Meg

byTarnishedPenny©

To be clear, this is a love story with some erotic elements (vice an erotic story with a touch of romance), a story about two broken people rediscovering their humanity and, even more important, their faith in themselves. Without that faith, love can never succeed.

As always, my profound thanks to the Megs and the Wills, the men and women who have given so much and who have all too often been discarded like used tissue. We need to do better for them.

God bless us, each and every one.


*

Meg sat on the bench, watching the ducks on the pond in front of her. Behind her was a steep, bramble-covered hill, so overgrown that it felt solid, safe.

The pond was perhaps 120 yards across. On the far side lay a thin beach, green lawns and a playground. Small shrieking children ran in every direction, carefree in the warm May sunshine. Old people sat quietly on benches, treasuring temporary comfort. A park employee slowly emptied trash bins into a three-wheeled vehicle. Everything there was open, visible.

Her bench was in the shade, between two bushes. Few people walked this side of the pond at this time of day.

Meg turned to her backpack on the bench beside her and took out a book of crosswords. She began one, progressed well but tossed it aside as uninteresting three minutes later.

Two newspapers followed. She ignored sections on sports, homes, business and local news, tossed unread a glossy insert on an upcoming auto show. There was so little in them that overlapped her life.

Instead, she read and reread the international news and tech sections and studied news from the capital. She kept the want ads pages for later study but all else was discarded as meaningless to her today.

She lit a cigarette and drew in the first smoke like a hug from a long-lost child. A paper cup with half an inch of cold coffee sat on the bench on the other side of her from the backpack.

Meg was perhaps 5 foot 7, with what her mother had always called 'beautiful brunette' hair. It wasn't until she was 12 years old that she realized that that just meant mouse-brown. It had been cut short, but she had started to grow it out, leaving it looking just a bit ragged.

She had a pretty face on those rare instances when she smiled. Her figure would have been called interesting by most men had she not clearly been 15 or 20 pounds underweight. She somehow looked dehydrated, deflated.

Her nails were short, but well-groomed except for her right thumbnail. That one was chewed to the quick.

She wore no makeup or jewellery. Clean and presentable enough, someone meeting her for the first time might however get the impression she groomed herself by rote, as off a checklist instead of trying to achieve a particular purpose: Item 6. Brush hair for 45 seconds...

She was dressed as she usually did, a baggy t-shirt and loose jeans. A baseball cap for some long-forgotten garage band lay on the pack. Everything was clean and almost new, as if purchased in a lot, except for her sunglasses. Those were clearly well-used and not particularly feminine, as if designed for sturdiness, not style.

Meg rarely appeared in public without those sunglasses.

She wore new trainers. The one on the left had a foot in it.

From the right leg of her jeans protruded an alloy tube about the thickness of a banana. It terminated in a complicated metal ball joint, below which could be seen the top of a yellow plastic 'foot'.

Something rustled in the dead leaves immediately behind her head. She levitated off the bench, reaching the other side of the broad path before stopping and spinning around, her heart pounding. A squirrel looked at her curiously, its tail twitching, then moved on with some newfound spring treasure in its front paws.

She took a deep breath before returning to the bench. The cigarette butt, discarded in her flight, lay by the bench. She picked it up and deposited it with half a dozen others in the coffee cup.

Looking at the plain watch on her wrist, she dismissed the idea of going to Hank's earlier than normal. Routine was important. It was something she could depend on.

Sitting down again, she tried to purposefully concentrate on her breathing. She could hear the words and instructions of her therapist. They always seemed to her to be better suited for somebody else, something which might work in the abstract, but which had a little relevance in the real world.

Her world.

Precious little in her new world seemed real. There was an artificiality to the peaceful people on the streets, a flatness to television and movies, a lack of flavour to anything she did. Sometimes it seemed that she herself was just a character in a television documentary of what she had once been.

There were times she wanted to grab people by the shoulders, shake them and scream, "You damned fools - can't you see?" She didn't, for there was the lethal danger that one of them would ask, "See what?" and for that she could have no answer.

It was all flat. Except for the whiskey. That had taste. And it worked, sort of, much of the time. Well, sometimes. Sometimes it would bring sleeplessness to an end and that was better than nothing.

She knew abstractly that alcohol wasn't the answer. And she knew to the bottom of her heart that she needed to change where she was. The problem is that trying brought the possibility of failure and that would be infinitely more painful than her present. When yesterday's water was full of sharks and today's crocodiles, it's hard to rock tomorrow's boat. And the bottle helped suppress the relentless, remorseless, unfocussed anger. So whiskey it would be until somebody came up with a better option.

"I'm sorry, Meg," her team leader at the clinic had told her. "We've tried just about everything we can, but the funding just isn't there to keep you in the program when there are so many others we might be able to help."

So, age 25, she was an ex-Air Force certified crazy lady with a 100 percent disability pension, a tin leg and a lot of time on her hands. The VA drones were just that. None of them were bad people, but they too were locked into the vast bureaucratic merry-go-round and, her local office opening at 10:00 AM, most seemed drained of all caring or energy by 10:15 AM.

There was an offer of schooling, but she knew her mind was too broken to spend more years behind a desk in a classbox. Offers to help with her résumé were pointless. Her parents had died years ago and her only sibling, a brother, lived on the other side of the country; she could imagine no greater nightmare than living even in the same city.

So Meg spent her time people-watching. In bad weather, it was the library or the train station. Evenings, there was Hank's.

Whether or not Hank had ever actually existed, his name was part of the city landscape. It was nothing fancy, and not very large, but it was quiet and cool when it was hot outside and the prices were OK. Most importantly, it was rarely too crowded and people left you alone. That mattered.

Meg was now one of the regulars. She sat at the same two-seat table most evenings, back to the wall. She'd stay there until 10 or 11 and then go home - alone. She was lonely enough but knew the perils of being a drunk, single woman and, even though her head was no longer screwed on with the right number of bolts, would not risk becoming a single mother.

It wasn't as if there was a queue to ask her out, anyway. Her time was divided between the park, her room at the YWCA and Hank's. Nobody came by in the park and she had ignored initial attempts at friendship at the Y. Customers at Hank's tended to mind their own business and generally talked only to their own group. She'd been hit on once or twice, early on, by visitors, but the look in her eyes discouraged all but the most desperate, drunk or dim.

She was able to call the bartenders and waitresses by their first names and beyond that had run out of shits to give. They were fixtures that brought her drinks and food and, tipped just slightly above average, provided service reflecting that.

She watched the scene across the pond. At one time, she'd had a pair of binoculars, but two police officers arrived one morning to discuss why she was stalking the children. She hadn't been quick enough to come up with a coherent explanation and her psych status hadn't done her any favours, so now she left the binoculars in her room.

Eventually, checking the time, she left the park and, made her way to the bar. On the sidewalks, she kept close to walls, speeding up and slowing down to avoid clusters of pedestrians. At red lights, she stood with her back to a building, her glare daring anyone to approach. Her eyes scanned for open windows and high points throughout.

A few eyes turned her way as she entered the bar, then recognizing her, turned away. There were the Fans, as she thought of them - five of them tonight, dissecting last night's game in exhausting detail. They were the noisiest, steadily working their way through numerous pitchers of beer each night. Once in a while, voices would be raised, but it never went any further. The Three Old Ladies, always with shopping bags, always leaving at 6:20 or so. Ball Cap Guy sat back to the wall in his usual spot, a draft beer in front of him, another one untouched in front of the empty seat across from him. A couple of others, one reading an ever-present book and the other thumbing at his phone. The usual suspects.

She knew most of their jokes, knew who cheered for which teams, who hated their jobs. She knew some names, picked up from overhearing discussions with waitresses.

She had nothing in common with them, had never spoken to any of them.

Everyone else was a visitor. None looked threatening and, safe in an accustomed harbor, Meg relaxed as much as she ever did. Peggy, the fat waitress, nodded at her from behind the bar. JD on the rocks would be there presently, along with a menu. She preferred Irish, but her budget didn't extend that far. JD would do and she'd be grateful for it.

Televisions mounted high on the walls silently showed highlights from various games. A few were tuned to news, local or otherwise. Right now, they were showing a Memorial Day ceremony - school children, politicians, flags. She turned away, unwilling to watch. Inside, she could feel white-hot rage starting to flare and struggled to push it down.

Numb sucked, but it beat most of the alternatives.

Peggy arrived with her drink. Meg pushed a bill at her. She didn't want to build a tab she might not have the cash for later. She looked through the menu, knowing it by heart. Nothing raised much enthusiasm and in any case, acknowledging hunger equated to vulnerability. She pushed the menu aside for the moment and nursed her drink.

Her eyes flicked around the bar, were suddenly drawn to a small box on Ball Cap Guy's table. Smaller than a cigarette package and much thinner, she suddenly knew without being able to see it that it would have the words, "United States of America," on its lid.

Intrigued, she re-examined the man. In his early 30s, he was tall, broad-shouldered, but lean rather than muscular. His sandy hair was short-ish; his cheeks and chin hovered in that uncertain state between 'shaved' and 'bearded'. He wore denim, scuffed boots and the usual ball cap. She couldn't recall ever seeing him in anything else. His beer glass was almost empty and she knew that he'd eventually order another without touching the full one on the other side of his table. A black backpack lay on the floor by his feet.

Ball Cap Guy never looked at the televisions for long. He spent a lot of time watching dark corners and shadows.

She tried to picture him in uniform, high and tight. It worked.

Suddenly, she was sick of sitting by herself. Aware she might be burning bridges, she gulped the last of her JD and walked up to his table.

Blue eyes locked onto hers, challenging.

She pointed at the box. "May I look at that, please?"

His voice was rusty, as if unused to talking. "Why?"

She didn't answer. Instead, she shifted her right leg to where he could see it and pulled up her pant-leg, revealing the prosthetic.

Without speaking, he pushed the box towards her. She reached around and swivelled a chair from another table to sit beside his, sat down.

The box was empty. She looked at him. He stretched out his arm, opened his fist. She caught her breath at the red, white and blue ribbon.

The Silver Star isn't the nation's highest decoration for bravery, but there aren't many of them around. They aren't awarded for little things.

"Oh," she said. "Thanks. I saw the box and just wondered. Memorial Day, right?"

He nodded. He didn't look like he wanted company.

"So, yeah. Thanks. Sorry to bother you." She started to get up. He didn't touch her, but, snake-fast, his hand caught the arm of her chair.

"It's OK," he said. "You're welcome to stay." When she sat down again, he reached out a hand to catch Peggy's attention, then held up two fingers.

He looked at her. "I'm Will," he introduced himself flatly. He didn't offer to shake hands.

"Megan. Meg."

She turned her head, nodded at the beer glass at the vacant chair. She knew the custom. "And...?"

"Alvarez." No first name, no rank, nothing more. It'd probably been just 'Alvarez' when they had gone drinking, too.

She looked at the medal in his hand again. She could see a white outline of the star on his palm where he'd been clenching it. Seeing her unspoken question, he merely said, "Helmand."

He looked at her, then nodded towards her leg and raised his eyebrows in question.

"Air Force. Nothing special - wrong place at the wrong time. Chopper got shot down."

That was enough. Neither one of them had any inclination to get into war porn.

Peggy came with the drinks. The two of them sat quietly for a while, not saying anything but glad of each other's silent company, then Meg put her hand on his arm. "I have to go. Thanks for the drink." He nodded, but didn't look up from the table as she left.

Meg didn't go to Hank's the next day. She'd pushed the boundaries and didn't want to seem intrusive.

Will wasn't there the day after or the next, either.

The night after that, Will came in 20 minutes after she did, knapsack over one shoulder. He headed for his usual space, then saw Meg. He turned and came to her table. "May I sit down?" His voice, still raspy, sounded shy.

He has a wonderful smile, she thought.

"Of course." She tried to smile back and felt awkward, like she was 13 again - graceless, socially inept, uncertain to the where-do-you-put-your-nose-when-you-kiss? level.

This time, it was she who waved to Peggy.

He sat down facing her, but squirmed at sitting with his back towards the room. This time, she smiled. She knew the dance.

The next table over had four chairs. She lifted her drink over and shifted seats. "Here," she said, pushing the chair next to her towards him.

Embarrassed but obviously grateful, he slid in next to her, this time facing out, his back to the wall. "Thanks." He pushed his backpack next to hers.

She surprised herself and laughed. "We're a pair, aren't we?"

He just grunted. Peggy brought the drinks and put menus on the table before turning to leave. "Wait," Meg said. Peggy turned around and saw her pointing at the empty spot opposite Will. The waitress looked at him, nodded and returned a minute later with a draft.

He looked at her in surprise. "You didn't have to do that."

"I have my own ghosts," she said. "He must have been special."

The man was silent for a long while, then, "He was that."

She didn't ask him if he wanted to talk about it. A high-school poem came back to her: There are ghosts in the air, And ghostly echoes on paper, And the thunder of calls and notes. It was the story of her nights.

Too many stories wanted to be told by people unwilling to speak loud enough to tell them. Few listeners could understand anyway and those who could understand didn't need to hear them. After a while, it occurs to you that it must look like you are talking to yourself. A while later, you realize that you have been - talking to the only real person in your world.

So you keep quiet.

Peggy came back, order pad in hand.

Meg looked at the plastic-covered menu, dropped it and shrugged. "Want to split a pizza?" she asked.

"Anything but Hawaiian."

They worked their way through the pizza and another round. Unaccustomed to people, they tried to make where-are-you-from small talk.

Eventually she asked, "Where are you staying?"

He prodded the backpack with his foot. "Couch-surfing of late," he admitted. "Probably the men's shelter tonight."

"Well," she said with a wry smile, "I'd offer you the spare room, but they frown on men in the Y."

"Really?"

Neither one of them said anything for some minutes. Both were too mature to whine about 'fairness' or 'justice', but it burned.

Finally she snorted bitterly. "I bet the recruiting sergeant promised you that you'd get laid a lot, too."

His head snapped around to stare at her.

Horrified, she covered her mouth with her left hand and blushed. "I'm so sorry!" she whispered. "I don't know where that came from."

He grinned and laid his hand on her right. "Maybe," he said. "What did he promise you?"

Her blush deepened. She stared at him, eyes wide, not breathing.

"Um, it was a she and she talked mainly about a college education. Look, I'm really sorry. That was a mess. I have to go." She started to rise.

He gripped her hand under his on the table. "Please don't. That's the funniest thing anybody's said to me in a long time."

Meg looked at him and sat back down. It had been a long time since a man had held her hand. It felt good.

+

"The Army and VA didn't agree on my... issues," he said, bleakly. "And then they said that there'd been an overage on my severance payment, so I'm sort of in a black hole."

He took another drink of his beer and said, "It'll all get sorted out, I guess. Been through worse."

"Jesus," she breathed. "That sucks. At least I dodged that one."

Peggy arrived with the bill and Meg grabbed it. "On me, this time."

He seemed ready to argue, but shrugged. "Thanks," then smiled thinly. "Things must be pretty flush at the Y for you to be buying like this."

Having remembered how, she smiled back. "Maybe I'm the angel sent to get you back on the straight and narrow?"

Will said nothing at first, then suddenly reached around with one arm and gave her a quick hug, releasing her instantly. "So, thanks, Angel."

+

Will and Meg became fixtures in each other's lives - less than friends, more than acquaintances. Their daily routines gradually adjusted to include the other. There was no longer a timid approach at Hank's, just a chair proffered by the first to arrive. Often they said very little to each other.

One morning some weeks later, Will came by her bench in the park for the first time and sat down beside her.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi."

Beyond that, neither of them spoke for an hour.

"Peaceful here," Will said eventually. "I can see why you like it."

"Yeah." She thought for a minute. "Look, I need to 'powder my nose', so watch my pack, will you? There's a coffee shop there. How do you take yours?"

"No, thanks."

"NATO Standard it is," she replied, "One and one."

"Just one sugar, then. Please."

When she returned, her hands full of coffee, he took his thankfully, wrapping his hands around the steaming cup and stuck his nose above it to suck in the smell. "Thanks."

She looked at him for a long while. Looking up, his eyes caught hers. "What?"

"I'm a girl. I get to look at handsome boys. It's in the rules."

"You're crazy."

"Got the papers to prove it, too," she said, this time with a slight smirk.

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