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DON’T LIE TO ME
Eva Rae Thomas Mystery, Book 1
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
Camp Seminole Springs, Florida
"Mom. I don't want to stay at the camp for two weeks. I want to go home."
Sophie Williams choked back a sob as a tear left her right eye and rolled down her cheek. She had promised herself she wouldn't cry. She had promised herself she would complete this. But hearing her mother's voice on the phone had made her lose it. She couldn't hold it back anymore.
"I know, sweetie," her mother said. "I miss you too, baby. But it’s only for two weeks. You'll be fine."
It was the first time Sophie had been away from her mother for this long. She was the one who had wanted to go when their scout leader had told them about the camp. Sophie had immediately known that she wanted to do this. But the other girls had been so mean on the bus ride there, and she had ended up sitting all alone without anyone to talk to. Now she felt lonely and, even though they weren't allowed to call home, she had snuck outside while they were eating dinner and walked back to her tent and found her phone in her backpack. She wanted to hear her mother's voice, just for a few seconds. But once she did, the tears piled up, and she felt so homesick it almost hurt.
"You'll be fine," her mother repeated. "It'll be over before you know it, and then you'll want to go again next year. I went through the same thing when I was your age."
"I'd much rather be at home and go surfing all summer," Sophie said.
"I know, baby, but you need to do other stuff too. You need to socialize with other children. Besides, you were the one who told me you wanted this, remember? You wanted to go to this camp with your new friends."
"But they're not my friends anymore," Sophie sighed.
"Really?" her mother said sounding tired. "That was fast."
Sophie knew her mother was disappointed. Sophie had never been good at making friends. That was why her mother suggested she join Girl Scouts. Sophie was homeschooled so she could focus on her competitive surfing on a daily basis and attend contests all over the country on the weekends. It was practically all she did in her life, and she loved it, but you didn't make any friends at surf contests. She would chat with other kids while waiting for her heat to start, yes, but in the end, they were competitors, and there was no room for friends. It was a lonely world for a twelve-year-old, especially since she was so young, yet better than most who were much older. Being a Girl Scout would be good for her, her mother had said. Plus, it would teach Sophie skills that would be beneficial later in life.
And Sophie had made friends. Marley and Grace had been her friends right from the beginning. But not anymore. Now they had turned their backs on her, for no apparent reason, and she was—once again—all alone.
"This is good for you," her mother said, and Sophie could tell she wanted to end the call. "Besides, it's only the first day. Sleep on it and then see if you don't feel different tomorrow when all the fun starts, okay?"
Sophie sighed. "Okay."
They hung up with an I love you, and Sophie put the phone back in her backpack. She glanced at her sleeping bag, then killed a mosquito that was sucking blood from her arm. Her legs were already covered in bug bites.
Sophie returned to the main building and found the others in the common area. Marley and Grace stuck their heads together as she walked past them and whispered, not even bothering to keep it so low that she couldn't hear every word they said.
"Where do you think she’s been?"
"Probably out signing with a new sponsor."
"You think her underwear is sponsored?"
"Of course, it is. She can't even eat anything unless it's sponsored by the right company. When she poops, it comes out wearing that sponsor's name."
They laughed. Sophie gave them a look, then went to sit with someone else. She tried smiling at a girl named Britney, thinking maybe she could be her friend, but Britney rolled her eyes at her and turned her head away. Sophie exhaled and looked down at the floor while one of their leaders, Miss Michaela, explained what they were going to do for the next couple of days. The camp was right next to a spring and tomorrow they were supposed to go canoeing. Sophie had been looking forward to that part, but there had to be two girls in each canoe, and she knew none of them would choose her.
"They're just jealous," her mother had told her over and over again all through her childhood when things like this happened. It didn't make things any better that she was chosen as surfer of the year by Ron Jon's Surf Shop and they had her displayed on their billboards all over town. All the adults thought it was so cool, but the kids not so much. The neighborhood's girls had mocked her and told her she looked fat in the picture and that their parents would never allow them to be on display like that for child-abductors to see and get crazy ideas.
"Does your mom want you to be kidnapped?" A girl named Victoria who lived on her street had asked.
"Of course not," another girl named Alison had said. "She's planning on living off her money for the rest of her life. Sophie is her golden goose, remember?"
"That's right," Victoria had answered. "Now that your dad left, she's counting on you to provide for her. That's why she's pushing you so hard. At least that's what my mom says."
Sophie felt anger rise inside of her when thinking about those girls. What did they know about her life anyway?
"All right, next up is a bonfire," the leader said and clapped her hands.
"Yay," the girls exclaimed. "S'mores!"
"And scary stories!" Miss Michaela said, then looked at Sophie, who didn't get up when the others did. She walked to her and reached out her hand toward her.
"You can sit by me," she said with a wink.
Sophie felt relieved. She hated to constantly sit alone. She grabbed Miss Michaela's hand in hers, then got up.
"To tell you the truth. I don't really like scary stories either," she said smiling. "But don't tell anyone."
Sophie didn't mind the stories, but she was happy that someone had finally spoken to her, so she simply nodded and held the hand tightly in hers.
At the bonfire, she stayed close to Miss Michaela, trying hard not to pay any attention to the other girls. As they sang songs and roasted marshmallows for s'mores, she thought about her mom and how she was going to call her in the morning and tell her she had made up her mind. Coming here had been a mistake. She wanted to go home. But she would at least finish the night. One night here could hardly hurt her.
They had barely finished their s'mores when a loud thunderclap surprised them, sounding almost like the sky cracked above them. Seconds later, the rain came down hard and soaked their clothes.
"Quick. Everyone go to your tents," Miss Michaela yelled.
Sophie ran to hers and rushed inside, then closed it up. The sound of the rain on top of it was comforting. She had slept in tents many times in her life when going to surf contests where they had to stay the weekend. It was the cheapest way for them to stay the night, and usually, they would find a local camp and set up the tent. None of her friends knew this about her, how much she had to go through to get to where she was, even sleep in tents on frozen ground in the winter time when they attended contests up north. But back then, her mother couldn't afford a hotel room like many of the other contestants, not when it was almost every weekend that they went somewhere. In the beginning, when she had s
tarted to surf, they had only done the local contests in central Florida, but as she got better, she was soon invited to bigger contests out of state, sometimes all the way in California, and that soon became very expensive for her mother. Yes, she would win money, if she won, but that wasn't a given. Especially not in the beginning when she was so young and new to it.
It wasn't until she made the big leagues that the money started to come. That was when she got commercial contracts too, modeling for surf products and swimwear. That was where the money was.
Sophie grabbed her sleeping bag and opened it, then slid inside of it, thinking about her mother. They were really close since she was usually always with her wherever she went. Being away from her was a lot tougher than she had expected.
Sophie zipped up the sleeping bag and got comfortable while another tear escaped the corner of her eye. She wiped it away, then lay completely still, hoping for sleep to come quickly. She wanted this night to be over, so she could go home.
Some of the other girls were sharing tents, and she could hear them chattering and giggling as she tried to sleep. Seconds later, Miss Michaela shushed them, and they went quiet. Thinking she would finally be able to sleep, Sophie closed her eyes again and did a few of the breathing exercises that Coach Thomas had taught her to calm her down before a heat. She would always get a nervous stomach by the time they were about to enter the water, and it could throw her completely off balance. She loved surfing and the ocean, but not so much the fact that she had to constantly perform.
She enjoyed training for a competition way more than actually competing in it. But her mom was so proud of her for making it so far and for seeing her name and pictures in all the magazines and the local paper, that she never dared to say anything to her. But, if she was to be completely honest, all Sophie wanted was to surf for her own sake. Because it was fun. She didn't need the magazines or the fame or even to win. She liked it when she did but could be sick for days afterward if she didn't make it past the first round. Heck, even a quarterfinal wasn't enough to satisfy her mom anymore. She had to win, or it was the same as a failure.
"That's how real champions think," she always said.
Sleep, come on, sleep.
A hooting owl startled her, and her eyes popped wide open. Sophie stared into the ceiling of the tent, her heart pounding in her chest, then scolded herself for being such a wimp.
It was, after all, just an owl. She was out in nature, and there would be nature sounds. Sophie calmed herself down again using her breathing techniques, and soon her heart was beating normally again. She was about to close her eyes when the beam of a flashlight landed on the side of her tent.
Sophie gasped while her heartbeat ran amok. Seconds later, the beam disappeared.
Thinking it was probably just one of the leaders walking around to check on them, Sophie calmed herself down again. But now it was hard to fall asleep. Even harder than earlier. Sophie couldn't stop thinking that she had made a mistake in letting her mom talk her into staying the night. She should have insisted on going home tonight instead.
Sophie had barely managed to close her eyes again before she heard footsteps outside her tent. She laid completely still while listening to them come closer, then stared at the tent door, when the steps stopped right outside and lingered for a few seconds.
Maybe if you lay completely still, whoever is out there will go away.
But they didn't. The person outside bent down, zipped her tent open, then peeked inside. Before Sophie could even scream, this person grabbed her, then zipped up her sleeping bag until it covered her face completely. Sophie tried to scream and kick but was lifted off the ground and was soon moving swiftly through the night.
Three Months Later
"I’m calling Dad. He knows how to do it."
I stared at my twelve-year-old daughter, Christine. She was still holding her laptop in her arms. It had gotten a virus, and I had no idea how to fix it. The look in my eyes made her freeze.
"What do you mean, no?" Christine asked.
"Just what I said."
I shook my head while biting my lip. We’d had this conversation a lot lately, and it got to me every time.
"Dad's on his honeymoon, remember?" Alex, my six-year-old son, said from the other end of the kitchen counter. He was eating cereal with no milk because we had run out and I hadn't had time to buy more with all the unpacking I had to do. For some reason, my kids were like sponges when it came to milk, and no matter how much I bought, it was never enough. I couldn't believe how often I had to shop in order to keep up. After only a month as a full-time single mom, I was already quite overwhelmed.
It was Chad who had taken care of these things while the kids were growing up. He had the privilege of being able to work from home for his insurance company, and so he was the one who had taken care of most of the housework for years. Needless to say, I was quite in over my head ever since he decided to leave me for a younger model and become a full-blown midlife crisis cliché. Kimmie had legs to up above her ears and hair blonder than platinum, not to mention a waist so slim it looked to be the size of my thigh. She also had a teenage son, and now Chad wanted to start a family with her. A new family. He had told me that a month ago, exactly to the date. I was still recovering from the enormous shock that had destroyed my world, not to mention our children's.
"It's not a honeymoon, sweetie," I said. "That would require them being married, which they are not."
"Yet," my fourteen-year-old daughter, Olivia, grumbled from the doorway.
"Hi, honey, are you hungry?" I asked, hoping to take the conversation elsewhere. She shook her head. I was worried about her since she hadn't talked much to any of us since her dad told us he was going to live at Kimmie's apartment from now on.
I still couldn't believe he would do this to us…throw fifteen years of marriage down the drain just like that. No…I am sorry, or I hate to do this to you all. There were simply five devastating words—said over the phone—that still rung in my head:
I am not coming home.
"But, Mo-om, what do I do about my computer?" Christine asked.
I stared at her, then at the boxes behind her. The moving truck had brought it all two days earlier, and I still hadn't unpacked half of them.
"I don't know," I said with a deep sigh. "Maybe I can take it to an Apple store next week?"
"Next week?" she whined. "Next week? I can't wait that long. I have math I need to do."
"Use my computer," I said. "You can access Google classroom from anywhere."
Christine made an annoyed almost gasping sound. I could tell by the look on her face that the thought of being without her computer for more than an hour was too much for her to handle, let alone several days. I knew the computer was her entire life, next to her phone, naturally, but she was on that darn thing all day when she wasn't in school. I had no idea what she did on it, but so far, I hadn't given it much thought either. I was in way over my head here, and what she was doing on her computer was the least of my problems.
"I won't do it," she said with an air of finality like there was nothing I could do or say that would make her accept the fact. This computer had to be fixed, now. That was the only solution she would take. But I just didn't have time for it right now. I was planning on unpacking all day and then hopefully getting some work done before going to bed.
"I am sorry, sweetie," I said. "But it's the best I got. I can do it first thing Monday morning, okay?"
My daughter grumbled loudly, then placed the computer on the counter.
"This would never have happened if dad was here," she said, then walked out the door.
I swallowed with the sensation of guilt fluttering in my stomach. I could have told her off; I could have said something back to make her behave, but I didn't.
Because—let's face it—she was right.
I had just hung up wi
th the local pizza place when the doorbell rang. I opened the door and found my mom and dad on the other side. My mom held up a casserole for me.
"It's vegan," she said.
"Yum," I said without meaning it.
My mother looked at me victoriously. "I told your dad you didn't have time to cook."
I shrugged as they walked inside, and I closed the door behind them. "I ordered pizza. Does that count as cooking?"
My mom snorted. "Most certainly not. That's not food, Eva Rae Thomas. You really should start to think about what you eat."
She gave me a disapproving look, and I felt guilty once again. Yes, I had let myself go after the third child. And it hadn't been easy to eat healthy over the past few weeks with everything that had been going on. I did enjoy my comfort food. But so far, eating healthy wasn't exactly at the top of my long list of things to do. Right now, I was just surviving. I didn't care much what I looked like. I was just happy I wasn't in my PJs all day, crying over my failed marriage. That had to count for something, right?
"It's good to see you, Squirt," my dad said and kissed my cheek. Squirt had been his nickname for me since I was a child because I was the shortest in my family.
"The place looks better every time we come over."
I sighed comfortably. My dad. My private cheerleader and biggest fan. In his eyes, I could do nothing wrong, much to my mother's regret. She, on the other hand, believed I did everything wrong. I guess, between the two of them, you could say they landed on a healthy middle road. Maybe my dad just wanted to make up for what he saw my mom didn't give me. No matter what, I had spent most of my life trying to impress her, trying to get her to notice me and approve of me. Maybe even love me. Over the years, I had learned it was probably never going to happen.