Cole was already in the room waiting for me. He had saved the seat next to him to insure that we would be lab partners. The teacher approved. Ms. Perkins, like Mrs. Lachney, had read the files of all her students. She moved several people around the room so they would be paired up. "This way the challenged student has the benefit of the gifted student." I thought it was a little insulting that she looked at me when she said challenged. I would later learn that it was just part of her, shall we say, unique sense of humor.
"Class, I am sure there are some of you out there who would rather do anything than have to dissect an animal, and I know that some of you are going to be repulsed by the idea to the point of being sick," she began. I silently nodded my head. "I can only say that you had better have a good lab partner. The lab grade is essential to your passing this course."
"What if animal abuse is against my religion?" one of the girls asked.
"Stand up, Carla," Ms. Perkins told her. "As I thought, you have hair. That rules out Buddhism. You don't have a stone inset into your forehead, so that eliminates Hinduism." She began to smile as she continued. "Factor in that my father is the pastor of your parents' church, and one can safely assume that you were only asking that question in the hypothetical sense, am I correct?"
"Yes, ma'am," the girl mumbled as she sat back down.
"Now then," the teacher addressed the entire class again. "As I was saying, the dissecting for this class will be limited to a worm, a frog, and a crayfish. I expect each team to complete their labs and hand them in at the beginning of the following class as a joint project. If you feel that your lab partner is not doing their fair share of the work, let me know and I will speak to them. If however, I learn that you agreed to do the work to spare their delicate sensibilities and later changed your mind, then both students will lose points for that assignment."
The rest of that class was pretty uneventful and unremarkable, except that Cole assured me that he did not mind doing the messy part of the labs if I would write up the reports. I agreed quickly before he changed his mind. Before I knew it, the bell was ringing to announce the end of my first day of high school.
We walked to our lockers together since they weren't too far apart. As we headed out the door of the school, we were both looking into the parking lot for our parents. He was looking for his dad, and I was looking for my mom. We found them talking to each other beside Cole's dad's car which was in the ditch at the edge of the lot.
"Dad!" Cole cried. "Are you alright? What happened?"
"One of your older classmates wasn't paying attention to where she was going," the man answered. "She never even stopped. I am fine, but I don't think the car is. The school has already called the police and this nice woman stepped up as a witness. She got the delinquent's license plate number."
"Hi, mom," I said.
"Oh, so you would be Ralph," Cole's father announced. "Cathy, you were certainly right. That hair is almost albino white. Fascinating. One doesn't usually see that color stay with a child much past the toddler years."
"Dad, stop analyzing my friend's genetic structure," Cole chided. "Before you know it, you'll want to dissect him."
"UGH!" I exclaimed. "You promised not to use the D word outside of class."
"Sorry," Cole apologized.
"That would make you Cole," my mother gushed. "Oh, see there honey, I told you could make friends at a new school," she told me.
"What is this, pick on Cotton day?" I squirmed.
"I have picked cotton quite a few times in my life," Cole's dad informed us. "I grew up on a farm in Northeast Louisiana."
"You're kidding!" my mother gushed. "I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi. What town in Louisiana are you from?"
"I'm from Delhi, that's about halfway…."
"Halfway between Monroe and Vicksburg," Mom finished for him. "We used to stop at a drugstore there in town to get ice cream when we took summer vacations. We would stop at Delta Village and play for a while, and then go over to Monroe to spend some time with my Aunt Cleola and her family."
"I remember Delta Village. My parents' farm wasn't too far from the store that was owned by the adopted parents of the guy that did the Indian riding tricks there," Mr. Miller told us. "Lord that brings back some memories. Did you go on the boat ride?"
"The mechanical hippo used to scare me to death as a little girl," my mother confessed.
"Do you notice that when they start remembering their past, the southern accent gets stronger?" Cole asked me playfully.
"Mom says it's a Southern thing," I answered. "She says you can take the belle out of Vicksburg, but you can't take Vicksburg out of the belle. Whatever that means," I added.
"Well, I know what it means, boys," Mr. Miller told us with a smile. "I take it then, Cathy, that you met your husband in Vicksburg?"
"Yes, he was stationed at the Waterways Experiment Station at the time," Mom told him.
At that point, I was about to tune them out having heard the story of my parents courtship often enough to have it memorized. Fortunately, Cole and I were saved from a lethal overdose of parental memories by the arrival of the patrol car. A stocky redheaded guy got out and walked up to us.
"Was anyone hurt?" the officer asked.
"No, I am fine," Mr. Miller answered. "I am Jim Miller, and I was alone in the car at the time of the accident."
"Sergeant Dermott Fahy," the policeman said, introducing himself. He got a statement from Cole's dad and my mom both telling him that a dark haired girl had come running out of the school just as the bell rang. She jumped into her car and then peeled out of the parking lot at high speed, forcing Cole's dad into the ditch to avoid a head-on collision with her. The ditch was rather deep at that spot as there was a culvert that came out from under the ground right there. Mr. Miller's car had struck the edge of the concrete culvert and it was obvious that there was damage to the front axle. The wheels were at odd angles to the rest of the car.
"Well, your car's going to need to be towed," Sergeant Fahy said after looking it over. "It looks as if your front end is shot. Hopefully, it didn't warp the frame as well."
"Dad, if we have to get the car towed, how do we get home?" Cole asked.
"We could take you," I offered quickly. I realized what I had done and looked at my mother sheepishly. "Could we do that Mom?"
"Of course we could, Ralph," Mom smiled. "I was about to offer myself, but you have a faster mouth, or is just bigger?"
"MOM!!" I whined.
After what seemed like forever, the tow truck arrived and hauled Cole's dad's car out of the ditch. Of course all of this commotion brought a lot of attention from the other kids getting out of school. What a great way to start a new school; standing beside your mommy in the parking lot while she introduces you to all of the kids you have already met. Naturally she didn't give my nick name. Now everyone in school knew my name was Ralph Lauder. No one picked on me in front of my mom, but I could see the wheels turning in their heads. My life was sure to be hell. On the bright side, I was no worse off than Cole. Everyone seemed to assume that his dad had gone into the ditch because he either couldn't drive, or was drunk.
Professor Miller was late for a class by the time he was done with the tow truck driver and the policeman. Mom asked him if it would be all right for Cole to come over to our house for a little while on the way to the college. I couldn't believe it. She was determined to help me make friends this time. I knew she felt badly that I had been moved around so often, but I didn't exactly need or want her help making friends. It was kind of creepy to have my mother picking your friends for me, even if I did agree with her choice.
Cole's dad thought that it was a good idea for him to come over as long as Cole did his homework as soon as we got there. Cole and I quickly pointed out that we didn't have homework on the first day of class. Professor Miller frowned and said that he would have to have a talk with our teachers. When he saw our expressions, he started laughing.
"You guys are too easy," he chuckled. My mom was giggling as well. Parents have a sick sense of humor, and I told them so. They just laughed more.
"Well, since you have no homework, I guess you won't need the study food I had prepared for you," Mom announced.
"Study food?" Cole questioned.
"Snackage," I clarified.
"Chocolate chip cookies and milkshakes were on the menu today," Mom told us. "I can just save the cookies for another day, and not have to drag the blender out now that I know you don't have to study tonight."
"But Mom, it was the first day," I protested. "It was traumatic. I got lost, and the teachers were picking on me, and ... and...."
"And so am I, Ralph," Mom confessed with a smile. Remember what I said about parents having a sick sense of humor? I was wrong. It is beyond sick; it's sadistic and evil.
"Cathy, do you intend to feed the boys cookies and milkshakes for an afternoon snack?" Professor Miller asked seriously. Cole's eyes grew wide with apprehension. When my mom said yes, Professor Miller continued. "That sounds awfully rich for a snack."
"I'm sorry, if you have a problem with it, I can certainly change the plan," Mom said quickly.
"My only problem is that I can't be there to get some myself," Cole's dad admitted with a grin.
"Well, in that case, we will just have to bring some to you after your class, won't we boys?" Mom asked us. We readily agreed.
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm not out of class until five o'clock," the man declined. "By then I'm ready for supper. I will have to take a rain check."
"Well, we could always make arrangements for you and Melanie to come over some evening for supper," Mom suggested. "I am sure you and Tom would get along famously, although I confess that I might not be very stimulating company for your wife. I have never had a job in my life, except helping my father on the farm."
"Melanie wasn't always a hospital administrator," Professor Miller told us. "She grew up in Rayville, just the other side of Delhi from Vicksburg. She is an old farm girl herself."
"Well, yeehaw," Cole snickered. "We could have us a hoedown."
"And what would be wrong with that?" both parents asked him. Cole and I just rolled our eyes.
"Mom, could we give Cole a ride home on Wednesdays so he can be on the chess team?" I asked, partly because I just remembered the situation from earlier in the day, and partly so I could change the subject.
"Why certainly we could," Mom replied. "I take it then, that you are both on the team?"
"Yes, ma'am," Cole answered. "We have a lot of classes together as well."
"So much in common," Mom mused quietly. "Well, that means you can study together. By any chance, Cole, are you a good student in Math?"
"Way ahead of you, Mom," I informed her. "Cole has already agreed to help with my grades in Math and Science and I will tutor him in English and History."
"Sounds like the beginnings of a strong friendship," Professor Miller said with a smile. "I know Cole can certainly use the help in English. He is a chip off the old block. He's a whiz at science, but lousy in the creativity areas."
"Well, I'm not sure where Ralph gets it from, but he really excels in the creative courses," Mom bragged. "He is quite the talented journalist, as well."
"He must be," Cole agreed. "Our English teacher was bragging on him to every class she taught today. The whole school knows about Cotton, I mean Ralph."
"Thanks for reminding me," I grumbled. "You can't talk though," I pointed out. "The science teacher looked like she was going to wet herself over you."
"Ralph Lauder, that is unacceptable talk!" Mom snapped. "You apologize to all of us this instant."
"Sorry, Mom," I surrendered. "Please forgive my lapse in manners, Dr. Miller and Cole."
"Quite all right," Professor Miller said with a smile. "I take it that what you meant was that the teacher was excited to have Cole in the class?"
"She was as excited to see his grades, as she was disappointed to see mine," I told him. "She practically called me the class idiot."
"She did not," Cole corrected with a smile. "She just said that you were more challenged than anyone else in class."
"Oh, thank you for that clarification," I said sarcastically. "I feel so much better now."
"No problem," he grinned.
I couldn't have gotten mad at him if I were forced to do it. He was just too cute. Wait a minute! What am I thinking? A guy can't be too cute. I'm a guy. Guys are not supposed to be cute. So why is that the first word I think of when I see Cole? I had better control myself or I will wind up in bad shape.
Professor Miller got out of the car at the college, and Mom drove us to our house. We had barely gotten in the door when Mom told me to take Cole to my room and show him around. That wasn't so bad, but then she gave more instructions which I panicked over.
"While you're there, go ahead and change out of your school clothes into something more comfortable," she told me.
I could hardly believe my ears. She wanted me to strip down to my underwear in front of a stranger. I would have felt bad enough about that, but this particular stranger was having a really weird effect on me. I was getting an erection from being around Cole. I couldn't change in front of him without him seeing my predicament. I could never let anyone know that I was having these thoughts. I would be slaughtered, or at the very least kicked out of school, and possibly my home as well. I determined not to let anything out of the ordinary happen no matter how badly I wanted it. Did I just say that? This can't happen. I won't let it.