Berta knew it was because of the letter.
She’d gotten the call at her office no more than an hour after Franklin had left for school. She recognized the panic, and allowed it to rush through her like a wildfire. She couldn’t stop it if she’d wanted to.
It wasn’t unexpected. Franklin had been breaking down for a year now. But the letter… they hadn’t expected the letter.
The steering wheel was hot when she got in the car. It wasn’t even noon and the heat was blistering. She sat there for a long moment and wondered what she would ever do with her life now.
She remembered the night when Stephen had attacked him. She’d rushed to the hospital knowing that this had been her fault. She didn’t know why she’d done it, why she’d lied to Stephen. Was she that petty, that insecure that she feared her husband helping a young, lost girl?
Yes, she knew she was. But she had never wanted this.
Stephen had been hiding in his car when Franklin and Crystal got in. They hadn’t even noticed him until they’d left the parking lot. Franklin had heard a voice from the back seat: “Drive.”
They’d driven down to the river where they’d parked. Stephen had a hold of Crystal’s hair as they drove, the knife pressed into her throat. Stephen told Franklin to get out of the car.
Stephen locked the doors. Franklin watched as he pulled Crystal by the hair over her seat and into the back, with him. She pushed away, cowering with her knees up to her chest.
Stephen looked at Franklin through the glass.
He said he was going to rape her, and Franklin would have to watch. He was going to reclaim what was his.
They say that the memories of war remain real in the mind of the soldier. Those distant dreams become present nightmares. Often Franklin would wake up in the night and hide behind the door, like he was waiting for someone to burst through from the other side. Once she had found him in the bathtub, naked and dry, crying and pulling at his eyes. But those were all just little steps on the way to madness.
Stephen tore at her clothes and pushed himself between his legs. Franklin was frozen, but just for a moment. And then the war came back to him. Not the bullets or the fear, only the rage. He smashed the window with his fists and grabbed Stephen. One hand in his hair, one hand clutching his jacket. And he pulled the boy from the car, through the window, across the shattered glass, tearing his face and neck until the blood covered him and ran down Franklin’s wrists.
Stephen lay dying. Crystal was silent, dreaming in her shock and unable to move. Franklin looked down at what he’d done, this life that was now in his hands. And he’d told her, told Berta, that’s when everything changed.
He held the artery shut. It felt like he was choking the boy, but he stopped the blood. He’d done it for a friend in Afghanistan, a friend he’d saved who died on the transport to the field medic when the truck he was in ran over an IED. Franklin didn’t see Stephen, he saw Manny. And there, in the park, just the two of them in the dark, Franklin saved Stephen’s life.
Berta met them at the hospital. It was chaos.
There were doctors, police, a whirlwind of commotion. She found him, standing in the corner of the room checking his pockets again and again. In the scuffle, Franklin had lost the ring he wore on his little finger. A boy lay dying, his student hysterical, parents of two children asking, no, demanding an explanation, threats of lawsuits, screams, all Franklin could do was look frantically around for his lost ring.
That was a year ago. Stephen had suffered mild brain damage from the concussion and extensive loss of blood. He would never play football again. He was also charged with attempted rape.
Crystal became withdrawn. She never went to visit Franklin again. She stopped attending rehearsal, and eventually dropped out of school.
Franklin was on the mend – both physically and psychologically – when Stephen committed suicide. Franklin quit going to his therapy group. He would brood about things he should have done, recite all the mistakes he had ever made. Berta had endured it, but she didn’t know why. Perhaps seeing him with another man’s blood on his hands made her realize that he was strong. A man who could protect her. Maybe she felt proud of it. She didn’t quite know.
And then the letter arrived. It was there on the table when she’d gotten home last night. A dirty, thick envelop with a dozen stamps from faraway places. It was addressed to him, but only his first name was written.
She’d asked him about it, and he said he knew it was there. He didn’t want to open it for some reason. He was angry all night.
In the morning when she came down for coffee he was already dressed. He looked nice, like he’d really paid attention to his grooming and attire. He hadn’t look that nice in so long. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, grabbed his briefcase and headed out.
She saw the letter on the table. It had been opened.
She drove out of the parking lot and headed home. There was no need to go to the hospital. She knew he was dead, even if the officer on the phone had only said she needed to hurry. She would go home and see what was left of her life, see if there was anything there or in this world left for her.
The letter had said someone he used to know in Afghanistan, a girl, had been killed.
She knew Franklin was dead, and she knew why.
Because he couldn’t save anybody.