Green survived a tornado, but now the town faces a new stormone that threatens the schools!
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Rally 'Round Green
The Green Series
By Judy Christie
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Judy Christie
All rights reserved.
A sheriff's deputy says Melva Murphy assaulted her husband, Harry, when he complained about a meal she cooked. Melva says she thought the pepper spray was a good response to his request for more seasoning. Harry chose not to press charges.
—The Green News-Item
A steady stream of people filed past the stranger, but he never spoke, even when jostled.
Scanning the crowd and occasionally jotting something in a small notepad, he didn't seem to be looking for anyone, just looking. He was dressed more for a business meeting than a pep rally and was definitely an odd addition to this Green gathering.
"Lois! Is there room up there for us?"
My friend Kevin interrupted my spying, waving as she yelled. Her toddler son, Asa Corinthian, gave a delighted squeal and ran toward me, pulling his mother up the ten or so wooden rows. The duo wove through friends, neighbors, and Kevin's patients, the boy trying to work loose from his mother's hand and calling my name in his childish voice.
"Do you always have to sit on the top row?" Kevin asked as Asa plopped down in my lap. She was, of course, not breathing hard and had the casual, sophisticated look I couldn't achieve if my life depended on it. She smelled like Dove soap and her dark hair was swept into a French twist.
"These are the best seats in the house," I said, kissing the little boy's head. "I get some of my best story ideas up here."
Kevin rolled her eyes. "Quit acting like you're working. You're admiring that good-looking husband of yours. Look, Asa, there's Coach Chris." She waved at Chris, who was looking handsome as he stood under the basketball goal.
Her son squirmed, giggled, and yelled. My husband probably couldn't hear Asa over the hubbub of Green residents, but a broad smile crossed his face as he gave a thumbs-up sign before turning toward a row of chairs and a handmade lectern.
My eyes went back to the stranger, who stepped out to the edge of the court and watched Chris walk over to a small group of teachers, all wearing Green Rabbits T-shirts. Briefly the man settled on the end of the front row, adjusting his trouser legs, but then stood and brushed off his pants, a frown marring his classic good looks.
Members of the student council and honor society milled around the end of the court, flirting with cheerleaders. A teen from Grace Chapel waved to me and did a series of back flips.
"Don't you think those skirts are a little too short?" I pointed to the pep squad.
"They're adorable," Kevin said. "Much cuter than the uniforms we had when I was in school here."
"You won't think they're quite so cute when Asa gets ready to date." I gave her son, eager to get down to the court, a hug.
"Aren't you rushing things a bit? He's not even in kindergarten yet."
"Time goes fast," I said. "It'll be fun to watch him play for Chris, won't it?" Kevin smiled and seemed to gaze into the future at Asa as a teenager. With Chris and me already approaching forty, we would be in our fifties by then. Oh my!
The high school and middle school bands marched in, cymbals clashing, as we chatted. Honor students, many of whom were in Chris's history classes, passed out agendas, reproduced on the school's ancient photocopier. The elementary school choir lined up at center court, mirroring the big smile their director gave.
"This is one of my favorite events of the year." Kevin studied the program. "I know every one of these children."
"The town's pediatrician usually knows the kids," I said.
"True, but I've known their parents and their grandparents, too. There's something special about the January Rabbit Rally."
"Part musical, part athletic exhibition, part awards ceremony," I said. "What else could you wish for?"
"As far back as I can remember, this has been a tradition in Green," Kevin said. "Look at those darling little children standing near the big kids. It won't be long till those little ones will be the big ones...."
"Now who's rushing things?"
My beautiful friend picked up her son and bounced him on her knee, her voice tender. "Asa, that's one of the many reasons Mommy wants to raise you in Green. We've been doing this since I was in kindergarten. We'll be doing it when your children are in kindergarten."
The boy giggled and reached for Kevin's gold-hoop earring, oblivious to the tears glistening in her eyes.
"You're awfully nostalgic tonight," I said. "Is everything OK?"
"I feel sentimental." She kissed the top of Asa's head. "It finally seems as though things are settling down after the tornado. Normal is probably too strong a word, but nights like tonight sure feel good."
I felt the emotion, too.
"With things almost back to normal, I thought you might bring Terrence tonight." I nudged my shoulder against hers.
Kevin shot me a mild mind-your-business look. "You said you were going to quit trying to push us together. He's overloaded with cases and can't drive up to Green all the time."
"You're keeping him at arm's length," I said. Terrence D'Arbonne was a handsome, high-profile lawyer in Alexandria who had helped me with a legal jam at the paper. He adored Kevin and Asa.
In her early thirties, Kevin insisted she had her hands full with her adopted child, the challenges of being the only African-American doctor in town, and staying connected with her parents. I wanted her to fall in love and get married, the way I had.
"They're getting ready to start the ceremony," Kevin said.
"Nice change of subject."
* * *
The crowd quieted as the principal walked to the middle of the gym, nearly tripping over the microphone cord, resulting in a loud squealing noise. The children's choir members covered their ears, and one youngster bolted for his mother, never returning for the musical numbers.
Eugene Ellis had been Green's principal since Chris was in school, head of the elementary, middle and high schools, housed on the same campus. In his mid-sixties, he had dressed up for this occasion, wearing a Rabbits golf shirt instead of the regular school T-shirt.
He smiled and greeted the audience like a grandfather saying hello to his grandchildren, firing them up as much as the cheerleaders had.
"I bring greetings from Mayor Eva Hillburn, who is out of town on city business. She sends her congratulations on the excellent school year under way and her best wishes for the semester ahead." The crowd applauded loudly, drowning out the squawking of the public address system. "Green has the hardest-working student body and faculty you will find anywhere."
Teachers and administrators, including the assistant principal who had started after the Christmas break, handed out awards, bringing rambunctious applause. The final honor brought the gym to its feet.
"The award for top scholar-athlete goes to Anthony Cox," Mr. Ellis said. "Anthony, you show courage, leadership, and academic excellence. You epitomize what a Green senior should be."
"Oh," I murmured, watching the tall, muscular young man I knew so well walk forward. Without a father and surviving the abuse of his mother's former boyfriend, Anthony never gave up. "He's such a great guy."
"He's already overcome more than most of us ever will," Kevin said.
Molly, part-time newspaper employee, college student and Anthony's girlfriend, cheered and clapped. My employee Tammy, photographing the event for the News-Item, let out one of her ear-piercing whistles.
The unknown man neither smiled nor clapped, making my mind drift from the program.
"Don't look right now, Kevin, but do you know that guy by the door?" I spoke right into her ear, trying to be heard over the noise.
She immediately turned, and I made instant eye contact with the man.
"I said, don't look," I hissed.
"I couldn't help it." She acted as though she hadn't been caught staring. "I don't recall ever seeing him."
"He's taking notes. I wonder if he could be a reporter from out-of-town."
"He's dressed way too nice to be a reporter," Kevin said.
"He could be a television announcer doing a follow-up," I said, ignoring her dig. "With the anniversary of the tornado coming up, we'll probably have another group of journalists in town."
"Maybe he's trying to scoop you," she said. "Isn't that what you hotshot newspaper owners call it?"
I threw her a look similar to the ones she gave me when I meddled about Terrence. "No one scoops The Green News-Item on its home turf."
* * *
In the commotion of the post-rally reception, Iris Jo, my office manager and former neighbor on Route Two, grabbed my arm.
"Can you serve the punch?" She sounded agitated, rare for her. "The new assistant principal was supposed to, but I can't find her anywhere."
"At your service," I said. "Don't you need to sit down for a while?"
"Lois, I've told you before. I'm a cancer patient, not a former prisoner of war. I feel great, and I'll feel even better when you stand over there and ladle small amounts of ginger ale and lime sherbet into those cute paper cups."
"Yikes!" a voice said behind me. "Iris sounded like me there for a minute." Tammy snapped a picture of us.
"This is my first event as president of the Booster Club, and things are out of sync," Iris said. "I need to go make sure the pep squad hasn't set the popcorn machine on fire. Take care of the punch, please."
Assuming my position at the bowl, I filled dozens of cups, Iris Jo swooping in to add giant plastic bottles of ginger ale. "Try to stretch it," she whispered. "Our club funds are running low, and the turnout's large, as always."
"Should I start charging per cup?" I joked. "Some people have had thirds."
"Kids," she said with a soft laugh.
"I'm talking about the adults."
She walked off, trim and healthy despite her surgery and months of chemotherapy.
"The Booster Club can carry out a theme, can't they?" Tammy asked, handing me a bag of popcorn that had been dyed green.
While I chewed, uncertain about eating green popcorn, she took photos of Anna Grace, the newspaper's food writer, serving the last slices of a green cake. The older woman promised a parent she would include the recipe in next week's column, and visited with a woman who had called to complain about the newspaper's "poor coverage" of garden club activities.
"E-mail me your favorite cake recipes," Anna Grace said. "I've heard your chocolate pound cake never turns out dry." The woman, who had been cranky with me, glowed at the compliment.
"Hi, Mrs. Craig." A deep, affectionate voice spoke right into my ear, sending shivers down my spine.
"Hello, Coach Craig." I leaned up to give Chris a peck on the lips. Although it had only been a few hours since I had talked to him, I felt my heart speed up—I was still amazed he was my husband. "Could I interest you in a cup of green punch?"
"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw you serving punch," he said, gulping the drink. "I thought you had to leave early to write editorials."
"Apparently the new assistant principal is AWOL, and I can't say 'no' to Iris Jo," I said and dabbed at melted sherbet on Chris's upper lip.
Wearing sherbet or not, he looked every bit the experienced coach as he turned to visit with a parent. A line of people interrupted our chat, slapping him on the back and saying how much they were enjoying basketball season.
I wasn't the only one in Green who loved Chris Craig.
"I suppose I'd better circulate," he said. "Am I permitted to kiss the kitchen help again?" "Most definitely." I leaned in for a brief embrace.
A sound like a pack of howling dogs erupted, and I looked over to see most of the basketball team cheering us on with an annoying chant.
"Don't pay any attention to them, Lois," Molly said, walking up hand-in-hand with Anthony.
"They're immature," the basketball player said with a grin and hung his head shyly when we congratulated him on his honor.
"Do I still get to write the story on the rally?" Molly asked. Wearing one of Anthony's many jerseys, she held up a reporter's notebook. "Katy is going to be so jealous."
"That's what she gets for going away to school. If you have time, the story's yours," I said.
"Be sure to get quotes from Mr. Ellis."
"That man is a great principal," Chris said. "This school means as much to him now as it did when I started teaching nearly twenty years ago."
As the teens wandered off, Chris checked his watch with a slight frown. "I've got to run to a faculty meeting," he said.
"Tonight?" I asked. "After teaching all day?"
"The new assistant principal has set up committees for something, and Eugene says we need to pay attention to her." Chris glanced around to make sure no one was listening. "She's a hot-shot education expert sent in by the state. I think he's a little put off by her."
"Maybe it should be the other way around," I said. "I hope you don't have to stay too late." I reached up to give him another quick kiss.
"Is that appropriate?" A terse female voice caused me to jump back from Chris, surprised that someone stood so near. It was the new administrator, a displeased look on her not-a-day-over-thirty face. In slacks and a blazer, she carried an air of authority, her long hair pulled back with a silver barrette and a stern slant to her mouth.
"Newlyweds," I said, forcing a laugh and holding out my hand. "I'm Lois Barker Craig, Chris's wife. I apologize that I haven't gotten by to meet you."
She gave my hand a quick shake. "Priscilla Robinson, curriculum specialist for Green." Her clipped tone was colder than the sherbet in the punch I had been ladling. "Coach Craig, it does not set a good example for you to display affection at a school gathering."
"You're kidding, right?" I asked before Chris could respond.
"Lois ..." Chris said in the soft warning tone he used when he thought I was about to say something he would regret.
"It's time for the meeting, if you can pull yourself away, Coach," the woman said.
The look on Chris's face was one usually reserved for disrespectful players on other teams and the occasional hostile coach. Clearly not intimidated by the new administrator, he hugged me. "I'll see you at the house. Be careful driving home."
The woman practically growled as she set off to corral other faculty members, including Mr. Ellis, who laughed and talked with a group of parents until she snared him. He looked dismayed but turned to follow Priscilla Robinson like she was the Pied Piper.
Chris looked back at me, smiled, and winked. I grimaced, perturbed by the woman's manner.
"She's a piece of work, isn't she?" Tammy asked, following my eyes. "She's got an ego bigger that Bouef Parish."
Sipping a cup of punch and fuming, I agreed and surveyed the room. Anna Grace and her brand-new husband, Bud, the agriculture columnist, were cleaning up cake crumbs. Iris Jo and Stan, a newspaper couple who had wed only days after last year's tornado, picked up stray programs and other trash. Molly and Anthony emptied big plastic garbage cans.
As usual, everyone pitched in, and Priscilla Robinson was as out of place as a tropical fish in one of my husband's catfish ponds.
A movement from the kitchen caught my eye, and I turned to see the stranger opening oven doors, examining the seal on the refrigerator, even trying the sprayer on the commercial dishwasher.
I watched until I couldn't stand it any longer and walked toward the serving line, where many of the students got free breakfasts and lunches each day.
"May I help you find something?" I asked.
"I've already found what I was looking for," he said and walked past me and into the foyer, near the office.
Curious and uneasy, I followed a few steps behind him as he slipped through the front doors and into the night.
* * *
Tammy was arguing in the lobby. Her voice had the not-quite-but-almost rude tone she used when she was pushed.
"As I have said three times, we are not set up for delivery to motel rooms. However, we do have newspaper racks around town."
Holly Beth, my one-year-old Yorkie, growled from the chair where she slept, apparently annoyed at having her nap interrupted by newspaper business. Perhaps I should have left her in the kitchen at home, but I had gotten used to her coming to work with me.
Excerpted from Rally 'Round Green by Judy Christie. Copyright © 2011 Judy Christie. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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