The sun was strained behind a single cloud in the aquamarine sky as it strove to shine down on the stone secondary school. Andrew Maguire stared outside as a robin plunged its beak into the grass and extracted a worm, which it promptly carried to a sessile oak. He ran a hand through his golden hair and etched an outline of the bird on the corner of his page with a pencil. The clock seemed to move so slowly that the hands creaked instead of ticking. He released his breath and eased against his seat, tapping the eraser of his pencil against the wooden desk.

"Excuse me," Mrs. Finn crossed her arms with a scowl aimed in his direction. "You have only five minutes remaining in the school day, and I will thank you to not waste it."

With a roll of his mixed eyes, Andrew chewed his lip and crossed his own arms until his teacher excused her students and they rose with their stacks of books and colorful backpacks. He slung his black backpack over his shoulder and snatched the tied boxing gloves beside his seat, then stormed out of the classroom ahead of the other students only to collide with a smaller boy with spiked russet hair.

"Move!" he shoved past the kid, who slammed into the lockers against the wall.

"I had no idea you were coming!" the boy called after him, but another kid with dirty blond hair and bleached tips ushered him down the hall with a supportive slap on the shoulder.

"Stay out of his way before he gets even angrier."

Andrew sauntered straight to the rose Ferrari against the exit of the parking lot. As he extracted the remote and keys from his jeans pocket to unlock the door, a girl stormed toward him from behind.

"What is the matter with you?" she demanded.

"Shut up!" he shouted.

"No! You always shove everyone around. Maybe you wouldn't do that so much if someone shoved you around a bit," she stared with crystal eyes lined with ebony pencil, her strawberry lips gaped with surprise when he pivoted around and shoved her to the pavement. Another pair of girls, witnesses to the incident, twittered and giggled at the sight.

"Maybe you'll learn to shut up," Andrew snarled as he stormed to the car and climbed inside to tear out of the parking lot with screeching tires, scarcely missing the two students crossing the street.

The engine roared down the street as he accelerated. It seemed to soothe the edge of his agitated nerves, but no more than that. He could not have cared even if he crashed his Ferrari on the way to his house, if he could only avoid the entire premises after that morning.

The Maguire mansion stood staunchly on a satin emerald lawn with an ash tree on either side. By the time Andrew reached it and screeched his Ferrari to a stop, he was still enraged enough to stomp up the brick path to porch.

He stormed into the house and started to slam the door, but caught it before it made a sound and closed it gently. He stood silent and surveyed the room. There was cherry beadboard to the middle of the wall, and above it was a lovely scarlet and gold rose paper. Antique shelves supported porcelain vases of wilted hydrangeas, and dust covered the coffee table on one side of the room. All was still.

The slam of a door upstairs rattled the windows and caused him to start. A suited man appeared and stomped down the spiral staircase with his wife stumbling after him, clenching a wine bottle and shouting, "Kenneth! Do not leave this house again! I know where you are when you work late!"

"I have to keep staying late at the office, Grania, if I am to financially support your habit."

"You support no one but yourself! You hate me, and you hate our son! You selfish liar!"

"You shut your mouth! If I come home tonight, you're both going to regret you said that."

She reached to snatch his arm, but he wrenched it loose and slapped her cheek. She sniveled softly as he stormed down the stairs and shoved Andrew away to exit the door. Grania pitched the bottle by the neck so that it shattered above the door and showered down on him as he slammed it behind him. Then she ran a hand through her disheveled straw locks and peered down at her son.

"Andrew, get me another."

"Get it yourself," he snapped as he made his way toward the kitchen and reached into the refrigerator to retrieve a couple of beers. After a moment of contemplation, he reached into a drawer close by and extracted the whiskey. He unscrewed the cap of one beer and raised it to his lips, snorting to himself when he stared at the sweet buttermilk room and the painted teacups in the cabinets.

Another door slammed upstairs, so he rushed up them and darted into his own room. He cast his backpack onto his bed and dumped out the books and supplies, replacing them with the alcohol. He pulled open his dresser drawers and reached for several clothes to stash into the pack. After he retrieved his toothbrush and paste and threw them in with his clothes, he pressed his ear to his door and listened.

There was no movement. When he pulled open the door, he could hear the rummaging of bottles in a dresser with murmurs of "No, I have another somewhere in here." He sneaked out with his backpack over one shoulder and thundered gently down the stairs, precise in keeping his steps within the rose and gold rug down the middle of the wood. The moment he reached the bottom, he kneeled down and withdrew the bottom stair as a drawer. He laid aside his backpack and gathered the stashed money to distribute between his backpack and his wallet.

He rose and sneaked out the door as his mother uttered one last cry of frustration upstairs. Rushing to the car before anyone could stop him, he slammed the door behind him and peeled back into the street. He drove about two miles and started searching out the mouth of a public park to turn into. He swerved into it when it approached, and killed the engine.

When he climbed out of the Ferrari and slammed the door, an open field stretched ahead of him. A couple of dogwoods at the perimeter made it resemble a sort of thicket. He strode toward it and extracted his phone out of one pocket as a second car passed behind. He breathed deeply as he dialed and pressed the phone to his ear, staring up at the maroon fruits as he approached the dogwoods.

After a couple of rings came the alto voice that soothed him instantly. "Hello, Andrew?"

"Nicole, I'm at that field we used to go to. I want to come live with you. Is that all right?"

"Wait, what happened?" a trace panic hastened her tone. "Are you all right?"

"The same things that have been happening for years!" Andrew snapped, surprised at the tears that welled in his eyes. He swiped them away. "I can't take it anymore! Please, Sis, can I come live with you?"

"Of course you can. But it's going to take me two hours to drive there," she hesitated and sighed. "Let me come see you before you come, so we can make sure this is what you want to do."

"I know what I want!"

"Listen, you're not realizing what Mom and Dad are going to do when they realize what's going on," she answered desperately. Andrew breathed as evenly as he could, but shuddered anyway. "Dad would go mad, and Mom might actually drink herself to death – if he doesn't do something first."

"Maybe neither one would notice," tears streamed down his cheeks, but he smeared them away with his palm. "All right – get here as soon as you can."

"I will."

He gathered his composure as he snapped closed his tomato and silver phone and slipped it back into his jeans pocket. A breath of fresh air and the expanse of peridot grass gave him a sense of freedom. Returning home from school to Nicole reading at the table with a steaming cup of awaiting each of them seemed much more appealing than the current state.

"I have a pistol at your spine," announced a rough voice behind him, startling him out of his imagination. "Do not move in any direction, or I will shoot you. Empty your pockets onto the grass."

The speaker stretched a ski mask over his entire head as he spoke, but Andrew snorted and immediately started to tear the mask away until his head was clear. "Right, you're going to shoot me– "

The metal pistol punched down against his skull, and he dropped onto the grass.

The sun settled beneath the horizon as time passed, but only a couple stars sparkled as diamonds in the coal sky. By the time Nicole parked beside the field and climbed out of her car, there was no one to be seen. She scanned the area where the headlights beamed, but only a couple of grants were swirling around. She squinted and shouted, "Andrew! Are you out there?" as she dialed his number.

She strained her ears to perceive the heavy metal ring, but could hear nothing but distant cars because the phone was ringing in a city flat where Fallon snatched away from Cameron and said, "Why do you have that bloody mobile? We could be tracked down with it! Don't get rid of it, or else someone may see it. I'm going to turn it off."

"You said we should get everything worth anything," Cameron retorted with palms raised in defeat. "I know someone who could use a mobile, and he doesn't know anything about Maguire."

"That's stupid," Fallon murmured as he pressed the key that shut the phone down. Then he raised his voice with his eyes and announced, "We make no stupid moves. This mobile is staying right here with us. We can't risk it getting to someone who can trace is back to Maguire. Got that?"

"No one is ever going to know," Samantha soothed and leaned against Emmanuel, whose knees she was seated across. Auburn hair with cherry streaks reached her elbows, and her hazel eyes glinted. "We can keep a secret, and we'll leave as soon as we graduate."

"Five months to make a hash of everything," Fallon dropped into a plain metal chair with his chin in his palm. He stared at the Christmas lights strung across the eaves of the homes across the street. "We have to sit on the money and hope no one looks our way."

"No one has any reason to," Eric reminded him as he eased back against the taupe sofa and crossed one ankle atop his knee. "So quit worrying so bloody much, or you'll make people look our way."

"So, how will we do this, anyway?" Charlie leaned his elbows on his knees and peered around the room. "Are we going to split the money six ways and split directions after graduation?"

"That's the plan," Fallon confirmed.

"Except Sam and I are going together," Emmanuel simpered and kissed her cheek.

"But those kids in class said they're going to hire a private detective," Charlie reasoned with alarm in his eyes. "We should leave now, before any of them are onto us."

"If we leave now," Fallon answered resolutely, "suspicion will be drawn right to us. What could they possibly have that would point to us? There was no one around, and we left nothing behind."

"We take things as they come," Cameron said. "We spy on them while they spy on us. We run if they get too close, but we stay when they don't."

Fallon gave a completive nod. "That is a good idea."

"The only information that private detective can get," said Eric with a proud simper, "is out of Maguire, and he won't be saying anything."

That private detective started his search in another direction. As Calder started down one of the many hospital corridors to the room where an assault victim was said to be, he saw someone who signaled the right room like a beacon.

There was a young man whose pale ash hair was bleached at the edges standing outside the room with arms crossed over the chest of his maroon school sweater. Curiosity ignited his slate eyes as he caught sight of Calder and extended his hand. "Me name is Miles. Please come in."

He shouldered open the wooden door to reveal a blanched room beeping with a heart monitor and more machinery. Several small glass vases of silk marigolds were positioned wherever possible on the wooden shelves and side table.

A student with almond waves and luminous crystal eyes was seated beside the hospital cot, complexion pale behind her dusting of freckles. Another student, with short cinnamon hair and hazel eyes, was standing on the opposite side.

"That's Amber," Miles pointed to the girl, and then to the standing boy. "And that is Stephen."

Lying in the cot was Andrew, whose carved shoulders, slender waist, and complete absence of consciousness were immediately analyzed by Calder.

"Is he an athlete?" he asked as he seated himself on a second chair.

"Boxing and rugby," Miles confirmed. "Used to run."

"So explain what happened."

"Well," Miles leaned his back against the door frame and crossed his arms. "Our teacher is the wife of one of the emergency department doctors. She said in class that Andrew was discovered in some meadow on the edge of town after being smashed in the head with something that, clearly, put him in a coma. The Gardaí have no leads, except that they suspect he may have been carrying money on him. His wallet was still in his pocket, but there was nothing except identification inside. And there was no car, but he was miles away from home."

Then the only sounds to be heard were the etching of pencil on notepad and the perpetual beeping of the machines. Eventually, Calder cleared his throat and continued.

"Is there anyone who threatened him, or held a grudge against him?"

The students exchanged glances with one another before Miles blew through his lips. "Well, we're not exactly sure. We're not terribly close to him. But I wouldn't be surprised."

"Elaborate."

"He eats the head off everyone around him. He reefs anyone who is remotely close to a sap, and he gave Stephen a shiner last Monday. On the morning he was attacked, he shoved Stephen against the lockers and bolted out. He pinned a kid down, smashed his sandwich, and poured his soda on his face. He has actually made some of the rugby team cry. There have also been some pot problems."

"And you're here to help him?"

Miles exchanged another glance with his friends. "Attacking him in that meadow was wrong, no matter who he is. Besides, we assumed some of his mates who sort of contribute to his peer authority would be here with him, but clearly, they are not."

"What else do you know about him?"

"Not much. He drives a red Ferrari."

Calder raised his eyes and pointed at the patient. "That lad?"

"Yes."

He pointed to the parking lot. "Drives a Ferrari?"

"Yes. He also has an aptitude toward drag racing."

He returned to his notes. "All right. What else?"

"His father, Kenneth Maguire, runs a hospital that used to have an appalling reputation. After a couple years, it was thriving. Everything he touches turns to gold. Although, we have never seen him around. He hasn't even been here. We don't really see his mother, either, but she used to be around a bit more. About payment, we're raising money with some classmates—"

"You're not going to pay me this time."

"Pardon me?"

"You're here with a classmate anyone would rightly despise and attempting to bring his attacker to justice. There aren't many people in the world that would do something like that."

The trio exchanged glances before Miles said, "We're asked to bless those who curse us."

"But not many people actually do it. Consider this a Christmas gift from me."

"We appreciate that," Miles thrust a hand toward him. "By the way, you have a wicked pair of eyes."

Calder clasped his hand and gave it a pump. "Thank you. Speaking of school, keep your eyes in ears open in case someone starts boasting about this. And describe the scene of the incident to me."

"Well, it's a field on the edge of town across from a neighborhood. It's a really tame area, where nothing ever really happens. You'll recognize it because there is a perimeter of dogwoods around it…"

The perimeter of dogwoods gaped as an archway where there was a gravel crescent to park. Calder and Tristan stood beneath this arch and surveyed their surroundings. Behind the perimeter was an open field, but across the street, almost shielded from the field by the trees, was a row of cherry and cream and lemon houses with small picket fenced yards.

"What can you start with, when you have no information?" Tristan asked his companion, who pointed past him to a wooden bench in the field against the perimeter of dogwoods. A man swaddled in a tattered suede coat sprawled across it, silver mane spraying in every direction like sun rays.

"Excuse me," Calder said as they approached the bench. There was no movement. "Sir?"

The man peered at them from beneath the arm he had cast over his head. "What you want, lads?"

"Was there anyone here yesterday afternoon?"

"Only a couple o'snot-nosed lads. Why? Who ye lookin' for?"

"And what were they doing, please?"

"I only heard their voices, the noisy lot. Well, no, I suppose I did see a couple o'shapes come out from behind the trees, effing and blinding, but they sped away in a hurry after that."

"Did you hear anything they said?"

"No, sir, except the curses. They were up t'ninety!"

"Much obliged," Calder reached into his ebony suit and extracted a prepaid card to a local Italian restaurant. He presented it to the man, whose eyes sparked with curiosity and interest when he reached out to accept it and tilted it in the sunlight to read the raised print with squinted eyes.

"Go raibh maith agat," the man gave an appreciative nod.

"And what now?" Tristan asked as they traipsed back across the grass. Instead of answering, Calder counted his steps very precisely until he came to the approximate spot of the attack. He stared across the street to analyze the view he had of each home.

"Come with me," he started toward a cherry house with a spaniel leashed to a tree. The russet dog yapped at them as they approached and skipped excitedly at the end of her leash. The door creaked open and a woman slipped through in a carnation robe and a sort of mobcap.

"Good evening, gentlemen."

"Hello," Calder greeted her with a polite nod. "I am a private detective, and I have some questions for you, if you have the time to answer them."

"Depends on what they are, I suppose."

"Did you see anything happening in that meadow across the street yesterday?" Calder asked as he pointed to the grass. The woman leaned to peer in the same direction with a confounded expression.

"Well, what do you mean about anything?" she asked. "I saw some birds, there were people jogging by early in the morning, and – actually, there was a car there in the afternoon. Two cars, actually. Why, were they involved in some sort of crime?" her eyes widened.

"Describe them please, missus."

"The one was a red, probably expensive car. The second was a sort of taupe brown Jetta, I'd say, and one of the doors only had primer, and no paint. They both peeled out of there about the same time."

"Anything else?"

The woman squinted with contemplation, then shook her almond curls. "No, not at all."

"Much obliged," Calder smiled and returned to his car with Tristan at his heels as he dialed his cell phone. When Miles answered, he said, "This is Calder McCallister, and I have something for you to look for at school. Keep an eye out for a taupe Jetta with a primed door."

"Terrific. What do I do if I see it?"

"Let me know who owns it."

"Got it."

The trio remained true to their word the next morning and arrived early to evaluate the parking lot.

Students milled around at the entrance of the school and started to stream inside as the bell rang. Miles peered around the asphalt with Stephen and Amber as classmates passed them to get to class. Amber tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear as she squinted against the breeze of the morning.

"Maybe the person isn't a student," she proposed when the car in question was nowhere to be seen.

"Or they may have ran already," Miles murmured as he swiveled gradually around to survey the rest of the area. The entrance of the school was clearing rapidly. Miles released the air in his lungs and shook his head, starting toward the double doors until Stephen slapped his arm.

"Look," he stared straight ahead of him, prompting Miles to turn and see several students climbing out of a strangely colored car with a primed door. One was a girl who caught their eye and scowled, causing them to dart their eyes in various directions.

"She sees us," Miles hissed.

"I know," Stephen whispered.

"Was that Fallon and them?" Amber asked.

"Yes, and that was Sam," Miles answered as Sam ushered the boys she was with toward the school behind the crowd of classmates.

"Those are the kids with the private detective," she hissed furiously.

"Perfect, and they were staring at us!" Charlie ran his hands through his curls.

"Ya made eye contact, and that was all," Fallon snapped. "So shut up."

"Maybe we should just give it back and hope no one presses charges," Charlie suggested.

"Are you serious?" Fallon demanded.

"I swear, I will kill you if you try that," Emmanuel hissed.

Fallon raised a hand to silence him and turned to grab Charlie by the shoulders. "Maguire and his family had more than enough money to get them by. They're not even going to miss what we got, and we're going to use it to start over. But do you really believe they wouldn't press charges?"

"Well, those kids know it was us. I saw the look in their eyes."

Fallon ran his hands down his face. "Then we should leave tonight."

They reached their classroom door behind everyone else when Eric stopped short. "We are going to have a discussion about this before one of you ruins everything. Bathroom, now."

Miles dialed in a panic to reach Stephen as the quartet started down the hall. When Stephen answered, he said, "They saw me. They're going to the bathroom to continue their discussion."

"Got it," Stephen shut his phone and darted into the bathroom and into a stall, swinging the door shut behind him. He grasped the top edges of the stall on each side and hoisted himself onto the toilet seat in a crouching position. He heard their arrival as he pulled his hands down to his sides.

Shoes on the tile and an approaching shadow indicated that someone was checking beneath each stall door. Stephen strove to breathe in silence.

"We have been suspected, and you know it," Emmanuel hissed.

"Well, what do you want to do, Emmanuel?" Fallon demanded. "You want us to disappear and look even more suspicious?"

"Shut up," Eric snapped as he paced across the tile. "He may be right. Look," he silenced any opposition, "we may seem suspicious if we do that, but as he said, we're already suspected. The only thing we can do now is get out of town with Maguire's money and start over."

"When do we leave, then?" asked Charlie.

"Tonight," Eric answered.

"I'm getting me share of it at lunch so I can leave, then," Emmanuel said.

"Not until we can all leave at the same time," Eric explained in the same tone one might use to speak to a child. "Remember, we were all going to share a place until we each get our own? Besides, if you leave, you will direct all the authorities straight toward us."

"So why should I care?" Emmanuel spat when he snapped. "Charlie here already stole my girl, as I discovered this morning when she was in his room, and I have half a mind to kill him for it. Not a single one of you would have given me a second thought. So why should I stick around?"

Stephen could hear the metallic click of the blade in a pocket knife. "Because we can't trust you with it alone. You almost did kill Charlie this morning, and I'm sure you would have had I not stopped you."

"So we leave after school," Fallon confirmed after a strained silence.

"Yes," Eric slid the blade back. "We leave after school, we stay together until we each get our own place, and then we split in different directions."

After they exited the bathroom, Stephen made sure they were a substantial distance away before sneaking out himself. Miles met him in the hall with countless inquiries in his eyes.

"What are you doing out of class?" Stephen asked.

"I almost assumed you'd been caught. Did they incriminate themselves?"

Stephen sported a triumphant smile as he reached into his pocket and produced the recorder. Miles gave him a slap on the shoulder as the investigator accepted it and slipped it into his own pocket with coolness.

"But they're leaving after school. I have to warn Mr. McCallister that they plan to disappear."

As soon as the digital clock in his car switched to proclaim it to be three, Calder raised his eyes to the school doors and awaited the students to come spilling out. That car with the primed door was parked two spaces ahead of him. He raised his coffee to his lips without removing his eyes from it and replaced the cup in its holder as the five teens rushed toward it with suspicious glances in every direction.

He started the engine and prepared to steer into the stream of traffic after them. They piled in and peeled into the street, causing a series of honks in their wake. Calder maneuvered his car in between two others, eyes maintained on the car that held the teens.

While waiting, he had explored all the social networking sites he could remember on his iPhone in search of these kids. He learned about the Metallica songs Eric listened to, the television shows Sam seemed to be in love with, and the summer job Charlie had, but never saw a location they may visit.

The teens turned sharply, but Calder continued down the street to the next turn. He murmured a prayer that he would not lose the subjects, then made the next turn that almost completed a square. The teens were pulling ahead of him from the cross street.

All at once, the driver raised his eyes to the rearview mirror. Calder sincerely wished one of his nieces was old enough to go to school with those he tailed so that he could have pretended to pick her up. It may strike suspicion that, after waiting in the parking lot, he drove away without a passenger. Eric, the driver, returned his eyes to the street and made another sharp turn with screeching tires. Calder continued down the street, now wishing there was a second person on his team to drive a second vehicle, and used a driveway to turn around so that he could enter the same street as his subjects from the opposite direction they had come.

As he approached the partially primed car with two vehicles between them, he saw Eric dart his eyes up to his own. He managed to avoid eye contact, but Eric stomped the gas pedal and peeled around another corner. There was no other option but to pursue them, as it was a right turn only lane. When he made the turn, the teens were speeding out of sight with no one ahead of them and two cars still ahead of Calder. The moment they disappeared, he swerved into a parking lot and stomped the brake, pounding the steering wheel with his palm with an aggravated snarl.

The drive to the hospital set him on edge. He repeatedly imagined himself explaining to the students that he had been burned and the suspects escaped before he could pursue them home. Each time, he could not help but picture the disappointment in their eyes.

The students, at this time, surrounded one of the hospital vending machines while Amber attempted time and time again to get the machine to accept her money.

"You know he's still going to hate us when this is over," Stephen said as he paced behind his friends.

"He might," Miles admitted, "but you don't know that."

"He's hated us as long as he's known us," Stephen reasoned. "He's not going to change his mind because we do one good thing to him."

"We can't control what he does," Amber said as she watched her money disappear and get spat back out again. She snatched it out and spun it around to try feeding the opposite end into the machine.

"He punched me in the eye!" Stephen pointed to the diminishing bruise. "He mocks you all the time, Amber, and he almost broke your nose when we played dodgeball in gym class, Miles."

"I get it," Miles answered crisply with a raised hand. "Look, I've second guessed this idea a thousand times since we heard about what happened. It's not easy on you or anybody else to look past everything he does, but that's what we're going to do. It wasn't right for him or anyone else to be robbed and abandoned, injured and alone, in some field."

"Buy why does it have to be us?"

"Because no one else will!" Amber snapped as she slapped the vending machine with her palm. A can of mocha rolled into the dispenser, and she reached for it as well as the change offered in the slot. "We cannot control how Andrew reacts to what we do, but we can control what we do. And maybe he has no one else to show him love. No one has even been here aside from us and Mr. McCallister! So maybe he has never even seen what love is. I'm going to keep this going, whether you two do or not."

Miles released the air in his lungs and gave a nod. "You know I will."

"So will I," Stephen relented. "But it's still not easy."

"A lot of things aren't easy," Miles reminded him.

"Mr. McCallister," Amber waved to the man approaching the hospital room they had come from. She started toward the room with her companions behind her, realizing the results of his endeavors the moment they saw the apprehension in his countenance. "You didn't see them."

"I chased them up and down a couple streets at a reasonable distance, but they saw me. They must have suspected someone was having them tailed. But we know who we suspect is guilty, at least, and that is worth something to a Garda investigation."

All at once, a woman with smooth coffee hair rushed into the room and pressed her palm over her mouth. She darted her eyes to the teenagers and the investigator, but maintained her gaze primarily on the boy in the cot. She came toward him and examined all the wires and machines.

"Andrew, what happened to you?" she murmured.

"Excuse me," Miles started as she pivoted to see him. "I'm Miles, and these are Stephen and Amber. We go to school with Andrew."

"Nicole," she reached out to accept his extended hand. "I'm his sister."

"Well," Miles exchanged glances with his companions, "we want you to know we have a private investigator here to solve the case. He already knows who did this."

"Calder McCallister," he extended his hand also, and she accepted it.

"There is no way to show how much I appreciate that," she said and rested her chin on her palm as she stared down at her brother again. Then she met their eyes with tears in her own. "I have been searching for him since this happened. I was supposed to meet him at the field on the edge of town…"

"We're sorry this all happened," Calder consoled.

"… and our parents only just let me know. They seemed to believe he was in good hands and that I shouldn't be too concerned, but he –"

As she continued, there was a gentle stir in the cot. Andrew squinted at them in a daze, then noticed all the machines and wires. Nicole threw herself into the chair beside him and grasped his hand.

"Andrew, you're in a hospital. You were hit over the head."

He closed his eyes again. He stirred with a moan as he strove to clear his head, then opened his eyes again and stared blearily up at the ceiling. He blinked several times.

"Nicole?" he murmured.

"Yes," she answered with tears in her eyes. She reached to clasp his hands between hers, but tears appeared in his eyes and he opened his arms to her. She gathered him up in an embrace, unable to keep the tears from streaming down her cheeks.

His three classmates saw this and discretely exited the room. Calder couldn't help but smile at the brother and sister crying together, each proving consolation for the other. Eventually, as they started to calm down, Andrew asked, "What happened to me?"

"Your classmates said you were hit over the head and robbed in the field," Calder answered promptly. "You have been in a coma several days."

Andrew furrowed his brow in confusion. "What classmates?"

"Miles, Stephen, and Amber. They hired me to find out who did this."

Andrew retained his bewildered expression until the words sunk in. Then he said, "I want to speak with them."

"I will go get them," Calder promised, and switched his eyes to Nicole, "and I'll let the doctors know he's awake on me way back."

He darted out the door and rushed to the stairs, as the elevator had been in repair, and sprinted down them as swiftly as he could. After several breathless flights, his lengthy legs almost collapsed when he leapt to the bottom of the last. He could see the three strolling casually toward the bus stop, and he trotted after them.

"Wait!"

The swiveled around.

"Andrew is awake. He's asked to see you."

Surprised, they exchanged glances and agreed to return to the room. Each considered every possible reaction he may have when they arrived. Maybe he would demand to know why they were there, or maybe he would be angry that they pried into his business.

Andrew's eyes rounded with astonishment when they entered, as though he hadn't really believed they were the ones behind the investigation. When they approached his cot, he swallowed and cleared his throat. After several attempts to speak, he managed to say, "I have been awful to you all. Why on earth would you do something like this for me?"

Miles considered the inquiry a moment, then seated himself on the edge of the cot the same way a parent would who was about to tell a bedtime story.

"Thousands of years ago," he explained, "the Jewish people hated Samaritans so much that they considered themselves contaminated to even travel through Samaria. But one day, 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. "Look after him," he said, "and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have."'" *

Andrew rattled with tears as he listened, then extended his arms and pulled Miles into a trembling but tight embrace. The young man returned it and murmured something inaudible before he rose and stepped aside to allow the entering doctor some room.

"Well," he announced cheerfully, "Look at you! Do you remember your name, son?"

"Andrew Maguire," he answered.

"Do you remember what happened to you?"

"No, but it was explained to me."

"All right. Well, let me check you over and make sure everything's functioning right."

When the doctor completed his exam, all the visitors except Nicole returned home for the night. It was a cold one, and each could see his or her breath in the air. Christmas lights adorned the hospital and the stores downtown, with tinsel and ribbons on the street lamps. Pines were raised in many homes, and hymns could be heard inside.

Mist beaded on the windows downtown when the sun rose above the shops and apartments. Charlie rose upright and gingerly peeled the covers down so he could stand without rousing Samantha. Then he picked his path across the vinyl beneath him until he reached the hall and sneaked down to the common area. He sensed the thundering of his own heart as he sneaked to the leather couch against a blanched wall. He reached behind it to the navy backpack and eased it into view.

"What do you think you're doing, Charlie?"

He started with surprise and pivoted to see Samantha standing at the end of the hall with crossed arms. She eased closer without making a sound and cast a glance over one shoulder.

"Look, I can't do this," he whispered back. "We put a classmate in a coma. Fallon said no one would get hurt and the Maguires would never miss that money. We have to give this all back to them."

"Are you mad?" she hissed. "You get be arrested! We'll all be arrested! You know I got in on this because I needed that money for me ma. You're not going to ruin this for everyone!"

"I'm not trying to ruin anything. That's why I have to give this back."

He slung the back over one shoulder and rose again, only to see Samantha with a pistol aimed at him. The thundering of his heart hastened until he could scarcely breathe around it.

"Sam, what is going on?" Emmanuel appeared at the end of the hall with smoldering eyes on Charlie.

"Charlie was about to give that money back to Maguire and get us all into trouble," she said with a trembling tone. "We have to stop him, or we're all ruined."

"You do that, and Fallon's going to kill you," Emmanuel warned. "And to be perfectly honest, I can't say I would blame him. I may even get to it first. I am going to get meself a new beginning with that money. So put it down."

"I can't do that," Charlie murmured as he gripped the strap over his shoulder more securely. "Sam, you're not going to shoot me. I do know that you love me too much to do that."

Tears streamed down her cheeks when she said, "I can't love you, but I can shout until everyone else comes out here and –"

Emmanuel seized her from behind and clasped a palm across her mouth. "Get out of here! They're going to kill you if she gets a sound out."

"They're going to kill you, too, for helping me go. I can't leave you here."

Emmanuel chewed his lip and winced when Sam bit down on his fingers. "Get something to tie her wrists with. We can say that you were the one stealing the money if you make a noise, Sam."

She stared at him with startled hazel eyes while Charlie rummaged around one of the kitchenette drawers and returned with zip ties. Emmanuel clamped his arm across Sam in a way that she could not move while Charlie gathered her wrists together and secured the plastic tie around them. He pulled it snug so her wrists would not be able to twist out and exchanged a glance with Emmanuel.

"We can't turn back now," Emmanuel mused and peered down to Sam. "I have missed you."

He kissed her cheek and released her to rush out the door and sprint down the hall behind Charlie with the pack as her screeching to the others became more distant. Seconds later, more voices merged with hers and more shoes thundered down the hall behind them.

"Were you really going to frame her?" Charlie asked as they thundered down the stairs.

"No, but I needed her to think so."

The same shoes pursued them until they crossed the hospital parking lot and slipped through the automatic doors. A woman shrieked when they rushed past her on either side and started up the stairs. Security was called, and they darted across the lobby after them.

Dodging doctors and employees with a shouldered bag of money was a challenge, the echoing shouts and shoes of security behind them, and the distant but persistent shoes of their pursuers behind them, pushed them onward.

"We have no idea where he even is," Charlie gasped as they rushed around another corner. Emmanuel searched the wards with his eyes and pointed to the trauma ward to one side.

"His room was mentioned in the student newsletter at school so he could receive visitors and cards," Emmanuel managed under his breath, then plucked at his arm as he rounded the corner before the trauma ward. "Come on! We can't stop until we get there."

Their eyes darted to each name plate as they passed, Charlie reading the right and Emmanuel the left. When the latter slapped the former on the back as he ran, they darted to the side and exploded through the door, skidding to a halt when they discovered Andrew and Nicole staring at them with round eyes.

"We're sorry," Emmanuel managed, breathless. "We're so sorry."

Security dashed into the room behind them, and they dropped the bag and raised their hands up beside their heads with sorrow in their eyes.

"There are more," Charlie promised the security guard over his shoulder. "They are after us. There is a girl with auburn hair and two blond lads. You have to catch them before they get to us."

"And they will hide," Emmanuel added when a couple of the security guards exited the room to check. "They will wait for us to leave so they can get in here to get the money!"

The Maguires stared in astonishment while the boys were handcuffed, especially when Charlie murmured a question to the security guard. After he was responded to with a nod, he leaned back and picked up the black duffel bag with one of his cuffed hands and made his way closer to the Maguires, guard at his elbow. He hoisted the bag onto the bedside table and said, "We stole this from you because we wanted to run away and split into different directions. We all assumed you have enough money and wouldn't miss the little we stole. Emmanuel and I realized we were wrong. We're sorry."

A shrill screech in the hall attracted both boys' eyes to the door, signaling them that the rest had been caught, and Andrew saw Charlie swallow and the apprehension in his blue eyes. Emmanuel stood with an open mouth, then pressed his lips together.

"I realized in the last day or so that all me hatred and the pain I've caused has been forgiven," Andrew said suddenly, causing the boys to return their eyes to him. "So I forgive all of you. And I am not going to press charges against you two."

Charlie opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't.

"Are you serious?" Emmanuel blurted.

"I am."

Nicole covered her mouth with one hand and closed her eyes. She wrapped her arms around her brother's shoulders and murmured, "You have no idea how proud I am of you."

The boys exchanged relieved expressions. Then Emmanuel gave a respectful nod, and Charlie returned it. When they were removed from the room, Andrew buried his eyes in his palms.

"What a mad holiday this is."

"More good news," Nicole smiled down at him. "The doctor says you will be released by Christmas."

"What are we going to do on Christmas?" Andrew asked as he peered up at her. "Parents don't really want anything to do with either one of us."

"Christmas morning will be spent with me and Twila, whom you've not seen since she was a puppy."

"I remember her. Malamute, right?"

"Yes. And that evening, we have somewhere to be," she laid a crimson invitation with gold lettering scrawled across it. Andrew read the exterior and the interior contents to himself, then shook his head.

"Stephen invited us to a Christmas dinner with what he describes as his 'mass gathering of relatives who promise to welcome us with the joy of the advent.'"

"He came earlier, when you were asleep. Said that out of the three classmates, he was the most resistant to helping us the way they did, and he apologized about that. After discussing it with his relatives, they agreed that we would be welcome if he did not have any plans."

Andrew stared ahead of him several seconds. He then rested his elbows on his knees and pressed his eyes into his palms. "Nicole, I deserve none of this. I have slammed them into doors, berated them, and abused them. I can't accept this invitation. They have done so much already."

"Andrew," Nicole reached to raise his chin up with her hand so she could look him in the eye. "You have the opportunity to accept a second chance and make something of it. So you use that opportunity to start relationships, graduate secondary school, and accomplish a dream."

May was the month that a stage was assembled between the dogwoods in the field. A breeze roused a honey bee in the middle of one blossom and sent some of the petals drifting down as Andrew crossed the stage to receive his diploma in burgundy attire. He reached out to grasp the hand of his principal with a smile, squinting against a flash of brilliance when Nicole snapped a photo.

When every diploma was received, the students gathered at the picnic tables with their relatives and the various snacks they made at home. Andrew searched out the three classmates that hired Calder and said, "Perhaps I annoy you with how often I say this, but I appreciate everything you all did for me."

"You know that nothing we did actually apprehended anyone or changed anything," reminded Miles.

"What you did changed me life," Andrew persisted.

Miles watched him as a smile spread across his lips, and he extended his hand. "Friends after today?"

"Friends always," Andrew accepted his grip. Then he extended the same to Stephen and embraced Amber before searching out Emmanuel and Charlie.

* Luke 10:30-35

Driving home: "Starting Over" by Audio Adrenaline

Pursuing suspects: "Secret" by Audio Adrenaline

"Love Addict" by Family Force 5

Waking up to steal money: "Enter Sandman" by Metallica

Escaping with money: "Temptation" by Iona

Graduation: "Miracle" by Audio Adrenaline

Epilogue: "Bloom" by Moriah Peters, chorus

Andrew Maguire lived with his sister after he was released from the hospital. He sneaked into the Olympic trials and managed to make the Irish team. In 2020, he boxed his way to the podium with a bronze medal and ended the match by proposing to Amber, whom he had been dating since 2019. His second and final Olympics were considered unsuccessful, but he continued to give God the glory. After making a living as a mechanic, he … He married Amber in 2025, with whom he had a daughter, a son, and another daughter. They remained close friends with Miles and Stephen. The classmates who robbed him, aside from Emmanuel and Charlie, served time in prison. Upon their release, most did not recommit. Emmanuel opened a fishing shop and maintained a peaceful life, and Charlie became a mechanic. They also maintained a friendship.