Part 6

Part 6Franklin stood outside of the church, far enough to not be seen but close enough to watch every face that passed through the leaves hanging on the burnt summer branches as they walked up the stairs to where the funeral would soon take place. His throat was dry. He wanted to go in, to watch, to see what kind of people felt sorry such a person was gone. Dead. Aching in a new place or silent in forever, or what ever happened to people when they died. He wanted to see him, his cold face in the box.

But he knew he wasn’t welcome.

He was not a murderer, not in this country. And if war wasn’t murder then he had no guilt to carry, even though he did, every day. And yet, this man, this boy, had died because of him. Because of what he’d said.

He’d often considered suicide himself. Not in the way Stephen had gone about it. There were better ways. A suicide, he thought, was not a demonstration. Those times when the death came in grand fashion were crimes committed by people who didn’t really want to die. Their suicides were accidents. Stephen hadn’t really wanted to die, either.

August seared itself into his skin, and he scratched it away. Couldn’t go inside. People would whisper. They’d look at him and think that he’d made love to one of his students, say he’d driven a young man to a death inspired by heartbreak. Some of it might be true.

He wondered if Stephen’s face looked like it had that day he’d seen him standing outside his door. It seemed like a long time ago. In many ways it was. A lot had happened, some of it good, most of it bad. The bad started that day on the porch, he behind the screen and Stephen on the other side of it, the day Stephen had told him he’d just wanted to make sure which house they lived in. The day the son of a bitch said that he was entrusting Crystal’s safety with him. He had a sick way of keeping someone safe.

“So this is how I see it, Franklin,” he’d said, not even having respect enough to call him Mr. Ray, like the other students. “Her safety depends on what you do. So think about it. Your actions can help her, or hurt her. But things are probably the opposite of what you’re imagining.”

“Are you threatening me?” he’d asked Stephen.

“No. I’m not threatening you.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that if I see you with her, ‘helping her’ in the way you feel like you should, I’ll know you want her to feel pain.”

Franklin had told him to get the hell off of his property. He’d threatened to call the police. Stephen said that was also a good way for Crystal to get hurt. He’d said that anything Franklin did that he didn’t like, Crystal would be punished for.

It had terrified him.

The doors shut and the people stopped coming. There was no music inside the church, no sound but the passing traffic and the wind.

He wanted to see, to make sure he was dead.

Franklin stepped from behind the tree where he’d been standing, trying to look like he belonged there, and walked up the steps. The air was cool inside.

There were people near the front, and empty rows of chairs in the back. He sat down in one. He didn’t want to stay long.

They might say it was his fault, if they knew what had really happened. But they would have done it themselves if they’d seen what Franklin had seen.

Stephen’s casket was in the front, closed. Maybe the bullet had disfigured him too badly to fix.

Franklin had once thought he could save her. That was before he’d lost his way.

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Part 5

DoorBerta was home by five, and had just started dinner when Franklin came through the door looking tired. He was never this late, not on Wednesdays when there were no extracurricular activities to oversee. She had no reason to question him, though. He was a good man, scarred but healing, and they were making a new life for themselves far from the constant insecurity of military deployments and reassignments. It had worked out better than she had hoped.

He came to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down heavy.

“I didn’t plan for this,” he said.

She looked over her shoulder, trying not to look too concerned. Looking concerned was a trigger, she’d learned. Just like putting away dishes, the pop of a light bulb’s death, the dog rushing down the stairs.

“What didn’t you plan for?” she asked.

“I just wanted to teach. But I can see that probably isn’t possible.”

Now she looked concerned. “Why? Did something happen at school?” Her tone gave away the worry that had blossomed in her mind.

“One of the students came to my office today. She’s in a lot of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” She brought two plates and set them on the table.

“She’s so talented. But you know how kids are. Always concerned with perceptions and hormones. They lack perspective. Anyway, apparently she’s involved with the biggest loser in the senior class.”

“Loser?”

“Well, not loser really. Not on paper anyway. Stephen Murphy. He’s the all-American kid, football, handsome, kind of a bully.”

“Okay? Doesn’t sound different than most other high school stories.”

“Yeah. But it’s just on paper with this guy. Rob said he threatened him.”

“Rob, the social studies teacher?”

“Yeah. He said that he made what he thought was an innocent joke about some of the silly answers he saw on one of the tests, and that afternoon he saw the guy hanging out in the parking lot by his car. He went up to open the door, said hi and all, and the kid wouldn’t move. He was leaning against the driver’s side door, smoking and smiling. He said “Those were some funny jokes,” and then he put his cigarette out on his hood.”

“Oh my God! Did Rob call the police?”

“No. I think he was afraid.”

Berta returned with two bowls. “He should have done something.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why?”

“Well, for one thing, the kid knows that he’s important to the school, and to the teachers who will probably protect him. He’s really brutal on the field. It just wasn’t worth it for him. But I know he doesn’t make jokes about the student’s answers anymore. I’m sure the kid’s probably pulling A’s now.”

“And what about the girl?”

Franklin rubbed his brow, and she could see the blood tightening in his veins.

“I think he hurts her. Physically.”

Berta put her spoon down, paused, and swallowed.

“Did she tell you this?”

Franklin shook his head. “Of course not. Otherwise I’d be talking to the police instead of you. But she was pretty shaken up. She said that he’d made her do things she was uncomfortable with.”

“What brought this conversation on?” As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she felt the sting of being jealous at this girl expressing intimacy with him.

“She said she couldn’t be in the musical because he told her she couldn’t.”

“Is that all?”

“And she has a bruise. On her wrists, like the shape of a hand.”

“Franklin…”

“I’ve got to help her, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

“Well, if anything happens you’ve got to stand up to him.”

“I know.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

They both jumped a little as the doorbell buzzed though the stale, fall air.

They exchanged a look, as if checking to see if the other was expecting anyone, until Franklin placed his napkin on the table and went to see who it was.

He opened the door and saw Stephen Murphy standing on the other side of the screen, smiling.

Part 4

1905571129And then there was Franklin.

He’d first met Crystal at the auditions. It was his first year as a theatre instructor, following the first job offer he’d received after completing the “Troops to Teachers” certification process when he’d left the Army. There wasn’t much need for art specialists in public schools, but he also covered technology applications classes. He’d also spent 10 years as a computer systems manager, installing communications components from Fort Bliss to Fort Bragg, and as far as Afghanistan. He didn’t like to think about Afghanistan.

Crystal wasn’t in choir, wasn’t in the high school band. But for some reason she’d picked that day to come up on the stage and sing “With You” from the musical Pippen. He hadn’t heard a teenager sing like that before. Every note was perfect, gentle, heartbreaking. When the call-backs were announced she was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until the next day that he’d been able to tell her she’d earned the starring role.

He found her as she left her advanced Algebra class. She’d walked by him, so he’d called after her.

“Miss McCarthy?”

“Yes,”

“Hi, I’m Mr. Ray, you auditioned yesterday. I was hoping to see you at the call backs.”

“Oh… yeah. I had some things to do.”

“Listen, you auditioned really well. In fact, we’d like you to take a part in the musical.”

Crystal didn’t smile, her eyes didn’t change, in fact she looked a little sad. “That’s great, Mr. Ray but I really don’t think I have the time. I just wanted to see if I was brave enough to audition, you know?”

“You mean you don’t want to be in the musical?”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Franklin had never talked to her before, but he knew there was something dark behind her reason. Perhaps it was the way the corner of her mouth pulled her smile down instead of up, like she’d wished she didn’t have to try to put on a happy face. Perhaps it was the way she’d looked behind her before she said it.

“Well, if you change your mind,” he said, “My office is upstairs, 257. I’d like you to think about it, at least. If you can’t make the musical we’ll be holding auditions for our winter play in a few weeks.”

“Ok.”

That afternoon while Franklin was turning off his computer and getting ready to head to the teacher’s lounge for some coffee before heading home, Crystal knocked on his door. He let her in, and she fell into his arms, crying. He knew this wasn’t appropriate, he knew that under no circumstances was he to touch a student, but he held her just the same, her face pressed tight against his chest. He felt the tears bleed through to his skin. And she cried and cried.

Stephen had followed her there, wanting to see if she’d go home like she said she was going to. He’d wanted to sneak up to the men’s room, see if anyone was inside and take her in. She’d made up some stupid excuse. He’d offered to walk her home, but she’d said she told her friend Suzzie she’d meet her for a class project. So he’d left, just long enough for her to think he was gone. Then he’d followed her.

Now she had her hands around that idiot new teacher.

Stephen took a knife from his pocket, the one he always carried with him, and thought about it for a moment. He put it back in his pocket, and knew what he would do.