Kelan knocked on the door and waited while he heard footsteps running toward it on the other side. That could only be Finn. He forced a smile as the boy opened the door. The boy’s grin was more natural at least. “Hi, Uncle Kel. What are you doing here?”
What was he doing here? He should have just gone home after the day he’d had. But, he’d wanted to talk to his brother. Hoped running things by him would help settle them in his head. “Is Nolan here?”
Finn shook his head, and his mouth turned down a little. “He was supposed to have the day off. Said he would help me with a project for school. But, he went to work anyway.”
His brother wasn’t usually a workaholic. He was known for taking on someone else’s shift whenever someone asked. But, this was at least the second or third time he’d done that in the last month. Something more was up here. He’d thought something was going on with him, but he hadn’t pushed it.
Kelan glanced up as Maura stepped into the room. She smiled at him, but it looked shaky. In fact, she looked a little shaky all over. “You okay?” he asked.
She nodded and gestured for Finn to go. “I’ll talk to your uncle,” she said. Then, she turned back to Kelan. “Come in to the kitchen.”
“What’s going on with Nolan?” he asked before they even reached the kitchen. “I know he can be a self-sacrificing fool, but I thought that would have changed now that he has you guys to come home to.”
“Your brother is under the misguided assumption that providing for us means working as many hours as they’ll allow him.”
He couldn’t believe Nolan would be willing to give up so much time with his new family. He’d seen how much Nolan loved all of them. The kids might not be his by blood, but he still obviously loved them. “Why? You guys aren’t having money problems, are you?”
“Not really. I quit my cleaning job and cut back my hours at the restaurant. But, we’re good.” She glanced over her shoulder, though. “Things are going to be changing in the fall, though.”
“He told me you were planning on going back to school. Is it going to be that hard on your finances?”
She shook her head. “That’s all taken care of. But, it’s not the only thing that will be changing.”
That was when he realized she had her hand resting on her stomach. Putting it all together, he lifted his gaze back to her face. “Really?”
“Yeah. It came as a surprise to us as well. Nolan’s ecstatic and terrified at the same time. And he seems to think working more will solve all the problems.”
“Have you told the kids?” He didn’t want to say something if they hadn’t.
Her mouth pursed as her older daughter, Tonya, walked into the kitchen. That apparently gave him his answer. The girl scowled at them then jerked the refrigerator open. She slammed it again and left the kitchen without taking anything. “What was that about?”
Maura shrugged. “She’s been acting like that since they got home from school and won’t talk to me. I’m just her mom, what do I know?”
Kelan gave her a soft smile. “Maybe I can talk to her.”
“I don’t know if it will do any good, but you can try.”
He didn’t either, but the way she was acting was familiar. He’d been a little older than her, but he remembered acting the same way for a while. He hadn’t wanted to talk to his parents then, either. He knocked softly on her door then pushed it open. But, he just stood in the doorway.
“I didn’t say you could come in.”
“That’s why I’m not. I thought maybe we could talk, though.”
“Why should we? You’re not my dad. Not even my stepdad. That’s your brother.”
Maybe he’d been wrong about what was behind her attitude. “You having trouble with them being married now?”
She shook her head, and he saw tears welling in her eyes. She dashed them away and turned from him. “Can I come in?” he asked her.
She shrugged a shoulder but didn’t look at him. He moved over to the bed, sinking down on the edge of it. “What’s happening at school?”
She hunched her shoulders, drawing in to herself. “Nothing,” she mumbled.
“You know, I wasn’t always a teacher. I used to be a student, too.”
“Yeah, a million years ago.”
Kelan tried to smother a smile at that. “Only about twenty-five since I was your age. Even then, kids weren’t always nice.”
She spun toward him so fast, he reached out to keep her from falling off the bed. “Why would they be mean to you? You’re nice and smart and-”
“Bullies know how to find those who are vulnerable to their attacks. And you’re nice and smart too. Don’t forget it just because others won’t see it.”
“But, how do I get them to stop? The teachers say to just ignore it. But, I try, and they still won’t leave me alone.”
He’d gotten that advice when he was younger, too. It had never worked for him, either. Nothing had, other than his harassers growing out of it. Though, apparently they hadn’t, considering what he was dealing with now. Sometimes their methods just changed.
He gave her a hug. “I wish I could tell you. Talk to your mom. She wants to help you, and she’ll fight for you.” He imagined his mom would have too if he’d ever said a word. It was the only fight Kelan could remember Nolan getting in when he found out what was going on. Although having his little brother defending him had only made the harassment worse.
Maybe if he had stuck up for himself back then, he’d have an easier time of it now. But, he definitely wasn’t the person to tell her the best way to do that. He squeezed her shoulders again. “Talk to your parents,” he told her.
Her nose wrinkled at that. “Like Dad even cares. He hasn’t called since my birthday. We had to call him on Christmas, and he barely wanted to talk to us.”
Kelan wanted to hit the man, and he wasn’t usually the violent sort. These kids deserved better, and they’d gotten it with Nolan. If only he could figure out they wanted him here not off risking his life just to bring in some extra money. “Talk to your mom and Nolan.” Which was what he’d meant by parents. “They don’t want to see you hurting.”
“When did it stop for you?” she asked as he headed for the door.
He didn’t want to lie to her, but he didn’t want her to lose hope, either. “There are always going to be people who want to take advantage of what they see as your weaknesses. It doesn’t mean they’re stronger than you, just that they’re crueler.”
He left her thinking about that and knowing he needed to face down his own tormentor before things went any farther.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle today’s prompt of writing a character just like me. But, I was in Tonya’s shoes through most of school. And even when you get away from the bullies, the effects of dealing with that doesn’t always go away. As Kelan could tell you, too.