“I need the money.”
My brother’s eyes showed a desperation I had never seen in him before.
“Shay,” he pleaded, “you don’t understand. If I don’t have it by tomorrow night they will kill me.”
“They?” I repeated. “Who are they
?” But I knew.
Caden had been waiting for me outside my tiny apartment that I shared with three roommates, pacing in front of my door when I got off work at the bank. I hadn’t seen him in weeks, which was never a good sign. In some ways, I was grateful he’d stayed out of my life. This was my chance, the first real one I’d had, and my brother was trouble. “Tell me what happened,” I said as I unlocked my apartment. He followed me inside and rammed his fingers through his hair with enough strength to uproot several strands.
“It’s complicated . . .”
It always was with Caden. I’d been looking out for him nearly his entire life, but for once I had to think about myself. My gut was churning as I set the teakettle on the stove, afraid of what he was going to tell me. Caden had met a lot of his bad connections through me and one boyfriend in particular. I’d fallen in deeper with Shooter than I’d ever intended, but through a community program I’d managed to break away from that lifestyle. With the help of one of the counselors I’d landed a job, a good one at a bank. For the first time in my life I had a chance at making something of myself. I had a shot at getting away from the gangs and the drugs and the lifestyle that would eventually lead to either prison or death. I had a small taste of what the future could be if I stayed away from people determined to hold me down. I’d made mistakes. Big ones, but I was working hard to put that behind me.
I should have known it wouldn’t work. Not for someone like me. Caden was here to remind me I’d been living a pipe dream.
“Who’s threatening to kill you?” I asked again, already anticipating the answer. It was Shooter or one of his gang members.
My brother closed his eyes and gripped hold of my forearm hard enough to cause a bruise. “You know.”
“You’re hanging with the Angels again?” I’d repeatedly warned Caden to stay away from the gang, which was anything but angelic.
He didn’t respond, which was answer enough.
My hands trembled as I brought down two mugs and reached for the tea bags. My back was to Caden. “How much do you need?” I asked as I gritted my teeth. I’d managed to save a few hundred dollars. All I could do was hope that would be enough.
He hesitated before blurting out, “Five thousand.”
“Dollars?” I gasped. The figure stunned me to the point my knees felt weak, as if they were no longer capable of holding me upright. Caden had to know that amount was impossible for me. No way could I come up with that much. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Can you borrow it?” he pleaded. His dark brown eyes, so like
my own, were wild, his voice frantic. “I’m not joking, Shay. If I don’t hand over the money by tomorrow I’m a dead man.”
Doing my best to remain calm, I looped a long strand of my auburn hair around my ear, racking my brain. No one was going to loan me that kind of cash. Working as a bank teller, I barely made enough to get by myself. Between rent and my accounting classes, I was already stretched financially. The few dollars I’d managed to save came from doing without lunch and eating ramen noodles for dinner.
Before I could explain that the possibility of a loan was hopeless, Caden tried again. “What about the bank?” he suggested, his gaze holding mine.
A tingling feeling started at the base of my neck and worked its way down my spine. Even before I answered, I knew what Caden was thinking.
My brother lowered his voice as if he expected someone was listening in through the thin apartment walls. “Can you get the money from the bank?” he asked.
“You mean a loan? No, they aren’t going to loan me that kind of cash on what I make. I don’t have anything for collateral.” While I had a driver’s license, I used public transportation. No way could I afford a car. Not even a scooter. Caden knew that.
“Not a loan, sis. The bank isn’t going to miss it . . . at least not for a couple days. You take the money, and before anyone notices I’ll have it for you to replace, no one will even know.”
The knot in my stomach tightened to the point of pain. Surely Caden knew what he was asking me. I had hope for the first time since our mother died and now he was asking me to give it all up for him. The bank would miss that money and it wouldn’t take them five minutes to figure out I was the one who took it.
Stiffening my spine, I decided then and there I wasn’t going to throw away my future because my idiot brother had gotten himself into this kind of trouble.
“I can’t. The bank doesn’t work like that. The missing money will be discovered the same day.”
“Shay, please. You know I wouldn’t ask this of you if I wasn’t desperate.”
“I’m sorry . . .”
Caden slammed his fist against the tabletop. “Do you want me dead?” he shouted.
I flinched and shrunk back, half expecting him to hit me. It was what our father would have done. “I . . .”
“If you don’t help me, you’re signing my death warrant.”
The kettle whistled as the water started to boil. I removed it from the burner and noticed how badly my hands were trembling. Caden was my brother, my only living relative. I’d looked after him when our mother died and later after our father passed, although his death had been a blessing, as far as I was concerned. Despite everything I had sacrificed for Caden, I tried my best to help him. But it seemed he was determined to continue to make poor choices. I wanted to rant at him for being weak, but then I had been weak, too. I felt responsible for introducing him to the Angels.
“Where will you get the money to repay me?” I asked.
Caden paced the tiny kitchen and ignored the mug I offered him.
“People owe me.”
“Five thousand dollars?” I asked, unable to hide my doubt.
“I swear on our mother’s life. I’ll have the money by the end of the week.”
Our mother had been everything to us. Everything. Caden had never sworn on her life before. I wanted to believe him but remained uncertain. He’d let me down countless times and I wasn’t sure I should trust him. Not that it would matter. Even if I did replace the money, I’d lose my job.
Burying my face in my hands, I sank into the chair and closed my eyes. “Let me think.”
“While you’re thinking, the minutes are ticking away.” He
sounded more angry than worried now, furious with me for not immediately agreeing to his plan. “I can’t believe you. I’m your brother. You could save my life and you need to think about it
I exhaled a staggered breath. “You’re the one who got into this mess, not me.”
Caden’s face fell as if I’d wounded him. He fell to his knees and pressed his forehead against my legs as he’d done as a child after our mother died. “I don’t know what else to do,” he cried. “They’re going to kill me, Shay, and when they do, it won’t be quick and easy. They’ll want to make an example of me. They’ll start by breaking all my bones, and then . . .” He started to cry, his shoulders shaking with fear.
I placed a comforting hand on his back. “Can’t the Angels wait a couple days until you have the money?” I whispered, hoping the gang would be reasonable if they knew it was coming. I wove my fingers into his hair the way Mom would have done. “Don’t you have some collateral to offer?”
Caden exhaled slowly. “I owe more people than the Angels . . . these people aren’t willing to listen to any more excuses. The collateral they’d want is either one of my arms or a leg.”
I gasped, wanting to weep that my baby brother had gotten involved with loan sharks. Men who were thugs and criminals. All Caden and I had in this world was each other. If I was desperate, the one person I could reach out to for help would be my brother.
“You said you can replace the money within a couple days?”
He raised his head from my knee, his gaze wide and hopeful. “I swear,” he said, gripping hold of my hand and pressing his lips to it.
“I hope you realize what will happen to me if I do this.” He had to understand the consequences for me. Best-case scenario, I’d get fired from a job I considered my only shot at a real future. Worst case, I’d be incarcerated, even if I did return the money. No way would that amount of missing cash go unnoticed.
“I promise you, Shay, you won’t go to prison,” he said. “No way would I let my sister end up behind bars.”
Two months later, I accepted the guilty plea for embezzling as recommended by my court-appointed attorney. From the Seattle cell, I was placed on a transport bus from King County jail and driven across the Tacoma Narrows bridge to the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy, Washington.
When the prison door locked behind me, the sound reverberated in my head like a thunderbolt, shaking the entire room. I was locked away from any hope for a decent future. Any hope of making something out of my crummy life.
From any hope whatsoever.
My sentence was three years. I’d risked everything for my brother. I had no one to blame but myself. After giving the money to Caden, I hadn’t heard from or seen him since. His promise was empty. I’d known it at the time and had still given in. Deep down I accepted that my brother couldn’t be trusted. He’d never intended to fulfill his promise, and now I was paying the price.
Helping Caden had stolen my future and sentenced me to a life I had worked so hard to escape.
All was lost.
Any chance for a decent future.
I don’t know what made me believe there would ever be anything else but struggles and pain for me. Even when I tried to do the right thing, I got kicked in the head.
Shay Three years later
I was released from the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy at midnight the first week of December. Apparently the state of Washington wasn’t interested in paying for my upkeep one minute longer than necessary. No one stood outside the prison gates to greet me. Any friends I’d made while working at Pacific Bank had been quick to disassociate themselves from me, not that I blamed them. My only living family was my brother, and he was the reason I’d gone to prison in the first place.
In all three years of my incarceration, I hadn’t received a single letter from Caden. The first letter I’d mailed him had been returned with a notice that he’d moved with no forwarding address. I shouldn’t have been surprised. For all I knew he’d taken that five thousand dollars and escaped to Mexico. One thing I could count
on was the fact that he didn’t have a shred of guilt for what he’d done to me.
Bitterness ate at me, consumed me. I should have ulcers for all the nights I’d laid awake and replayed that final scene with Caden. What an idiot I’d been to let him talk me into stealing money for him. To save his life. Yeah, right. Caden had missed his calling. He should be on the stage. His acting ability was worthy of an Oscar.
As much as possible I stayed to myself while in prison. I took accounting classes, although it was probably a waste of time with my record. I sincerely doubted any company would take a chance on hiring me. As for the dream of one day getting my CPA license, that ship had sailed. The best I could hope for now was working as a hotel maid or in a restaurant washing dishes. Whatever it was, I was going to need housing and a job, and I was going to need them immediately.
Right. Like that was going to happen.
I had information on the closest bus stop, walked there in the cold and dark, and waited until daylight. I sat, chilled to the bone, with the wind buffeting against me until I got on the first available bus that would take me to downtown Seattle, over fifty miles away. Everything I owned in the world was in one small suitcase. All I had on me was a few hundred dollars in cash. I was afraid to spend it on anything other than bare necessities, not knowing how long I was going to need it to last.
The one constant for nearly the entire length of my sentence had been letters from an elderly woman named Elizabeth. She was a retired teacher who volunteered for Prison Fellowship, the Christian organization started by Chuck Colson, another felon. In her letters, Elizabeth talked a lot about God and her own life.
I wasn’t particularly interested in either, but it was mail. I was desperate for any link with the outside world. While I was grateful, this old lady had no idea of what my life was like. She lived in a lily-white world that was the opposite of my own. I read her letters
but basically ignored what she had to say. She seemed to consider it her duty to be hopeful for me, to encourage and inspire me. When I did write her back I pretended to believe her, but I knew better. It was far too late for me. I had no future. The poor woman was delusional. She didn’t have a clue. Not a single clue of what my life was like.
In my last letter, I explained that when I was released I would have no place to live, no job, no family to help me. I laughed when I read her reply. She wrote that I should trust God and that she’d be praying for me. Yeah, right, like it had worked so well in the past.
I quickly wrote her back with a page full of questions. Doubts poured out of me until the letter was an entire page, written on both sides. I vented about the injustices that had happened in my life, the unfairness, my anger and fears. My hand could barely move fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. The lead in the pencil broke several times as I pressed it hard against the paper and I blasted at her for being naïve.
This woman was a joke.
In the end, I didn’t mail the letter. Why waste a stamp? Elizabeth had this mountain of faith, and my own resembled a pothole in the road. She’d been kind and it felt wrong to lash out at her for not understanding my situation.
I stayed on the bus for three hours until it hit Fourth Avenue in the heart of downtown Seattle. It took that long for the warmth to seep into my bones after my long wait in the December cold.
My first day of freedom and I had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to sleep that night and no one to ask for help. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and drew in a deep breath. A homeless person was asleep on the sidewalk, tucked up against the bus shelter. That could well be me in a matter of hours.
Breathing in the taste of freedom, I had to admit it frightened me more than anything ever had, including my father’s fist. To my
surprise, when I looked up I realized the bus had let me off in front of a church.
It was almost comical. A church. Really?
Not having anyplace else to go, I decided to step inside and hope it was warm and that no one would kick me out. I had a list of shelters in Seattle, but spending the night in one was my last resort. From what I’d been told, shelters didn’t take people in until nightfall, which was hours away. A church would be a relatively safe place to hang around until I could find someplace else.
I walked up the steps to the church, and thankfully the door opened. I’d half suspected that it would be locked up tight. I wasn’t there to pray. All I wanted was to stay out of the cold.
Once inside, I went from the lobby into the interior, which was dark and empty. As I stood in the back and looked toward the altar, the sanctuary felt cavernous. I was sure if I were to call out, my voice would echo back at me. Row upon row of wooden pews lined each side of the center aisle.
I had been inside a church only a few times in my life. Once with my mother, who took my brother and me on Christmas Eve; I must have been four or five at the time. Dad got mad when he found out about it, shouting at Mom. I remembered his anger more than anything that happened while we were at church. They gave me a little Bible, but Dad took it away. I’d wanted to keep it and cried because I’d never had a book before. Mom said I could get another someday, but I never did.
I stood in the middle of the church aisle. It didn’t look anything like the church of my childhood memory. The church of my youth had been a small neighborhood one. This was a large city church. Stained-glass windows allowed meager light to flicker against the floors. Unsure what to do next, I slipped into the back pew and sat down. A Nativity scene was set up close to the altar and I focused on the figure of the baby. I felt as helpless as a newborn, alone and desperate.
Tears pricked at my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. I was tough by this time; emotion was a weakness I didn’t dare display while behind bars. I’d seen what happened to the women who lowered their guard and showed signs of vulnerability. I was determined it would never be me. Consequently, I’d shut down emotionally as much as possible, remaining stoic and indifferent to all but a precious few.
After thirty minutes of sitting and staring into space, I was tempted to get up and leave. I didn’t know what I was I thinking to come into a church. This was a useless waste of time, but for whatever reason I remained seated.
While it was true I had nowhere else to go, I should be looking for a job or doing something. Anything. Sitting in church wasn’t going to solve my problems.
“You got anything for me?” I challenged. I wasn’t sure who I was talking to, not that it mattered. It was a ridiculous question.
This was bad. I hadn’t been free for twenty-four hours and already I was losing it.
Sagging forward, I leaned my head against the back of the wooden pew while resisting the urge to give in to self-pity. I was disgusted with myself when tears filled my eyes. I was stronger than this. I released a slow, shuddering breath, my chest tight with anxiety and fear.
In that moment something changed. Something in me. I experienced a sense of peace. Or something like it. I hadn’t felt peaceful in so long that I couldn’t be sure what it was. Of course, it could have been my imagination, but some of the tenseness left my shoulder blades and I felt my body relax.
Shrugging it off but willing to test this strange feeling, I tried speaking again but then realized I had nothing to say.
I needed help. A little guidance would be appreciated. It wasn’t like I was looking for God or anyone else to part the Red Sea or to give a blind man sight. All I cared about was where my next meal
was coming from and where I would find a bed that night. The thought of sleeping on the street terrified me. A job would be helpful, too.
The more I dwelled on my immediate future, the more tense I grew. Whatever peace I’d experienced earlier was fleeting at best. I closed my eyes and exhaled, searching to find it within myself.
None came. No surprise there. The only person I’d ever been able to depend on was myself. If ever there was a time I needed to pull myself up by my bootstraps, it was now.
Coming into this church had been a mistake. I should have known better. Churches like this weren’t meant for people like me.
I started to get up, feeling a little like Indiana Jones in the movie when he had to step off a ledge in faith and hope that a bridge would appear out of nowhere. As I stood, my purse dropped to the floor, making a loud noise that seemed to reverberate through the church like an echo against a canyon wall. For just an instant I stood frozen.
It was then that I noticed I wasn’t alone. Someone else was in the church, kneeling in the front. At the sound of my purse dropping, the man turned and looked over his shoulder.
Then he stood and I froze in shock as he started walking toward me. Without a doubt I knew that whoever this man was, he was going to ask me to leave. I stiffened, determined to meet him head-on. If he was going to toss me onto the street I would be sure to tell him I’d been kicked out of better places than this.
Copyright © 2017 by Debbie Macomber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.