Rose stumbled into the train and collapsed onto the nearest available seat. After a long, almost endless day at work the only thing she craved was a long, hot shower and sleep.
She loosened the band holding her deep brown hair, closed her eyes and sunk deeper into the cushioned seat while sighing with relief as she heard the hydraulic hiss of the doors closing. Suddenly though her ears were assaulted by the sound of boots thudding against the plastic flooring, indicating the arrival of a new passenger.
Curious, she lifted her head and let her eyes flicker open. But the moment her eyes fell on the man who had just boarded the train, she immediately recoiled. Subconsciously, she knew there was nothing about the man to warrant such an extreme response from her but the large white scar across his face and the crumpled, burnt skin scattered across his cheeks and forearms, marring his features, gave him a truly terrifying look.
Worry bubbled in her chest when she noticed that the man, who was still standing even though the train had started moving, was staring at the seat next to her, almost as though he was considering occupying it.
She let herself relax though, when she realized that the train was relatively empty and there were several other unoccupied seats besides the one next to her. But she immediately began to tense up again when the man walked up to her and with a polite nod, lowered himself down onto the seat next to her.
Rose knew that the fear which had settled in her stomach was entirely irrational but she couldn’t help but consider shifting to another place for a few long moments. Finally, not wanting to seem rude, she decided to remain where she was and instead resorted to retracting herself into a protective and closed off posture.
“Lovely evening isn’t it.” The man suddenly said, tearing through the uncomfortable silence which had settled. The sound of the man’s voice struck something deep in Rose’s subconscious and for a moment Rose felt as though she couldn’t breathe.
“I suppose.” She managed to reply while trying to keep her voice level. But even to her own ears she sounded an octave higher than normal.
With a quick, polite nod Rose quickly broke eye contact with the stranger and glued her eyes to the moving scenery outside her window while her mind worked furiously to work out why she found the man’s voice to be so familiar and why his voice made her feel so sad.
After staring intently at the moving trees for a few moments, Rose felt her gaze moving back towards the stranger. But the moment her eyes fell on him she quickly looked away as she did not want to be caught staring at him. This happened twice more and the stranger must have noticed something because by the fourth time his eyes were there waiting for her.
“It’s alright. I’m quite used to the staring.” The man said with a small amount of dark amusement lingering behind his deep grey eyes. It took Rose a moment to understand what he meant and when she realized that he thought she was staring at his scars she immediately went to apologize. Before she could get the words out though, he stopped her with a small wave of his hand.
“Like I said, it’s quite alright. At least you were being discrete. Not many are.” He said with a small, humourless smile. “Either ways, I wear these scars proudly. I received them fighting for my country after all.”
“Oh! You were in the army.” Rose said, her voice catching as she remembered the loss her family had suffered during the most recent war.
“Yes. I was, in fact, a Capitan.” He replied, pride leaking into his voice. “I had to leave my wife and child behind though. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.” He paused for a breath, his pain prominent on his face. “In fact…” he continued in a lower voice. “Even though the war is over I am still separated from them and I don’t know if I will ever be able to see them again.”
“What! Why is that?” Rose exclaimed, extremely curious to know the rest of the man’s story.
“They think I am dead.” The man replied after a moment in a soft, pained whisper. Rose’s eyes widened when she heard the man’s words and opened her mouth, trying to formulate an appropriate response. When she realized she couldn’t she silently prompted the man on with her eyes. The man seemed to pick up her muted request because he took a deep, albeit shaky, breath and continued to speak.
“You see,” he began. “If I had a choice I would never have put my family through so much pain. But in this particular situation I had none.” He paused again and took a shuddering breath and seemed to be carefully considering his next words. “To put it simply, I made a few very bad calls and ended up getting myself and a two other soldiers captured by the enemy and the used, shall we say some persuasive techniques on us to make us spill inside information.” Rose felt her mouth go dry and felt all the blood leave her face when she understood what the man meant. The man noticed how ashen her face had grown because he gave her a slightly apologetic look before continuing. “ We were stuck there for a few days and in that time the two other men were killed. I realized that the only reason I was alive was because of my rank but I knew that I would soon follow. By the fifth day I had almost given up hope that I would make it out alive but that was when I got lucky and managed to break out. Coincidently that was the same time our side had decided to drop a few bombs onto the enemy camp and just when someone realized I had got out a bomb fell pretty close to where I was standing. I had managed to get to a safe place before it exploded and make it out of their camp unseen and both sides seemed to think I had died that day. There were too many bodied and all of them were charred beyond recognition so I guess the presumed I was one of them.” It took Rose a moment to realize the man had stopped speaking. She was extremely curious to hear the rest of his story but couldn’t decide whether to ask him to continue or not. Finally her curiosity won out.
“What happened next?” Rose asked him tentatively, hoping that she hadn’t pushed past an invisible boundary. The man simply seemed amused by her morbid curiosity but showed no signs of insult because of her prying.
“Well,” He began. “After that I spent a few days truly considering going back to my company and informing them that I had survived. But I did not know whether that would somehow affect the safety of my family if our opposition realized I was not dead. So I instead ran and I am still running until I can find the safest time to stop.” Taking a breath the man looked out of the window. “And I am afraid that is all the time we have.” He suddenly said and while I tried to decipher the meaning behind his strange words the train slipped into a tunnel and was engulfed by darkness.
“Goodbye Rose, my little flower.” She heard the man whisper and the moment the words registered in her mind she froze. There was only one person who called her that but it was impossible for him to be there, sitting next to her because he was dead. Rose knew that because she could remember, better than anything, that rainy morning when a stoic faced man dressed in white showed up at her home bearing the news any child of a solider feared. She remembered the apologetic but meaningless words and the promises that her father had died a hero and all the tears she had shed that day.
Rose quickly broke away from her thoughts and turned to address the man.
“Dad…” She started to say but the words died on her lips when she noticed the train had stopped and seat was empty, save for a small piece of paper. She reached out to the still warm seat with trembling fingers and retrieved it. A small, sad smile spread on her lips when she read the word ‘Farewell” printed neatly on the white sheet. Pulling her eyes from the paper she looked out of the window and saw the man, her father standing a small distance away with a smile, mirroring her own. Then with a small, almost unnoticeable nod he blended into the crowd.
As the train started moving again rose settled back into her seat, her smile still in place, knowing that not only had her father approached her to offer an apology and an explanation but also to promise that maybe one day things would get better.