Dan Yokum

Mark stood at the sink furthest from the door, looking into the greasy steel mirror. The restroom was surprisingly empty, even if only for a few seconds, hopefully at least thirty more, so he could complete his job without intrusive questions or stares. He stuck his fingers into a jar of pancake concealer, hooking a blob to put on that special part of his face. When his fingers were an inch away, he hesitated. The surgeons had tried to convince him it was the best they could do, that it was good enough, no one would notice. But it was still there, the scar, running crooked and ragged from just under his chin to his ear, and then switching directions and twisting back to under his eye. They said it would fade, had already begun to fade but, if he could see it clearly, then so could everyone else.

Yet, considering what he was about to do, some part of him did understand how absurd the entire ritual was because the second act was where the rawest and most humbling pain originated. He turned away from the mirror, leaving his green duffle bag on the dirty tile floor, and began a short trek to one of the toilet stalls. Because his left knee and both hips barely worked and his feet splayed far outward, he teetered as he walked, bowlegged like a cartoon character. He closed the stall door, took off his small backpack, and looped one of the straps onto a hook attached to the door, thankful he didn’t have to set it on the floor. He pulled out strips of toilet paper and carefully laid them on the seat, pulled down his pants, reached behind him so that his hands touched the toilet seat, and used his strong arms to lower himself down. One of the pieces of toilet paper fell on the floor but he didn’t bother trying to pick it up or get another one. He made sure not to look at himself, the naked parts. He never looked anymore, having long ago memorized every detail.

The doctors had said it was a miracle his internal organs continued to work and, two years later, he was still thankful when he felt the bowel function beginning. But his anxiety still soared in the moments before things fully kicked in and today, especially so. He didn’t have to go yet and knew he would need to be quick because he still hadn’t bought his ticket. But no way was he going to find himself having to go in that sloshing turd bucket on the bus. He could imagine himself hanging on to the restroom rail as the bus bounced along, falling off the seat, getting stuck, yelling for help.  No, that could never happen.

He sat for three minutes, continually checking his watch, his anxiety growing. Nothing was happening and he was running out of time. He remembered what he had been taught and closed his eyes, loosening all the muscles in his lower body as best he could, breathing slowly in and out. Thirty seconds, a minute. Yes! It started to happen. “Thank you, thank you,” he whispered.

It took a minute to be done and another to clean up, put himself back together, and be out of the restroom. The transition to the station’s waiting room was shocking: loud and crowded, people in lines, standing, sitting on the floor, luggage everywhere. He waddled through the chaos and across the room to a ticket kiosk with three windows. He picked the shortest line, only one person, an elderly man, ahead of him. The man was having a problem, digging in his pockets for enough money as the ticket agent shook her head. He looked at the other lines but there were three or four people in each of them. Should he switch anyway?  No, better not to. But now he was going to be late.

He tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir, how much more do you need?”

“Seven dollars,” the ticket agent said.

The man turned and said, “I’m not taking money from you, son. I can pay for myself.”

Mark had his wallet out, a ten-dollar bill in his hand. “Please, you have to.” There was a touch of desperation and menace in his voice.

The man shrugged, took the bill, and handed it to the agent. She typed information into the system, printed the ticket, handed it to the man and said “Thank you, sir, and thank you for riding Greyhound.” Then, “Next.”

He moved forward and said, “Please, Ma’am, one way to New York City.”

“Just you?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.” He handed her a wad of twenties. She took what she needed and gave back the rest with some added change. His anxiety had reached a point where time was distorting. As the agent filled in the ticket information, her fingers on the keyboard moved in slow motion, dragging like they were underwater.  Finally, the printer clicked out a ticket and she handed it to him.

“Don’t worry, sir,” she said. “You still have time. Gate Six. And thank you for riding Greyhound.”

She didn’t know, hadn’t seen him walk yet. A large digital clock on the wall said 6:44 and he knew the bus was scheduled to leave in three minutes. He took the ticket and stuffed it in his jeans pocket.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. He bent over, stifling a groan, grabbed the handles of his duffle bag, and began his shuffle across the room to a pair of glass doors underneath a sign that said, Gate Six.

He was a tall muscular man with rugged good looks but there was also fierceness in his appearance. Although the scar on his face was actually, after two years, barely visible even without the makeup, he wore a psychic mask of pain, anger, and fear that, along with his damaged walk, made most people wary of him. And, once again, even though he had had what should have been enough time to adjust to his disability, he sometimes still couldn’t make an accurate judgement of how much longer it would take to do such a simple task as walking across a room. The damn duffle bag, why did he bring it? It made it all so much harder. He could have brought his carry-on suitcase with the rollers but he hated the thing because it reminded him of flying and he’d given up on flying. No more metal detectors for him, no more probing and prodding and stupid questions and then apologies and thanks and gratefulness for his service. He was done with it all. Sometimes they even said he was a hero but he could never believe he was remotely close to that. He usually tried to avoid anything that might suggest a military connection, clothes, medals, or even attitude, but the army issued duffel was a giveaway for those who knew what to look for. It was also heavy and forced him to lean to one side, twisting and torqueing him more than he already was.

He pushed through the glass doors just as the baggage handler was about to shut the bus’s storage bin and yelled, “Excuse me, sir, I got one.”

“Well, hurry up, man,” the handler said. “I’m about to close this thing.”

He couldn’t move fast enough. The handler looked at him, assessing, and hurried over and grabbed the bag.

“You best get on that bus as quick as you can.”

Stairs were especially difficult but, with his powerful arms, he was able to pull himself up and into the bus with the railing. Once inside, it was much easier going down the aisle, the other passengers settling in, arranging their spaces, and not paying attention. It was crowded and appeared like every seat was taken. He worked his way to the back and saw one on the left side, two rows in front of the restroom. He slipped off the backpack, dropped it on the floor in front of the empty seat, turned with his back to the seat, put his hands on the armrests and lowered himself. A woman was in the window seat looking out the window. She didn’t turn to watch him.

When he was in his seat, he said, “Sorry Ma’am. It’s the only one left.”

“It’s OK,” she mumbled.

Her skin was a rich light brown and her hair flowed passed her shoulders, thick, black, shiny, and hanging loose. She was wearing slightly baggy greyish-blue cotton pants with a subtle print and a long-sleeved matching top with a high neckline. She had a red-print cotton scarf tied around her neck and pulled up to her chin. The scarf and hair hid much of the left part of her face, which was toward him, but he could see a stud in her nose and a large, gold hoop earring. Probably Pakistani or Indian. She looked forward for a moment, began to turn toward him, then turned back to the window. A few more minutes passed. He stared at the back of the seat ahead of him, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, wondering if the woman was afraid of him. Or maybe she had been looking out the window before he boarded, saw how he walked, saw him as he struggled onto the stairs, saw this big, disfigured American man and… He stole another quick glance. Why was she wearing her scarf up like that? Maybe trying to hide something. A scar? His brain sped up. Oh, God, what if some creep who looks like me hurt her? That would be awful. He closed his eyes and acted like he was asleep.  He’d do it all the way to New York if he had to.

The bus driver hurried up the steps, sat down, honked the horn once, closed the door, and skillfully navigated out of the station. He made a few turns through the city and then onto the interstate heading north. The bus’s motion immediately relaxed Mark. He was moving, he’d made it, he could do it.

The PA system crackled and the driver said in a thick Louisiana drawl, “Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Claude Lemieux and I’ll be taking this bus all the way to Richmond, Virginia. Our first stop will be Savannah, Georgia, and we will arrive there in about two hours. Now, before we get too far along, I need you all to pay close attention to what I’m about to say.” Like a junior high schoolteacher, he sternly laid out the rules of the bus including cell-phone and laptop courtesy, federal law concerning alcohol consumption, and no smoking, including in the restroom at the back of the bus.

After about ten minutes Mark began to feel edgy, slightly claustrophobic. He wished he had a window seat so he could lose himself in the passing scenery. It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky, the sun falling lower on the horizon. He willed himself to stay still, not squirm, not draw attention to himself. Again, he closed his eyes and tried to withdraw into himself. But first, he couldn’t resist, he had to look at her one more time. He opened his eyes, turned his head slightly, and there she was, looking back at him. Like his, her head was also only slightly turned, but their eyes met. He saw a small part of the left side of her face: healthy dark skin, eye, nose, and what he could see of her mouth, intact, all beautiful. The flash of the right side was a much different world: burned, rutted and dis-colored, a war zone. A wave of nausea hit him because he knew exactly what this was about. However, even though he had been out of the military for nearly two years, his discipline could still kick in when needed. He kept his face expressionless and his eyes on hers.

She reached her right hand across her lap and said, “My name is Amala. How far are you going?” He took her hand in his and she slowly turned more toward him so he could see it all, the full view. And, when she spoke, there was another surprise. He heard a slight urban New York accent.

“You’re American,” he said

“That I am. Third generation.” A pause. “So, where to?”

“Oh, sorry, Ma’am, I’m being rude. I’m going all the way to New York. Visiting my sister. And my name is Mark, Mark Spencer.”

He still loosely held her hand so he gave it a gentle shake. She smiled and he saw that her lips on the damaged side were shriveled and could barely open. He forced himself to look at her eyes and smile back. Her eyes. Just below her right eye was a red crevice but the eye itself wasn’t damaged. He felt an odd sense of relief. But also anger. Who did this to her? How did this happen? Where did it happen?

“New York,” she said. “Yeah, that’s where I’m headed, too. Damn long trip, isn’t it?”

“Sure is.”

“You almost missed the bus, didn’t you? One time I saw a driver here shut the door and start to pull out and then a couple kids came running up, banging on the door, flashing their tickets. He just laughed and kept on driving.”

“Sounds like a nasty driver. This one seems a lot nicer. You from New York?” he asked.

“Do I sound like it?”

“I probably wouldn’t have spotted it except that I’m originally from Albany and, well, nice meeting you.” He turned away, and looked down at his feet.

“Nice meeting you, too,” she said. “And I hope we both have a pleasant trip.”

She took a small computer tablet out of her purse, entered a few things, and began reading. He wondered what it was but didn’t ask. Before the injury, he had been a voracious reader—before—but not so much anymore. Since the incident, that type of concentration was not often easy to find. He closed his eyes and breathed in and out, slowly, counting his breaths like he’d been taught. Breathing, breathing, being still, being calm.

He dozed for about an hour, long enough to get out of Florida and well into Georgia, and woke up suddenly. She was looking at him, the tablet at her side.

“You OK?” she asked

“Did I talk in my sleep?”

“Just mumbled a bit.”

“Sorry, I didn’t want to sleep now. Should have waited.”

She continued to look at him, staring. “Where did you serve?” she asked.


“Were you overseas? Iraq? Afghanistan?”

“How do you know I’m military?” He asked, with an edge.

“Well I know you’re a Northern boy because you said so and no Northern boy would be calling me Ma’am unless they were military, right?”

He had to smile at that. “Yeah, you go me there. But I’m discharged. For a couple years”

“And where did it happen?” Her voice was soft. “Your injury?”

“How do you know I got injured?” For a moment, he was clearly annoyed. Then, “I’m sorry, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“I was watching you on the platform. I was looking out the window.”

“You saw me walk. Or try to walk.”

She didn’t respond, just continued to look at him. It was unsettling. Her face: one half so lovely, the other so damaged, her dark eyes steady like she was issuing a challenge.

He said in a low monotone, “It was Iraq, you know? A roadside bomb. Nothing different, nothing special, just another bomb like all the other bombs and I’m just another one of the ones that got hit.”

She looked down at her lap “I’m sorry,” she said. “I really am.”

“OK, I thank you for that.”

She picked up her tablet and continued reading. He tried to relax into his seat again. Just another bomb, nothing different, nothing special.

When he began his tour of duty in Iraq, his primary job had been a part of a transport team, moving goods to different parts of the country, almost always in a Humvee. Initially he sometimes rode as gunner or sidebar but was happiest when he was the driver. He quickly gained a reputation as highly skilled, unfazed by the inevitable nasty encounters, and having an almost other-worldly intuitive sense of danger. Charmed, blessed, angels watching over. A number of times, he re-routed a mission for no other reason than that he sensed danger and, amazingly, nobody involved ever questioned his decisions. Seven months into his tour, on the day of the incident, everything had seemed so right, so easy, so “in the zone.” Every day after that he would wonder what had gone wrong. Maybe he didn’t have any special abilities, at least not on that day. Maybe he had never had them. Or maybe on that day, he just wasn’t paying attention.

A few minutes later, the PA speaker crackled and Claude Lemieux came on. “Ladies and Gents, we are now about fifteen minutes from our stop in the beautiful historic city of Savannah, GA. There is a lot to see in this city but sadly none of you will have the time. There are no passengers ending their trip here and no new passengers getting on.”

A young man came down the aisle to use the toilet. He had multiple piercings, a shaved head, and so much ink on his face that it was hard to differentiate the different designs. They seemed to blend into a bluish haze.

Amala touched Mark’s arm and whispered to him, “Did you see that? That dude’s face is even freakier than mine.”

“Oh, Wow. You’re…”

“I’m what?” she said, laughing.

“Are you always so outrageous?”

“Mostly, yeah.”

She was getting to him, setting him off. It was too much. She was too much. It had been almost six months since this had happened. Why now? He could feel it, that unwelcome blanket of otherness forming around him. His heart beat faster, his breathing quicker. He stared down at his feet, felt them beginning to go numb, the numbness crawling up his legs. Like the therapists had told him, this was all in his head, all just the replay of the bad tapes in his head. And this Amala, this odd character sitting next to him, was only another stress catalyst, no different from all the other ones out there. Why did he have to sit next to her, why this seat? And her face, why next to that? The numbness spread and his vision was narrowed into a black tunnel. A sheen of sweat covered him, sticky and cold in the air-conditioned space. He stared straight ahead, using controlled, full breathing, but he knew he wasn’t going to make it.

The bottle of benzos was in his pack on the floor. He hated taking them. He wasn’t supposed to take them, they said. They were too addicting for someone like him. But all the other medical crap he shoveled into his mouth every day didn’t cut it sometimes. The worst part was that she would see him. It was so embarrassing. He couldn’t let her see him take them. He could take his pack into the restroom, and swallow a few, but the tattooed guy was still in there. What was taking him so long?

She was staring at him. “Are you OK?” she asked.

“Uh, huh,” he mumbled.

She touched his arm. “Oh damn, I am so sorry, I should have known. I’m so sorry.”

“Known what?”

The approached Savannah, stopping at lights, turning corners, lurching through slower traffic.

Claude Lemieux’s voice came through the speakers again. “Ladies and Gentlemen, in just a minute we will be at the Savannah terminal. Our stop will be short, fifteen minutes. You can get off, have a smoke if you like, get something out of the vending machines if you’re quick. But this bus will leave in fifteen minutes whether you’re on it or not.”

“Do you smoke?” Amala asked.


“Then stay here on the bus. Don’t get off. Just sit and keep breathing.”

The bus pulled into the station and Lemieux expertly slid it into its reserved space. Most of the riders stood, stretching and grabbing a few things, and many lined up to get off the bus. The tattooed guy came out of the restroom and joined the line.

Mark sat, with no movement, only breathing, desperately wanting the line of riders to clear out, the crowd gone. The tattooed guy was right next to him. Amala leaned close and whispered in Mark’s ear, “You have anything you take? Valium or something?”

And there was a subtle shift. Not much but enough to make it all slightly more tolerable. She knew, she understood something about this. Her hand on his arm, her closeness, was a grain of comfort. He reached down for his pack, found the plastic bottle, but hesitated.

“Go ahead,” she said. “This isn’t the time to try to tough it out. Can you let me out?  I’m going to use the facilities while we’re stopped.”

He pulled himself into the aisle and let her by, then sat back down. The commotion of the other passengers, re-arranging and off-loading, continued. In a few minutes, Amala was back and he stood again to let her in. As she pushed by him, she held her hand up to the damaged part of her face, mostly concealing it.

The bus left the Savannah station and a touch of his panic faded. He marveled that a few tiny white pills could make such a change, cutting right through the nastiness. Within a few minutes the bus was out of Savannah and heading north again.

“Thank you,” he said.

She turned to him, again with her hand on her face. “For what?”

“Why are you doing that?” He gently removed her hand, put it in her lap. “You don’t need to do that.”

She wouldn’t look at him. “It was setting you off.”

He touched her chin carefully, lifting her face toward him. She didn’t resist. “You shouldn’t ever have to do that,” he said.

He looked straight at her and was ashamed of his earlier reaction. The visible damage was striking, the white, pinched and furrowed skin extending from the base of her eye to her chin. He was sure there was more underneath her scarf but much of it was contained. Her eye was spared as was most of her nose and mouth. Her thick hair covered much of the damage on her ear.

“That’s just the meds kicking in,” she said.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for my reaction before.”

“Actually you handled it well, considering.” She looked back at him. “We both have our stories, don’t we?”

“Who did this to you?’

She hesitated, then, “My husband.”

“Why? Why would he do that?

“He thought I was having an affair,” she said in a monotone

“But why that? To your face?”

“I guess he thought that, because of my ethnicity, I’d appreciate the gesture.”

“Is he…you’re Indian, aren’t you? Is he?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I guess not,” he said.

“John McDonald, Scottish and Irish ancestry, from Baltimore, Maryland. Lieutenant First Class John McDonald, two tours of duty in Afghanistan.”

He raised his voice. “He’s a soldier? A damn soldier did that to you?”

“Shush,” she whispered. “Keep it down. It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not all right. A soldier, not just a soldier, an officer. Makes me sick.”

“He’s not a soldier anymore. He’s in jail. Court-marshaled.”

She turned away and looked out the window. They sat, silent, for a while, the bus rumbling out of Georgia and into South Carolina. The sun was setting, a dull glow on their Eastern window, a fiery display across the aisle. A number of times he stole a quick glance at her but she was almost motionless, her gaze fixed on some place he couldn’t know. His panic was mostly gone, just a faint noise in the background, chased away by knots of anger lasting five minutes, ten minutes, an hour and more. He couldn’t shake the rage.

Finally, he leaned close and whispered, “You must really hate him. For what he did.”

They were right back in the conversation as if it had never stopped.

“I did for a long time. That first year I was absolutely crazy, consumed with bad shit. I would imagine the sickest things, tying him down, pouring acid all over, revenge, revenge, an eye for an eye, literally. Biblical stuff. Everybody tried to get me to start plastic surgery. My parents are pretty well off and they got me into this one doctor, world famous or something, and he said he could fix some of the damage with a series of surgeries. But I wouldn’t do it. At my husband’s preliminary court hearing, I did everything I could to flaunt my face, show everybody, sit so that the most people could see what it looked like. I even rubbed it really hard before going into the courtroom to make it redder, more dramatic. I was horrible, a horrible creature.”

“I don’t blame you at all. I get it,” he said.

He was crawling into it, into that place with her and she knew it. She shook her head at him.

“No, you don’t. You don’t get it at all. He pleaded guilty and then just fell apart, right there in the courtroom. He completely lost it, crying, wailing, apologizing. The guards had to practically carry him out. And that was it for me, I was shattered.”

“What do mean, shattered?”

“You are absolutely pissed off right now, aren’t you?” she said.

“Well, yes. I am.”

She pushed his shoulder, actually shook him. “Well stop it, just stop it,” she hissed. “Do you know why he did it?”

“Yeah, you told me.”

“No, I mean really why. Why someone who was kind, loving, and stable would go away somewhere, come back, go away again, come back again and be completely destroyed. You get it? His mind was completely gone.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He wasn’t even the same person, anymore. And, when I watched him being dragged from the courtroom, I finally understood. I couldn’t be angry any more. It all went away. But then I was sadder than I had ever been in my life.”

“For him?”

“For him, for me, for everything.”

The sun was down, daylight retreated, and overhead lights up and down the aisles came on. Mark and Amala kept theirs off and sat in the dark. It was different now, quieter, easier to retreat into their private worlds where they stayed for a while. This time Amala started it and, once again, they came back into the conversation like it had never stopped.

“I think you do understand what happened to my husband,” she said. “I think you understand better than anybody. You were over there. You saw what went on.”

“And you think I’m like him?”

“I didn’t say that, I just think…”

“It’s OK,” he said, gently. “I know what you meant.”

“Wow, look over there,” she said, pointing across the aisle. “Out their window.”

Like the top of a giant bald head, a white moon was coming up over the black landscape. They watched it slowly emerge, watched its shape change until it was a full round disc climbing higher into the sky.

“Now I’m happy,” she said. “That always makes me happy.”

“You couldn’t have seen that too often living in New York,” he said.

“Probably not in Albany, either.” With that, their conversation began down a new path. This one was much lighter, happier and funnier. Two young people getting to know each other, mixing the standard information about family, jobs, college, and friends, with small pieces of story thrown in to make each other laugh. They talked for several hours and then, after a few minutes of silence, he heard a small snore and realized she was asleep. He checked his watch, hiding the glow from the LED. It was 11:30. He was pretty sure they would have an hour stop in Fayetteville before long.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep but he hadn’t taken anything for it and knew it was unlikely. He listened to her rhythmic breathing beside him, following it with his own breath and sinking into the comforting motion of the bus. He tried to imagine what her face looked like, both sides at once, but he had only caught short glimpses of all of it.  There was also her voice. That was something he could hang onto.

He drifted on the edge and, when he finally went under, landed in the center of that place he had gone back to so many times. He was aware that he often went there when he dreamed but usually didn’t remember much of it when he woke. This night was not going to be so kind.

It was a lifetime in a few short moments. Driving, driving, long and boring, the Humvee hot and uncomfortable, the rocks and ruts making it bounce. He was the first in line so he set the pace, kept the pace, set the example for the others. Wasn’t that what he always did? Wasn’t that his role? Sergeant Mark Spencer, the man heading the mission, the one they all looked up to. Of course, it would be that, it had always been that: the oldest of three kids, the strong one, the tough one when he needed to be, the one who always did the right thing. He hadn’t even wanted join to but did anyway because it was what he was supposed to do.

He was driving from point A to B, carrying whatever they told him to and barely registering that this was a mission of questionable purpose but with unquestionable danger. The Humvee hit something, flipped, and caught fire. Next came: rapid popping of incoming bullets, his buddy yelling he was hit, pulling a dying body tight against him, dragging himself through the window and into the road, being knocked down by another explosion and, finally, the face. The boy with the gun ran toward him and he couldn’t move, couldn’t get to his own gun. But he did and he shot wildly and saw the boy’s face explode before everything faded out to oblivion.

She had her hands on both his shoulders, facing him, her mouth next to his ear, saying something.

“It’s all right. You’re not there. You’re here on the bus. With me. You’re here, not there.”

He took both of her hands and held them. “Was I yelling or something?”

“Just mumbling. Look outside. We’re in Fayetteville. I think we have an hour here.”

Claude Lemieux was on. “Ladies and Gents, let’s all wake up now. We’ll be at the Fayetteville station in just a minute.”

They waited until everyone else was off the bus. Mark stood and moved aside so Amala could go ahead of him. He grabbed the top of each seat for balance, keeping right behind her, until he got to the stairs. He thought she was being polite, looking away as he wrestled his way down but she was rummaging through her purse for something. As he came up beside her on the platform, she put on a large pair of sunglasses.

She gave him a broken grin. “They hide a lot, don’t they?”

He touched her elbow and they started toward the terminal door. He opened it for her and they were assaulted by the bright lights and the noise of hundreds of people.

“You hungry?” he asked.

“Maybe. Let’s try over there.” She pointed to a pizza stand on the other side of the room. This time she grabbed his arm and he leaned into her some. He was aware that she was taller than he had thought, maybe five foot seven or eight, and physically strong. And, yes, quite stunning, at least on this side of her. The support was good, allowing him to walk a little more upright, a little straighter and faster. He liked the closeness and leaned on her even more.

She stopped and asked, “Can we switch places?” She moved to his left side so her damage was between them. “You don’t mind, do you? I’m not in the mood for the stares.”

“Maybe they’re staring at me.”

So beautiful on one side, so messy on the other.

“Now you’re staring at me,” she said.

He turned and kissed her on her damaged cheek, his mouth lightly touching one of the rough gullies.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Is it OK?”

“You are a sweet man, aren’t you? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I guess you’re not afraid of me anymore.”

“I was never afraid of you. It just reminded me of…” his voice trailed off.

“Well, the next time you feel the urge, you can try my other cheek. It’s still pretty nice, I think.”

An hour later they were back on the bus, weaving through the dark streets of Fayetteville, and back onto the interstate. She leaned on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

“You think you can sleep?” she whispered.

“We have five hours until Richmond. I hope so.”

After few minutes, he could hear her gentle, measured breathing again and knew she was drifting. He carefully reached into his pocket, found the single sleeping pill he had put there, and swallowed it. He closed his eyes and wondered if he was going to revisit bombs and bloody streets or if he might have a chance for a few hours of peaceful escape.

There was a voice, a jerking motion, and a bright light—Claude Lemieux again as the bus wove through the streets of Richmond in the early morning sun.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Lemieux said. “Time to wake up. We’ll be in Richmond station in another ten minutes. This is the end of my time with you and this is the end of this bus route. Anybody going on past Richmond will be changing buses so please check your tickets carefully for times and gates and please make sure you collect all your belongings, both on the bus and in the luggage bins underneath.”

They stood together on the platform as the baggage handler pulled the luggage from the bins and the passengers came forward to claim them. Mark picked up his green duffle bag and Amala claimed a small suitcase with a handle and wheels. The Richmond station was larger and cleaner than the one in Fayetteville but was even more crowded. They stopped in the middle of the room and looked for the right gate.

“There it is,” he said, pointing.

A long line had already assembled.

“Oh damn,” she said. “We won’t get good seats.”

He scanned the line, counting the people. “We’ll be all right. We’ll get to sit together.”

“You know,” she said, “we have at least a half hour until we can board and we can’t leave here.”

“Yeah, and I want to get something to eat.”

“How about if you wait and I’ll go find something,” she said.

“No, I’ve got to hit the head anyway. I’ll be right back.”

He cleaned himself up as best he could in the restroom and made his way to a cafeteria style deli. There wasn’t much to choose from or at least anything that appealed to him so he ordered two bagels with cream cheese to go. When he finished paying, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and there was an elderly man looking him over.

“Where did you serve, son?” the man asked?

“I didn’t serve anywhere.”

“You shouldn’t be like that, son. You should be proud,” the man said as Mark walked away. “And I thank you for your service.”

Mark turned back to the man, leaned into his ear, and said, “I shot a twelve-year-old boy in the face. I blew his head apart. Are you thanking me for that?”

He returned to his place in line and handed Amala a bagel.

“It’s the best I could do,” he said.

Amala got back on the bus ahead of Mark and raced down the aisle, looking all along the right side for two empty seats, ignoring the left side. He caught up with her near the back of the bus, touched her shoulder, and asked, “What’s wrong? Can’t we sit here?” He pointed to two empty seats on the left side. She hesitated when he motioned for her to go in first.

“It will be fine,” he said. “You can have the window.”

She sat down, clearly unhappy. “Dammit, I didn’t want this.”

“It’s OK, really.”

She pointed to her face. “You’re going to look at this for the next seven hours? Or maybe you can look the other way.”

“You didn’t seem to mind when we were walking in the station.”

“That was only for a few minutes. This is for the whole damn day!”

“All right, then let’s switch places.”

“I can’t do that, either. It’s just so tiring to be the freak with everyone walking by.”

“Amala, stop.” He grabbed her hand. “I’m going to sit by the window for now and then later on when people have to use the can, we can switch for a while.”

“Oh, hell with it,” she said. “I don’t know why I care so much anyway.”

“Well that’s the spirit.”

An hour later, the first passenger came by to use the lavatory. When she noticed Amala, she looked away. Amala looked at Mark and he said, “It’s OK, we can switch again.”

After they switched, she turned completely away from him, staring out the window. A few minutes later, he said, “OK look at me, look at my face.” She turned back to him. He took her hand and put it on his neck, on his faint scar. “So I have this here,” he said, and he touched the damaged side of her face, “which is nothing compared to what you’ve got going on. But what’s down here,” he pointed to his thighs, knee, groin, “it’s not like I’m trying to compete with you or anything, but it’s a scary world down there.”

She took his hand and put it back on her face and he moved closer and began tracing the contours gently with his fingertips.

He touched the side of her mouth that no longer lined up, that sagged and twisted and then faded into rubble. He lifted her hair away from her ear, touched the small piece of lobe that was left, and followed the twisted path upward. And along a furrow above her eye where there was no eyebrow. She closed her eyes and he gently touched the lid that was baggy and rough. He followed a multi-hued patch, twists of skin, down her cheek to her chin. When he reached her tightly wrapped scarf, he carefully pulled it down and continued the route. He finished by putting his hand on her shoulder and closing his eyes.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “It could have been so much worse. Usually it is. Usually you at least lose an eye. Some of them lose both.”

He held both her hands and then hugged her gently.

“Ok,” she said, “I showed you mine so now you can show me yours.”

“Sure, right here on the bus.”

She twisted herself around and lowered the damaged side of her face so that it was resting on his lap.

“What are you doing?” he asked, nervous, uncomfortable.

She reached both arms around him, around his waist, and squeezed. “It’s OK,” she said.

He wanted to push her away. Was this sexual, a weird public thing, the one freak wanting to do some mean thing to the other freak? But he knew it wasn’t any of that, not at all, that it was some sort of kindness he hadn’t felt in so very long or maybe ever. Her face rested peacefully, the damaged side merging with the pain of his own deep wounds, healing it in some small way, the still lovely side there for him to marvel at. He ran his fingers through her hair and, after a minute, she sat up and whispered in his ear, “The hurt is bottomless but maybe we can learn to live with it.”

“Have you?”

“A little bit. I’ve tried.”

Over the next few hours the bus detoured around Washington, stopped somewhere in Maryland, and ran a few miles through northern Delaware. There was a quick stop in Newark to let a few people off, and then the final jaunt. As they wound their way toward New York, through the spaghetti of roads and bridges, the passengers began shutting down laptops and tablets, closing books, touching up hair and make-up, texting and calling. Just before they entered the Lincoln Tunnel, the stunning view of the Manhattan skyline revealed itself, so close and familiar, with those few missing pieces now beginning to fill back in.