The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shades of Gray: Chapters Seventeen and Eighteen

Two short chapters for Sunday night!


            Ted dashed up the stairs to his apartment.  He knew Jill was there, he’d seen her car parked out front.  The door was open, so he pushed past it and into his living room.  Jill was seated there on the couch, an open backpack half-filled with possessions she’d left there on the carpet at her feet.  Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet.  When she saw him come into the room, she got up.
            “Who is she?” she asked, green eyes boring a hole in him. 
            “Jill, listen,” Ted replied evenly.  “Calm down.  There’s something I should have told you before.”
            “Damn it, Ted!  Why did you lie to me!”
            “I didn’t lie!” he shouted back, his voice quieting back down immediately.  “And I’m not going to lie now.  Sit back down, please.”  Reluctantly, she sank back down on the couch, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater.  Ted knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his.  She tried to pull away, but he seized them again forcefully and held on.
            “First,” he said, his eyes locking onto hers, “you must trust me.  Nothing has changed, I still love you and want to be with you.  Do you believe me when I say that?”
            “ I want to,” she whispered.
            “Good.  Now, when I was at Columbia, I dated a woman named Maria.  She’s smart, beautiful, and we were engaged to be married.  I broke it off when I left five years ago, and I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since until this afternoon.”
            “What did she want?”  Jill worked hard to put aside the concept that Ted had been engaged.  For all they’d shared, his grief about his parents and his doubts about his future, he’d chosen to keep that secret.  “Did she come here to get you back, to start up again?”  Jill was close to dissolving back into tears.
            “More or less,” Ted told her about Maria’s father, the Congressional race, and the offer.  He also admitted that it appeared his reunion with Maria was part of the package.
            “You want to go,” Jill murmured hoarsely.  “I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice.”
            “Part of me does,” Ted admitted, getting to his feet and walking away.  “Part of me wonders what I could accomplish there.”  He turned back to face Jill.  She was staring at the floor, absently fingering a loose strand of yarn on the sleeve of her sweater.
            “Come with me,” he blurted suddenly.  He sat next to her, encircling her with his arms.  “If I go, it’s for the opportunity, not for Maria.  What we had is gone, and it was never like what I have with you.  Let’s do it together.”  Jill looked up at him, eyes bright and full of brief hope that flickered and quickly died.  She shook her head, stroking the side of his face, an unbearable sadness building between them like a physical wall.
            “No,” she said quietly.  “I can’t.  I won’t raise Abby down there, and I won’t be away from her.  My life is here, Ted, and while you were here I could…I could pretend that I’d have you forever.  But that was a daydream, I know that now.”
            “Then I won’t go.  I don’t want to lose you, Jill.”  Ted was the one near tears now, while Jill seemed to have found some inner strength.
            “You’ll go,” she said through a tight-lipped smile.  “It’s what you’ve wanted ever since you came back.  You’ve said it yourself, Stockbridge is too small for you.  You were put here to do more than coach football and teach history.  You’re made for bigger things, Ted Gray, and I would never get in the way of that.  I love you too much.”  She got up, shaking off his arms.  She gathered up her bag, stuffing the rest of her things into it.
            “Don’t I have some say in this?” demanded Ted.  He rose as well, blocking the door.  “What if I want to stay here?”
            “Then stay,” she stated.  “But not for me.  It would have to be what you want, what you choose.  I don’t want to wake up ten years from now next to a man bitter with regret.”  She moved close in to him, kissing him tenderly.  “I’m sorry I reacted the way I did earlier.  I do trust you, Ted, and love you.  And I’ll miss you.”  She slipped past him and out the door, leaving Ted alone with a terrible choice.


            Stockbridge High School was awash in white and gray banners on Monday, walls adorned with signs promoting the miracle Wolves football team.  Ted could swear that Matt Pakal had grown three inches since Saturday, and was suddenly thrust into that magical circle of teen royalty that Bobby Craig and his friends inhabited.  The palpable sense of excitement and anticipation of the coming title game rematch against Northport was tempered, however, by the major exams scheduled that week.  On Tuesday afternoon Mike Heather happily reported that Bobby Craig had managed a B- on his biology exam that morning.  That night after practice Ted spoke briefly to Bobby’s other teachers, who reported similar modest successes sufficient to sustain his barely-eligible grade average.  Even Jill, in a short and stiffly formal phone conversation, was able to share in the good news with Bobby’s C on her math test. 
            Ted wanted nothing more than to go to her, but they had mutually decided to spend the week apart, letting Ted focus on exams, game preparation, and wrestling with his decision.  It was hardly ideal, but even Ted had to admit he was busy and exhausted.  At home alone late Tuesday night, he watched on television as Michael Varsalone handily won his election in Manhattan.  Ted had half hoped he would lose, and events would remove the decision from his hands, but as the returns rolled in it became clear that he would not be reprieved.
    On Wednesday his senior US History class, including Paul Green and Bobby Craig, settled in for their exams.  For the last couple of weeks Bobby had been under the intensive tutoring of Ashley Hanson in preparation for the test, and as Ted handed out the stapled packets he silently prayed that his star pupil had done her work well. 
            He would be disappointed.
            “An F?”  He tossed the exam, unrecognizable under a thicket of red ink, on the desk in front of Bobby later that day.  Ted usually graded exams and papers at home, but following the morning test period he had been particularly anxious to review Bobby’s effort.  It was abysmal.  Far fewer than half of the answers were correct, and even with generous partial credit the grade was well south of 50%.  Ted had asked the main office to have Bobby report to his classroom immediately after school, and his player had complied.  Now the young quarterback sat, half sheepish and half penitent, before his teacher and coach.
            “Pretty, bad, huh?” he mumbled, his neck reddening above the collar.
            “Bad?  Bobby, Pearl Harbor was bad.  This is disastrous.  What the hell happened?  All that time with Ashley?”  The color crept up into Bobby’s face.
            “Well…Coach, we got together every night after practice like you asked, and she’s real smart, like you said.  And…well, she’s pretty, too, and I…” his voice trailed off, and he actually smiled.
            “You didn’t.”  Ted was aghast.  “Bobby, are you telling me that you and Ashley Hanson…”  The goofy smile was still there.  “You’re kidding.”  Ted plucked the exam back off the desk and sent it sailing across the room.  He ran a hand through his hair and sighed loudly. 
            “Bobby…damn it…Bobby, you’re academically ineligible for Saturday’s game.”  There was a prolonged, stunned silence before the senior leapt up from his chair.
            “Coach, no.  I swear, give me another chance.  I can pass the test, I promise.”
            Never in his life had Ted ever wanted to bend the rules more.  He stared at Bobby Craig, knowing that the stakes were impossibly high for the young man.  Setting aside the chance to play in a state title game and the chance to set a career passing record, the scholarships would dry up, and his entire life would be changed from this moment on.
            “I’m sorry, I really am,” Ted murmured.  “But I won’t change the grade, Bobby, I won’t, and school academic policy prevents me from making available a makeup exam based on performance.  And before you ask, there’s no amount of extra credit you can do that wouldn’t be preferential treatment.” 
            Bobby stood stock still, as if he’d been paralyzed.  His face fell into a look of heartrending despair.  Without another word, the star quarterback turned and shuffled out of the room.  Now, thought Ted, all I have to do is go to practice and tell the team they get to go to Northport Saturday with Chris Stanley under center.

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