Authors: Staci Stallings
Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction, #Inspirational
“Miss T, I can’t make no good s’s,” Shaniquille Taylor whined as she worked over her paper.
“Shaniquille,” Gabi said, smiling, “say I can’t make good s’s.”
“I can’t make no...”
“I can’t make good s’s,” the little girl whined. The grammar had gotten better. The issue had not.
“Okay.” Gabi knelt down beside the tiny table. “I’ll help you. Let’s do it together. See, you start here.”
Andrew couldn’t keep himself from peeking into her window on his way back to the nursery. Just a glimpse of her was all he wanted. His smile came of its own free will when he saw her, arms around a child, teaching. That was Gabi, he thought, and his heart longed for her in a way he really couldn’t even explain. She was beautiful on the outside, there was no question about that, but she was even more beautiful on the inside, and these children loved her.
One of the children in his stroller whimpered, and the spell was broken. He’d better get these two back before someone thought he’d gotten off with them. Even as he walked down the hall, the image of her never wavered from his heart. He could’ve stood there and watched her forever.
It occurred to Andrew shortly after four that he had never seen so many kids in one place before. They were everywhere — talking and laughing. It was intimidating in a way he hadn’t expected it would be.
“Come on. I’ll introduce you to the guys,” Jerry said as they made their way through the crowded hallway, “then you can take it from there.”
“You’re going to leave me alone with them?” Andrew asked in instant panic.
Jerry chuckled. “You’ll be fine. If you need anything, I’ll be in my office. And, if you want, I can come down after a while and check on you.”
“That might be a good idea,” Andrew said, suddenly questioning the wisdom of this decision. What was he thinking offering to volunteer with these kids? They made their way down to the gym, and he wondered briefly how many of these kids actually played basketball, but he was not at all prepared for the sight in that gym.
Sweaty bodies covered the entire expanse of floor — crowded around the three net-less goals, yelling and shouting. It took only one look for him to completely regret offering to do this. If he could have run, he would have. Unfortunately, Jerry never gave him the chance.
“I don’t know about this,” he said, panic-stricken as he surveyed the scene.
“You’ll do fine. I’ll introduce you to Becky Jones. She’s the head volunteer in here,” Jerry said, indicating a rotund woman sitting in the middle of the stands. “Becky, hi.”
“Hey, Jerry.” Becky pulled her frame off of the stands with effort and extended her hand first to Jerry and then to Andrew.
“Becky, I’d like you to meet Andrew Clark. He’s going to be volunteering in here for the week,” Jerry said as the two of them shook hands.
“Glad to have you aboard,” Becky said, smiling.
“Just show him the ropes. I’m sure he can handle it.” Jerry smiled at both of them. “I gotta go now.”
“Bye, Jerry,” Becky said and then turned her attention to Andrew. “So, is this your first time volunteering?”
“Yeah.” Andrew wished the floor would be merciful and swallow him up right now.
“Well, why don’t I introduce you around and maybe you can get into one of these games?”
“All right,” he said, knowing there was no escape now.
This time of day was always the craziest in Gabi’s classroom. The kids were restless, she was restless, and going outside was out of the question.
“You guys are getting too noisy,” she said for the umpteenth time. “You need to quiet down a little.”
“Miss T, Bobby’s pushing me!” a little girl cried from the center of the room.
“Bobby, no pushing,” Gabi said. “You know the rules.”
“Miss T, I want the barn, but Leslie won’t let me play with it… Miss T, when is my mama gonna be here? ... Miss T, I need to go to the bathroom ... Miss T,… Miss T,... Miss T...”
“Foul!” Andrew called over the noise of the gym. “You there in the cap. What’s your name?”
“Me?” a young black man asked innocently, obviously not planning on volunteering the information in the near future, or ever.
“Yes, you,” Andrew said with far more authority than he felt, but he quickly realized this was going nowhere. So he turned his attention to the second young man involved in the altercation. “Here, what’s your name?”
“James,” the second young man said.
“Great. Here you go, James, you get a free shot.” Andrew flipped him the ball. James took the shot but missed. His rival immediately grabbed the ball, took it back, turned and sank a perfect jump shot.
“Don’t mess with the man,” the boy taunted, “and I’m the man, James. You hear that? I am the man!”
Andrew could see the steam coming out of James’ ears, and he was becoming increasingly concerned over this exchange.
“Next sub,” he called quickly, and the next young man walked onto the court. “I think you need to take — what’s your name, Son?”
The first young man looked at him with derision and pure spite as he raised his eyebrows. “Son? I ain’t your son.”
“What’s your name?” Andrew asked again, this time taking a step forward so he towered over the kid.
“Irvin,” the kid finally mumbled at his shoes, but Andrew caught it just the same.
“I want you to take Irvin’s place,” he said to the boy who’d walked onto the court. The other ten boys on the court stopped dead, and Andrew knew something bad was coming.
“You’re taking me out of the game?” Irvin asked in utter disbelief.
“That’s what I said.” Andrew held the ball and pointed from the kid to the bench. “Now take your seat, so we can finish the game.”
“And what if I don’t want to sit down?” Irvin asked, his dark eyes falling three levels into pure hatred.
“Then we all just stand here for the rest of the evening staring at each other,” Andrew said, never flinching so much as a muscle. Suddenly he felt like Bryan cross-examining a dangerous witness.
Irvin didn’t move. In fact nothing moved. They all stood there staring at the two men staring at each other across the court.
“It’s your choice, Irvin,” Andrew said, his voice calm even though his insides were jerking every direction. “You can ruin it for everyone, or take your turn like everyone else.”
“Come on, Irvin,” someone said softly.
“Yeah, man, we wanna play.”
Slowly Irvin turned away and sat down heavily on the bench — wounded and beaten for now, but he never took his eyes off Andrew after that. He’d get even.
It always amazed Gabi how quickly the students disappeared. One minute they were playing, the next they were gone, and she was alone again. It was already 6:30, and only two students remained.
“How about we clean this up?” she asked with as much cheer as she could manage. “Jake, you pick up the toys, and Bobby, you wash off the tables with this rag.”
“Okay, Miss T.”
They were down to only nine players and Andrew.
“Mr. Clark, why don’t you play with us?” one of the boys suggested.
“I don’t know.” Andrew looked at them skeptically. “You want me to play?”
“I think he’s chicken,” Irvin said just loud enough for everyone else to hear.
“Okay.” Andrew’d never been one to ignore a challenge. “Let’s do this.”
All of the students were gone now, and miraculously the room was clean. Gabi straightened her papers and prayed to anyone listening that she could get out of the building without Jerry seeing her. She exited the classroom with no noise at all and locked the door. Yes, she could make her escape in the empty hallway.
“So, you’re down by two points against your arch enemy, Irvin,” Andrew said, eyeing his lone opponent as he crouched in defense watching Irvin bounce the ball. “What now?”
“Now?” Irvin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Now, I kick your sorry...”
“Irvin Michael Thompson!” the voice came from behind them, and they both froze. “How many times do I have to remind you that kind of language is not acceptable here?” And just like that Gabi came striding onto the court, the heels of her boots click-click-clicking on the hardwoods. “Huh? Answer me!”
“Sorry, Miss T.” Irvin picked up the dribble, his shoulders sagging even before he turned to face her.
“Well, I think you should be sorry, Mr. Thompson. Now, I want you to apologize to Mr. Clark here,” she continued, with the barest of glances at Andrew that he could hardly read.
Irvin looked like he’d just eaten a rotten lemon as he turned back to Andrew. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Hey. No big deal,” Andrew said, straightening and wondering what on earth was happening. It was like in that breath Irvin had become someone completely different. “We were just playing the game, Gabi.”
She wound her arms in front of her and glared right at him. “If you slide into the gutter for a basketball game, you will for other things, too. Right, Irvin?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Irvin said with the ball tucked at his side, never taking his eyes off his shoes. “I’m sorry, Miss T. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You’re forgiven, this time, but don’t let it happen again,” she warned.
There was a moment of silence.
“So, how late were you two planning on staying anyway?” she asked to neither one in particular.
“Oh, we were just finishing up,” Andrew said, quickly. “Tell you what, Irvin, next shot wins. What do you say?”
“Okay,” Irvin said, still holding the ball.
Then he put it on the floor in a dribble, and Andrew went back into defense. Irvin was good at this game, and the possibility that Andrew could lose was a strong one.
Irvin faked right then spiraled left around Andrew, laying in a perfect shot.
“I win!” Irvin said, his hands in the air, a taunt poised on his lips, but he caught himself just in time. “Good game, Mr. Clark.” He put out his hand which Andrew shook in barely disguised shock.
He managed a smile at the kid. “You’re going to have to show me that move sometime, Irvin. That was pretty good.”
“Anytime,” Irvin said, the ice around his tone melting just a touch. Then he lifted his chin at her. “Hey, Miss T, what’re you doing here so late?”
“Waiting for the two of you to go home so I can lock up,” she said, shaking her head and scowling in mock annoyance at them. At least Andrew hoped it was mock. With her, it could well not be. “And I think it’s time for you to be home, Irvin. Don’t you have homework?”
“Yes, Ma’am. A little.”
“So, how’s school going anyway?” she asked as she snapped off the gym lights, and the three of them headed outside.
“Just okay? I’ve noticed you haven’t been around for help. Is that a good sign or a bad one?” she asked, her tone teasing and yet with an undercurrent of seriousness.
“Well, actually I’ve got this English assignment I was thinking about coming by to talk to you about.”
At the door, she nodded. “How’s tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? That’d be great, Miss T,” he said, his voice turning happy and much lighter than it had been all afternoon. “I’d appreciate that.”
“Great. Come by about 6:30, and we’ll look at it.”
“Thanks. I’ll be there,” he said as she locked the door.
At the concrete sidewalk she stopped and looked at Irvin with grave concern. “Will you be able to make it home okay?”
Andrew hadn’t realized until then just how dark it had gotten.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Irvin said with a shrug. “You know me.”
“Yes, I do, Irvin,” she said, and it was clear her caring for him was no act. “6:30. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t. See you guys,” he said and waved.
“Yeah. See ya, Irvin,” Andrew, who had been watching and listening in fascination ever since she’d entered the gym, said. It was like she had some sort of spell over Irvin. He wasn’t even the same kid he was just a few hours before, and Andrew was dying to know why.
Irvin trotted away into the darkness, and they were left alone, standing on the sidewalk next to the parking lot that had only two cars left.
“Nice outfit,” she said harshly as she did a once-over down his clothes before walking away from him. Andrew looked down at his sweats and wished desperately for his suit, but it was too late for that now.
“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to play basketball in a three-piece,” he said, shadowing her through the parking lot.
Three more steps and she turned on him in frustration. “Andrew, what’re you doing?”
He stopped, nearly tripping over his heart when he did so. “Doing?”
“Yeah. You’re here — again, following me to my car — again. What’s that about?”
His eyes widened. He hadn’t realized he would be called out for trying to help. “Oh, I... uh... Well, I thought it would be nice to escort you to your car, that’s all.”