She scurried along the Boardwalk almost giggling with delight, a full bag of groceries in one arm; Tommy just two steps behind her tightly gripping the index finger of her other hand with his own little paw. It was dusk and the sky above them swirled in hues of heather and deep violet. The moon hadn't risen yet, but, judging by the clouds on the horizon she didn't think they'd be seeing it anytime soon. The air was crisp, the temperature bitter and she allowed herself to indulge in a smile because it smelled like snow. She wasn't cold though- she was too excited- plus she had her shawl over the shoulders of her coat. Tommy was wearing the mittens and scarf Mary knitted, so she needn't worry about him either.
The thought of the Dittrich's brought a blissful sigh and she shook her head at her own silliness. True, they weren't family yet they were so much more than friends. In fact, she wasn't sure where she'd be without them. She'd just left their shop and, if not for their kindness, she would have had both arms free for her son. Robert even tried to sneak a peppermint stick in the bag for Tommy when he thought she wasn't looking. Upon parting, the three discussed plans to have Christmas dinner together. It was the first time in almost three years that she wouldn't be dining alone and her heart was so light she thought she might just fly away.
Nucky Thompson faithfully sent her stipend every first of the month. Never in person, of course- she'd only met with him a handful of times- but always on time by one of his men. She'd come to know them each a little over the years, inviting them in for coffee and welcoming the adult company she so desperately craved even if they could only spare her a few minutes. She found she preferred Eli's conversation the most. Sometimes he'd even bring Tommy a secondhand toy that wouldn't be missed by one of his own children or fresh vegetables from his wife's garden during the summer months.
But she wanted this Christmas to be special for Tommy so she'd been squirreling away some of her budget- a nickel here a penny or two there- since Labor Day. Because of this, she sometimes fell short with her account at the grocer and once she almost didn't have enough to make rent. She was never one to ask for charity, and when Robert and Mary initially offered her assistance she respectfully turned them down. However, she still had Tommy to think about and was determined to make sure that St. Nicholas left something in his stocking this year; her only consolation being that he was too young to either realize or remember that the jolly old elf skipped over their humble dwelling in years past. The boy had been coveting a set of toy soldiers and the thought of disappointing him broke her heart so they ultimately worked out an agreement. She was to wash and press their laundry weekly, as well as sweep up the photography studio after the last session each evening in exchange for food or other small necessities. She was eternally grateful and made sure that Mary, in particular, was aware of just how much she'd come to appreciate her.
They made their way down the ramp of the Boardwalk, turned the corner, and she stopped in her tracks. Tommy bumped into her and let out a small whimper at the jolt.
"There, there," she soothed him in a hushed voice, all the while trying to keep herself calm. She retrieved the candy cane from her bag and easily won back his smile.
She closed her eyes, but when she opened them the image was still there. Her heart began to race and she blinked again; surely this was another figment of her imagination. The war ended months ago and, even before that, over a year had passed since she received the last chicken-scratched letter. She'd long stopped looking for him, reconciling herself to the sad truth that he wasn't coming home and never sure what to say to her son when he asked about Daddy.
At first, she saw him everywhere. The faces of her customers at the restaurant would melt into his every time someone ordered one of his favorite dishes. Or, she'd find herself wandering their regular haunts on campus and see him among a crowd of boys hurrying into one of the red brick buildings. Sometimes, she would wait for him on a bench at the train station, hoping and praying he'd changed his mind; that through some miracle Nucky got him out of his enlistment and he wouldn't have to ship out. She knew it was ridiculous but she couldn't help herself, her hormones having their way with her emotions. It was one of the reasons she opted to leave Princeton altogether. That, and the fact that her aunt tossed her out once she began showing.
The bag in her arm grew heavy, so she switched it to her other and slowed her pace; her keen eye taking in every detail of the profile before her. He was still a block away, more than enough time for her to prepare herself. She'd been wrong so many times before and knew better than to get her hopes up.
He stood leaning against the lamp post in front of her boardinghouse. His head was down, his cap lowered almost to the bridge of his nose but she could still the tip of it…and his full lips…and his strong jaw line. His left hand was in his coat pocket and he was smoking with his right; gray puffs escaping into the air above him. His olive green coat hung loosely on him, the collar turned up at the nape of his neck. There was a small satchel the same color as the coat to the left of his feet, but she didn't yet see the single crutch to his right.
She didn't realize the she'd been holding her breath until he looked up to face her and all at once the air was punched out of her. Tommy had been skipping along, happily slurping on his candy, and gave away their presence.
"Ange?" he asked timidly in a voice she didn't quite recognize.
She stood frozen in place and pursed her lips, defiantly willing her lower mandible to stop quivering and fighting the tears that were welling up in her espresso eyes. He tossed what remained of his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. The last three years flashed through her mind as it occurred to her that, being that she still couldn't move, he would be approaching them.
It hadn't been easy for her. Truthfully, there were many times she found that when she wasn't missing him she was furious with him. He left them; the responsibilities of fatherhood being too much for him to bear so much so that he felt the need to put an ocean between them not to mention his own life at risk. He thought going to war was a better prospect than marrying her and that hurt. She didn't understand it. He made his decision entirely too fast, almost as if overnight.
She'd come to Atlantic City at his recommendation; foolishly believing him when he said that his mother would help when the baby came. It made sense enough to her, the woman was also a single mother…surely she would understand. But the welcome she received from Gillian was lukewarm, at best, and made her feel very uncomfortable. She'd invited her into her flat for pie, insisting that she have another piece. She was already full but stomached the second helping out of politeness and when she was finished her future mother-in-law was quick to show her out.
"Feel free to stop by anytime, dear."
The words alone were friendly enough. It was her delivery that was unsettling. Her pitch was too sweet, her smile shark-like and toothy. But, perhaps what was most unsettling was the look in Gillian's eyes; regarding her as if she were an insect to crush under her heel rather than her only son's expecting fiancée.
Tommy was a colicky baby and, in her sleep deprived state, she cursed Jimmy for leaving her to bear the burden all alone. Once, he wailed inconsolably for three whole days. She tried everything and was at her wits end; crying hysterically herself until a neighbor took pity on her offering to take the babe for a walk outdoors so she could get some much needed rest. It was a welcome break, if only for a few hours, and the only time she received any assistance with child care until she met the Dittrich's.
These were not the sentiments to share with your sweetheart when he was half a world away, so she kept her letters light. Her anger would wax and wane periodically; her moods swinging from desolation to extreme guilt. He was fighting for their country; their freedoms… she was being selfish. While she knew deep down that there was no distinction between men that enlisted versus those that had been drafted- that they were all facing the same hell- she held Jimmy on a pedestal. He was a hero, she told herself. He volunteered to go; he didn't wait to be asked. It was something she took pride in; one of few stories she could tell her little boy. Every girl should be so lucky to have the affections of such a man.
He picked up his satchel, and began shuffling towards her. His right leg was stiff, and her eyes darted towards the crutch he'd left against the pole.
Oh, God. He's hurt.
An injury was always a possibility. It was war, after all. Yet, somehow, while she'd slowly come to terms with the notion of his untimely death the thought that he'd been wounded never occurred to her. Seeing him now shook her to her very core, any lingering anger or guilt immediately forgotten.
She drew a deep breath to try to maintain her composure. She ached for him; wanting nothing more than to run to him and throw her arms around him but she didn't know besides the leg if he'd been injured anywhere else. It wasn't out of false sympathy or sense of obligation either. All at once she was seventeen again, losing herself in his sapphire eyes. Their brilliance was gone, replaced by something tortured and haunted that she chose to ignore for the time being.
He'd been seated in a small booth at her aunt's café, his nose in a book as always. She was clearing the table next to him. She'd been watching him from afar for weeks. Regardless of what he ordered, he'd never finish the whole meal; absentmindedly pushing the remaining morsels around his plate with a fork. Sometimes, if he wasn't reading, she'd catch him staring aimlessly out the window. He seemed so…lost. She stacked the plates in front of her while peripherally admiring his profile- particularly his lips. They looked soft and supple. Usually reserved, she liked what she saw and summoned the courage to speak to him.
"What are you reading?" she asked politely.
"And the great star early droop'd…" she replied softly.
That was when he first looked up at her. And so they began. And so they would begin again she told herself.
Now those deep blue eyes were pulling her in again. Two refreshing pools she longed to swim naked in.
He stopped a few inches away from her, but she could already feel the heat between them. He cocked his head slightly to the side, regarding her nervously.
"Lemme look atcha," he asked tenderly, grazing his thumb against her right cheekbone.
The skin was callous, but the touch left her reeling just the same. Her raven mane was swept haphazardly up under her hat, a few flyaway's escaping when she'd been sweeping earlier, and she chided herself for not looking her best for him. All she could do was force her lips into her sweetest smile and hold his gaze for as long as she could.
"Jimmy…" she mustered, her own voice cracking, "you're alive."
With that she drew her hands up to her mouth, ashamed that she'd let the last word slip out two octaves higher than she'd intended. He nodded solemnly in response then furrowed his brow, looking around them.
"Where's the baby?" he asked and she realized he'd been expecting to see an infant. That, for him at least, time and space were frozen since their last correspondence.
Tommy was clinging to her left leg, hiding behind her skirt and still sucking away on his peppermint stick. He was usually not shy around new faces, but she got the impression her son knew instinctively that this was no ordinary stranger. Unsure how to respond, and not wanting to embarrass him, she could only look down at the child and hope that he followed her gaze.
Jimmy grinned, swelling with pride, and she'd forgotten how much she loved his smile (having not seen much of it before his departure). He reached in his bag and pulled out a small Teddy Bear. He moved slowly- bending was clearly an effort for him- and lowered himself down to the boy's level, looking his son in the eye. She stepped backwards herself, giving them space for their first introduction.
"Hi there Tommy," Jimmy said softly, offering the stuffed animal.
But the child looked shyly away, burying his face against his mother. He quickly glanced at Jimmy again- his dark eyes as wide as the Great Horned Owl's-before pulling the skirt over them a second time.
She looked hopefully from one to the other. Seeing that Jimmy was crushed, she bent down herself to intervene. She took the bear from him, and ran it along Tommy's cheek.
"So soft, isn't he?" she smiled, bringing forth a muffled giggle so she nuzzled him again at which point he finally looked up. She gently brushed the toy against his button nose and watched with relief as the corners of his little mouth turned up into a smirk. "What are you going to name him?" she ventured.
"Woobee," the child responded.
"That's a nice name," his father added thoughtfully, exhaling as he struggled to stand back up. She couldn't help but grab his elbow to ensure that he was steady.
"I got somethin' for you, too," Jimmy added. Reaching into his satchel again he retrieved a small box of fudge. "I'm sorry it's not more…" he trailed off bashfully as he handed it to her.
"No, they're my favorite," she assured him, blushing herself. "How sweet of you to come bearing gifts."
Just then, the clouds above them gave way to the first snowflakes of winter. Tommy squealed with delight. Holding his arms perpendicular- candy in one hand, bear in the other- he threw his head back and twirled around in an effort to catch them on his tongue, which, unbeknownst to him, gave his parents another private moment together.
By this point, her emotions were getting the best of her and she found she could no longer keep the tears at bay. He reached out and cradled her, pulling her close against his chest. His coat smelled of tobacco- she'd have to get used to it, she supposed. She buried her face against something hard, realizing a few seconds later that it was his protruding collarbone and suppressing a sob at the thought and possible reality that she'd be able to count his ribs.
"It's okay, Ange," he said softly. "I'm home…I'm home now."
"Just in time for Christmas, too," she looked up, smiling through her tears and (for the moment anyway) completely forgetting her prior engagement.
He gave a slight nod, the weight of those words and the situation itself almost too much for him too.
"C'mon," she sniffled, collecting herself. Her left hand reaching out to gather her son, she entwined the fingers of her right with Jimmy's. "Let's get you out of this cold and I'll fix you some supper."
And so the three of them made their way down the sidewalk, the first few steps in their new lives together.