FICTION

The Vacant Room

An empty room brought them together ...Wacky, a girl in love; Mary, whose heart was broken; and Bill, whom both of them needed badly

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE September 15 1944
FICTION

The Vacant Room

An empty room brought them together ...Wacky, a girl in love; Mary, whose heart was broken; and Bill, whom both of them needed badly

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE September 15 1944

The Vacant Room

An empty room brought them together ...Wacky, a girl in love; Mary, whose heart was broken; and Bill, whom both of them needed badly

FICTION

HAROLD CHANNING WIRE

HE COULD walk again and that was something to be grateful about. There had been moments when what had happened this week had scared him; even more than when he’d first crashed in Italy seven months ago. His leg had seemed all right the day the Air Force had discharged him. He knew now the trouble was from standing in line the first days of this week trying to find a job.

A hot disgust swept him when he thought of the scene he must have made. He’d only been getting off a streetcar. His leg had buckled with a black wave of pain and he had fainted. Next he was lying in bed once more with nursing sisters watching him. He had been taken to Chorley Park Hospital.

There had been those moments when he’d thought his wound might never heal properly; but now he was walking again and that scare was over. Just take it easy, the M.O.’s had advised him,stay on level places, don’t climb stairs. And don’t worry.

The first part of their advice he could follow all right. This place was level; he was taking it easy. He walked slowly, his cane tapping the sidewalk’s cement. The last part, though, was something else. It wasn’t worry that kept hounding him. It was more like an obsession. The doctors might have told him he was still sick in his mind, but they hadn’t.

He was out of the park now and in the streets. The sidewalk was shaded beneath a dark green canopy of chestnut trees. His leg began to hurt a little and he stopped to rest it, leaning back against a chestnut trunk. He liked the jarring roar of traffic that went past. him. There was life in it. When a bus load of school children came along, yelling and waving, he grinned and waved back.

A woman came around the corner, middle-aged and motherly looking, packages in her arms. He watched her pleasantly. But then, close, she turned her head and stared at him. She didn’t speak, but what she felt was plain in her eyes. His cane was behind him, against the tree trunk, out of her sight. Tho red scar along his left jaw might have come from an automobile accident, and the woman couldn’t know that the fibula in bis left leg was a silver tube.

She probably had a son at the battle front somewhere. He understood how he must have looked to her a young man, 25, tall and brown, even if the brown was from lamps, looking physically fit in his new grey suit, grey hat, tan oxfords. She bad shown a disgusted rancor at his not being in uniform. He started walking again. Wounded, and in uniform, you were pitied; in civilian clothes you were despised. He’d rather be despised if it had to be anything. But why couldn’t they just take him for what he was . . . a man who was only trying to be once more what he had been.

Two years ago he had been simply Bill Travis, like any young guy just out of university, a geologist whose specialty was making maps from the air, by which, later, he could locate mineral deposits on the ground. Then he had been Pilot Officer William J. Travis, assigned to photographing missions because of his earlier training. There had been no thought of his future those years. To live each day and each night was enough. But that was over with, finished, sewed up. All he wanted now was to be Bill Travis again, with a job.

Thinking of a job churned up again his desperate and driven feeling. It wasn’t the future, the far-off future when the war was ended, that hounded him. There would be a place for him then. In Canada there were oil companies and mining men who could use him, later. Of course, there were jobs. But he couldn’t sit at a desk, couldn’t sit still anywhere now, nor stand up for long hours at a bench. Like the scar on his face, which the doctors had said wouldn’t look so bad in time, and his leg that wouldn’t need a cane in a couple of months, everything was promised too far ahead. What he had to have was something where he was needed now. Not next year, or even next month. It had to be now.

He shoved his left hand into his pants pocket and touched the slip of paper along with his money and the medal. It was the only medal he’d been given, but it was the D.F.C., and when his fingers closed around it, it was like holding onto his first pocketknife when he was a boy. The same quiet pride came back to him, for he’d earned them both.

He drew out the slip of paper and looked at the address and saw he had almost reached the house here on this street. His walk this afternoon was partly to find a place to live. He couldn’t stay in the hospital much longer. The beds were needed. But the city was crowded with warworkers. The auxiliary had held out a slim hope that he might find a room in some private home. He’d like that. They had given him an address.

The house was large. He went up the walk and pushed a button. When the door opened he thought at first

He touched the brim of his hat. A little stiffly, he said, “I understand you have a room. The auxiliary sent me.”

Her mouth thinned out. “It was for servicemen,” she said. “Are you in any service?”

“I have been,” Bill Travis said.

“Oh.” She saw his cane then, and the scar. Her face and her voice softened . . . too much. “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’re a wounded veteran.”

“Is the room still vacant?” he asked.

“No.” She shook her head, her eyes pitying him. “No, it isn’t.”

“Then thank you.” He touched his hatbrim again and turned down the walk. The skin over his cheekbones was burning. Why couldn’t they keep their pity to themselves!

the woman was the same one who had passed him a few minutes ago. It wasn’t. But she looked at him and had the same displeased feeling in her eyes. The afternoon sun was getting low, flooding a golden light beyond the chestnut trees. He started back toward the hospital and remembered that the sun was one thing he’d hoped for here. Hours of lying on a sunny beach after work. It would be good. And some time there would be a girl in the picture of what he wanted. But not the way he was now.

He was walking beside a stone wall and didn’t see the little boy until he popped out from an open gate. Bill Travis jumped, startled.

The boy pushed his hands into the pockets of blue shorts and stood with his legs spread, looking up. “Hi!” “Hello, son,” Bill said, and smiled down at the light curly hair, blue eyes, round, well-fed face. About seven years old, he guessed, and ate his mush for breakfast. “How’s everything?” he asked.

Gravely, the boy said, “I’ve got a Lancaster. Want a ride?” He reached up and took Bill’s hand and tugged. “Come on.”

Bill let himself be pulled as far as the open gate. The front yard behind the stone wall was big and full of flowers. He stopped.

The boy tugged again. “Come on. Nobody’s home. We can make all the noise we want.”

Bill laughed and walked on with him, holding the small warm hand. “Where’s your landing field?”

“Out in back. But you’d never find it.” The boy nodded up at him. “It’s camouflaged.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “I forgot.”

The house was a low white bungalow, L-shaped. A covered swing and a glider stood on the tile pavement of a terrace behind it. Once there had been a grass plot with a fountain in the middle. But it was a Victory Garden now. They passed the open door of a garage and he saw a car, quite old, standing on one flat tire. Beside the garage was a penful of chickens. Whoever lived here, he thought, knew there was a war.

“There!” The boy halted. He stood looking proudly at his handiwork.

Bill Travis didn’t smile. His lean brown face was as sober as the boy’s as he gazed at the Lancaster. It was in the shade beneath a great spreading chestnut, and was mostly imagi»ation. Two empty nail kegs made the fuselage. A couple of broken planks were the wings. The tail was a sheet of newspaper spread on the ground. But it had four motors, as a Lancaster should have—four pieces of lath tacked loosely onto the leading edge of the planks.

The boy picked up a stick and ran across the front of it, hitting each lath in turn. They were propellers now, spinning, and his voice shrilled high above the roar of motors ready to take off.

“Attack alarm!” he screamed. “Upstairs, quick!” There were holes in each of the nail kegs. He hopped into the first one, then looked around, disappointed. “I guess you’re too big,” he said.

“I’ll be the rear gunner,” Bill offered, and straddled the rear keg.

Yet the clear blue eyes remained fixed upon him fora long, strange moment. Then, quietly, the boy said “My Dad’s a pilot in the RCAF. He’s in England. O maybe he’s over Germany right now. But he’ll bí home some day.”

“Sure,” Bill agreed. “Sure he will.” But that wai something he didn’t want to talk about. “Come on,’ he said, “let’s take off.”

“Okay! This is it!” And the four motors burst inti life again, with an unbelievable noise from lungs s( small.

Suddenly it stopped. Turning, the boy screamed “Messerschmitt on our tail! Get that guy!”

“Messerschmitt on our tail!” Bill Travis repeated shouting it. “Okay, pal!” He raised his cane to hi shoulder and swung it around. He got the guy on thei tail. His own sound effects of a machine gun wen pretty good. He moved the cane, sweeping his stutte of gunfire toward the pen of squawking chickens. Th boy was a machine gun too, now, as well as four motor and a wildly excited pilot screaming orders betweei explosions. And in all that noise of chickens guns and plane neither of them heard the voice for j¡ moment.

A girl came suddenly past the garage, calling “Ronnie! Ronnie!” t The noise stopped then; so did the girl. “Oh!” she said, and stared at Bill Travis.

He lowered the cane, pulled his hat back into place then took it off, looking sheepish.

The girl smiled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know Ronnie had a copilot.” Her smile was sweet and a little tentative.

The boy hopped out of his keg and went to her. “He’s not a copilot, Wacky! He’s the rear gunner.”

“Oh. I see. The rear gunner.” She smiled again.

Bill Travis stood up, hat in his hand. She was a small girl, slim and nicely shaped in the khaki uniform and Sam Browne belt of the Red Cross. The cap set jauntily across brown curls. Her eyes were the same clear blue of the boy’s. He knew he ought to say something -one of those quick smart lines that used to come so easily. But he could only stand and look at her. There had been girls, dates at university and the girls you played around with in service. None of them had meant much afterward. None had ever brought the breathless feeling inside him that he had now. This was the girl he’d been waiting for. It was as sudden, and as certain, as anything he’d ever known.

She was no longer smiling. Her blue eyes, watching him intently, looked almost frightened. In a small voice she asked, “Ronnie, shouldn’t you introduce me to your friend?”

“Okay.” The boy took her hand and drew her toward Bill Travis. “This is Wacky,” he said solemnly. “That’s because she wanted to join the CWAC’s. But she couldn’t, because she had me.”

Bill’s face showed his amassement. She couldn’t he more than 20. Suddenly they both laughed.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “Ronnie is getting you mixed up. I’m June Miller. His mother is my sister, Mary Warren. I take care of him most of the time, though, so he’s part mine.” She rumpled the boy’s hair.

“And his father is an Air Force pilot,” Bill said. “I’ve got that straight. My name is Bill Travis.” She pulled off her cap and fluffed the brown curls from the back of her neck, her frank eyes going briefly to his cane, the sca r on his cheek, the button in the lapel of his coat. “You’ve been in service too, haven’t you?” she said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, no pity in it. He loved her for that.

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The Vacant Room

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“Yes,” he said, and felt he ought to explain his being here. “I cracked up in Italy seven months ago and didn’t think I’d be flying again so soon. But I was out hunting a room today and was offered a ride in a Lancaster.” He grinned at Ronnie. “Swell ride, too.” He put on his hat. It was getting late. “Thanks a lot.”

When he turned, the girl walked with him, strangely silent, close to his side. They were on the terrace when she said quickly, “Come in, won’t you? I want you to meet Ronnie’s mother. She’s home now.”

He wanted to tell her, “I’ve met the only person I need to meet.” But a tight sense of warning was in him. He couldn’t draw this girl, or any girl, into his life the way things were, not now, perhaps not for a long time. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’d better get back to the hospital.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Please. Just for a minute. I want you to.” She turned him across the terrace’s brown tile.

They entered through panelled glass doors directly into a large living room. Ronnie raced ahead of them, shouting, “Mother! Mother, look what I’ve got!” He flung open a door in the room’s end.

The girl who stooped and hugged the boy was dressed in coveralls. She straightened, a mother’s deep pleasure still on her face. “Hi, Wacky!” She saw Bill Travis then and made a futile push at the mussed bob of her light brown hair. “Oh . . .”

Ronnie hopped around her. “My rear gunner! Isn’t he a nice man?”

She laughed and came into the room, a little more filled out but not much older looking than the girl at Bill’s side. “You’ll have to excuse how I look,” she apologized. On a pocket of her coveralls was stitched de Havilland Aircraft.

“If you’re making airplanes any way you look is swell to me,” Bill said, and heard the girl beside him saying, “Mary, this is Bill Travis. My sister, Mary Warren.”

There was a little pause. He saw the two girls look at each other, and in the brief glance there was something asked and answered in the meeting of their eyes.

Then Wacky said, “He’s hunting for a room.”

He watched Mary Warren, for the change on her face was like sunlight blotted out by clouds. It didn’t last. There was left in her brown eyes only the ache and longing, deeply hidden. She smiled at him again. “This is going to sound terribly selfish to you . . .” She hesitated.

“Bill,” he prompted.

She laughed. “All right. Bill. It’s selfish because we do have a vacant room, but I didn’t want to rent it. It’s Jim’s.” She paused, as if that told everything. “He’s been gone a year. I’ve hoped any time now he would be coming back.”

“Let’s forget about the room,” Bill said. “I understand.”

Wacky touched him. “Don’t be silly! A room’s a room these days and it ought to be used. Here.” She stepped back and opened a door. “You can see you’d be perfectly private. We wouldn’t get in your hair. It even has an outside entrance. Jim was a radio technician and worked in here day and night sometimes.”

Bill Travis leaned on his cane, looking inside the room, and he knew Jim Warren. There was a big flat desk and a deep chair, shelves of books on the walls and a bunk built into one corner. Jim’s pipe lay on a table, with a tray still half full of ashes, just as he had left them when he went away. Nothing had been disturbed; when he came back he could walk into this room and his life would go on. Jim Warren was a man of his own kind.

These things Bill Travis felt with an unwonted emotion sweeping him; for this place was made to order, almost as if it had been built for him too. But he could look ahead. Even now he could feel the girl Wacky close behind him, her presence too strongly disturbing. And he knew the answer. Every day and night he would see her. He would make love to her. He couldn’t help it. And he had nothing to offer a girl.

Ronnie pushed past him suddenly. He turned in the room, legs spread. “This is my Dad’s!” His round face was stubbornly set. “It’s his and he’s coming back to it.”

Bill smiled. “Of course he is, and he’ll want it just like this.” He moved

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back and caught the unguarded eagerness in Wacky’s blue eyes before he said, “Thanks, but I don’t think I can stay here.”

She stared at him, lips parted, a slow flush coloring her cheeks. “I see. Two females and a little boy. That’s the trouble!”

“Wacky!” Mary exclaimed.

“It’s all right,” she retorted. “And he’s right, too!”

But Mary said quietly, “No, he isn’t,” and looked up at him. “You understand, Bill, you’re welcome. It would be good to have a man in Jim’s room again.”

She warmed him. She was swell . . . but it wouldn’t be fair. “The real trouble is,” he said, “I’m not certain about anything. I may not even be in town in a couple of days.”

“All right.” Her eyes lingered on him. “You know best.”

Wacky had turned and walked away, and he saw only her nice little back as he crossed the living room and opened the front door. But then, closing it, he had one last look inside. She had swung to watch him, and she was a girl who couldn’t hide her feelings very well. A staring hurt was plain upon her face.

Outside, twilight had come. His cane tapped along the cement. He felt mean and angered. He could hear again Mary’s quiet voice, “You understand, Bill, you’re welcome.” If it hadn’t been for Wacky he would have stayed. That was his anger ... of all times in his life to find the one girl now!

By the time he reached the hospital he knew he wouldn’t see her again. And there was nothing left to hunt for here. Tomorrow he’d move on.

BUT in the routine checkup next morning his doctor said, “Better let us watch this leg another couple of days, Travis. Use it. I want you to keep walking. Take it easy, though.” He killed that forenoon in the hospital grounds, talking with other returned men to keep from thinking. By lunchtime he had settled his inner argument about Wacky. He was old enough to manage himself no matter where he walked.

Afterward he started off for a walk. He turned a corner and saw the group of school children, but didn’t see Ronnie until the boy burst through them and came running toward him. He glanced at his wrist watch. It was only two o’clock.

Then the boy came against him, throwing his arms around his good right leg.

“You’re out of school early, young man,” Bill said.

Ronnie stepped back, his round face beaming. “Teacher’s had to give out ration books. And I’ve got a surprise! Come on.” He gripped Bill’s hand. “The Lancaster?”

“Don’t guess! You’ll spoil it!” Ronnie tugged him on.

He followed a little way, asking, “What time does Wacky get home from Red Cross?”

“Four o’clock, most days. Sometimes later, unless something happens.” The boy’s blue eyes laughed up at him. “Are you afraid of her?”

“No,” Bill grinned, “I’m not.” They had two hours. And Mary would still be at the plant. It wouldn’t hurt to see what Ronnie had.

He let himself be dragged for three blocks, with sound effects like a tank coming from the boy. They reached the gate and the house was deserted-looking ahead of them. They were in the driveway to the garage when he saw the car. It was out beside the garage; the flat tire fixed, the grey sedan body shined up, as much as possible for its age.

He stopped and tried to pull his hand away; but Ronnie screamed, “Wacky!” and held on.

She came quickly from behind the house across the brown tiles, looking frightened.

“Ronnie, what’s the—Well, Bill! Hi!” She smiled, but it was hesitant, warm in her eyes, faint on her lips. Some brightly colored towels and a blanket were draped across her bare arms. She wore only a brief sun suit, halter, short flaring skirt. Bows of yellow ribbons were tied in her brown curls.

Bill looked down at Ronnie. “This your surprise?”

“Yes, a beach party. And you can come with us! Won’t that be fun?”

A side window in the house opened. Mary put her head out. “Hello there! You’re just in time. Don’t you love hot dogs with plenty of sand?”

“Look,” he said, “how does all this happen? De Havilland shut down?” “No, this is my day off and I promised Ronnie a party on the beach.” She was tying a handkerchief over her hair. “Come along with us, Bill!” Her head vanished from the window.

Wacky turned away, saying, “Ready in just a minute.” The boy raced into the house.

He stood uncertain, his own feelings caught by the good time they were planning for themselves. Don’t be a fool, he thought. Don’t be an adolescent, running from a girl.

Wacky drove. He sat in the front seat with her, Ronnie and his mother in the back. Wacky had pulled a woolly bathrobe over her sun suit, canvas sandals with wedge soles on her small feet.

When they passed the hospital she turned her head to him, “This is still your hotel?”

He nodded, grinning, “Soldiers’ Roost.”

She drove for a moment in silence. Quietly she asked, “When are you leaving?”

He didn’t say.

Traffic held her attention then. They crawled through the city’s packed streets and turned out along the lake front until they could park near an open stretch of sand.

He felt his helplessness when they got out. He couldn’t carry the cardboard carton of things that Mary had brought, nor the big beach umbrella. He could only carry the towels. And when Ronnie, forgetting, grabbed his hand and wanted him to run, he couldn’t run. He limped along, using his cane.

They spread the blanket on the beach. Set up the umbrella. Wacky pulled off her bathrobe and stood before him, slim, full-bodied, lovely against the blue sunlit water.

She rubbed her hand along one white leg. “I’ll look better when I’m tanned.” “You couldn’t,” Bill said.

“But I do. I take a good tan . . . and no iodine, either!”

“You still couldn’t look better.”

She laughed and ran away from him, down to the cool water.

Ronnie had already started digging a foxhole in the sand, Mary helping. He took off his coat and loosened the neck of his shirt and stretched out on the blanket. They left him alone as if that was what he wanted, and for a little while it was.

The sun’s warmth ran like soothing fingers along the muscles of his wounded leg. He closed his eyes and blocked his mind from thinking, past or future. To feel the drowsy contentment of these moments was enough. He must have dozed . . . When he opened his eyes Wacky was sitting on the blanket looking down at him.

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The Vacant Room

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HE ROLLED over to sit up. She pushed him back. “You’re too comfortable. Stay there.”

She stretched out at his side on her stomach, pillowing her cheek on her hands, and her eyes ran over his face with a strange and tender searching. In a moment she said, “You like children, don’t you, Bill. The way you are with Ronnie. You must have been raised in a big family.”

“No,” he said, “no family at all. I was raised by an uncle, with long hair and no teeth, in a mining camp you never heard of.”

“And then?” she asked.

“Varsity, a little time of work, a long time of war.”

“Long for all of us,” she said. “Too long. And now?”

He wished she hadn’t asked that. It brought back what, in this contented moment, he had forgotten. He couldn’t talk about the job he didn’t have, nor what the doctor had said at his checkup just this morning: “You can leave the hospital tomorrow, Travis. But you’ll have to be careful. You’ve got to realize you have more than a leg injury. For two years your nerves have been wound up pretty tight, along with the shock of your crash. It’s going to take time to unwind. Don’t push yourself back to work too soon.”

He scowled at Wacky. “Now you’re asking too many questions.”

“Okay.” She closed her eyes.

He lay looking at her, the sweetness of her mouth and her closeness stirring a torment in him. This afternoon had been a mistake. But he didn’t put that into words, even for himself, until they were home again later.

The sun dropped low. They built a little fire on the beach and roasted hot dogs and ate them, gritty with sand. They laughed a lot about nothing, and he tumbled Ronnie in his foxhole . . . they drove back in a golden twilight, too relaxed from sun to talk.

Their return was not by way of the hospital. He told them he’d walk from the house. In the driveway Mary said, “Thanks a lot, Bill,” and paused, her eyes lingering on him as they had once before. “I wish we could do it again. It was fun.” And Ronnie shouted, “You aren’t kiddin’!” as she shooed him on.

He was alone with Wacky then. She had waited, beginning to shiver a little, hugging the woolly robe around her.

He stood a moment, silent, unable to put into words what he had known this afternoon.

She looked away from him. “Say it, Bill. Good-by?”

“Yes. I’m leaving tomorrow. The hospital needs my room.”

She brought her face around slowly, lips parted, waiting.

He shook his head. “No, I’m not taking the room here in your house. I can’t.”

Even in the darkness he could see her stormy anger. “I don’t care, Bill,” she said. Her voice was tense. “It’s just that offering it to you was something special. I wonder now why we did! You’d better go and go quick! I’ve driven around a lot of soldiers and learned some words that wouldn’t sound nice. Good-by!” She wheeled from him and crossed the path quickly and was gone

It was just as well he didn’t have to explain. In that moment, close to the girl, his reasoning wasn’t clear. But lying in bed that night, smoking, he faced it out.

Almost all his life he’d been on his own. His long-haired uncle had hammered self-reliance into him above everything else. And he’d picked up the old man’s stern self-pride. You stood on your own two feet. Now he didn’t have two feet to stand on, in more ways than one. He couldn’t see himself dependent, not on anybody. It wasn’t as if he could do anything for them. That was why he couldn’t live with Mary and Wacky in their house.

He finished his cigarette and switched off the light and lay awake in the dark. You had to make your choice one way or another, and stick to it. What he wanted most wasn’t his to choose. Tomorrow he’d go back to the north. His uncle was still there. They could batch together; in time he could do a little prospecting around the mines.

He slept restlessly, the nightmares waking him often as they always did. The hospital’s routine got him up early. He shaved and dressed and had his breakfast. There were his release papers to be made out. It took time. So that it was almost nine o’clock when he went to his room to pack his one travelling bag.

His things were in; he was strapping it. An orderly opened the door and stuck his head suddenly into the room.

“You’re wanted out in front, sir. A jill. From the way she looks you’d better make it on the double!”

Bill’s heart jumped. He put on his hat, picked up his cane and bag and limped along the hallway fast.

It was Wacky. She stood just outside the reception entrance, wearing her Red Cross uniform. She saw him and took a faltering step, and waited, her blue eyes staring with a sightless look.

He reached her. “Wacky! Something’s happened?”

She tried to speak, and choked, then managed, “Please come, Bill. But I can’t talk.”

^l^HEY got into her grey sedan and A as she raced through the streets he thought of Ronnie. An icy dread swept him. Sick. Or an accident had happened to the boy.

But in the driveway of her house the car stopped. Wacky said, “It’s Mary. Go in to her, Bill.”

The glass panelled doors were open. He went in and saw Mary Warren across the sunny living room. She was standing near a window, motionleas. Even when he entered she didn’t move. He pulled off his hat and laid it on a table, and saw the telegram. Three familiar words leaped from it “. . . killed in action . . .”

She turned when he was close and the force that drew him on toward her was a great welling flood. She came against him, sobbing out her heart while he held her tenderly. He laid his cheek against her hair and let her cry, until, with that first release of emotion spent, she drew away a little and looked up.

“Thank you, Bill.” Her voice was steady. “I’ll be all right now. Let me be alone for a little while . . . but not too long.”

“Does Ronnie know?” he asked.

“Yes. He’s out in his Lancaster. Won’t you talk to him?”

“Of course I will.” He left her and went outside.

Wacky had waited on the terrace. “Let’s find Ronnie,” he said, and she held onto his arm as they walked past the garage.

Ronnie was sitting in his Lancaster’s cockpit, silent, doing nothing, just sitting at his imaginary controls. But he stood up in the nail keg fuselage when Bill Travis said, “Hello, pal!”

Bill walked on toward him, alone. Wacky had stopped. He bent over the boy, and felt boy, and felt the sudden fierce strength of the small arms that hugged around his neck.

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Against his cheek Ronnie’s young voice was putting his world together again. "My Dad isn’t coming home,” he said. "But you’ll live with us, won’t you? Now you can have his room.” Bill Travis didn’t answer. He straightened and said, “Get this plane ready to take off. I’ll be back.”

"Okay.” The boy’s smile was quick and brave. "Make it fast!” Bill turned back to Wacky. The; walked together in silence past the enc of the garage. Out of Ronnie’s sight they stopped, and he saw how her lip, had been bitten in these moments fighting off the flood of all she felt.

They didn’t speak. She came ink his arms and he held her through a lon^ moment, with a strange new strength rising in him, before he kissed her. Slit clung to him; then the words shs murmured close filled the meaning oí his life.

“Oh, Bill . . . Bill,” she said. “We need you so!”