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The morning sun was just coming up when Liberty Farraday walked into her son Sammy's room to wake him up. Not only was today a school day, it was also Sammy's birthday. He was eight years old. She could hardly believe it. Eight long years of raising Sam Holt's son without Sam. Of course, when she thought about it, which was more often than she wanted, she had to admit it was her fault she was on her own, because Sam didn't know Sammy existed. But it was Sam who'd walked out on her and hadn't come back. The way she figured, if he didn't want her, he wouldn't want Sammy, either.
Most of the time, her reasoning worked, but every now and then, like this morning, watching her son as he slept, and knowing that with each passing day he was growing into the image of the man who'd broken her heart, she doubted her judgment.
Libby frowned, then shook off her sadness. Today was a day for rejoicing. Sammy's eighth birthday and all it entailed. She glanced at the Star Wars clock hanging over his bed, and leaned down with a smile.
"Good morning, little man," Libby whispered, then tickled the back of Sammy's ear as he began to rouse. "Happy birthday, Sammy. Better hurry up and get dressed. I'm making pancakes this morning and you don't want to be late for school."
With the skill only a child can manage, Sammy came awake within seconds, talking before his eyes were even open.
"Mama, are you bringing cupcakes to school this afternoon for my birthday?"
Liberty Farraday stifled a sigh. One more thing to squeeze into an already hectic work day. But a guy only turned eight one time, and celebrating the day with your school friends was a must in Azalea, Tennessee.
"Absolutely, littleman," Libby said.
"Are they gonna be chocolate?" he asked.
Libby grinned. "Is there any other kind?"
"Mama, you're funny," Sammy said, and rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
"Don't forget to wash your face and brush your teeth," Libby said as she laid out the clothes for him to wear to school.
"Okay, Mama," Sammy said, and so their day began.
Not only did Libby have pancakes waiting at Sammy's plate when he came to the table, but his birthday present was there, as well.
"Yea! Can I open it now?" Sammy asked.
"Of course you can," Libby said, then sat back with a delighted smile on her face. She tried not to think of how much her little boy looked like his daddy.
"Star Wars stuff! Way to go, Mama!" Sammy said, and gave her a high-five as he tore into the box. "Cool! There's Lando Calrissian, Han Solo, Yoda oh, oh, look Mama, an Ewok. They're funny."
Libby nodded in all the right places but had no clue as to who the characters were. Although they owned every one of the Star Wars DVDs, she had yet to sit all the way through even one of them. Then she glanced at the clock.
"Oops, better get at those pancakes. You can play with your Star Wars stuff this evening when you come home from school."
"All right, Mama. Boy. I can't wait to tell Pete what I got."
Pete Wyatt was Sammy's best friend, and his grandmother, Kate Wyatt, was probably Libby's best friend, although their ages were separated by more than forty years.
A short while later Libby pulled up in front of Robert E. Lee Elementary and handed Sammy his book bag.
"Have a great day, my love," Libby said. "I'll see you later cupcakes and all."
"'Bye, Mama. Make pretty bouquets," he said, referring to her job at Faye's Floral Fantasies, then waved as he headed toward the main entrance to the school.
Libby gave Sammy a last wave, then paused, watching his funny swagger and thought again, the older he got, the more he looked like Sam. Then she bit her lip and looked away. No need to think of that man. He'd walked out of her life even before she'd known Sammy was on the way. And the breach between them had been so devastating that the idea of calling him later to inform him she was pregnant was impossible.
It hadn't been easy being a single mother, and there were times when she felt the guilt of Sammy growing up without a man in his life. But on the rare occasions when he asked what happened to his father and why he wasn't in their lives, Libby always said his daddy just got lost. So far it had worked, but the older Sammy got, the less he would be satisfied with the answer. However, life wasn't perfect; Sam Holt had taught her that.
Someone honked and her focus shifted. She looked up just in time to see Kate Wyatt waving at her as she dropped off her grandsons, Pete and Charlie. Libby waved back, then as soon as the street was clear, she pulled away from the curb and headed to work.
Libby was a skilled floral designer, which prompted her boss, Faye, to willingly work around Libby's schedule so she could be home when Sammy got out of school. It was the best job in Azalea for a woman in Libby's situation. She didn't make enough money for day care, but thanks to Faye's generosity, she made enough for them to get by. As she paused for a red light, she mentally ticked off the time it would take to get home after work, pick up the cupcakes and then get back to school at the appointed time. When the light turned green, she accelerated slowly and was in the middle of the intersection when she heard brakes screeching. She was vaguely aware of something coming at her from the driver's side of the car. Then everything went black.
The ambulance pulled up to the emergency entrance of Jackson Memorial Hospital with lights and sirens blaring. The staff had already been alerted to their arrival and met the EMTs at the door. The woman on the gurney was covered in blood, and there was a brace on her neck and an IV in her arm. The paramedics were running as they pushed her into the E.R. One of them was calling out her vitals as the other one pumped the bag on her oxygen mask.
"She got T-boned by a semi at the intersection of Elm and Main. Her BP is 80 over 60. Her pulse is erratic and thready. We lost her twice on the way here. She's bleeding into her abdomen, got broken ribs and God knows what else."
"Put her in Two," a doctor said, while a team of nurses followed behind.
They transferred the woman onto the bed, and then the team took over.
"What's her name?" the doctor asked as they began to assess.
"Farraday. It's Libby Farraday."
There was a collective gasp. This woman was unrecognizable as the pretty little thing they all knew who made deliveries from Faye's flower shop. They quickly began trying to assess her immediate needs and stabilize her long enough to get her to surgery.
Sammy knew something was wrong when he was called out of his classroom just after second hour had begun. When he was told to bring his book bag, he knew he would be leaving, which didn't make sense. He didn't think he was in trouble, but with grown-ups and rules, it was always hard to know.
He entered the principal's office, expecting to see his mother, but saw Pete's Grandma Kate, instead. She'd been crying. That was when he started to get scared.
"Come here, honey," Kate said, then wrapped her arms around Sammy and hugged him so tight he couldn't breathe.
"What's wrong?" Sammy asked. "Where's Mama and why are you crying?"
"Honey, your mama had a wreck on her way to work this morning. I'm going to take you to the hospital."
"But today is my birthday," he whispered, as if nothing this awful could possibly happen on his special day.
Everyone in the office had already been in tears, but hearing the fear and the shock in that little boy's voice was more than they could take. The secretary excused herself and left the room while the principal blew his nose and then patted Sammy on the back.
"You're excused to leave, son. I'm sure your mother is going to be okay. When you see her, tell her we said to get well soon."
He didn't answer. He couldn't.
Kate Wyatt had already been told how serious Libby's injuries were. She prayed all the way to the hospital that Sammy's mother would still be alive when they got there. She couldn't imagine what would happen to this precious little boy if Libby didn't pull through; they only had each other.
Sammy was too shocked to cry. Mama didn't look like Mama anymore. Her turned-up nose was swollen to twice its size, and her lips and face had lots of tiny cuts. They'd told him it was because of all the broken glass from the wreck, but he didn't want to think about it. He kept watching all the machines hooked up to her and frowning at the needles in her arms.
"That's not Mama is it?" he asked.
"Yes, honey, it's Mama. She's just swollen from the accident. That will go away as she heals."
His stomach hurt and the words burned the back of his throat so bad he didn't think he could say them. But he had to ask.
"Is she gonna die?"
Kate wouldn't lie. "They're doing everything they can to make her well," she said, then stroked the top of his head.
"Can I touch her?"
"You sure can, honey. And you can talk to her, too. Just because she looks like she's asleep doesn't mean she can't hear you, okay?"
Sammy walked to the side of the bed, carefully sliding three fingers across the sheet, then worked them beneath her hand. He kept wishing Mama would wake up and squeeze his fingers back, but she didn't. All he could hear were the machinesbeeping, beeping, beeping.
"It's me, Mama," he whispered. "It's okay you couldn't bring the cupcakes. I don't wanna have a party without you."
Finally, tears welled and spilled, running down his face in two steady streams. "Mama. Please wake up. You have to get well, okay?" Then he put his head down on the side of the bed and sobbed.
He was still sobbing uncontrollably when Kate picked him up and carried him out of the intensive care unit. Once she got him outside into the hallway, she got down on her knees and made him look her in the eyes.
"Sammy! Sammy! Listen to me, darling. You're not alone. Pete and Charlie and I are here for you. And until Mama gets well, you're going to come stay with us. You like spending the night with Pete. It will be like a long sleepover, okay?"
He was afraid to answer. Decisions were out of his control. He just laid his head on her shoulder and held on for dear life.
Pete Wyatt was the opposite of his best friend, Sammy. Where Sammy was tall and on the thin side for his age, Pete was short and stocky, with red hair and green eyes. Sammy's hair was straight and black, and his eyes were brown.
Pete had seen Sammy cry before, but he'd usually been bleeding. He didn't know what to do about sadness. He'd never seen anyone cry from being sad before, except once when Melissa Stewart had torn her new pants on the playground and he was pretty sure she'd been sad about that when she'd cried all through recess.
Grandma Kate told him and Charlie that Sammy was sad because his heart was hurt. Pete wanted to fix Sammy's heart, but he didn't know how. Instead, he pulled a half-dozen tissues from the box, and crawled up onto the bed beside Sammy and patted his shoulder.
"I'm sorry your mama got hurt," he said as he handed him the tissues.
Charlie came in and sat down on the bed, too. "Yeah, I'm real sorry about your mama, too."
Now Pete was scared. Charlie usually picked on them. Instead of talking, he just rolled over and buried his face in his arms.
Pete patted Sammy on the back and then went to find his grandma.
Kate was in the kitchen with the phone to her ear as she worked. Everyone in Azalea knew she and Libby were friends, and the phone hadn't stopped ringing since the news had spread. Her back was to the doorway, so she didn't see her grandson's arrival. If she had, she might have chosen to voice her fears to the pastor at a later date. But she didn't know Pete was nearby, and she let her worries overflow.
"No, Pastor, they don't have any other family that I know of. Hmm? Oh. Yes, of course, I guess he has a father somewhere. Libby never talks about him, but if he was dead, I think she would have said so."
There was a pause. Pete knew he should speak up, or at least let Grandma know he was there, but he wanted to know what was happening and knew she'd stop talking if she saw him, so he stepped back into the hallway and continued to listen. Charlie walked up behind him, started to thump him on the back of the head, when he realized what was happening. Instead of picking on Pete like he usually did, he stood beside him, a cohort in eavesdropping.
"If she dies? Lord, Lord, please don't say that. I know, the possibility exists. But the accident just happened today. What would happen to Sammy if she did? I suppose the state would step in. I would offer to foster him, but I'm already treading on thin ice with my own grandsons. You know how small this house is, and with my health issues they'd never give me custody of another child."
"What's wrong with Grandma?" Pete whispered.
Charlie sighed, then patted his little brother on the head. "She just has arthritis. That's all." He didn't see any need to let the twerp know that Grandma also took pills for her heart. He knew because he'd recognized the name of the medicine on her pill bottle as the same one being advertised on a late-night television commercial.
"What's gonna happen to Sammy if his mother dies?" Pete asked.
Charlie frowned and shushed him as they continued to listen to Kate's conversation with the preacher.
"It would break my heart if he wound up a ward of the state. All those news stories about how awful foster care is, and orphanages well, don't get me started."
Pete backed up, swiped the tears off his cheeks, and then turned to his big brother.
"We have to do something, Charlie."
"Like what?" Charlie muttered.
"I don't know," Pete said. "But you're the oldest. Figure something out."
Then he walked away, leaving Charlie alone in the hall with yet another burden on his shoulders besides the ones he already had.
One week later
Sammy hadn't missed a day going to see his mother, although Libby Farraday was still in a coma. The hospital had bent the rules so that he could stop and see her every day after school, rather than wait for proper ICU visiting hours. He was quiet as a mouse and usually sat in a chair beside her bed without moving. Once in a while, the nurses could hear him talking to her, although they didn't hear what he was saying. But for Sammy, his message was always the same.
"Mama, it's me, Sammy. School was okay today. Our teacher took us outside for science class. I found a praying mantis on the side of a tree and saw some ladybugs in the grass. The teacher said I had sharp eyes."
As usual, Libby maintained her silence, but Sammy wasn't finished.
"I ate my vegetables at lunch, even though they weren't as good as the ones you make. The ones in the cafeteria never have any salt on them, and they are always too squishy. You cook the best ones, Mama."
He waited the usual ten-second count for a response that didn't come, then moved on to the next topic.
"Mama, if you'll wake up, I'll tell you a secret."
His gaze was fixed on her face, looking past the green and purple bruises and scabs on the cuts to her eyes, praying for the lashes to flutterpraying that her lips would move.
When she didn't answer, he just sighed and patted her hand.
"It's okay, Mama. I'll tell you anyway. Pete heard his grandma talking to the preacher. If you don't wake up, they're gonna make me go live with strangers some people named Foster, and I don't wanna leave you. So, you know how you always told me that Daddy got lost from us? Well, Charlie has a plan to fix that. It's gonna be the best Mother's Day present ever. You just have to wake up."