Saving Sophie

by Debbie Schrack

Saving Sophie by Debbie Schrack Seventeen-year-old Gabe Hunter knows he has a purpose in life. He has always strived to be the “best of the best,” but lately nothing has gone his way. Gabe was devastated six months earlier when his half-brother Josh had a drunk driving accident that killed four members of a family and left a sixteen-year-old girl named Sophie an orphan. Josh went to prison and Gabe struggles to forgive him because how can he forgive the unforgivable? When Gabe reluctantly agrees to do math tutoring for his senior service project, he discovers that the girl he will be tutoring is also named Sophie. But in a town of eighty thousand people, what are the odds it will be the same person? Astronomical, Gabe figures.

Gabe soon discovers, though, that it is the same Sophie. A former National Merit Scholar finalist, Sophie had a severe brain injury in the accident. She has seizures, amnesia, and can barely read or write. When he meets her, Gabe realizes what his purpose in life must be—to help Sophie and make amends for his brother. His plan is to spend the rest of the school year tutoring Sophie, then say goodbye and go quietly off to college without ever telling her that his brother was the one who killed her family. What Gabe doesn’t count on is falling in love.




Contemporary Romance


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You ever heard of the monkey mind? I learned about it in my Advanced Psych class last year. It’s the deepest, most primal part of the brain, and it dwells on fear. I assume it’s a leftover from our caveman days when we were as much prey as predators. Nowadays, we don’t have to worry about being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. But our monkey minds are still there. Racing around like monkeys in a cage.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I never do anything halfway.So it’s not a shock that I don’t have the same boring monkeys in my head that everyone else does. Nope, not me. I have full-grown chimpanzees. Obnoxious, bug-eating, skank-eyed chimpanzees. Every night, they swing from vines and poke each other with sticks. The only method I’ve found that gets them to sleep is to shoot them with imaginary tranquilizer darts. That hasn’t been working out so well lately.

Thanks to the chimps, I’m ten minutes late climbing into the passenger seat of our Toyota RAV this morning. Mom’s tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, and as I buckle my seatbelt she throws me one of her “You’re late again” looks. I ignore her and prop my head against the window so I can get in fifteen minutes of Zs before school. But Mom clears her throat as soon as we back down the driveway. Which means she wants to “have a conversation.” We rarely have them anymore, but I know the signs. Two sentences in, she drops the news that she’s going to visit my brother Josh in prison on Thanksgiving Day (which is only a week away) and get this—she expects me to tag along. Which means I’m screwed. Chimps or no chimps, I will never be able to sleep again.

“Gabe, did you hear a word I said?” Mom darts a glance at me.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that she thinks it’s okay to blow off my favorite holiday—a whole day that glorifies food—to hang out with inmate number 2143, currently incarcerated at Willowbend Correctional Center in Loserville, West Virginia. Has there ever been a lamer name for a prison? To be honest, I would rather be attacked by rabid raccoons. Or get karate chopped in the balls.

“Yeah, I heard you.” Complete snark, but I’m in no mood to play along with what has to be the absolute worst idea in the world.

“I was hoping for some kind of response,” she says, ignoring the snark.

“I thought we were going to Gran and Gramps’ for Thanksgiving.” Deflect. That’s always a good strategy.

“Visiting hours are ten to twelve. We’ll go to Gran and Gramps’ afterward.”

Nuts. Mom has all the answers. Which is the opposite of me. I’m like Jeopardy!, nothing but questions. I constantly play the “What if?” game in my head. What if Josh had driven straight home that night instead of stopping in a bar? What if, after stopping at said bar, he went back to his apartment to sleep it off and driven home in the morning? What if I was an only child?

After Josh went to prison, I did a little research. There are over two million men incarcerated in prisons across the United States. If only a quarter of them have brothers (I’m just guessing here—it might be a low estimate), that means there could be five hundred thousand people in the same sinking life raft as me right now.

Then why does it feel like I’m the only one?

“I think I’ll pass,” I say.

Oops. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud.

A couple of years ago, when Josh was home on break from college, we watched The Exorcist on Pay-Per-View. Scariest movie of all time. There’s a girl in the story who’s possessed by the devil. That’s who Mom reminds me of now as she turns to look at me. She has the same demonic gleam in her eyes like she would just love to rip out my guts and eat them raw. I turn away from her and...

“Mom, watch out!”

Out of pure instinct, I fling my arm across her chest. She plows on the brakes and we narrowly miss rear-ending a minivan that’s stopped at a light in front of us. We gulp in some deep breaths. Mom white-knuckles the steering wheel. The light turns green.

After a second, we drive on. I scrunch myself against the car door and stare out at the mountains. Most days, they give me a sense of calm. Not today. My hands can’t stop shaking. And my feet keep tapping out a four-four rhythm. You’d think I’d consumed three Red Bulls for breakfast, then snorted some cocaine and ate a pound of sugar.

Mom clears her throat again. I feel her gaze on me. I keep mine fixed on the road. One of us has to.

“He’s your brother,” she says. “He needs you right now. He needs us.”

“I don’t want to see him,” I say. “Not after what he did.”

“You know perfectly well it was an accident,” she snaps.

“No one goes to prison for an accident,” I snap back.

I saw this movie a while ago. A girl and her mom were in a car harshing on each other. And the girl just opened the car door and jumped out. I thought that was the sickest thing I’d ever seen. I mean, I’d never have the courage, but I completely understand why she did it. There’s nothing worse than being trapped in a car with an angry mother.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Mom says.

How many times have I heard that in the last six months? It’s like her mantra.

“Mom, he drove a car when he was shit-faced. People died. And what about...”

The words get caught in my throat.

It hurts to think about her, much less say her name out loud. Sophie. The only person in the other car who survived. I’ve spent so many nights wondering about her while the chimps race go-carts around my head. Who does she live with now? Did she get adopted? Does she have survivor’s guilt? Can she even make it through an hour without thinking about her family and what Josh did to them?

“What about what?” Mom asks. She makes a right-hand turn onto Daffodil Street. My school is only a mile away, but it might as well be on another planet. “And watch your language.”

“Whatever,” I mutter. It’s my go-to phrase to end conversations. And this one really needs to end.

Mom takes a long, shaky breath, like she’s about to lose it. “You’re going with me to visit Josh and that’s final. If I hear another word about it there will be consequences.”

She says it slowly, each word a drop in an ocean of words: There. Will. Be. Consequences.

That little bomb detonates the conversation. A frosty breeze wafts over from Mom’s side of the car. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep, even though I’m so wired it’s possible I might spontaneously eject out of the RAV. Five minutes later, we drive up to the front door of Edison High School.

“Don’t bother picking me up tonight,” I say, grabbing my backpack off the floor. “I’ll run home.”

“You’re going to run five miles? After cross-country practice?”

I shrug. “I’ve done it before. What’s the big deal?”

“It’s supposed to rain.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Mom sighs. “If you change your mind...”

“I won’t.”

I’m halfway out of the car when she grabs my arm. It catches me by surprise, and I turn and look at her. She has on one of her power suits today, gray with a pinstripe. Her fair hair is pulled back tight and she’s in full makeup. Ever since Josh went to prison, she’s been wearing his class ring on a gold chain around her neck. She’s a total badass at work—the youngest vice president in Blue Mountain Financial history—but the chain somehow makes her look like a sixteen-year-old girl. Which is the same age she was when she had Josh.

Our eyes meet. Hers are red-rimmed, like she’s about to cry.

“Why can’t you forgive your brother?” she says.

I wrench my arm from her grasp and climb out of the RAV. It takes all my effort not to slam the door. She drives off a little too fast and burns rubber on the way out.

Jeez, what’s her problem? Why can’t I forgive Josh? The answer is obvious. Some things are unforgivable.

* * *

As soon as I open Edison’s front door and enter the building, my jitters dissolve. Ever since the accident, school has been my sanctuary. I find comfort in the flow of things, the familiar faces, the routine. Edison was built in the 1970s for kids with science aptitude, and it hasn’t been updated since. Still, I appreciate the sturdiness of the brick exterior, the strength of the cinderblock walls. It’s the town’s bomb shelter for a reason. I don’t mind the peeling linoleum floors inside, the cracks like spider veins in the ceiling. Everyone complains that the new wood and chrome student desks make their asses numb. I find them comfortable. I even like the smell in here—a combination of day-old French fries, Axe deodorant, and desperation.

Since the accident, my social life has been at Ground Zero. I used to be up for anything. Throw a party—I’d be there. Head to the mountains or one of the lakes—I’d have my bag packed already. Josh’s accident freaked me out so bad I swore off everything. I stopped going out, stopped drinking, even cut out caffeine. I’m like a monk now, without all the praying and chanting.

School is the only part of my life that didn’t change. No one here talks about the accident. Yeah, there were some whispers at first, but after we came back from summer vacation, I was relieved to find out it wasn’t a thing. It’s possible some kids don’t know that Josh and I are brothers. He’s seven years older than me so we weren’t together at Edison. And we have different fathers, different last names. Hard to believe, though, considering the Edison grapevine.  I hate to say this, but I think a lot of kids don’t want to acknowledge what Josh did because he’s still a hero around here for taking our school to its only state championship in football.

I stop at my locker on the way to first-period Calculus. The lock sticks on the first try and I run through the combo again. This happens every day. For some reason, my locker won’t open unless I do the combination twice. I don’t mind, really. It’s something I can count on. I’m going to miss the old thing when I graduate.

I’ve just gotten my locker open when I hear Matt’s voice behind me.


I turn and look up. And up. Matt is 6’7” and still growing. And get this—he’s as skinny as he is tall. Turned sideways, Matt looks like an anorexic flagpole. I think the first time the basketball coach saw him he actually drooled. Unfortunately, my best friend is about as athletic as a pillow.

“Hey,” I say.

“What’s going on?” He leans against the locker next to mine.

I take my sweats and running shoes out of my backpack and put them in the bottom of my locker.

“You won’t believe it,” I say, slamming my locker door and hoisting my backpack up on my shoulder. “Mom told me this morning she wants to drive all the way to West Virginia to visit Josh on Thanksgiving Day.”

Matt’s eyebrows draw together. He’s what people call a “ginger.” Orangy-red hair (including his eyebrows), pale skin, and freckles literally everywhere. The guy could sunburn in a blizzard.

“Damn,” he says, stretching the word out in his southern drawl. “That’s your favorite holiday.”

“Right? She said we can go to Gran and Gramps’ afterward, but my appetite will be ruined.”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

“You’re whacked, man. It’s going to suck. What are we even supposed to talk about?”

Matt shrugs. “Whatever you used to talk about.”

Yeah, right. Whatever we used to talk about. That could be anything. No subject was out of bounds for me and Josh. I still remember the day he taught me about sex. First, he drew this unbelievably graphic diagram on a napkin. Then he put a condom on a carrot, and it got stuck. (It was a huge carrot.) We fell on the floor laughing.

One night, we stayed up for hours debating the existence of God. Josh insists God is a myth, that after we die, our bodies turn into worm food. I don’t know if there’s a God in the normal sense—like an old white guy with a beard—but I think we have a purpose for being here and I’d like to believe it comes from something bigger than ourselves.

When I told Josh my idea, he laughed and said his purpose in life was to save a lot of money so he could buy a cabin in the mountains and get blitzed every weekend. I wonder if he’s changed his philosophy since the accident. If he thinks Sophie’s parents, her brother and sister, are worm food now. I don’t know how he can live with that.

“I’m screwed,” I say. “Mom says I have to go or there will be consequences.”

I use air quotes with my fingers when I repeat her words.

“Jeez, Gabe. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll deal. Somehow. What’s up with you? Where’s Jess?”

I look behind him, and around him, but she’s nowhere. Usually, they’re wrapped around each other, talking in Klingon so no one can figure out what they’re saying. No one but me, that is.

Matt runs his hands through his hair and spikes it straight up.

“Actually...things aren’t going that well with Jess,” he says.

“Hold on,” I say. “Did the Earth stop rotating?”

“I’m serious, Gabe. Jess has been weird lately. Distant. Like—she never wants to hang out anymore. She’s always making excuses. I can’t even remember the last time we…”

I interrupt him before he puts an un-erasable picture in my head. “Can’t you just talk to her?”

His fingers go through his hair again. “What if...she wants to break up with me before college?”

“I thought you were applying to Georgetown together.”

“We are. At least, that was the plan. What if she’s changed her mind?”

He’s slumped against the locker like he might collapse if it wasn’t holding him up. His hair looks like it just got struck by lightning.

“Ask her, man. I can see it’s killing you.”

He looks down at the floor, then back up at me. “Can you ask her?”

“Jesus, Matt...”

“I’m too afraid of what she’ll say. I mean, what if she does want to break up?”

“I’m sure everything’s fine.”

“Please, Gabe...”

The bell rings.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll talk to her. If it means that much to you.”

“Thanks, bro. You’re the best.”

We head down the hall to our first-period classes. “Hey,” I say. “If Jess does want to break up with you, you’re not going to kill the messenger, are you?”

He claps a hand on my shoulder. “No way. Bros before hos, right?”

I shake my head in disgust. “I can’t believe you just said that.”

He grins. “You’re right. Jess would kill me. Hey, can you imagine the numnuts who made that up?”

“Yeah,” I say. “A guy who never had a girlfriend.”

We laugh and bump fists at the door to my calc class. I watch him walk away and wonder what’s going on with Jess. We haven’t talked—really talked—in a while. Since the accident, I’ve let my friendships slide for no other reason than my perception that I reek of guilt for even being associated with Josh. If he knew how much he wrecked my life…

I guess that’s something we could talk about on Thanksgiving.

“Mr. Hunter, stop lurking at the door. I need a word.”

I turn. Dr. Lowery, my calc teacher, beckons me to her desk. She’s scowling at me like she just caught me keying her car.

First Mom’s on my case, and now I’m in trouble with Dr. Lowery. What’s going on? I feel like I’m in an episode of Stranger Things and I just fell into the Upside Down.

I book it to her desk. She’s standing behind it, arms folded across her chest. Dr. Lowery is at the age where it’s hard to figure out how old she is anymore. The Edison grapevine hasn’t even locked it down. Rumor has it that she’s anywhere from sixty to eighty. She’s got a cloud of white hair, thick glasses that magnify her eyes, and arms that look like turkey wattles. She’s also a walking Wikipedia on anything related to math. Numbers are her language.

“Everything okay?” I say. “Did I make a mistake on yesterday’s test?”

She gives me a thin smile. “Of course not. You got your usual A-plus.”

I let out a big exhale. “Okay. Then what’s wrong?”

“As your homeroom teacher, I was disappointed to hear from Ms. Juarez that you’re the only senior who hasn’t signed up for a service project yet. The deadline was over a month ago.”


Dr. Lowery glares. “Gabe, you know you have to do a senior service project to graduate.”

“My bad, Dr. Lowery. I’ve been busy and...”

She claps her hand on the desk and I jump. The class is filling up and a couple of kids behind me snicker.

“No excuses,” she says. “There’s a bulletin board in the guidance office where you can find something suitable. You need to start right away so you can get your hours in before graduation.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

She waves me away. I slink to a desk in the back of the room. Jeez. I forgot all about that stupid senior service project. Or maybe I just buried it in my brain because I am so not into it. The thought of working at a soup kitchen or carrying groceries really burns. I’m swamped with homework. And regionals for cross-country are next week. But it would be a catastrophe to lose out on being valedictorian because of some lame-o project.

I’m going to have to suck it up and do something.


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