“Many are the plans in a man’s heart,
but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”
Caedmon Nash kept walking, trying to do what his mother had said and not react to the put-down he never got used to hearing and the bully who never tired of saying it.
“I told you to stay out of my neighborhood!”
Caedmon spun around in the middle of Shady Lane and glared at Abel Drummond and his jerky friends.
Abel took a step forward and shoved Caedmon in the chest. “You got a problem being called Skunk? ’Cause that’s what you are. Black daddy. White mama. And you stink like—”
The other three seventh grade boys chimed in with every vulgar word for excrement Caedmon had ever heard.
“I don’t stink,” he finally said.
“Do too.” Abel’s face wore a derisive grin. “Everybody knows skunks stink up every place they go. That’s why we don’t want you comin’ in this neighborhood.”
“It takes too long to go the other way. If I’m late gettin’ home, I’ll be in big trouble.”
Abel snickered. “What’s your hurry? We all know what your old lady’s doin’ when you’re in school. I hear she likes them darkies so much she doesn’t even charge ’em.”
The other boys guffawed.
Caedmon felt his face turn hot, and it was all he could do not to grab Abel and hit him over and over the way he had imagined doing a hundred times. “Shut up! You don’t even know what you’re talking about.” Caedmon started to walk away.
“You’re not goin’ anywhere till you pay the toll.” Abel glanced back at the other boys. “Let’s show the skunk what the price is for cuttin’ through here.”
Caedmon thought his heart would beat out of his chest. In the next instant he kicked Abel in the shin, then sprinted to the top of the hill, aware of footsteps pounding the pavement behind him.
He ran across the churchyard at First Methodist and out into the cemetery, then weaved his way through the maze of headstones, racing toward the far side of the tall hedge that formed a fence around the property. His eyes found the grave marked “Mills” and he cut in behind it, then dropped to his knees and crawled through an opening at the base of the shrubs, branches scraping his face and arms. He came out the other side, scrambled to his feet, and kept running.
Caedmon heard shouted racial slurs and looked over his shoulder, relieved to see no one chasing him. He stopped and hung his head, his hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. For once, he was glad to be the skinniest kid in the class.
“Don’t matter what they say about us,” his mother had said. “Just ignore ’em and mind your own business. We don’t need no trouble.”
Easy for her to say! She wasn’t the one who had to listen to their put-downs and big fat lies. And what did she know about being laughed at and spit on and having her face shoved in the toilet? How he hated Abel and his stupid friends!
Caedmon shuffled across Harbor Street and over the railroad tracks toward the trailer park, his mind screaming with comebacks he wished he’d had the courage to say. He kicked a rock and sent it rolling into the culvert, feeling at the same time anger and sadness that his father wasn’t around and he’d have to figure this out on his own.
Caedmon wet his fingers and wiped the bloody scratches on his arms. It wasn’t fair they could gang up on him and there was nothing he could do about it. Just as soon as he could figure out a way to fight back, he would shut them all up—permanently!
“Leave it to Beau to turn this into a competition!” Brandon Jones jumped up from the couch and stood leaning on the bookshelves in Kelsey Hartman’s apartment, his hands in his pockets, his irritation turning to perspiration under his cashmere sweater.
Kelsey sank into the back of the leather couch. “He’s just jealous. But it’s not as though Beau Richards is the only one who wants to head up the South Atlantic Region. It’s an enviable position.”
“The job was offered to me, Kel. It’s not as though I tried to ace him out.”
“He’ll get over it. Besides, you’re the right choice for the job. You relate to people much better than he does.” Kelsey got up and slid into Brandon’s arms. “I’m so proud of you. I can hardly wait to tell Mother and Daddy that I’m marrying a regional vice president.”
Regional vice president. Brandon imagined himself in a coat and tie, sitting around the boardroom table, sipping ice water and discussing the latest trends in women’s fashions. “There’s a lot to consider. The corporate office is a more structured environment than I’m used to.”
“Just think what this could mean to our future. Once we’re married, we could live nicely on your salary and bank mine. We’d have a healthy down payment for a house in no time. And I could stay home when we start having kids. It’s an absolute blessing.” Kelsey pushed back and looked up at him, her eyes probing. “What’s wrong? You don’t seem excited.”
“It’s a great opportunity, no question…but it’ll mean putting in more hours. And a lot of Saturdays. That doesn’t leave much time for recreation.”
“For heaven’s sake, it won’t kill us to cut out some of the backpacking and rock climbing. And we can always work out at the gym to stay in shape. We’re talking about securing your future—our future. I can’t believe you’re worried about all that.”
“Well, it’s the outdoor stuff that keeps me sane.”
“Gee, thanks a lot.” Kelsey wiggled out of his arms and flung open the balcony doors, then went outside and stood with her back to him, her arms folded.
“Honey, come back here. You know what I mean.”
Brandon walked up behind her, put his arms around her, his chin resting on her shoulder. “You’re the love of my life. Without you, nothing else would matter to me.”
“But it should. Why can’t you be excited for yourself because you’ve been offered a well-deserved promotion?”
“I am. On one level.”
“It’d be a huge adjustment spending my workday cooped up in an office, breathing recirculated air and connecting with nature from tinted windows overlooking downtown Raleigh.”
“It’s one of the best views in the city. And even if you have to work Saturdays, we’d have evenings together without the pressure of your having to leave town again.”
“I know. But it’s not like being on the road’s been a hardship.”
“I hate not seeing you five days in a row.”
“We managed to fall in love, didn’t we? From my perspective, the time we’ve spent together’s been great.”
“It has, but I would dread you being gone that much after we’re married. This promotion would mean no more traveling. And you aren’t that crazy about merchandising the stores anyway.”
Brandon pulled her a little closer. “No, but it’s allowed me freedom to set my own schedule. And there’re things I look forward to on the road.”
“Well, like taking secondary highways through small communities and eating at hometown cafes…stopping at historical markers and scenic overlooks…driving toward the sunrise when the sky’s orangey pink. Sometimes I have to pull over and watch. There’ve been times on the road when I’ve actually felt closer to God than when I’m in church.”
“Which is just as well since you’ve missed the past three Sundays.” Kelsey turned around in his arms and held his gaze for longer than he was comfortable. “You wouldn’t even consider this promotion if we weren’t engaged, would you?”
“We are engaged, so it’s a moot point.”
“Not really. What affects you affects me. You’re Mr. Enthusiastic at work, and everyone thinks you’re a company man. Are you?”
Brandon kissed the top of her head. “What kind of question is that? I’ve invested seven years at Mavis and Stein.”
“Why do you have a totally different attitude about your work when we’re alone?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re completely dispassionate about it—almost indifferent.”
Brandon arched his eyebrows. “You’ve never once heard me complain about the company. It’s just that dealing in women’s apparel isn’t my idea of something significant.”
“Being a regional Vice President would certainly be significant. And the salary and benefits would be amazing. You’d be great at it.”
“Tell that to Beau the blowhard.”
“The real reason he’s upset is because you can take it or leave it when he wants it so badly.”
“Everyone wants something badly. I can’t help it if he’s had his eye on this promotion. But if I turn it down, we all know I’ll never go any higher with the company.”
“But is that the only reason you’d consider it? What is it you want badly?”
“To make you happy,” he heard himself say.
“Well, this promotion would certainly do that. But only if you’re enthused about it.”
Brandon looked over her shoulder at the Raleigh skyline. “I will be, Kel. I just have to adjust my thinking. It was never really a goal of mine to be cooped up in an office all day.”
“That’s the second time you’ve used the words cooped up. If you didn’t expect to work in an office, why did you get a business degree?”
“I don’t know. Dad said it would open doors, and I just wanted to get through college. I started working in the catalog department because I needed a job, but I never actually chose this career. I just sort of eased into it. I kept telling myself it would grow on me, but it really hasn’t.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before? How are we supposed to set a wedding date before we know how much money we’ll—”
“Shhh.” Brandon gently put his finger to her lips. “Don’t worry. I’m going to accept the promotion. I just need to adjust my thinking.”
“Can you do that?”
He pulled her closer and avoided those questioning hazel eyes. “Sure. I can do anything for us.” A giant snowflake fell on his sleeve, and then another and another. He looked up into the January sky, which seconds later became a swirling mass of white. “Come on. We’d better go in.”
Kelsey linked her arm in his, her head against his shoulder, and went back in the apartment. “Just think, before this time next year, we could be married and living in our own home.”