Saturday, June 30, 2012

MC 4

“So, you didn’t tell him who you were, but he figured it out anyway? How?”


Jake asked the question anxiously. He and Margaret were sitting at a picnic table outside their office building, eating lunch. Earlier that morning Margaret had stormed into the station irked and huffy, her mind preoccupied with the article about garden spiders that she’d transcribed and turned in that morning. Dejectedly, she'd dropped it into the basket in front of Vince’s door, semi-disgusted at the trajectory that her career was currently on. And then, the repressed memories of Saturday night had came rushing back, putting her in an even more worse mood. By lunch Margaret had progressed from crotchety to downright sullen. The last thing she wanted to do was provide Jake with the details she’d promised him a few days ago.


“I guess he remembered my name or my voice or something from that day last week when he hung up on me.” She poked at her pimento cheese sandwich. “I’m still pissed about that.”


“Yeah, well, you’re always pissed about something,” Jake quipped. Margaret flicked a bit of cheese at him. “Tell me, did he kick you out once he made the connection or did he wait until after dessert?”


“No, he invited me for drinks tomorrow night actually. What do you think, Matthews?”


Jake held his hands up in surrender.


Margaret sighed despondently as she recounted the events. Everything had been going so well. Dinner had been delicious and had gone by without a hitch. Conversation had flowed easily and at one point Margaret had forgotten that she was supposed to be writing an article about the ex-lieutenant across from her. Liz had even given her a thumbs up at one point in the night. So, she’d let her guard down. And that was when it had all come crashing down. Literally. When he’d nonchalantly mentioned the news station and what he thought her prerogative was, she’d dropped and broken his salad bowl.


Jake burst into laughter at her story. “So the night didn’t end in a kiss and passionate fireworks, then?”  


Margaret shook her head. She wished.


“And I’m guessing a second date isn’t in your future, huh?” He sounded relieved.


Margaret replied sourly. “A promotion probably isn’t in my future either.” She narrowed her eyes. “Why do you care how it ended anyways?”


Her co-worker flushed and mumbled something that she couldn’t make out. Margaret chuckled; Matthews was so easily flustered it was almost cute.


“Anyways, back to the matter at hand. You know...I’m thinking...maybe...it’s just…” She let her words trail off. It’s just what? It’s just that she had been paralyzed by surprise? It’s just that when she’d seen Finn English on the other side of the threshold she’d felt like she’d won the lottery? It’s just that for a brief moment she thought it might not be a bad idea to stay for dinner, her job be damned?


It’s just that it wasn’t every day she ended up at a handsome amputee’s house on a date?


Yeah, she couldn’t say that to Jake. He’d think she was nuts. Hell, maybe she was nuts, practically getting on off just from standing in a disabled man’s kitchen, watching how he maneuvered and moved, imagining touching his the places where his limbs ended, fantasizing about him running his hand and stump over her body...


Jake cleared his throat, pulling her mind out of the gutter. “...It’s just, um, I’m thinking maybe I should have just left and bowed out before dinner.”


“Margaret,” she instantly knew she was in for a pep talk from his tone of voice. “Did you bow out when Aggie Maynard didn’t want to talk to you about ant farms?”


“No but maybe I should've just--”


“And did you bow out when Vince assigned you to cover that rat infestation case?”


“No.”  


“No ma’am, you didn’t! And did you bow out when he made you investigate and transcribe the bit about that septic tank company’s scandal a few--”


“Okaayy, that’s enough. It started off encouraging; now it’s just pathetic.” Margaret gulped down the last bite of her sandwich. Jake, bless him, had no idea that she’d stayed Friday night for her own satisfaction rather than for career advancement. “But I appreciate the effort.”


Jake nodded. “Just doing my job.”


They started to pack up. As they started to walk back towards their building, Jake suddenly starting grinning slyly. “You know, speaking of that septic tank one, it was a crying shame that that headline got censored. ‘The Shit Has Hit the Fan’ was one of your finer moments.”


Margaret shook her head sadly, but felt a smile creeping onto her face too. That debacle had happened the day after Jake had first been hired at the paper. She couldn’t even remember the content of the article now--other than that it was literally, all about shit--but she remembered how her eager and ambitious new co-worker (who, quite frankly annoyed her a little with his buoyant enthusiasm) had thought her byline was the best thing since sliced bread. He’d encouraged her, reassured her just as she was starting to doubt herself and her career, and told her enthusiastically that he could see her clever heading as a headline on the news that night,


In retrospect, it seems obvious that listening to the rookie might not have been the best idea. But, Jake had such a charismatic air about him, even if he hid it under his timidity and didn’t let anyone at the station besides Margaret see it. She remembered how he’d helped her come up with a new headline and tried to cheer her up with a stupid joke after Vince had quickly (and unsurprisingly) vetoed it. Since that day Jake had latched onto Margaret like a leech and Margaret had taken him under her wing. Begrudgingly so at first, though she had to admit, the kid was starting to grow on her.  


“Yeah,” she smirked. “You just supported that byline and set me up for failure so you could get your own foot in the door and steal my thunder, Matthews.”


The tops of his ears turned red; lately, Margaret had noticed he didn’t take her flattery or compliments very well. “It was one of your finer moments,” he said defensively.


She tended to think of it as one of her worst moments, but hey, to each his own. “Maybe,” she shrugged. “But explaining to Vince how I might have ruined his fluffy human interest story won’t be.”


She and Jake made their way into the building and down the windy halls to right outside their boss’ office. The block lettering on the frosted glass door was nearly as foreboding as the person behind it. “Christ, I’m really not in the mood to explain to Vince how I fucked this up.”


Jake nodded understandingly. Margaret elbowed him playfully in the side. “I’m going to need some cheering up after this, Matthews.”


“Oh, if you make it out with your job still in tact I’ll take you to lunch on Saturday.” The words started off confident but ended in a mumbly rush.


Margaret looked at the door skeptically. “Yeah, I wouldn’t get your hopes up too high.” Jake laughed, a nervous sound that replicated exactly what she felt as she opened the door and headed inside.


***


“...there is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened...”


Finn read that last line and sat down his old worn copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and leaned back in his Eno. He liked technology just as much as the next person, but when it came to books he didn’t ever plan on jumping on the eBook bandwagon. It might have been a little tricky, having to figure out just how to hold the book with his thumb and pinky in front of him, using those fingers to flip the pages and using his three middle fingers to brace the spine--and it was still a little cumbersome--but worth it. There was just something about reading a real book, you know?


And nothing--absolutely nothing--could beat the way he was spending the first day of his spring break: hammocking in Oak Mountain State Park, about an hour south of Montgomery. He’d gotten here around 10:00 a.m. and started setting up his hammock. Most people would think that  hammocking wasn't something that could be pulled off with one arm--his mother was still a little skeptical--but it wasn’t that different. Add in some leader ropes around the loop end of the hammock, an extra ten minutes, and some patience and in the end, like most anything, it could be done.


When he’d loaded up the Jeep that morning he’d brought a small cooler loaded with ice and a fishing pole, fully intending to catch his supper. Nothing like a good old Sauger filet. But now that he was here nestled in the hammock, reading, and enjoying the warm sun on his face, he honestly didn’t want to move. He wanted to just stay there the rest of the week, in the piece and quiet, away from everything.


Including Margaret Shields.


He was pretty sure that no one had figured the Universe out yet, but according to Hitchhiker’s, something cosmically major had to have happened because suddenly in his world, suddenly, bizarre and inexplicable things had started happening.


The first was that reporter lady calling him on Friday. That was strange and random, but mostly just annoying. He really hated reporters. The next was that reporter lady turning out to be Margaret, a discovery that was much to his chagrin. She’d been alright. And sort of pretty. And a redhead. And kind of funny. And a little flirtatious. And--


--And, he better stop.


Finn chuckled at himself, the noise breaking the serene silence of the woods. Margaret had been cluttering up his mind since Saturday night -- this was spring break, supposedly a week of not worrying about relaxing and decompressing--yet, here he was, coiled up like a spring because even after two days of thinking about it, he couldn’t decide how he should feel about her.


Obviously, her career choice meant he couldn’t like her simply based on principle. But, he figured he could probably end up liking what he saw of her personality on Saturday. She seemed...spunky. Also, a little sneaky. He figured she was probably fun-loving too. She would’ve had to been to live with Liz for four years. His cooking seemed to impress her, but it did most of the girls his sister-in-law dragged in. Whoever said that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach obviously hadn’t met a Southern woman; they knew good food when they tasted it too.


And then there was the way that he actually felt bad as she was leaving. Not only because the spunk in her eyes had been replaced by a despondent look, but because as she left, he had actually felt a little letdown. Letdown that she was a reporter, letdown that as she was leaving she didn’t say anything other than that she was sorry about his china, and mostly letdown that she’d pretty much just tucked tail and ran. He didn’t know Margaret that well but from what he did know of her, he’d expected a little bit more of a fight. Then, she tried to call him the next day, but he’d seen that as sort of a cowardly way to approach the problem, so he’d denied her. Since then (and it’d been 28 hours) he hadn’t heard anything.


Ugh. What was wrong with him? He tossed the book towards the other end of the hammock and rolled over onto his stomach, not exactly an easy feat for someone missing half their limbs and swimming in a blanket of woven fabric. Shutting his eyes, he tried to will Margaret Shields out of his mind. He thought instead of what he’d do the rest of the week (laundry, grade papers, go running) and what he was going to end up having for supper that night (Mama Rosa frozen pizza).

Margaret Shields had seemed alright on Saturday night, aside from the obvious things. But she was gone now. And it needed to stay that way. Right? That's what he wanted. After all, she'd just been so personable because she was trying to get to him for her story. Right? 

Right, Finn decided and tried to push her to the back recesses of his mind, focusing instead on his breathing and the sounds of the park and tried to will himself to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. But it wasn't happening, he felt as frustrated that he couldn't get her off his mind as Zaphod had felt as he tried to convince Ford Prefect that they really were landing on Margaretha in chapter fifteen.



***


A long time ago, when she first started working at the paper and had her first confrontation with Vince, Margaret had decided that it was best to just let him vent and yell. Better out than in, was what her mom always said about a person's emotions.


So that's why as Vince Masters turned a distinct shade of purple and gestured at her like an angry Italian, she just sat there and let it happen.


Finally, after about two minutes, he sat down in a sweaty huff. "Well," she asked, crossing one leg over the other, "are you done?"


Her boss glared at her from behind his desk.


"I'm a reporter, Vince, I'm not a private investigator. Nor am I psychic. I didn't realize when I called him on Friday and he hung up on me for being a nosy journalist that the next day I'd be eating grilled chicken at his apartment in Carrington Park."


Vince didn't say anything so she took that as her cue to continue. "You know, we actually were having a really lovely evening until he asked me what exactly it was I planned on reporting about in my--”


"--Margaret, you've got to be kidding me." Vince threw his hands up in exasperation. “You knew he already was hesitant to talk, yet you stayed for dinner anyways?”


She averted her eyes.


Her boss groaned. “English is going to be declining to comment or talk to us for the next five years.”


Vince started shuffling through papers on his desk. Margaret waited. He held a piece of paper out towards her. "I want it done soon."


She took the paper out of his hand and looked at it. A grand opening of a new mall this weekend. "Great," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Her chance of becoming an anchor in the next five years just went from great to disparagingly dismal. "Just the sort of thing I love going to and writing scripts about so the bimbos behind the desk can tell all of Greater Montgomery about it."


“Margaret,” Vince warned.


She should’ve held back, but it was starting off to be a bad week and, Margaret had never been good about holding her tongue. "We're in Montgomery, Alabama, Vince. And we work at a local news station, reporting about cats in trees and bad traffic. We're not in the Ukraine; and, this isn’t the Civil Rights Era South. Does anyone care about what’s going on here? No! Why is this story such a big deal? No one cares about this article except middle aged housewives -- you said so yourself!"


Vince didn't so much as glance at her as he replied to her in a cool tone. "Margaret, you're right. This is a dinky town with small stories. You're not a correspondent for the AP and you don’t get to report on what you want; you work for me, and I want that,” he pointed at the board in his office which held brief snippets of all the stories for coming weeks; Finn’s name was second from the top, “reported on."


“This is bullshit.” Margaret muttered under her breath. As soon as the words left her mouth she knew that they shouldn’t have.


Vince froze. Slowly, he turned to face her. “Let’s remember, Margaret, three years ago you were just a little girl from bumfuck Alabama and greener than Matthews out there. But you had a degree from Auburn and wanted to be the next Diane Sawyer. That was bullshit. But I hired you anyways--”


“--yeah, because Alan Simmons had just quit.”


“--Nevertheless, I hired you. You came up with some good stories, you wrote some good scripts, and now you want back from behind the camera and in front of it instead."


Margaret bit her lip, sensing that her boss was far from done. She’d seen him like this only one other time in three years and that was when she’d refused to come in because she had the flu and a 102 fever.


“And that’s only to be expected with any younger broadcast journalist, and it’s fine. Because I like you. And I thought you might be ready for a step up. So, I gave you this chance. I thought ‘Margaret’s made me laugh and cry about azaleas during the same five minute segment, this follow-up story will be a piece of cake for her’. But you know what?”


Vince paused, giving her a chance to comment. When she didn’t, he went on.


“I’m realizing now that that was a mistake. You’re right, we’re in Montgomery, Alabama and this isn’t news that anyone really cares about. Margaret, you don’t get this story covered and I guarantee you’ll never be Diane Sawyer,” he gave her a scornful look and laughed, a harsh sound. “You’ll just end up right back in Wedowee, a sad relic of who you used to be and living in the trailer you grew up in.”


Margaret sucked in her breath sharply. His words stung but she tried not to let him see. Damn her for getting drunk at the station’s Fourth of July BBQ last year and telling her boss her biggest fears. She rolled her eyes and tried to give him a wry smile, but knew he probably saw through the ruse. “It’s an old run-down familial homestead,” she corrected in a low voice. “Vince, I think you missed your calling. Forget journalism, you should have an actor. You're being a little bit dramatic.”


He just raised his eyebrows in a blasé response. Then shrugged and turned back to his computer. "Get this done, Margaret.”


She nodded and turned to leave, all the fight suddenly gone out of her. “Vince? Can I ask a question?”


Vince gave the briefest of nods, indicating she should go on. That, at least, was a good sign. The worst of his tirade was over.


"Why do you care so much about this follow-up anyways?"


Her boss actually smiled as he met her eyes. "Oh, well I just genuinely want to know how the guy's been doing the last couple of years." The smile vanished. “Margaret, our ratings are down. And nothing gets the city tuned in to channel six like a human interest, feel good story about a hometown hero.”


Margaret nodded and turned to leave. “And,” her boss added as she turned to leave. “Let’s not forget I’m giving you the chance to be the one cover the story that is going to save the station.”


Or the chance to be the one to drag it down and drown it. She shut the door hard as she left, not sure whether she should feel better or worse. More, than ever before she was convinced that Vince Masters truly lived just to make his employees lives miserable. She stomped down the hall, back to her hole of an office in the back corner, in a huff. On the way she spotted Jake being berated for a small mistake by a man named Michael, another person at the station that he fact checked for. He looked every bit as miserable and confused as she felt. Margaret overheard Vince’s named mentioned in a threatening way and winced. Well, misery did love company. Deciding that, Margaret interjected as she passed the pair, “Make it a working lunch on Saturday and you’re on, Matthews!”







Friday, June 29, 2012

MC Ch. 5

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.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

MC Ch. 6

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.

Like today.

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.