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By @S F Brooke
A Soldier, a Grave, and the Missed Bus
“Wait!” Mel called, pumping her arms as she ran in her boots. Seeing the Greyhound bus taking off — without her on it — made her heart plummet into her stomach. She gave up the chase and stomped her foot, not unlike a five-year-old.
“I’m guessing you missed the bus?” A man’s soft voice questioned.
Mel turned, brushing her brown hair away from her face. A man she didn’t notice the first time was sitting under the eave of the bus stop. He had a gentle face, kind grey eyes, and an Army uniform on. He looked to be about her age — early twenties. “Yeah…you could say that,” she answered, taking a seat next to him on the metal bench.
The soldier smirked, “Alarm clock didn’t go off?”
Mel hummed, absently poking her fingers in the bench’s metal holes. “Close, snooze was hit one too many times.”
The man laughed softly. Mel decided she liked him. Out of the corner of her eye, she looked at him, seeing that he was clearly just out of the military — hair buzzed, dog tags clinking, duffle bag near his feet.
“Did you just get home?” she asked, looking back into the grey eyes.
The soldier nodded, “Just got back today. Took two tours in Afghanistan. One of these busses will take me home. I’m staying in the city till I get situated.” He nodded to the bouquet of flowers in Mel’s hands. “What about you?”
Mel chuckled awkwardly, plucking a broken yellow flower off and placing it on the bench. “They’re for my grandpa. It’s his birthday today.”
The grey eyes crinkled at the corners as the soldier smiled. “Well, wish him a happy birthday for me.”
She smiled softly at him, looking down at the flowers and picking the daisy petals that had fallen off. “Thank you, but he died a couple of years ago.”
“Ah,” came the embarrassed reply. “I’m sorry.”
Mel shook her head. “Don’t be. You didn’t know.” She reached over and handed him the loose flower — the bright yellow standing out against the greens of his Army uniform as he took it. “Here’s something else you didn’t know — my name,” she added, sticking her hand out. “Melinda, but you can call me Mel. Everyone does. I was named after my grandmother,” she scrunched up her nose. “To be honest, I’ve never liked the name so Mel it is.”
He shook her hand, his calloused hands rubbing against her soft ones. “Nice to meet you, Mel. I’m Hawk.”
A laugh burst unexpectedly out of Mel’s mouth, “Is that your real name?”
Hawk looked sheepish and rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s what my friends used to call me in the Army so it became a habit. The name’s because of my eyesight on patrol.”
Mel liked him even more now. The man intrigued her. They settled into a comfortable silence. The autumn breeze was just the right amount of chilly for Mel to pull her blue leather jacket closer to her. The multicolored leaves from the trees wafted down to the floor, landing on the top of the bus stop roof. It was peaceful as they waited for the next bus.
“No no no. See ‘Star Wars’ goes 4,5,6, then 1, 2, 3.”
Mel threw her head back and laughed, “Wait, but you can still watch them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!” she paused. “Can’t you?”
Hawk grinned. “Not if you want to watch them the right way.”
The two of them had been talking almost non-stop for the last thirty minutes, both laughing and asking questions about the other. They settled down after a little bit, Hawk fiddling with his flower, petting the pedals.
“Do you visit the cemetery often?” he asked, hesitantly. “For your grandpa, I mean.”
Mel smiled sadly, “When I can, but I make sure to visit on his birthday.”
“You were close?”
“We were, I’m… well was his only granddaughter.” Mel tucked her hair behind her ear as she looked forward, remembering. “We used to pick daisies for my mother and make them into crowns for my cousins. He was a master at that.”
Hawk nodded, taking in her explanation. Repainting the memory for himself, he said, “He sounds like a good man.”
“He was,” Mel agreed. “What about you? Anyone close that you’re coming home to?”
“Not really,” Hawk shrugged. “I mean my family but… no, there’s no one close.” One of the petals of his flower fell into his hand and he stared at it, clearly in thought.
Mel felt sorry for the soldier sitting next to her, a bit saddened that they couldn’t continue their conversation on the same bus. He was solemn-looking on the outside and she wondered what he had gone through overseas. His grey eyes were expressive if you bothered to look close enough, his smile small but bright. Hawk’s dog tags jingled as he stretched, his back popping loud enough for Mel to hear. “Thank you for the flower, by the way, it’s been a long time since I saw something colorful,” he said, lifting the daisy up.
“You’re welcome. I would think that Afghanistan is very….deserty,” Mel offered, checking her watch. “The bus is running late, I think.”
Hawk nodded in agreement, looking at the map and bus schedules on the side of the bus stop. “Hopefully the bus will come soon, I don’t want your flowers to die before you can give them to your grandpa.”
As if summoned by his very words, a Greyhound bus came rumbling down the street. The smog that came from the bus’s tailpipe made Mel sneeze. The vehicle pulled up to the curb and the doors opened as it groaned to a stop.
“Thank you, Mel,” Hawk said as they both stood up.
Mel smiled at him for the last time.
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re finally home,” she remarked as she climbed aboard the mostly empty bus, quickly finding a seat in the middle. Looking out of the window, she turned to wave to Hawk but noticed he was gone. Vanished. She looked both ways out of the bus’s window, still not seeing him. “Hmm, maybe he’s checking the maps behind the stop,” Mel thought out loud, hoping she could at least wave goodbye to him. The driver started rolling the bus forward and Mel let out a long sad sigh. “Goodbye, Hawk,” she whispered, turning her attention to the messy flowers in her hands.
The bus ride to the cemetery was quiet after such a long time talking with the visiting soldier. Mel thanked the driver and stepped out, inhaling the fresh-cut grass smell that always reminded her of this place. She clutched the flowers and made her way down the beaten-down dirt paths. Sighing upon seeing the stone bench and headstone, she sat and placed the flowers in the holder.
“Hey Grandpa,” she started, “happy birthday.” Mel smoothed the stone, hot from the sun. “I met a soldier today, he’d just come home from Afghanistan. I think you would have liked him,” Mel smiled as if she could hear her beloved grandfather’s reply, “Oh, did you now, dearheart?”
Taking in a deep breath she started telling the picture on the headstone about her day, her conversations with Hawk, and about her family. She didn’t like to linger — it made her feel sad if she stayed for a long time. “Well, Grandpa…I better get going,” Mel kissed the headstone, “I love you. Talk to you soon.”
Taking her time, she walked down the small hill she’d climbed, eyes wandering to the many graves. A fresh one piqued her interest. Hesitantly, she walked over the grass to the flat headstone. The dirt was flattened but had no grass over it yet, indicating whoever was buried had died very recently. Curiosity grabbed ahold of her and she peered at the photo on the stone. Grey eyes looked back at her. Mel blinked stupidly and peered closer at the image. A gentle face, kind grey eyes, and a small bright smile. A man in his Army uniform. Mel brushed the grass away from the name. “Camden ‘Hawk’ Nolasco” — she read the birth date and death date — a week ago. Exactly a week ago. Mel’s breath caught in her throat. Looking up at the picture, a yellow daisy greeted her… perfectly placed against the grey stone.