Derek cut into his second pork chop.  This summer of stacking hay bales and shuffling milking machines from cow to cow on Don Bradford’s farm—because that’s how the Bradfords keep their foster sons busy—he’d grown from men’s small to medium shirts and Jean lengthened his jeans twice.   Food tastes great when Mom isn’t dishing it up with complaints about how hard she works to feed Derek and Nate, and now that she married Bruce, dinner is when they jump on Derek for cutting school, bad progress reports, and whatever he did or didn’t do.

Then Don Bradford turned the pork chop to leather.   “You guys ready for school? Bus stops at 7:40.”

Derek’s stomach cramped up tighter than when Jean bought school supplies last week.

One more try. “If I quit school I could change your corrugates all the time. You know I work good.”  Don and Jean shook their heads.

Derek had to eat the chop he’d taken—a rule that didn’t normally bother him—but he chewed one small bite at a time to get it down and make it stay there.  Jean raised her eyebrows but kept her mouth shut until the others boys scraped their plates and piled them in the sink.  She sent Billy and Bob upstairs to put on pajamas before Monday Night Football—Cowboys vs. Rams tonight.

“I need you to give me a hand, Derek—just a couple of minutes.  James, see if Don has the pre-game on.”   When she didn’t scold Derek for leaving too much meat on his chop, he knew he was in for it.

“I used to hate the first few days of school.” Jean squirted dish soap into the pan of hot water. “New classes, new teachers. But you got through sophomore year even when things were falling apart at home. With all that, you passed. You can do it, Derek. We’ll help.” Her voice lowered, slowed. “—at least as long as you’re with us.”

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