René: May 1865
René stared at the woman in front of him and watched her sleek ebony hair fall past her shoulders. She had released it from a tight bun and it fell delicately through her fingers, but as he gazed at her, a pang of guilt prodded at his stomach. He quickly looked away, ashamed of his feelings for her. The war had changed him. Captivity had changed him.
He crushed the flame from his cigar and leered at his reflection before scoffing at the face looking back at him. He was only twenty-six years old but the effects of the war had added fifteen years to his once handsome features. The cigar’s thick smoke rose into his reflection and clouded the image, though it hardly mattered. He already struggled to see himself in the glass anyway. He was brooding. His bare chest, blemished with scars, was all he could see. He tried to remember how he got each one, but they were so numerous that he couldn’t. His stare into his face was so intense that he did not notice her approach. When she arrived at his side, she leaned down and blew cigarette smoke in his face before speaking. Her Spanish accent filled the room, and the sound of it brightened up the air just a little. It was euphoric, attractive, and lovely, but the feelings it brought to him were equally painful, lonely, and confusing.
“René,” she said, caressing his cheek. “What’s wrong darling?”
Her lithe body dropped into his lap and she tapped the tip of her cigarette into the tray on the vanity. Instead of answering, he watched in silence as the ashes scattered among them. The cigarette rose back to her mouth and the hot end illuminated a bright orange. It was so close to his cheek that he could feel the heat radiating from it. It took several minutes for him to answer her question, and quietly, yet patiently, she sat, waiting. He grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the vanity and took a swig, swallowing his guilt. He savored it, and for a moment he couldn’t distinguish if he was savoring the whiskey or the guilt.
He grazed his hand against her hair. “Absolutely nothing, my dear.”
She didn’t believe him, but she didn’t ask again. She could read his expressions, and the dull yet tortured one that covered his face told her everything she needed to know. But she hoped that perhaps this once, he would indulge her by sharing his thoughts. He didn’t.
“We should get dressed,” he suggested, pausing to look at her. “We’re going to celebrate tonight.”
She gently kissed his cheek and looked into his face, trying not to let her concern surface in her expression. “The end of the war,” she replied.
She gave him a light smile and took herself to the next room. Instead of watching her, his eyes once again found the stranger in the reflective glass. He recoiled as he looked closely at the scar that crossed through his lips, into his cheek. It had happened years ago, but he could still feel the sticky, warm blood dripping down his neck. He placed his hand over the scar and shut his eyes in defeat. It disgusted him, and though the cut was completely healed, it had left scars in more places than his face. Not only had he fought in the war and lost the brothers he’d grown to care for, but he’d also been tortured in captivity simply for having the wrong name. And for what?
Her life will be much better without me, he convinced himself.
He tried not to think about his wife, wherever she was. It had been five years. He certainly didn’t want her to know what he’d endured over that time, and he cringed when he let the memories resurface. He tried more than anything to keep them hidden, far away from his everyday thoughts but each time he saw the horrendous mark across his face, or the small cuts along his body they consumed him until he could do nothing but drown them in whiskey. He took another swig and stared down the bottle. He could never go back to her after everything that had happened because he was not the same man anymore. They had made sure of that when they stripped every ounce of dignity from him. After years of what could only be described as torture, he could never go back to his previous self. It would be a simpler life if the mind was an independent, separate entity from the physical body. But he had learned in the most punishing way possible, that the mind and body were linked in every conceivable way, and the physical abuse he’d endured scarred the even deepest corners of his mind until he was a twisted version of his former self. He looked away from the bottle and back at his reflection, almost hoping it would change, and he’d see the man he was before the war. He didn’t.
He rose from his chair and limped toward the windows in the room, his fingers instinctively caressing the wedding band that hung from his neck. They were on the third story of the building, and he saw crowds of people below, cheering in the streets, loved ones embracing, and celebratory drinking. Silently, he cursed them. He cursed everybody, even himself.
The North had won. And for the first time in five years, he was grateful to be in the North. He directed his attention away from the crowds below, but from where he was standing he could see her dressing in the next room, and the guilt hit his stomach again. He turned away and closed his eyes while thoughts of his family down South flooded his mind.
My parents are dead, he told himself, and to justify his feelings, he thought, She’s probably dead too.