Gabby liked the Burger Hut.
Not for the food, the ambience, or the service, but because it was where she had fallen in love with Hamilton. They even had their favorite booth. The second one from the entrance, next to the large front window, which faced the mirror image of the Burger Hut logo painted for the passersby on the other side of the glass. It was perfect. It was where she imagined they would spend their time away from The Gang, snuggling, sneaking in secret kisses, and looking fondly into each other’s eyes.
But not tonight. No. She was alone.
The evening’s events with the animal-loving Russian ended without a bang or a whimper. It ended with a handshake.
Gabby sat in her special booth, staring at an untouched hamburger and fries, and gently rubbed the bandages covering her injured wrists.
The table shuddered as a large body plopped into the seat across from her, interrupting her quiet solace. It was the Russian, but not a Russian.
“I think that went great,” the fake Russian said, his thick accent replaced with an effeminate flair. His real name was Robby McTavish. Showered, clean-shaven, and with his hair slicked back, he looked like a lovable butterball. “I’ve never done a live improvisation like that. I was so nervous. How did I do? Did I do okay? Are you okay? Are you hurt? Did I hurt you? I hope not. We did it just like we blocked it out. Well, most of it. All of those weeks of practice made the fight almost look real. At least, I thought so. Oh my gosh! You don’t look happy. Why aren’t you happy? Was I awful? Did I stink? I knew I should have gone with my Scottish accent! It’s so much more believable. Russian! What was I thinking? I’m a failure. I’m awful. I’m so sorry!”
“You were great,” Gabby said, pulling a folded envelope from her pocket and sliding it across the table. “You were perfect.”
He grabbed the envelope and pulled it to his chest. “That is so nice of you to say. I was so nervous. I sweat when I’m nervous. Did you notice?”
“I’m so sorry. My doctor said it’s a thyroid thing, or hormonal, or something. I don’t know. I doused myself in antiperspirant. I hope no one else noticed.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Hamilton apparently didn’t notice anything. Anything at all.”
Robby slumped, his true persona far more theatrical than his Russian thug. He reached over and grabbed her hand.
“Your master plan didn’t work out, huh?” he asked. “I tried to warn you. You can’t aim Cupid’s bow for him. He’s gotta do it all by his lonesome, on his own time, then, shazam! Hamilton won’t know what hit him.”
Gabby shifted in her seat. “I know.”
“Why not just ask your skinny friend out like a normal person?”
“I tried that.”
“Well, kinda. I almost kissed him while we were hiding a guy from a hitman he’d hired to kill him.”
“Someone hired a hitman to kill Hamilton?”
“No. The guy hired another guy to kill himself… a demented suicide attempt. It’s a long story. I tried to kiss Hamilton then, while hiding out in his uncle’s store, but we got interrupted.”
“Sounds romantic,” he joked.
“Romance isn’t exactly my thing,” she said.
“No,” he said with fake surprise.
“Anyway, I had read that people who share intense experiences make a connection, chemically speaking, in their brain, that brings them closer. You know, because they survived it together.”
He shook his head like a confused grandmother. “What kind of world have you grown up in, child?”
“After the hitman thing, I expected Ham and I would be closer, but it didn’t work out that way. I thought it was because he didn’t do much during the whole hitman deal. He got knocked in the head once, but, most of the time, he just watched it from a distance. So, I figured if he and I shared a similar situation, this time where he would be the hero, he’d, you know, maybe connect with me on a more personal level… a deeper level. Maybe he’d think of me differently. Not as some tough girl who takes on psychopaths, but just a regular girl who needs him to save her.”
“I hate to tell this to you, sweetheart, but you are anything but regular.”
“But I am, Robby. Inside, I’m as screwed up and insecure as everyone else in my sophomore class. I just have different interests than other people.”
He smiled. “I love how you talk about yourself. It oozes with desperate rationalization. I’ll have to use that on my next acting gig.”
“Now Ham’s not responding to any of my texts. I tried to call him, but it went straight to voice mail. I think he’s avoiding me.”
“Well, he did run out of that building like a vampire from sunlight. You kicked off some sort of chemical reaction in his scared little brain, all right, but probably not the one you were hoping for.”
“I know…” she said.
Gabby stared at the table and grew angry. Not with Hamilton or Robby. Or even herself. No, she was mad at God. She wouldn’t have had to come up with her insane plan if he would have just answered her prayers. Months of pleading and bartering hadn’t changed God’s answer. Why could Scott have Melanie, but Gabby not have Hamilton? With all that she’d done for God, why couldn’t he give her this one thing? This one simple thing? She’d faced killers, drowning, concussions, and explosions, all for him, just because he asked her to. Why couldn’t he return the favor? Why couldn’t he say yes to her the way she had said yes to him?
Why can God be such a jerk sometimes?
“Can I tell you something?” Robby asked. “I just have to tell you this.”
“Sure,” she said, trying to equal his enthusiasm.
“When Hamilton noticed me, from my prior television work, I almost flew across the room and hugged him like a panda! Because that meant he saw my commercial for Anderson Dental. You know, the one where I have my mouth open the whole time? Like this?” He leaned back and opened his mouth with an, “Ahhh.”
“Who could forget it?”
“I thought everyone did! Until your skinny little love interest couldn’t take his eyes off me. My mom said she’d notice my molars anywhere, but mothers say a lot of silly things like that. Your friend noticing me? Well, that just made it something I will forever cherish.”
“That goes for one of us. Oh, and I’m sorry about your laptop.”
“Pshaw! That was a piece of crapola. I was going to pitch it anyway.”
“I never asked… what were you having Ham do with it?”
“Oh, he was just moving money from my savings to checking. All of those years working in IT at the bank really came in handy, huh? Just in time too.” He held up her envelope. “With your payment, I will finally have enough to head off to the Big Apple to follow my dreams. It’s all thanks to you, little Gabby, and your misguided chance on love.”
“I wouldn’t put our little performance on your resume, though.”
“Why not? Russian thug. Live improv. Off Broadway.”
“About a thousand miles Off Broadway.”
“Whose to know?” Robby stood, bursting with confidence. “I really think I can do it, Gabby. After today, I really think I can make it in show business.”
She smiled and shook his hand. “You’ll have ‘em screaming from the building.”
He let out a squeaky giggle. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.”
“One more piece of advice, young love. I’m not a religious person, but it seems to me that God’s like the director of our lives, and we’re just bit parts in his longest-running production. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to force his hand, especially on something as important as love. My mom used to say we can’t open doors God wants closed or close the ones he wants open. Our job is to keep knocking, and, eventually, the right knob will turn.”
“She sounds like a wise woman.”
“She’s nuttier than pecan pie. But she does know how to form a phrase.”
“Well, good luck in New York.”
“Gabby…” He gasped in horror, pressing his hands to his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Forget I said that. What I meant to say was break a leg.”
He let out a relieved sigh. “I can’t believe you almost cursed the first big step in my illustrious career.”
“You’ll do great. Knock ‘em dead.”
He smiled. “Stay alive.”
She watched the door close and raised a cold fry to her mouth. All the money in her savings account and any hope of new love followed the fake Russian out of the restaurant.
Even though she felt like it, Gabby wasn’t stupid. She knew she didn’t come off as a normal teenager. She didn’t think like them or dress like them, so she used what she knew best. She replaced shallow flirtations with crisis management. It was the direct approach that should have produced maximum effect. She had run it through her mind a thousand times, helping Robbie craft a Russian thug to be intimidating, but not ferocious. Threatening, but somewhat lovable. Hamilton had to think he had a chance to defeat Gabby’s made-up villain in order for the scheme to work, not wilt under the pressure.
His complete failure crushed her anew.
How pathetic am I?
Her best chance at a relationship was to put her potential boyfriend in a pseudo life-threatening situation on the off chance it’d rewire his brain and cause his testosterone to engage every time he saw her? That was the best she had? It was the only way to turn their friendship into an intimate relationship?
Sad. Horribly sad.
She tossed the fry back onto her plate with disgust. No matter how long since her last meal, she couldn’t find her appetite. It seemed to have run from her stomach as fast as Hamilton sprinted from the Russian.
The following week, God continued to remain silent. So did Hamilton. Gabby could have used the distraction of a divine call or the comfort of a returned text message, but she received neither.
Stuck with nothing but school and her own thoughts, Gabby welcomed the chance to attend the youth group at her church. Father Peters had been asking her to attend for over a year, and Scott had been pushing her since their brush with death atop the Skyway Bridge.
She had avoided it until now. She struggled enough with God’s random requests. By showing up to the church voluntarily, she didn’t want to risk inviting him to use her talents more than he already had. After her catastrophe with the “Russian,” and the silence that followed, she thought she needed a fresh start.
Besides, there was a chance Hamilton would be there.
Maybe, in the presence of Father Peters and all the religious icons, he could find it in his heart to forgive her. Or, at least, talk to her again.
All things are possible with God—even the selfish wants of a rattled teen sleuth.
Her dad dropped her off in the church parking lot. As she approached the parish hall, she spotted Hamilton talking with Scott and Melanie outside the building. Her stomach leapt and her cheeks flushed with anticipation as he headed her way.
Oh my gosh, he’s coming. He’s coming right toward me!
She took a deep breath and forced an air of confidence onto her face. She could do this. If she could take down psychopaths, she could have a simple conversation with one of her best friends.
“Hey, Ham,” she said as he neared. “How are you doing?”
“Good,” he said. “Well, not so good actually. I’m sorry I left you with the scary Russian. How did you get out?”
“I paid him off,” she said.
“Yeah, right. Seriously. How did you escape?”
“I used my feminine charm.”
“So you punched him in the face?” he asked.
“No. I can be feminine, you know.”
“Look, if you don’t want to tell me, then don’t tell me.”
She held her tongue, trying to keep from using her feminine charm on his face. “The past is the past. I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about something more important.”
“Good,” he said with a sigh, “because I wanted to talk to you too.”
“Great! That’s great. What’s on your mind?”
“Um…” He looked down and scraped the ground with his sneaker. “After everything that happened with the Russian, and the other things these past few months, things are different now.”
Her mouth turned dry. “For me, too.”
“I realized something about you and me. Our friendship. I’ve been thinking about it all week. It’s changed. For me, anyway.”
“Me, too,” she said with a hopeful smile.
“The thing is, Gabs… I don’t think we can be friends anymore.”
Tomorrow – Chapter Four
This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey, Lost & Found. and Sins & Suicide,. If you haven’t read the first novel, download it for free. I hope you’ve enjoyed this free sample and let me know what you think in the comments.