Berta 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.