He lasts a decade exactly with Becky, after the war. Ten whole years of bitter, unresolved arguments, of her crying and him shouting, slamming doors, storming out. It must have been good, once, there must have been a time when they were still trying to make it work and there was light and laughter sandwiched between long working days and even longer sleepless nights, Jesus Christ, there must have been a reason she agreed to marry him in the first place, but it’s difficult to remember more than a vague blur of that. Mitch Adams has far, far more important memories to keep - those of good men, dead men who might be lost forever if he forgets them (he tries anyway, sometimes, on the nights when he can only remember Czechowski choking on his own terrified tears or Tennessee’s face just before the grenade blew it off). Memories of Stu, on the train and the beach and that night in the supply closet. The comradery, the close-knit buddy groups, the few precious, snatched moments of romance amidst the awful bloodbath of the goddamn war.
She can’t leave, or won’t leave, because she can’t take the disgrace of it and because she’s always been fucking useless, but it’s hardly like he has anything left to lose. Funny, that he’s spent so much time doing nothing, going nowhere, like his life actually stopped that day in the army hospital in Honolulu. He doesn’t have any proper friends, doesn’t have any valuables, doesn’t even have a family, not really. They always say you come back different from war, and he’d tried his best to ignore that, but more and more it feels like he never came back at all, like he put his whole life on hold somewhere along the line and never came back for it.
Leaving doesn’t even take much organising, not when he’s always awake in the middle of the night anyway, not when all he takes with him is a rucksack with his packed lunch for work in, enough money to make it to the west coast. Christ, he doesn’t even bother to quit his job, to say goodbye to any of the other regulars at the local bar (the bar that somewhere along the way learned his name, his order, the exact time he’ll come in every day), even to bring any identification. He just stops pacing the worn bedroom floorboards one morning at five thirty-four, in the middle of a waltz, slips his bag onto his shoulder and takes a last long look at Becky Adams sleeping in their bed, hair tumbling over her shoulder, exposed above the white cotton of her nightdress. She looks beautiful. The sight of her makes him sick.
Mitch leaves his house without another backwards glance, walks the streets of Trenton for the last time and gets on a bus, then a train. By the time anyone notices he’s gone, there’s nothing left to trace him by. He’s become the ghost he’s felt for the last decade.
The journey to ‘Frisco is long, torturously so, and once he might have spent it all tense, worried, tempted to turn back and make up some bullshit excuse and continue his safe, routine existence, going to work and coming home and drinking until he forgets the flashbacks and the heartache and the constant tremble in his hands, drinking until he forgets his own name and passes out, too unconscious even for nightmares. But he can’t live like that any more, and even though Mitch hasn’t dared consider what might happen when he arrives, he’s sure of that at least. He didn’t even bring enough money for a return ticket.
Wandering through the city streets is funny. Excitement as well as apprehension fizzes low in his belly, god , he can’t remember the last time he felt like this. He lets himself picture Stu here, in these streets, wonders how they must look through his eyes. Like home, probably. It could have been his home, too, if he’d made different choices. Better choices.
From his pocket, Mitch fetches the folded letter with Stu’s address on it, the piece of paper yellowed and made delicate with age and the wear that comes from living in his coat’s breast pocket. He smooths it out with care, eyes flitting across the familiar wild swoops and curls of Rotelli’s writing, down to the piece of information he wants like he doesn’t already have it memorised. Like he hasn’t done this countless times in New Jersey, toyed with the idea of up and leaving for countless months, years even. It’s hard to believe that he’s actually here, even though he’s been resolved to it for months, even though he feels more alive right now than he has in a very long time.
He takes directions from one, two, three strangers before he finds the right street, charms his way past the doorman with the same dazzling smiles and easy humour that used to come so easily, once. Hurries up the stairs that Stu must walk up and down every day like he belongs here.
It’s only when he reaches the door that Mitch hesitates, hand already raised to knock. What if he turns him away? What if he doesn’t live here any longer? Not much good worrying about that now, when he’s cold and hungry and has nowhere else to go. No money. Christ, no-one even knows if he’s alive.
“Coming!” Calls a cheerful, unmistakable voice. It actually, physically hurts, the way that voice twists and tears at his heart. God , he’s missed it.
The door unlocks. Stu looks different, of course he does, it’s been a decade, but not as different as Mitch might have expected. There are fine lines growing like roots from the corners of his eyes, he’s wearing civilian clothes and a cooking apron. He looks happy , truly, bone-deep, in the moment before his eyes take in his visitor and the smile slips straight off his face like he’s seen a ghost.
“Oh.” He says faintly. “Oh god.”