Melissa McCann MFA studied creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She lives on Vashon Island with her husband and their five dogs.
Conversation died when I entered the cafe on the outskirts of Woodhill, a haven of polished tables and dim corners. Twenty-somethings in groups and professional couples in their thirties seemed to stare over the tops of newspapers and tablets, taking in my deformed face and the hand clenched on my cane.
I froze inside the door in the the naked conviction that they knew everything I had done since I left home—the rattle of gunfire, screaming missiles, blood soaking into sand. I looked around for cover and realized I was still in the cafe. I forced myself into motion, conscious of hidden snipers that couldn’t possibly be there.
Baristas milled around as I approached, each trying to avoid being the one to serve me. By the time I reached the counter, a scarecrow of a young man with small round glasses and shaggy hair bobbed to the front of the mob and held his ground at the register, pretending he didn't see my scars as he took my order and counted out my change.
Finally, I could take my paper bag and limp back out into the light, keeping my head down to avoid strange eyes. Because I wasn’t looking, I nearly knocked over a slender woman burdened like a burro with bags and backpacks and the padded case of a laptop computer.
Two of the bags dropped. She said something that sounded like, “Darn it.” Then I dropped my scones to catch her elbow before she toppled, overbalanced by the laptop and backpack.
“My fault,” I said.
I left her poised on her feet and bent to pick up one of her fallen bags. Then, as I handed it back to her, I looked up far enough to see her face.
She squeaked and dropped an oversized tote as she unconsciously accepted the canvas shopping bag I offered. “Oh.” She looked down at the dropped tote bag as if she had no idea where it had come from, and a flush ran up her face.
Mora Fee had changed nearly as much as I had in the years since she had tutored me in high-school geometry. I remembered her as a skinny girl, plain as soda crackers, with blue-black hair and thick bangs cut straight across her forehead. The bangs had gone, and she'd twisted her hair into an untidy knot. Her features, once odd and uneven, had turned striking, stronger than they were pretty, and her figure had gone from skinny to gamine.
I muttered an innocuous greeting as I held out the tote to her, keeping my face averted, hiding scars, avoiding her expression.
She took the bag and looped the strap over her shoulder, fussing with it as though it were as complicated as a parachute. “Hello, Hal,” she mumbled, then cleared her throat and tipped her chin up. “I was aware of your injury and your return. The newspapers reported that you were burned when you saved six men from a bomb.”
I looked away. Three of my unit had been outside the mosque, out of range of the blast. Six had heard my warning and escaped. Three, including the CO and executive officer, had been in front of me, too far into the building to get out in time. I muttered, “Those reporters might as well write fiction.”
“Cognitive dissonance.” She began to edge to one side to get around me. “Excuse me,” she said. “I have to meet my bus.” She escaped in a rush, staggering a little and trying to keep her load from pulling her off balance.
Nettled, I went after her, pulling the biggest bag off her shoulder and slinging it over mine. “What cognitive dissonance?”
“Oh.” She shied like a skittish colt, which made room on the sidewalk for me on her left. I had forgotten she was so jumpy.
She had the kind of complexion that didn’t tan and showed every change of mood. Now she had gone red again. She hitched in a breath. "You are struggling to reconcile the fact of having saved your own life and those of most of the others in your group with the deaths of the remaining three. That represents an example of classic survivor’s guilt coupled with the knowledge that if you had detected the incendiary a few moments earlier, the other three would have escaped as well."
My throat tightened. If I had seen it five seconds earlier. Three even.
She inhaled like a hiccough. “You are accustomed to operating within a highly-refined framework of environmental micro-cues in your phenomenal field, which enable you to anticipate probable outcomes in a given situation with a high degree of accuracy.”
“I’m accustomed to what? Where do you get all that from?”
“I tutored you in geometry,” she said, as if it should be obvious to anyone who could add two and two to achieve four.
In my senior year, I'd needed a final math credit. I had already decided on a tour in the Army, and I had to graduate to qualify for Special Forces.
I had never had any trouble getting grades well above average, but geometry utterly defeated me. Angles and relationships that should have been simple slid off my brain like oil on glass, so I sought out Mora—the school math geek.
I found the little math-geek difficult to approach. On my first attempt, she had stared at me as if I were a fox marauding in the henhouse and ducked behind a herd of migratory freshmen. After two more tries in which she disappeared before I came within speaking distance, I trapped her in the back of the library at the furthest study table in the darkest corner. I had a chair out and sat before she knew I was there.
She squeaked and scooted her own chair back, but I had blocked her escape on one side, and she would have to scramble over two chairs on the other to escape. I counted on her sense of dignity to prevent it. “I need some help with math,” I told her.
“What math?” she whispered. She cleared her throat. “What math?” she said a little louder.
I explained my predicament and requested her tutoring services.
She resisted, raising objections which I turned aside with either logic or charm as the argument required. I turned out to be more persistent than Mora was reluctant, and I began meeting her twice a week at the back of the library. Mora invariably gave the impression she would bolt if I got too close, but she taught me geometry, making meaningless angles and lines and curves seem perfectly obvious and logical