Justin counted down the numbers on the street signs as the bus rolled along. Fifty blocks to go. Forty-five. Forty. He began to fidget. Thirty-five. Thirty ...
Justin fanned himself - was it getting awfully close in this bus? Nobody else semed to notice. Did the windows open?
Twenty-five. Twenty. Fifteen ...
Justin wrestled with the window, but a wicked Edmonton winter had welded the windows shut, and nothing would budge the damn thing.
Fourteen. Thirteen. Twel --
Justin yanked on the bell cord and the driver guided the slowing bus up to the next stop. It coasted to a halt with a grunt and a hiss, and Justin pushed on the exit door, trying to will it open, and stumbled forward off-balance when it finally did. He gasped in some fresh air, slung his kit onto the grassy boulevard, plopped down on it, and lit a smoke.
"Christ. What am I doing?" he thought. "What am I going to say to her?"
Verna Hextall's words echoed in his head. "I can only imagine her heartbreak," Verna had said. "I would have thought the Christian thing to do would have been to write the occasional letter. Do you know how long that silly girl mooned over you, young man? She may be mooning still. I think she's well shed of you ..."
Now, even allowing for the old bat's meddling and exaggeration, she did have a point. He should have written. He'd thought of writing, dozens, scores, hundreds of times. Anybody else would have. But he hadn't written a single letter in more than two years.
He'd received lots of letters. Dozens (although none from Mary ...). All had gone unanswered.
He didn't suppose it would matter that he hadn't written his Mom or Dad, or his sisters, or Eva. (He winced, and thought "Until two days ago ..."). That wasn't going to be a good enough reason. Other guys had written their sweethearts; he'd seen them in the barracks, hunkered over their bunks, scribbling, using clipboards and cookie tins from home and whatever was to hand as a writing surface.
Paul had written his parents religiously every Sunday (if you could call skipping Mass to write a letter "religiously"). And since Paul's parents and his were friends, Justin knew that the two families would talk, and his parents would call on Eva's folks, so everybody would know things were fine and nobody would be unduly worried. His Mom had even said she didn't expect him to write. Eva's letters had started off plaintively begging for - then sulkily demanding - replies, but had settled into pouting resignation on the subject.
He just wasn't the kind of guy who wrote letters. Ever. "Until two days ago ..." . Another wince.
"What can I say that would make her understand?" he wondered as he stood, slung his kit over his shoulder, and started walking the ten blocks to her parents' street.
"First things first," he thought. "Her mom is going to hate me. And her dad. If I can make them understand, maybe they can help with Mary. And if not, they'll never give me her new address anyway. So I'll deal with them, and that will give me time to figure out what I'm gonna say to her."
Satisfied with this orderly, sensible plan, Justin picked up his pace along the quiet thoroughfare. The sun was doing its best to come out, and as he walked briskly along he became warm enough to stop, stow his jacket in his kit, and check in a store window for wrinkles in his shirt.
(It was the only really nice shirt he had - a light blue Oxford weave he'd bought in Liverpool. He'd carefully tucked it away against the day he arrived home. A quck shower at the YMCA in Calgary was all he'd been able to manage, and that had been yesterday. So the best he could hope for in terms of how he looked was "not dishevelled".)
Eight blocks. Five. Two.
What would he say? How could he convince them there was a good reason to not write their daughter?
He stopped short as an idea hit him.
"Brilliant," he thought.
Lots of servicemen went overseas and found themselves in sensitive assignments. Top secret. Unable to write home. It was a war, after all. So, maybe that was it. He would love to tell them why he didn't write, but he was still not at liberty to say. All whispered with a knowing wink and a finger alongside the nose. Top secret, don'tcha know? And by the time everybody realized there was no need for it to be Top Secret anymore, either they'd have forgotten the whole matter or it wouldn't seem all that important.
And wouldn't that same little ruse work for Mary, too? I mean, he'd been at a small base in Wales. He didn't recall any guys from Edmonton. And even if there had been, what were the odds she'd have run into anybody who'd met him overseas?
"Brilliant," he told himself again, and rounded the corner onto a tree-lined street as a mother walked past pushing a squawking child in a stroller. Two kids barrelled along the sidewalk on bikes; he executed a nmble side-step to miss them.
Justin checked the numbers as he walked. 10173 ... 10175 ... and there it was. 10177. He wondered if he'd even remember what Mary's mom looked like. He was just hoping it wouldn't be her dad to answer the door ...
"Top Secret," he thought. "That's the key."
His foot hit the bottom step and the door opened.