Suzie looked so sweet even as she pulled her lower lip in between her teeth and wrinkled her brow in concern. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her thin arms crossed in front of her as if she were cold though it must be nearly 80 in the room. She looked small and fragile to him.
Drew put his arm across the back of the love seat, using it to turn himself toward her. He wasn’t making a pass like some raw teen-age boy in a movie theater. He was trying to offer her his sympathy, like a priest in the confessional. She needed to unload and he was there for her. That was all.
“You know I went to school with a sack lunch for Ben,” Suzie said.
“I shouldn’t have bothered. Lunch was already over by the time I got there. But you know that wasn’t really why I went.”
“You went to make sure the red-headed man hadn’t killed him. You don’t have to explain. I’d have done the same.”
Suzie looked relieved. Her voice came out breathy at first, then gained strength. “I knew you’d understand. He’s my son. I had to be sure. There wasn’t any sign of the red-haired man. Now it all seems kind of silly. Anyway, Ben has English right before lunch. I went to his classroom. His teacher was sitting there with her lunch and no one in the room. As soon as she saw me, she jumped up. She said she’d been wanting to talk to me for a while now. I really didn’t want to see her. She has said a few things about my divorce that I didn’t agree with.”
“What did she…?” Drew stopped himself as Suzie turned eyes burning with anger toward him.
“She started in on me as soon as she saw me. She said Ben hasn’t been turning in his assignments. I don’t know why he wouldn’t turn in his papers. I know he did them because I helped him with them.”
Drew had also helped Ben a time or two. Some of the assignments were intimidating even for a Federal bureaucrat used to writing reports. In particular, one on Mesopotamian religious practices came to mind. He nodded agreement, but didn’t try to interrupt.
“You have to remember, I went there thinking he might have been killed, or kidnapped, or something. So I demanded to know where he was. She wouldn’t tell me! She kept going on and on about his schoolwork. I was already upset, and she just made it worse.”
Suzie looked away, apparently unable to look him in the eye right then. “I said some things I shouldn’t have. Especially when she grabbed a pile of papers from her desk and started waving them. Ben’s assignment was right on top! Then I really said some things I shouldn’t have.”
She seemed surprised by herself, as if anyone else would have been more restrained. Or maybe as if she expected too much of herself. Drew couldn’t help himself. He touched her shoulder lightly.
If she noticed, she gave no indication. “Boy, she didn’t like it much when I pointed out that his assignment was right there. And maybe I shouldn’t have hit her hand away from my face. But it wasn’t assault!
“She goes running down the hall, yelling her fool head off, and I go off looking for Ben. He was in Math, of course. I wish I’d remembered before I got to his English class.
“I asked to have him step into the hall. I wanted to warn him about the red-haired man. That’s when Mrs. D, the English teacher, comes running up with the Vice Principal. She accused me of hitting her and threatening her, which I didn’t do. Not really. I mean I didn’t do anything worse than what she did.”
Suzie turned a beseeching face toward him. Though Drew still wasn’t exactly sure what happened he murmured agreement. He wanted to pull her close, to hug her. She’d had the kind of bad day he could relate to.
“Then Rob turned up and Ben just lost it. I was yelling, and Ben was yelling, and Mrs. D was yelling. The Vice Principal threw me out and sent Ben home with Rob.”
Suzie drew a deep breath. “They called him because of something I said, I’m sure. I kind of told Mrs. D there is a murder stalking everyone in my house. They must think I’ve lost my mind.”
Unable to resist, Drew pulled her close. “Tomorrow I’ll go flash my badge around, let the administration know Ben may be a target in a stalking case. I don’t know if it will help keep him safe, but it’ll let them know you aren’t crazy.”
“Thank you.” She sounded so relieved. Suzie leaned into him. He felt his shoulder grow damp through his cotton shirt. Suzie was crying.
“Hey, hey, hey. None of that,” he said gently, lifting her chin to look her in the eye. “It could have happened to anyone.”
Suzie shook her head. “I’m so afraid Rob will use this against me. He’s been pushing for full custody. With everything that’s happened, I’m afraid he could get it.” The tears rolled down her face, big and fat.
Drew brushed gently, smearing the salty water across her cheek.
“Everything will work out. You’ll see.”
“Do you really believe that?” Her eyes were enormous, swimming in tears as she looked up at him, her lips inches away.
“Yes,” he said with a lot more confidence than he felt.
He should let her go now, maybe pat her hand. He should get off the love seat and leave the office.
Instead he leaned forward a fraction of an inch and set his lips to hers.