Chasing forgiveness, p.1
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       Chasing Forgiveness, p.1

           Neal Shusterman
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Chasing Forgiveness


  For “Megan”

  PREFACE

  I never thought it would happen to our family—not to us: I mean, we’re really civilized people. I thought those kinds of things only happened to people that live in like . . . the Bronx.

  I don’t have the faintest idea why Dad did it. Maybe somebody knows why, but I don’t.

  My dad didn’t even own a gun . . .

  —Preston Scott

  I first met Preston Scott on a bright Sunday afternoon. He was fourteen then, strong but slim, with a dark tan and tufts of the blondest hair I’d ever seen. He didn’t look like a boy who had been through all he had, but the setting itself was a constant reminder of the truth. He was living with his grandparents then, because his father was still in prison.

  The home was in a nice suburban neighborhood. Out front, kids rode bicycles down the street, and a neighbor was washing his new sports car next door—as if nothing had gone on at all.

  Out back, Tyler, Preston’s younger brother, did flips into their pool, while Preston and I talked across the patio table.

  Talking with him was not easy for me. I told him right off the bat that I didn’t know where to begin or how to talk to him about it. Sure, I knew a little bit about what had happened to his family, but knowing did not make it easier to talk about. I felt sure breaking the ice would be quite a task.

  “It’s okay,” Preston told me. “I can talk about it now, really.” But still I smiled politely at him and stuttered as I spoke. I looked away from him. I simply couldn’t talk about it to his face.

  “Sometimes,” Preston said, “when I tell people about it they start treating me differently—they become weird, you know.”

  Exactly, I thought—and what could I possibly say to him that wouldn’t hurt his feelings? So we didn’t talk about it at first. We talked about football and track—his two best sports. We talked about school and the weather, gradually getting to know each other, and gradually winding toward what I was really there to discuss.

  Finally, the afternoon sun dipped low in the sky, casting shadows of tall eucalyptus trees across the pool, and a breeze began to cool down the patio. That’s when I dared to ask him the question.

  “Could you tell me about your father?” I asked. “Could you tell me what happened?”

  And so he began his tale.

  I listened, and as I did, I realized I almost didn’t want to hear it—I didn’t want to be this close to it. He told me the type of story you read in the papers or see occasionally on the TV news. It’s easy to watch it on TV, because you can tell yourself it could never happen to the people you love—because they’re all good people. Only bad people are capable of such evil deeds. You can judge the people on TV, and if you don’t like what you see, you can change the channel.

  But Preston couldn’t change the channel.

  “I go to sleep at night,” Preston told me, “and I still pray to God that suddenly I’ll be eleven all over again, and everything will be the way it was. . . . But God doesn’t work that way, does he? The truth is that bad things happen to good people sometimes, and good people can do evil things.”

  I thought about that. Preston was right—but most people don’t want to hear that. They want to be able to lock their windows and doors. They want to believe that all the evil forces in the world—all the demons—are on the outside trying to get in. But Preston showed me that those people were wrong. He showed me that the worst demons of all always get in long before we close the door, and they hide deep in some dark closet in our heads. Most of us can keep the demons in line and keep them locked in that closet by that part of us which is good . . . but if we’re not careful, we may forget.

  And we might lose control.

  That’s the evil force that kills millions of people . . . or just one.

  On that day Preston, with tears in his eyes, told me what his father, Danny Scott, did, and through the next three years of his life, I saw the rest of the story unfold before my eyes. I saw a family journey deep into that black closet of their own demons—a closet that few people unfortunate enough to enter can ever escape from—and I watched them come out again.

  Preston’s is a story of life and death, of anger and forgiveness, of an unspeakable crime that no human being should have to endure, and the unbelievable family that not only endured it, but took the very bullet that shattered their world and used it to carefully rebuild their lives.

  His tale is all of these things, but more than anything else, Preston Scott’s story is a story of overwhelming love—the kind of love that can change the world—and if you never before believed in the power of love, Preston’s story will make you a believer.

  Neal Shusterman

  1

  THE FOUR OF US

  1

  THE FEUD

  April—Two Years Before

  My hands are so cold, I can barely move my fingers. My knuckles crack each time I try. I see Mom under the bright lights, and my heart begins to claw its way up my throat. The butterflies in my stomach are turning into bats, and I think, What am I so nervous about? I’m not the one up there. But logic doesn’t work when your mother is standing next to the game show host, in front of three television cameras and a packed studio audience. Family Feud is very serious business.

  “All right, Megan,” says the host to my mom. “Your sister got you one hundred and twenty points—you need eighty to win. Are you up for it?”

  Mom smiles politely. “I guess,” she says, and giggles a bit. I can tell she’s just as nervous as I am. No, she must be more nervous. There are beads of sweat all over her forehead, replacing the ones they blotted off while she waited backstage as Aunt Jackie took her turn giving answers.

  Now it was all up to Mom.

  Off to the side I can see Grandma Lorraine, Grandpa Wes, Uncle Steve, and Aunt Jackie, all waiting for Mom out of the camera’s view. Why did they have to give Mom the anchor position? That’s the roughest part—I know about that. If she messes up, she’ll feel as if she lost the whole ten thousand. But then again, if she wins, she gets all the glory. I know about that, too.

  The host begins his little speech from memory, like a policeman reading someone their rights. “All right, Megan, you’ll have thirty seconds in which to give your answers,” he says. “If you repeat any answers your sister gave, you’ll hear the buzzer, which means try again. Are you ready?”

  Mom nods. I can see her wringing her hands, out of the camera’s view, as the host looks down at his question cards.

  “A state,” says the host, “that begins with ‘A.’ ”

  “Arkansas,” she says.

  “Children’s favorite holiday.”

  “Christmas!”

  Bzzzz! “Try again.”

  “Halloween!”

  “A make of foreign car.”

  “Mercedes!”

  “An animal you find at the zoo.”

  “Monkey!”

  Bzzzz! “Try again.”

  “Horse.”

  She shakes her head immediately, knowing she goofed. That one’ll cost us.

  “A fruit you eat on cereal.”

  “Banana.”

  “A famous painter.”

  She doesn’t answer. She’s taking too long.

  “Picasso!” she says.

  Bzzzz! “Try again.”

  No answer. She’s blanking out!

  “Da Vinci,” she says.

  Dad, sitting next to me in the audience, shouts with joy. That must have been a good answer. The audience applauds, but it’s not over yet.

  “All right,” says the host, “turn around, let’s see how you did.”

  Dad stares straight ahead, concentrating on Mom. Like me, he feels like he’s right up there with he
r under the lights. His hands must be cold, too, his stomach full of bats.

  Without looking at me, Dad smiles wide and shakes his head in amazement. “She did it, Preston,” he says to me. “I really think she did it!” He stares at Mom with a mixture of love and awe. Under the bright studio lights, she must look like a movie star to him. She does to me.

  And all at once I know that Dad is right—that Mom has done it. Not just because Mom gave mostly good answers, and not just because we beat that other family in each and every round, but because we deserve to win. Because right now, everything is so right, so perfect, that it can’t go wrong. It was simply meant to be—and when something’s meant to be, no one on earth can stop it. Not even the host.

  One minute later, we are ten thousand dollars richer. Dad is holding me and my brother, jumping up and down with both of us in his arms. We stumble out of the audience and down to the floor, and all of us hug and kiss Mom. Grandma, Grandpa, and the rest run out from the sides to join us. We all hold each other, jumping up and down in front of the cameras like imbeciles, but we don’t care. This is our family, this is our day, and we can be imbeciles if we want!

  Dad hugs Mom, giving her a big kiss, forgetting that my brother and I are between them. We get crunched and bounced around, but I have to laugh. The crowd cheers, and we get swallowed up in all the excitement and all the grown-ups around us. It feels like magic—like another world—and I silently wish that this moment would never end. That Dad would hold Mom like this forever, with my brother and me smushed tightly, tightly, between them—our whole family pressed so close together that my feet barely touch the ground. . . .

  2

  ONE MORE FEUD

  January—Two Months Left

  It’s twilight now. Twilight should be a quiet time of day, but I can’t remember the last time the sun set to silence in our home. Even in the backyard, I can hear them. Their voices cut paths through every room and out of every window.

  In the dying light, my friend Russ Talbert and I do battle over a Ping-Pong table that stands in the thick grass because Dad hasn’t been finding the time to mow the backyard. Russ holds his paddle Chinese style and awkwardly flicks his elbows up and down to give the ball some English. We both try to ignore the sounds of my parents fighting in the living room. Their match is much more vicious than our Ping-Pong game. Sure, maybe their fights are only words, but those words smash like fists and slice like knives. Maybe it’s only words, but they might as well be tearing each other to pieces.

  Russ and I play Ping-Pong and pretend not to hear it, but neither of us is any good at that kind of pretending. I wish I hadn’t invited Russ over today. Maybe I won’t invite anyone anymore.

  “Do they always fight like that?” Russ finally asks.

  “Not really,” I say, although it’s a lie. The truth is they’ve been fighting for months now. They fight about money, and about all the “things” we don’t have. It’s not like we’re poor or anything; we’ve got a nice big house in a nice neighborhood, and we eat out and go on vacations to Hawaii and stuff—we can afford all that—but still, they argue. They argue about why we don’t have a Mercedes like Aunt Jackie does, and why they can’t make ends meet even though they’re both working. It’s always about money in one way or another. Nowadays, I hate money.

  I liked money once, though. Two years ago, when we won on Family Feud, I thought money was the best thing in the world—especially free money. But free money doesn’t last. Grandma bought herself a piano, and Mom and Dad put their share in the bank, and somewhere between then and now the free money disappeared. And now they fight. It’s not a whole bunch of fights one after another—instead it seems like just one single fight that never ends, and I don’t think any amount of free money could change it. Something’s going wrong with them—something’s going wrong with us—because my brother and I are part of it, too. I feel like we’re still smushed tightly between the two of them as they fight—so tightly that I can’t see where it’s going to end. And sometimes I get scared.

  “They don’t fight much,” I tell Russ. “Only once a month, tops.”

  Russ looks at me with a half-smirk on his face, and it really pisses me off. He knows I’m lying. He knows because I’m the worst liar in the history of the world. It’s like I’ve got a lie detector wired into my spine that flashes above my head to everyone “Preston is lying!” “Preston is lying!” There are times I wish I could lie, though. There are times I wish I could believe other people when they lie.

  The Ping-Pong ball cuts across the net with a mean backspin. I pull my arm back and smoothly smash the thing. It skids on Russ’s side, and his reflexes just can’t match my power smash. The ball flies past him before he even swings his paddle.

  “Just luck!” he says, and tosses me back the ball to serve.

  Inside the house, my parents continue their battle, both oblivious to the fact that I’m beating Russ ten to two. Or to the fact that Russ is over here at all. Or to the fact that anyone and everyone in the world can hear them. Their voices rise and fall like ocean waves, and it’s enough to make me seasick.

  “They’re really great people, most of the time,” I tell Russ, embarrassed.

  “I know,” says Russ. “Mine are, too.”

  I’m about to say, No, they’re not—not like mine, but I catch myself and say nothing. Instead I just lob the Ping-Pong ball back to him slowly, giving him an easy shot for his third point.

  No, my parents are very different from Russ’s. First of all, Russ’s parents are getting a divorce. They can’t be all that great if they can’t work out their problems without stupid lawyers.

  Divorce really stinks. It’s like going to the store and buying clothes, wearing them for years and years, then returning them and asking for your money back. That’s what I believe. A store won’t buy back a pair of used jeans, so how come people can trade each other in, like it was nothing? If your only pair of jeans is torn, you get a needle and some thread, and you sew them up, right? Parents should be the same way.

  My parents aren’t like Russ’s. They’re really big on family. “Family this” and “family that.” To them, nothing else matters but the family, and so, whatever the problems are, we can all solve them together. And that’s why my parents are great.

  But I won’t tell Russ that, or he’ll start spouting at me all that junk he gets in family counseling. Well, the counseling didn’t help much if they’re splitting up, right?

  Inside I hear my mom start to cry. I want to go to her, but I know I can’t. Not just because Russ is here, but because when they fight like that they’re on their own little planet, and I can’t get through.

  There are times when I’ve heard my dad cry. I’m glad he’s not crying now, ’cause it would make me cry, too, and I can’t cry in front of Russ.

  The Ping-Pong rally goes back and forth until, not thinking, I hit the ball way in the air and it lands on the grass.

  “Yes!” says Russ.

  All of a sudden I begin to feel like I’m losing my breath, but I haven’t been playing hard, so I’m not sure why. My face starts tingling, and I know it’s turning red. There’s this heavy feeling in my throat. Oh God, I think, am I going to cry after all? How uncool! Eleven-year-olds don’t cry. It’s a known fact. Not if they want to be taken seriously by friends and teammates. Of course my Grandma Lorraine always tells me that it’s good for a boy to cry every now and again—but that’s what grandmas are supposed to say. I doubt if she really believes it.

  I stop the tears before they come, and I push them down, way down, into another universe entirely. I pretend nothing is wrong, but that lie detector above my head begins to blink again. Russ sees I almost lost it.

  “Hey, listen,” he says, thinking he understands completely, “fights are fights, and everyone’s parents fight. It’s no big deal.”

  “I know,” I say, echoing his words. “It’s no big deal.” But deep down, I scream, Yes! Yes, it is a big deal! Because they never fou
ght before—not until this year. They never fought, never had anything to argue about. They were perfect together—like that day when we won on Family Feud—and it wasn’t just my imagination—I know because I was there.

  “Maybe . . . ,” says Russ, “maybe they should split up.”

  “No way,” I say, real calmly. “Like you said, everyone’s parents fight. No big deal.”

  The ball lobs back and forth between us without any power—like we’ve forgotten all about the match but didn’t tell our hands or Ping-Pong paddles. The ball must be very bored.

  “Lots of families are better off broken up,” says Russ.

  “Not mine.”

  “Lots of parents still stay friends afterwards—they just live in different places.”

  “Shut up,” I tell him.

  “It’s great! You get to have two homes!”

  “I said shut up!”

  The brainless little Ping-Pong ball pongs on my side of the table, and before I know what I’m doing, I haul off and smash it with all the power my right arm can muster. It flies in a straight line—a white bullet, whistling through the air. In an instant it smacks Russ square between the eyes. I was aiming for his big fat mouth, but I still get my point across.

  Russ throws down his paddle onto the table with a hearty bang and flies around the table to me, almost as quickly as the ball flew at him.

  “Butthead!” he shouts, and he pushes me, and I push him back, and he pushes me again, which, I’ve discovered, is the way friends fight.

  Then I hear something, and I have to grab Russ’s arms to end our little pushing war.

  “Shut up!” I tell him.

  “I was trying to help,” he says.

  “No, I mean shut up now!” He stops struggling, and I listen. “You hear something?”

  “Of course I hear something,” he says, referring to the world war going on inside the house. But beyond that I hear something else. I hear the muffled noise of a car engine, then a car door opening and closing.

 
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