It isn't always Big Brother who's watching. Sometimes it's ...
Legacy of Fortitude, Book Three
Legacy of Fortitude, Book Three
January 30, 2001
On the last Monday in January, three weeks into the new semester, Ainsley Kincaid reached her limit in history class.
Professor Douglas Hobie, his thin face set with drooping eyes and framed with fly-away hair, put Ainsley in mind of the character actor Vincent Schiavelli. He delivered his lectures in a droning, nasal, northeastern monotone that lulled some students to near stupor. But it wasn't his delivery that bothered Ainsley; it was the content.
She took it as long as she could. Her patience ran out when he said, "Of course, the entire South is still racist, but there are pockets of racism that are immeasurably worse than the status quo, and this university is surrounded by one of them. Verona, Georgia."
Fury flashed through Ainsley head to toe and she slammed her history book closed with a loud POW! that rocked the classroom like a small explosion. Her classmates turned startled expressions toward her as Hobie's lecture abruptly ceased mid-word and he stared at her, open-mouthed. Total silence descended upon the class.
Her face hard and her hands trembling, Ainsley scooped up her books and purse. Without speaking a syllable, without so much as a glance toward anyone, she flounced out of the room.
* * *
At eight-thirty, Harry Talton skidded into the computer lab in the Morrisette Building and skimmed the room. Between eight and nine in the morning, the cubicles began to fill up and remained occupied until about four p.m. Only about half were occupied now and he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hey, Harry!" A fellow who'd entered a step or two behind Harry called a greeting. Harry turned and gave him an absent nod. The kid was familiar, but his name didn't come readily to mind.
"Hey, what's up? How was break?"
The kid grinned. 'Bout killed me to have to come back. Say, how're you making out with that little blond Baptist?"
Harry shook his head in pretended perplexity.
"You know," the kid said. "Town girl. Ann something."
Harry allowed recognition to dawn on his face. "Oh, Ainsley." He shrugged. "She's just somebody I tutored briefly."
Another grin, this one knowing. "Yeah, right. Tutored her in the arts of love? Or tutored yourself in the art of getting put off?"
Harry didn't dignify that with a reply, and strode to a cubicle in the last row. He liked his privacy online, even if his surfing was usually benign. He logged on and following established routine, typed the URL to his favorite anti-racism usenet group and skimmed the entries.
The kid's description of his nonexistent relationship with Ainsley Kincaid was closer to reality than he wanted to admit. It was extremely frustrating. She was not his type -- a straightlaced Southern Baptist churchgoer, daughter of missionaries in Central America, political and social conservative, a perfect fit for this cultural backwater.
Harry was from Ohio. He had enrolled in Verona State specifically for the purpose of learning first hand about rightwingers, especially the Southern contingent, in order to circumvent their ideology. His first few months in south Georgia had been an eye-opener in more ways that one. Political conservativism, he'd learned, was directly related to the pervasiveness of religion, which brought home to him what he'd heard from other progressives, but had not witnessed until now -- that socialism's primary barrier was religion, with the traditional family a close second.
But the other eye-opener -- actually a jaw dropping revelation -- was that these people were happy. Oh, there were a few dissidents and misfits, but not enough to change the tenor of the general population. These Southerners found fulfillment for their lives in beliefs and activities Harry sneered at, and eschewed those things Harry considered essential.
It was also a problem that he hadn't expected to be so attracted to a little Southern Baptist girl. It had taken great effort for all of last semester to make a dent in her defenses -- partly because he had to appear as if he weren't making such an effort at all. Most of their dates had been casual -- going for sodas at McDonalds or the student center after a tutoring session. Just before break, she'd finally accepted a couple of actual dates for pizza and a movie.
Since returning to school three weeks earlier, they hadn't gone out at all, and he was playing not-really-interested. In truth, he was growing mildly obsessed with her, and it was never far from his mind how he might break through her defenses.
His thoughts of Ainsley were interrupted by a usenet discussion of -- unbelievable! A cross burning over the weekend? In this day and age? He speed-read the thread. In Pensacola, not four hours to the south west from where he sat. Unbelievable.
That was the only item of real interest until he reached a discussion about a notice from the Southern Social Justice Group in Biloxi, Mississippi. They would begin taking applications in March for a very limited number of summer internships as well as for several volunteers to help upgrade their files, and filing system.
Harry was lost in thought for a minute. He'd passed through the Mississippi Coast a couple of times on trips to New Orleans, traveling along the scenic route, Highway 90 rather than the Interstate. The beach and ocean, the casinos, the grand old houses shaded with gnarled oak trees that overlooked the Gulf -- the mental visuals filled him with a surprising wanderlust.
He set an internal calendar for March, but he would start immediately to see about securing a couple of those internships for himself and Ainsley. It wouldn't do to drop the suggestion on her all at once. He'd have to build up to it gradually. But the idea of spending summer on the Mississippi seacoast with her -- the possibilities -- was too great to resist.
He started to go find her. She would be in Hobie's class in the Crenshaw Complex and would get out about the time it would take him to get there. But he thought better of it immediately. Couldn't look like he purposely tracked her down to tell her about the possibility of a summer in Mississippi together. It would be better to casually run into her in the student center at lunch, and mention it offhand.
* * *
The student center was moderately crowded when Harry sauntered in and noticed, without seeming to, that Ainsley was seated halfway across the room at a tiny bistro table for two. But the other chair, he noted smugly, was empty. He paused to talk to a small crowd of girls he was acquainted with on the way to the food counter.
"Hey, Glenda, how's it going?"
"Harry, you yankee! I'm fine, how were your holidays? Did you go back up to the frozen tundra?"
"Now, now," he wiggled his index finger at her. "Ohio is not the frozen tundra. There's lots of the globe north of Lancaster."
"Lancaster, Ohio?" said a girl he didn't know. "Home of Kerosene Billy Sherman. Boo, hiss."
"He's one of our city's notables," Harry rejoined, giving her an obviously phony smile. Unbelievable how these hicks and rednecks still took on so about the civil war.
"Well if you-- Who is that?" The three girls seemed to lose interest in the conversation, and in him, in an instant. All three looked past him with wide eyes and he turned to see who, or what, had so quickly grabbed their attention. A man he didn't recognize stepped through the wide entry and moved to the side, out of the traffic path, his eyes roaming the lunch crowd.
He cut quite a figure. His camel-colored trench coat, which reached the middle of his calves, was unbuttoned, the ends of the tie belt tucked oh so casually into the garment's slash pockets. The coat fell open just enough to show the natty garments beneath it -- a dark brown tweed suit, beige tattersall checked shirt and a brown silk tie. Harry, a trendy dresser himself, noticed things like that.
The fellow appeared to be in his mid to late twenties. He was uncommonly handsome, which explained his monopoly of Harry's female acquaintances. A mane of ash brown hair swept back from his forehead. His dark brown eyes ceased roaming the room, as he evidently found who he was looking for. He sauntered -- with a saunter that would put Harry's to shame -- into the crowd. A mild jolt of curiosity hit Harry when the fellow stopped at Ainsley's table.
He said something Harry couldn't make at this distance. A smile brightened his face and put a sparkle in his eyes at Ainsley's reaction. She looked up and her eyes widened as her jaw dropped to admit a deep gasp -- oxygen to fuel the squeal that followed.
"John Mark!" she cried, shooting up from her chair to throw her arms around his neck. He gave her a squeeze in return, and before stepping back to indulge a chuckle at her reaction. Harry caught Ainsley's excited, "What are you doing here? Can you have lunch with me?" as she took her seat. The stranger sat opposite her, and Harry caught, "...already had a bite..." in a strong Southern dialect filtering through the ambient rumble of talk that filled the room.
The bolt of jealousy that shot through Harry was completely unexpected. He turned to the lunch counter, relieved to notice that the three girls he'd had been talking to had disappeared. He stepped up to the counter and told the clerk, "Give me the quickest sandwich and cola you've got." He pulled out his wallet, extracted a bill and left it on the counter when she brought him a pre-made sandwich from the cooler and a canned cola. He took them and turned to scan the area.
He spotted several empty places at tables and booths on the other side of the room, and he headed that way. His route through the dining area would take him right by Ainsley's table. As he neared it, he glanced down, and feigned recognition and mild surprise when he saw her.
"Oh, hey, Ainsley," he said, pausing his trek. "How're your classes going?" He let his eyes roam with feigned half-interest to John Mark, who looked back at him with a neutral expression.
"Hey, Harry. I'm dropping history. I've had all of Professor Hobie I can take. Other than that, not bad. This is John Mark Jordan. He's one of my other-brothers I told you about. John Mark, this is my friend and tutor, Harry Talton."
John Mark nodded and held out his hand. Harry hastily laid his plastic-wrapped sandwich on the table and completed the handshake, noting that Jordan's grip was firm and confident.
"Good to meet you," John Mark said.
"Pleasure's mine," Harry rejoined, wondering whether this guy was the preacher's son or the all-American halfback's son. "What brings you to this corner of the swamp?"
"He's here as a favor to my brother, Shelby," Ainsley explained. "Checking on my parents' house. The renters moved out not long ago and somebody else wants to move in."
Pretty fancy duds for home maintenance.
But John Mark explained. "I'm on my way to a business fair in Tallahassee, and detoured here to check on the Kincaids' house -- and visit with Little Sister, here. From there, I head up to an international marketing expo in Boston."
Ainsley made a face. "Beantown. Ugh."
John Mark gave her an indulgent smile and a wink. "You're not the one who has to go, sweet shang."
Yes, thank goodness and good riddance.
Ainsley had mentioned Shelby and her other-brothers, John Mark and Randy, and how they had come by that designation when she was four; but this was the first time Harry had met any of them.
He had been in Verona since last summer and knew that rednecks and yokels made up a sizable proportion of the local population, and he was taken aback by this fellow's appearance and presence. Jordan would be a better fit for the cover of Gentleman's Quarterly than the South Georgia Fishing and Hunting Magazine.
Harry nodded and picked up his sandwich. "Have a good trip," he said, and to Ainsley, "See you later, Blondie."
He continued to across the room to an empty spot in a booth occupied by some people he knew and struck up a conversation that appeared to absorb him. He was very proud of himself for not glancing toward Ainsley and her other-brother -- yeah, right -- the whole time it took him to eat. When he was finished, they were nowhere to be seen, and two nerdy freshmen were taking the table they had vacated.
* * *
Ainsley and John Mark stepped out into the brisk afternoon air and were stopped short by a gathering of people crowding the sidewalk and spilling onto the grass. They paused and waited for an opening.
"So that guy back there, the tutor. You said he's your friend."
"More like friendly acquaintance."
"Not a boyfriend, though."
"Well, aren't you nosy?"
"Old habits die hard. Just looking out for little sister."
"Yeah, and it's nice. Nobody's done that in a long time.... We've gone out a couple of times, pizza and a movie. That's all." She paused to change the subject. "I want to go with you to look at the house."
"Don't you have a class or something?"
"I'll ditch it."
People were milling around but not clearing the sidewalk. John Mark skimmed the growing crowd.
"Beats me," Ainsley said.
"Well, hello again," came a voice behind them. They glanced back to see Harry approaching.
John Mark noticed that the smile accompanying Ainsley's "Hi" was polite. Almost perfunctory.
"You know, I thought a bit about what you said in there. About dropping Hobie's class. I don't think that's a good idea. I'll help you with it if there's a problem with his teaching."
"It's not that."
"You really need that course, though, don't you?"
John Mark said, "What's the problem with the professor?"
"He hates the South and he hates Verona. Why would he even take a job here?"
"I don't think he hates it," Harry said. "He might just feel like an outsider." He gave a mirthless chuckle. "I can relate to that."
Ainsley looked skeptical but didn't reply.
The milling of the crowd slowed and people gradually stood in place. Farther ahead, the trio could see a woman step up on a temporary platform. Two others took positions behind her and hoisted a banner on poles that read "SAY NO TO LOWE!"
Ainsley's brow furrowed. "What does that mean?"
"Looks like an impromptu demonstration against Griffin Lowe's visit to the campus next week."
"Independent film producer and director. Very conservative religious nut on the order of Kirk Cameron."
John Mark's eyes narrowed at Harry's description, but he said nothing.
"Well, that explains the protest." She glanced about. "Let's see if there's a way around this mob."
As they moved to go, a woman stepped to Ainsley out of the crowd. Two men stood beside her. "Well, hey, Harry. What are you doing with little Miss Angry Verona?"
Harry gave a slight shrug.
"Excuse me." Ainsley said. She tried to step around the newcomers, but they moved to block her exit. A look of dawning comprehension came to the woman's face.
"Why, Harry, is this your pupil? The little blonde Baptist you talked so much about last term? Is she a huge fan of Griffin Lowe holier than thou flicks?"
Harry's lips parted, as if he wanted to speak, but nothing came.
The woman glanced to her companions, laughter in her eyes, and back to Ainsley. "So you're a Verona girl? Is that why you got so upset in Hobie's class this morning?
She gave Harry a pointed look. "She made a scene in history class this morning when Hobie called this town racist. Slammed her book closed and made everybody in the class jump outta their skin. Can you imagine getting upset about such an obvious truth?"
Again, Ainsley attempted to step around them, glancing at Harry and muttering, "Let's get out of here."
"So are you a racist, Ainsley? A supremist on top of being a Jebus freak ?" Her expression grew mocking.
Done with watching Harry's indecision, John Mark stepped between the woman and Ainsley.
"Excuse me. We're just leaving." His glance swiftly swept the three, returned to the woman stayed there. Reaching behind him, clasped a hand around Ainsley's wrist and took a step.
The woman stepped aside. She and her sidekicks silently allowed Ainsley and her companions to depart.
At the edge of the crowd, they slowed and John Mark remarked, "Cordial, mannerly folks, aren't they? If they're students here, what's happening to this place?"
Harry finally found his voice. "I don't think they meant..."
John Mark looked at him sharply.
"...anything..." He dried up under John Mark's look of disgust, but then tried for a save. "But you're right, they were certainly rude." He glanced at Ainsley. "Was she right? Is that why you quit Hobie's class?"
"Yes. He said Verona is racist."
"Well, he may have poi--"
John Mark's sibilant sound of impatience stopped the comment. He slid his hand around Ainsley's upper arm. "Come on, Little Sister. Let's blow this joint."
They walked away without another word to Harry.
* * *
Harry stood for a moment, awash in humiliation, and watched Ainsley and Jordan walk away. He still felt dumbstruck by Jody Pence's haughty, prying questions, and annoyed that his secret obsession with Ainsley -- not to mention his "blonde Baptist" nickname -- had been revealed. Whether that would set back any chances he had with her remained to be seen.
But the most embarrassing thing was his pathetic showing in comparison to the smartly attired visitor. Jordan had stood slightly aloof as the confrontation with Jody and her companions played out -- until Ainsley verbally expressed a desire to leave and was met with mocking and insults.
It was a lesson in the lost art of chivalry, the way Jordan had stepped in front of Ainsley, shielding her and reaching back to take her arm, his eyes never leaving the bullies before him. But the most fascinating and annoying thing was the change that had come to his face; the steeliness of his gaze, the slight flaring of his nostrils, the barely perceptible compression of his lips.
His words were harmless enough, but his voice had lowered in both volume and pitch, and carried a tone of authority. And though it wasn't the authority of rank or position, it was real, perhaps the most real, and oldest, authority of all -- that of the male protecting the female.
Macho crap. Chivalry on steroids. Harry had consciously eschewed the macho interpretation of maleness long ago, and had not been impressed with it since.
Remembering how Ainsley had sweetly but effectively defied his influence last fall and winter, and how it infuriated him, he began to think there might be something to learn from Jordan's performance today.
With his embarrassment beginning to ebb, he stepped to the edge of the crowd to listen to the protest.
He heard Jody coming up behind him several seconds before she got there. Her two companions were nowhere to be seen.
"So Harry, that was the little Southern Baptist gal who had you in such a tizzy last term, wasn't it?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "She didn't have me in a tizzy. I tutored her. We went out a couple of times."
"That's not quite how I remember it."
"Well, that's how it was."
"You tutoring her again? Going out again?"
He turned to look at her with an expression of exaggerated patience. "And that's your business because....?"
"Ooooh, touchy, touchy. Just curious. So, is the hunk with her putting the nix on any future plans you might have? Who was that, anyway? He looked like some kind of beefcake TV preacher.... "
"He's her brother. Sort of."
"Brother? That's no barrier to romance down here in the Deep South, is it? What's a sort-of brother, anyway?"
"He's her brother's best friend. Or one of them. There's another one I haven't met, or her brother, either, for that matter. They all grew up together. And he's no preacher, but he's likely the son of a preacher. Or a college football star. One or the other. Now excuse me. I have to go."
Excerpt is unedited and may differ from published version.
Copyright © 2015 by Connie Chastain
Copyright © 2015 by Connie Chastain