Chapter 14

Sunday morning rolled around, and I found myself wearing the skimpy neon top Jenna had picked out for our youth activity. Layered under my white jacket and matching capris, the neon crop top looked stylish, but felt conspicuous. “I don’t know how I let you talk me into this,” I muttered under my breath, following Jenna onto the bus.

“You’ll thank me later,” she promised, flashing a quirky grin.

“I highly doubt it,” I objected. Tugging on my blazer, I pulled the jacket over my belly button for the umpteenth time and hiked up my sleeves. “I should’ve worn a regular shirt today. It’s too hot to be wearing long sleeves. It’s like a hundred degrees in here,” I moaned.

“Whatever!” Jenna flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder and pretended not to care. “Gavin’s been checking you out ever since you arrived this morning, so don’t go telling me a little discomfort isn’t worth it.” She edged past a couple of teenage boys blocking the aisle and headed for a seat near the back.

I nudged her shoulder in jest, keeping a close distance. “Stop makin’ things up. Gavin doesn’t have a clue I’m here,” I countered.

“I’m not makin’ it up,” Jenna insisted. “I’m tellin’ you. He’s interested in more than just friendship. You just need to stop pretending you don’t care. Open your eyes, Girl. The boy thinks you’re hot!” Several heads turned as Jenna’s words hit the air.

“Hush! People are listening,” I sharply reprimanded, fanning my face, as my cheeks flamed red.

“Stop being so sensitive,” Jenna debased my reaction. “Mark my words. I’m never wrong about these things. The boy ain’t as clueless as you think.” She plopped down on an empty bench and scooched near the window, allowing me space to sit beside her.

I wilted with embarrassment onto the vinyl seat. “You sound so sure of yourself.”

Fingering through her purse, she handed me some peach-colored lip gloss, winking as she dropped the translucent tube into my hand. “Here. Make yourself irresistible,” she instructed.

I rolled my eyes and extracted the lip wand from its base. “It’s gonna take more than a little bit of lip color to beautify this face,” I chuckled. After carefully running the applicator across my bottom lip, I then rubbed my lips together to spread the gloss. Making a loud smacking sound for emphasis, I made a funny face, and puckered for approval. “Will this work?”

Jenna laughed and nodded. “Yep. Perfect!” Reaching for the tube, she returned it to her purse.

About that time, Gavin stepped onto the bus. “Hello, fellow travelers! Are ya’ll ready to have some fun today?” A couple whoops and hollers rumbled throughout the bus with testosterone enthusiasm, proceeded by high fives and fist bumps from a few of the boys closest to him. Others added to the chaos by raising their voices and yelling, “Yeah!” and “Let’s get this thing started!”

Making his way down the middle aisle, Gavin continued displaying his sanguine flare for life, flirting with every girl he passed. “You sounded lovely in choir yesterday, Caroline. Love your voice! Are those new sneakers, Amber? The pink is really workin’ for ya.” I watched as Amber’s cheeks turned the same brightness as her shoes, causing her to bashfully lower her eyes.

He could sell ice to an Eskimo, I laughed.

Spotting Brittney and Cheryl sitting together near the middle of the bus, Gavin poured on some extra charm. “Looking good in that tank top, there, Britt,” he winked. “Cute sunglasses, Cher. Just your style.” His eyebrows rose an inch, his fingertips grazing Brittney’s arm as he walked past. “You girls should find me after we get off the bus. We’ll have to go on some rides together.” Both girls giggled on cue.

“Oh, brother!” I groaned under my breath, rolling my eyes. “Just what we all need—God’s gift to women.” I purposed my gaze outside our window and watched as the bus driver signaled for the last few passengers to get on board.

Passing our bench, Gavin nodded our direction. “Jenna. Hope.”

Jenna grinned and politely returned his greeting. “Gavin.”

I glanced up, but Gavin ignored my acknowledgement as he pretended to be engrossed in one of his buddy’s sports tales. Yeah, he has no interest in me, I inwardly mused. I’m not his type, nor do I want to be—not if it means being treated like an object.

As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, I turned and listened as Jenna prattled on about all the different rides she planned on trying out—the fastest ones, the most popular ones, the scariest ones. I could’ve feigned nausea just listening to her.

“You’ve hardly said a word this entire trip,” Jenna bemoaned as we came to a stop at the park’s front entrance forty-five minutes later.

“Who could get a word in edgewise?” I chuckled, smiling wryly.

“You got me there,” she laughed, sticking her tongue out and popping to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get going. There’s so much to see and do!” She tugged on my jacket sleeve, her enthusiasm guiding us off the bus.

Two hours later, three mega coasters, at least a dozen loop de loops, and the centrifugal force of the dizziest ride in the park helped Florida’s intense humidity and heat claim me as one of its victims. Peeling back my jacket, I allowed it sag around my shoulders as sweat rolled down the middle of my back and into my shirt. I tilted my head backward, viewing the sparse clouds overhead while fanning my neck with an open palm. Dizziness and nausea also churned my stomach.

Jenna eyed me curiously. “You OK? You don’t look so great.”

I shook my head, wiping perspiration from my hairline. “No. Roller coasters aren’t my friend—never have been,” I confessed. “I think I’m gonna have to sit out the next one.” I sloughed off my jacket and dropped it on a nearby bench. Scooping my hair into a ponytail, I looked around for a hair band.

“Here, take my Scrunchie,” Jenna offered, extending a bright blue hair tie. I accepted the kind gesture and secured the ponytail high on my head.

“Thank you. Much better. Air!” I closed my eyes and sighed as a gentle breeze cooled the back of my neck.

Gavin’s familiar voice broke into my gratitude. “Hey, Jenna! Who’s your friend here?” he asked, walking up behind me. Placing his hand on my shoulder with unexpected familiarity, he waited for Jenna’s answer.

Jenna raised her eyebrows, making eye contact with me. “Is he for real?”

I slowly turned toward Gavin, revealing my face. “I don’t know. Are you for real?” I glanced down at Gavin’s hand, referencing his closeness.

Gavin retracted his hand faster than if he’d been touching a hot potato and began to stutter. “Hope? I – Uh – I – I thought…I….” His red muscle shirt exposed his flexed biceps as he squeezed his hands open and shut in frustration. It also enhanced the bright color flushing his face.

I smiled from ear to ear. “You thought what?” I teased. “That I was somebody else?”

“Well, yeah. I thought you were…,” he stammered, incredibly confused.

“A girl?” I interjected. Noticing him eyeing my bare midriff, I self-consciously placed my arm across my belly and smirked. “Yes, I’m a girl, Gavin. Thank you for noticing.”

Turning several more shades of red, he lifted his gaze, hurrying to correct me. “I thought you were a friend of Jenna’s. I didn’t know it was you.” As soon as the words left his mouth, regret etched a deep furrow in his brow. “Man, that came out all wrong! That’s not what I meant to say.”

I felt the grin on my face crease the corners of my eyes. “So, basically, you came over here believing I was a complete stranger?” The whole concept seemed even more ridiculous when I said it aloud.

“Yeah. I mean, no.” Embarrassment wreaked havoc on Gavin’s thought process. “I could tell from a distance that Jenna knew you,” he continued, clamoring for words, “and, well, when I saw her talking to you over here, I figured she must know you, so that’s why I was gonna have her introduce us.” Looking me over, as if seeing me for the first time, an odd expression crept over his face.

Extending my hand, I offered to shake his. “Hi, my name is Hope. Nice to meet you. I don’t believe I caught your name.”

Shaking off his initial shock, Gavin offered me his hand and answered, “Gavin. Gavin Jacobs. You’re right. I don’t believe we’ve met before. I have to say, you really caught my eye just now.” Strangely, his words seemed genuine, not shallow and empty like when he had been flirting with the other girls.

Come on, Hope. You’re just imagining things. Don’t let him woo you, too, I mentally scolded myself. He tells girls they’re pretty all the time. You’ve seen him do it. You’re no different. I shook my head, insisting his spell be broken.

“It’s nice meeting you, Mr. Jacobs. Thank you for the compliment,” I played along. “Are you enjoying the rides?”

He held eye contact, as well as my hand. “I can’t complain.” The moment lingered, along with an unexplainable look in his eyes.

“I can’t say I understand the two of you,” Jenna finally broke in. “Both of you pretending like you’ve never met before—seriously? How many years have you been attending the same school?” She rolled her eyes, as if enduring another moment would be too much.

“Apparently, not long enough.” Gavin’s eyes sparkled.

I averted my eyes and took my hand back.

“Does that mean you’ll be tagging along with us to our next ride?” Jenna teased.

“Not this time,” Gavin declined. “I’ve already made plans with the boys.” He nodded to a group of four guys standing next to some nearby bushes, chugging down sodas and slurping Slushies.

“We’re heading over to the Ferris wheel if you change your mind,” Jenna offered. Picking up my jacket, she tossed it my direction. “On to our next adventure,” she announced.

I caught the jacket mid-air and draped it over my forearm. “It was nice meeting you, Gavin.” I smiled, remaking eye contact. “Maybe I’ll see you again, sometime.”

“Maybe,” he chuckled.

Several feet away from Gavin, and out of earshot of anyone who might know him, I turned to Jenna and inquired, “What was that all about?”

Jenna laughed and shrugged. “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?” She purposefully bumped into my arm as we walked. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the guy has a crush on you; but, hey! I believe I already told you that.”

I gingerly nudged back, matching her stride. “Yeah, but who has time for boys? They’re too much trouble.”

Jenna linked her arm in mine and patted my forearm with her free hand. “Priorities, Girl. Priorities.”

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

“So, what information did you gain from your experience with Gavin at the amusement park?” Greg asked, understanding the significance of the moment.

I shrugged, sensing a reason for him digging below the surface. “My view of men and how I expected to be treated was being shaped in those moments, if that’s what you’re getting at.” I raised an eyebrow.

“You’re in the ballpark,” he smiled, “or should I say amusement park?” A wink added to his humor. “Anything else?”

I took a moment to reflect. “Gavin was probably the first boy to show an interest in me. All the girls loved him. They thought he was so cute, and he definitely knew how to pull out the charm,” I admitted, “but that’s not what captured my interest.” I shook my head.

“No?” Greg smiled. “What did?”

“We had a special chemistry—whether or not I wanted to believe it. It’s like we understood each other on a different level—not something you can really put into words. It merely existed, despite the two of us. We didn’t try making it happen. It just was.” I stared down at my hands, devoid of any real explanation.

“And how did that make you feel?” Greg embraced my melancholy moment. I smirked at his psychoanalytic manners.

“I suppose I felt unique—special—like I wasn’t just one of the other girls,” I shared. Releasing a sigh, a somber mood came over my memory. “I’ve never had that connection with anyone else—not even Brad,” I confessed. “I kind of miss it. Feels like there’s an empty place in my heart now.” I paused, absorbing this new revelation.

“But?” Greg sensed hesitancy in my answer.

“But, in a lot of ways, our relationship—or whatever you want to call it—felt one-sided, like Gavin wasn’t fully invested in me.” I looked down at my hands again, paying special attention to my thumbnail. Placing pressure in the nail bed strangely grounded my emotions. “I wasn’t as special to him as I thought I was,” I finally spoke. The mere thought saddened my heart.

“Then what made you stick around and deal with the rejection?” Greg pried.

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, feeling defeated. “Maybe I thought he’d grow up one day, or maybe I saw potential worth waiting for. Can’t say for sure. I just know we were young, and he was a P.K. We had time—or so I thought.”

“A P.K.?” Greg’s eyebrow lifted into a question mark.

“Pastor’s kid,” I clarified. “We had similar beliefs in God, and that meant a lot to me—even in seventh grade.” I shifted slightly in my seat. “If it was meant to be, I knew God would work it out—eventually. I wasn’t worried.”

Greg nodded. “I see. So, how does your story continue?”

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