Greg’s curiosity got the best of him. “So, what happened in the principal’s office when Julia arrived?”
I shrugged, begging for forgiveness with my eyes. “Honestly? I don’t remember. I was so shocked by what was going on, I started shutting down, I guess. People were talking and moving around, but I don’t remember hearing anything. I kind of zoned.” I focused on Greg’s face, trying to read his expression.
“It sounds very normal,” he responded, “and I’ll tell you why. Our bodies are built to protect us from trauma—physical or otherwise. Hearing your story, it’s pretty safe for me to assume you were dealing with some extreme stress. It sounds like your body went into defense mode.”
Feelings of inadequacy stirred inside me. “I did the best I could. There was no way I could’ve known what was going to happen.”
“Precisely! And you were only thirteen. That’s not a whole lot of life experience to work with,” Greg responded. “You have to remember, up to that point, nothing like this had ever happened to you before, so there was nothing to pull from.” Greg looked me in the eyes as he strummed his fingers along the top of his notepad. Holding my gaze, he shifted our focus. “Let me ask you a question. Before meeting in Principal Murray’s office, did you trust him?”
I felt my brow crease. “Of course, I did. Why wouldn’t I? Everyone I knew trusted him. He was a good guy—still is.”
“And had he ever given you a reason to not trust him?” Greg tilted his head, pressing his lips together with his pointer finger.
I shook my head. “No.”
“And what was your relationship like with him before that day?” Greg waited for my answer.
I thought a moment. “High fives in the hallways. Eating lunch together outside at the picnic tables on the playground. He even played basketball with the guys during recess, sometimes. He had a way of making us all feel important—like we had something valuable to offer the world.” I smiled at the memories.
“So, he was someone you believed to be a caring and trustworthy adult, right?” Sincerity coated Greg’s words.
“Yeah, that sounds right,” I agreed with his assessment.
“So, someone you trusted, someone who was in a position of authority, betrayed your trust and forced you to meet with Colleen—even though you knew you weren’t supposed to speak to her without legal representation, correct?” Greg ran his pointer finger along the width of his lower lip, continuing to study my face.
“Correct,” I answered.
“So, why did you?” He paused, anticipating my answer.
“Why did I what?” I stared back into Greg’s knowing eyes.
“Why did you allow Colleen to engage you in conversation?”
I shrugged, lost to my own motive. “Probably because I thought Principal Murray knew something I didn’t. I respected him. He was my elder. It was my job to obey him. And, like you said, I was only thirteen,” I reiterated.
“Exactly—meaning, it wasn’t your fault.” Greg leaned toward me, giving me his undivided attention. “Hope, you trusted someone in authority. He was in charge of looking out for you and your best interest; but he dropped the ball. Instead of protecting you, he made you a victim. Do you understand the reality of that? Principal Murray placed you in a situation that was out of your control. You did nothing wrong.”
I mentally muddled through the new information, surveying it from different angles. “I’ve never looked at it that way before.”
“Most people in your situation wouldn’t,” Greg answered. “You generally know who you can trust–or, at least we like to believe that’s the case.” He sat up then leaned back in his chair, his eyes teeming with genuine curiosity. “So, how did your mom and dad react when they discovered Colleen had been allowed to speak with you without them being present?”
I let out a deep sigh and pushed a loose strand of hair over my shoulder. “I know they weren’t happy. At some point, they looked into getting a restraining order against Donald and Colleen, but there were too many complications with Alicia attending the same school as me.” I took a moment to recall the details. “My mom and dad ultimately decided to keep me in the same school. I’d been there for seven years; and, if I stayed put, the teachers could offer some form of protection since they knew me. That wouldn’t have happened elsewhere.” I wilted back into my seat, allowing my shoulders to sag. “Regardless, I had a target on my back; and, for almost three years, I was stalked at school—even after graduating eighth grade.”
“That’s a lot of adult responsibility to carry on one’s shoulders.”
I met Greg’s gaze and held my guard. “It wasn’t just adult stuff. I started having issues with kids my age, as well. Since I couldn’t talk about what was going on in my life, no one understood my mood swings. Most assumed I was uptight and serious; and, truth be told, I probably was. I assume that’s why so many chose to keep their distance. It took too much effort to be my friend.” I saddened at the thought.
Shifting in his seat, Greg positioned himself for another story. “So, why don’t you tell me about it? We have a few more minutes before the end of our session today. Go ahead and explain what you mean. I’m all ears.” He flicked the back of his right ear, in jest, motioning for me to continue.
I chuckled then complied.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Seated at the desk next to mine, Gavin peered over my shoulder and down at my worksheet for like the fourth time, then quickly returned to his own work, jotting down answers.
“Hey! You can’t do that. That’s cheating!” I tried barricading my answers from his prying eyes, but stood and attempted to grab his unfinished paper when shielding my work seemed to fail. “You may not steal my work! Those are my answers. Come up with your own,” I demanded.
Gavin flashed a cocky grin and extended his arm with worksheet in hand just beyond my reach. “It’s just a dumb homework assignment,” he taunted, laughing as I struggled to retrieve his ill-gotten gain. “It’s not like a test or anything. I simply didn’t have time to finish the worksheet before getting to class today. I don’t want my work to be late,” he explained.
“You mean my work?” I glared at him, annoyed at his assumption.
“Ms. Hardwood will be mad if it’s not done on time,” he fumbled a measly excuse. “You wouldn’t want to be the cause of that, would you?”
I cocked my head to denounce his believability. “Then ask for an extension,” I offered an obvious alternative. Plopping back down onto my chair, I huffed my disgust. “You don’t lie and take what’s not yours. You just don’t. It’s not right. Now erase those answers,” I insisted, jabbing a finger at his worksheet.
Gavin’s deep brown, puppy dog eyes begged for me to make an exception. “Just this once? I promise I’ll never to do it again.” The fake whine in his voice made my skin crawl.
Crossing my arms, I stared blankly at Gavin, his sugary words falling on deaf ears. Eyeing his dark complexion and Don Johnson haircut, I scrutinized his good looks and riveting smile that made most girls swoon. I don’t know what they see in you, I concluded. A person is more than their appearance.
Gavin raised an eyebrow, flirting for a truce. “I promise, when it’s time for the test—you know, what really matters—all the answers will be mine.” He attempted to pour on the charm, grinning from ear to ear.
My brow furrowed in disbelief. “Are you serious, Gavin? I know I don’t know you that well—other than school—but I’ve always thought so highly of you. I thought you would know better. Right now is the test. Are you going to cheat when nobody’s looking and take the easy way out? Or are you going to do what’s right and own your actions?” I challenged his integrity. “Like I just said, ‘This is the test.’”
Stuffing my finished assignment back into my binder, I tucked the folder into the side pocket of my desk, turning my back on my perpetrator.
Gavin nudged my shoulder, anxiousness edging his words. “Are you going to squeal on me?” he prodded. “Tell me. I need to know.”
I shrugged while making eye contact. “That’s not my call.”
Gavin bristled. “Stop toying with me, Hope. This isn’t a game.”
I kept a level tone. “I never said it was.”
When Ms. Hardwood came around to collect our work, Gavin turned in a completed worksheet, shooting me a defiant warning. I met his gaze with sadness in my heart. I’m not sure why this bothers me, I admitted inwardly. It’s not like we’re friends or anything, but, still, I felt betrayed. Nodding my head, I acknowledged I knew what he had done then slowly turned away.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Seven-thirty. Supper had just finished when the phone rang. Mom answered. Gracious and almost melodic tones reverberated with her responses. Guess it doesn’t have anything to do with Colleen, I reasoned.
“Hope, you have a phone call.” Mom shielded the mouthpiece of the phone as I walked through the living room and into the kitchen. “I think it’s that Gavin boy from school,” she whispered.
I halted near the counter’s edge, brushing at the air to shoo away the receiver in her hand. “I don’t want to talk to him. I have nothing to say,” I whispered back.
“But it sounds like he really wants to talk with you,” she urged. “Can’t you at least see what he wants?” She smiled, extending the phone my direction.
“I already know what he wants,” I continued whispering, “and I’m not going to ease his guilty conscience by telling him what he did today was okay.” I shook my head, refusing the phone.
“You can at least be polite and hear him out,” Mom coaxed. Putting the phone to her ear, her soft voice addressed the caller. “Thank you for waiting. Hope will be right with you.” She extended the phone to me again. “Take it.”
Rolling my eyes, I accepted the handset. Walking past Mom, I stepped into the dining room and pulled out a chair from around the table. “Hello? This is Hope,” I answered, sitting down on the hard wood seat.
“Hope, this is Gavin Jacobs from school.” The voice on the other end of the line wavered a bit, but pressed on. “I know I’m probably the last person you want to be speaking with tonight, but I couldn’t see you tomorrow in class without first making things right after what happened today.”
“OK.” I allowed him to continue.
“It’s like this,” he started. “I haven’t stopped thinking about what you said to me today. It’s been on my mind all day long. I know we’re not really even friends, but I’d like to be, and I don’t want you thinking of me as some cheat.” He let out a deep sigh, seemingly frustrated with himself. “I’m not even sure why I did what I did today, but that’s no excuse. I want to make things right.” He took a short pause.
“You’re just saying that because you got caught,” I goaded.
“I can see where you would think that.” Genuineness reflected in his words. “But I’m telling you the truth. You can ask Ms. Hardwood. After class, I went and told her what I had done. I was willing to accept a zero on my paper, but she thanked me for my honesty and told me if I redo all the work and hand it in tomorrow by the end of the day, she’ll only take ten percent off my entire score. Can you believe it? She actually thanked me for being honest.” His remorse sounded real, but I couldn’t be sure.
“I’m happy to hear you did the right thing,” I finally spoke. While waiting for Gavin to continue, I toyed with the lace placemats on the table and ran my fingers along the polished oak tabletop, fiddling with the grooves.
“Hope, give me some credit here. I’m trying to make things right with you.” Earnest desperation filled Gavin’s voice. “Please give me a second chance. I’ll prove to you I’m the good guy you thought I was before I went and blew it today. I promise.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around why Gavin even cared what I thought, but his apology intrigued me. “I appreciate you taking the time to call, but it doesn’t matter what I think,” I firmly laid out my belief. “God’s opinion is the only one you should be concerned about. It’s more important that you make things right with Him.”
Gavin’s rattled confidence perked. “Does that mean you’ll forgive me?” I could almost visualize the smile on his face.
“I want to believe that what you say is real,” I answered, pausing to ponder my next few words, “but part of me feels like you’re just saying what you think I want to hear in order to get what you want.” I straightened my back against the hard spindles of the dining room chair and exhaled slowly. “It’s not for me to judge where your heart is, Gavin. So, yes, I forgive you.”
Gavin’s enthusiasm rushed through the phone, catching me off-guard. “Thank you, Hope. You won’t regret it. I promise.”
I blinked back confusion. “I don’t get it,” I bluntly replied. “Before today, you barely spoke two words to me. You didn’t even know I existed; but, now, all of a sudden, what I think of you seems to matter, and that doesn’t exactly make sense to me. Why do you care? I mean, what’s changed?”
Gavin sucked in a deep breath then guardedly revealed a hidden truth. “I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve never noticed you before.” I could envision his face turning several shades of pink as the tone of his voice transformed in pitch. “Let’s just say, you really got to me today. No one has ever stood up to me like you did, and I don’t want to lose your respect over something stupid I’ve done.” When I didn’t answer, Gavin continued. “I’m really sorry for my behavior. You were right to call me out on it. I promise it won’t happen again. Really! I mean it. Friends?”
I let down my defenses and cautiously agreed. “We can work on it.”