Chapter 8

Days passed. Classes continued. I forged my way through endless hours by anticipating positive activities that would break up my crazy existence. During these days, Bible studies at school seemed to be the one thing that brought me the most peace and purpose.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Students gathered under the front porch overhang at school preparing for our weekly class. Metal chair legs scraped across the gray concrete slab as seventh graders made room for everyone assembled. I positioned myself on the cold concrete ledge on the outside of the circle. Facing the parking lot, I leaned against the brick wall and slowly scanned the premises. Each student held a personal Bible on his or her lap, and jovial chatter permeated the group, inside jokes being shared and laughed over. I watched as everyone mingled with a carefree spirit they didn’t even know they possessed. If only I could be happy like you. You don’t even know how lucky you are!

Taking a moment to absorb some of the positive energy, I turned to find Gavin staring at me from across the circle, grinning from ear to ear. His eyes twinkled. His flirtatious smile beckoned me to smile back. I suddenly found myself flustered, not sure how to handle the unanticipated attention. Nice try, I smirked, focusing my gaze on the opposite side of the patio. Your charm isn’t going to work on me. I pretended to be unfazed, but I couldn’t hide the heat spreading into my cheeks and warming my ears. Tickled by my reaction, Gavin patted the empty chair beside him, motioning for me to join the inner circle. I shook my head and mouthed the words, “No, but thank you. I’m ok right here.”

Gavin produced a fake pout and held his hands over his heart, pretending I had delivered a crushing blow. I chuckled and shook my head again, holding tight to my decision. Folding his hands into a beggar’s “Please?” he batted his puppy dog eyes, delivering a cute rebuttal.

I laughed. Not this time, but I will definitely give you credit for determination.

From behind Gavin’s right shoulder, movement grabbed my attention. Instinctively, my gaze wandered past the handful of students still finding their seats and latched onto the menacing figure tromping her way up the walkway to the entrance of our school. My blood pressure spiked. My mind began to blur. Throbbing heartbeats pounded in my ears. I need to get up. I need to move. I can’t just sit here. I could feel my eyes widen as Colleen neared. Breathing raised my chest in short jagged intervals. Panic constricted my airways. It will only be a matter of seconds before she spots me. I need to disappear—to get far, far away. Tucking my Bible into the crook of my arm, I clumsily pushed myself to a standing position and stumbled over several students in front of me. “I’m so sorry, Anna. Excuse me, Zachary. Here’s your Bible, Jarrod.” I bent down and picked up a black leather Bible from the floor.

Jarrod eyed me suspiciously. “Thanks, I guess?”

Voices echoed off the ceiling and tangled with the fog suddenly enveloping my senses. From behind me, Gavin’s panicked words pursued my exit. “Hope? What’s wrong? You’re scaring me. What’s the matter?” I ignored his concern as I bolted back to our classroom.

Slamming my forearm into the metal bar on the front door to the entrance of the school, I nearly plowed down an elderly woman leaving the front office. “I am so sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, continuing to sprint down the hall. I wish I could stop, but I need to get somewhere safe!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Out of breath and trembling in fear, I pressed on the large wooden doors that lead down the corridor to the various seventh-grade classrooms. The right door swung wide open, followed by a thud. Half the students sitting in the first room turned their heads toward the distraction. Tucking my chin into my chest, I pretended to be invisible and promptly hightailed it down the hall. Managing to reach the girls’ bathroom with no more incidents, I ducked my head and peered under each stall, exhaling in relief. It’s all good. No one’s here.

Pressing my back against the two-toned, blue tile wall, my spine stuttered down the ceramic squares until I found myself in a seated position on the floor. Dropping my Bible on the ground next to my right leg, I planted my face in the palms of my hands and watched tears run down my wrists and into the cuffs of my pale green turtleneck sweater. Wet strands of hair clung to my cheeks, and I stared into my lap, gasping for air as sobs wracked my body. Tightness in my chest made each breath painful, so I lifted my chin toward the ceiling, pressing the back of my head against the cold hard tile. “God, I’m so scared!” I cried. “She’s everywhere. I can’t get away from her.”

The bathroom door creaked causing electric sensations to scatter across my nervous system. Springing to my feet, I bumped the porcelain sink with my left elbow and cried out in pain. “Owwwww!” Grabbing my arm, fresh tears stung my eyes, and my chin began to quiver.

“It’s OK. You’re safe. It’s just me,” a soft voice sounded from the opposite side of the door. The unexpected words came from an equally unexpected voice.

“Ms. Hardwood?” Turning toward the door, I found her standing in the doorway—light yellow sweater, matching slacks, and brown loafers. Her right shoulder propped open the door while she did a visual sweep of the room.

“Is anyone else in here with you?”

I shook my head, my defenses on high alert. “No, just me.”

Assessing my appearance, Ms. Hardwood hesitantly stepped forward. “Mind if I come in?” Clearing the threshold, the door slowly closed behind her.

I protectively cradled my left arm and fought to hold back tears, but they leaked down my face anyway.

“What’s the matter? Are you hurt?” Ms. Hardwood reached toward my elbow.

I dropped my arm and shook my head, shying from her touch. “It’s fine,” I mustered a whisper. “I’m fine.”

“Oh, I see.” She lowered her hand and stepped back. “Is it Mrs. Davis then? Is she here at school?” Ms. Hardwood studied my face, anticipating my reaction.

I nodded, feeling leery and especially vulnerable. “You know about her?”

“Some, but very little, I’m afraid.” She relaxed her posture, lessening the harshness of her presence. “I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on you here at school in case Mrs. Davis or her husband show up,” she elaborated. “I know your safety is in jeopardy whenever they’re around. That’s why I’m here. I saw you go running down the hall. I wanted to make sure you’re OK.” Her eyes held a tenderness I’d never seen before, her voice gentle and unassuming.

Not sure how to respond, I remained silent, studying her oddly kind facial features.

“Your other teachers have been made aware of the situation, as well,” she added. “We’re all trying to keep you safe; but this is new to us, too, and we don’t always see everything that’s going on here at school. Please feel free to reach out to any of us if something’s wrong. We’re here for you, and we’ll do everything we can to protect you. That’s a promise. But, please speak up if we’re overlooking something.”

I nodded.

“So, what just happened outside? You look pretty shook up.” The concern on Ms. Hardwood’s face deepened.

My arms began to shake, my body trembling. “I saw Colleen, but I don’t know where she is now,” I answered. “I ran as fast I could to get away from her; but she’s never going to leave me alone, is she?” I gripped the edge of the sink and steadied myself as my legs began to buckle. “I’m so scared. I don’t know what to do.”

“You don’t need to do anything,” Ms. Hardwood countered. Placing a hand on my shoulder, she looked me in the eye. “It’s your job to be a student. It’s my job to make sure nobody interferes with that. As long as you’re in my classroom, you don’t have to fear Mrs. Davis. Do you hear me? You’re not alone, Kiddo. God didn’t ask you to do this by yourself.”

“But I feel alone.” My voice cracked, and I burst into sobs. “This is never going to end.”

“It will better. Just stay strong,” Ms. Hardwood encouraged. “This trial doesn’t define you. You are more than what you are experiencing right now. Don’t let the devil use Mrs. Davis or her family to tell you otherwise. God’s gotcha. It will all turn out all right in the end.”

I forced a weak smile, wiping the cuff of my sleeve across my upper lip, using the opposite side to dab at my eyes. “Thank you for caring,” I sniffled.

Ms. Hardwood shrugged. “It’s what I do,” she smiled back. “Mind if I have a prayer with you?” Her unusual request caught me off guard, but sounded like the most natural and sane thing in the moment.

“No. I mean, that would be nice,” I corrected myself.

Bowing our heads, Ms. Hardwood rested her hand on my shoulder. “God, we’re here before You today with a really big problem on our hands. You see, Hope is feeling scared, and we’re needing Your help to keep her safe. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know You hold our future.” She spoke with confidence. Releasing a deep sigh, I felt a supernatural peace wash over me. “We’re leaving our lives in Your hands this afternoon, trusting You to lead us each step of the way,” she continued. “Help us feel Your presence as we walk daily with You, knowing we’re never alone. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sitting in Greg’s office, tears rolled down my cheeks, fresh and raw. “It was a simple prayer, but it’s one that changed my life.” Greg leaned over and handed me a tissue. “Thank you.” I extended a faint smile.

“You’re welcome,” he smiled back. “So, how did that prayer become life changing?”

“Somebody cared—somebody other than just my family,” I clarified. The enormity of my words forced more tears down my cheeks. “Ms. Hardwood was Jesus in real life. Her beliefs didn’t waver in the awkward moments. Asking God for help came as naturally to her as breathing. She also had a peace about her I couldn’t put my finger on, but I knew I wanted to know more about where it came from.”

“Interesting. Sounds like she had a positive influence on you,” Greg acknowledged.

I nodded. “Probably more than any friend I’ve ever had.” Great admiration swelled in my heart.

“Those are great people to have in your life,” Greg affirmed. He jotted down a few words on his notepad then flipped it shut. “One last question before we end our session today.” He looked me in the eye.

“Sure. What is it?” I held his gaze.

“I thought you said you had an entourage of bodyguards following you everywhere you went at school.” He glanced back at his notes to confirm his memory.

I nodded again. “I did. My personal bodyguards,” I joked, rolling my eyes at the thought. “Basically, they were students who were happy to get out of class. They didn’t know why they were following me around. They just enjoyed having a break from the norm.” I smirked at their innocence.

Greg’s chair creaked as he leaned back. “And where were these buddies of yours when you were outside at your Bible study?”

I shrugged, pondering the question. “I was with a group. I suppose my teachers figured I didn’t need one,” I reasoned.

Greg stroked his chin. “That makes sense.” Standing to announce the end of our meeting, he straightened his pant legs with a couple swipes of his hand. I picked up my purse and stood, as well.

“It’s been nice talking with you,” I voiced, shaking Greg’s hand before exiting.

“It’s been my pleasure, Hope. Please make a follow-up appointment with my assistant before you leave. We’ll get ya to a better place real soon,” he promised, “one session at a time. Have a good week!”

I hugged my purse to my hip and humored his declaration with a partial grin. “I look forward to it.”

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