you get all the sunshine and daydreams from? Can’t you just be a little depressed like the rest of us, for decency’s sake?”
The Kentuckian returned his annoyance with a docile smirk. “This bothers you more.”
Caught, Hitch threw a chunk of sandstone at him and turned his attention back to the desert ahead. It unrolled into the horizon in an endless expanse of bewitching silver-gold, throbbing with the heat and glaring sun. Something about its breathtaking beauty was lost on the blond private, who was too busy being sweaty and tired and bored to much care what he was looking at.
“What are we doing here anyhow?” he inquired of the sound-sucking wasteland. “Whose bright idea was it to put a double guard on the south side when all the Germans are up north and happy to stay there?”
“Captain Boggs,” came the succinct reply. “He figures they might circle around. You were there for that conversation—why weren’t you payin’ attention?”
“I dunno,” Hitch muttered rather sullenly, his thoughts casting longingly back toward the loving embrace of his cot that he by all rights should have been asleep in at that very moment. “Just ain’t fair of Boggs to make us pull another shift right after coming in from a raid.”
“Raid was Sarge’s idea,” Tully pointed out, scanning the shifting dunes with his sharp-edged brown gaze. “Boggs had us down for guard duty days ago. Ain’t his fault we snuck out to head off that convoy.”
His fellow private cast him a long-suffering glance. “Would you stop making sense and let me grouse a little? Keeps me off the streets.”
“Yeah, sure.” His inspection of the desert completed, Tully picked himself out a spot and sat down to lean his back against the wall, tucking his helmet in against his hip to rest his arm on it and laying the Tommy across his lap. He looked immensely comfortable. Hitch scowled at him.
“And what’re you doing?” he demanded. “We ain’t supposed to relax, we’re supposed to be looking for Germans.”
“I’m lookin’,” Tully countered mildly. “But I can do it just as well down here as I can up there.” He produced a matchstick from his breast pocket and tucked it into his mouth, casting his blond companion an expectant look. “There’s room for one more, y’know.”
Hitch glanced nervously over his shoulder. “What if somebody sees us? Maybe I should walk the perimeter.”
“Maybe.” The Kentuckian settled further into the forgiving sand, drawing one knee up to prop his other arm on. “Might work off some of that bad mood of yours.”
Chagrined, Hitch flopped down beside him. “I’m just mad at everything today, aren’t I?” he sighed, taking off his glasses and hanging them from the buttonhole of his open collar. Tully offered no answer; he could sense well enough the difference between dialogs and monologs when it came to Hitch, both of which occurred with alarming regularity. This was one of the latter. “It’s just this desert. There’s miles and miles of nothing, and we’re right smack dab in the middle of it. Gets on a fella’s nerves.” Next to come off was his kepi, which he hung on one crooked-up knee. He picked at its gold braid to occupy his restless fingers, while Tully reclined next to him in silent repose. “Gosh, I miss home. I miss—aw, never mind.”
The Kentuckian cut over a look from the corner of his eye. “What?” he asked, recognizing his cue. Hitch hesitated.
“You’re gonna think I’m stupid.”
Wisely Tully did not take this bait. “What?” he repeated. The blond huffed, wriggling around to reach his back pocket and retrieve a piece of bubblegum, peel the wrapper away, and pop it into his mouth.
“There’s a dumb little pharmacy a few blocks down from my old place,” he said, chewing away. “I’d always go in and buy fifty cents’ worth of gum and the owner’s daughter always gave it to me for twenty-five, and that was after I practically begged her to let me pay for it.” He considered the crumpled wax paper for a moment. “Y’know, she still sends me this stuff every month?” he asked finally, holding up the wrapper for Tully’s inspection. “Like clockwork. Like magic. And I still don’t have to pay a red cent.” He resettled against the wall, ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. “Gosh, I must owe her a mint by now.”
“Sweet kid,” commented Tully. Hitch snorted.
“Not so much,” he admitted. “I was the only fella in town. All the others had joined the Army already, and after hanging around her too long I see why.” He chewed his gum in silence, his blue eyes flicking toward his languidly-reclining friend. After a short eternity, he spoke up again. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s with the matchsticks? She pretty?”
“Real pretty,” Tully said. He removed the match from his mouth and squinted at it. “Every couple months she packs ‘em up in a nice box with a big blue star on it and sends it over. Charges me for ‘em sometimes too.”
Hitch snorted. “Romantic.” He balanced his Tommy on his thigh and crossed his arms, squinting against the glare of the sun on the glittering sand. “Your turn,” he said at last. “What do you miss?”
The Kentuckian considered this for a short while. There were certainly a lot of things he could say—home cooking, knowing he’d sleep in his own bed at night, spending his days hunting in the woods and his evenings listening to the hoot owls call each other. But none of it seemed to fit the kind of loneliness he felt right then. Instead of running through his list he only returned his matchstick to its place and leaned his head back against the wall.
“Dishes,” he said. There was a moment of silence.
“Dishes,” Hitch echoed. He cut a look at Tully out of the corner of his eye. “Dishes. Having ‘em or doing ‘em?”
Doing the dishes meant they’d just finished up a big family dinner. It meant they’d had as much food to eat as they possibly could have wanted. It meant having enough water you could afford to waste it a little.
Such nuance seemed lost on Hitch, still caught up in his daydreams of half-price bubblegum and pharmacist’s daughters, and with a speculative crinkling of his wax wrapper he chalked this odd comment up to his friend’s enigmatic Southern heritage and carried on. “Y’know what else?” He wadded up the wrapper and tossed it out into the sand. “Rain. I used to hate walking in it and now I’d kill for some.”
“Not me,” said Tully, removing his matchstick to give his sun-parched lips a respite. “Makes the roads turn slick and wash out. Can’t drive on ‘em that way.”
Hitch cast him a sly look, easily reading the inference in his casual comment. “You really a moonshiner or you just making that up?”
Tully observed his matchstick in dignified silence, his pride injured by such a callous question. Sitting there in the most peace he’d had in a good long while, his mind taken up with keeping guard and listing all his private gripes and longings, had provided him with more clarity than he thought he could find during a war. Despite Hitch’s chatter, a fact of life he had learned long ago to tune out and provide only the barest of automatic responses to, he realized something he hadn’t known before. Or maybe he had known it, and simply not understood.
Home wasn’t all he had thought it was. It wasn’t the apple pie and fireside chats and ballgames with the boys, and it wasn’t the chipper patriotism of clubs and banners and scrap drives they showed in the newsreels at the movie theater. It wasn’t even church on Sundays and the potlucks after, trying to slap away the mosquitoes and holler at his young cousins not to drown themselves in the creek and snitch the last piece of icebox pie before anyone else could get it. It was the ridiculously little things, the dirty dishes and the twenty-five cents’ worth of bubblegum and the rain turning the roads to mud. It was the boxes of matches and fixing the holes in the roof and the mute, warm glow of the single lamp his mother sat by as she waited up for him when he came in late at night after trekking all the way home when the car had gotten a flat in the middle of nowhere.
It was the little things—the annoying things, the simple, humdrum things—that together formed what he missed the most. And sitting there in the middle of the desert with a Tommy gun balanced on his lap, not two feet from a man who some few months ago had been a complete stranger—and a Yankee, no less—but who now Tully would gladly take a bullet for without the slightest hesitation, he felt a little dumb longing for something like dirty dishwater up to his elbows while one of his brood of younger brothers tugged on his shirttail, offering help that he knew would only mean making an even bigger mess than he already had. Next to him, Hitch let out a gusty sigh and cycled out his legs, straightening the one and pulling up the other to rehang his kepi on the now-bent knee.
“Made ice cream sodas, too,” he commented. “Could never figure out how much of what to put in, but she was always trying to give me one. I hated ‘em.” With exquisite remorse he considered the glittering horizon, its golden expanse rippling with the beating of the sun. “But I’d take one now and like it. Your blue star girl ever send you one of those?”
Tully resisted the urge to roll his eyes. If he was being dumb letting himself steep in useless nostalgia, at least he wasn’t alone. He smiled around his matchstick, situated himself more comfortably against the wall, and settled in for a long, quiet watch.
“I think she woulda married me, too, if I’d stuck around long enough. She’s got a less-desperate sister, y’know. I wonder if her ice cream sodas are any good.”
Well, maybe not so quiet. But he didn’t mind.
He knew how much the little things could matter.
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