Bus 12 unloaded, and he quickly identified each student that unloaded, carrying bags and books.
Oh, ho. Hank Waer stepped down and looked around. He hefted his load and walked toward the back of the athletic building where guys in letter jackets tended to collect in the early morning hours.
Hank Waer had been in Louise’s class for years.
He stepped over to the shelf of class annuals. A quick check confirmed that she and Hank had been a couple just last year. Louise was avoiding the bus, risking regular tardies, just to avoid Hank. No wonder her brother was lacking in sympathy. A break-up had happened. When? And what caused it?
Martha and Sarah exited out of the Suburban and chatted, arm in arm. Martha was even wearing a sweater Sarah had worn a few days ago. The overnight must have gone well. Still, Martha was wearing her bruise obscuring long sleeved clothes and eye makeup. He would need to be right on top of any email addressed to Z. Somehow, in spite of the new friendship, he doubted Martha had opened up about her problems.
In Ms. Calvin’s class, Martha showed signs of being on top of her class work. Perhaps he could just put her project on the wait list for now. If she could just get past the bruises and avoid getting new ones, expanding her social range would probably solve the depression problems.
In computer class, he narrowed down the Hank/Louise breakup to the past month. That was when the tardies started. There were no related reports, no public fights or anything like that. A cross check against social events showed nothing suspicious. A date gone bad?
There were times when he wished he were more connected to the school grapevine. This is a situation where gossip would be invaluable. Unfortunately, his public persona, the near-autistic little kid, was a poor match for that kind of thing. Gossips wanted to look you in the eye, and gain social points for knowing something you didn’t.
That was a possibility. What about an underground social network, just for the Hillside, where people could text their latest tidbits and earn social standing for being the most plugged-in person on campus?
I actually have two personas now. Ted the wallflower, and Blue Note.
Perhaps Blue Note should make an appearance. But that would require some preparation to set up an anonymous website. In addition, gossip was frequently mean-spirited, and Blue Note only gave good advice. That would have to be resolved.
Ted located Hank’s cell number.
He tracked him until Hank was alone on the bleachers, waiting for buddies.
Hank, whether it was your fault or not, you need to apologize.
He pulled out his phone and frowned. He tapped on the keys.
Who are you? And what are you talking about?
Ted was probing the waters. He had to step carefully.
She’s pestering Jason, remember him, just so she doesn’t have to ride the bus with you. You don’t want Jason on your case.
Hank looked around, but didn’t notice him. Jason, Louise’s brother had a school record in the hammer throw. He must have been strong, and around when Hank was younger.
It was an accident. I didn’t know she’d be upset. And now she won’t talk to me.
I’m not saying you’ll ever get back together. I’m not saying it’s your fault. But YOU HAVE TO APOLOGIZE. This is girl logic, here, and they gossip. Apologize and they all know you’re a stand-up guy.
Who are you?
Just a guy trying to get Jason’s little sister off his back.
A group of guys walked up the bleachers and called to Hank. He waved back, but left them there as he stalked back into the school building.
Ted watched Martha get back into the red pickup when her father picked her up. Was she moving with a quicker step? Time would tell.
He had watched ten seconds of an intense conversation between Hank and Louise as he walked through the hallway. At least they were talking. That was progress.
But it was Friday, and he had a weekend to deal with. It was enough to dampen the glow of seeing progress on his other projects. He packed his bags and climbed into Bus 7, waiting for the other students to join him. The door closed without Isis. Perhaps she had a date with Bob. He would have to find out on Monday. The bus began to pull out of the parking lot.
His phone vibrated. He fished it out and cupped his hand around the screen.
Are you there? It was a text from Martha.
What is the problem?
My dad! Police are after him. He dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and police cars are chasing him. I can still hear the sirens.
Ted’s mind raced through the possibilities. Either an old alert about the stolen car, someone else’s 911, or else a new crime had alerted the police. In any case, they would catch him.
But Martha was stranded and alone.
Where are you, exactly?
St. Johns and Highway 1245.
In four minutes, school bus 7 will come along the highway. Walk into the lane and flag the driver. David has a soft spot for stranded girls. Call him by “Mr. Ellis”. Your father’s car was stranded and you need a ride. Sit with Ted Lambert. He is a little flakey but safe.
But I need to call my Mom.
There was an alert showing up on his email system. Edgar was arrested.
Right. But that can wait until you are safe. Exit with Ted and he will keep you safe until she can get free. Once you are safe, you can call your mother.
I’m waiting for the bus. What will I tell Mom?
Tell her your father put your safety ahead of his escape, and that he has been arrested and she needs to go be with him.
The bus began to slow. From where he sat, he couldn’t see, but the driver pulled to a stop and opened the doors with a metallic squeak. They spoke and many of the students strained to hear what she said. David nodded and she stepped back to his row.
“You are Ted, aren’t you? Can I sit here?” He nodded and scooted over to make room for her.
He didn’t make eye contact, and had his cell phone hidden in his pocket with even the vibrate turned off.
She smiled a bare minimum. Tears had caused her eye makeup to begin to run. He was tempted to offer her a tissue, but it would have been out of character. Everyone knew Ted was terrified of girls.
She pulled out her phone and typed. He could read her screen, just barely.
What do I do now?
Ted pressed a key in his pocket to send the message he had already composed.
Stay with Ted. He will exit in just a minute. Call your mother when you get off the bus. Your father was arrested. No shots were fired.
When his exit showed up, he pulled the cord as usual and stood up. She got off with him, attracting considerable attention.
The bus pulled away on its route.
Ted stood motionless, watching her.
“Could I wait at your house until my mother comes for me?”
“Do you mind if I make a call?”
He shook his head.
She called the Freshmart number and asked for her mother. There was a wait until she could get free to make it to the phone.
“Mom?” She turned away from Ted. “The police arrested Daddy. No. I’m safe at a school friend’s house.” She told the story in a halting fashion, interrupted by her mother’s questions. “Just go to the jail. I’m okay for now. Tell him I’m safe. I’m sure he is worried.”
She put away her phone. Her eyes were a mess. He hesitated, then handed her his little pocket packet of tissues.
He took a couple of steps toward the gate, then turned to see if she was following. She did and he led the way. When they got to the pasture, he pointed at the rut in the dirt that his daily route had cut. “Follow this.”
She nodded, puzzled. After a couple of minutes of walking the convoluted, twisty pathway, she giggled. “What is this?”
He just pointed ahead and kept on going. As they went through the next gate and entered the front lawn, he led her to the porch and pointed back to the pasture where they had trod.
She looked, “Oh!” She saw the image that the pattern of trails made in the grass. “Who is she?”
“Mother.” He unlocked the front door and went inside. He set down his bags and waved her to a seat while he went into the kitchen and brought her a coke from the refrigerator.
After a couple of minutes, he pressed the send button on his hidden phone again and the message he’d keyed while in the kitchen appeared.
I assume you are safe at Ted’s house. If you need anything else, send a message, but otherwise just wait for your mother’s call.
Martha looked at her phone and keyed, Yes, I’m safe.
She sipped and looked around. “This is a nice place.” She got up and walked to the mantelpiece, where there were a few pictures and an urn. “I’m sorry about your mother.” The inscription told the basics--the date was nearly the same date as Ted’s birthdate. One of the pictures was the model for the pattern in the field.
She pointed. “Could we sit on the porch?”
He nodded and they went back outside where the sun was slowly setting over the waving grasses.
Several hours later, after Sue Lister arrived to collect her daughter and thanked a puzzled Mr. Lambert for his assistance. Ted’s phone flickered with a message:
Thank you for everything.
No problem. I assume you are home safe?
Yes. But, I was wondering. I don’t know who you are, but you help people. I met Mr. Lambert, Ted’s father, and he’s nearly as closed off as his boy. It’s sad. Do you think you could do something for that family?
Possibly. I’ll look into it.