The transformation shocked Kim. At first the boy had appeared normal, like any other kid. But now the face was twisted, strained, reflecting a deep, hurting rage.
Kim raised his hands, palms up. “I just want to talk to you, Ted, that’s all.”
The boy moved toward his unexpected guest. “You want to talk? I’ll talk to you. With these!” Fists swung past Kim’s face. He jumped back, stumbling over the chair.
“Teddy!” the woman screamed. “Teddy, what are you doing?”
Kim continued to move away, trying to keep out of range of the boy’s fists. “Why do you hate me so much? I didn’t kill your uncle. I wasn’t even born yet! Neither were you. How can you hate me for something I didn’t do?”
“Teddy!” Mr. Carlton’s voice rang out from the doorway. “Stop this right now!”
The boy glanced at the man, somewhat taken aback. “What do you mean, stop? I got him. I can make him pay for Uncle Bobby’s death. They killed him! Now they’ll pay!”
Ted lunged toward Kim. His fist brushed the boy’s chin and smashed into the lamp beside the coffee table. The woman cried out as glass shattered across the floor.
Without hesitating, Ted dove once more toward Kim, a raspy cry escaping from behind clenched teeth. “Murderer! ” he screeched. “Monster! You’ll pay. It’s all your fault!”
Strong arms grabbed Ted and wrestled him to the floor. “No!” Mr. Carlton shouted. “Leave him alone. I was wrong, Teddy. I was wrong.”
Kim’s mouth dropped open as he watched his teacher pin the screaming boy against the living room rug.
“Teddy,” the man shouted, “Uncle Bob was killed by a bullet from one man’s gun, fighting for a cause that ended long ago.”
Ted struggled to escape Mr. Carlton’s grasp. “But you said those people killed him. You said they were pigs, monsters, that none of them should be allowed to live.”
Tears filled the man’s eyes as he lifted the boy and held him tightly. “They didn’t kill Uncle Bob. The war did. Human violence pulled the trigger. We all fought a common enemy. We are all equally guilty for what happened.”
Ted stopped his wild struggling and looked up into the face of the man holding him. “What are you saying? Did Uncle Bobby die for no reason at all? Was his life just wasted? Didn’t you love him? Didn’t you love your own brother?”
Mr. Carlton’s shoulders sagged as sobs wrung the energy from his arms. He sat down heavily on the floor, his hands slipping from around the boy’s waist. “I loved him so much.” His voice was thin, broken. “He was my hero. I worshiped him.”
Mrs. Carlton sat down beside her husband. She gently placed her arms around his shoulders.
The man looked at Kim. “When my brother died, I was destroyed inside. I couldn’t go on living without him. The only thing that kept me sane was a vow to revenge his death.
“As the years passed, I thought I’d outgrown my hate. But I see that I simply passed it on to Teddy.” The man gazed into the eyes of his son. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t mean to fill you with such hate. Teddy, Kim’s a victim of that war just as we are. Just as Uncle Bobby was. The fighting continues, only now with different soldiers, different bombs, different blood. Kim lost his mom and dad in fires set by anger and greed. There’s no victory in war. Only loss. Only pain.”
Kim glanced at Ted’s face. He saw the hate, the anger, the pain slowly ease, leaving eyes filled with questions. “Dad?” the boy whispered, pressing close to his father, “teach me how to stop hating. Teach me to love again.”
Mr. Carlton wrapped his son in his arms. He looked over at Kim, his eyes pleading for forgiveness. The boy smiled and nodded. In this home, on this battlefield, the war was finally over.
Tony glanced up at the clock. He felt sure those long, thin hands had decided to remain in the ten-till-twelve position. Glancing back at his geography book, he read the sentence at the top of the page for the eighth time. The boy thought of the note hiding deep in his pocket. What was he going to say when he met this mysterious L.B. person?
He remembered what his dad had said earlier–that he was supposed to feel honored when someone cared enough to write down her or his feelings. Even God wrote love letters! Tony thought of the Creator walking with Adam and Eve beside the lake in the Garden of Eden. Yes, God certainly had the ability to write love letters. Every word He said that day sounded like one.
A sobering thought dampened his daydreaming. What if he didn’t like this L.B.? What if she didn’t even exist? What if the note was a fake, written by a bunch of guys trying to make him look like a fool? What if?
The noon bell sang its piercing song, accompanied by desks slamming shut, children cheering, and hurrying feet heading for the door. It was time to find the answers. L.B., whoever she was, would be waiting. The mystery was about to be solved.
“Tony, may I speak to you for a moment?” The teacher’s voice called out as he reached the door.
“Uh . . . well . . . could it wait until after lunch? I’m . . . uh . . . really hungry. ” Tony stumbled over his words, not wanting to sound disrespectful, yet fearing he’d miss his all-important appointment at the fruit cooler.
“It won’t take but a few minutes,” Mrs. Lawson smiled. “I had a question on your last term paper. You remember, the one you wrote about South America? ‘Chili: More Than Just Stew.’”
“Oh, yeah.” Tony eyed the clock. “Did I leave something out?”
“No, not really, although you mentioned things about the country I’ve never heard of.”
“Like what?” Tony stood on one foot, then the other, trying not to look impatient.
“Like the paragraph outlining the government’s plan to equip remote military bases with high-speed computers that”–she picked up Tony’s report–”and I quote, ‘will aid in the security of shoreline defense installations, allowing for a reduction in personnel needed to monitor movement of trade goods between ports of call and inland business centers,’ end quote. Tony, where did you get this kind of information?”
The boy cleared his throat. “On my computer. I just logged on to the main data processing center at he American Embassy down there and read the reports. The government’s donating their old outdated computers to their education program. Isn’t that neat?”
“But isn’t it illegal to tap into government data files?”
Tony looked shocked at the accusation. “The minister of information said I could get whatever I wanted from their data base if I figured out their password. He didn’t think I could. But I did, on my first log-on attempt. The rest was easy.”
Mrs. Lawson looked at the report, then at Tony. “And what was the password?”
The boy smiled and moved toward the door. “Stew,” he called over his shoulder. “You know, the kind you eat?”
The teacher watched her student disappear from view. She shook her head slowly back and forth. “Stew,” she repeated absently.
Tony raced down the hallway toward the crowded lunchroom. He could hear laughter and loud talking as hungry mouths munched on assorted nourishments packed earlier that day by loving moms or dads. Would L.B. still be there? Maybe she got mad because he was late. He hurried his steps.
Tony made his way to the fruit cooler by the wall at the far end of the bright, sunny eating area. He stopped at one end of the long cooler and pretended to inspect the fruit lying in orderly rows under the frosty sliding glass doors.
No one seemed to pay him any attention. The boy began to feel disappointment rising in his chest. He was too late. L.B. had already given up on him. He slid the cooler door open and selected a big, ripe apple. He held the fruit in his hand, inspecting it for bruises.
Someone spoke. “I like apples too. My favorites are the big yellow ones.”
Tony glanced up. The girl looked familiar; seemed as if he’d seen her someplace before, but he wasn’t sure. “Yeah, they’re good,” he shrugged, trying to brush her off. “You want one?”
The girl smiled. “Yes, please.”
Tony grabbed a yellow apple from the pile an handed it to her. “Enjoy,” he mumbled, searching the sea of faces for someone looking his direction.
“Do you remember me?” the girl persisted. “We sat together on the school bus a week or so ago. You were reading something about dinosaurs.”
Tony nodded weakly. “Oh, yeah, I remember.” The boy walked along the cooler, watching for signs of the mystery writer.
The girl followed close behind. “I bet you don’t even remember my name,” she teased.
“Sure I do,” Tony frowned, wishing the girl would go away. “It was . . . was . . . Laura something-or-other.”
“Hey, you do remember!” The girl’s smile broadened. “At least part of it. I’m Laura Bates.” She repeated her name, slower this time. “Laura Bates.”
Tony shrugged. “Oh, yeah, Laura Ba–” The boy stopped in his tracks. His lips moved, forming the name he’d just heard. He turned to face the girl with the yellow apple. “You’re L.B.?”
Laura spread her arms and bowed slightly. “In the flesh.”
Tony closed his eyes and leaned back against the cooler. “I’m such a jerk,” he sighed.
“Well, you’re a late jerk,” Laura Bates snickered playfully.
“I’m sorry,” Tony groaned. “Mrs. Lawson wanted to talk to me.
“No harm done,” the girl said. “I hope you’re not disappointed that I’m who I am. You probably had imagined that some beautiful, intelligent, real knockout of a girl wrote that note. But it was just me.”
“I didn’t know what to think,” Tony admitted. “No one ever wrote me a note before.”
“Really?” Laura seemed surprised.
“Well, sometimes my mom puts little messages in my lunch, but they don’t count. She’s just my mom.”
Laura shrugged. “Moms are good. At least most moms are, I guess.”
Tony saw a frown shadow the girl’s face. Before he could say anything, Laura motioned to him. “Hey, there’s an empty table over there. You ready to eat?”
Tony nodded and followed the girl across the room to a table by the window. A few classmates whistled as they passed, but Tony didn’t pay any attention. Maybe it was his nature to notice when things weren’t quite right. Maybe it was all the time he’d spent with Tie Li that had made him more aware of other people’s feelings. Whatever the reason, he knew Laura Bates was carrying some kind of sadness in her heart.
He watched the girl unwrap her sandwich and lay it on her napkin. The bread was dry, crumbly. It looked as though it had been thrown together at the last minute.
“Thank you for eating with me,” she said softly. “I was right. You are a real gentleman.”
Tony smiled. The mystery had been solved. But another, much more puzzling secret lay waiting on Laura Bates’ napkin.