A long, desert highway stretched out before Sam. She stood in the center of the road, shielding her face from the sun as it hung directly over her head. She pulled a metal water bottle from her backpack and shook it. There was nothing inside, but she still opened the top and checked, hoping to find any moisture to satiate her overwhelming thirst. She put the cap back on and placed the water bottle back in its pocket with an exhausted sigh. She looked around the landscape. There was no vegetation in sight, just hills of sand that faded into the haze of the horizon. Wind kicked up the sand and blew it across the road, creating swirls and patches of tan against the black asphalt. She pulled the olive green shemagh up from around her neck to cover her mouth and nose. Her feet barely carried her on.
As she continued down the highway, the toe of her boot clipped the asphalt, causing her to stagger. She caught herself and kept going. She was exhausted. It seemed like she’d been walking for days on end. Her feet were sore, her knees felt like they would give out at any minute. She was caked in a layer of dirt and sand. Her skin was sunburnt. She wanted to stop, but she couldn’t. The strange thing was, she couldn’t remember why. As she plodded along, she tried to think, to cut through the haze in her mind. Why was she there? What was she looking for? Why keep going?
A glint of light caught the corner of her eye. She stopped and looked off the highway, trying to find the source. She squinted and held up her hand to block the sun from her vision. As her eyes adjusted, she saw a tiny, dark figure in the distance among the sand dunes. She squinted harder to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. Heat waves distorted the figure, causing it to fade in and out of reality. She couldn’t tell if it was real. But she decided to follow it anyway.
Sam’s feet sunk into the sand as she trudged through the dunes. Her breathing and heartrate increased as she struggled to keep her balance and slogged through the desert. She came to the crest of a dune and looked around. She spotted the dark figure, still moving away from her, but closer now. Hopping from the peak, she slid down the side of the dune, causing a cascade of sand in her wake. As she came to a stop at the bottom of the dune, she stood up, brushed herself off and kept going.
She went along, looking down and spotting footprints in the sand. She knew she was getting closer. As she followed the footprints, the dunes began getting smaller and easier to traverse. She scrambled up to the top of a small dune and saw the desert even out ahead of her. It was a never-ending ocean of sand. She looked down and saw the figure no more than a quarter mile ahead of her. It was a person. Sam pulled the shemagh off her face and cupped her hands to her mouth.
“Hey!” she shouted out.
The man stopped and looked back. Sam waved her arm in the air. After a moment, the man turned back and kept walking.
“Hey, wait!” Sam cried out. But he didn’t. She slid down the small dune and started jogging after him. He kept his leisurely pace as Sam got closer to him. About fifty yards away from him, she stopped. Something was wrong. She looked around her as the sands shifted. She was being pulled down.
“Help!” she cried out to the man. He paid no attention as he kept walking away.
As if she were in the top of an hourglass, sand cascaded in toward her. Sam struggled to climb out, but the sand beneath her feet was moving too fast. She slipped and was being pulled under. The sand engulfed her slowly as she clawed to keep her head up. It was useless. She took one last breath before her head slipped under the sand.
Sam fell and landed on a pile of sand with a soft thud. The cascade of sand on top of her slowed to a trickle. She coughed and carefully opened her eyes. She looked up and saw a five-foot-wide hole directly above her, out of reach. She slowly stood up and looked around. She was in a cavern and had fallen through a hole in the top. Light spilled down, shining like a spotlight on her, but giving little illumination to her surroundings.
Sand continued to drizzle through the hole as Sam peered into the black, trying to gather her surroundings. She noticed her backpack was gone. She dug into the sand looking for it. She paused as she heard a rapid clicking noise. The pitch and frequency of the clicks changed. It was definitely some sort of animal. The clicking came closer as rattling slowly began. Sam quickly turned back to digging, looking for her backpack and tomahawk. She uncovered a pistol, shook the sand out and turned toward the noises. They slowly faded as another rattle started behind her. She turned and pointed the gun into the darkness, unable to see anything.
More clicking came further from inside the cavern, followed by more rattling. The noises surrounded her. She spun around not knowing what to do. As she struggled to see into the darkness, a hand slowly came out from the shadows behind her and grabbed her shoulder. Sam let out a scream as she turned and fired a round into the dark. The hand receded into the shadows as the clicking and rattles stopped. Sam heard several animals scurry away.
Silence fell across the cavern again. Sam stepped into the darkness. Her eyes slowly began to adjust and she looked down, seeing the body of the person she shot. She knelt down, still unable to make out the person’s face. The darkness finally gave way. It was Jason.
“Oh, God, Jason!” she said.
She knelt down and held him in her arms. He clutched the wound in his chest as blood trickled from it. He looked at Sam as life slowly faded from him.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she softly said, holding his lifeless body. “I didn’t mean to…”
Chapter 2. Betrayal
Sam’s eyes slowly opened as she woke from her dream. She watched her shadow gently sway against the back cushions of the couch as light from the flames of the fireplace danced behind her. She blinked a few times before she rolled over on her sleeping bag, facing the flames. She gazed into the fire, lost in her thoughts. She sat up and looked to her left. Jason was sleeping on his back with his head toward her. She watched him as he quietly breathed in and out, seeing his chest slowly rise and fall. She studied his face.
The longer she stared at him, the more she hated herself. He had been nothing but loyal to her. Sure, they’d fought a few times. Almost went their separate ways. But he always stuck things out with her. Hell, he’d saved her life more than once. He could be rough around the edges, but he was still a good man. He didn’t deserve this.
Sam stood up and quietly walked to the front door. She turned the handle and slipped outside into the night. As she carefully shut the door behind her, a cool breeze caressed her face. She turned and looked into the night sky. Light barely began spilling over the horizon as dawn inched closer. Astronomical twilight was her favorite. It was peaceful, watching the very first light from a new day before it started. The gentle glow in the east, but still being able to see the stars was normally comforting to her. Not today.
She took a few steps down from the porch, walked across the lawn and sat down on the sidewalk, legs crossed in front of her with her feet in the street. She let out a heavy sigh. It’d been just over two weeks since they had set out from Jason’s home in Flagstaff. Two weeks that she’d taken him away from his wife. Two weeks that she’d put his life in danger for no real reason. No reason other than she didn’t want to be alone. Would he understand that?
He had to. After all, that’s why he set out from Buffalo with her in the first place. At least that’s what she hoped. She hoped he’d understand why she lied to him. Why she continued to lead him to believe her husband was still alive. She needed time to grieve with a friend by her side. She couldn’t do it with both Jason and Sarah. Being constantly reminded of the love that she lost.
But she hadn’t had the chance to grieve for Nick. The entire time she and Jason had been heading to Los Angeles, she always had this in the back of her mind. The day where she’d have to tell him that Nick was dead, and she’d known since Albuquerque. Each step she took was a step closer to the moment she needed to confess. And every step she waited to tell him, the worse it was going to be. Her heart ached. She hated herself for betraying him. It wasn’t who she was. She kept watching the sky as it slowly brightened, trying to find comfort in the beauty. There was none.
Jason’s eyes opened. He tilted his head up and saw Sam’s empty sleeping bag. He propped himself up on his elbow as he scanned the room for her. She wasn’t there. He got up and walked into the kitchen, checking for her. Nobody was there, but her bag sat on the counter. She had to be around somewhere. He stepped back into the living room and saw something outside. He moved to the window, pushed the thin, lacey curtain aside and looked out. He saw Sam silhouetted against the brightening predawn sky.
His heart grew heavy as he watched her. She hadn’t been her usual, upbeat self since Albuquerque. Normally he couldn’t get her to shut up. But since they had escaped the raider compound, she’d barely said anything at all. He didn’t know what those bastards had done to her, but he hated them for it. She was one of the only pure people left in the world. He hated seeing her reduced to this state. And he hated even more that he didn’t know how to help her.
Jason stepped over to the front door and turned the handle. The door creaked slightly as he opened it, walked out and shut it behind him. His feet scrapped across the steps as he moved down them. Sam kept her eyes on the horizon, lost in her thoughts as Jason stepped next to her. She turned and looked at him as he sat down beside her. They gave each other half smiles, then both looked back toward the horizon.