Chapter 11

The bell rang loudly, announcing an early release day. I sorted through my books, placing a select number back inside my desk. Only necessary items would be making the trek home. I finagled the large Hershey’s Kiss onto the top shelf of my desk and tucked miscellaneous papers around it to disguise its presence. “This will have to do until I have my book bag with me tomorrow,” I quietly mumbled to myself.

Exiting the front of the school, I stepped into a warm blast of sunshine. Bright skies and cotton candy clouds dotted the firmament, encompassing my existence with a strange form of normalcy. I exhaled slowly. For the first time in days, I felt like I could breathe without fear.

Wrapping my arms tightly around my books, I started down the sloping sidewalk. Winding my way down the small hill, my peripheral vision caught sight of a group of kindergarteners and first graders bouncing up and down near the main set of stairs leading to the entrance of the school. Squeals of delight echoed off the portico’s walls and ceiling, magnifying in intensity as I walked past the excitement. A small white bundle of fur lapped at the kids’ hands and faces, spreading puppy kisses to anyone close enough to receive them. Awww. What a cute puppy, I smiled.

The longer I watched, the more reality morphed in front of me. Loitering in the shadows, between the parking lot and the school, a menacing figure came into view. I blinked hard. You’re losing it, Hope. Things like this only happen in the movies. Take a second look. Colleen’s not really there. But, there in the middle of the circle of kids, Colleen stood, stroking the white fluff on the little dog’s head. Children clamored over each other, arms outstretched and tippy toes extended, trying to touch the wiggling wad of fur. Colleen absentmindedly let them.

Glancing up, I bristled as her lips came into focus. Her countenance resonated pure evil. “You slime! You dirty li’l slime!” she slowly mouthed her hate. “You’re nothing but a dirty li’l slime!” Her eyes pierced through my carefree afternoon, sending a shiver up my spine. Suddenly, the sun didn’t seem so bright.

Quickening my step, I subconsciously coached myself into action. You will not show fear. You will not give her the satisfaction of seeing you squirm. You will keep walking. You will keep smiling. She will NOT ruin your day. Sucking in a deep breath, I forced my shoulders back, lifted my chin, and returned my attention to the parking lot. The car isn’t that far away. I can make it there before Colleen has a chance to do anything, I continued my pep talk. You can do this. God is with you. He’ll help you get to the car safely. I plastered on a fake smile and picked up my pace.

Matching my stride, Gavin stepped up beside me, touching my left elbow. I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Hey! Where did you come from?” I sighed in relief as my brain registered his familiar face. “You scared me half to death.” I slowed to a stop, peering around him to make sure Colleen hadn’t moved.

“I can see that,” he chuckled. “I didn’t mean to startle you. It was kind of hard catching you, though. I tried calling your name, but you seemed to be in a whole other world.” He turned toward me, blocking Colleen from seeing my face.

Still lost in a mental fog, I ignored his playful banter. “You know how I told you this morning I would explain things later?” I lowered my voice, shielding my words.

Gavin nodded, eyeing me carefully. “Yeah, I remember you mentioning something like that.” He lowered his head to meet my gaze, not sure how to read my behavior. “What’s going on, Hope?”

“Don’t look now,” I instructed, “but there’s a lady behind you with a puppy in her arms. She’s been stalking me for several weeks now. It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t get away from her.” I gestured over his right shoulder, tucking my books into my chest to keep them from slipping from my grasp. “She’s threatened our family, motioned the courts, and has tried to have my sister removed from our home,” I whispered. “Oh, yeah, and then there’s the whole part about her falsely accusing me of abusing her daughter while babysitting her.” I grimaced at the thought.

Gavin’s eyes grew big as he stared at me, his mouth gaping open. “What‽ That’s ridiculous! You’d never do anything like that.” He abruptly turned to look at Colleen, disregarding my wishes.

Smacking him on the arm, I tried to regain his attention. “Shhh. I said, ‘Don’t look.’” I begged for him to stop drawing attention to us. “You know that, and I know that; but, apparently, she doesn’t.” I fidgeted with my books as they shifted in my arms. Securing my hold, I whispered loudly, “Can we please talk about this later? I really need to get outta here.” Turning toward the parent pick-up line, I spotted Mom’s car. Good, she’s on time. I sighed in relief.

“Of course. Is there anything I can do to help?” Gavin eyed my books, extending a hand.

“No. I’ve got this,” I assured him, “but would you mind walking me to the car? I’d rather not be alone.”

A smile replaced the deep concern reflecting in his eyes. “Sure. I can do that.” He followed close by my side as I hastened down the hill. As I hurried to the car, I could feel Colleen’s beady eyes boring into my back.

Reaching the car, I turned to Gavin and gushed with gratitude. “Thank you for accompanying me to the car. I can’t thank you enough for showing up when you did. This is all so surreal.”

Gavin gently touched my shoulder, sincerity coating his words. “Hope, you never have to thank me for something as simple as that. I told you I’d have your back, and I meant it—still do.” Opening the car’s back door, he held my books while I climbed inside.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Blythe. Julia.” Gavin addressed the front seat passengers, polite and engaging.

Ducking her head to view Gavin through the back door, Mom returned his greetings. “Hi, Gavin! Thank you for helping Hope to the car. That was very thoughtful of you.” Julia put down her Weekly Reader and stared up at Gavin’s towering presence. A soft giggle escaped her. I nudged her in the arm.

“It was no problem,” Gavin assured Mom. “I was glad to do it.” He handed me my books then added, “Let me know if that lady bothers you again. I’ll make sure she never hurts you.”

Noting Gavin’s muscular build, I nodded. He could probably take her. “I will. Thank you.”

Gently closing the door, he smiled. “Any time.”

“Any time,” Julia sing-songed under her breath.

“Hush!” I scolded. “We’re just friends.”

“Uh huh. Just friends,” she teased, snickering to herself.

“Whatever.” I waved goodbye as Mom backed out of our parking space.

Glancing in the rearview mirror, Mom glimpsed my face. “What did he mean by, ‘If she bothers you again’? Was Colleen at school today?” She slowly pulled into the line of cars exiting the school, tightening her grip on the steering wheel.

“You mean you didn’t see her?” Disbelief rose in my voice. “She was standing outside the school just now, near the front doors when I came out.” I turned and looked behind me, straining my neck to see if I could spot Colleen. “I’m surprised you didn’t witness all the commotion. Half of the school was engrossed in the little puppy she was coddling. She wanted to let me know she thinks I’m a ‘dirty little slime.’” I exaggerated my tone, laughing at her failed attempt to intimidate me. “I don’t understand how she keeps getting away with showing up at school. There’s no reason for her being here. It’s all a show. She was just trying to scare me.” I stared out the window and watched the light stutter through the treetops, casting patches of shadows on the ground.

“Her day is coming,” Mom promised. “Colleen won’t get away with this forever. Our attorney will see to it.” Her eyes narrowed as she watched the car in front of her.

Resting my head against the window, I watched as several students on the sidewalk meandered home. “I hope you’re right.”

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

Greg looked at me with sadness in his eyes, his words more of a statement than a question. “She never gives up, does she?”

“No. Persistence was at the top of her vocabulary list,” I agreed, “and her threats weren’t idle, either. A few days later, I found myself sitting in front of a judge.”

Greg’s eyebrows lifted. “Do tell.”

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