Franklin 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.