“You…you love us.”

“I do. More than anything, more than I’ve ever loved anyone…even more than I love my brother.”

“Sometimes I think my mom sent you to us.”

Tears sprang to my eyes and I fought to hold them back. “I don’t think anyone has ever said anything that means more to me. Thank you, Mark.”

His young arms came around my waist and he hugged me and started to sob. “You didn’t tell. Even when it meant the elders would make you move.”

My own grip around him tightened. “I promised I wouldn’t. I keep my promises.”

“You…you should have told on me,” he managed between sobs.

It was easy to see that the last week had been torturous for him. “You made me a promise, too, remember. You assured me you’d do the right thing.”

“But I didn’t,” he sobbed, his thin shoulders shaking. “I let you take the blame. I…was afraid.”

“I know you were,” I whispered, trying hard to keep the tears out of my voice. “I hoped you’d tell your father the truth and why you took that money.” He hadn’t shared his reasons with me and I hadn’t pressured him. I knew it had to be a heavy weight on his thin shoulders to carry this burden.

He pulled away and wiped the tears from his face, smearing them down his cheeks. “They were going to beat me up again,” he said, sniffling now.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Those boys you saw, remember?”

I’d been right. The afternoon Mark had come into the café, I’d seen those other kids and wondered. Mark had come not out of any interest in seeing me. It’d been an effort to escape those bullies.

“At first all they wanted was for me to do their homework. I did, but it wasn’t enough. Then they took my lunch money away from me.”

That helped to explain why Mark was always so hungry when he came home from school.

“Your dad put you in karate classes. Why did you drop out?”

Mark ran the back of his hand below his nose. “One of the boys was in the same class and he made fun of me. I’m not very athletic and there was a girl in that class and—”

“You don’t need to say anything more, I understand.” Poor Mark was caught between a rock and a hard place.

My door opened and Drew came into the apartment. He paused when he saw his son openly weeping.

“Hey, you two, what’s…” He stopped mid-question.

Mark straightened, looked at his father, and burst into tears again. Immediately I brought him back into my arms.

“Mark?” Drew asked, frowning. When his son didn’t answer, he looked to me. “Shay?”

This wasn’t for me to tell, and so I remained silent.

Gradually Mark pulled away from me, squared his shoulders, and faced his father. “Dad,” he said, struggling to speak as if the words were stuck in his throat. “I took the money, not Shay. She knew and she confronted me and we talked. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t want her to tell you and so I said I would. I made her promise not to tell anyone.” He swallowed hard and continued. “I promised her that I would tell you and…and then I didn’t and then I learned Shay was going to have to move and I got scared and I didn’t know what to do.”

Drew’s eyes widened in shock. He froze as if he didn’t know what to say. “Why, son? Why would you steal?”

Mark went to his father and Drew immediately wrapped his arms around his son, comforting and hugging him, holding him tightly in his embrace.

It was evident that the guilt and anguish of the last week had broken the young teen. His sobs echoed in the room. After a few moments, Drew looked up and his eyes captured mine.

“And you refused to break your promise to my son,” he said, as though it was more than he could comprehend.

Again, I nodded. “I told you I trusted the person responsible. Mark had made a promise to me, too, and I knew he would eventually own up to it. More important, I wanted him to tell us why he was desperate enough to steal. You and I both know Mark isn’t a thief. There had to be a solid reason for what he did.” I reached out and patted Mark’s back. “It’s time to tell your dad.”

“Can you explain it to me, son?” Drew asked.

I was about to suggest that we all sit down and I’d make us tea, but unfortunately my cups were packed away and for that matter, so was the tea.

“I…I told Shay a lot of what’s been happening, but I’ll tell you, too.”

The two headed toward the door so they could speak privately.

“Send Sarah over,” I called after him, knowing Mark wouldn’t want his sister listening in on the conversation. Being bullied was embarrassing enough without his sister knowing. “Tell her I need help packing.”

Drew’s eyes held mine for an intense moment. “You mean unpacking. No way are you moving now. I’ll see to that personally.”

“Send me Sarah,” I said, unwilling to press the point. The last thing I wanted was to put Drew in an awkward position, going up against the elders and their decision. If I needed to vacate the apartment, then I would.

Drew had his arm around his son and, looking over his shoulder, he mouthed, “Thank you.”

Within a few minutes Sarah came racing over to the apartment. “Dad sent me over,” she announced breathlessly. “What’s going on with him and Mark?”

The kid was no dummy. Right away she’d sensed something wasn’t right. “Did Mark do something bad?”

“What makes you ask that?” I asked, hedging the question.

“Because,” she said, as if I should already know, “Dad took Mark into his bedroom. He only does that when we’ve done wrong and for serious talks. It usually means we’re going to be grounded. When Dad takes us into the bedroom, it’s important.”

“If you must know…”

“I do,” she said eagerly.

“Then I can tell you that your brother did the right thing.”

“He did?” Her eyes went wide as if that was hard to believe.

I hid a smile. “Mark has been going through a lot at school lately.”

Sarah frowned as if reviewing the last several weeks. “He’s been a jerk for a long time.”

“Mark’s going to be better now.” I wasn’t sure how Drew would handle the bullying situation, but I had complete trust that he would take care of it.

Sarah sighed as though gifted with great wisdom. “I kind of figured something was up with him. Mark’s been too quiet. You know what they say about kids who are too quiet, don’t you?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “They’re up to no good.” She narrowed her eyes as if to gauge how much information she could get out of me. “Are you going to tell me what’s up?”

“Nope.”

She grumbled under her breath. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

Sunday morning, Drew met with the elders before the church service. Mark went into the meeting with him. I can only imagine how difficult it was for the young teenager to stand before the church elders and confess what he’d done.

Although I wasn’t privy to what was said, Drew came out of the meeting smiling. From the way his gaze flew to mine, I knew that all was well. As the organ music started to play, Mark slid into the church pew and sat next to me. Sarah was on one side and Mark on the other.

My heart was bursting. As Drew stepped up to the pulpit, his eyes zeroed in on the three of us, his gaze warm and full of love. I’d never known love like this. I resisted the urge to plant my hand over my heart so I could hold on to this indescribable feeling.

The sermon was one of Drew’s best. He spoke on redemption and what it meant. I felt as though I’d been redeemed. The woman who’d stepped out from behind those prison walls and the one I was now were two completely different people. And to think it had all started right here in this church a little over a year ago now.

When the final hymn was sung and the congregation emptied the pews, Alex Turnbull, the head elder, wove his way in my direction. I remained in my seat and waited for him.

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