Neil gathered up the papers with questions that lay scattered around the floor. He sighed as he tossed the terse, misspelled queries into the wastebasket.
There was a soft knock at his door. He looked up to see Lisa Cobb standing with one hand on the doorframe and a face full of worry. He forced a smile and said, “Did you miss the bus?”
She nodded and said, “Can I come in?”
“I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
“I don’t understand.”
She came in and stood before him, holding her underlip between her teeth to keep from crying. As soon as Neil recognized the depths of her distress, he seated her and sat beside her. Her hands twitched on the desk top and he reached out to take them in his. A single tear streaked her face.
Lisa said, “When you were in trouble last month and had to go to the school board, Mama told me it was because you stayed after school with some girl, and she said you did things to her. I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me.”
Neil considered the depths of experience that must be behind her to think such thoughts at her age. He said, “Let me worry about that. What is on your mind? It’s more than missing the bus.”
She sobbed, “I missed the bus deliberately to talk to you. I mean, to talk to somebody. I was going to talk to Ms. Kelly, but she left. I ran after her, but she didn’t hear me and she just drove away.”
Lisa was shaking like a leaf. Neil reached out to her, then drew back his hand. She saw the aborted motion and turned her head away. She started to get up to go.
Silently, he cursed himself. Let them fire me, dammit, he thought. What good am I to myself or these children if I am afraid to reach out to them.
He caught Lisa as she rose to go and pulled her back into the seat beside him. All the dams burst and she sobbed herself out against his chest. The minutes crept by. Despite his best intentions, Neil’s eyes roved around the room as he prayed that no one would come in until she was calm enough to sit up. He hated the thoughts, but he had learned self-preservation the hard way.
Finally the sobs died away. Lisa pushed off from him, went to the sink, and washed her face. He left her alone until she had finished, then said, “Come over here and tell me about it.”
She crossed to the chair near him and collapsed in exhaustion. Her tears and his comforting had forged a new bond between them. Now she could speak. “You and Ms. Kelly said that if anyone ever tried to touch us anywhere or any way we didn’t like, that we didn’t have to let them?”
“That’s right. You have a right to privacy with your own body.” There was a cold knot in his stomach as he thought, Here it comes. All of her hints have been leading to this.
“And you said that if that ever happened, we should let somebody we trusted know about it?”
Neil asked gently, “Who is it and what is he doing?”
Sobs wracked her again. It was all she could do to get it out a sound. She stammered, “My mother’s boyfriend is trying to make me go to bed with him.” more tomorrow