James raked his toes through the cleanly cut grass. Was this the last time he’d ever enjoy this sensation? Even if he came out of it with his life, he’d be a changed man. Better to enjoy the simple pleasures while he still could.
A powder blue Cadillac pulled into the driveway next door.
Tommy Morrison climbed out of the driver’s seat and swooped around to open the passenger side door for his lady friend, Diana. His face lit up when he spied James watching.
“Why, hello, James. Sure is a pretty day, in’t it?”
James smiled and nodded, unable to tear his eyes away as Tommy and Diana kissed right in the driveway for all of the neighborhood to see. He watched as Tommy whispered into her ear, and Diana kicked back her heel in that classic gesture of a woman in love.
It was Tommy’s last day of freedom as well. He too would ship off in the morning to answer his country’s call. Seemed he’d chosen a very different way to spend the evening.
Love was not something he believed in. Freedom though, now that was the real deal. And malted milk shakes in cool metal glasses—oh, how he’d miss those. Luckily, the local soda fountain was only a short walk into town. He’d have his fill, then return for his last comfortable night at home in his own bed, that’s what he’d do.
So he sprang to his feet and headed into town, making sure to pay especially close attention to how the birds chirped from the trees and how the shiny copper of an abandoned penny glistened in the sun, how freedom hung in the air like a fine perfume. He’d miss his country, but he’d also do anything to protect it from the Communist threat.
James pushed open the door to the soda shop, and a tiny bell jingled to greet him. “The usual,” he called back into the kitchen. “Plus add an order of French fries, will ya?”
He sat down at the bar to await his meal, his feet jiggling beneath him as they tip-tapped on the checkered linoleum floor.
Then the doorbells jingled again, and the most beautiful woman James had ever seen walked into the shop. The setting sun cast a warm glow on her skin and her eyes glistened even brighter than the copper of that penny. They were a darker shade of the same color, too. Her skirt swished around her calves as she made her way over to the counter and sat down beside James.
Maybe love was every bit as powerful as freedom after all.
* * *
Deborah felt the young soldier’s eyes fix on her the moment she entered the soda shop. Normally, she’d blush and try to get away, but the sign of his crisply pressed uniform hinted at a boy about to deploy in the fight for her liberties, and she knew better than to deny him the simple pleasure of looking at her, if that’s what he wanted to do.
Besides, he wasn’t so bad on the eyes himself, with the high apples of his cheeks and strong, angular jawline. He looked strong all over, from his jaw to his biceps, right down to the stern but welcoming expression he wore on his young, handsome face.
“The name’s Morgan, Airman First Class.” He stuck his hand out toward her in greeting.
“I’m Deborah. Thank you for serving, Morgan.” She smiled sweetly then buried her face in the menu.
“Actually, you should call me James, seeing as it’s my first name and all. Care to let me treat you to a malted milk? It would be an honor and a pleasure.”
She took a moment to size him up. Deciding he was harmless, she answered with “Strawberry, thank you.”
“Hey, that’s what I like too. In fact, mine only just came out from back. Take it.” He slid the chilly confection her way, and she graciously accepted.
“When do you ship off?” she asked, sucking in a mouthful of the delicious treat as she waited for his answer.
“So this is your last night stateside?”
He glanced toward the counter for a moment, then fixed his gaze on her with burning intensity.
“Come out on the town with me, Deborah. Let’s make a night to remember.”
Deborah smiled and stammered to buy herself some time. She’d only just turned seventeen, and she’d never gone steady with a boy before. But James wasn’t asking to go steady. He was just inviting her out for a wholesome night of fun. Who was she to deny him this small pleasure when he was willing to give so much to keep his fellow Americans safe and free?
James tapped his foot on the floor. A nervous twitch? His lips set in a straight line, and she could tell he was forcing himself to keep his mouth shut and let her answer when she felt good and ready.
Well, heck, he seemed like a nice enough fellow. What could one night hurt?
“Okay,” she said at last. “Let’s hit the town.”
* * *
James couldn’t believe his luck. She’d agreed. This angel had actually agreed to spend the night with plain, old him. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her as they walked down the clean sidewalks of the tiny downtown area, licking at ice cream cones—strawberry, of course—and getting to know one another.
He banged his arm against a streetlight, but he hardly noticed the throbbing pain as they carried on down the street.
Deborah winced but continued with her story.
“So I graduate next year, and I have no idea what I’ll do then. You know, if I were a fella, I think I might like to serve like you’re doing. Of course, it’d be the Navy for me though. I do so love the water.”
James smiled. “I’m guessin’ that’s only because you haven’t yet seen the skies. Maybe one day I can show you.
“I’d like that.”
As they neared the edge of the park, Deborah rushed ahead and climbed onto the brick retaining wall, then placed one foot carefully in front of the other as she balanced on the ledge.
“I haven’t seen the skies, but now I’m a little bit closer.” She giggled and leaped into James’s arms when she reached the end of the wall.
He held her waist and stared into her eyes. His ice cream cone lay melting on the sidewalk beside him, but he didn’t mind one bit.
Deborah flushed and scrunched up her nose, then took a big lick of her still intact cone. “Mmm-mmm,” she teased before offering James to share.
And just as quickly as she had ended up in his arms, she was out again. She raced toward the tiny courtyard at the park’s center and stopped before the statue of old Huxtable.
“You kind of look like him, don’t you?” She moved her eyes from the statue to James then back again.
“Well, that’s a first.” He laughed. “Never been told I remind someone of an old, dirty statue before.”
“You can see it in the jaw.” She gently brushed her fingers along his.
He wanted to swoop in and kiss her so badly, but he knew better than to take such liberties with a girl he’d just met—no matter how much he felt for her already.
“Well then, I’m flattered. I hope I can be half the hero Huxtable was.”
She reached forward to hold both his hands, and an intoxicating, tingling feeling worked its way through his body.
“To me, you already are.”
* * *
She liked him. She really liked him. Too much for the welfare of either, she feared. What was it about this man that had her so taken? Was it because she feared for her own future as well as his?
A year until graduation. That’s all she had to figure out her place in the world, not that there were too many places where she’d belong.
She hated that the boys were the ones to have all the adventures while her parents expected her to brush up on her domestic skills and find a nice boy to marry. She didn’t want to be stuck in a kitchen for the rest of her life. No, she wanted to see the world, on the back of a motorcycle or aboard a sailboat perhaps.
Staying still had never suited her much.
Then there was James. He almost made her want to give up on her delusions of what her life could be and throw them toward the altar of marriage. They’d drink malted milks in bed and take the wildest vacations with their brood of sons.
She could picture their life together already, and it scared her.
What about her freedom? What about her sense of self?
She felt she still had them with James, but would it be the same with another boy? Her parents couldn’t afford college, and besides they didn’t think she’d need a degree to be a housewife—said her poetry was nothing more than a silly hobby.
But what would James think?
“I write, did you know that?”
He laughed for what was probably the hundredth time since they’d met earlier that evening. “Not until you just told me, but somehow I’m not surprised. Read me something?”
“I’ll tell you one of my favorites. I must confess it’s a little inappropriate for mixed company.”
James’s face flushed, but he didn’t look away. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”
She stepped a few paces away, then recited her favorite thing she’d ever written.
“My love knows no man.
My love knows only me.
Touching, feeling, imagining what could one day be.
My love is hungry, devouring me from inside.
Yet still I have no partner in whom I can confide.
To touch, to feel, to live a love so real and full.
One day it may be, but until then myself I am whole.”
James’s face was a whole new shade of red as he glanced from her face to her hands, working out the meaning behind her poetry.
“I like that you can be so honest in your writing. You have a real gift, Deborah.”
Now she was the one flushing. Her name on his lips was enough to bring the heat to her cheeks as well as other parts of her body as of yet untouched by a man.
His eyes stayed on her as he rose from the bench and closed the distance between them. The stars above twinkled, as did his eyes as he drew nearer.
“May I kiss you?” he asked at last, and she could only nod, her words having been consumed by the poetry.
He inched forward to close the final bit of distance between them. The evening shadow on his chin tickled as they came together, and she liked it very much—the smoothness of his lips matched with the coarseness of his whiskers.
So this is what it feels like to be with a man?
Only she knew it wasn’t just about being with a man. It was about being with James. They’d only just begun, and already she was smitten.
* * *
And as soon as the night began, it was over.
Their kiss had been short and sweet and earth-shattering. Why couldn’t he have met this perfect woman earlier—or even later? Why did it have to be when so little time remained of his youth—and quite possibly of his life?
He couldn’t—nor would he want to—defect. His country needed him, and he was proud to serve. Yet…
Deborah’s thumb massaged his as they held hands and strolled through the neighborhood. He’d ask her to go steady, but knowing he’d be gone for so long… that just wouldn’t be fair.
It was like caging a wild bird, the beauty being erased by the captivity. He refused to put Deborah in a cage, no matter how much he’d like to keep her as his own.
If things between them were right—as he truly believed them to be—then it would all work out for them in the end, war or no war. They’d find a way back into each other’s arms somehow.
“This is me.” Deborah pointed toward a small ranch style home with green shutters and a row of rosebushes out front.
This was it, the end of their perfect evening together.
“I don’t have a way with words the way you do, but this has been real swell, Deborah. Thank you for coming out with me tonight.”
She smiled, but he could sense the building sorrow behind her mask of happiness. While this could very well be the end for them, he refused to believe it. He hoped she felt the same too.
“May I kiss you goodnight?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Our last kiss was perfect, and I refuse to kiss goodnight, because it’s really kissing goodbye.”
She took his face in her hands and leaned in to brush her eyelashes against his cheek. “This isn’t goodbye, you hear? It’s just see ya in a while.”
They embraced, and then Deborah headed inside alone.
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