“The Hitchhiker on Souls’ Road” by A. A. Nour
Of all places, Sam did not expect to wake in the back of a fire-red, flat-bed pickup truck. Especially a moving one. Particularly an unfamiliar, moving one.
Sam shoved her boots against one side to stop from rolling. With a whimper and a healthy dose of adrenaline, she clambered to a crouch, hanging fast to one side. Dust whooshed into her face; she sputtered, falling backwards and rolling anyway. A blank, blue sky stretched above. When she managed to right herself again, she squinted before peering over. Sandy plains spread in all directions, freckled with tumbleweeds. No buildings, no signs, no nothing. Definitely not Boston.
Over the edge, a far fall and quick road blurred below. Surely she’d break her neck if she jumped.
Fighting a swell of panic, Sam wrangled with her bonds only to realize . . . well, she wasn’t tied up. She’d just assumed, being in the truck and all. That was something?
Sam swallowed. It’s fine, it’s fine, she told herself. Maybe she passed out and some Samaritan scooped her up to take her . . . to the middle of the desert.
Maybe she’s dreaming. Yes!
Another tumble drove her shoulder painfully into the front cabin. Oof, dreaming didn’t hurt this much.
Pressed against the cabin, Sam managed to scramble up toward the little slider window thingy. Cupping one hand against the glare, she found:
Some biker dude. Sorta? With long blond hair, a leather jacket, and wraparound shades, he sure looked the part. But he also appeared very . . . put together? Like he bathed regularly. And shaved. If Disney ever made a movie about a renegade with a heart of gold, they’d cast this guy.
Heart of gold? Sam crushed her forehead against the window. She was in a strange car with a strange dude who could one hundred percent crush her windpipe as easily as he blew his nose. And somehow—by looking at him—she got the vibe he just, didn't want to?
Sam turned her attention to her gut. Just like her bonds, her fear called in absent. Something else boiled beneath Sam’s ribs instead. She ground grit between her teeth as she clung to her ride, cheek pressed against the tiny window.
She was pissed.
It didn’t help that her mother had started up again, same as the past couple months. A barrage of phone calls for a week. No voicemail. Another week of silence. Repeat. Sam dutifully left them all unanswered. As if she’d forgive the prior twelve years of silence. Still, each ring picked away at her 12-year-old scars.
Her phone! Yes, that was the last thing Sam could remember. She was in her car, and her phone rang and it was her mother. She silenced it, looked up and—
She was dead. Was she dead? She must be, right?
“Hey!” Sam banged on the window, then recoiled from its sting. Why would being dead hurt? “Hey!” she yelled louder.
The hulking driver didn’t even twitch. Sam glared at the back of his head. He was much too blond. Almost gold. People don’t have hair that color.
Sam banged harder. “What is happening?” Both fists now. She could already feel the bruises. Ridiculous. Didn’t she have enough to deal with? “Please, let me—”
The engine rattled and the truck bed shuddered, knocking Sam back. Only when she shimmied up again did she notice another passenger. Surely, she hadn’t been there a moment before?
An old woman, judging by the cloud of bluish hair. She pressed against the passenger-side window, oddly enraptured by the empty scenery. Was the old lady kidnapped too? No, wait, Sam had dispelled that theory already. Where was she again? Oh God, she was probably drugged!
“Hey!” Sam thumped again. “Lady, you need help? We need to get out of here!”
“Where are we going?” The blue-haired woman asked.
Sam blinked back surprise and an eyeful of dust. Even outside, with the wind rushing and sand filling her ears, Sam heard the woman’s whisper perfectly.
“Home,” the driver answered. He had a smooth, NPR voice that matched his golden hair.
“Oh,” the woman said. Then quieter, “I see.” From the swath in the rearview, she looked like she’d solved a tricky crossword. Then, she returned to her window.
“Excuse me,” Sam banged, the meat of her palms stinging. “I’m here too! This is definitely not my home.”
The moment the driver’s eyes flicked to hers, Sam felt it. He didn’t remove his dark glasses, he didn’t even tilt toward the mirror. Then, Sam noticed the dashboard dials. In place of speedometers and radios were shadowy videos, spinning arrows and flashing symbols. A few silvery buttons. No stick shift.
Sam ducked into the truck bed, suddenly nauseated. Aliens? Had to be. Do other planets have country roads? She lifted her chin toward the barren plain. Even if she managed to jump, where would she go?
Bingo. Just as she turned ahead, they pulled into a dust-coated gas station. Never mind it hadn’t been there before, now was her chance! With a small screech, Sam launched herself over one side, landing badly on one leg. She yelped, digging her nails into the dry ground. Instead, she felt grooved metal under her palms.
She was back in the truck bed. No. That’s not right. Her leg still hurt, she jumped she—
“Oh my God,” Sam shrieked, “am I—having a breakdown? Oh God, oh my God, this can’t be real this can’t be HAPPENING—”
“Relax,” the driver said from behind the wheel. “Only here for a moment.”
Relax? Sam trembled in time with her racing pulse, her boiling blood!
“Screw you!” she snapped, “I’ve been rolling around back here for miles. I’m not going anywhere until I know . . . whatever is going on.” Even as she said the words, she feared she couldn’t keep that promise. This time, she only threw her good leg over. Then, back in the truck.
Sam yanked against one side, shaking it in time with her internal heart attack. “You let me off right now you stupid grease monkey. You let me out or I’ll—”
“New hitchhiker?” the station attendant said. He suddenly appeared by the driver side window, but Sam hadn’t seen him approach. Though he wore a worn T-shirt, it looked sparkly white; his excessive, droopy mustache clipped neat.
“Yep,” Driver replied.
“All right,” the attendant said, patting the truck. “Go on, then.”
As far as Sam knew, he’d given it no gas. She glanced at the pumps. No nozzles.
“Yep,” said Driver.
Amid Sam’s protests, they pulled back onto the road, the old woman still plastered to her stupid window. Hmph. Carefully, Sam reached around, and tapped the passenger side.
“Hey,” she said, “hello? Do you know what’s going on?”
“Yes,” the woman responded. “We’re going home.”
“Is that a euphemism for something?” Sam probed, but the woman only had eyes for rare tumbleweeds. The truck slowed as a house appeared; just as suddenly as the gas station.
An unremarkable house. Old. A bit rickety. Something Sam might imagine seeing in a Dust Bowl movie. It might come with an old truck like this, actually. They matched.
Quietly, Sam shifted as far away as she could. If this truck freaked her out, what’s in the house?
“No way,” Sam growled.
Sam felt Driver’s eyes again. She wasn’t even looking, but she was sure he raised a perfect, golden eyebrow. Sam sucked in a lungful of air to tell him off just as the truck’s weight shifted. The truck door squeaked. A small sigh of surprise.
Sam popped up. The old woman. With practiced familiarity, the lady gripped her door and picked her way down the big step. When her feet touched the ground, she stood solidly before the rickety house. She was not sucked back into the truck.
When the woman turned back, wet streaks stained her cheeks.
“Thank you,” she said.
As she made her way to the front door, the truck’s engine thrummed back to life. Driver made a U-turn.
“Where are you taking me now?” Sam demanded. “Don’t you dare say home.”
“No,” Driver said. “Back.”
For a moment, the road before them darkened stormily. When the darkness began to circle the car, Sam increasingly felt as if she might pass out.
And before she could wonder anything else, Sam slammed down hard on her back, knocking her breath out. She choked mightily, heaving to suck something back in. Above, bright lights stung her eyes and flung odd shadows around the corners. An alarm blared. When Sam tried to speak, she found tubes down her throat.
“Sam? Sam, can you hear me?” an unfamiliar voice said. Latex fingers grabbed hers. “Squeeze my hand if you can.”
Sam squeezed, turning toward the shadow that spoke. For a moment, it doubled. When it joined back together, though, Sam discovered a medical cap, big glasses. A face mask. Things TV doctors wear. Regular doctors too, apparently.
“Good job, Sam,” the doctor said. “You may be disoriented right now. You were in an accident, but it’s okay, we got you now. You’re at Sacred Mercy hospital.”
An accident? Words came out strangled around the tubes. Sam tried to twist in her hospital bed, but another shadow said “easy now” and set her back. She only half obeyed, distracted by her left leg. Bound in a cast and elevated. Sam fell against her pillow. Was this from the truck?
As the nurse plugged Sam into a new IV, she heard the scrape of a curtain being pulled closed. Even though the corners of her vision started to fuzz again, a second voice whispered too loud.
“We lost the woman in the other car. Poor thing. Ninety-five. Shouldn’t’ve been behind the wheel.”
Sam’s throat was so dry it felt—well, full of dust. Her dad was already hugging, though, before she could explain her body was one, epic bruise. Dad looked like he needed the hug. He sported a wrinkled shirt and scraggly stubble. Clearly he’d slept in the chintzy hospital chair.
He wasted no time. Soon, Sam was packed into the blue Camry, clutching a small bag of belongings. Crutches were relegated to the back seat.
When Sam turned on her phone, it trembled with missed calls, voicemails, and texts. “Wow,” she said. “Did you tell the whole world?”
“Just a couple people. Work, of course. Your roommates. Word travels.”
One particular missed call caught her eye. Only one this time, instead of fifteen. No voicemail.
“Um,” Sam said. “Did you tell Mom?”
Dad flexed his grip on the wheel. “I left a message.”
Sam shoved her phone back in the bag. She hated he’d been in that position. His only daughter got in an accident and he had to call that woman. The one who left him twelve years ago. Left both of them. Sam suddenly felt queasy. Dizzy with anger.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said, swallowing. Maybe she was carsick? The last time she drove, after all, she got t-boned.
“She’s your mom, Sammy.”
“No. Not for the past twelve years.”
They pulled into the driveway with a familiar, gravely crunch.
“Thought you could stay home for a while,” Dad said with a small smile. “Just until you’re back on your feet.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Sam sighed. She’d only moved out ten months ago, just after college graduation. Her new apartment was fifteen minutes away, but she didn’t love the idea of hobbling around without a car. Actually, she didn’t love the idea of getting in another car, to be honest. A flash of dusty road dashed across her eyes; gone just as quick, and replaced with the friendly driveway. Frowning, Sam shoved her door open.
“Wait a sec, honey,” Dad said. “Let me come help.”
The house looked picture-perfect, as always. A bright red sloping roof, a fresh coat of white paint. Just ahead, windows gleamed under a cloudless sky, and yellow tulips bloomed underneath—the latter, a new hobby of Dad’s. He was endlessly proud of the house he built, and cared for it fastidiously. Another flush of anger washed over Sam, remembering her mother’s missed call.
Dad came around back and helped Sam hobble onto her crutches. Together, they hopped up the steps, through the door, and onto the couch. Sam collapsed with a heavy sigh.
“Callie will be over with your laptop tomorrow,” Dad added. “So you can catch up on work if you’re up to it. The paper said no pressure, though. So relax.” He winked. “You want cookies?”
Sam perked up. “Chocolate chip?”
“You know it.” He marched off into the kitchen. “Always.” That summed up Dad in a word. Always.
After several cookies, Sam’s injuries caught up with her. She slouched toward the TV, clicking through Wheel of Fortune reruns. A sharp buzzing drew Sam back to her phone.
Again. Sam rejected the call, sinking back into her pillows. Her eyes became heavy to the soundtrack of someone buying vowels.
When Sam turned, her gaze plummeted to the ground, hundreds of feet below.
“Jesus,” she exclaimed, darting back into the sleek leather seats.
“Language,” said Driver. The same one as before! Ahead, alien dials blinked and flashed, only now in polished chrome.
“You again,” Sam gasped. “What do you think you’re doing? You got some—”
“Excuse me,” the passenger leaned over. A suit. “We’re dealing with something a bit more urgent here. Okay?”
“As I was saying,” Suit continued, facing Driver. “We can come to an agreement, surely? That was my job.” He caught himself. “Is! Is my job. Just turn this thing around, and we’ll talk compensation.”
Driver responded with a vertical nosedive. Sam’s screaming mingled with Passenger’s. Whizzing through clouds and dodging skyscrapers, they were definitely not turning around. Why, oh why weren’t there seatbelts?
When they zoomed past a chrome spire, the businessman pressed his face against his window. “There—that’s my office. You can just—wait!” The spire disappeared in clouds.
“Turn around!” the man demanded, yanking his door handle. The car teetered precariously, much like Sam’s stomach. She pressed her head between her knees. Deep breaths, enough to shout—
“Cut that OUT!”
The man paused, likely more surprised than obedient. The car finally settled.
“I was just in an accident,” Sam said, rising slowly, “and I’d appreciate avoiding another. Now—” Sam cautiously pulled herself between the seats. She stabbed a thumb at Driver.
“This dude is not going to give you answers or change his GPS,” she said. “Trust me. You might as well sit back in your—” she took in the sleek leather interior. The clouds outside. “What even is this thing? What happened to the truck?”
“It’s mine,” Suit added. “I’d just ordered the first working prototype and I was taking it for a drive when—” he braced himself against the dash, gaping. “These aren’t the right dials. These programs—what is this even measuring?” He clawed at the chrome accents. “I just bought this thing—what did you do to my car?”
The vehicle shook for a long moment, enough to shut Suit up. Sam’s ears popped. They might be descending.
Driver landed by log cabin. A small structure, like Lincoln might have lived in. Suit sighed.
“What’s this?” Sam asked.
“Home,” he said. “I see—oh, I get it now.”
“This is your house?” Sam asked, incredulous. “Like . . . your summer place?”
“No. Not my house,” Suit opened his door and dashed onto the grass. “It’s home,” he called over his shoulder. “Home is home.”
“What?” Sam called, but Driver was taking off again.
“You’re getting the hang of this,” he said. A lot of words, for him.
“At what?” Sam asked. “Why am I here, and why do I keep ending up in your cars?”
“You’re a hitchhiker,” Driver said. “Happens sometimes with near-death experiences. Get stuck in between. Boon to us, though. Extra life-force helps power the engines.”
“A hitchhiker?” Sam echoed. “For . . . dead people? So you’re like. An angel?”
“I’m the navigator.” Helpful.
“Okay . . . ” Sam said. “So, how do I stop it?”
“Hitchhiking. When does it stop? How can we wrap this up?”
Driver arched his signature eyebrow. “You don’t.”
“Ever?” Sam breathed, digging her nails into the leather. Ahead, the clouds parted easily, floating stray and slow.
“Okay,” Sam straightened after a long exhale. “I get this is like, your job but—” what was Dad saying about negotiation? Be firm, explain your reasoning. “I can’t just pop over here every time I’m drowsy because you need extra gas. This is . . . stressful.”
“It won’t impact your day,” Driver said. “Most forget their trips when they wake. Some are even energized by it.”
“Well, I remember my last ‘trip,’” Sam retorted, “and, I’m exhausted.”
“Yes, really. Why? Is that bad? Can you fix it?”
Driver shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“You know,” Sam huffed as blackness curled around her, “for someone charged with ferrying souls, you could work on your bedside manner. You’re actually the worst at it, and—”
“We’ll see you next time at celebrity Wheel of Fortune!”
Sam jolted up, clutched the arm of the couch. Aside from the murmuring TV, all stood still and quiet. “Some help you are,” Sam told the moving pictures.
The time on the TV said 3 a.m. Sam groaned, pulling her blanket to her chin. Energized? She felt like she’d been skydiving. Everything ached. She could easily fall back asleep, except not without hopping into another back seat. No more.
Sam reached for her crutches. “Coffee, here I come.”
When Dad visited the kitchen after his usual insomnia, he was startled to find Sam three cups in and almost done with the daily crossword. On the counter, he lifted an empty coffee pot skeptically.
“Good morning?” he said.
“Morning,” Sam echoed, offering a jittery grin.
“Uh, Sam, I wanted to—” a buzzing interrupted. Sam reached for her phone, then grimaced before flipping it face down on the table.
“Sorry, Dad,” she said. “What’s up?”
He nodded to her phone. “That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m wondering—” he paused. “I think you should call your mother back.”
Sam sat back, stung.
“I just think—”
“After what she did?” Sam interrupted. Anger crept into her voice; that third cup wasn’t helping. All those old scars were peeling away, bringing raw, pink memories to the surface. Sam trying to pull Mom out of bed. Mom crying while tucking Sam in. Mom cleaning all day and all night; or, never at all. Mom moving the kitchen table into the basement. Then the spare bedroom. Then outside. Packing it away, and pulling out of the driveway for the last time.
“No.” Sam folded her arms, unsure where else to put them. Her mother left those wounds to scab years ago. Why open them again? “She lost any right when she left. I’m sticking with you, Dad.”
“But, Sammy,” Dad said, “that was years ago. You don’t need to choose sides.”
Sam shook her head. “If she actually cared how I was, she would have come to the hospital. Left a voicemail, at least.” She grabbed her phone again, brandishing it toward her father. “Ten calls in the past couple days. Not one ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘call me back.’”
Her dad shrugged. “Maybe she feels she lost that right.” Sam’s jaw fell slack; the echo of his words felt like a slap, a betrayal. Dad lifted his hands in surrender. “Some things aren’t meant for voicemail. Think about it, okay?”
“Yeah,” Sam said, already hobbling over to the cupboard, pulling out another bag of beans. “Coffee?”
No way. No flipping way. Sam scowled. She had six-and-a-half cups of coffee today. No way she nodded off.
Yet here she was, somehow in a weirder vehicle than a flying car. She stuck an arm out the backseat window. No glass. Everything from her seat to the roof was garish orange and yellow. Hard, unyielding plastic. She half wondered if Driver’s feet were scrambling beneath like the other toddlers who drove this model.
Then, there was the unfortunate wailing.
Sam poked her head into the front seat, sparing a glare for Driver. When she turned to the passenger, she discovered . . . a three-year-old girl.
Sam swiveled back, wide-eyed. Driver gave her nothing; he really was the worst. She turned back to the kid.
“Excuusse me,” she said, waving her hands at the little girl. She might be younger than three? It had been a year since her last babysitting gig. “Hello? Hi there, can you just— Shhh. Okay? Calm down.” The child wailed louder. “Just—” Sam slipped all the way into the front, wedging herself between the girl and Driver—“callmm down.” Driver certainly gave no leeway, so she shifted closer to the girl. Close enough their bodies touched. Suddenly, the child quieted, relaxing against her. Just like that.
“Oh, okay,” Sam said. “That’s good. Just chill like that. Cool.”
The girl tilted her head up, eyes huge and wet. “Where’s Mama?” she said. Sam shifted again, uneasily. Moments ago, they were strangers. Now, this girl clutched fistfuls of Sam’s shirt and draped Sam’s arm with snot as if Sam was responsible. And now Sam was supposed to tell her—what? That she was dead, and she wouldn’t see her mother for decades? What right had she to give such big answers to a tiny human?
Another thought tugged at her: had Sam been like this once, years ago? Did she spread this anxiety all over her mother’s sleeves, until it sunk into her skin and flooded her mind?
“Uhhh . . . ” Sam turned to Driver. His eyes remained on the road. Yeah, like he needed to. The girl tugged Sam’s shirt. “I want Mama.”
Of course you do. “I—” Sam started, “I don’t know where she is.” The girl’s lower lip trembled. “I’m sorry,” Sam added as the girl’s eyes flooded. “Don’t cry again. Please?”
“Maaaamaaaaaaaa,” the girl wailed.
“Okayokayokay,” Sam said, pulling the child closer to her body. That seemed to work? Cradle her more, maybe? She might be too old to be cradled. How old is too old? “Okay, shhhh. Okay,” Sam said, half to herself. “You’re here, okay? With me. You’re . . . safe? Don’t be afraid. Nothing’s gonna happen to you.” She turned to Driver. “Right?”
His mouth quirked a bit. She cursed his perfect golden head.
The girl quieted, her whimpers reduced to little murmurs. Ensconced in Sam’s arms, she wiggled a bit to look up. “Where are we going?” she asked.
Sam cringed. “You’re going home.”
“Oh.” The little girl flopped onto Sam, and soon dozed in her lap.
Sam took the opportunity to consider the plastic dashboard. She’d started to recognize the same dials from the previous cars: the doohickey that flashed odd symbols, the compass-looking thingy that spun like a top. No radio, though. “You could at least play some choir music,” Sam said. “Isn’t that what you all sing up here?”
“Like hip hop, myself,” Driver said.
They pulled up to a blue-and-white three-decker with an Italian flag waving outside. The little girl blinked up at Sam, then the window.
“We’re here!” she squeaked with surprising gusto, tumbling over Sam and out the unlocked door.
“Okay, bye?” Sam said, but the girl was already opening a chain-link fence, clambering up the front steps.
“Is she tall enough to open the door?” Sam asked.
Just then, an elderly gentleman appeared in the doorway. “Grandpa!” the girl exclaimed, running into his arms.
“Oh,” Sam said. “That’s how it works? When you go—you all meet up in the same place?”
Driver turned the plastic car around. “Sometimes. If you’re meant to.”
“Helpful. As always.” Sam slouched in the front seat. “That wasn’t cool, by the way,” she said, watching disintegrating green lawns and chalky sidewalks outside. “I said I’m not coming back, don’t guilt me with a kid. That’s low.”
“Don’t work like that,” Driver said. “I pick up whoever’s closest.” He turned the wheel. “Like Uber.”
As the road turned gray, Driver added, “See you soon.”
“Pssh,” Sam retorted. “We’ll see.”
At the grocery store, Sam picked up a case of energy drinks. Dad raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Perhaps he figured she’d go through less coffee this way. On the way home, she opened a can in the car.
That night, after starting and giving up on two work assignments, Sam procured another energy drink and flipped on the TV. Ugh, home shopping. She made a mental note to introduce her dad to the magic of streaming services.
She was certain she’d made it past two a.m., maybe even three. Her pulse dutifully beat at the brisk pace of a heart attack. Still, the stupid shopping network meshed together after a while.
“Oh, come on!” Sam exclaimed from the backseat of an empty station wagon. “There’s not even anyone here!” She climbed out far enough to kick the tires, taking small satisfaction she wasn’t sucked back inside. From the outside, though, she got a complete eyeful of the car. She froze.
No, Sam told herself. Lots of people had station wagons. All the moms did. It was the rage when I was nine.
“What took you so long?” Sam jumped, whirling around. Driver appeared, out of nowhere, sipping something from an insulated coffee cup. It probably wasn’t actually coffee, but just the notion of caffeine rattled Sam’s stomach.
“I told you I wasn’t coming back,” Sam said, scanning the landscape. A beige, wheat-y field stretched endlessly in all directions. No hills, no trees.
“Don’t work that way,” Driver reached into his leather jacket and pulled out—oddly—a pocket watch. “You’re lucky this one’s in limbo. We might have gotten stuck somewhere.”
“Stuck?” Sam echoed skeptically. “That seems pretty problema—oh.” It clicked. “Like, purgatory?”
“Some call it that.”
“Wait,” Sam said. “You’re telling me purgatory is the result of a bunch of slackers like me who don’t go to bed on time?”
Driver opened his door. “I don’t make the rules.” Before getting in, he leaned over the hood and called across the field, “almost time.”
A figure appeared. She must have been wandering in the tall grass; Sam hadn’t noticed her earlier. She recognized her gait immediately, though. Slower now, but Sam remembered scurrying to catch up, once. Her silhouette looked rail-thin, but Sam recalled soft, warm embraces. Sometimes, too hard. Bruising forehead kisses. Closer now. Her hair was gone, though Sam recalled wild curls tangled in her fingers. This woman was not as tall as Sam remembered, but Sam had been short once. Always grasping upward, ahead, outward, until there wasn’t that woman to reach for.
Long before Sam could make out the woman’s features, she knew there would be the green eyes she inherited. The nose she wished she hadn’t. The soft mouth she didn’t. A familiar burning lapped inside, worrying away at Sam’s scars.
“Mom,” Sam finally choked.
“No,” Sam said. “Oh no. No, no, no.” The words came out quicker than she could shape into meaning. “No,” Mom’s dead? “No,” Sam doesn’t want to talk to her? Yes? Both?
“No. I’m not—” Sam pulled open the back door and crouched behind Driver. “I’m not doing that.”
Her mother got in the passenger seat. “Sam,” she said quietly. “I’ve been trying to reach you.”
Sam blinked. The last time she’d seen this stupid station wagon, it was full of her mother’s stuff and pulling out of their driveway. Caffeine boiled up her throat. “You had twelve years to reach me.”
Before this year, before the aggressive, abandoned phone calls, there’d been nothing. A flicker of guilt passed over her mother’s face before it clicked.
They were in purgatory, after all.
“How long have you known?” Sam said.
Her mother’s voice was feather-quiet, but Sam already knew the answer. “Earlier this year.”
A thousand wheels churned in Sam’s mind, kicking up years and years of dirt. Missed birthdays. Nosy neighbors. Her father’s insomnia. Puberty. High school. Never even a postcard. So many things had already been snatched away from Sam. Why then, now, should she care that it would all be gone for good? Why did it sting like something more?
An endless reel of that stupid station wagon played in the back of Sam’s mind, while she sat within its exact likeness.
“Has this always,” Sam breathed, “been about you?”
Her mother flinched. She didn’t say anything, but the wheels were speeding now—falling, really, off their spokes and down some steep ditch.
“Did you even know about my accident? Or was it always about—” Her mother closed her eyes.
“You couldn’t even leave me a word?” Sam pressed, fighting the tightness in her throat. “One word. ‘Sorry’ would have been fine. Something at least.”
“Oh my God-”
“Hey,” Driver said, “language.”
Sam bowled over his words. “You don’t even think you were wrong,” she said. “Do you? Do you?”
“It’s not a matter of right or wrong, Sam,” her mother replied.
They heard the motorcycle’s thrum before it appeared, tramping grass on its way. The motorcyclist pulled up to Driver's side and leaned into the open window. The words they whispered sounded ancient. Like Latin.
“Okay,” Driver announced, “not time yet.” He nodded to his coworker. “He’ll take you back.”
Sam’s mother nodded. Without glancing back, she exited the station wagon and climbed behind the other driver. She simply left. Again.
Driver ignited the cursed station wagon’s engine. It sounded just the same.
“I—” Sam choked. Her throat might collapse on itself. “I-I don’t want . . . I’m not helping her.”
“That’s not the way it works.”
Sam slammed the back of his seat. “Then TELL ME how it works,” she cried. “Transfer me, put in a request. A suggestion box. I don’t care how, I cannot do this.”
Driver said nothing.
Sam took a shuddering breath as the field faded to black.
It’s extremely unhealthy to go without sleep. Almost impossible, too, for a mostly-healthy 22-year-old. Sam hoped she could at least elude sleep. A tad. For a little while. Enough to figure out where she stood and how she felt.
Okay, maybe a long while.
Between ignoring phone calls, Sam doubled her efforts with caffeine. She set random alarms to jolt her awake before a deep REM could take hold. Micro-naps seemed safe enough. If all else failed, she could hobble around the neighborhood to keep herself awake.
Leaning groggily against her crutches, Sam picked her way down the driveway, stealing backwards glances at the little white house and its red roof. How quaint it looked, perfect for a picture book. What made a person abandon a place like that? When Sam was younger, she spent hours wondering where her mother chose to live instead. What made it better? Was there a swimming pool with a deep end? A basketball hoop? Today, Sam wondered: what house might her mother see on her last ride home?
Sam froze. Nope, none of that. She kneaded the handles of her crutches and pushed them forward, followed by her feet. Again. Again. Bury that thought. It didn’t matter. She never learned where her mother lived, and she didn’t need to learn now.
Sam hobbled past the small curve of the park, one she used to avoid. It offered too many memories of her mother lifting her to monkey bars or holding her close after a tumble down the slide. Her dad only convinced her to return years later with promises of baseball and catch. New memories to replace those lost.
Past mailboxes, neat front lawns, abandoned soccer balls and covered grills. Then, turn around and loop it all in reverse.
Around five p.m., cars began to fill driveways. Sam’s phone stopped buzzing. She wore down the pavement anyway.
“Mind if I join you?” her dad asked, just as she reached the park again.
“Sammy,” he said, keeping her glacial pace, “I know we’ve always been two peas in a pod.”
“Peas are gross,” Sam quipped. “We’re much cooler than that.”
He huffed a small laugh. “You know what I mean. You stayed local after graduating. You make time for every holiday. You know I really appreciate it.”
“Okay,” Sam said. “I mean. I always like coming home.”
“I know you do,” he said. “But I think sometimes, you might worry about me too much. I always want you around, but you don’t have to protect me, either.”
Sam kept hobbling, eyeing a patch of yellowing grass on someone’s lawn. She couldn’t recall who lived there now.
Her dad sighed. “What I’m trying to say is. You can have a relationship with her too.”
Sam snorted. “We’ve been through this, Dad. She left. Not just you. Me too.”
“You don’t have to enjoy the act of forgiving, Sam,” Dad said, “but it’s important.”
Sam opened her mouth to retort, but snapped it shut. Dad looked brighter today. Lighter. Like he’d had a good night’s sleep.
“You spoke to her.”
He nodded. “And I’ve forgiven her. You never know how many chances you have, Sam,” he added, a bit sternly. “I don’t want to live with that weight on me.”
The weight of endless unanswered calls suddenly hung heavy in Sam’s pocket.
After their loop, they stood in the empty space where the station wagon once parked. Sam could still hear the thrum of its clunky engine, the wheels crunching gravel as it pulled away from their little stamp of property. Gone. Her anger still scorched her old wounds; now, something else also tugged at her chest.
She’d already lost so much. Why let more slip through her fingers?
“Okay,” Sam said, trembling fingers already pulling out her phone. “I’ll try.” They sat on the little front porch as she dialed the number.
Sam rang again. Again. She even left a voicemail, one so garbled she couldn’t recall what she said.
When Sam rang a final time, a male voice answered.
By the time Sam made it to the hospital, she was sweaty and out of breath. Her mom was unconscious.
A nurse helped Sam with her crutches, settling her into a chair by the hospital bed. The nurse said her mother may not wake up, but she might be able to hear her.
Sam struggled to bring the chair closer, as close as her broken limb allowed. Her mom looked just like she had in purgatory. More tired, though. Drawn. Disappointed, perhaps.
Leaning against the side of the mattress, Sam took one of her mother’s hands. She let her eyes fall closed.
This time, she recognized the backseat right away. How could she forget that stubborn stain where she spilled juice on the upholstery? The ever-present dusting of Goldfish and Oreo crumbs along the seams of the seats. Her mom wasn’t one of those strict ones who didn’t allow snacks in the car.
She was good like that.
Her mom sat in the front seat, chair reclined just like a hospital bed. Sam reached for her mother’s hand, then leaned forward to embrace the rest of her. All of her.
“Mom,” Sam whispered, barely breathing.
Mom wrapped her into a strong hug that felt like movie nights, story time and bedtime kisses through tears. Like summer vacations, accidental detours. Popsicles and belly laughs. Like swim lessons, chicken noodle soup. Old, raggedy quilts. Sam breathed, bathed, and drank it all in.
“I’m sorry,” her mom whispered in her ear. “I thought, at first, I could take care of us both. I’m sorry I couldn’t.”
Sam swallowed. “I forgive you.” The words, finally said, felt stilted now. Wrong, even.
“I love you,” Sam said then. That felt infinitely better.
Still, Sam was surprised when she began recognizing the streets. The neighborhood. Past the park, where Sam’s mom taught her to ride a bike, and cradled her when she fell. The corner where Sam’s mother brought her to the bus stop in the morning and picked her up again in the afternoon. Some of Sam’s chalk drawings still decorated the sidewalk. Then, there it was.
The little white house. With a red roof.
Sam’s mother looked a bit surprised when they pulled up, but her face soon broke into a smile. One Sam hadn’t seen in twelve years. With a burst of energy, she sat up, turning to Sam. She smoothed a hand over Sam’s hair and tucked a strand behind her ear.
“I’ll see you later,” her mom said. She stepped out of the car. “I love you, Sam.”
Sam turned in the backseat to watch her mother climb the steps to the porch.
“I can’t visit,” Sam said to Driver. He’d been unusually quiet, even for him. “I can’t, can I?”
“‘Fraid not,” Driver said, though his voice carried a rare note of softness.
Tears blotted Sam’s vision before darkness came.
Sam woke to the sound of flatlining. Her chair had been shoved backward, a curtain pulled between her and her mother. Shadows of doctors and nurses still bustled about.
Her stepfather—Derrick, Sam remembered foggily from the phone—was shaking her shoulder gently with a trembling hand.
“I’m so sorry, Sam,” he said quietly. “I tried to wake you before, but—” his voice broke. He paused a moment before he continued, “She didn’t wake up before she passed.”
Sam sighed. “It’s okay,” she said. Her good leg protested as she tried to stand. When Derrick reached to help, she folded him into a hug instead. “I’m sorry.” For him? For her mom? Both.
Sam sat with Derrick as he spoke to the doctors, and stayed after they left. She offered to help, though she knew nothing about making arrangements.
“I think you could help in another way,” Derrick said, tentatively. “I know all this just—” he waved it away. “But, maybe. Sometime,” he swallowed. “She spoke about you so much. Wondered about you, but she was afraid to—” he paused, taking a heavy, shuddering breath. “It might be good,” he said, eyes crinkling, “to know the answers she wondered about so much.”
Sam was quiet for a moment. It seemed unfair or uneven, to tell this stranger her life story. She thought about the last time the station wagon pulled out of her driveway, never knowing where it ended up. Eventually, somewhere with this man she knew nothing about, who looked lost and very, very tired. Only then did Sam realize she was not tired. Light, even, like the first good night’s sleep after days of insomnia.
“Okay,” she said. “If you do something for me, too. Tell me about you and how you met. And—” Sam said, “I need you to tell me about her. I was too young to understand her struggles. Her illness. Why she had to leave. Knowing more, I think, it would help.”
“I’d like that,” Derrick said softly. Then added, “I think she would too.”
“A mini-van, haven’t seen one of these in a while.” Sam glanced out the back window to a picturesque suburban scene.
“I know they’re out of fashion,” the passenger responded. A kindly woman in her late sixties. She straightened her sweater vest primly. “I suppose it makes me nostalgic.”
“I get it,” Sam responded, offering a smile when the woman turned around. “It’s better, really,” she patted the back of Driver’s seat, “when he’s in a sportscar, he tends to ignore the speed limit.”
Sam earned an eyebrow quirk from Driver that felt almost like a smile.
The woman still eyed her a bit uncertainly, though. “I’m sorry, do you happen to know where we’re going?” she asked.
Sam smiled. “I do.”
Copyright © 2023 by A. A. Nour
A.A. Nour is a researcher and a writer, and sometimes those two things overlap. She is an Odyssey Writing Workshop grad, and she's passionate about psychology and research rabbit holes. She lives in Chicago with her husband and a plethora of adorable creatures that have made a home in her backyard.