chapter eighteen

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After yesterday's photo intervention, I went to bed with a smile that I couldn't seem to rip off my face. My stomach fluttered slightly, as though tens of butterflies were trying to escape.

It seemed that I was having this foreign experience called feelings.

If they weren't feelings, they sure as hell were nothing I had experienced with Jeffrey, as the closest we had gotten to those was reading about them in our neurobiology textbooks together.

I found myself thinking disgustingly lovey thoughts as I tossed around in bed, because it was the first time I had considered a real relationship with him. Not one that would end with either of us heartbroken and certainly not one that'd fall more under the category of friends with benefits.

The aversion to the latter was because my parents would have very simply killed me.

"So, Samar, how are things with you and Ben going?" My mother raised a nosy eyebrow as we stood in the line for the safari ride at Animal Kingdom, which according to Ben, I had desperately requested to go on. I tried to ignore my nerves by texting Aimee, but my parents interrupted that with questions about Ben.

"Pretty good, actually," I answered, sliding my phone into the back pocket of my skinny jeans. "We're testing out civility." My mom laughed and shook her head while my dad seemed slightly unconvinced.

"So, everything is good?" His intonation made it obvious he was waiting for more information.

"Baba, you're staying a room across from us," I said, crossing my arms. "But if you're concerned, no, we're not hooking up, sneaking in vodka, or elaborately plotting each other's murders."

He smiled, the creases in his forehead dissipating. Wrapping an arm around me, he said, "I have raised you right, amari." I fought the urge to roll my eyes but hugged him back, because even as much as my parents' overbearingness got to me, they were too caring to disappoint.

Ben moved away from his brother towards me, placing his hand on the shoulder of my blouse and smiling at my parents. They whispered something to each other and I was sure it was something along the lines of, "I told you they are going to get married."

"I'm glad we've kept up the diplomacy so far," Ben said in my ear.

"Don't set your hopes too high. If one of us has to be sacrificed to hungry carnivores, it's gonna be you, buddy." I kept a wide smile on my face to make my parents think I was making less morbid of a statement.

"What the hell goes on in your brain?" he grumbled back, dropping his hand from my shoulder and scooting away from me.

Ben sat next to me on the ride, and I spent the first five minutes telling him my last wishes in case a carnivorous animal got to me first.

"Would you stop exaggerating?" he had said, rolling his eyes until they almost disappeared in his head. "We haven't even seen a single animal yet." He was right, since the first part of the ride had consisted of the tour guide telling us droning facts about wildlife while my parents argued about the differences between a rhinoceros and a hippopotamus.

Speaking of hippos, there were a couple floating in the lake to our left, our first animal sighting of the ride.

"Mommy, look, those are what Grandma said Grandpa is starting to look like!" Ella called to my sister, jutting her finger to the lake. Ben and I snorted, clasping hands against our mouths while Leila looked like she wanted melt into her seat.

"Glad to know she's taking after her uncle," Ben remarked, reaching forward to ruffle her hair. Leila swatted him away, telling him not to encourage her. Ella did have Ben's same shit-eating grin spreading across her face.

The drive through the wild continued, leading us past tall grasses and scattered birds. I was beginning to think we weren't going to see any more large animals, until a family of giraffes casually walked by to our right.

"A fun fact about giraffes," our tour guide began, making a wide turn on the narrow road. "They can spend up to twenty hours a day eating."

Didn't know that I was secretly a giraffe as a child, I thought, which explained my appearance in Ben's first Facebook photo.

The safari ride wasn't turning out to be as bad of an experience as I had thought, as the animals had all kept to themselves. I ended up thinking too soon, as five minutes later, we were entering the wild cats zone.

"To your right, you should be able to see the fastest land animal, the cheetah, which can run over seventy miles an hour." When I slowly glanced over at the tour guide's request, my heat dropped to my stomach, because in reality, there was nothing stopping that cheetah from using its speed to come maul us.

"Holy shit, Ben," I said shakily, gripping onto his arm. "They're gonna comes eat us! I don't like this any more."

"They're not even looking at you, Samar," Ben huffed, placing his hand atop mine. "I thought you said you were starting to enjoy this ride?"

"When we were looking at cute pink flamingos!" I cried, almost on the verge of tears.

Mumbling under his breath, he said, "Then I don't think you're going to like what it's in the distance." I lifted my eyes upwards, only seeing a sea of green grass and trees. Then I tilted my head back and spotted a family of seven lions atop the the small cliff.

I fainted into Ben's shoulder.


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My eyes blinked open only a few seconds later. My parents hadn't even noticed I'd lost consciousness, even if it was only for less than a minute.

Ben, on the other hand, was freaking out.

"Shit, I knew this was a bad idea," he said and began to ramble on about how he was sorry. I didn't catch onto most of his words, as I was too busy trying to calm my beating heart, which was rattling out of nerves and the fact my face was in Ben's hands. "Are you okay? Do you need some water?"

"Yeah, that'd be nice," I breathed out, nodding. "And I'm fine. Well, hopefully."

"Here." He handed me the only water bottle he had, which he had already taken a sip out of. I downed it anyway, trying to avoid Ben's gaze burning with worry. When I handed it back to him, he finished the rest. If I was twelve, I'd probably have made a comment about how we had just inadvertently kissed.

"I don't think I realized you were that scared of animals," he admitted and grabbed my hand to pull me out of the safari car, as the ride had reached an end. "I guess that was a little insensitive of me."

"I think this is the most you've ever been concerned about me in your life," I said, loosening my hand from his but not pulling away. Gesturing to him with my other hand, I added, "Keep going. It's kinda attractive on you."

"You and your ego," he mumbled, letting out a groan. "Now that I realize you are perfectly fine, I think I'll stop." We walked back out into the crowd of tourists, trailing behind my parents and Eric and Leila.

"Oh no, Ben, I think it's hitting me again," I warned, clutching an arm to my chest, and then dramatically toppled over in my Converse onto him. Cursing at me, he swooped an arm out and pushed me upwards into a standing position.

"You're gonna get it for that," he grumbled, trying to maintain a stoic expression as we walked. It faltered, and a smile tugged on his lips, his golden eyes twinkling in the sunlight.

"You wouldn't even try."

"You're lucky you're hot, habibti," he remarked, boosting my ego even more as we finally left that park.

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