Chapter 1

The signs flew by as her old Corolla raced down the freeway, putting more and more miles between Samantha and her undesirable troubles, as she headed for Nowhere, U.S.A, as fast as she could get there. Looking down at the dash, Samantha let out a groan of frustration at the gas gauge that was getting dangerously low again. She had just stopped not too long ago and filled up. The old Corolla was twenty years old now, but Samantha could not make herself get rid of it. After all, it was the only thing she had left from when her dad was still alive. 

Samantha didn’t want to recall her past these days but couldn’t help reminiscing the time she spent with her dad as a kid. He was her hero and never let her down. 

Watching the signs on the interstate, she took the next exit that showed a gas station. She figured she should grab a quick bite while she stopped since she barely had anything to eat since last night. Her stomach never warned her that she needed food, so she had a hard time remembering to eat most days. When she first moved out, her mama called her daily to make sure she had eaten that day. She would have eaten anything when she was a child until about middle school when a group of mean girls decided to make her their verbal punching bag. It wasn’t a time she liked to think about, so she never shared anything about that time in her life. Not even with her mama, to whom she told everything. 

After gassing up the car, Samantha went into the convenience store and headed straight for the water cooler. The weather seemed to be hotter than usual, but there was no need to add AC to a car that wouldn’t last much longer. Cold water was her best friend right now. So, balancing three water bottles and a bag of pretzels, easy to eat while driving, Samantha headed over to the counter where a curly blue-haired teenager stood looking a bit unfriendly. 

“That will be ten dollars and twenty-seven cents,” said the cashier without even looking at Samantha. 

Samantha handed over a twenty to the girl, quietly admiring the nose chain hooked to her ear. The girl couldn’t be older than eighteen or nineteen, but she was definitely living rebelliously, likely against her parent’s wishes. When the girl was done, Samantha gave a quick thank you and headed out to her car. 

Samantha was just about to open her bag of pretzels when her cell phone started to ring. No one had called her in days, so she was a bit taken aback. She pulled her cell phone out, seeing the caller ID show the name of her mama’s in-home nurse. 

Since her father passed, her mama had insisted she did not need Samantha to be there to help her. ‘I am capable of taking care of myself!’ her mama would say anytime the conversation started. Her mama made sure Samantha could and would leave the small town she grew up in without ever looking back. Growing up, Samantha had everything she needed to get through school with stellar grades, allowing her to go to the best college her parents could afford. Her mama did not want her daughter to stick around running the family farm as her husband did.

Her mama always said that the farm would be the death of her father, and she was right. Dad worked all the way up to the day he had a stroke, and a few months later died. He had never left the hospital once he was admitted. 

Pushing the talk button Samantha used her loudest voice since the window was down, “Hello”. 

“Hey Samantha. I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute?” asked her mama’s in-home nurse, Martha. 

Crossing her finger mentally, she responded, “Yes, I have a minute. Please tell me my mama has not run you off like she has the other nurses. I know my mom can be difficult, but I swear if you stick with her a little longer you’ll love each other.” 

Martha, trying hard to keep her composure, assured Samantha that her mama had in fact not run her off, “I have a stubborn streak much like your mama. She is nothing I can’t handle.” 

“I knew when I met you that you were the right person for the job. I just wish I had found you before she ran off the other ten nurses.,” replied Samantha, “I am going to come visit as soon as I get a chance. Things right now are super crazy for me.” 

“Samantha,” Martha’s voice sounded a bit choked up, “Are you sitting down? I am afraid I need to give you some news.” The news had hurt Martha, who was just Mrs. Crouse’s nurse, so she could only imagine what it would do to Samantha. 

Hearing the panic in Martha’s voice, Samantha put on her right blinker and pulled onto the shoulder of the interstate. 

“Martha, what is going on? Is everything okay?” Samantha asked with as much panic Martha expected. She wished the girl lived closer, so she could have done this face to face. This was not news she wanted to share over the phone. 

Martha, in the calmest voice she could muster, said “Samantha, I am so sorry but your mama has passed away.” Waiting for some kind of reaction, while wiping away her tears, Martha sat in silence. 

As Samantha sat on the side of the interstate trying to absorb the news of her mama, she felt her fingers tremble from the rush of emotions flitting through her. She was angry at herself for not being closer to her mama even if mama wanted her to stay where she was. Her mama was getting up in age, and Samantha never allowed herself to think of a time when she wouldn’t be around. Her mama was finally with her father again, resting in peace, but she had no one else on this earth. What was she going to do now? 

Realizing she had not said anything for some time now, Samantha rubbed her numb fingers before speaking in the calmest voice she could muster, “What happened? I thought she was doing okay?

Martha took a deep breath, thankful that Samantha had finally spoken, before speaking, “The last few days she was more docile than usual and wanted to stay in bed more. I just assumed she was tired since the weather was gloomy these days. Last night I ate dinner with her and we had a great conversation. 

“She was telling me all about when you were little and how you would just drive her crazy wanting to constantly be out on the farm with your daddy. She wanted you to focus on your schoolwork, but once your daddy came home, there was no hope in that being completed.” 

Taking a minute to steady her voice, Martha continued, “When she woke up this morning she didn’t want her normal breakfast, which was odd, because Mrs. Crouse never changed that meal. I just shook it off to her still being full from last night’s meal since she ate more than she normally did. Then she fell asleep about eleven o’clock this morning, and she didn’t wake up. 

“I am so sorry to have to tell you over the phone Samantha. I wished you were closer so I could have just driven over and told you, but this was the only option I had. I have already let her doctor’s know, and the coroner has already picked her up. I let him know you would be contacting him to let him know if you wanted an autopsy or not. I will send you the number when we get off the phone.” Martha struggled to hold back her tears, sure that Samantha was feeling the same way. 

Samantha was trying hard to control her emotions, but she had not ever felt hurt like this. It was different from when her dad passed. Now she was all alone. She did not have anyone left when it came to her family, and at this moment in her life, she felt like she had no one in general. 

“Samantha, are you still there?” Martha asked through her tears. 

“Yes I am. I know you would have told me in person if I had been closer. It’s not your fault you had to tell me this way. I wish I had been there more,” Samantha responded, voice breaking into tears towards the end. 

“How long before you get here, Samantha? We should get all the planning started.” 

After clearing her head, the thought that she was now without a family seeping in, she responded, “Soon. I am on my way home now.” 

Speeding as fast as the Camaro Z-28 could go, Mason kept looking in his rearview, the sweat beading up on his forehead. He tried hard not to hit the potholes littered over the backroads; this car had been his pride and joy when he bought it at twenty. 

Mason took the next right turn after rapidly slowing down. Getting a glance of the black SUV as it turned the corner, he pushed harder on the gas pedal, propelling the car down the

road and hitting a pothole he couldn’t avoid. At this point, he did not know exactly where he was, but he knew he had to get away from the people chasing him. He was sure they were trying to get what he had taken from them for the last few years. His lifestyle was not at all what he imagined for himself in his early adult years, but when you are desperate for money, one will do most anything – even illegal things. 

Glancing in the rearview, Mason took the next left. This road was even worse than the ones before it. Keeping far ahead of the men in the SUV, Mason pressed the gas to the floor and sped past a stop sign, letting the dust fly behind him. 

While slowing down to take a curve ahead, he noticed a gap between some trees and, making a last-minute decision, pulled into the brush as far as he could go. Mason could only hope they wouldn’t see him. Cutting the engine and sitting back, Mason watched the road through the rear-view mirror and waited until he saw the SUV race by without a second glance. As Mason waited for a while longer to ensure they had not decided to turn around, he sat and thought about the simpler times when he had not needed money badly enough to resort to these illegal activities. 

Thought back to the times when he, a naïve fourteen-year-old, was caring for his ailing dad after his mom had left them. She couldn’t handle having a husband who did not recognize her on most days and needed around the clock care because of his deteriorating health. There were so many times when Mason would have to hold his dad down because he got violent, not 

knowing where he was, but Mason never dreamt of leaving the man who he had worshipped his entire life. Shutting his eyes now, he couldn’t help but feel pity for his fourteen-year-old self. 

When his mom left, she didn’t even say goodbye to him. He came home from school one day to a note just saying that she just couldn’t live like this anymore. She said she loved him and hoped that one day he would forgive and understand her. 

That was the day Mason became a man. He had tried to continue going to school, but he couldn’t do all three: keep food on the table, take care of his dad, and go to school. Mason decided that he just wasn’t meant to finish school like all the other kids. No one seemed to notice his absence from school, so he just went about his own business. No teacher stopped in to check on him, and there was no call from the school. Not like there was anything they could do to help him anyway. 

At that moment, he had turned into his dad’s sole caregiver, which meant needing to get money any way he could. He started out helping with lawns and working days at the local grocery store, but he still went to sleep hungry and couldn’t be with his dad as much as he needed. 

Opening his eyes, Mason was shocked to see that a half-an-hour had passed. There was no sign of the guys who had been chasing him. Cruising out of the cover of the trees and seeing no one coming after him, he headed back the way he had come. That night, after finally reaching home safely, he tossed and turned in bed, and even the fatigue of the day couldn’t put

him to sleep. He spent another night wondering how he lost the one person in his life that understood him. The one person that never judged him. The one person he hated himself for putting in danger.

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