5 Page Challenge
After losing her parents and husband, Gray Whittington had little reason to get up each morning until a co-worker convinces her to volunteer for a relief effort in Central Africa. Not only is the third-world way out of her comfort zone, but so is the dangerously handsome engineer in charge.
Pages 1 - _
It was sweltering, as it had been for an entire week. The window unit in my small classroom seemed more efficient at holding up stacks of old text books than cooling anything. My students melted in and out of consciousness, too hot to care about the discussion, and thankfully, too listless to chat with one another. I leaned against the front of my desk as was my habit when prying answers out of them.
“Okay guys, we’re focusing on chapters twenty-eight through thirty-eight. I know it’s miserable in here, so just bear with me.”
I shifted uncomfortably at the edge of the desk hoping the perspiration dripping down my thighs wasn’t leaving obscene wet spots on the back of my linen skirt. I plodded ahead with the lesson plan, perhaps less enthusiastic than my kids.
“Why don’t we start with the river crossing? Does anyone want to take a jab at why it’s significant?” I fanned myself with a paperback copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying thinking I might die from the heat.
Students stared, eyes glazed and clueless. Some peered out the window, some at the floor, anywhere to avoid eye contact with me. A few gave up the appearance of attentiveness altogether and slumped over their desks. Robert Pilman lounged at the back of the room, spindly legs jutting into the aisle. One arm rested on the countertop behind, and his fingers absently twirled a faded globe on the shelf.
“Does anyone know what happened when the Bundrens tried to cross the river?” I projected over the drone of two box fans blowing hot air from one corner of the room to the other.
Two heads snapped up, and one hand shot into the air.
“Um, they dropped the coffin they were carrying? That’s really all I remember Ms. Whittington."
And I did. I saw we were getting nowhere. The last week of school was a moot exercise. With grades due the next day, anything I assigned was busywork and my students kne wit better than I did. Suddenly exhausted, I surrendered.
“Here’s the deal.” All eyes were finally on me.
“We will delay discussion until Monday; however, you now have an assignment for the weekend.” Groans echoed off the open windows.
“A two-page bio on Faulkner by next class period. You're dismissed.”
The once lifeless bodies magically sprung up with renewed vigor, teenagers who had looked on the verge of dehydration and fatigue a second earlier now had all the energy their age usually afforded. As the room emptied, the atmosphere cooled by several degrees. Then a movement at the back of the disheveled rows caught my eye-- a spinning globe. I sauntered toward it, hypnotized by the motion then placed my hand upon the smooth surface.
When I lifted my hand again, Africa was revealed in bright atlas green. I traced a ribbon blue representing the Nile, following it south until my finger dipped into Lake Victoria. I read the word stamped there-- Uganda. My hand tingled unpleasantly.
I returned to my desk determined to ignore the violent images suddenly flooding my brain. Plopping into my desk chair, I yanked open the drawer where I hid my purse, retrieved my wallet, and distracted my tortured mind by imagining what awaited me in the cafeteria.
The aroma of disinfectant and canned corn wafted through the halls. The cafeteria buzzed with noise and excitement, and by some miracle the very students who were once incapable of speaking in complete sentences were presently shouting at the top of their lungs. I moved through the line as quickly as humanly possible then slipped out a side door. When I reached the staff break room, I pondered the sign by the door. It read Teacher’s Lounge in large, block lettering. Amused by the notion that teachers ever had time to lounge, I pushed open the door.
Tanya, my close friend and co-educator, waited at one of the small round tables.
“Hey, you’re early,” she said smiling. Our lunch schedules overlapped by fifteen minutes, so she spent the last half of her break with me, while I spent my first half with her.
“Yeah, my kids were brain dead so we cut out early. If maintenance doesn’t get that stupid unit fixed, I’m gonna drown in my own sweat.”
She laughed. I set my tray on the table and marveled at how much food was spread before her.
“Wow, you’re taking this ‘eating for two’ thing seriously, aren’t you?”
“Naturally,” she said, mouth full. “The way I figure, this makes up for all those years of dieting. I’m finally empowered to over-eat. It’s great.”
Tanya was amazing. I studied her profile as I began eating; her belly pooched enough to prevent her from pulling all the way up to the table. She was adorable, and deserved a happy pregnancy after all the years she’d been waiting and wanting. A little pang of envy furrowed my brow, but I shook it off. My time had come and gone without me even realizing it.
“So, you ready for the big trip?” she asked around a mouthful of chocolate cake.
“I guess. Ready as I’ll ever be,” I lied. “I have a few errands to run and it might be nice if I found the will to clean my house before I left. I wouldn’t want the kitchen entirely covered in mold when I get back.”
She smirked. She knew how compulsive I was, and that the word mold was code for two dishes left unwashed in the sink. She also knew I wasn’t ready and probably never would be. The trip was all her doing anyway, and though elated about her pregnancy, I wished it hadn’t forced me into taking her place.
She had been scheduled to travel with her husband Ron, an engineer. His corporation regularly deployed teams to any number of foreign countries, both paid staff and volunteers. According to Tanya, they carried out humanitarian efforts like digging wells, designing clinics, and improving living conditions village by village. She and her husband were bound for Africa until this February when she discovered she was pregnant. My eyes wandered to her baby bulge again and then to her antique silver wedding band.
Since this was her first-- a baby they’d tried seven years to conceive-- the happy couple chose to stay close to home. Ron secured a replacement within the company easily enough, but Tanya had trouble finding a substitute. Distressed by the fact I hadn’t travelled farther than my backyard in four years, she became convinced that fate chose me as her stand-in. It then became her personal crusade to get me out of the house-- way out of the house, as it turned out. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and fervently insisted no skills were necessary, other than my inborn ability to teach. “After all,” she’d preached on countless occasions, “that’s all I could have offered.”
Resisting her overtures only spurred arguments like, "How can you pass up a paid-in-full chance like this?" I knew she was right, and after an appropriate amount of sulking, I conceded. When I asked exactly where in Africa her answer left a hollow ache in the pit of my stomach-- Uganda.
I've been here only a few short days, but I miss you like mad. The hospital has assigned me to a local clinic walking distance of my hotel (you wouldn't qualify the place as a real hotel-- no chocolate mints). Of the patients I've seen so far, most require basic wound care, some more urgent than others, but none life threatening, at least not yet. I see hordes of children on a daily basis, half-dressed, under fed, and clinging to their mother's skirts. I can't help thinking of you when I look into their precious faces. The cconditions they grow up in would break your heart. Kampala is a far cry from Savannah.
Two days from now, I head farther north with the mobile care unit. Not to worry-- we'll be under armed escort the entire week. Surely there's nothing worse than a disgruntled warthog out there. When I return to the States, I’d like to talk about that little family you've been hinting at. Honestly, I'm not ready for it, but I know you are. You’re patient and smart enough for the both of us, and you’ll make one fantastic mom.
Don’t deserve you,
School was finally over. I celebrated by kicking off my heels and heading straight to the frig. My middle school students were already a week into their summer holiday, so now it was my turn to shout hallelujah. I planned to soak up what little was left of a mild, June evening by being as useless as possible. Sweet tea, a cold meatloaf sandwich and a good book was what I most wanted. On the way to the kitchen I stopped in front of my overflowing bookshelves in the narrow hallway between my living and dining rooms. I snagged a well-worn copy of Sense and Sensibility, blowing a regrettable amount of dust off the ledge before sneezing and walking away.
The kitchen wasn’t much better. The sink was as I’d left it this morning, a mess but I was in no mood to worry with dishes. I overlooked the dirty cereal bowls and coffee grounds, and poured myself an enormous glass of tea.
Balancing everything in my arms, I meandered to my favorite part of the house—the porch. A playful breeze sifted through the screens of the old porch making it the perfect refuge on summer evenings. I sunk into a chair, setting the plate across my lap. Pink and orange clouds streaked through the grey afternoon sky as the sun disappeared below the horizon leaving a trail of heat and color in its place. Trees stood black against the canvased sky, ever so many for a neighborhood this deep in the heart of the Atlanta. Their curving silhouettes put me in mind of tribal dancers swaying to and fro in oversized headdresses.
Again, I regretted saying yes to Tanya.
After a challenging day at school, I often took solace here among potted hydrangeas and becushioned furniture. From this quiet place, I lazily observed birds and squirrels fussing around in the towering oaks and somehow it restored my soul.
A half hour later the remnants of my sandwich sat on the delicate, rose-patterned plate where I’d stashed it on a low, wooden table at my feet. Living alone certainly has its advantages, I thought. For one thing, I could leave dishes lying around; I could parade around in my pajamas all day, or fall asleep right where I sat.
My eyes wandered from the gorgeous afterglow of sunset to the chipped paint across the ceiling. It badly needed a fresh coat of white, but would have to wait another year. Summer break was short as a rule, and going away for an entire month of it made it that much shorter. There’s no point in starting a project when I'm leaving in less than a week, I justified in my head, eyes sliding shut.
A vibration in my pocket broke my reverie. I consulted the caller ID, as I always did--- a snobby habit of mine. It was Aunt Beth. Her calls tended to take a while and were not for the faint of heart.
“Hello,” I chirped into the tiny cell phone.
“Gray? Honey is that you?”
It usually began like this. She asked if it was me, and after I assured her it was me, she commenced with the conversation. My repeated attempts to explain the wonders of cellular technology were completely lost on Beth. Though I emphasized how my number rung me and only me this inspired no change whatsoever in her behavior. Questioning my identity became a regular part of our routine.
“Yes, Aunt Beth, it’s me. How are you?”
For the most part, my contribution after this initial response was limited. Out of respect, I interjected the necessary uh-huhs, reallys, and wows to keep the dialogue from feeling too one-sided. As Aunt Beth chattered on, my eyes continued surveying the ceiling. I sank deeper into the threadbare wicker, consciously relaxing one muscle at a time until I achieved an overall jellyfish state.
"Darlin’ I don't want you to worry one whit about the house while you're gone, you hear. I'm right around the corner, so I can look in on things every day if you like." By right around the corner she meant on the opposite end of the city.
"Thanks, that would be--
"Oh, no need to thank me. Now, did you see the paper this morning? Dreadful article about moles carrying some sort of disease and defiling the soil. Have you had any trouble with moles, dear?”
I restrained my laughter trying to pass it off as a coughing fit, but ended up sounding like I’d swallowed a goat.
"No ma'am, I don't think so."
"Well, that is a relief. Of course, if you ever do, I know just the man to take care of the little buggars. He did Ima's yard next door about a week ago, bless her heart."
It was perfectly normal for Aunt Beth to bless people’s hearts during the course of a call. She conferred her blessings upon those who suffered from a wide range of misfortunes, everything from weak ankles to crabgrass to annoying relatives. She prattled about various friends, neighbors, and sometimes absolute strangers, intermittently blessing their hearts as she gossipped about each one.
“Okay, Sweetie. You’ve got to let me off this telephone. Got a hair appointment, you know, and I can’t sit here shootin’ the breeze all afternoon.”
Finally, I thought with a tinge of guilt. I really need to call her more often.
“Oh, before I forget— keep an eye out for your birthday card. I put it in the mail yesterday. Be sure you get it,” she said, her voice dropping into a husky whisper. “I don’t trust that mailman any farther than I can throw his baggy bottom, especially since that card has cash inside. Ever since my good postman retired, all I ever get are these hooligans wearing dark shades with their shirts untucked.” I couldn’t stop from laughing this time, but Aunt Beth was nonplussed. “I do hope it arrives before you leave, dear. I thought you could use a bit of spending money.”
Breathe, Aunt Beth, I thought to myself, giggling.
“You didn’t have to do that, but thanks. I’ll let you know when it comes.”
"Well, I didn't do it because I had to dear. I wanted to," she clarified, her voice taking on the stubborn edge I adored.
"I know, I know. That's why I love you."
“Love you too, dear. Bye-bye.” I removed the phone from my ear, blood rushing back into it and sending prickly pains down my neck.
Aunt Beth, my mother’s much older sister, had never married. She was a comic blend of a hospitable southern belle and an eccentric old spinster. Growing up in her home since the age of sixteen, I learned to love her odd ways. She seemed more like a grandmother than an aunt, but whatever our blood relation she had always been a kindred spirit. When I was a very young child, long hours on the highway became the highlight of each holiday because the journey always ended at her front porch. Important events in my life were marked by her presence.
I suppose that’s why it was so natural for me to run to her after my parents died. She was a safe haven for a bewildered teenager. Her role as anchor, lighthouse and harbor continued into my adulthood. I kept her appraised of everything, even when I no longer lived in her house, boring her with minutae about research papers and exams, boyfriends and part-time jobs. She never appeared bothered by it, nor did she act offended when the time between visits grew longer. It was a wonder that this precious woman, free from marriage and parenthood, would trouble herself with raising someone else's kid. But that was just Aunt Beth.
Her call forced me to think about what else loomed on the calendar besides my dreaded international foray. I had hoped to avoid all mention of birthdays this year, but that was an impossible expectation with Beth. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be home to celebrate.
Shifting into a fetal position I meditated on where I would be on my birthday. Of all the places in the universe, Eastern Africa was the one place I had no desire to see. There was a time when I would have jumped at an opportunity to explore new cultures or race around the globe, but that time had passed. There had been a time when I relished birthdays too. Now cake and candles and gifts were painful reminders. My adventurous spirit had died along with my husband.
My morbid introspection turned back to Tanya as the skies faded to grey like a veil dropping over brilliant bride. Unaware of the significance Uganda held for me, Tanya wouldn’t have understood my objections. So I kept silent. Sure, she knew my history—a bereaved young widow, doctor’s wife, but there were details I neglected to share. I failed to explain that she was asking me to visit the actual locale of his tragic death, where he was gunned down by hostiles during a similar humanitarian errand.
As my closest friend, I understood she wanted to help, and I appreciated that. During the torrential months that followed Ben’s death she had been priceless-- steadfast and encouraging. She'd been there during a hard time-- a really hard time. How could I deny anything she asked?
With bitter reluctance I recalled my application to her husband's company, the same reluctance I’d felt when dropping it in the mail. Who knew? Maybe this trip would grant me the opportunity I’d forfeited to say goodbye to Ben. I could walk the same soil, breathe the same air. Or maybe I’d get lucky, and my application would be rejected at the last minute. Then I could chalk one up to destiny, and paint my porch.
Packing yet unfinished, I surveyed piles of clothes and suitcases strewn across the bed in my spare room. You’d think traveling alone would require less baggage. I stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, listening for the timer on the dryer. Traveling to another country for a whole month ruined all chances of me packing light because I had no earthly idea what to take.
Checking my list once more, I remembered one errand I'd been putting off. Ron and Tanya educated me about a device I would need if I wanted to use a hair dryer, alarm clock, or any other electrical appliance. I dreaded the prospect of going to Battery Depot almost as much as going to Africa. Just thinking about the endless rows of hardware paralyzed me.
I grabbed my purse, and headed out the door, anxious to get it over with. In less than ten minutes, I pulled into the parking lot. I walked in, tentative, scanning the store for someone wearing an orange vest who could speak electronics. Of course, no one was in sight. I can handle this, I told myself half-heartedly.
After searching through several aisles, I came up empty. My backup plan was to find a travel section, thinking the adaptor I needed might be displayed alongside doodads like book lights and pocket translators. If such a section did not exist then I would wander around with a forlorn expression looking for a sign that read, Thingamajigs You Need Aisle 8, and then cry when I couldn’t find it.
As I rounded a corner, flipping through my five-page packing list, I barreled into someone.
“Oh my gosh! Sorry.” The man I’d run into surveyed me with keen eyes, clearly amused by the collision.
“I’m so sorry. I should have been watching instead of burying my nose in this list.”
“Hey, no harm done,” he smiled politely. “That’s a lot of paper. How many things are you looking for?”
His expression was relaxed, the complete opposite of how I felt. For a moment, I fantasized what he must think of me, a confused woman lost in a maze of gadgets. This is what I got for being compulsive. Did I really need a hair dryer in Africa? Outwardly, I feigned a casual attitude and forged a weak smile.
“I’m only looking for one thing, actually,” I searched my surroundings again for glimpses of orange. “Where are the people who work here when you need them,” I joked, though I silently cursed them for not doing their job.
“What is it? Maybe I can help.”
His offer caught me off guard, and I think my mouth hung open. I must have been the picture of a damsel in distress. He looked like he was restraining a grin as I struggled for an intelligent response.
“I know my way around pretty well. I’m a regular here.”
He delivered the last word in a loud stage whisper making me conscious of onlookers. Thankfully, nobody was around.
“Alright, if you’re sure you don’t mind. I need an international outlet adaptor… I think.” I peeked up from the security of my list and prayed this wasn’t his attempt to snag a date.
“Oh, yeah. Three rows over. C’mon, I’ll show you.”
Before I had time to utter a sensible remark, my feet involuntarily fell in line behind him. I couldn’t help but notice the appealing way his jeans fit. I mumbled an incoherent thanks and decided to keep my eyes on my feet.
“Sure thing,” he said glancing over his shoulder. My head jerked up at the same time, anticipating a change in direction, but met his gaze instead. I was struck by the warmth of his eyes, chocolate brown. Staring into them was very disorienting but pleasing at the same time.
“So… you must be taking a long trip?” he asked with what seemed like genuine interest. Since I couldn’t manage to say anything, he clarified. “International trip, I assume?”
For a brief instant I considered whether or not to answer. After all, he was a stranger. I was alone and scheduled to leave the country in two short days. For all I knew he could be an axe murderer who preyed on single women in electronic stores. But eventually I risked talking since he was so helpful. In addition, I reckoned that serial killers didn’t look this good in jeans.
“Yeah, Uganda, Af—
His eyes flashed with surprise then he cut me off mid-sentence. “Africa, right? Central Africa. Capital city of Kampala, if I’m not mistaken,” he added, a hint of mischief on his handsome face.
I adjusted my thinking. Maybe he was an axe murderer with a degree in cartography? Despite him evidently being well educated, his physical appearance and open manner caused me a great deal of discomfort. I tried to recall the last time I’d looked in a mirror.
“That's right, wow. So, you’re a depot regular and a geography expert.”
He backpedaled, perhaps catching my loaded tone.
“No. Well, sort of. Different countries require different model adaptors.”
He turned his attention to a wall with hundreds of small white boxes hanging in neat rows, each box containing metallic objects, and each labeled so technically it might as well have been another language. Staring at the mind-boggling amount of choices, I felt another surge of appreciation for his efforts to assist me.
“I didn’t mean to be nosy. Here you go. This one should do the trick.”
He smiled and handed me a box. Not wanting to give the impression that I was the most over-confident, under-informed person he’d ever met, I smiled sweetly and shoved the box into the crook of my arm.
“Thanks,” I said after an awkward pause. He really was cute. Too bad I was acting insane.
“I’m Jonathan by the way.”
He extended his arm, a candid expression on his face that was hard to resist. I paused, surreptitiously examining his hand for a wedding ring, when I realized that I was scrutinizing the wrong hand. He misread my hesitation, withdrew his hand, and took a step back.
Recovering hastily, I blurted out, “Hi, Jonathan. I don’t normally introduce myself to random guys in electronic stores though you seem like a nice person. I’m grateful for your help, really.”
His face remained animated. Did he find me entertaining? Was the sky blue?
“Of course, I understand. Good luck, then." Smiling in farewell, a radiant smile that made me to lose my train of thought, he waved and disappeared around the next corner. I took a deep breath, re-engaging my brain, and tried to find my way back to the registers.
On the drive home my mind ran through the episode over and over details rising to the surface, little things of which I had only been vaguely conscious at the time. Details like his deeply tanned skin, indicating that he spent a lot of time outdoors. His blonde hair had been thoroughly rumpled showing a lack of concern for appearance. He seemed well-read, at least on the subjects of electronics and world geography, and I suspected highly intelligent as well. I wondered what experiences had led to his knowledge of an obscure country like Uganda.
As I unlocked my front door, it dawned on me that I could not recall any the ten minute drive home. I had been so immersed in thought it was scary. Dismayed by my own recklessness, I hurried inside and flung my bags over the back of the couch. A photograph caught my eye as I entered the darkened living room. It shined upon the mantle, demanding my attention. I had taken it myself years ago of another very attractive man. But this man had hair like coal and eyes the palest blue. Immediately my mind constructed a comparison of the man in the photo with the man in the store.
Physically they couldn’t be more opposite. One was rugged and outdoorsy, the other refined and well-dressed. But the man in the photograph was far more than a casual acquaintance. This dark-headed hunk was the reason I had to go to Africa-- why I needed to face my demons-- and why I should simply forget about the guy in Battery Depot.
My flight was scheduled to leave shortly before sunrise. And who decided that? Tanya thought she could save money by booking my plane at an ungodly hour. Dragging two colossal suitcases, I crawled toward the ticket counter, fervently hoping I hadn’t forgotten anything important like underwear or toothpaste. As I watched the clerk slide my bags one by one onto a conveyor belt and they disappeared through dark rubber flaps, I imagined them entering a place so mysterious, so uncivilized that they stood little chance of returning. Feeling a lot like my luggage, I surrendered a credit card to the clerk and paid an extra hundred bucks for my bags exceeding the weight limit. Was I passing through a portal into a place from which I could not emerge unscathed?
Freed of heavy luggage, I stumbled through security then searched for the correct gate number. Fortunately, I did not have to trek miles across Hartsfield terminal like I'd expected. Gate C3 in sight, my goal was to find a quiet place to wait for the first of my three flights. Calculating the number of hours in the air gave me premature jet lag. Drowsy, I plopped down on a hard, leather airport bench.
The group for which I had volunteered planned to meet in country rather than stateside, team members coming from multiple locations. According to Tanya, I was now allied with a fascinating combination of UN tree-huggers, religious good-deeders, and professional engineers, all coming together to accomplish one common goal. Not surprisingly, I fit into none of those categories. Atlantic Engineering and Land Development (AELD) sent teams like clockwork to key cities across the continent of Africa for the commendable purpose of providing fresh drinking water to destitute populations. Turning my face to the departure screen hanging above me, I regretted my decision to go for the hundredth time.
Over the next twenty hours I would filter through Atlanta, Washington, Amsterdam, and eventually my final destination—Uganda, Africa. Frightened by the idea of seeing it firsthand, I closed my eyes and tried to remain calm. As I concentrated on breathing, my boarding pass burned a hole in my hand while memories flooded my mind….