Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 7 months, 1 week, 4 days
It was a beautiful night in Oasis Springs. The sun had already dipped into the horizon, allowing everything to cool. Too bad Kevin and Juliana weren’t on a date. It would have been a perfect night for a long walk. Instead, they were headed to Palmetto High School for a town hall meeting.
“You went to school here?” Juliana asked.
Kevin stopped and peered up at the old building towering over them. “Yep. This is my alma mater.”
He opened the door for her, and they went in. It felt strange to be back inside his high school. The halls of Palmetto High didn’t bring back many fond memories. In the beginning of his tenure there, Kevin’s mother had died recently. He was an orphan being raised by his uncle who seemed less than thrilled about being his guardian. Kevin didn’t have many friends and never cared to go to the reunions. He hadn’t been back to the school since graduation.
Kevin let Juliana walk ahead of him, and he watched her discover parts of his unknown past. She was amazed at the largeness of the school and probably felt like it was a castle or something compared to her tiny school.
“It looks just like TV,” she said in amazement.
He chuckled and thought it was cool that she still found things to be amazed by after all this time.
Before she got too far ahead, he grabbed her hand. “It’s in here.” He gestured to the double doors to their right.
She looked nervous. “Oh.”
He smiled and led her to the side so they wouldn’t block the door. “What’s wrong?” He knew, but he wanted her to say it.
She couldn’t even look him in the eyes. “I don’t want to talk.”
Kevin wanted to laugh and hold her tight at the same time. “You don’t have to! We talked about this…”
“What if they ask questions and I don’t know?”
He held her by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Everything will be fine, Juliana. I’ll handle it. Just…smile, ok?”
She nodded. He placed his hand on the small of her back and led her into the lunchroom.
“Smile,” he whispered.
They took the first free seats they saw in the front. The faint greasy smell of oil tickled his nose. He chuckled at the idea of the students receiving the same crappy meals he was served 15 years ago. Judging from the smell in the air, pizza and French fries was still their specialty.
Kevin came out of nostalgia mode and greeted the others at their table. A man returned the greeting but eyed him suspiciously. Did he recognize him or something? Within a few minutes, a short, round man in a striped suit waddled to the front of the room and addressed them; he must have been the councilman. He cleared his throat a few times. Kevin’s face wrinkled when it sounded like one of his lungs would come out.
“Ok, let’s get started. First item on the docket…ehhh…oh, there’s only one item. Ok…a petition to rezone land use the former Rattlesnake Bar to an art gallery. I’ve asked the new owners of the building to come and present their plans for your consideration.”
“I shoulda known something was up when the suits walked in,” the man who was suspicious of Kevin said.
The councilman gestured to Kevin, giving him the floor. Kevin nodded at Juliana, and they stood in front of the room.
“Smile,” he whispered.
He stood behind the podium with Juliana forcing a smile by his side. “Good evening. My name is Kevin Garland, and this is my partner, Juliana Sepulveda. We are the owners of Galleria Sepulveda, and we would love if you would allow us to bring our art gallery to Oasis Springs.”
Various looks and snorts of disapproval spread throughout the room, but they didn’t stop Kevin.
“Both of us are serious patrons of the arts. It’s drastically changed our lives, and we want to share our love of art with the community.”
A man stood and yelled, “We don’t want it!”
Inside, Kevin was startled, but he kept it together on the outside. He knew there would be some push-back because the original petition to the zoning board had failed months ago. When he inquired about why his request was denied, he was told the board would need consideration from the community to make a decision. That would mean a town hall meeting. Ever since then, Kevin had been watching for signs around town advertising town hall meetings and their subjects. Finally, two weeks ago, he saw the one for his petition. A week later, someone from the zoning board called and invited him to speak to the community.
Kevin added a bit more passion to his speech in hopes of winning them over. “Art is so enriching. It’s beneficial in so many ways! Art can relieve stress, engage the theater of the mind, and evoke meaningful discussions…”
“It also costs an arm and a leg,” the man from their table said. “Ain’t nobody ’round here have money to be wasting on no art. Nobody ‘cept you, Mr. Skyward Palms.”
Looking around the room, Kevin saw he had lost control. He was no stranger to presentations and having an audience, but he always spoke to groups who were already interested in what he had to say. Half the people weren’t paying attention and conversed among themselves. One guy had been oggling Juliana all night like he was willing her into looking in his direction. At one point, Kevin could have sworn he saw the councilman sleeping. Unbelievable.
He attempted once more to connect with them. “I understand your concern. I went to this high school, and I grew up in Bedrock Strait. I know what it’s like to feel as though something is unattainable, but–“
“But nothing,” the angry man yelled. “You have your money now! You’re out of touch with us!”
Kevin was so charismatic and good at what he did. He hadn’t felt like a failure in a long time. Failing at work meant not landing a deal and moving onto the next one. But, these people attacked his character, and they didn’t even know him. They saw only his expensive clothes and how he spent part of his money and assumed they knew him. Was there any truth to what they said though? Had he lost touch with his humble beginnings? He didn’t think so with all the time he spent helping Juliana get established. He helped because he understood her struggle, but maybe it wasn’t enough. He left the old neighborhood never to return as if he were escaping from prison. He always said he would never forget where he came from, but the community did not remember him. Maybe he should have gone back, but what would he do? He wasn’t the type to give handouts to people. Maybe he should have spent more time doing charitable things in his own backyard instead of traveling across the globe to help people he couldn’t even speak to. He couldn’t lose these people, but he wasn’t sure how to recover. Losing this opportunity would ruin everything. He wasn’t concerned about losing the money he already sunk into the project. He was concerned about letting Juliana down.
Her arm brushed against him as she stepped toward the center of the room. He wanted to grab her or tell her to come back, but part of him was curious as to what she would say or do. Earlier, she panicked because she didn’t want to talk in front of a crowd, but it looked like she was going to do exactly that. He hoped she knew what she was doing.
Like magic, she had everyone’s attention. Not that she wasn’t charming, but it had to be the accent.
The sarcastic man snorted. “He got some girl fresh off the boat for this?”
“Ok,” the woman next to him said, “now you’re being rude. Why don’t you just listen to what these people have to say?”
Kevin wanted to knock the beard off him.
“I am not from here…you can tell.”
A few people chuckled. Kevin couldn’t believe how fast she was winning them back and was in awe of how quickly she conquered her fears to come to his rescue.
“I am from Monte Vista. It is not a good place. We were very poor. People like us were not to be interested in art. It was only for the rich. But, I could not help liking it. My parents did not tell me not to like it, so I painted. They could not afford supplies, but they still wanted me to do it.”
“I took classes in school. They were my favorite. Monte Vista is so violent and poor…we lost so many family members…”
Kevin thought for sure this would be the part where she lost it and readied himself to comfort her, but she kept going. He was so proud.
“I had many feelings I couldn’t express, so I painted.”
Most everyone was paying attention by then, and he was glad.
“My mother sent me here to have a good life, but I had nothing. I slept in the park and shower at the gym. I couldn’t speak Simlish. I was scared. The only time I was happy was when I painted at the museum.”
Some guy from the back wanted a front row seat to Juliana’s speech. Kevin appreciated his attentiveness but he hoped he didn’t get too close.
“I met a friend…Harriett…”
A few faces softened at the mention of the name. They must have known her. Kevin wanted to hold Juliana’s hand, but it wouldn’t have been professional. After all, he introduced her as his partner not his girlfriend.
“She helped me…took me into her home. She taught me Simlish and so many things. Then I met Kevin.”
She turned around and smiled. He winked at her. He had no idea where she was going with any of it, but he enjoyed every second of it.
“He took me to an art club, and I could express myself with others who understood. Art isn’t about who can enjoy it and who shouldn’t. It is about how we feel. We are not selling art. We are…we are…ummm…”
Oh no. She was getting stuck, and Kevin didn’t know how to help. If only he could anticipate what she was going to say he could throw out a word for her, but she was on her own.
“…We are…having a place…for artist to show expression…so you can feel what we feel.”
People clapped. They actually applauded Juliana! Not everyone, of course, but she had done it. She won them over!
“Thank you, folks, for coming out,” the councilman said. “If anyone has any comments about this petition, please come see me. Have a good night!”
The noise level in the room tripled as people began talking and scraping chairs across the floor.
“Juliana,” her fan in the orange hat called like he knew her.
Kevin watched carefully. He didn’t want to have to rough up a crazy stalker.
“Genji?” she said.
Another man tried to get Kevin’s attention to learn more about the gallery, but he was watching Juliana’s admirer.
“Oh, yeah,” Genji said. “I guess I look different out of the uniform. How are things at the library? I heard you’re in charge now.”
Kevin was glad she did know the guy. He relaxed and tried to pay attention to the man in front of him.
“Things are…they will get better. I have much to learn,” she said.
“I’m not sure how I could help, but let me know if you need anything.”
She smiled. “Ok.”
“You did a fantastic job tonight, by the way.”
She sure did, Kevin thought.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I didn’t know you were an artist.”
She smiled and nodded.
“Well, I can’t wait to come see your work.”See ya around?”
“Me too. It should be soon.”
“That’s awesome! I love the museum, but all that stuff in there is so old. It’ll be nice to have something fresh.”
Kevin was still eavesdropping and felt relieved that someone got it. If there were more people like him, perhaps the zoning board would make the right decision.
“Well…let me get out of here. We both have early mornings. I’ll see ya around.”
“Ok. Bye bye.”
“Take care, Juliana.” Genji walked away.
“How do you feel?” Kevin asked.
She simply smiled and nodded.
He patted her shoulder. “You wanna get out of here, or do you want to talk to more of your fans?”
She laughed and lead the way out of the lunchroom. They made it almost down the hall before someone else called Juliana’s name.
“Hello,” she said stiffly.
“I think what you guys are doing is totally rad,” he said, maintaining eye contact with her.
She laughed nervously. “Thank you.”
The guy didn’t look like he had anything in particular to say, so Kevin inserted himself into the conversation. Extending his hand to him, he said, “I’m Kevin. Glad you’re on board.”
The guy shook his hand but didn’t take his eyes off Juliana. “So like, it’s so cool you came all the way here from another country and stuff. That would make a totally kickass story. Can I, like, interview you sometime?”
Kevin let a snort escape his nose. It was so obvious what kind of interview he wanted to do with her. “What publication are you from?”
“The Oasis Springs Chronicle?” Kevin asked in disbelief.
This guy’s writing must have been stellar because his journalism skills totally sucked.
The guy pulled out a business card from his back pocket and gave it to Juliana. “I hope you’ll consider giving me a call. I’d love to write your story.”
She glanced at Kevin with an awkward smile. He hadn’t seen that look before but knew she was asking for help. Whether she didn’t like the guy, or the interview proposition freaked her out, it was time for them to leave.
“We’ll think about it,” Kevin said, put his arm around Juliana, and headed for the door. “Have a good night.”
Once they were back into the cool night air, Juliana asked, “What did he want?”
He looked at her coyly. “He wanted to be your new boyfriend.”
She looked askance. “No…”
Kevin laughed as he opened the car door for her. “Yes! He was totally flirting with you.”
“You didn’t see the way he looked at you? And how he never looked at me? He sooooo wanted to do a long, in-depth interview with you over dinner…at his place…candlelight.”
She shoved him. “Stop it.”
He laughed and started the car. “And then, for dessert, he’d try and kiss your lips.” He made a kissing face at her.
She laughed and punched his shoulder. “Stop this!”
He put the car in gear and left the parking lot. “Ow! You better hope he doesn’t write about how abusive you are in his article. We can’t have any bad press before we open, Juliana. Geez!”
She laughed even harder. He drove a few miles down the road to the park. It was getting late, and they only had time for a quick meal.
After the laughter died down, she asked, “But, what did he ask me?”
“He said he wanted to interview you for the newspaper.”
“The newspaper?” She sounded shocked. “Why should I be in the newspaper?”
After he parked, he leaned over and kissed her. “Because you’re amazing.”
They exited the car and entered the park hand in hand.
By the time Juliana had gotten her first bite, Kevin had devoured half of his burger. She snickered as pleasurable moans escaped his mouth.
“Mmmmm, this park has, like, THE best burgers,” he said.
She shook her head at him. “You miss lunch still?”
He paused mid-bite like a dog that had been caught about to make a mess; he was so guilty.
“You need to eat!”
He smiled mischievously. “Yes ma’am.”
She tried to go back to her meal but felt him gazing at her. When she looked up, he was looking her so admirably. She knew what she had done and why he looked at her that way. He didn’t need to tell her for she had been in the spotlight enough that night. Still, whatever would come from his mouth, she would treasure it.
“You were so awesome tonight, Juliana. We won’t know what the board decides for a while, but I think you totally saved our bacon.”
She snickered. “Bacon?”
He smirked. “Don’t ask. I guess it goes back to the farming days…. You really were amazing though. How did you do it?”
“They weren’t nice. And they wouldn’t listen.” She shrugged. “I felt like saying something.”
“I’m so glad you did. I’m proud of you.”
She smiled and went back to her burger. Three weeks ago, she set out to change her life. She had a long way to go, but little by little she regained control. Juliana had always dreamed of being the kind of person who was fearless and got stuff done. She wasn’t there yet, but she enjoyed knowing she could be that person one day.
The spotlight blinded her, so she changed the subject to the first thing that came to mind. “Axel came for dinner last night. He doesn’t stay long when he comes, but he stayed longer this time. Harold was happier.”
Kevin ceased devouring his burger as if someone yelled “STOP” inside his head. His jaw stiffened as he swallowed the bit of food in his mouth. She even noticed his eyes narrowing. What happened? Surely he wasn’t still jealous of Axel. She and Kevin were in an official relationship now, so whatever perceived danger he thought she was in had passed.
After pinching his eyes closed and taking a deep breath, Kevin took another bite. “How’s Trisha been acting?” he asked with his mouth full.