Chapter 18

“Good evening, ladies. Nice surprise seeing you here.”

Twirling about to face our guest, I presented Gavin with my best smile. “Hey, you! What are you doing here?” My heart skipped a beat, not expecting to hear his inviting voice. Dabbing a napkin at my nose, I prayed the redness on my face had disappeared.

“Just stoppin’ by to see some of the guys play ball,” he answered. “Didn’t expect to run into you here. When did you become a sports fan?” He flashed a flirtatious grin, nudging me in the arm to make physical contact.

I playfully punched him back on his biceps, acknowledging his good humor. “What? You mean I can’t enjoy watching the guys, too?”

Gavin turned several shades of pink and released a chuckle. “Good one.” Noting Val, he added, “Ms. Hardwood.”

“Gavin.” Val returned his greeting. “Nice seeing you, Sir.”

Gavin smiled then turned and scanned the field, waving hello to a couple friends in the dugout.

“Oh, Gav, you’re here! I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it,” Jill cooed, walking up beside him. “They’re already in the third inning.” Tall, slender, and blonde, Jill looked like a model straight off the pages of some trendy teen magazine. Peach-perfect complexion and dazzling blue eyes accentuated her stunning beauty.

What guy wouldn’t like that? I mused.

She linked her arm with Gavin’s and pretended to own him. “Oh, hi, Hope! I didn’t see you there.” She batted her long lashes, barely tolerating my presence.

Sure you didn’t, I refrained from talking. You’ve only spent the entire school year snubbing me, whispering behind my back, and pretending I don’t exist. You must really hate that Gavin and I are friends. I forced a pleasant smile, hearing Mom’s voice in my head. “Now, Hope, look for the positive in people.”

Squaring my shoulders, I chose to remain polite. “Hi, Jill. I like your outfit. You look very pretty today.” Eyeing her skintight designer jean shorts and sheer fuchsia blouse, I performed the expected niceties with all the grace I could muster. The kindness in my voice surprised even me.

“Oh, this ol’ thing?” she giggled. “Just a little something I had in my closet.” She waved my compliment away with the flick of her wrist. “We should be going now, Gavvie? We don’t want to keep our peeps waiting.” She flung her hair over her left shoulder then began stroking his arm.

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. Why do guys fall for this? I wondered, plastering on a fake smile. Two seconds, and her syrupy sentiments are enough to make your teeth rot.

Gavin offered up an apology with his puppy dog eyes. “Guess we’ll catch up later?” He briefly studied my face.

“Guess so,” I replied. Like I have a choice?

I glanced down at Jill’s hand on Gavin’s arm. He patted her fingers, then they turned and headed down the sloping embankment to meet their friends. “Good night, ladies,” he politely called over his shoulder. “Enjoy the rest of the game.”

“Night.” I returned a casual response, trying to ignore the knot forming in my stomach.

Val waited for Gavin to be out of earshot. “I bet that was hard to do.”

“Huh?” Lost in my head, I came back to the present.

“Watching him walk away with another girl,” she clarified.

“Who, Gavin? Oh, no. We’re just friends,” I insisted, sitting down on the bench. “Just good friends.” Val sat down beside me.

“I don’t think he knows that,” she replied.

“Really? That’s kind of hard to believe,” I countered. “I’m not his type.” I watched a young boy near home plate drag an abandoned bat through the red clay and back to the dugout, letting my shoulders slump.

“And what type would that be?” I could hear the smile in Val’s voice, even though I didn’t turn to look at her.

“I don’t know. Prim and proper? Super stylish? Trendy clothes? One that hangs with the popular crowd?” I shrugged. “I’m just the girl next door. Nothing special here.”

Val chuckled. “I have a feeling Gavin would disagree. He thinks you’re something very special.”

I let out a long sigh, my gaze landing on the group hanging out with Gavin and Jill. “Coulda fooled me.”

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

As I stood to leave the ballfield, Val reached out her hand and slipped a piece of paper into my palm, closing my fingers around it. “I know I may not be your teacher any more, but if you ever need a listening ear, I’ve got two of them.” She tapped the edge of her right ear. Nodding at my hand, she added, “Use that number if you ever need to get ahold of me. I’m pretty good at answering my phone, and I always return my messages.”

I stepped over the first bench then turned and displayed a sheepish grin. “You’re a great listener. Thanks for allowing me to vent this evening.”

Val’s eyes held tenderness and understanding. “You’re welcome. Glad I could be here. I know how overwhelming it can feel.”

“Yeah, it’s almost like carrying around an actual weight, sometimes,” I admitted. “It’s very tiring.”

Val appreciated my struggle. “I get that,” she answered. “Our bodies weren’t built to live in long-term fight or flight situations. Sadly, you’ve been inundated with ’em.”

“Yeah, someone else can have a turn now.” I forced a grin.

“Promise me one thing,” Val requested. An impenetrable mystique shrouded her expression.

“What’s that?”

She studied my face a moment. “Promise me you’ll never do anything stupid.”

I laughed, swatting at a fly near my right ear. “What do you mean by doing something stupid?” I scrunched my nose, perplexed by the unusual request. “I might be stressed out at times, but I’m not suicidal,” I assured her.

A soft smile lightened her eyes. “I know. I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about then—later on when the time comes.” She paused a second time, visually securing my attention. “When life becomes overwhelming and more than you can handle—you know, that place where you just want to throw in the towel? Don’t. Make a decision right now to ask for help. Don’t act on impulse or allow your feelings to rule the moment. Reach out. Speak up. Let somebody know you’re at the end of your rope—no matter when that moment arrives. OK?”

I nodded slowly, weighing the reality of her words.

“You have my number now. Use it,” she instructed. “Any time. Day or night. And, if not me, find someone else you trust; but, whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid. Promise?”

I nodded again, overcome by her concern. “I promise, but what makes you think I might—do something stupid, that is?” I glanced around my surroundings, suddenly feeling conspicuous. Do I look crazy or something?

Val shrugged. “Guess I know life. The devil is real, and trials and heartaches are a part of his arsenal. He will try to destroy anyone and everyone who puts their faith in God, and he spares no expense.” Softening her voice, her posture followed suit. “Everyone has a breaking point; so, I guess what I’m saying is, when you find yourself at yours, don’t do anything you’ll regret. Have a backup plan. Don’t be alone in the moment. Surround yourself with positive people; and, remember, you don’t have to go through it by yourself. Be strong enough to lean on someone else if you need to.” She gave me a moment to digest her words. “I’d be happy to be that person for you if you need me to be, but just make sure you have somebody.”

Between deep fears and anxious thoughts cloaked in thick darkness, I had contemplated life and death more than once. But how did she know that? I wondered. I don’t want to die. I just don’t have the strength to keep living at times. There’s a difference in that, right? I waited for the catch; but, strangely, there didn’t seem to be one. “You’d do that for me?” I finally spoke.

She solidified her commitment with a simple nod. “I would, and I will.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I whispered the sincerest words I could find. “Thank you.”

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