Chapter 19

Middle of my eighth-grade year, I fell into the rhythm of staying after school on Friday afternoons. I found purpose and inspiration assisting Ms. Hardwood by grading papers, and she seemed to appreciate the help. It had become one of my favorite pastimes. Grading papers took my mind off home life and also allowed me a sneak peek into some of the responsibilities that would be mine if I chose to be a teacher someday. Despite false allegations threatening my future, the dream of changing the world remained at the forefront of my mind. That meant teaching.

On this particular Friday, students had gone home for the day. Val sat at the back of the classroom at her desk entering grades into her gradebook, and I stared down at several stacks of ungraded assignments spread across several student desks, pondering where to start. “Which ones do you want me to grade first?” I asked, picking up a red pen.

Val glanced over her lesson plans and thought a moment. “I suppose I should hand back the seventh-grade geography tests during class on Monday,” she replied. “Go ahead and do those first.”

“Consider it done,” I answered, rummaging through the piles in front of me.

Locating Map Elements, clipped together at the bottom of the second stack, I held up my find. “Found ’em!” I stated with pride. Pulling out a chair, I sat down at an empty desk and scanned the first sheet. “Anything special I need to know, or is the answer key pretty straightforward this time?”

Val smiled, seemingly intrigued by my enthusiasm. “Answers are pretty cut and dry,” she confirmed. “Only multiple choice.”

“OK. Thanks,” I replied.

About three tests away from me finishing the first set of papers, Val’s voice broke the room’s silence. “So…has anyone special invited you to the eighth-grade banquet, yet?”

I glanced up, catching the twinkle in her eyes. “Define special.” I struggled to keep a straight face.

Val leaned back in her chair, laced her fingers together across her stomach, and watched as I continued to mark papers. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a certain gentleman named Gavin?” she teased. She waited a moment then added, “Yes? No?”

A smirk hinted at the corners of my mouth then turned into an undeniable smile. “Maaay-be.”

“Ahhh! So, I was right.” Her voice singsonged, “Someone has a crush on you.”

Blood rushed to my cheeks, and my grin widened. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I downplayed the moment. “It’s just a date. Everyone in eighth grade is going. It’s no big deal.”

Val shook her head. “Nah. I’m not buying it. Try again,” she encouraged. “There’s more to it than that.”

I continued to grade the test in front of me, pretending to ignore her.

“Well? Are you going to fill me in on the details, or are you just gonna leave me hangin’?” she chuckled.

“Details?” I raised an eyebrow. “You mean like how he had a large teddy bear sitting at my desk this morning when I got to school? Or were you asking about the single red rose the bear was holding with a note tied to it, asking if I’d be his date?”

“Yeah. Those kinds of details,” Val beamed.

“Wait a second…,” I eyed her with skepticism. “What aren’t you telling me?” I looked her in the eye, knowing she couldn’t hide the truth from me. “You already knew the answer, didn’t you?” The twinkle in her eyes sparkled even brighter.

“Well, I did pass your homeroom teacher in the hall this morning,” she confessed, “and I was present when Gavin arrived at parent drop-off before the bell rang—it was kind of hard missing a bear that size coming out of such a small vehicle.” She snickered. “I just put two and two together. That’s all.”

I shook my head, bemoaning her detective work. “He could’ve been asking Jill or Tess or Amber,” I pointed out. “There are a number of other girls who go to this school, too, ya know?”

Val shook her head. “Oh, no. There’s only one you, and he’s been waiting a long time for this moment.” The smug smile on her face enhanced the mischief in her eyes. “So, how does it feel?”

I feigned ignorance. “How does what feel?”

“Oh, you know what I’m talking about,” she countered. “He chose you. That must feel pretty great, right?” Her head bobbed up and down, anticipating my answer.

A Cheshire grin crept across my face. “Yeah, I still can’t believe it. I’m going with Gavin to the eighth-grade banquet. He asked me.”

Val’s smile grew. “Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” She almost sounded as giddy as I felt.

I nodded. “I’d be lying if I said no.”

“Then don’t. Enjoy the moment,” she encouraged. “It’s your eighth-grade banquet, after all. It is a big deal. You have a date.”

“I do…and with Gavin.” I tried wrapping my mind around the thought. This is surreal. What made Gavin ask me? I’m not the prettiest girl in eighth grade, and I’m definitely not the most popular. I shook my head. Am I missing something?

Sitting back up and leaning toward her desk, Val reached for her gradebook. “I’m really happy for you, Kiddo. You deserve some good in your life.”

I met her gaze, absorbing some of her positive energy. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

A sentimental pause preceded her words. “Hey, what are friends for?”

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

Soft petal-pink cotton formed the conservative bodice and tea-length skirt of my custom-designed banquet dress. Delicate, white, rose-cut lace laid on top of the cotton, embellishing the puffed sleeves and main bodice, extending to the waist. Pink satin ribbon defined the lacy outline, and pink pearl-faced buttons fastened up the back—the epitome of femininity and elegance.

Floating into Mom’s and Dad’s bedroom on a natural high and white satin heels, I twirled in front of the full-length mirror, watching my dress swell from the hips and swoosh around my legs as it settled back into place. I felt like a princess and delighted at the sight of my reflection. “It’s perfect!”

Mom stepped up from behind me and tucked a stray tendril around another lock of hair, organizing my long curls into picture-perfect perfection. I closed my eyes while she coated my hair with a layer of hairspray, coughing and waving away a cloud of aerosol. “There. Now you’re ready for your prince,” she smiled.

“Oh! One more thing,” I added. Pulling a pink tube of lip gloss from my white satin clutch, I applied a thin layer of strawberry shimmer to my lips and smacked them together to spread the tint from top to bottom. “There. Now I’m ready.”

Looking at me through the mirror, Mom’s smile broadened. “Gavin won’t be able to take his eyes off you.” She squeezed my shoulders. “Just beautiful!”

I dabbed at a stray tear in the corner of my eye. “Now don’t go messing up my mascara,” I scolded with a grin.

Mom chuckled, turning me to face her. “No worries. You look amazing.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, wrapping my arms around her neck. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”

Dad appeared in the doorway, his masculine voice breaking through our touchy-feely moment. “Do I need to go get my shotgun ready?”

“Dad….” I groaned in teenage fashion. “You don’t own a gun.”

Pride creased the corners of his eyes. “Semantics,” he winked. “You look stunning!” Leaning against the doorjamb, he observed me straighten my shoulders and brush away imaginary wrinkles on my dress, perfecting my appearance.

Turning to face him, I properly curtseyed and presented myself for inspection. “Do you think Gavin will approve?” I fluttered my eyelashes for dramatic effect, shrugging my right shoulder to my ear.

Dad nodded, clearing his throat. “He’d be stupid not to.”

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

From the moment I stepped from the car and met Gavin in front of the school, I became his world. “You look BEAU-TI-FUL!” he exclaimed, mesmerized by my presence. Awe draped itself around his words as he reached for my hand. “May I?” Gently holding my fingers with his, he slipped a gorgeous three-tiered pink rose corsage over my wrist. “The flowers don’t do you justice,” he stated with boldness.

My cheeks warmed as a hint of shyness captured my voice. “Thank you. They’re pretty.” Lowering my eyes, I stared at the petite buds decorating my wrist and tried not to let my nerves get the best of me. The flowers smell divine, and so does he! I mentally absorbed the moment and tried not staring at his face. Charcoal gray sports coat. Pink pressed shirt. Silk tie. Black pleated slacks. Polished cap-toed Oxfords. So handsome! I forced myself to breathe.

Carefully picking up the clear plastic box sitting on the hood of Mom’s car, I pried it open and pulled out Gavin’s boutonnière—a single pink rose, lightly embellished with baby’s breath. Willing my hands to stop shaking, I attempted to pin the flower to his suit jacket. Ignore the fact that he’s staring at you or standing so close he can probably hear your heart pounding out of your chest, I coached myself. This is totally normal. Girls and guys go to formal get-togethers all the time. You’re not the first girl to pin a flower to a guy’s jacket. You can do this. I reached to adjust the petals, straightening the boutonnière. “There, I think that should do it,” I gave my approval. “Sorry it’s not perfect, but I think it’ll stay.”

Gavin covered the flower and my fingers with his hand, meeting my gaze. “Breathe. It’s fine.”

I laughed, returning his smile. “Glad you approve.” Slowly retracting my fingers, I brushed a hint of glitter from my dress.

“We’re going to have a great night,” Gavin announced, “but, first, I think we should get on the bus before we miss our ride.”

Again, I smiled. “I’m ready when you are.” I hooked my hand in the crook of his arm and followed his lead.

“One more thing,” Mom piped in. “I’d like a picture of the two of you together then I’ll be out of your hair. I promise.”

“Absolutely,” Gavin perked up. “Take two or three, if you like. I’d love to get a copy, too, if you don’t mind.”

Mom’s smile widened. “I’ll make sure to print doubles.”

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

Gavin proved to be a complete gentleman the remainder of the evening. He opened doors and waited while I walked into a room ahead of him. He listened intently when I spoke and graciously involved me in all his conversations. When I began fading into the background, he honored me with attentiveness, seeking after my thoughts and respectfully acknowledging my opinions. In the subtlest ways, I mattered; and, that didn’t go unnoticed.

Arriving at our upscale Orlando restaurant destination, I glided into the banquet hall on Gavin’s arm. Jenna and her date, Geoffrey, followed close behind. Sizing up the dining room’s large pillars, high ceilings, and massive crystal chandeliers, Jenna gushed. “This is so glamorous!” Fine cloth linens, pristinely polished silverware, and crystal glasses etched with deep grooves and delicate patterns decorated each place setting at our table. Jenna leaned over her chair before sitting down and tapped the stemware with her fingernail, causing a light tinking sound. “Ooo, it’s the real stuff. A girl could get used to this!” she declared, gracefully standing back up.

“They did a nice job picking out the location,” I agreed, softly thanking Gavin for the chair next to Jenna’s. Folding the linen napkin across my lap, I smoothed out a few wrinkles then rested my hands on top of it.

Gavin pulled out his chair and sat to my right, taking a moment to unbutton his sports coat and straighten his tie. “They sure went all out,” he piped in, adding to the consensus. “Pretty spiffy place here. Good thing we thought to dress up.” An appreciative laugh dispersed over the table.

Martini glasses filled with fancy fruit arrived as our first course. Light green liquid cradled the sculpted melon balls, exuding an aroma like minty mouthwash. Gavin took a small bite of cantaloupe, assessing the unique-smelling entrée. His eyes grew wide, and his chewing diminished to a snail’s pace. Trying to rescue himself from the awkward moment, he coughed slightly and swallowed hard. “I thought kisses were off the table tonight,” he teased, glancing over at me. “I can’t imagine what other reason this place would have for serving mouthwash with dinner.” I pressed my lips shut with my napkin, smothering a rather loud chuckle. The other couples in our group erupted with laughter, as well, causing half the room to turn and look at us.

Geoffrey ignored the attention, consuming a rather big bite from his own portion of fruit. “You’re right, Man! It does taste like mouthwash.” He sputtered, nearly choking on the unexpected taste. “I thought you were kidding.”

“I told you,” Gavin jibed.

“Ooo, gross!” Bethany added. “Who sat around thinking this was a good idea?”

“Whatever this is, it’s not something I would have ever considered putting on my fruit,” Jenna added. “Guess my taste buds aren’t as highfalutin as I thought.” She wrinkled her nose, accentuating her disapproval.

Swallowing a mouthful of honeydew, I winced as the minty liquid burned all the way down my esophagus. Holding my napkin to my mouth once again, I leaned toward Gavin and whispered. “This really is awful!” I poked at the remaining melons in my cup, biting my lower lip.

“Don’t feel like you need to finish on my behalf,” Gavin authorized. “Can’t say I can stomach it, either.”

Jenna chimed in, as if on cue. “I think I’m going to pass on this course. It’s simply too…”

“What? Green?” Geoffrey chided.

“I do not like green eggs and ham,” Gavin comically burst out. Turning to our classmate, he added, “I dare you to finish that sentence, Sam.”

Sam snickered and shook his head. “Nah, Man. You don’t need a sidekick. You’re doing great all on your own.” He jabbed Gavin in the side and nodded toward me. “However, if you’re wanting to add to your act, I’d be looking at keeping this pretty gal as your assistant. She’s makin’ ya look pretty good tonight.” Sam’s eyes flirted with me as he spoke.

“Thank you, Sam. You clean up pretty well yourself,” I reciprocated.

Gavin’s eyes drank in the moment, his focus resting on my lips. “It’s nice seeing you smile,” he lowered his voice. “You light up a room when you’re happy.”

“Well, it helps to have good entertainment,” I deflected.

Giving Gavin a hearty pat on the back, Sam leaned my direction. “We’re expecting you to keep this guy in line tonight,” he teased. “Seems he’s taken a liking to you. Maybe you can use that as leverage.”

I eyed Gavin and cheerfully played along. “I can’t promise anything. You know Gavin.”

Sam let out an animated laugh. “Yeah. We all know Gavin. He just hasn’t found the right girl yet.”

Gavin returned Sam’s nudge and smiled at me. “Yeah, but things may be turning around,” he predicted with an air of confidence. Staring into my eyes, Gavin searched for mutual feelings.

I returned Gavin’s unspoken question with an amused smile. “Maybe they are.”

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