Summer 1952

“I noticed you weren’t at the barn dance last night.” Douglas prompted.

Robin hurried down her front steps, her heavy suitcase forcing her to walk lopsidedly. He followed.

“You going next week?” A flop of unruly dirty blonde hair hung in front one of his eyes. “I… I miss seeing you there, that’s all.”

“I don’t think I can make next week ether.” Robin’s words sounded cold even to her ears. She dared not look at the wounded look on his face. She sighed. How long was he going to follow her? She had never kept a secret from him before. They’d been friends since Douglas moved to Oak Grove, South Carolina, which was ten years ago. At only sixteen, that was definitely the longest friendship Robin had ever had. Still, she couldn’t tell him why she was leaving Oak Grove. The less he knew right now, the better.

They neared the end of her dirt driveway, where it met with the gravel of the ever straight road. In one direction lay the town of Orangeville, and the other lead towards answers – also known as Columbia, South Carolina.

“You’re carrying your suitcase.”

It wasn’t phrased as a question, but Robin knew it was. “If my parents ask, you never saw me, okay?” Her dad was at work until late evening. Mom would be home from her quilting bee in a couple hours, but Robin had told her she’d be at a friend’s until her curfew – dinner time. Robin had almost six hours before anyone else knew she was gone. That was all she needed to get to Columbia, visit Rusty’s Diner, and find a nice hotel. With one hand, she fingered the dollar bills in the pocket of her cardigan. Hopefully it’d be enough. With enough luck, she planned on eventually renting an apartment – something permanent. She glanced at Douglas, who was still walking beside her. She had braced herself earlier for this goodbye. It didn’t make the lying easier. “I’m just going for a walk.” With my suitcase. You mean you don’t do that?

“Going anywhere specific? I can give a ride in my truck.”

“Thanks, but I’m enjoying the sun. I’m looking to improve my tan.” And I need to be alone, she thought.

Douglas understood she was omitting the truth, but he didn’t press her for the details. He stayed at her side. “You’ll be back in time to fish, right? It’s Friday, you know.” He paused, musing. “I hope we catch more than last week.”

Robin closed her eyes for an exasperating moment. The only way she would get him to leave her alone was to lie again. “I’ve got far better things to do, Douglas,” she snapped, “ I’ve never enjoyed fishing. I didn’t think I needed to spell it all out for you.”

His steps hesitated, and then stopped. “Well, fine.” Robin could hear his angry voice fading behind her. “For the record, I have things to do too. Like right now, I’m going to go drink sweet tea with my mother.”

Robin never stopped walking. While she hadn’t planned on ripping Douglas’s heart to shreds, it was the only way. She couldn’t risk telling him the truth. Her one aim was to visit her brother. The brother that she shared blood with, the one who used to take her on joy rides in his convertible. The brother she didn’t know was still alive until this morning. Robin had always been told that he’d joined the army eight years ago, and then was killed in action shortly after. Yet he was very much alive. He lived nine miles away, in the loft above a restaurant called Rusty’s. The details were poured out over a breakfast of Crispy Flakes cereal.

Mom’s hand flew to her mouth. “Dean, you need to read this.” She handed the daily paper across the table.

Dad’s eyes traveled back and forth across the page. “I never thought…” He struggled to form a sentence. “It’s been so long since… He’s actually…”

Robin frowned in confusion, watching the exchange. She peered over the edge of the paper, catching a few headlines. “Stray kitten walked into gas station, scaring customers.” Her father was allergic; why would he be so intrigued by a cat? Robin shook her head. She followed his gaze to another headline: “Local boy is new owner of Rusty’s in downtown Columbia.”

“What’s so exciting about that?” Robin swallowed the last bite of delicious bran flakes. Both parents appeared shell-shocked by the article. “What is it?”

Dad jumped up enthusiastically, and slapped the article face down on the table. “Looks like I’m late for work.” He downed the rest of his coffee, gave his wife a kiss on the head, and escaped out the front door.

“It’s just an article,” Mom answered, a wavering smile on her face. “You know how much I enjoy the paper. Sometimes I become too involved in the news.”

“I’ve never seen you so involved before. What was dad talking about?”

“It’s nothing.”

Robin sat, feeling betrayed. Waiting for answers. After several moments of prodding and waiting, someone finally spoke.

“There are some things you don’t know.”

Her brother and childhood hero had been dishonorably discharged from the army a few months after he was deployed to Germany. His parents didn’t want to advertise the delinquent son, and so they told all that he had died in the line of duty. It’s not like he had wanted to return home, anyways. He was perfectly happy living a lifestyle of whiskey and bar fights to care about his sister or his parents. Or at least that’s what Mom had told Robin. She’d also been told not to contact Troy. He was nothing but trouble. It was best for her. Robin had sweetly smiled. As soon as Mom had left for her quilting club that morning, she picked up and left. With her hard earned babysitting money in her pocket, and all the clothes she could stuff into the leather suitcase, she strode towards the truth. She had to know why Troy had never returned. Once she that was all sorted out, she would find an apartment and live beside her brother. Anger rose inside her heart as she thought of how she’d been betrayed by the lies. She’d thought Troy – the one other person that she shared DNA and blood with – was dead. Buried in the veteran cemetery. Now it didn’t matter what he might have done before; it only mattered that she could be with him.

Those thoughts fuelled her energy for the next nine miles. Her feet ached. The humid air forced her brunette wisps to stick to her moist skin. She had plenty of time to think of what she’d say when she saw him. “You’re alive. I’ve missed you. Where’ve you been? It doesn’t matter. I’m going to stay around here for a while. Think I can stay with you?” Nothing seemed worthy of the first words she’d say to him.

Several hours later, she passed the welcome sign for Columbia. A lump formed in her throat. She stopped in a gas station and asked for directions to the restaurant. She stepped out a moment later, an address scrawled on receipt paper.

After lugging around the suitcase for three more blocks, she stood before her destination. Rusty’s Diner and Bar. The building had a log-cabin look, and the parking lot was in a need of a good litter pick-up. Spotting the front door with a broken spring, she walked forward. She almost thought she was going to be sick from the nervous flutters in the stomach, but she pushed the door open despite it all. The air was dimly lit. A wrinkle faced man sat in a table in the corner, cigar smoke rose in wisps around him. He was the only customer. He didn’t even bother to look up at her. Instead he stared into the beer mug in front of him.

Robin squinted towards the front counter. One lone employee stood, slowly wiping off counters with a ragged cloth. Even from the distance, somehow she knew. Her shoes made definite clicks against the wood floor. He glanced up, did a double take, and frowned. He went back to scrubbing at the counter. He definitely had the brunette hair and two light freckles on one cheek, a trademark of the Hughes family. Robin rested her suitcase on the ground, massaging her tired hand for a moment. Her eyes never left his face. Would he recognize her? What to say?

“We don’t serve minors anymore.” His flat voice caught her off guard.

“Troy?”

“You’re speaking to him. What can I get for you, young lady? Soda? A burger?”

She managed a hesitant smile. “I’m Robin. Robin Hughes. Your sister.”

Silence over stayed its welcome. “It can’t be.”

Her grin widened. “I finally found you. All this time, I didn’t think you were alive. Now Mom and Dad told me that say you’d wanted to leave, and wanted to stay away. I didn’t believe that.” He was shaking his head. Robin’s hopes were confirmed. He wasn’t really a bad man and he had wanted to come back. He was about to tell her his reasons.

“No,” he said. “this can’t be happening.” He started backing away from the counter. Robin sat rigidly still in confusion. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he groaned, his voice rising in resentment. “I was supposed to disappear. Or at least disappear from Oak Grove.” He laughed, as if it was truly funny. “Does it still have only one gas station and no movie theatre? I needed to get away. Build a life for myself.”

All the things had Robin had been told about her brother that morning rang in her ears. She had to hear him refute it. “So you became an alcoholic?”

“It – It wasn’t like that,” he sputtered. Mom and Dad just didn’t approve of anything I did. I was the failed kid. But you – ” He glanced anxiously at his customer in the corner and lowered his voice. He leaned closer to Robin as if he would tell her a secret. “You can’t come around here. Ever. It’s not like I’d ever come back with you, if that’s what you think. Thank you for reminding me of my painful past.” He spat out painful like a bug had flew in his mouth. “I don’t want to think about what’s behind me – like my strict father and the dead town. That clear? Now scat.” As he twisted on his heel and disappeared into the back, another man appeared from the back of the restaurant.

“What’s the commotion about?” The burly man asked Troy. He received no answer and turned to Robin. “You alright, miss?”

She couldn’t answer. How had everything turned out so differently?

“Can I call someone for you – maybe a cab?”

She found herself shaking her head. Reality was setting in. She didn’t have enough money for a cab, and certainly not for an apartment.

“There’s a phone in the parking lot if you change your mind.”

Robin picked up the leather suitcase and winced. Her hands sported red welts from the handle digging into her skin on the journey there. She trudged out the restaurant door, replaying every second in her head. “You can’t come around here. Now scat.” His hazel eyes had been completely frozen. There was not a gram of feeling in them at all. How was it was possible that she shared DNA with someone like that?

She knew there was only one thing to do. She may not have money for a cab, but she had enough change for the pay phone. She dialed the only number she’d fully memorized. Standing at the phone booth in the parking lot of Rusty’s Diner and Bar, she’d never felt so alone. The other end of the line rang once. She willed someone pick up. He had to pick up. They’d been there for each other all those other times. He defended her horrible haircut in fifth grade. Second ring. He warded off Terrifying Tony, the bully in sixth grade. He even took a black eye for her. Third ring. During her first breakup, he’d let her cry and rant while her parents had only said “there are other fish in the sea.” Last year, when he’d gotten bronchitis, Robin had brought over chicken noodle soup every morning. Most recently, they had helped each other through grueling chemistry class. Fourth ring.

“Hello?”

She took a deep breath and tried to maintain her composure. Someday, she would be able process what had just happened in that bar. Today wasn’t it. One thing she didn’t need to process. Blood had never held as much value as she’d thought. “Douglas, it’s me. I’m sorry I lied before. I’d love to catch sunfish tonight.”

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