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Authors: Melody Carlson

Payback (16 page)

BOOK: Payback
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“Wow.”

“That’s when my shoulder and my feet started to hurt. I only stayed long enough to catch my breath. Then I kept going. I had no idea where I was going or why. I suppose I might’ve been in shock. And although the gunshot wound wasn’t serious, blood was everywhere, and for all I knew, I was dying. Even so, I just wanted to get away from Steven.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“Oh, Samantha,” says Mom, pointing to the clock, “you’re going to be late for school.”

“But I—”

“No
buts.
I can finish my story later. You get going.”

So without arguing, I grab my stuff and take off. It’s a good thing that Olivia and I decided to drive separately today. She has band practice, and I’m going into the precinct. But as I drive to school, all I can think of is my mom…out in the wilderness, bleeding, and frightened. I want to hear the rest of that story!

Fifteen

B
efore lunch I call Mom just to check on her and make sure she doesn’t need me to come home and help her with anything.

“I’m really fine,” she assures me. “I’m going to the doctor at three, and after that I’ll stop by my office for an hour or so.”

“Well, don’t overdo it,” I warn her. “Don’t worry.”

“I’ll be at the precinct after school,” I say. “But I should be home by five. And I’m fixing dinner tonight.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“And I want to hear the rest of your story!”

“No problem.”

As I close my phone, Olivia walks up. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just checking on Mom.”

“How’s she doing?”

Olivia and I walk to the cafeteria, and I fill her in on Mom’s story. Well, the condensed version, but I think Mom would want that. I sense her humiliation for falling for a jerk like Steven and then believing she could get him to come clean. Just the same, I think she was brave to run, and I’m thankful she did.

“And I believe God was watching out for her,” I finally say to Olivia. “It’s pretty miraculous, really.”

“That’s incredible,” Olivia says.

“But please don’t repeat any of the details,” I tell her. “I’m not sure Mom’s comfortable with it just yet…or ever will be.”

“You can trust me, Sam.”

“I know.”

Conrad and Alex join us for lunch, and I give them an even more condensed version. I can tell they want more details, but they don’t push me. I have to appreciate that.

After school I drive downtown, and maybe I’m slightly paranoid, but I go by the park-district building first…just to be sure Mom’s car is there. It is. I park nearby, then walk over to the police station.

“Hey, Samantha,” says Ebony. She’s just coming out of the staff room with a soda. “Want something to drink?”

“I’m good,” I tell her.

“Well, come to my office. I have some things to share with you.”

Once we’re seated in her office with the door closed, she asks how my mom is doing. And with Ebony, I go into all the details, sharing everything Mom told me. I think Ebony deserves that much. She can definitely be trusted; plus she’s involved from the law-enforcement end.

“That’s an incredible story, Samantha.”

“I know. And I haven’t even heard the end yet…although I know it ends well.”

“Yes, and hopefully the FBI will freeze Greg’s funds and your mom will get something back.”

“I don’t even care about the money. I’m just glad she’s safe.”

“Absolutely.” Ebony reaches for a file folder now. “I’ve been doing a little research on your friend Brandon.”

“And?”

“And you’re right. He has been seriously bullied.”

“Has
been?
Meaning he’s not now?”

“I’m trying to figure that out. I spoke to his mother. She works at the Marriott.”

The Marriott where the proms are held?”

“The same one. Apparently Brandon works there too. Not as a regular, but when they’re short-handed, like for a convention or seminar. His mom is divorced and raising him on her own. She said he was identified as gifted when he was young. Back then he was a rather precocious kid and even, according to her, a little full of himself. He would win all the spelling bees and mental math contests, and he started to get picked on in grade school.”

“Oh…”

“But she said he figured things out as he got older. He seemed to learn how to avoid conflict, and until last year she thought he was doing okay.”

“What happened?”

“She isn’t completely sure. But for whatever reason, some of his old classmates began picking on him again. She said he got really beat up a few times, and eventually she complained to the school.”

“And?” I feel indignant for Brandon’s sake now. How many times does a kid need to get beat up before a school listens?

“She said the administration was understanding and tried to work things out, but finally they recommended a transfer and afresh start.”

“Which is why he’s at Fairmont?”

“Right. They actually thought he’d be safer at the rich kids’ school. Their thinking was that bullying is less common at affluent schools.”

I consider this but wonder. “Is that true?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you ask whether he’s been bullied at Fairmont?”

“According to his mom, he hasn’t been.”

“But maybe he doesn’t tell her everything. Maybe he doesn’t want to worry her.”

“Maybe…but she seemed to think everything was fine. She even said that Brandon seemed happier at Fairmont.”

“That doesn’t make sense though. Why would I be getting those visions?”

“I don’t know.” Ebony frowns. “Unless it’s somehow related to the prom dreams. Do you think that’s possible?”

“I don’t see how, exactly I mean, it’s interesting that his mom works at the Marriott—and that he does too.”

“Yes, I felt the same way.”

Now I remember the laundry basket scene. It seemed like a school locker room, but maybe it was part of the hotel — perhaps the laundry room there. “Do you think a bullying incident is going to happen at the hotel and somehow it’s related to the prom?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“In my last vision he was definitely taking a beating. But the location was hard to figure out. I assumed it was a school, but now I wonder if it could be a laundry room. I wonder if he ever works in the laundry at the Marriott.”

“We’ll look into it, Samantha.”

“And look into the guys he works with. Maybe some are from his old high school. Maybe there’s a connection.”

“Maybe…” Ebony writes down more notes.

“I just want him to be safe, Ebony,” I say. “Before anything worse happens, I want things to change for him.”

“Things
are
going to change.”

“How?”

“To start with, I’ll contact the Fairmont High administration to make sure they have a bullying policy in place. I’ll also do some more investigating on Brandon and his work and his friends at school.”

“You mean his enemies.”

“Yes. I’ll see what I can find out.”

“And if I can talk to him on Friday when I do my surveillance before prom night, maybe Brandon will reveal something that will explain what’s going on and why God keeps giving me these visions.”

“Maybe you can get him to open up to you. It’s possible that some harassment has already started—something he hasn’t told anyone about. Perhaps it’s starting to escalate and putting him at serious risk. You need to find out anything and everything you can—and then get in touch with me.”

“Yes,” I agree. “Brandon may be the only one with those answers.”

“I think that’s about all we can do at the moment.” Ebony smiles now. “Look, Samantha, I want you to do something for me this week, okay?”

“Sure. What?”

“I want you to be a normal girl. Give yourself a couple of free days. Don’t come to the precinct. Instead, relax. Hang with your friends.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. You’ve been through a lot lately Not just this prom thing but the whole deal with your mom. I want you to have a little break.”

“Okay…”

“Thanks.”

‘Thank you,” I tell her.

“And now you can go home…and just have a break.”

“Okay” I stand and then pause. “But before I forget, Ebony…”

“Yes?”

“I want to thank you for this weekend. I mean, I don’t know what I would’ve done when Mom was gone…if I hadn’t had you to lean on.”

She nods. “I was glad to be there for you.”

“Mom appreciated you too.”

Ebony’s face brightens in a big smile. “That’s nice to hear.”

I stop by the grocery store on my way home. I don’t get much, just a few things for a green salad and a loaf of french bread, because I know that will make Mom happy Then I get home in time to make spaghetti to go with it.

“How nice,” Mom says when she gets home and sees the table set and food ready to eat.

“I should probably do this more often,” I admit.

“I know you’re busy, Samantha. I don’t expect this.”

Soon we are seated and eating, and I’m waiting for her to continue her story, but instead she talks about her visit to
the doctor and work-related things. Finally, as we’re finishing, I ask her to tell the rest of the story. “I’ve been waiting all day,” I say.

She nods and sets her napkin on the table. “Right…where did I leave off?”

“You were shot, scared, hiding, afraid Steven might return.”

“Well, after a while I could see the sun was going down, so I tried to figure out where I was and where the road was, and I began walking that way. Of course, by then I was well aware that my feet were bare…and not in good shape. Also, I knew I’d lost blood, and the night air was starting to get cool. I thought the best thing might be to try to find a somewhat sheltered place to spend the night and wait for daylight.”

“Right.”

“So I found a spot next to a big rock that seemed sort of protected, and I settled into it. But then I got even more scared, more upset, and I began to imagine things like rattlesnakes, scorpions, and other wild animals. I thought about cougars or packs of coyotes being able to smell my blood, and I became so frightened that I felt like I was having a heart attack.” She pauses and looks at me. “Do you think that’s crazy?”

“Not at all. I’ve read that it’s possible for people to be literally scared to death, and I’m sure that was horribly frightening.”

“I felt so desperate and scared that I really did begin to pray. And as it got darker and colder, I prayed even harder. I just dumped everything on God. I cried and pleaded, and after a while I felt this amazing presence.” She takes a deep breath. “And I believe it was God.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“And I honestly felt like I met God, almost like face to face, out there in the desert. I know it sounds kind of silly to say it in a safe place and in the light of day, but it was very real, Samantha.”

“I have no doubt.”

“And I told God that I wanted to give my life to Him. I knew I’d made a mess of it. I wanted Him to do the leading from now on.”

“That is so cool, Mom.”

She nods. “It really was…and then the strangest thing happened. I probably wouldn’t tell this to anyone but you, Samantha, but I felt like your dad was there with me too. It was as if the three of us, God and your dad and me, were all sitting out there in the desert together. Does that sound pretty nutty?”

“No, not at all.” Then I tell her how Zach and I have experienced this same thing. “I can’t explain it,” I say, “but I think maybe God lets Dad check in on us from time to time, especially when we need it.”

“Yes…I think so too.”

“That is awesome, Mom.” I get up and go over and hug her now. “I’m so glad for you.”

“I’m not really sure what the next step is for me, Samantha. I mean, I’m still me, and I know I’m still going to make mistakes. But from now on I want God in my life. I don’t want to do it alone anymore. I don’t think I even can.”

“I’m so glad,” I tell her. Then I laugh as I begin to clear the table.

“What’s so funny?” asks Mom.

“I was just thinking about this promise I made to God when I was all freaked about you being out there.”

“What promise?”

“I told God I would never preach at you about being a Christian again. I said that I would accept you as you are.”

She laughs too. “Well, I hope you’ll still do that.”

“Of course. But it looks like God was a few steps ahead of me.”

“Ahead of all of us.” Mom sets her plate in the sink. You know, after it was all said and done, after I was safe at the hospital and talking to the FBI people and hearing that Steven had been caught…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I think I was tempted to disregard what had happened out there in the desert. A part of me wanted to chalk it up to desperation and dismiss it as nothing.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No, because when the FBI woman told me about your dream, Samantha—explaining in detail how specific it had been—I got this strange sensation, almost like a jolt of electricity, not like anything I’ve felt before.”

“What was it?”

“I think it was God telling me to pay attention—to credit Him for giving you that dream. And not to sweep it under the rug.”

I nod as I rinse a plate. “That sounds about right.”

“And I got the same feeling this morning when you mentioned that bit about the vultures and coyotes picking my bones clean. That was exactly what I had thought—verbatim.”

“Because God just tuned me in, Mom.”

“Because
you were listening
, Samantha.”

And I suppose that’s true. I
was
listening. But it’s easy to listen when it’s your own loved one’s life at stake. I just pray I can listen that well for others. Even for strangers like the girl in the pale green dress and her friends. And for Brandon. I just hope I’m fully tuned in.

Sixteen

I
t’s fun acting like a normal kid for a few days. I take Ebony’s suggestion to heart, and I simply focus on school and friends and life. But by noon on Friday, I know it’s time to “go to work” again. Ebony has excused me for a half day, and just as lunch starts, I drive over to Fairmont, where I am given a visitor’s pass. I start with the cafeteria, hoping I’ll spot someone from my dream. Preferably the girl in the pale green dress.

BOOK: Payback
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