by Jennifer Kelly
“Do you mind if I sit here?” asked the man.
“Sure,” said Bobby, lowering his paper. He immediately saw the shock in the man’s eyes. Bobby knew what was coming next.
“Never mind. I’ll find someplace else to sit.”
The man hurried to a seat at the far end of the counter. Bobby sighed. He was used to reactions about his scars. Most people weren’t as obvious as this man, but Bobby understood no one wanted to look at what was left of his face. He didn’t either. Bobby went back to reading his paper.
“Wow, those are some big scars. Your face is really messed up! How’d you do it?”
Bobby glanced up from his paper again. He was surprised to see a kid waiting patiently for a reply. The boy was wearing a summer uniform of cutoff shorts, a faded t-shirt, and Converse sneakers that had seen better days. He was by himself, which seemed odd to Bobby. Parents usually didn’t leave their children alone in a coffee shop.
“Yeah. It’s pretty bad,” said Bobby. He looked around. “You here by yourself?”
The boy shook his head causing his overgrown hair to tumble into his eyes.
“Nah. My mom’s working the counter this morning. She said I could eat breakfast during her shift. My name’s William, but everyone calls me Willy,” said the boy, extending his hand.
The kid’s confidence and manners surprised Bobby. He didn’t meet many people with that combination, although that didn’t mean much. Most people avoided Bobby.
“Name’s Robert. They call me Bobby,” he replied, shaking Willy’s hand. “How old are you?”
“I’m ten,” said Willy. “You gonna tell me what happened to your face?”
“You always talk to strangers?”
“You’re not a stranger. You’re a customer,” said Willy. “Besides, my mom says if you wanna know something, just ask. If a person doesn’t wanna tell, that’s okay. But Mom says you’re not gonna learn anything if you don’t ask.”
“Well, I guess you better sit down. I’m having breakfast too,” said Bobby. He moved his newspapers off the counter to make space for the boy. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“Yes sir, I do,” said Willy, smiling. “So you gonna tell me what happened to your face or not?”
Before Bobby had a chance to answer, the waitress approached. She slid a menu in front of Bobby and poured coffee into his waiting mug. Her name tag read “Angela”.
“Willy, give the man some space,” said Angela. “He’s trying to order breakfast.”
“Ahh Mom, I’m just asking him some questions,” said Willy. “I’m using my manners.”
“It’s okay, ma’am,” Bobby said. “I’m Robert, by the way.”
“That’s right, Mom. This is Robert,” said Willy, “but he said I could call him Bobby. He was getting ready to tell me how he got his scars. I just asked.”
“That’s my boy. All you need to do is ask,” said Angela. “But let me get his order first. Sorry for the wait, Bobby. What can I get you?”
Bobby ordered, and Angela went to the kitchen to put the order in. Bobby wasn’t sure what to do next. He could see the man at the end of the counter sneaking glances at him and Willy. He could handle adults being rude. But Angela and Willy’s reactions were a first for him. Angela didn’t seem to mind his scars, and she was encouraging her son to question a stranger, a scarred stranger at that. Willy was interested, but Bobby didn’t know if the boy was mature enough to hear what happened. Guessing Angela would stop him if she objected, Bobby began his story.
“I was a soldier. That’s how I got this face.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Willy. “I watch war movies, and you look like one of the tough guys.”
“I was, but tough guys get hurt too,” said Bobby. “I was in Afghanistan. My platoon’s job was to keep routes clear of roadside bombs so trucks could deliver supplies. We did okay for a while. Then we had some bad luck.”
“What happened?” said Willy, leaning forward in expectation. “Did you get ambushed?”
“We did, but that’s not what gave me this,” said Bobby pointing to his face. “It was an IED…”
“That’s an Improvised Explosive Device,” said Willy.
“How’d you know that?” asked Bobby. “You’re a little young to know about that kind of stuff.”
“I heard it on the news, and I looked it up on the Web. Mom says you gotta educate yourself on current events. You gotta know what to ask about. Right, Mom?
Angela had returned and was listening to their conversation as she cleaned behind the counter.
“That’s right,” she said. She looked at Bobby. “So what happened?”
“Are you sure he’s old enough to hear this?” asked Bobby.
“He is,” answered Angela. “You okay telling it?”
Bobby looked Angela in the eyes. “I don’t mind talking about it. Most people don’t want to listen though.”
“That’s a shame,” said Angela. “I’m sure it’s a story worth hearing.”
Bobby looked from Angela to her son and back again. No one willingly gave him a chance to tell his story, not even his family. They said it was too depressing, and they didn’t want to remember how he almost died. This was his opportunity. He decided to take it.
“We were clearing out a side road. It was supposed to be clean. Only it wasn’t. Somehow, they managed to bury an IED on the shoulder. Someone stepped on it, and we all got showered with shrapnel. I was knocked unconscious and woke up in a German hospital a couple of days later. They told me I was lucky to be alive. Some other guys shielded me from the blast. I lost three friends that day.”
Bobby paused. He couldn’t tell Angela or Willy how he wondered everyday why he was alive, and they weren’t. He also spared them the details about the shrapnel that continued to work its way to the surface of his skin every few weeks.
“The doctors did their best to patch me up. It took eleven surgeries, and I came out looking like Frankenstein’s monster.” He turned so Angela and Willy could see his face better.
Willy studied Bobby’s scars. They covered the right side of his face from the corner of his eye to his jaw and down his neck. His right eye drooped, and his mouth sagged where nerves were severed. The symmetry of Bobby’s face was gone thanks to missing bone in his jaw. His ear resembled a lump of clay.
“Does it hurt?” asked Willy.
Bobby started to tell Willy it did, but stopped. He was so engrossed in talking to Willy, he forgot about his pain for a few minutes. Willy distracted him. Instead of worrying about himself, Bobby was thinking about Willy and what he wanted to hear. He was surprised. Talking about his experience calmed him. This moment wouldn’t stop his suffering, but for now, he felt good.
“I’m doing okay.”
“That’s a good story, Bobby,” said Willy. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Yes. Thank you for talking to him. I imagine that was hard for you,” Angela said. “I always tell Willy it’s better to ask and be told no than to not ask and not know. Now, it’s time to let Bobby enjoy his breakfast. Willy, why don’t you head over to that table, and I’ll bring your food there.”
“It’s okay. He can stay here,” said Bobby quickly. “He hasn’t told me his story yet.”
Angela looked surprised.
“His story?” asked Angela.
“Well yeah. You said to just ask. So, I’m asking,” said Bobby with a droopy smile. “Willy, what’s your story?”