“Ms. Ellison, what is a prostrate?” With a sly, smug look on his face, Connor knew he had gotten her with this one. “And what are testes?” he added for good measure. He looked around the room with satisfaction, for nearly everyone’s eyes were on him, and tearing up with laughter. Except Ms. Ellison’s.
“Well, Connor, I believe the word you are looking for is prostate. The prostate is an internal gland. The male testes are contained in the scrotum, which is an external reproductive organ.”
One Ms. Ellison, zero class clown. In this business, to show embarrassment was sudden and certain death. Seventh graders showed no mercy. But with the grace of a Victorian princess, Ms. Ellison faced the proverbial guillotine of the reproduction chapter head-on, as she had for the last five years.
Teaching seventh graders was a challenge but one that she welcomed. In their hormonally challenged state, they could be tough. But Rachel realized that eventually each one would grow out of that awkward stage and hopefully remember the teacher who did her best to give them the education they deserved. Unfortunately, at this stage in life most were unappreciative of her efforts. Rachel taught her heart out each day, however, knowing that the greater good was at stake.
She moved up and down the rows, making sure each student was on task. The orange desks were in need of replacing. Every time Butch Harrelson moved, the desk squeaked in agony. He could barely fit his fourteen-year-old body into the smaller junior high desks. Butch had yet to pass the seventh grade, even though much prodding and tutoring had been done. Sadly, he probably would be an average student if he had anyone at home to keep him on track. Unfortunately, he still had not seen the benefit of homework and refused to take part in anything that redirected his time away from the television. Parent conferences were held to no avail. His parents simply blamed the teachers.
Rachel, twenty-seven and small in stature, only five feet four inches with sun-kissed brown hair and catlike green eyes, was known for thinking on her feet. She was also known for an unflinching ability to tell it like it was. In her mind, not revealing one’s true self meant lying. And lying was utmost on her list of pet peeves, along with people who did things halfway, unpainted toenails, and self-righteousness. In addition to straight-forwardness, however, Rachel Ellison was also known as one of the sweetest, most caring women at school and in the town. She could level you with her boldness, and then make you fly with her charm, all in the same sentence. Her greatest and longest lasting love at this point in her life was her twelve-year-olds.
On those occasions when she saw the light bulb come on for a student, that made all the challenges worth it. That moment was when one pressed the override button on all the paperwork, parent conferences, and teacher meetings. That spark of interest and understanding is what Rachel lived for day to day. She couldn’t imagine having any other job. She had chosen a very rewarding career, even if it did have its ups and downs.
Just south of her turn onto County Road 20, Rachel sped around the winding road in her newly purchased ragtop Ford Mustang. She relived the day at South Arlington Middle School in her head as she always did. Today had been a good day overall. No major fires to put out. The air smelled of honeysuckle and the land before her looked as if God had simply dropped a bucket of green paint from the sky. As she made the turn, she could see the large white farmhouse with the pewter gray wrap-around porch that belonged to her landlords ahead on the right and her own little slice of heaven just behind the looming oak tree out back.
It was a small guest house, originally built for Mrs. Karington’s elderly mother who had passed away of a heart attack seven years ago. Although the basic structure was a smaller version of the main house, Rachel’s home was certainly full of her own personality. Many of her furnishings had come from her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother had lovingly collected piece after piece. Rachel gained a portion of her estate when she died. Rachel loved antiques and had decided to display her grandmother’s beloved collection in her own home.
Her favorite piece was an old Victrola made of mahogany wood. The music floated out into the room from the internal horn hidden deep inside. She would sometimes put on one of her old records and dance to the scratchy sound of Elvis Presley or Patsy Cline. The quality wasn’t that of a CD, of course, but the sound made her feel that she was in another time and place.
The shutters of her house were painted a blood red crimson, due to her love of University of Alabama football. Yellow jasmine climbed the porch railing on the front of the house all the way to the roof line, straining to get closer to its Maker. The yard was filled with colorful azaleas, boxwoods, and whatever other flower or bush she had gotten her hands on to plant in the last five years she had lived there. There were raised vegetable beds in the back yard, tall enough so Rachel didn’t have to strain her back to weed them. Scattered around the lawn were flower beds of every shape and size. If Rachel’s first love was planting seeds of knowledge, her second was certainly planting seeds of anything requiring photosynthesis.
She had recently begun a small rose garden beside the house. Tall, spindly hybrid tea roses stood above lower growing varieties of knockout shrubs and child’s play miniatures. The bed was surrounded by large rocks she had gathered from the outskirts of the field behind her house.
She had come to the small town of Arlington, Alabama, after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Alabama with a degree in secondary science education. She had always been fascinated with the challenge that studying science brought. Everything from animals to planets intrigued her. After applying for jobs all over the state, she interviewed for the position at South Arlington Middle and utterly and completely fell head over heels with the school’s atmosphere. This, along with the small town’s charm and unmatched beauty convinced her to make Arlington her home. Just to drive through it nearly stopped your heart in its tracks. Not only was there beauty but an old familiarity about the town.
Everyone who was anyone knew everything about everybody. This, of course, could also have its drawbacks. Mr. Olson at the feed store found this out two years ago when Betty from the Round ’Em Up Steak House was caught developing pictures of the little tryst between her and the upstanding business owner at the local Wal-Mart. Bobby St. John, a junior at South Arlington High, saw fit to make the order double prints and posted them in the boy’s locker room at school. Yes, drawbacks were inevitable, but for Rachel the small town charm outweighed the small town gossip. After all, Rachel’s life might have been an open book, but it wasn’t on the best-seller list.
Mrs. Karington, in her infinite generosity, had invited Rachel to dinner. It was Friday night, Mr. Karington’s birthday, and Rachel was tired of cheese grits. Not that breakfast food for supper wasn’t wonderful every once in a while, but Rachel had had her fill of hominy and dairy for one week. Since culinary skills were not her forte, foods took turns being the weekly special. Last week was microwaveable chicken pot pie, this week cheese grits. She would cook one food night after night until she was tired of it, then live on fast food the rest of the week. Seeing as her own dear parents were back in Huntsville, the Karingtons had been like surrogate parents to her. And a mother, even surrogate, knows when her girl isn’t eating right. So tonight it would be grilled hamburgers, homemade french fries, and chocolate fudge ice cream cake. There was a God.
And He was good. Standing in the Karingtons’ kitchen, she saw a sight through the back French doors of the main house that was heavenly. She wasn’t sure who the man was, but she was certain that he could have been on the cover of any magazine he chose. The confident stance and pearly white smile enhanced his tall stature and tanned skin. She would have to find out about him from Cynthia later.
Cynthia Karington, fifty three, tall and slender, had hair the color of fresh snow, one length cut in a bob to her chin, and fingernails the color of fresh blood. She sailed by in her usual flowing manner.
“Rachel, darlin’, can you pass me that can of bakin’ powder? Rachel?... Honey?... Rachel?”
“I’m sorry. What did you say, Mrs. Karington?” Rachel turned to see Cynthia holding out her hand in expectation.
“Why, child, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were ingorin’ me, girl. What’s on your…oh, my, my.”
Just as she looked outside, she noticed the distraction. Tall, dark-haired, and with shoulders nearly as wide as her back French door stood Jason Stafford. Her husband had hired him two weeks ago to help with the coming planting of the corn, peanuts, and cotton that had been a part of the yearly cycle of their family farm since the early 1900’s. Jason’s grandfather had been a friend of the family. Jason was a lot like him, well-mannered and kind-hearted. Gears began to click and before Rachel could say don’t do it, Cynthia was out the door and working an invitation to the festivities into the conversation. Cynthia was very persuasive and intended not to take anything but yes for an answer.
Jason didn’t want Walter to be put on the spot. He wasn’t sure if there was enough food, and after all, this was a family gathering. He thought it best if he gave his apologies and headed on home. Cynthia, however, had other plans.
“Don’t be silly, Jason, it’s no intrusion at all. We were just having a little family barbecue for Mr. Karington’s big six-o. I know it seems a little cruel for me to make the old man cook his own burger, but Walter does make the best in the county.” With that, she gave a few bats of the eyelashes to her husband and rose up on her tiptoes to give him a peck on the mouth. Turning almost as pink as the meat that lay in waiting for the fire, Walter returned to his obviously welcome task.
“Come on, Jason. Help a poor guy out. If you don’t stay, I’ll never hear the end of it. Besides that, I’ll be stuck with a room full of women. Have some pity on me,” Walter joked. He turned back around and kissed Cynthia to let her know he was kidding.
As Rachel looked on from inside, her heart turned to mush. What it would be like to have love like that after thirty-five years. She gazed out onto the patio at the man beside Walter. Blushing, although no one else was around, Rachel turned back to the sink to finish washing the lettuce for the burgers. What on earth was wrong with her? She didn't even know the man… although tonight might go a ways toward jumping over that small hurdle.
Jason spotted Rachel through the screen door that led to the kitchen. He had never met the woman standing behind the sink, dish towel in hand. She was petite, with long chestnut colored hair. Striking was the word that came to mind. He hoped introductions would be in order shortly.
“Mrs. Karington, Walter didn’t tell me you had a daughter,” Jason said as he gestured to the woman inside.
As the three entered the kitchen, Rachel turned to make the acquaintance of Mr. Gorgeous. After tucking her hair behind her ear in what only a few of her close friends knew was a nervous gesture, Rachel extended her hand. She made a mental note that she needed to tend to her cuticles. Nervousness had a tendency of making her think completely irrelevant thoughts.
“Oh, no, Jason, we do have a daughter, but she and her husband live way out in Texas. Rachel here rents our guest house out back, although we certainly claim her as one of our own,” Mrs. Karington remarked as she lovingly squeezed Rachel to her side.
Cynthia could have told him a meteorite had hit just behind him, and he wouldn’t have heard her at that point. The eyes that gazed at him from the kitchen sink held him at the threshold of the kitchen and would not let his legs cooperate to come on in. They were like emeralds, and shaped exactly like a cat’s. Feline, but with softness behind them. They were like nothing he’d ever seen.
Standing there gawking, however, was not going to make the acquaintance of this lovely woman. Although his limbs were frozen, his mind was going full speed ahead. It told him to quit making a fool of himself and get over to the other side of the kitchen quickly. After what seemed like a longer amount of time than it actually was, his body began to perform the functions that his brain signals were relaying. He decided he had better make his legs work or risk breaking his neck in front of what was probably one of the most beautiful women he had ever come in contact with. His wide, muscular build glided across the floor with the grace of Baryshnikov to take her hand. Thank God for his football days, which had taught him agility. He just hoped he hadn’t stood around long enough to make her think he was some kind of idiot.
“Jason, this is Rachel Ellison.” Mr. Karington made the introductions as he helped his wife get the burgers to the table. Cynthia laid out lettuce, buns, and all the other condiments to go with their grilled feast. “Jason lives over in Fullton and is goin’ to be helping us out with our spring and summer planting. Rachel teaches science here at the local middle school.” Walter gestured to Rachel and had a bit of a “proud papa” glow in his eye. Their hands met in friendly greeting, as did their eyes. His were a warm blue, washed in sincerity.
Hoping not to stumble over her words, Rachel responded first. “Nice to meet you Jason…”
“Stafford,” he interjected, still locked in the trance of her cat-eyes. “Jason Stafford.”
She hadn’t meant to hold on so long, but it seemed as if her joints were not willing to unflex in order let go of his hand. She finally got her wits about her and let go, slightly blushing.
Luckily, Mr. Karington helped out the situation by announcing with a jolly, booming voice, “All right, crew. Let’s say grace and dig in.”
With that, the birthday celebration began. Mr. Karington was surprisingly quite jovial about his sixtieth birthday. His philosophy was that one was only as old as he felt. His lovely wife also helped to keep him young. They had been married a long time but still acted like teenagers at times. During their supper, the conversation turned to how they had met. Walter had been instantly love struck and hadn’t been any other way since.
Jason's first summation of Rachel as merely a gorgeous woman failed miserably. He had never been around such a confident, smart female. The women he dated always turned out to be either shy, giggly, or so stuck up they could drown if the weather man called for rain. But not Rachel. She spoke with a natural ease. No pretenses, just companionable conversation. He, on the other hand, did not consider himself a talker. Unless, of course, he was talking farming, which was why he had come to the Karington place originally that afternoon. He simply sat back and listened for most of the evening.
Rachel and Mrs. Karington talked about their flower beds. Jason figured she probably had a gardener come do them for her. He had seen the pretty petunias and impatiens from the road on his way to the Karingtons’ house. The beds looked as if a professional had laid them out. They were lovely, but Jason preferred to get down in the soil himself.
After everyone had devoured a piece of Cynthia’s famous chocolate fudge ice cream cake, the men moved outside to the front porch to finish up their arrangements for the next week. Planting was to begin and they had some odds and ends to finish before they could begin the chore. Cynthia sidled up to Rachel at the sink of dishes she was at with suds up to her elbows. Rachel had thought it best to busy herself rather than have to answer any questions from Cynthia. It seemed to Rachel, however, that at times Cynthia could see right down to her very soul. There was no use in trying to sidestep any of her questions.
“Sooooo?” drawled Cynthia.
Eyes rolling heavenward, Rachel grimaced. “Sooooo, what?” she asked, knowing full well what Mrs. Karington was referring to with her one word inquiry.
“What do you think of our young Mr. Stafford with the big blue eyes?”
She began to bat her lashes in emphasis of her summation of the farmhand. Even at fifty-three, she knew what a handsome man looked like, and it looked like Jason Stafford.
Rachel again rolled her eyes, kissed her fingertips like a French chef and sighed, “Magnifique.”
Both of them doubled over with a whooping belly-laugh as the tail lights from the midnight blue Dodge Ram rounded the curve out of sight.
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