Staff Feature: Kimberly Duffy
North Carolina—November, 1898
Miss Buckley had brown eyes. Brown like the dirt on my grandfather’s farm. Loamy and soft, just itching to be admired. Might be an odd thing, comparing a woman’s eyes to something most people try to scrub from their homes. Might be odder still that I’m in love with my teacher.
But that dirt was the lifeblood of my family. It saw us free from poverty when my grandparents emigrated from Scotland forty years ago. Freedom is measured by that color.
So is the beating of my heart.
“Sam Fulton, are you paying attention?” Miss Buckley was suddenly standing beside me, her hand on my bicep and prim voice interrupting my thoughts. “I have called on you three times.”
I flexed, hoping she’d notice I was no longer a skinny schoolboy. “Yes, ma’am.” I shifted my admittedly too large rear in the seat meant for much smaller people. I’d missed five years of schooling when Granda broke his hip, requiring my help with the farm.
But when my little brother grew out of the schoolroom and took to farming, I remembered my dream of studying engineering and knew I had to return.
“Well, then,” Miss Buckley strode back to the front of the room, “if you please.” She tapped her pointer against the board.
It was all bluff and bluster. Miss Buckley had once been Minnie, the girl two years ahead of me who’d run away shrieking when I chased her with a frog. I’d tried once to kiss her, behind the schoolhouse oak tree, but she’d pinched my nose and promised me one when I was older.
I grinned up at her. I sure was older now. “Answer’s The Treaty of Paris.”
She blushed as though she could read my thoughts. “Very good.” Then her lips twitched into the precursor of a kiss, and her gazed darted from mine. “Lunch, students.”
Outside, children circled me, the oldest not much more than thirteen. This had become commonplace since my return to school and they learned I’d once taken lessons with their teacher.
“Why’d you come back?” Clark Gumball had asked my first day.
“’Cause I’m not ready to go to college, and I want to become an engineer.”
My friends ribbed me fiercely over my choice to return—all farmers, they were (nothing wrong with that, of course)—and wondered why I’d go back to books when I had land to inherit. But I loved fixing things. And I had plans to put that interest to use by scaffolding the broken heart Minnie Buckley had left me with all those years ago. I was going to go to college, all right. But not before marrying my teacher.
“You ever going to tell Miss Buckley you’ve taken a shining to her?” Clark rustled around his lunch pail, and every head swiveled in his direction. Then six sets of eyes turned to stare at me.
They figured it out right quick, of course. And they’d been quick to point out how I stared at the teacher as though she were a “big ole slice of apple pie,” and how she sometimes touched my shoulder when she was explaining something I’d figured wrong on my slate.
She didn’t do that to anyone else.
“Not yet. I’m waiting for the right time.” I took a bite of my sandwich, ending the conversation.
“You’re gonna need to kiss her, you know.” Sweet little Iris Elliot had withdrawn her thumb from her mouth to whisper the words.
Clark grimaced. “Why would he do that?”
“That’s how Daddy gets Mama to stop fussing and start smiling.” Iris sighed as though the obvious was the obvious. “Teacher never does smile.”
Everyone fell into silence to ponder that. Iris was right. Minnie didn’t smile much. She used to. Her giggle nearly drove me to jig when we were young. Sounded like music.
But then her dreams of moving to the city were hampered by a daddy who’d gotten a hankering to see the world on his own, and Minnie came home from teacher’s college to support her younger sister and mama.
Now the mama was gone too, and the sister had all but declared intentions to marry.
The bell clanged, and we all filed back into the schoolhouse.
I watched Minnie as she helped each student in turn. Kind as ever, but the animation had slipped from her expression. She seemed tired. Sad.
And maybe I could do something about that.
“Mr. Fulton, please come to the board and work out this problem.” Minnie gazed at me with those eyes made of earth and life.
“Be glad to.” I crossed the room slowly and when I passed by Iris, I gave her a little wink. She straightened her shoulders and jabbed an elbow into the ribs of the girl beside her.
“Miss Buckley’s about to smile,” I heard her whisper.
I made short work of the geometry. I may have missed a few years of school, but I was quick to figure things out.
“Nice work, Mr. Fulton.” Miss Buckley put her hand on my shoulder, and Iris’s giggle slid into the silence. “You’ll be out of here and into the world in no time.”
Her words were cloaked in wistfulness, and I turned, the chalk still pinched between my fingers. This was it. Time to build.
“Minnie,” I said her name for the first time since stepping back into the schoolhouse three months earlier.
She made a little gasp that stuttered my heart. She knew. She’d always known. Her eyes sparked like bits of mica tilled up and spilled over. I took a step nearer and leaned toward her, not releasing her gaze. The pointer clattered to the floor.
“I’m a lot older now… and you did promise.”
She swallowed and gave a little nod. “I did. I will.”
Then I bent and kissed the teacher, hoping for a smile. Promising a whole lot more.
Kimberly is the author of A Mosaic of Wings and A Tapestry of Light (Bethany House Publishers). Her latest novel, Every Word Unsaid, releases November 2, 2021.