by Olivia Leitner
His pencil hovered over his carefully constructed rendering of her face as the plane’s turbulence caused the paper to rise and fall like a true breathing soul. The drawing was off. Not because he’d remembered the shape of her cheekbones wrong or added too much of a slant in the corner of her eyes, oh no. It was a solid impression of her. He just… hadn’t added the scars yet. The scars that made her… her.
Scars triggered something in everyone. Disgust, curiosity, pity – those were all fairly popular. That wasn’t what he felt, though. Never had been. Scars used to be a sign that the owner deserved the respect of others for what they had endured.
Used to. They had become more. Perhaps it was a bit egotistical now, considering how many he carried himself, but scars were lines of hope itself, permanently weaved into the skin of those who had persevered. A sign to others that it was possible to endure that much and still come out all right. They were… too complex to put to paper.
“…hear that, Ace?” An elbow nudged his side. “Ace?”
His gaze flickered up from the page to the soldier beside him. The new guy. He couldn’t remember his name, but he was pretty sure it started with a J. “What?”
J gestured towards the cockpit. “Pilot said we’re about ten minutes out.”
“Hm.” Ace gave a slight nod, fingers briefly leaving the paper to run over the risen line of skin on his forehead before he turned his attention back to his drawing. He needed to capture her as best he could before the memory faded further. He’d already lost so much time.
“Are you all right, Ace?” J was squinting at him. Examining him just like the rescue team and the doctors and his superiors had.
Ace. He’d earned that nickname with his sharp eyes and quick, accurate shots, but he hadn’t been fast enough that night. A sniper couldn’t do his best while on the ground with everyone else. Half his brothers died in the first minute of the ambush, and only he and SPC Michaels had made it out of that pathetic excuse of a prison.
“Fine.” A simple answer. Simple was good these days.
He shuddered to think of himself as the lucky one, because that meant everyone else had endured even worse. Especially her. She had no escape. Not with the rescue team, or even to death. She was still with those barbarians, suffering alone now. Yet, even when in the darkest conditions herself, she was able to lighten his nightmares. The nights she didn’t appear were long and suffocating, leaving him with nothing do but busy his hands knotting and unknotting paracord for hours on end.
He needed to remember her but wanted to forget the circumstances. It was a hellish balance to try and pull off.
J leaned closer to him, smirking at the drawing. “Prefer blondes myself, but she’s not bad. She waiting for you at home?”
“Jenkins.” Michaels’ sharp tone bit clearly through the rattling of the plane as he pinned the younger man under a warning glare. “Leave him alone.”
Jenkins pulled back immediately, obviously realizing that he’d tread on something he shouldn’t have. Good. Ace was tired of that asshole’s preppy attitude. There was a time and a place for that kind of behavior, and this wasn’t it.
Time. Fourteen days. They’d told him that was how many days he’d spent as a captive. It’d seemed far longer, but at least he had a sure number to look back on. How long had she been there? Long enough to piss off more than one too many guards, clearly. Those scars hadn’t been old, but they were already healed the first time she’d brought him her kindness.
His mind still struggled to give him the finer details of their first meeting.
Ringing and pain – those were the stereotypical yet accurate sensations that his mind conjured up upon thought of that night. Nothing cut through disorientation like the agony of a chunk of shrapnel in one’s leg and the piercing ringing in one’s ear like a higher-pitched, unceasing mosquito. His vision was murky but was just coherent enough to spot Michaels on the ground nearby. Just coherent enough to drag himself closer and check for a pulse. His shaky, grime-coated fingers hadn’t found one, but Michaels’ skin was still warm, and when Ace pulled his hand back, he felt the faintest puff of air on its back.
One other man had survived. It was a small comfort in comparison to how many had been lost but a comfort nonetheless.
Ace couldn’t say how long he lay there, his only sources of light a stream of moonlight through the cracked ceiling and the faint flickering of a fire that was bouncing off the wall beyond the bars of their cell. Long enough for the ringing in his ear to mostly die down. His mind wasn’t much clearer, though. What little focus he had was going into controlling his breathing. What little strength he had was going into keeping pressure on the part of his leg most damaged by shrapnel.
And then the rusted hinges on the door had shrieked, and she had been ushered inside, her arms laden with basic medical supplies. Supplies she’d immediately employed on his leg. He’d stared at the silhouette the moon made of her until the pain and exhaustion finally pulled him into unconsciousness.
He only awoke again when she started cleaning the gash on his forehead he hadn’t even realized he had. That was when the light had hit the right way to illuminate her face for the first time. He blinked repeatedly, the mental shock stinging him near the same time as the physical sting of disinfectant she was applying to the gash.
That first night, he’d almost thought it was his disoriented mind warping reality into even more of a living nightmare than it already was, but he learned fairly quickly that the various slashes marring her complexion were real.
They hadn’t spoken to each other much. Not when the bored guards didn’t hesitate to award punches, kicks, and even knife wounds for such behavior. He’d managed to glean a few details about her over those thirteen nights, though. Mainly that she was an English girl – that he’d gotten from her accent – who had been in the wrong place at the worst possible time. A medical student finally about to start the career she’d worked so hard to earn.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized her profession was the only thing that had kept her alive – medical expertise was useful to their captors. That hadn’t spared her from their abuse, though. From what he’d heard from the guards, she’d needed quite a bit of persuasion to stop trying to escape every three minutes.
A feisty civilian. She’d given him a tether to sanity on the nights when he’d seen no end to the daily torment. No matter how bruised and broken they’d left him and Michaels by the end of the day, she patched them up as best she could without so much as a grimace. Even the times when she came in with new bruises and fresh cuts of her own. A civilian. If she could endure so much, then surely he could as well.
English. Medical student. Put others before herself. Uncooperative as a hostage. Took new scars in stride and kept pushing on.
He still didn’t know her name.
So strange. How could someone he didn’t even know that much about be affecting him so strongly?
The pull of the past on his mind was cut as his fingers absently found the scar on his forehead again.
Hell of a coincidence, that particular scar. He had more than he’d take the effort to count on the rest of his body now, but that one was different. Or… rather, it wasn’t different. It was a near-perfect match to the deepest and most obvious scar on her face.
Just a coincidence… or perhaps fate. A connection. He liked to think of it that way. A connection to a woman who’d kept him from bleeding out or dying from infection so many times in that short eternity.
Remember her, it said.
He would. Even without the drawing, he could never entirely forget.
Fight for her, it said.
He would. And for others like her.
Find her, it said.
He. Would. Even if it took every breath he had left.
“Two minutes!” the pilot called.
Ace tucked his pen away and gave her unmarked face a last, lingering skim before gently folding the page.
Hang in there, he thought.
He felt eyes on him and glanced up to find Michaels nodding in assurance, as though reading Ace’s mind. “Someday.”
Ace nodded in return. We’ll find you.