Submission for the Featured Story.
There had never been anything particularly special about Gretchen Waverly. She had no spectacular skills that would earn her renown, nor was she anything of a beauty. Her teeth had been aligned with the help of braces and her eyesight demanded that she wear her wire-framed glasses every day. She could speak no other languages, the grades she earned were fair at best, and the hair on her head was bushy so that she subconsciously tried to flatten it when boys were around.
Making friends had never been a strong suit of Gretchen's but she had a handful of kindred outcasts with whom she could eat lunch. Riding the bus while the other kids drove their cars was a sore spot on the redhead's pride but she passed the time with a book poised on her knee so as to deter attention of any kind until the yellow prison rolled up to the duplex she shared with her dad and sister.
The windows were shut on the bus but did little to keep out the cold, so Gretchen sat as far away on the seat as possible. Her fraying backpack leaned against the cold metal, still open from where its owner had retrieved her book; the best social armor she had. The overcast winter sky made the light insufficient at best, but she did not consent defeat. Instead, she held the book precisely where she had the day before, and the day before that, falling into her routine with the ease of a practiced professional.
"I can tell you're not reading," an unfamiliar voice behind her taunted.
Gretchen's bushy hair swayed as her head snapped up to look over her shoulder. Grinning at her from the seat catty-corner was a total stranger, a boy she had never seen before in her life. Pushing her glasses up her nose, Gretchen turned back around to continue staring at her book.
"You know how I can tell?" he asked, not content to let her fall back on her ploy.
Her cheeks flamed angrily and she shrugged a shoulder.
"Because I didn't turn the page?" she replied dryly.
The boy laughed.
"Nope. Your eyes aren't moving."
Gretchen then watched in horror as the boy moved to sit in the seat directly across from her. He was around her age as far as she could tell, wearing a bright yellow coat and a faded red skull cap under which black hair sprouted. She thought he looked like a dirty banana split.
"Does this mean you've been watching me?" she spluttered shrilly, the flush on her cheek returning once more, though whether it was from embarrassment or incredulity she could not say. She felt exposed and stupid, her heart beating in her chest as if someone had happened upon her darkest secret. She was hiding in plain sight and a total stranger had noticed. Never before had she expected anyone would notice her, let alone a boy, and here this intruder had seen right through her armor.
"I haven't been staring if that's what you mean," came his reply. "I just noticed you were my age, unlike some of other kids on here." He thumbed towards the rear of the bus where several junior high kids were busily shouting and clamoring.
Gretchen couldn't help but share a little grin with the boy, though she tried to mask it with a well place cough. She then tried to smooth her hair, unsuccessful as the attempts had always been in the past, her hand never failed to try again in vain hope that a vigilant heart would prevail. The pair sat in silence for a moment or two until the bus came to a stop in front of an apartment complex and the boy stood to join the line of kids getting off.
"My name's Jeremy, by the way," he said as a sort of impromptu parting introduction.
"Gretchen" she answered automatically.
He was walking further forward when she found herself blurting out, "I don't always pretend to read! I mean, I usually read for real, it's just dark today." She didn't know why she'd said it, but she had and found that there were no pangs of remorse for having done so.
Jeremy looked over his shoulder, preparing to descend the stairs at the front when he heard her. He grinned. "See you around." And then he was gone.
Gretchen watched his yellow form walk towards the nearest building of the complex with his hands deep in his pockets until the bus put him out of sight as it trundled down the road. With a crisp wine, she zipped up her book in her backpack and stared out the window, the makings of a smile creeping up the corners of her mouth.
It was too dark to read anyway.