Authors: Margaret Standafer
Sam had contacted the leaders at Project Strong Start and after a series of interviews, background checks, and training sessions, Sam’s Woodworking was added as an option for this summer’s campers. Today would be the start of week three with her six students.
“The kids are doing so well,” Sam gushed, “especially a couple of them. They are really taking to woodworking and are showing a lot of promise. I have them using power tools and am down to only about a dozen near heart attacks a day,” she joked.
“I have three girls with me this summer. One is a return from last year. I was so tickled when I found out she’d be back and wanted to work with me again. She’s such a bright girl. She told me she’d done some reading on real estate practices over the winter and it shows. She’s even doing some of the simpler office work on her own.”
“You’re making a difference with her, with all of them, Kathleen,” Sam said passionately. “These kids just need a break. Someone to tell them they’re important, they’re smart, that they have a future and it’s not drugs!” Sam’s voice rose and the words poured out. “Keep showing her new things, keep teaching, and let her know she’s capable of learning. Let her know there are endless possibilities in her future. She can do whatever she wants…go to college, start a business, raise a family. People care about her, love her, and will be there for her, even if she makes mistakes along the way! She—”
Rigi’s whining caught Sam’s attention and she stopped suddenly, realizing she was shouting now and on the verge of tears. Rigi was pressed against her leg, looking up at her, upset because Sam was upset.
“It’s okay, girl,” Sam soothed and stroked her head, “It’s okay.” When she looked at Kathleen she saw the confused and concerned look on her face. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone on like that,” Sam murmured.
“Are you okay, Sam?” Kathleen asked quietly as she reached for her hand. “You’re shaking.”
“I’m fine…really. I…I guess I just got a little carried away. Let’s get those papers signed, shall we?”
Sam turned and headed somewhat unsteadily toward the house. She needed a minute to calm herself without Kathleen’s eyes searching hers for answers. Sam wasn’t about to give any.
Kathleen paused a moment then followed Sam into the house. She’d let it go, she decided. It was apparent Sam wanted to drop the subject so she wouldn’t pry. At least not right now.
He woke early. Not his usual behavior but last night hadn’t been a usual night. She’d be heading outside soon and would find the surprise he’d left for her. He wanted to be there to watch but knew that would have to wait for another time. For now, he contented himself with imagining her reaction and his lips slowly curled into a wicked sneer. He knew she’d be scared. And she should be, he thought. She should be.
By the time the paperwork was completed and Kathleen was on her way, Sam had herself back under control. She headed to her shop to put a little time into a repair job Kathleen had sent her way. The realtor knew everyone in Misty Lake, it seemed. She had spread the word there was a new business in town and had already directed a few clients Sam’s way. She had repaired an antique rocking chair for the town’s high school principal who was anxiously awaiting the birth of his first grandchild and wanted his daughter to be able to rock her baby in the same chair he had rocked her. She had built a small table and matching mirror for the entry of Kathleen’s sister’s home with her sister claiming she had wanted something in that spot for years. For Kathleen herself, she had designed a bookshelf to fit in the corner of her office because, as Kathleen had wailed, bright yellow-clad arms flying and resembling a bird as she flitted around her office, the clutter was out of hand and something had to be done about it.
She now had a cabinet belonging to Kathleen’s mother-in-law awaiting new doors. Sam had to smile. She wondered how many more favors Kathleen would be able to call in. It was working though, Sam had to admit. Her clients had all been pleased with the results and assured Sam they would recommend her to their friends. That’s how it worked, Sam knew. No amount of fancy advertising would ever beat word of mouth, especially in a small town.
While the cabinet repair wasn’t a big job, Sam could hardly wait to get at it. Making the new doors would give her a chance to try out her new panel saw. She had played with it a little to get a feel for it but hadn’t yet had an actual project to test it on. As she made her way across the yard planning out how she would cut the wood for the doors, she caught sight of Rigi already at the shop door and sniffing at something with her hackles raised. Curious, Sam called to her and quickened her pace.
Greeting her at her shop were a broken window and a pile of dead raccoons in front of the door.
“Rigi! Come!” Sam called to get the dog away from the dead animals. Confused by the scene, Sam glanced around trying to find some clue as to what had happened. Obviously three raccoons didn’t just die in front of her door and the window didn’t break on its own. More annoyed than anything, Sam took Rigi by the collar, stepped around the mess, and went inside to investigate the damage.
Shattered glass was strewn across the floor in front of the broken window but aside from that, Sam didn’t notice anything else broken or out of place. Just a prank, she reasoned. Not a very funny one, in her opinion, but the local kids were on summer vacation and too many of them had too much time on their hands. Still, it was unsettling to be a target.
She clipped Rigi’s collar to the leash she kept attached to a workbench and set about cleaning up the glass. She’d have to put a board over the window for the time being until she could get some glass to repair the damage. She fetched the broom and dustpan and made quick work of the mess. She spent a few minutes cutting a piece of plywood to the correct size then nailed it up over the broken window. It cut down on the natural light in the room which was too bad, the more light the better with the room full of kids, but she’d get the window taken care of as soon as possible. Next came the less pleasant task of disposing of the dead raccoons. She grabbed her spade and wheelbarrow from the garden shed and braced for the job ahead.
Her uneasiness increased as she went about picking up the animals. They hadn’t just been killed, they had been mutilated. One had its tail and all four feet cut off. The tail had been tied tightly around its neck. Another was missing its eyes and tongue, from what she could tell. She certainly didn’t want to study it too closely. The last one had been gutted with the innards left under the body.
Sam leaned against the side of the building, breathing slowly and deeply until the queasiness passed. This wasn’t the work of bored school kids, she knew that much. Either someone very sick just happened upon her place or someone was trying to scare her. She wasn’t sure which option was less upsetting. She glanced nervously around then chided herself for being foolish. Of course no one was going to be standing in broad daylight waiting to jump out at her.
Pushing her apprehension aside, she grabbed the spade and went about getting rid of the animals. After burying them in the woods far from her home, she got the hose and a scrub bucket and began cleaning the front step. Not the way she wanted to start her day. There would be no time now to get a start on the cabinet doors, the kids would be arriving soon.
Just as she was finishing, she heard the van pulling in her drive. When it stopped in front of her door and the kids started climbing out, her smile was back in place.
“Morning, Miss Taylor,” Jimmy, the first one out, shouted. Maybe not the most gifted when it came to woodworking, he more than made up for it in enthusiasm.
“Good morning, Jimmy, how was your weekend?”
“Awesome! We got to go waterskiing!”
“Well, that sounds adventurous. How did it go?”
“Oh, it was hard, but fun. It took me about a hundred tries to get up and then I fell a bunch of times but I did it! I skied a whole circle around the lake and back to the dock,” he answered proudly, his red hair and freckles glowing in the sunlight.
Sam could picture Jimmy refusing to give up and the driver of the boat probably wishing he would. Jimmy was the type of kid who would try anything and keep trying until he could do it. He was always the first to volunteer when she asked for someone to try working with a new tool and always the last to put his tools down at the end of the day. Sam knew his life at home was tough, she had been given a brief biography of each of the children she was working with, and his was a sad story. His mom was hardly ever around, more concerned with getting her next hit than with the well-being of her kids. He had a younger sister who he did his best to watch out for and who was also at camp this summer. There was also an older brother who was always in trouble of some sort. According to the report Sam read, he would show up sometimes looking for money, knock Jimmy around, then disappear again. The brother reportedly belonged to a gang and was after Jimmy to start hanging around with them. So far Jimmy had resisted but sometimes resisting wasn’t an option.
“Well, I’m proud of you,” Sam said, “that’s quite an accomplishment. And how’s everyone else?” she asked, looking at the group in front of her. She greeted all of them, being sure to ask at least one question of each in hopes of making everyone feel comfortable. It had been a challenge with a couple of the kids. They simply didn’t trust anyone and their natural reaction was to shut down. She was making a little progress, though. She got smiles and nods and a few responses to her questions. One step at a time, she told herself.
“All right, head inside. Get your projects out of the cabinet and put on your aprons. Remember, no tools until I get there,” she said with an eye on Davis. He liked to make his own rules, she had quickly learned.
“Good morning, ma’am,” Stu tipped his baseball cap and greeted Sam as the kids headed in to get started. Stu had driven a school bus in Misty Lake for years before retiring and was now a volunteer driver for the camp in the morning. His snow-white hair, long white beard, and ample mid-section had also secured him the position of Santa Claus at the town’s Christmas pageant for twelve years running. He was a sweet man and Sam adored him.
“Hello, Stu, how are you? And how’s Molly?” His wife of fifty-five years had been ill and Stu’s concern was obvious though he tried to hide it.
“She’s better, Miss Taylor, thanks for asking. Doc says she just needs a little more rest and she’ll be as good as new.” His smile as he answered her added more crinkles to his red cheeks and Sam had to fight the urge to reach out and squeeze them.
“I’m glad. And I asked you to call me Sam, remember?”
“Yes ma’am, I mean Sam, I remember. Sorry.” He turned his eyes to the door where the concrete steps were still drying and the bucket and spade rested. He took in the boarded up window and concern spread across his face. “Trouble ma’am, ah, Sam?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, just a prank.” The confidence she tried to put into her voice didn’t quite reach her eyes and Stu noticed.
Stu narrowed his eyes, squared his shoulders, and asked, “What happened? Do you need help with anything? I worry about you out here all by yourself. If someone’s giving you trouble, you let me know.”
Sam had to smile at his chivalry. Did they still make men like Stu? she wondered. She finally relented under his stare and gave him a quick recap of the morning’s events.
His unease was evident as he started walking around the shop, examining the ground under the window, and staring out into the woods. “You need to let Sheriff McCabe know about this.”
“Oh, Stu, it’s nothing, really,” Sam said with more conviction than she felt. “There’s no need to trouble the sheriff with this.”
“Hmpf. Nothing, she says,” Stu mumbled, shaking his head. Looking her in the eye he said, “It’s not nothing when someone tortures animals then leaves them for you to find.”
“Tortured? You think they were tortured?” Sam asked, horrified. That thought hadn’t crossed her mind. She had assumed the animals had been killed then mutilated, not made to suffer.
“Well, seems to me someone sick enough to do those things probably wanted to see the critters suffer. Not everyone’s wired exactly right, Sam.”
Sam was silent for a moment then straightened and said, “I need to get inside to the kids. Everything will be okay, Stu. Thank you for your concern but I’m fine. Please don’t worry.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and dashed inside to her waiting students.
Stu looked after her for a moment then climbed back into the van and pulled away. His next stop would be at the sheriff’s office whether Sam liked it or not. And he’d be back later to fix that window.
“Your birdhouse looks fantastic, Jackson,” Sam encouraged the seventeen-year-old. Jackson was a tough one to get to know. While he was slowly coming around, he had barely grunted responses during the first two weeks of classes. From his file Sam knew he had been in and out of juvenile detention centers, had been mixed up with drugs, and wanted to be anywhere but Project Strong Start for the summer. In Jackson’s case, it was his mother who had pushed hard for the camp to give him a chance. Unlike so many of the kids, he had a parent fighting bitterly for him to succeed. Every time he had fallen, she had been there to pick him up and from what Sam read, she wasn’t about to quit.
And he was so talented. Sam had been amazed at how naturally he held the tools. For most, the first time they held a screwdriver or a saw it was awkward and the tendency was to hold it like a pencil, spoon, or other familiar object. His cuts were even, he had just the right touch when it came to sanding, and had the patience needed to measure and plan carefully so things were done right the first time.
She had tried too hard with him at first, she realized that now. He needed time, so she had given it to him. This morning when she complimented his nearly-completed birdhouse she saw a trace of a smile as he grunted his, “Thanks, Miss Taylor,” before lowering his head again leaving her to look at the back of his head.
All the kids had started with a birdhouse after the initial few days of learning their way around the shop and learning how to handle the tools. It was an easy project, silly, some of them had thought, but Sam wanted them to be successful and this was a way to be sure that happened. When Mario had grumbled he didn’t have anywhere to put a ‘stupid birdhouse’ at his apartment, she had told him she’d be honored to have it in her yard. At first he had looked at her as if she was making fun of him—oh, that had broken her heart—but once he determined she was sincere, he had seemed pleased. Right now he was etching his initials on the bottom of his just-completed robin house.
“What do you think you’d like to try for your next project?” Sam asked in an effort to engage Jackson. She was letting them choose from a few different projects and while she knew she’d have to steer Jimmy and a couple others toward the easier designs, she was really hoping Jackson would choose the jewelry box. It was a lovely piece and she knew he could handle the detailed work needed for the divided drawers, door hinges, and heart cutouts if he’d be willing to try.
“Dunno,” he mumbled, “maybe the jewelry box, I guess. My mom would probably like it. She likes earrings and stuff.”
Sam’s heart gave a little lurch and she had to clasp her hands together behind to back to keep from reaching out and hugging him. It was exactly what she had wanted to hear. She knew from experience that getting an at-risk teen to think of others was an important step. “I think that’s an excellent choice, Jackson. I know your mom will love it.”
Jackson gave a little half-nod, half-shrug but kept his head bent over his birdhouse. Sam moved on, not wanting to push too hard. This was the most he had said to her thus far. She had to try to be patient and celebrate the small success.
Sam checked on each student’s progress then announced cleanup time as, like usual, the morning had slipped by too quickly. “It looks like everyone should have their birdhouse finished tomorrow so think about what you want to try for your next project. I’m anxious for you to get started on something new.”
Sam watched as Katie, the only girl in the group, carefully brushed sawdust from her area at the workbench into the trash bin. Such a sweet girl, but so sad. She was a beautiful girl with long, curling hair so brown it was almost black. She had huge chocolate brown eyes that Sam noticed frequently darted from one thing to the next as if she could never quite relax. Katie’s mom had died when Katie was a baby and her dad, who had done his best to raise her and her brothers, was sick. The kids had been shuffled between Child Protective Services and foster homes recently as her dad had been in and out of the hospital. Her brothers had gotten into some trouble with their last foster family so the kids were awaiting yet another family to take them in.
Sam could understand the sadness and anxiety. The fear of losing those you love the most was crippling. In Katie’s case, Sam wondered if she wouldn’t be better off closer to her dad where she would know what was happening with him, be it good or bad. The not knowing was taking a toll on her, that much was apparent.
As stools scraped against the floor and cabinet doors opened and closed, the camp van pulled up and Bev, the afternoon driver, hopped out and up the steps to the workshop. “Everyone ready to go?” she asked brightly.
While the kids finished cleaning up and started for the van, Bev leaned her head in and muttered to Sam, “I heard you had some trouble out here.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Bev. Just some kids with too much time on their hands,” Sam tried to convince both of them. The last three hours spent working with the campers had taken her mind off the events of the morning but they came crashing back. “How did you hear about it?” Sam asked, curious.
“Well, Ted over at the gas station was talking to Peggy from First National, who had coffee with Elaine, Frank’s wife—Frank’s the mailman in town—who heard from Kathleen about your trouble this morning.”
“What?” Sam asked as she tried to unravel the chain of events. “How did Kathleen…oh, it doesn’t matter,” she shook her head. “Things are fine here, all cleaned up. I’m sure it was just a one-time thing.”
Bev looked uncertain. “I hope you’re right. Ted said he heard Kathleen thinks you should put in a security system. She said the owners of all the fancy houses on the lake are doing it.”
“I didn’t realize crime was so rampant here in Misty Lake,” Sam teased.
“It’s not, Sam, it’s not, but you’re here all alone. Maybe Kathleen’s right…”
“Bev, I’m fine. I can take care of myself. Besides, I have Rigi.”
Sam grimaced as both women looked over at the dog, currently running in circles around a pine tree, barking and tripping over her own feet at she tried to look upward at the squirrel well out of her reach and looking like anything but a watchdog.
Bev raised a brow. “Yes, well, I’m sure she’s a great comfort. You watch yourself, Sam,” she said as she patted Sam on the back and headed for the van.
As Sam watched the van pull away and she was alone for the first time since discovering the morning’s vandalism, she had to shake off the chill that threatened. Just kids, she told herself again and tried to believe it.