Chapter 8 – Heaven and Hades

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Esther was entering the final test grades into the computer on Friday afternoon when Rob Waters, the head of the English department, popped his head into her classroom.

“Glad you’re still here. I was afraid you would be gone already. Heading out to the big game and all,” then he paused as if remembering that she had not attended football games since Tommy’s death.

He cleared his throat. “Anyway, if you could stop by Principal Mann’s office. There is something we need to discuss with you.”

Esther nodded, “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes. Just let me shut down my computer.”

The man looked like he would argue but then nodded and turned towards the hallway, adding, “Make it quick. The rest of us need to head out for the game. Tyler is quite a little ways away.”

Esther fought back the tightness in her throat. She had been expecting this all week. So, why were her hands trembling as they hit the keys that would start the shut-down process with the ancient machine?

Ever since the hearing two days ago had given temporary custody of Joey to his paternal grandmother, she knew that this town, or rather the men who ran it, would demand their pound of flesh. Vengeance for what she had done. What she had to do to protect an innocent child. What she knew she would do again if necessary.

But none of that changed what she knew was to come. Oh, she might not know precisely what they had in mind, but she knew what they wanted. Her – gone. From this school, from this town, from everything that she had known for most of her life. Hell, from the face of the earth if they could manage it.

She squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and took a deep cleansing breath. There was nothing that they could do to her. Nothing that mattered anyway. Fire her? She could get another job, even in this economy. Twenty years of teaching, several awards, and with connections outside of this small-minded community, it might take her a couple of weeks or even a month, but she could do it.

The question was – did she want to? As much as she loved teaching, the teens reminded her daily of all that she had lost. Their enthusiasm, their laughter, even the damned football were a constant reminder of Tommy and happier times.

She pondered that thought as she watched the screen go black. She rose from her chair, looking about the classroom that had been hers for over twenty years. The essays that graced the walls. The books that lined the shelves. The costumes that hung on hooks, her labors of love for the thousands of students she had taught within these walls.

So, what did she want?

A smile played at her lips as she left the room and walked down the corridors. The image of Mike’s naked body wrapped about her in bed danced through her mind. She had slept each night this week in his arms, awoken each morning to coffee-flavored kisses, and wallowed in the sheets with his god-like body morning and night.

She reminded herself, this was all just temporary. He had kept his promise. He had packed away the haunted house and all the other decorations before she got home from school on Tuesday. That night they cut and boiled the pumpkin, leaving it to cool on the kitchen counter overnight.

Then as they got ready to retire for the night, he had pulled out the sheets and blankets to make his bed on the couch but changed his mind when he saw her standing in the hallway in her nightgown. She held out her hand, and he took it, following her down the hall without a word.

He had not said anything more about sleeping on the couch or leaving, but Esther knew it was coming. Knew that this was all just a dream. And knocking lightly on the closed door of the principal’s office, she had a distinct feeling it was going to end sooner than she wanted.

“Come in,” was the gruff reply.

Esther froze in the doorway. She should not have been surprised, but looking about the room, she noted that in addition to the principal and Rob, there were also Mayor John Monroe, Sandy’s grandfather, and Todd Meadows, the PTA President and the woman’s uncle.

But she refused to be beaten. Not by these men. Not with the secrets that she had held for so long. Holding her head high, “You wanted to see me.”

“Yes, Miss Samuels. Please, have a seat,” Principal Mann commanded.

“I think I’ll stand if you don’t mind. This should not take long,” she was pleased to note the authority with which her words rang out. Even if it was all nothing more than a show.

The man cleared his throat nervously. “Yes, well, I suppose that will be fine. We have called you here today because there has been a complaint made against you by one of our parents.”

The man’s face reddened as he continued, “Regarding your moral turpitude clause. She feels that you are not setting a good example for the young people with your recent behavior.”

“My recent behavior?” Esther refused to be baited by these people.

“Yes, well, it has come to our attention that you have a…guest…shall we say staying with you. For almost a week now. A man. This parent does not feel that is the appropriate behavior of a woman in your position.”

“What position would that be, Principal Mann? A respected and award-winning teacher?”

He looked at his hands folded on the desk. Esther thought she saw them tremble a bit.

But it was Todd Meadows who responded. “Yes, a teacher and a single woman whose son just died. It seems to me that now the boy is gone, you are quick enough to show your true colors.”

Esther shook with anger. This man, above all others, had no right to pass judgment upon her. His advances and sexual innuendos stung even after more than a decade. “What colors would that be, Mister Meadows? Black? It never seemed to bother you when you tried to hit on me at Tommy’s ball games. Or have you forgotten the number of times that I turned you down?”

Like a dam bursting, years of rage and anger flowed unchecked. “How I never told your precious wife about your dallying? Was that your first wife or your second? What number are you on by now? Five? Six? Why do these stupid women keep thinking they can change you? If you cheated on your previous wives, you will certainly cheat on them.”

She stared around the room at each face. All wore that familiar mask of Southern hospitality, which hid hatred, racism, and prejudice, especially in this town. “Or maybe it is a black woman openly being with a white man? Those things are supposed to be kept quiet, Mister Meadows.”

“Well, I never. After all, this town has done, taking you and that bastard of yours in when you had nowhere else to go.” It was the mayor’s turn to get in his digs now.

His words echoing those of his granddaughter. Or perhaps Sandy’s were merely mimicking the ones she had heard her whole life from this man and others. This time at least, her students were not an audience for this final act of the play that had been most of her adult life. So she had no reason to hold back her words.

“What has this town done for me? Talked behind my back, shunned my child and me so that we always were on the sidelines. No matter that you got an award-winning teacher, who graduated with honors, or one of the best captains this lousy football team ever had. We more than pulled our weight.”

She met the man’s stare and held it until he looked away. “As for moral turpitude, how about the morality of turning a blind eye as your grand-daughter beats and abuses her son? That’s what this is really all about. You blame me for reporting Sandy to social services.”

All eyes turned towards her; mouths open wide. “Well, you are right. I did report her. But I was smart enough not to call the local office. You all have them under your thumbs like everything else in this god-forsaken hell hole. I emailed a friend in Austin. Someone I knew would not be frightened or swayed by your pressure. And you know what? I would do it again.”

Turning her attention back to Principal Mann and Rob, she continued. “So, here’s how this is going to play out, gentlemen. As the song says, ‘you can take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.’ But the official record will include no mention of moral turpitude or any other bull shit.”

The principal shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and Rob looked as if he wanted to bolt before her sharp tongue revealed his abuses of power. “Why, you ask? Because if you do, I’ll make a phone call to another of my Austin friends at the Workforce Commission. And I will cry racial discrimination and sexual harassment.”

Her eyes pinning Rob to his chair, she finished up, “By the time I’m done with this stupid town, it and all of you won’t have two pennies to rub together.”

Her eyes shifted to Principal Mann again,  “And when or if someone calls you for a reference, it damn well better be as glowing as I deserve.”

Her hands on her hips, she met each gaze and held them until it was they who looked away. “So now, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, as you say, I have company to entertain. A man who stands head and shoulders above you all.”

Esther never knew what possessed her; the women at the Baptist church would have sworn it was some demon. But she turned and swayed her round hips. Her hand hovered in the air as she slapped her ass. The sound rang through the room as she smiled, “Y’all enjoy your football game now, ya hear.”

With her head held high and a broad smile on her face, she walked out of the office, down the long hall to the entryway. She stopped and stared for a moment at the glass trophy case and its large centerpiece, the state championship and most valuable player award that bore Tommy’s name. Her fingers played across the cold glass as her smile faded.

She made it out the door, down the steps, and across the parking lot to her truck before the tears began in earnest. She could barely see for the moisture that pooled in their depths as she pulled out of that parking lot…for the last time.

She might not know where she was going or what she would do, but it had to be better than this place.

Mike stared out the kitchen window as he cleaned up the last of the dinner dishes. There was a deep chill in the night air. And it had little to do with the fall night. She had barely said a dozen words over dinner.

Alright, so his attempt at lasagna had failed miserably. Even he had spent more time pushing the burnt cheese and still hard noodles around on his plate, only managing to force down a couple of bites to accompany the garlic bread and fresh salad, things even he could not fuck up.

Fuck up. It was pretty damned clear now that was exactly what he had done with this visit. Even though he had spent every night this week in her bed. Made love to the woman to the point he had lost count…and at first, he had counted. Had wanted to catalog each and every time, every memory for the long miles and dark, lonely nights that were ahead. But somewhere around double digits, that became less important than seeing that satisfied smile as she curled into his arms and sleep overtook them both.

Damn it; this was the hardest thing he had ever done. Some part of him wanted just to say ‘fuck it,’ to unpack his few possessions from the motorcycle and take up residence in her bed…permanently. But he knew he could not, for so many reasons.

First of all, this place. It made his skin crawl. Every time he went to the corner store for something or the one time he had ventured into the all-male domain of the feed and seed, he could feel the people’s curious stares following his every move. He knew that they were talking even before the door had fully closed on his back.

But to his face? They were all sweetness and light. “What can I help you with today, friend?” “How’s it going, sugar?” “Enjoying your stay in Sebida?” The hypocrisy rankled him. As such stupidity always did.

This was worse, though, because he knew way more of the truth than these people or even she knew. Tommy had told him more than one of its secrets. The preacher, who had been having a gay love affair with the deacon for two decades, while his self-righteous wife lauded her position over all the other women in town. The mayor, who had another secret family in Houston…with an illegal immigrant, nonetheless. And, of course, way too many stories of the pious men, who thought it their right to make sexual passes at his mother, simply because she was a single mother and black. Which, of course, meant she must be a whore willing to…

Mike shook his head and drew in a deep breath. Tommy had shared most of those stories as examples of how you could not always believe what you saw on the surface. It was a lesson that some of the younger men had needed. Whether it came to enemy combatants that might appear as friendly tradesmen or to their girls back home, pretty faces who were sometimes more interested in the money they made, their benefits, and health insurance than they were the guys themselves.

No, the woman had raised one hell of a smart young man. Which, of course, was another reason that Mike could not stay. The nightmares had not been as bad these past few nights, but he was not a big enough fool to think that would continue. No, there was too much blood on his hands – her own son’s amongst it.

She deserved so much more than someone like him could ever give her. She deserved some college-educated fool, who could discuss all those books she read, who would take her to fancy restaurants, and the opera like his grandmother had once patronized. Or was it the ballet? Not that it mattered.

At best, he was nothing but an old Leatherneck more used to killing than loving a woman like her. And at worst? He was that ‘bad seed’ his grandmother had accused him of being. A ticking-time-bomb of genetics and family history. He had heard once that three out of four children who witnessed domestic violence grew up to either be abused or became an abuser. He could never take that risk, especially not with her.

No, this was the right decision. To pack up and move on. But still, that did not make it any easier. He could not remember anything this hard since that little boy stood in the white snow and watched them lower that box with the remnants of the only person who had ever loved him into the frozen ground.

Not even, holding Billy or Tommy as their spirits left this world or facing the Hernandezes so soon after Manny’s loss, none of that, as bad as it was, had felt like this. Ripped him apart and tossed the heart he was not sure he had across the room like he was a vampire from one of his cheesy horror films.

This was the right thing to do. For her. Mike turned towards the living room. He had insisted she relax in the swing on the porch while he cleaned up. The dark circles under her eyes and the tight lines about her mouth were more pronounced over dinner tonight. That worried him. It also fed his doubts and made him reluctant to leave. Just in case she might need him, of course.

The truth, though, was this would not get any easier. Not for him and especially not for her. Every night he spent in her bed and her arms would make it that much harder to leave in the end. No, it was better if he left now. While he still could.

It was just a matter now of telling her that. Of finding the right words, something that he had never been any good at. Making her understand somehow that she was not the problem. That she was magnificent, everything any man could want. That she deserved so fucking much more than a guy like him could ever give or be.

He inhaled and sent a prayer to a god he had not believed in for over thirty-five years as he turned off the kitchen light and walked through the dark living room. Even in the dark shadows of the moonlight, as he opened the screen door and caught that first glimpse of her, she was breathtaking. Her eyes closed, and her head leaning back against the hard wood of the swing.

How the fuck was he ever going to do this? How could he possibly be thinking about leaving the only fucking good thing that had happened to him? But that answer was clear too – because it was what was best for her. Only one thought surfaced: she deserved so much more than he could ever give her.

Esther’s foot dragged along the cold cement porch as she swung back and forth. She had barely touched the Italian dinner that Michael had made. She could not even tell if it was as bad as all his other attempts at cooking. Perhaps this one was even edible. She had spoken only when he asked a question. He had insisted on washing up the dishes, wrapped a jacket about her shoulders, and shooed her out here.

It was a good thing too. Esther’s mind had been playing and replaying this afternoon’s events like the coaches showing films of bad plays after each game. She did not know what she had expected once she made the decision that she should have done months ago. She supposed this afternoon was pretty much in keeping with this place and these people.

But that did not mean it did not hurt just the same. For almost twenty-five years, since she arrived in this town with her shining new teaching degree with honors and a two-year-old with dirty blond curls, green-brown eyes, and a never-ending smile, she had done all she could to fit in, to give her son a sense of small-town community that was vanishing from this world.

At first, she had faithfully attended the Methodist Church, even teaching Sunday school for a couple of years. She had enrolled Tommy in Scouts, Little League, and everything else she could afford. Hell, she had even attended the monthly meetings in the town hall for a couple of years.

But none of it had mattered to these people. They had always remained outsiders. The town was closed off to newcomers, city folks. But it was worse for Esther and her son.

Her mixed heritage rose more than its share of brows in this community. For the first time in her life, she had appreciated the type of prejudice that her mother and father must have experienced during the early days of their marriage. The rich Jewish girl from New York marrying the oldest son of the Southern Baptist minister and civil rights leader. Of course, by the time Esther could remember much, they were both professors at a predominantly black university. The world in which she grew up lived comfortably in shades of gray…and light brown.

They had both wanted Esther to attend the college where they taught, which boasted a stellar reputation within the education community. But like so many only children, she longed to spread her wings, escape from their watchful eyes and live for a bit. When she received a full scholarship to a state school, it was a natural choice for her. But not for her parents.

When two years later, she gave birth to Tommy out-of-wedlock; they had insisted she come home so that they could help, but Esther had refused. That decision and her silence about the baby’s father had created a rift with her parents that she had never been able to overcome. Instead, she swallowed her pride long enough to accept the check from Tommy’s other grandfather. The check that admitted no rape, no paternity, enabled her to finish college and even put a modest down payment on this house.

Looking back as she had these past few months, the truth was that she had never given her son the one thing she had wanted most – a sense of belonging. And today proved that. But such thoughts were futile. The what-ifs of this world were nothing more than ghosts or apparitions. Should she have accepted her parents’ offer? Would Tommy have found the loving role model and acceptance in her father and his friends? Had the shame surrounding her rape kept her from giving him what he needed most?

She studied her hands that did not lie about her age. The years showed in each crease and dark brown age spot. She inhaled a cleansing breath. Nothing was to be done about the past, not now. But what of the future?

Unemployed at almost fifty in this economy was not a good combination. She supposed she could send out an email to a few of her colleagues across the state or even the country. But she was not sure that she wanted to go back to teaching. Not anymore.

Of course, the good part was that the house had been paid off right after Tommy finished college and left for the Marines. She supposed that she could make a profit if she put the house on the market. It might not fetch a high price, but it was likely to be double what she paid for it.

She was glad too that she had put off buying a new truck. Instead, she had repaired and maintained the one that she had purchased the year that Tommy got his license. It was her one splurge, a brand shining new red pick-up. More for him than her. She had let him borrow it often enough on Friday and Saturday nights while in high school and even college. He loved that truck. She had always planned to give it to him when he came home, get herself one of those little hybrids.

The good news was that she owned her home and vehicle free and clear, even had a small nest egg and her teacher’s pension to fall back upon. The bad news was that as many good memories as this house held for her, she did not want to stay in this place anymore.

She chuckled. Perhaps it was all just a mid-life crisis. In the space of a single week, how had everything in her life changed so completely? The light knock from inside the screen door answered her question.

“Come on out, Michael.”

Mike hesitated in the doorway for a long moment. It took only one look to tell that something was seriously wrong with her. If it were possible, she looked sadder, more lost than she had that first night when she opened the door.

A week. Had it been only a week since that night? It felt like a lifetime ago that he had stood nervously on this porch knocking on her door. He certainly would have never imagined how things would have turned out. Would have never for a moment imagined all the beautiful memories that he would be leaving this place with. Could have never even hoped or dreamt of the number of moans and screams he had wrung from her sensitive body.

Now, to see that dark look on her face again, after all the nights that she had cuddled into his embrace, that secretive and satisfied smile playing at the corners of her mouth. The way she had come so willingly into his arms, opened her body, and he knew her heart to him. It was so much more than someone like him deserved.

He felt like a right proper asshole to even be thinking of leaving now. Maybe he should make another excuse, go back inside, and unpack the few things he had stored away for his departure in the morning. Would another week of Heaven really hurt?

He shook his head and sighed, knowing that one more week would turn into another…and another…and another. He saw it for what it was – an excuse. A flimsy one to steal a few more moments of happiness with her. Not just to store up memories, but to pretend. Pretend that he could be more than he was. To pretend that he was the type of man a woman like this could love. But he knew better than that.

He looked across the road at the darkened house. If the rumors he heard were true, Esther would have no more trouble from that woman, at least for a while. According to the whispers he overheard in the general store, Sandy Monroe was in rehab somewhere in the Hill Country. An attempt to get clean and sober so that she could get her son back.

Mike honestly hoped for the child’s sake that the woman succeeded. But he remembered way too many broken promises from his old man. He would never drink again. He would get and actually keep a job this time. He would get them out of whatever roach invested dump they were in and into a real home. If only…

Always so many if onlys… And every single time, his mother had believed the man and stayed. Sometimes his father had even managed to keep those promises for a time. Occasionally even for a few months. Until just as his mother and he were beginning to hope and believe that this time would be different. That this time, he had changed. Then it would all come crashing down around them.

And that was why he needed to leave now — needed to go while her memories of him were still good. Not of nightmares that left him drenched in sweat, screaming in the dark until he woke even himself, and so disoriented that he might pose a danger to her. That even if he did not mean to, he might lash out and hurt her. He could never stand it if he harmed her in any way. Never.

He had done his round with the demon of alcoholism. And while he still might occasionally drink a beer, even once in a while try as he had at Luke’s to drown all the voices and blood in alcohol, he knew it was futile. Those lapses never lasted more than a night. No, on some level, he recognized that he was not his father.

But that did not mean he did not have bits of the man inside him. He did. And women like this one deserved so much more – the place it always came back to. Esther deserved more than a man like him could ever give her. He just had to find a way to convince her of that.

He joined her in the swing, and they sat silently, rocking back and forth for a couple of minutes. The only sounds were the crickets, and this time of year, their songs were quieter and fewer, the rapidly approaching winter encroaching on them as well.

“I finished up the dishes and started packing.”

His words cut through her musings. She felt the tightness welling in her chest. She forced herself to nod. She had known that this moment was coming. Hell, truth be told, he should have left days ago.

His job here was done. Others needed him. That was what this man was about…honor. As he said, ‘checking in on the men and women who served with him and the families of those who never made it home.’ She was just one of those families. Nothing more.

She forced words past her dry throat, “When will you be leaving?”

She watched him fidget with his hands. Hands that had known her body intimately. Hands that had brought her pleasure like she had never known.

His voice was quiet when he finally spoke. “Tomorrow morning, I suppose.”

She bobbed her dark head in acknowledgment. It was all she could manage. She wondered for a moment if she told him what happened today, would he still leave. Or would his honor dictate that he stay, help her through a few more dark days to come?

But she knew that she would not do that. Would never tell him the truth. Others needed him, and she had no real hold over this man. She never had and never would. Just two strangers offering one another what comfort they could in the long, dark nights with their smoky, bloody nightmares.

“Do you need any help? I mean packing, that is.”

He shook his head. She noticed that even in the short space of a week, the salt-and-pepper locks on his head had grown. They were distinctly more curled at the ends. She could not stop her fingers from reaching up to caress their softness. In some way, it reminded her of how she once played with Tommy’s soft blond curls. Moisture gathered in her dark eyes, making it hard to see.

His fingers wrapped about hers, drawing them to his lips. He pressed a soft kiss to the back of her hand and then turned it, pressing another to her palm. Her eyes must have been cloudier than they seemed because she swore, she saw a tear spill from the corner of those grey-blue pools as he spoke.

“I didn’t plan this. Any of this. God, I wish.” He stopped and stared off into the darkness. The moon hid his countenance and anything else that might have offered more clues to this man and what it was he truly wished.

“Esther, you have to know I hate leaving like this. If things were different. If I were different. If I had anything besides blood on my hands and the sounds of bombs ringing in my ears. If…” He brought her hand to his lips once more.

“Well, just if. You are an amazing woman. Smart and beautiful. I know with everything inside of me that Tommy would not want you wasting away in this place. He would want you out there. Finding the happiness that you deserve.”

She choked at his words. Words that so mirrored her earlier thoughts. He was right. Tommy would not want her to stay in this place.

But he was wrong about something else – he was everything she needed and wanted. The past week had been the best of her life, aside from the joy of raising Tommy. A secret smile curving her lips; she stood with her hand still in his. “Then I have an idea of how I want to finish this good-bye, Michael.” She leaned down and whispered something in his ear that made his ears turn decidedly red again. Then she tugged gently, and he followed her into the house.

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