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"How did you do?"
I haven't even made into the church. Squinting, the bright afternoon sun sticking at my eyes, I hold up a shielding hand while assessing the situation. River is meeting me outside, dressed uncharacteristically casual in a t-shirt with several holes, ripped jeans, rubber boots, and rubber gloves. At his side is a rusty old wheelbarrow filled with different types of garden tools. Except for a few escaping strands, his brown hair is held restricted under a black cap reading in silver 'Miracles happen daily in Miracles'. There is a smile playing on his red lips and his eyes, nearly hidden behind his hideous thick glasses, gleam with childish excitement. He is holding out another pair of gloves and I take them with a scowl while I dig for my sunglasses.
"It is too hot to work outside," I complain, not sharing his giddiness, and my body agrees. Tiny beads of sweat are already forming all over my body and beginning to run down my skin underneath my cotton. "You do know that rubber can't breathe… and neither can I at this moment with this heat."
I have decided to disregard what he said yesterday, after contemplating all night and school day. I've concluded that he is an odd one and that it is his business to be so. I have promised to not fall in love with him or attempt to seduce him. This is no problem. I can do that, easily. All I want is from him to save me from mathematic failure.
With steady strong hands, River grabs the handles of the wheel barrow and signals with his head for me to follow. "Today, we tend to the flower beds," he decrees and I have no choice but to follow. He is my boss, at least for another 3 weeks or so. "So, how did you do?"
Assuming he is talking about the math test, I pull it out. "I haven't even checked," I admit truthfully, even though I am utterly aware of how silly I am acting. I just couldn't stand seeing an F circled at the top right corner. "What did you get?"
I shouldn't ask. It will only tick me off.
"An A," he shrugs off, like it means nothing, and I grumble on the inside… and possibly also on the outside. "Go on. Open it. Let's see what you got."
He sets down the barrow and faces me. His brown eyes have an encouraging look to them as I open up the paper and read the circled letter.
"D," I say disappointed and meet his gaze for an explanation. Did he not promise me a good grade? "It's not an F, it's not failing, but it's still horrible. My father will especially not view it as acceptable."
River eyes darken at this, or did the sun's brightness lessen? "Your father's strict?"
I imagine hearing an edge to his usual gentle tone and a red light flashes in my head, urging me to initiate damage control. "It's not like he beats me," I blurt out and I think I see River exhale out with relief, his graveness fading. I shrug uneasy, not comfortable with speaking of my family since there are so many secrets. "He just wants me to try my hardest, do my best. He only has me… because of… once he had …" I'm unable to continue as my voice threatens to choke up. It happens every time I think of him, my brother, even after all these years. "D just isn't good enough," I finish, wanting to divert the conversation from our current topic back to the original.
River takes the bait, or understands and grants my wish, by nodding once and grabbing a small garden tool. "It's a good thing then…" he grins to me, just before he bends down to his knees and begins to dig out weeds. I frown, not seeing what could be good about a D. "… that it was only a practice test."
'Stupid' I call myself irritated.
He looks behind him, up at me, grinning over his shoulder. "Actual tests are always on Fridays, Cara," he educates and I sink.
Playing cool, I smirk. "I knew that. I did," I ensure. I bite my lower lip, fidgeting, feeling foolish. "Ok, so you have 2 more days to get me at least a C."
"I have?" He teases and chuckles. "I do believe it will acquire some effort from you, as well."
Not able to hold back a laugh, I bend down on the opposite end of the flower island and together we work on removing every little pesty weed from around the decorative plants. One after the other, each flower bed is cleared of all unwanted greenery. The setting sun continues to beat down relentlessly, making our skin sticky and moist. My cotton shirt clings to my limbs and it is the same for River.
At least, I have my sunglasses which is more than I can say for him. "You know if you got contacts, you could wear sunglasses."
He stops working, his tiny shovel half way buried in the black dirt. "I have a hat."
"Yeah, but sunglasses are better, cooler. Those glasses are so… they look… you could be…"I search for the right words, not thinking it's wise to insult my tutor.
"They're what?" He insists, asking for it and takes the glasses off with his rubber clad fingers. At arm's length, he holds them out and inspects the lenses critically. "What's wrong with them?"
I debate and then decide that someone should tell him, for his own good. "They're ugly," I exclaim.
His arms drop to his knees where he lets the glasses rest. Watching me, waiting for me to say something further, he frowns.
Explicitly, I continue to express my opinion and ask the most basic question. "Why do you wear them?"
"Because I can't see without them, Cara," he says, not angry or even hurt, yet there is tension.
I feel a little bad but not bad enough because I am doing him a favor. "You know there's this great new invention called contacts. They will do the same thing as those ugly dinosaurs." His gaze falls to the 'dinosaurs' in his lap and the guilt creeps in. Maybe I shouldn't have been so harsh? "Look, I just think you'd look better without them. But hey, your choice."
He looks back up at me and I can see that in his stance there is nothing other than confidence and sureness. If I have hurt him, offended him, wounded his pride, or in any other way insulted him, he is not showing it. Perhaps this is just the case; I have no effect on him what so ever. He is so sure of himself and who he is and what he will become in life that others cannot rock him.
I'd be lying if I said that I didn't envy him.
"And, this is important… to look good?" He asks and I blink, so wrapped up in my thoughts.
I pull off my sunglasses, securing them on top of my head in my long brown hair, so I can see him better. "Well yeah, of course, it's important to look good. We are constantly judged based on our looks. This is the reality of things, River."
Is he really this clueless and removed from everyday life? Or again, does he just not care? As a teenager, how is it possible not to care? As a member of a judgmental society, how is it possible not to care?
He observes me calmly, and then rises to walk over to one of the church's large windows. In the setting sun, a mixture of light and shade falls over the surface and a clear reflection of him is produced.
"Come here, Cara," he calls and I obey, somewhat curious. I halt next to him, not too close, and together we stare at our window image. "We are who we are, how we were created by God, no matter what we wear. Do you not agree, Cara?"
I shrug, not sure what to say, not sure where he is headed with this and if I agree.
"Not matter your clothes, your shoes, your jewelry, or your accessories, your true self remains what it is."
I smirk, thinking I know what cliché is approaching. "Is this an inner beauty lecture? Aren't you a little young for that?"
Then again, this is River we are talking about, the Reverend's son, and the one who disillusioned had me promise not to fall in love with him. He is definitely not like other boys our age.
Soberly, he keeps his intense gaze on our reflection. "Sure, inner beauty is the most important quality, but I am talking about real outer beauty. You either have it or you don't. It cannot be taken away or be gained by tricks such as makeup or usage of items such as thick glasses." He holds up his glasses to me, offering them smiling. I withdraw, just an inch or two, yet it is a clear statement. "No one is watching, Cara, none of your 'cool' friends," he teases and I give him a warning scowl.
Reluctantly, I take them. I refuse to show any weakness or act ungenerous. If he is willing to give of himself, than I can afford to do the same. What harm will it do? I have over 3 weeks left with him.
The glasses feel heavy on my nose, pressing into my flesh and I am certain an indent is being created. "How do you wear these all day and not get a headache?" I complain.
"Look at yourself," Rivers asks of me, ignoring my wining.
I resist another smart ass comment and do as he asks. I find that the glasses make me look younger, possibly smarter, and they certainly do not fit my face. In fact, they take up such a large part of my face that they dominate my features.
"See?" River says and I focus, yet not sure what I am supposed to see. I doubt I see what he sees. "You are still beautiful…" he surprises me by saying. That I had not expected. "… despite the glasses. No matter your clothes, your hairstyle, or your ornaments, you will always be beautiful, Cara. So you see, it really doesn't matter, does it?"
I look at myself again, trying to see it the way he does. Sighing, handing the dinosaurs back to him, I give up. We are just too different to see anything the same. Besides, how did the conversation turn towards me? And, why was he telling me that I am beautiful? Wasn't he the one who said that there was to be no romantical…
River leaps away from me, even though we were standing several spaces apart, and pales. "Mmmmoother," he stutters and I have to hold back a giggle. He is acting as if his mother caught us doing something wrong. "I didn't realize you were done with your bible study meeting."
His mother offers a courteous smile my way and I get the feeling that she is scrutinizing me. "Cara, isn't it?"
I nod in reply. Another smile, coming off as rehearsed and forced. A wave of disapproval crashes over me as she moves closer, passing me to stand between us. It's evident all over her; she does not like me being around her son. River wasn't kidding when he said they were strict about his interaction with girls.
'The poor boy is going to die a virgin,' I think to myself and I almost lose my cool façade.
"The flower beds look lovely, River," she approves and extends a hand to rest on her son's forearm.
Jealously, I watch them, wishing that my mother would once again show such open display of affection for me.
"It wasn't just me, mother. Cara has worked hard and deserves your praise equally."
Yet another polite smile flashes, briefly before it is distinguished. "Of course, River, you are right. Thank you, Cara, dear."
'Dear', I shiver, the sensation travels all the way down my back like smiley finger tips.
"No problem, Mrs. Mills. Besides, River and I have a deal. I help out and he helps me with my math."
Shock paints Mrs. Mills face. "Oh!" She stirs and the naughty side of me grins maliciously.
River must not have told her. Still worried about how they will react. I rest my eyes on him and he meets my gaze solidly yet then raises a finger behind his mother's back to his lips. He is asking for my indiscretion, my understanding, and my silence.
I shrug, on the inside and on the outside. His parents equal his problems. I have enough to deal with when it comes to my own.
River and I go inside and sit down at the same table as yesterday, yet it is not the same. The smiles and the jokes are no more. Instead, he takes great care to ensure that he sits across from me, that our knees never touch, and that when he shows me a problem, our fingers never accidently brush against one another. Even his gaze, where he places it, is guarded. Mostly, it is on the books or it follows the movements of the pencils. I notice how tense he is, how stiff is shoulders are and how his face is creased with concentration.
River's change is not so strange. For in the back of the church, she lurks, watching our every move, and listening to our every word. I have her spooked, scared, and nervous for her son's virtue. Her mama bear behavior causes me to wonder, even though I really shouldn't care; is she like this with every girl in River's proximity? Or, is there something about me that has her so riled up?
I debate on telling her that she has nothing to worry about, that I have no interest in her son, but I can't find the right words. Besides, I owe her no peace of mind. Let her stress and worry. In fact, maybe I'll even flirt with River just to get a reaction out of her… just for fun… to see what River would say or do… just for fun… not for any other reason.