She wanted to go back home. Samantha's fingers tightly gripped her backpack. Two more bags sat at her feet, full of clothes. The car felt overstuffed, claustrophobic. Glancing at her aunt, she forced a smile.
The scenery outside the car had changed from flat plains to hilly pasture. Dense forest surrounded open rolling fields with grazing livestock. They'd left Missouri, and were now deep in rural Arkansas. Barbed wire lined the highway, fencing in cattle, horses, even deer. The hilly terrain gradually became more hazardous. Roads twisted around blind curves, cut into the side of the old worn-down mountains, taking the car up steep climbs, then descending like a roller coaster.
"I'm sorry," Aunt Anne said again, breaking the silence that settled between them.
"It's okay," Sam reassured her again. "I understand. I can handle myself."
"You can." Her aunt nodded, eyes forward as they drove around another curve. Whatever was ahead could not be seen. Not until it was directly in front of them. "You're a good girl. You've made this easy for all of us." She said. "I'm so sorry, Samantha. You should be able to just be a kid without all our worries." Aunt Anne gripped the steering wheel.
"I'm not scared." Samantha shrugged. The road dipped down, down, the car interior plunging into gray shadows. She wasn't a 'good girl'. When would they stop treating her like a little kid? They never told her everything. What if it wasn't just the house? What if the worst was happening? She had to be there. She wouldn't be in the way. She deserved to stay.
She looked to her aunt. Aunt Anne's face was tense, her hands gripping the steering wheel. Aunt Anne wouldn't even be going home after this. She'd drive back to Kansas City, to spend her days shuffling between the hotel, work, and the hospital, ragged.
"You won't be lonely, will you?" Sam asked.
"Don't you worry about me." Her aunt glanced at her, smiling, eyes meeting as sunlight dotted through the canopy, coloring both of them. "We'll talk every night. We're both strong. That's what Gordon girls are, right? We're fighters."
"Right." Sam nodded, a tiny surge of strength warming her heart.
A break in the trees signaled their entrance into the little town of Benton Falls. The road led down a row of small, picturesque but rundown shops. A school sat at the end, with a playground and several small fields surrounding it, before gradually descending back into forest. The whole town was smaller than Sam's entire neighborhood back home.
Aunt Anne had drawn a little map of the town during one of her phone conversations with Sam's dad. Dubiously, she turned the car to the right.
The two of them used the little map on a piece of notebook paper that her aunt had drawn while taking instructions over the phone, before leaving the hotel in Kansas City. "I think we can turn down any of these…" Aunt Anne pointed to the right.
Perpendicular to the row of shops were houses. The drove down the first short street, counting house numbers, almost then turning down the next.
"This is Old Miner Road. We need Osage 1Road… There!" Her aunt pointed excitedly at an old street sign and turned down the row of houses. "Twelve thirty-nine."
There were only the three lanes of houses in the small neighborhood, all of them looking like something from the fifties or earlier, small single-story buildings shaded with trees, and many without garages. Several of them were built of an ugly yellow stone, cut in long slabs.
"Thirty-seven, thirty-eight…" Aunt Anne said, leaning across Sam's lap to squint at the numbers on the houses. "I think this is it."
They parked on the curb, in front of a red brick house that looked too small. Sure enough, there were two cars there—a car in the driveway, and the tan Ford truck with a familiar rusted tailgate on the street. Aunt Anne parked behind it.
Movement in the curtains drew Sam's gaze as she climbed out of their car. The front screen door squeaked loudly as it burst open.
"Samantha!" A little girl screamed in joy, pigtails bouncing as she ran towards them, her white and pink frilled socks staining green and brown through the grass.
Sam smiled and stretched her arms wide and hefted her up. Carolina had gotten heavier, and taller. "Hey Carolina! It's so good to see you again. How are you?"
"You're living with us, right?" Carolina asked in excitement.
"Yup," Sam said. The house before her looked both warm and inviting. And quietly distasteful.
Carolina, ever overexcited and despite just being picked up, squirmed out of her arms, already yelling, "This is the best day ever! Mom! Dad! Mom!" Carolina pulled Sam by the hand towards the door. The new wife stepped out next, smiling and waving. Then finally, Samantha's father emerged, drying his hands with a kitchen towel.
"Samantha, my baby girl." He gathered her up in a big bear hug, squeezing tight. He still stood so tall above her. "It's so good to have you here."
"Hi, Daddy," she said, hugging him back. Being with him again was the one thing she wasn't scared of.
They migrated into the living room. Samantha tried to scope out what the bedroom arrangement might be in this small house, but only one door in hallway was open, leading to a bathroom. Her stomach tightened with anxiety, but she was quickly called to sit with the family.
"I hope it wasn't too hard to find us. The town's so small, you could just knock on every door if you needed," Sam's father joked.
"That would take a while… I can't say the town is that small," her aunt replied.
"Hah, made you admit it."
Samantha could tell Aunt Anne was barely keeping herself from rolling her eyes, and she shared a grin with her father.
"And you," he pointed at her. "What grade are you in now? Second? Third?"
"Dad!" She knew he was teasing her, but couldn't help her outrage.
"You've grown so tall, but you can't be that old… Just a few years ago you were pulling off your diapers and running around naked."
"Dad," she whined. "Stop it. I'm a teenager now."
"Barely," he pointed out.
"Five months," she argued.
"Don't worry Samantha," her step-mother interrupted. "You'll be in the seventh grade. There's only eleven kids in your class."
Samantha huffed, and sat back. She knew they had it right, her dad was just pulling her leg. But it was so infuriating.
"That's good." Aunt Anne said, and leaned back in her seat. "That's one good thing about all this. The classes were twenty to thirty kids back in Kansas City. She's never struggled," this with a fond look down at Sam. "Well, except for cursive." Samantha scowled. "-but it will never hurt to have a smaller class and more attention from the teacher. So, take advantage of that, okay?"
"Okay." Samantha wasn't sure how you 'take advantage of that' or why it would even matter. She liked answering questions during class, but it had caused some trouble from the other kids, especially two boys who had sat next to her in sixth grade and would made snide comments whenever she spoke up. It wasn't the teachers that made her nervous. Part of her feared a smaller class, with kids who all knew each other.
"I'm glad school is taken care of. Now, I read some…interesting history when I looked up Benton Falls," Aunt Anne said, picking up her sweet tea.
Sam's dad and his new wife Emily met gazes, then quickly looked away to consider the glasses on the coffee table.
"Nothing recent," her dad said. "It's safer here, than up there."
"There was something," Emily said quietly.
"Not-" Sam's dad started. Her aunt's eyes went wide. "It was just a dumb kid, almost got himself drowned. Way, way younger than Samantha. And besides, there's no crack addicts here, or gangs, or men grabbing little girls and hiding them under their garage2. Benton Falls may have a past, but we haven't had any murders in twenty years. How many people have died in KC just this year? A'hundred? Not to mention the floods3. It's a damn shithole," he muttered.
"Harrison." Both women shushed him, with different levels of disapproval.
Aunt Anne shook her head, lips scowling. "It's just for the year. I'll get the place remodeled or sold, and then take her back."
"If she wants to go back," Sam's father added, his tone hardened. He looked to Samantha, voice softening. "Sam baby, you can stay here for the rest of your life. It's a good town to grow up in." He looked to Aunt Anne, eyes thinning. "Maybe we need to make some more permanent plans. The way things are going, it might be best if we prepare-"
"We'll reconsider at the end of the school year," Aunt Anne cut in. "She's lived with me and Violet for years and we'll… We'll just wait and see."
Her aunt caught Sam's gaze, and there was a promise in her eyes. She'd take Sam back. Sam would go home at the end of this. Samantha had been calm for weeks now, months, maybe longer. Aunt Anne had struggled so much, had cried when they saw what the house looked like, and Samantha had done everything to reassure her aunt, and her mother, that she was fine, everything was fine. They didn't need to worry about her, because they had so much else to worry about. But now suddenly, sitting in this unfamiliar living room, on this unfamiliar couch, Samantha had to look down and hid her face, her nose burning, her vision a little blurry.
"You know, when a mom can't take care of her kid anymore, the other parent usually gets custody," Sam's father said suddenly.
"Don't-" Emily started.
"A responsible father wouldn't drag this out in front of the kids," Aunt Anne challenged back. Sam kept her eyes down on her hands.
"Stop, both of you," Emily said. "We'll just take this one day at a time. Your house was completely under water, right?" She asked Aunt Anne.
"Yes. The insurance-" her aunt stopped herself, "We're waiting for-" Sam looked back up; leaned against her aunt. "It, it depends if it's condemned or not. But we shouldn't uproot Sam twice this year. Not unless the worst happens." Aunt Anne crossed herself.
Emily flinched, though her expression looked surprised, not angry or disapproving.
"If the worst happens, of course we'll get Sam back up there. I'll be there myself," her father said.
Aunt Anne's face contorted like she smelled something sour. She'd often said unkind things about Sam's father, how he failed others, left when things got tough, only cared about himself. Sam didn't like hearing it. But Aunt Anne held her tongue now. "We'll see," her aunt said.
Awkwardly, the conversation flowed to the school and schedules. There'd been many fights like this over the years, since Sam's mother first moved back in with her sister. Then the hospitals, the phone calls, the visits from her father. Her father wanting to take her to live with his new wife, his new daughter. Sam refusing.
She liked her own school, and her friends. She didn't want to leave, but there wasn't a choice. The school was closed. Everyone's houses were ruined. She hadn't seen her friends in weeks, and two had managed to get in touch to say that they were moving away, and they didn't know when they'd be back.
At least her mother was okay.
Sam looked around. The adults were talking. Carolina was on the floor, two Barbies and a Skipper baking an invisible cake. Sam had imagined a house in Arkansas would have broken dishwashers in the front yard, with stained doilies and ugly crocheted blankets inside. There was no yarn or lace inside this house, but there was something very different, almost unfinished in the browns and reds of the furniture, something earthy and outdated. Darker than the seaside pinks and teals of Aunt Anne's now ruined home.
Sam rose from the worn leather easy chair, glancing at the adults. No one seemed to mind, too caught up in their conversation. She walked towards the bookcase by the TV. It reached floor to ceiling, filled with VHS and cassette tapes. Back to the Future and Indiana Jones, Aliens and Aladdin. She glanced surreptitiously back at the adults; her aunt would never let her watch an R-rated movie, but her father might.
Movement caught her eye, and she looked out the window to see a squirrel climbing up a tree. It was grayer than the ones in Kansas City—and skinnier. The leaves of the tree were bigger than she'd seen before, in person at least, and multitudes of strange long pods 4hung heavy from it.
Beyond the tree she could see across the yard to the house next door, made of that ugly yellow stone. There was a boy in the window. Watching her.
The boy flinched. Then darted away.