Finn felt the eyes on him as he slowly made his way across the coffee shop. His prosthetic leg, unsurprisingly, always drew attention, but especially when he was favoring it, limping on a bad day when he should’ve been using his crutch and not his prosthetic.
He gritted his teeth as a pain shot through his stump. Damn pride.
They'd stare anyway, he told himself. Bad day or good. Because throw in his empty left shirt sleeve and the army tee-shirt he was sporting and he was just one of a long line of spectacles that this coffee shop was going to see on opening day. Unique because of his injury, memorable because when others saw they became immediately grateful for all they still possessed, but a spectacle still - no different than the barista with the blue hair or the old man with the Victoria's Secret bag sitting at the bar.
Just a little more noticeable.
By the time he sat down and had prepared his "desk" via the coffee table, most of the patrons had averted their eyes. Some still chanced a glance every now and then -- he could feel it, and he chuckled because he knew he wasn't above doing the same thing if in ten minutes somebody else missing half their limbs hobbled into the coffee shop.
It was when after he'd made it through forty exams midterm exams and almost two hours had passed and he could still feel eyes boring holes into the back of his head that he grew frustrated. Finn shifted in his seat uncomfortably. Four years and he still wasn't used to the incessant staring.
He had the urge to turn around and glare at the flippant offender. He had the urge to give him a piece of his mind, to explain that the staring was made possible by Finn and others like him who went overseas, separated from their families for months on end, lived in active combat zones, stepped on IEDs, and almost died on a daily basis.
Shrug it off, English. You're just cranky because you haven't had enough coffee today.
With a grunt, he stood up. At the table beside his booth there was a father with his two young children. Finn locked eyes with the father and gave a polite nod, then smiled at the kids who were whispering. He couldn't hear what they were saying exactly, but he did catch the word "robot." With a grin, he started moving stiffly across the coffee shop, coordinating the movement of his arm and stub with the step of the opposite foot -- imitating a robot.
The look of surprise and amusement on their faces by the time he made it to the bar made him grin.
"That was really cute," the blue haired barista said as she made rang up his drip coffee.
Finn smiled at her in response as he waited for his coffee. Looking across the coffee shop he scanned the room for familiar faces. It wasn't very often that new malls opened in Montgomery, so he'd expected to see at least a few of his students.
Who he hadn't expected to see was a redheaded reporter that he hadn't been able to get out of his mind for a week staring at him intently from across the shop.
"Of all the days,” he mumbled. "I'll be damned."
“A Cancerous Parasite: The Tale of a Tapeworm in Mobile,” Margaret looked down despondently at her headline: “I'm writing about a tapeworm with cancer. This is where my personal career is at.”
She lay her head down on the table. Jake patted her frizzy hair. “Don’t get so down. This could be a step in curing cancer. And you could be a part of it, Margaret!”
“Vince wants me to drive to Mobile to go to a trailer park where this man with a cancerous tapeworm lives.” Her voice was muffled and she didn't look up. “Get out while you still can, Matthews.”
Jake didn't respond. Just as well; she'd rather wallow in her self-pity alone. Maybe she should pack up and call it quits for the day. The tapeworm broadcast wasn’t set to air for another week; all she was doing now was preliminary research that -- if she was going to be honest with herself -- probably didn’t need to be done. But, doing it made her feel more legit.
She turned her head so that she was peering at Jake with one eye. He was looking at her with a concerned look on his face, like he felt it was his job to pull her out of the career funk she was sinking into. The kid had a good heart. She smiled softly, “Matthews, cheer up. It’s not --”
Margaret stopped mid-sentence as someone she’d almost managed to put out of her mind, caught her eye from across the bar. His back was to her but the left sleeve of his shirt hung empty. A tell-tale sign. There weren’t that many one-armed men in Montgomery -- and she would know.
It’d been at least an hour and a half since she and Jake had first spotted Finn. They’d plotted and schemed for twenty minutes, trying to come up with a decent ploy or excuse to go over to him. But, they’d come up empty-handed. Yet another reason she felt like a failure today.
But this is your chance. That’s what Vince had told her the day he’d called her into his office and given her this assignment. That’s what she’d thought when she’d first seen the picture of him. It’s what she thought last Saturday night.
It was the only thing she could think now. What else did she have to lose? Certainly not her dignity. That had left her sometime after dinner on Saturday night.
Margaret got up without another word to Jake. As she walked toward the table she could feel Jake’s eyes boring into her back, and when her phone buzzed she knew he was texting her asking what the hell she was doing. But she kept walking and didn’t stop until she was a few feet from him.
That was when Finn stood up, and Margaret noticed that in the time she’d walked across the coffee shop he’d packed up and gotten ready to leave. In her determination to get to him, she hadn’t noticed that he was getting ready to leave.
At that moment, he turned around.
“Margaret?” His expression held a mixture of surprise and hesitation, but none of the animosity from the previous Saturday. After a beat, he grinned wryly. “Following me to see if I duck into the Bed, Bath, & Beyond so you can write about salad bowl preferences too?”
At that, Margaret laughed nervously, but also rolled her eyes, trying to appear nonchalant. She thought he bought it too, until she realized he was looking at her questioningly, waiting for her to answer.
“Oh…,” She started, trying to decide what to say. She decided on the truth. “I reported on the grand opening this morning. Then met a coworker for coffee here,” she gestured in the general direction of their table. “But, there is a Pier One across the street. I was thinking we could duck in and you’d let me replace that salad plate?”
Okay, maybe not the whole truth. But she had to think of some way to get to him.
Finn hesitated. Immediately she regretted the Pier One ploy. He didn’t want anything to do with her; he’d made that clear on Saturday night. Why couldn’t she have just left it alone and be content with being in the Pets & Pests segment?
He shifted his weight and a grimace darkened his features as he put weight on his right leg. A moment later it was gone. Margaret’s looked down at his leg automatically and her stomach dropped at the thought of what was underneath the pant leg. And, what wasn’t.
Right. That’s why she hadn’t just left it alone.
“Yeah,” Finn answered, after what seemed like an eternity. He chuckled to himself, “I actually need a new coffee pot too.”
Margaret couldn’t believe it. Be cool, she told herself. “I don’t think they sell coffee pots at Pier One. It’s a decorative store.” Not cool.
“Oh?” He frowned and furrowed his brows together. “Guess I don’t really need to go after all. A salad bowl I can live without, a coffee pot…”
“On second thought, maybe they do,” she said quickly. “Let me just go grab my bag and I’ll meet you outside here?” She left to grab her purse before he could answer, almost missing seeing the smile spread across his face in her haste.
Jake watched her with eyes as she approached. “Gotta go,” she said in a hurried tone.
“Where? Was that Lt. English you were talking to over there? What are you doing?” Her coworker hit her with a barrage of questions that she’d answer later.
Margaret leant down to whisper in Jake’s ear. “It sure was.”
Margaret walked a half-step behind Finn as they left the mall and walked towards the parking lot. She was watching him intently, feeling almost voyeuristic. Their pace was slow as they walked through the parking lot, and she noticed that he limped, favoring his prosthetic leg. That was something she hadn’t noticed before.
She wondered if his arm or leg, or both, were bothering him. She’d read that sometimes amputees experienced pain in the places that their limbs had once been. That could have been the cause for the grimace on his face that she’d noticed earlier, and also for the limping.
Almost as immediately as the thought entered her mind, she felt ashamed. She shouldn’t know those types of things. And she certainly shouldn’t be thinking of them while walking through a parking lot with someone she was supposed to be reporting on, shouldn’t be feasting on his empty sleeve, or his rolling gait...
Finn stopped suddenly as they reached the beginning of a long row of cars. “Carpooling would probably be easiest with all this traffic.” He scanned the row the row in front of them. “Come on, I’m down this one.”
She followed him as he led them halfway down a row of cars and to a beat up looking burgundy Jeep. That surprised her. “Pegged you as a hybrid man,” she commented as she climbed in.
Finn laughed out loud. “Really?”
Margaret shrugged as she buckled. “You have this au natural air about you.”
Finn laughed again and shook his head. He seemed more relaxed than he had in the coffee shop.
“Finn,” she turned toward him in her seat. “I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
“I’ve only got the one, so it’s fairly easy to do.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. For a moment she didn’t know what to say to the quippery that so clearly called attention to his disability.
She decided to laugh lightly. In a blase manner, she countered, “Or hard, as some people would look at it. But then, I usually end up making things hard.”
Finn shrugged as he pulled out of the mall parking lot.
“We could start over?” She suggested. “I’m Margaret Shields, reporter for KTLM-Montgomery, about as unsuccessful as the station I work for. Would you care to let the record know who you are?”
She watched as a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Off the record, Ms. Shields,” he said pointedly, “I’ll tell you that I’m Finn English, a former Lieutenant in the United States Army, and now a high school chemistry teacher. And let me tell you, hormonal fifteen-year olds and their overprotective parents are sometimes scarier than the Taliban.”
Margaret laughed out loud. “I can only imagine.”
They sat in silence and in traffic for the next few minutes. Margaret felt her phone buzz in her pocket and knew it was Jake, probably anxiously asking questions or trying to give her advice. Not that she’d needed his last bit; Margaret had been nowhere near kissing Finn when their night ended so abruptly.
“Oh, I forgot to add,” Finn broke the silence as they finally pulled into the Pier One parking lot. He parked the car only a few feet away from the entrance. “That I hate reporters.”
Margaret rolled her eyes. “I think that is probably already on someone’s record out there, Finn. You’ve made that pretty clear.”
He chuckled and held up his hand, stopping her. “But, even though the dark side got to you, I’d love to start over with you too, Margaret.”
She looked at him, shocked. That was the last thing she’d expected to hear. Finn grinned at the look of surprise on her face and leaned over the console closer towards her. Margaret didn’t know what to expect, or do. So she sat there, motionless.
He came closer, and she could feel his warm breath on her cheek; she started to melt. Margaret looked up and met his eyes. Dark green and flecked with hazel bits. Her stomach swarmed with butterflies, her mind was doing backflips, and she couldn’t believe what was coming.
She pursed her lips and leaned forward slightly, just enough to brush against his body.
Then, suddenly his lips changed course. She felt him at her ear and her heart sank with disappointment while her face flushed with embarrassment.
“Still probably best if that last part stays off the record too.”
His voice was husky and his breath tickled her ear, making goosebumps rise on the back of her neck. Still, her heart sank with disappointment while her face flushed with embarrassment.
Finn cut the engine and climbed down out of the jeep without saying another word, only grinning mischievously. She relaxed back into the seat of the car, feeling at once frustrated and silly, but also excited and hopeful. She couldn’t help but smile.
It seemed like she was going to get her chance, and in a few different ways too.