Doug Keast returned with a paper cup filled with water. Brynn thanked him with a brisk nod as she folded the letter and placed it back inside the envelope.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
Brynn nodded. She wanted nothing more to do with Doug Keast and was grateful when the first bell rang.
“Brynn,” her fellow teacher pressed, “do you want me to call someone? You don’t look so good.”
“I’ll be fine.” But she wouldn’t be. It would be a long while before she would feel right again. Brynn couldn’t keep from thinking that she should have known something was wrong. She should have been able to reach Mike. Should have realized the depth of his despair.
And Suzie. Poor Suzie. Brynn was certain the teenager had never told Mike she was pregnant. Suzie had loved him and tried to protect him. Mike had loved her enough to ask Brynn to help her through her grief. Brynn didn’t know what she could possibly say that would comfort Suzie and Mike’s mother.
By some miracle, she made it through the morning, teaching by rote. Not everyone had heard about Mike’s death, but then only a handful of her morning students knew him.
At lunchtime, still numb, still in shock, Brynn returned to the office to ask about Suzie Chang. As she suspected, Suzie was absent. She wrote down Suzie’s home address, tucked it inside her pocket, and returned to her classroom.
Her heart ached. Her body ached, and she wondered if she would emotionally survive this day. The burden of explaining and comforting seemed beyond her.
When it was time for her afternoon class, Brynn sat at her desk. One by one, her students paraded single file past her. Mike’s desk in the center of the room sat empty. Brynn found she couldn’t look at it without experiencing a tremendous sense of loss.
Everyone appeared to be watching her, waiting for her to say something. Brynn walked to the front of the room. The silence was deafening.
“By now I’m sure you’ve all heard about Mike,” she said, and was shocked at how thin her voice had become. She struggled with her composure. “Talking about it might do us all some good. Perhaps you can help me understand why Mike would take his own life?”
“It’s stupid,” Pearl Washington said.
“But Mike wasn’t stupid,” Brynn insisted. “When I could get him to express his feelings, I found his essays to be full of insight.” She realized as she spoke how dark his writing was, how bleakly he saw the world. Then and now. Guilt swamped her senses. She should have seen it coming, should have realized how much pain he was in.
“He should have told someone,” Emilio suggested.
“Who?” Brynn asked. “Told them what?”
“We weren’t exactly his friends,” Yolanda reminded everyone sadly.
“He didn’t want no friends,” Denzil insisted.
“Okay, so he wasn’t Mr. Personality, but he wasn’t so bad, you know.”
“Are you sorry he’s dead?” Brynn asked.
A chorus of regrets chimed back, and Brynn knew that the class was suffering just as she was. Mike had asked her to talk to Suzie, to help Suzie. What he hadn’t realized was that they were all going to need help dealing with his death.
“He never let on, you know?” someone complained.
“I don’t think he knew how to share his pain,” Brynn suggested.
Yolanda started to cry. “It makes me mad.”
“What does?” Brynn questioned, struggling not to weep herself.
“That he didn’t give any of us a chance to tell him goodbye. When Modesto was shot it was bad, but this is worse because I feel like there was something I should have done, something I should have said. Maybe if I’d been friendlier, it would have helped.”
“I don’t think any of us had a clue how much emotional pain Mike was in,” Brynn told them solemnly. “Death was obviously something Mike had been entertaining for a long time. It was wrong, and now each one of us is left with recriminations.”
Brynn paused at the sharp pain in her chest. “I can’t blame Mike, but I wish I’d known how much he was hurting. I might have been able to help him. Like Yolanda said, we never got a chance to say good-bye.”
“I want to get in his face and make him listen to reason,” one of the girls shouted. “He’s hurt so many people.”
“He was in pain himself.”
“I wish I could talk to him.”
“You can,” Brynn whispered.
“But how?” Denzil asked. “It isn’t like we can write him a letter.”
“Why can’t we?” Brynn asked, remembering how much writing had helped her deal with the death of her beloved grandmother five years earlier. “It’s true Mike won’t be reading it, but writing Mike might help each of us deal with the shock of what he did.”
“Miss Cassidy’s right.”
Binders opened and spiral notebooks appeared as her students automatically reached for a fresh piece of paper. They did this without Brynn so much as asking.
The remainder of the time was spent writing Mike. Brynn wrote her own letter and found herself struggling to hold in the emotion as she placed feelings of doubt on the page. When she glanced up, she found several of her students were weeping.
Afterward, those who were willing read their letters aloud.
Emilio volunteered first. Looking shaken but determined, he faced the class. “Mike, don’t do it, man. Don’t do it.” Then he slid back onto his seat.
Pearl stood beside her desk. “Why do I hurt so bad? I barely knew you, and yet I feel some responsibility for your death. You sat three desks away from me. Three desks and you couldn’t reach that far? Three desks and I couldn’t see your pain? I’m sorry, Mike. Forgive me.”
Yolanda, tears streaming down her face, volunteered next. “Thank you, Mike, for what you taught me. I wasn’t your friend, but I wish I had been. I never took the time to talk to you. But you touched my life. Never again will I sit in a classroom and not look around me. I wish I’d known how much pain you were in. I’d like to think you would have told me had I asked. Only I never asked. Next time will be different. Next time I’m going to look.”
When the bell rang her class filed out of the room with little of the enthusiasm they generally showed at the end of a day.
“Will you find out about Mike’s funeral?” Emilio asked.
The other kids stopped and waited for Brynn to respond.
“We want to know,” Yolanda said.
“I think it would help if we went.”
There was a chorus of agreement.
“You were the only friends Mike had,” Brynn said.
“It’s too bad we didn’t do a better job of it,” Yolanda said just loudly enough for Brynn to hear.
Brynn left the school as soon as she could. She had Suzie’s address with her and walked over to the teenager’s apartment. The girl’s mother greeted her at the door and was painfully polite as she ushered Brynn into the living room.
“Is Suzie home?” Brynn asked.
“No. She with Mike’s mother.”
Brynn studied the delicate Chinese woman who struggled with English. “My daughter has torn heart.”
Brynn placed her hand over her own heart. It did indeed feel as if it had been torn. “Please tell Suzie that I’m looking for her.”
“Yes. Thank you very much to coming.” Her English was heavily accented and barely understandable.
Before she left, Brynn placed her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “Suzie is a wonderful girl. I feel honored to have been the teacher of such a fine student.”
The delicate woman’s eyes avoided Brynn’s, but she thought she might have detected a smile.
When Brynn arrived at Mike’s, his mother was at the funeral home, making the arrangements for her son’s burial. Brynn left feeling as if she’d failed everyone. Mike. Suzie. His mother. Her students. Herself.
Her apartment was cold and bleak. She walked inside and stood in the dark, feeling as though she carried the burden of the world on her shoulders. With a heavy heart, she turned on the light switch and walked over to her desk.
It might have helped her had she been able to cry, but there were no tears left inside her. With a steady, sure hand, she wrote out her letter of resignation to give to Mr. Whalen in the morning. When school resumed after the first of the year, she wouldn’t be there.
Roberto was right, and had been from the first, she realized. She didn’t belong here. She’d failed Mike, but most of all she’d failed herself.
“She isn’t actually going to quit, is she?” Mercy asked.
Shirley stood with her hand planted protectively over Brynn’s shoulder. Mercy knew that her friend had been with her charge from the moment Brynn had learned about Mike’s suicide.
“What happened with Mike wasn’t her fault.” Mercy wished there was something she could do. Poor Shirley was at a loss as to know how to help.
Brynn leaned forward and pressed her forehead against her folded arms.
“Isn’t there something we can do for you?” Mercy asked.
Shirley shook her head.
It was then that Mercy realized her friend was weeping. “Oh, Shirley.”
“I’m sorry,” the other angel said softly. “It’s just that I can’t bear to see Brynn feeling this defeated.”
“What’s going to happen?”
Shirley rubbed her hand under her nose. “I don’t know. Gabriel’s the one who can tell us that. But . . .”
“Yes?” Mercy prodded.
“I think it might be best if Brynn returned to Rhode Island.”
Mercy was shocked. “But why?”
“She cares too much. If she’d had a more experienced angel assigned to help her . . .”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Mercy cried, outraged at the suggestion.
“She needs Roberto,” Shirley added.
“Then let’s get him,” Mercy suggested. There were ways of dealing with stubborn men, and she wasn’t opposed to using them. If Roberto Alcantara thought that he could trample over this sweet young woman’s heart, well, there was a thing or two Mercy could teach that man. She’d take a great deal of pleasure in doing it, too.
“No,” Shirley said with surprising strength. “Leave Roberto out of this.”
“He has what he wants.”
“You’re sure of that?” the strong male voice spoke from behind them.
“Gabriel.” Mercy was quick to jump to attention.
“How’s Jenny?” the archangel asked her.
Mercy brightened. “Great. At least she was the last time I checked. She was chosen for a major role in a new musical. It’s the chance of a lifetime. She couldn’t be more thrilled.”
“What makes you think that?”
Mercy hesitated. This sounded like one of those trick questions. “I . . . I . . .”
“What happened to Trey? The last I heard he’d disappeared, and Jenny was looking for him. He’d checked out of the hotel by the time she arrived.”