A few days later Finn woke up with an intense pain in the place where his right ankle should have been. It felt as if it were sprained and twisted, stuck in an awkward position that he couldn't fix, no matter how hard he tried.
It'd been months since he'd had a phantom pain bad enough to wake him like this. Normally the only thing he felt was some slight pressure where his right foot should have been, and while annoying, it was manageable. But this was different.
This was what he imagined hell to be like.
He took a deep breath as he rolled over and tried to just go back to sleep. Within a few minutes the strained feeling shifted to more of a relentless stabbing; he gritted his teetth, realizing his efforts were fruitless. It was already 5:30, he'd be getting up at 6:00 to go for a run anyway, what was an extra thirty minutes? Add a muscle relaxant, Aleve, and an extra cup of coffee to his morning routine and he'd be good to go.
He threw the covers back and sat up, reaching for the forearm crutch he kept beside his bed. It was impractical for everyday use as it tied up his only hand, but for piddling around the house in the morning before he put his leg on, it worked a hell of a lot better than hopping around. He'd tried that after he'd first left Walter Reed and moved back into his own apartment. He'd thought hopping would be easy and truth be told, he really didn't like the look of the forearm crutch. But, that experiment had landed him splayed out on the kitchen floor with a stress in his remaining knee and a ban from running for six weeks.
So, he swallowed his pride.
He braced himself as he stood up, making sure his right arm was secured in the cuff. Slowly, he took a small step forward with his left leg, then followed through with the crutch and what was left of his right. Step, follow-through, step, follow-through. Even after five years he still found it weird, his right leg making the motion of taking a step but never making contact with the ground.
By the time he was up and in the bathroom, the relentless stabbing had eased a little; he decided to take the Aleve and muscle relaxant anyway. Taking the forearm crutch off and leaning it against the counter, freeing his arm and hand, he dug around the medicine cabinet until he found the Aleve. Gently, he shook them out onto the counter, then grabbed them and swallowed hard.
A sharp pain suddenly shot through his entire right leg, from the hip down to just above the knee where it ended. It was intense enough to make his left knee buckle momentairly underneath him.
He gripped the counter hard.
As the stabbing phantom pain intensified, he cursed himself for being careless the day before. All day long something hadn’t felt right in the socket of his prosthetic. No matter how he’d tried, he hadn’t been able to get his leg comfortable--the result being that he’d felt like he was wearing an ill-fitting shoe. Except even worse. When that happened he normally just gave his poor stump a break and didn't wear his prosthetic. He hated those days, especially if it was a school day and his students had to see him using the forearm crutch. Not only was it extremely inconveient and hurtful to his pride, but he also felt like the second the crutch came out he lost what little respect his students did give him and had to start back over from square one.
Yesterday hadn't been a school day but it had been Friday, the best day for going to the Montgomery Curb Market. One of his old buddies from high school had an organic farm right outside the city and sold his produce there on Friday's and Finn had been suppporting him relgiously since the day he moved back to Montgomery.
And the farmer's market wasn't really conducive to a guy with one arm and one leg hobbling around on a forearm crutch. So he'd gritted his teeth and gone about shopping for his fresh produce, discomfort in his leg be damned.
Christ, he sounded like an old woman.
But now that he was about to double over in pain, feeling like one too, and praying that the Aleve and muscle relaxant would kick in soon, he was starting to regret having been so stubborn.
Sighing, he slowly sort of hopped-shuffled to the other side of the bathroom, pulled back the shower curtain, and gingerly lowered himself onto the shower seat. He slipped his boxers off and tossed them across the room, not caring where they landed, and turned the shower head on.
Finn closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall of the shower. In his mind’s eye he saw the large stack of papers on the kitchen bar that he had yet to grade and groaned, realizing that he’d have to start on them tonight in order to finish them by Monday morning. A few days ago spring break had stretched out before him, no end in sight. And now suddenly it was Saturday and he had only two days left. Papers had to be graded and lesson plans for the last nine-weeks of school had to be made.
He was looking forward to wrapping up the school year. He loved teaching chemistry, but all the paperwork and planning he wasn't too big on. However, the part he had to plan now, the last nine-weeks of the school year, were his favorite out of the whole year.
Tenth-grade chemistry classes in Alabama didn’t have a standardized end of course test -- EOCT -- just a final that prepared by the teacher. The first three nine-weeks of the school year Finn spent his time teaching his students theory, the proper way to write lab reports, how to balance equations, and other stuff that they thought was mind-numbingly boring. The last nine-weeks though, all of that came to a head. Starting Monday, they’d be performing an experiment a week for the next eight weeks. The last week was reserved for the practical exam where’d they’d be assigned to re-perform one of the experiments that they’d already previously done in class. Finn would grade the students on accuracy, precision, and lab procedures -- basically whether or not they singed their eyebrows off with the Bunsen burners.
He opened his eyes and sat up, rejuvenated by the thought of beginning the practical section of his chemistry class on Monday and ready to start preparing. Quickly, he grabbed the soap and ran it over his body, being especially gentle when he reached the stump of his right leg, knowing that the sensitive nerve points where his scarring was was what had caused the phantom pain that’d woken him up. He grabbed the shampoo and quickly washed his hair, turned off the shower and quickly toweled off still sitting on the shower bench. Finn had learned a long time ago that shuffling across the room -- both with and without the crutch -- with wet feet normally ended in disaster.
When he got back to the bedroom he grabbed an old army shirt and some gym shorts from his chest-of-drawers and tossed them on the bed. Next, he slowly slid a protective liner and then a cushioned sock onto his stump, wincing slightly as both items made contact with the end of his leg. After he had the liner on he got dressed, then he paused, staring at the two prosthetics that leaned against his night stand. Silently, he weighed his options. Since he was fifteen he’d been running three miles a day religiously, rarely missing a day. Of course, he’d missed about a year when he’d been going through rehab at Walter Reed and getting back into the routine had been hell for a number of reasons. He really didn’t like to skip a day, but as he put the everyday prosthetic on and grimaced when he put pressure on his stump, he realized he really didn't have a choice this time.
“Christ.” he said aloud as he gingerly took a step forward to put a little more weight on his leg. “That hurts.”
Gritting his teeth, he continued into the kitchen, glancing at the clock on the stove as he went by. Only 6:45. He grabbed some pre-cut fruit from the fridge, started a pot of coffee, and settled at the bar, watching the coffee drip. His sister had tried to give him a Keurig a few years ago for Christmas, insisting it would be more practical for him to use, but it really wasn’t that much easier. And, his old Mr. Coffee made better java in his opinion anyway. Sure, it sputtered, took ages, and smelled vaguely like burning glass, but tasted excellent.
As he waited for the coffee to finish he grabbed the remote and started flipping through the channels. Not much was on at 6:45 in the morning; just infomercials for acne products, blenders, something about a new mall opening, and the local news.
Until that moment Finn had done a decent job keeping Mags out of his mind since Monday. But for some reason, seeing the local news logo and thinking about what he’d been doing a week ago, made her come rushing back in.
“Stop it, English,” he chastised himself as the old coffee pot made an unusual gurgling sound. As he got up to investigate he realized it did smell worse than usual and it was smoking a little at the top. Carefully, Finn opened the bucket that normally held the coffee grounds. Not carefully enough though, because as he pulled grainy coffee liquid went flying everywhere.
“I can cook gourmet food, but I can’t make coffee,” he muttered to himself as he started to clean up the mess. He moved the towel around on the ground in a circular motion with his left foot. Slowly, he bent down to grab the coffee stained towel, carefully trying to distribute the weight between his real leg and prosthetic, thankful for the microprocessor knee in his prosthetic that allowed him to bend.
He tossed the towel in the laundry closet that was right across from the kitchen and looked at the clock again. Now he did need a new coffee pot. A change of scenery to grade papers in and an actual cup of joe would be nice too. Finn fished his phone out from his pocket and Googled how far away the new mall was, if they had a Bed, Bath, & Beyond and any coffee shops or pubs.
“Get your credit cards and your patience ready, folks! Because with stores like Ann Taylor, Kate Spade New York, Saks 5th Avenue Off Fifth, and Sunglasses Hut opening today and over 2,000 parking spots, Montgomery’s first new mall in over ten years is going to be a busy and bustling place!”
The man behind the camera gave a curt nod. Margaret let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, visibly deflating. For the first time that morning she took the time to look around. The dome shaped ceiling showed the rain that was pouring down outside, giving the already gloomy day and even more bleak ambiance. Over 2,000 people, the majority of which seemed to be soccer moms and little kids, raced past the cameraman and Margaret, each waving and quipping something incredibly clever like “Ah! Hey! We’re on T.V.!”
Covering stuff like was the pits.
But, at least she hadn’t had to pay for parking. There was a bright side in everything.
“Guess we’re done here,” Simon said brightly. “Any plans Margaret?”
She shrugged in response. “Supposed to be meeting Matthews for lunch somewhere in this clusterfuck.”
The cameraman chuckled. In his late fifties and balder than a newborn baby, Simon was probably her favorite person to work with from the station. He was kind and understanding and came along with an infectious laugh. Working with him as her cameraman was probably the best part about this Saturday morning gig.
“Well, I’m off to find the wife and kiddos,” Simon announced as he packed up. “Tell Matthews I said hello!”
“Will do,” Margaret replied. “Say hi to Jean for me.”
Simon nodded and grinned as he retreated off into the throng of people.
As he went off in search of his family, Margaret sank down onto a nearby bench, gratefully slipping out of her brown pumps. Always dress for success -- especially if the person you have to impress most is yourself. That’s what her mom had told her on spelling test days during grade school, all throughout high school, and had gently reminded her after she’d failed her first class in college. Margaret made a mental note to call her mom later that week as she slipped into the most comfortable, but frumpy, shoes she owned.
She stayed where she was and looked around. From her vantage point on the bench she had a clear view of the main entrance, the food court, and two giant superstores. As far as malls went, this one was nothing special. It was cold and flourescently lit and impersonal and busy. Malls were all the same as far as she was concerned: giant buildings with giant stores and lots of people. To Margaret, it wasn't where she'd choose to spend her Saturday, and she'd have been gone the second her segment was over if it weren't for lunch with Jake. Well, lunch with Jake and one other thing.
Malls were an excellent source of people watching.
A family of eight ran across the area in front of her, talking loudly and making plans to meet back at the food court in two hours. A lonely looking old man lumbered by in front of her next. For a moment she felt sorry for him for being alone, then she noticed a tale-tell pink stripped bag tucked underneath his arm and decided he was probably far from lonely. And also probably a little creepy.
Margaret kept watching, just taking everything in. A couple of more families and a few groups of loud teenagers passed her. She checked her watch, fifteen minutes before she had to meet Jake at some coffee shop on the other side of the place. She started slowly meandering towards the other side of the mall, checking out the various storefronts on her way, and forgetting about people watching for the moment.
Behind her, she heard very faint click-clicking noises. Her heart dropped in her stomach and she tensed up. Quickly, she dipped into Lidz and pretended to look at baseball hats. She didn't even wear baseball hats, but that particular display gave her a clear view of the walkway through the storefront window.
A teenaged girl with a huge plaster cast on her leg and underarm crutches hobbled awkwardly by. Margaret flushed with a myriad of emotions: embarasment at the fact that she'd been hoping for someone severly disabled to be the owners of those crutches, humiliation because the owner of those crutches had been a fourteen year old girl, and digust towards the deepest part of her being that made those desires manifest. She glanced down at hat she was holding, trying to distract herself and trying to act more like the customer she was supposed to be.
"Ugh," she muttered as she realized it was an University of Alabama hat. Margaret dropped it like it was on fire. A salesman behind the counter chuckled at her antics. "I went to Auburn," she explained. He nodded knowingly.
She left the store in a fluster and hurried down to the coffee shop. It was a dimly lit place with soft classical music playing; less of a Starbucks and more of a cafe out of Midnight in Paris. And much too nice a place to be stuck in a mall in Montomgery, AL. She quickly scanned the place and spotted Jake sitting in a cozy little corner booth by a window.
"This is what my version of hell will be like," she said in way of greeting as she slipped into the booth. "Crowded, rainy, and flourscently lit."
Jake chuckled. "This place though, would be almost like a version of heaven. Warm, bookish, and comes with coffee." He pushed a steaming cup towards her. "Ordered you black with two sugars."
Margaret smiled thankfully. "You're good," she said before taking a sip. It looked like Jake's cheeks colored slightly at her compliment but it was too dim in the coffee shop to be sure. She rolled her eyes anyway. "Matthews, you've got to get over that."
"Over what?" he asked defensively.
"Being bashful when someone gives you a compliment." Margaret peered at him over the rim of her coffee cup. He just squirmed a little, averting her gaze and peered across the shop instead. After a few moments he turned back to her and met her eyes, staring intently, but not saying a word. Finally, he shook his head almost imperctibly.
Now it was her turn to be defensive. "What?"
But Jake just grinned ruefully and shook his head again. Margaret pursed her lips and set her coffee down. "We're not playing this game. I hate this game."
"Oh, and what game is that?"
"The 'guess-what's-wrong-with-me' game."
"I'm not familiar with that one."
His voice had a baiting ring to it, but his eyes sparkled a bit. Margaret balled her napkin up and threw it across the table. "Go to hell, Matthews."
Jake chuckled. Margaret smiled too, despite herself. "You're alright, Jake."
He immediately flushed again. She threw her hands up in good-humored exasperation and laughed. "That wasn't even a big compliment! It was like an anti-"
She broke off mid-sentence as she something caught her eye. No way, she thought as her mind quickly registered the empty spot where the arm should have been.
"What?" Jake twisted around in his seat, trying to figure out what had stolen Margaret's attention. He sounded vaguely annoyed.
Margaret didn't say anything though; she didn't need to. She just pointed at the coffee bar where a man with an empty left sleeve and a prosthetic right leg was standing, waiting on his order. It couldn't be...But sure enough, a second later, Finn English turned around, coffee in tow, and walked slowly back to his table on the other side of the shop, unaware of the two journalists watching him intently.