One Fatal Mistake

One Fatal Mistake

by Tom Hunt

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Overview

The author of Killer Choice, a thriller "full of shocks and twists you won't see coming" (Lee Child), delivers another nail-biting novel about a hit-and-run and a lie that goes horribly wrong.

Her son accidentally kills a man.
They cover it up.
Then everything goes wrong.

When eighteen-year-old Joshua Mayo takes a man's life in a terrible accident, he leaves the scene without reporting the crime to the police. He hopes to put the awful night behind him and move on with his life. But, of course, he ends up telling his mother, Karen, what happened.

Karen has raised Joshua on her own in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—and she'd thought they'd finally made it. He was doing well in school and was only months away from starting college at his dream school. After hearing his dark confession, she's forced to make a choice no parent should have to make. A choice that draws them both into a web of deceit that will change their lives forever—if they can make it out alive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399586439
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Tom Hunt is an award-winning advertising copywriter. He has worked for some of the nation's largest and best-known agencies, including J. Walter Thompson and Saatchi & Saatchi. Killer Choice was his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Tom Hunt

THURSDAY

CHAPTER ONE

The front door flew open and a shadowy figure covered in blood stormed into the house. The living room was nearly pitch-black as Joshua Mayo ran across the room, down the hallway, into the bathroom. He flipped on the bathroom light and quickly stripped out of his bloody clothes—his winter coat, shirt, shoes, pants. He threw everything into a pile in the corner.

He walked over to the sink, gripped the sides of it, and closed his eyes. Paused for a moment. Breathed deeply, slowly. In and out. The past thirty minutes had happened at warp speed and he needed a moment to slow his racing heart, calm the roiling chaos in his mind.

Standing over the sink, his entire body shaking, he looked nothing like an eighteen-year-old honor-roll student. Deep shadows hollowed out his pale cheeks. His eyes were red and puffy from the crying he’d done earlier. His blond hair was spiky in some places, matted to his skull in others.

And then there was the blood. It was everywhere. Smudged all over his hands. Streaked in his hair. Splattered onto his face, vivid as war paint.

He took a final deep breath and stepped away from the sink. It was time to bury his emotions and focus. His mom would be home in the next half hour and there was so much to do before then.

He stepped into the shower and turned on the water. It washed over him, rinsing the blood down the drain—bright red, then pink, then clear.

The shower took two minutes. When he finished, he toweled himself dry and threw open the small door under the sink. He found a roll of garbage bags, tore one off, and put all his bloody clothes into the bag. After changing into a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt in his bedroom, he carried the bag out to the garage.

In the corner of the garage, he scanned an assortment of items stored on a large shelving unit—some of his mom’s gardening tools, three half-inflated basketballs, a few cans of paint—and grabbed a red plastic gasoline can they used for fueling the lawn mower in the summer. He shook the can and heard some liquid slosh around inside.

He set down the can and garbage bag and ran back into the house. Rummaged around in a few drawers and cupboards until he found what he was looking for: a book of matches.

He carried everything out to the small wooden deck on the back side of the house. Even though he wasn’t wearing a coat, Joshua barely noticed the biting early-February cold. All the patio furniture on the deck had been stored away for the winter, but the grill was still in the corner, a black protective cover draped over it. He pulled the cover off, lifted the lid, and dumped the contents of the garbage bag onto the grill—his coat, shirt, pants, shoes.

He looked out from the deck at their small backyard, the tranquil farmland that stretched forever, the night sky above. Silence was everywhere. Their closest neighbors were half a mile away in opposite directions—the Thompsons to the east, the Chamberlains to the west—and the lights in both of their homes were out. Far in the distance, six miles away, he could just barely see the outline of a few midrise buildings and houses in Cedar Rapids.

Joshua picked up the can and poured gas over the clothes in the grill, emptying the can. The fumes made his eyes water. Once the clothes were soaked, he wadded up the garbage bag and placed it on top of everything.

He grabbed the book of matches and tore one off. Tried to strike it once, twice, until the flame finally caught. He threw the match into the grill and the clothes caught fire instantly.

Flames jumped and raged for a few minutes, then died out. Joshua stepped closer to the grill and looked inside. The coat was a smoldering lump; the shoes had melted into a deformed blob of leather and plastic. Everything was charred but hadn’t burned away entirely. Evidence would still remain.

He had to get rid of it all.

He ran inside and grabbed another garbage bag. Ran back out to the patio and threw the remains of his clothes inside. He hurried down to the lawn and found the loose board near the base of the patio, the board he had always moved to the side when he’d sneaked under the patio to play when he was younger.

He threw the bag of clothes under the patio and put the board back in place. Tomorrow—he’d figure out how to dispose of everything then. When things weren’t so hectic.

He threw the cover back onto the grill and took the gas can to the storage rack in the garage. Before going back into the house, he looked at his car, a white Nissan Altima, a hand-me-down from his mom. Earlier, he’d poured water over the car’s hood and windshield to wash away the splatters of blood, but he looked it over once again to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. Everything looked clean; no blood remained. The only evidence that the car had just been involved in a hit-and-run accident was the smashed front grille and the crack that splintered through the middle of the windshield, but those could be explained away.

He exited the garage and walked through the house to his bedroom. He lay down in bed. He didn’t think he’d be able to sleep, not with the way his body was humming like a low-voltage electrical wire, but there was always a chance. By some miracle, he might actually drift off and the worst night of his life would come to an end.

Before closing his eyes, there was one final thing he needed to do. He grabbed his phone off the bedside table and pulled up his most recent text exchange. He typed out a message:

You there?

A moment later, the response appeared onscreen:

I’m here. Did you get back home?

Yeah. I washed up. Got rid of the clothes.

What about your mom?

She’s not home yet. I’m alone.

Joshua waited. Then he typed: I can’t believe we’re covering this up.

The response came after a few seconds:

I feel bad, too. Sick to my stomach. But we could’ve been in deep trouble if we went to the police. We did what had to be done.

A moment later, a second message appeared:

It will be our little secret. No one will ever know about this but us.

FRIDAY

CHAPTER TWO

Amber Youngblood pulled a black Camry into a street-side parking stall and killed the engine. She stared out at the downtown square of Hastings, Nebraska. Dark storefronts. Empty sidewalks. Vacant parking stalls lining the silent street. This early in the morning, there was no activity in the small town—but that would soon change.

Her husband, Ross, sat in the passenger seat, statue still, no expression on his hawkish, weather-beaten face. Black jeans, black sweatshirt, both tight against his thin, scrawny-strong frame. His long hair was tied into a ponytail, a sprinkle of gray sharing space with the darker hairs.

“So we’re doing this,” Ross said. “We’re really doing this.”

“Damn straight we are.”

Ross turned and faced the man who’d just answered. His older brother, Shane. The third and final member of their party. A massive, stocky man squeezed into the car’s small backseat like an elephant in a cartoon. He had a flat, unsmiling face. Unkempt beard. His lips were downturned into a scowl, his eyes emotionless. Late thirties, a few years older than Ross and Amber.

“Ain’t getting cold feet, are you?” Shane said.

“Hell no,” Ross answered. “I’m ready to go.”

“Good.” Shane looked at Amber. “You?”

“Yeah,” Amber said. “I’m ready.”

The discomfort in her stomach told a different story. She’d already puked once this morning because she was so nervous; she felt like she could again at any moment.

They stared out the car’s tinted windows for a silent moment at the not-yet-open businesses lining the town square. A few restaurants, an insurance office, a barbershop. At the end of the block was a building they’d driven by repeatedly over the past week, committing every last detail to memory. It was a large building with a brick façade. hastings state bank, the sign above the door read. where people come first.

“There it is,” Shane said. “The bank. About to take that bastard down.”

“Let’s review the plan,” Ross said. “One last time.”

“Review the plan? Shit, Ross. You should have the plan down cold by now.”

“I do.”

“Then why the hell you asking to review it again?”

“Just wanted something to talk about. I don’t like the silence. Trust me, I know what to do when this goes down.”

“You better. Focus, man. We gotta focus. Can’t afford any mistakes here. You grabbed the baggie before we left, right?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Ross said. He pulled a small baggie filled with about twenty pills from his pocket, a mix of white, blue, and yellow ones.

“Pop one,” Shane said. “Time to get serious. And stick with the yellows. Don’t need much. Just a quick hit.”

Ross grabbed a yellow pill from the bag and put it into his mouth.

“Good,” Shane said. “Now toss it back here.”

Ross tossed the baggie into the backseat. Shane pulled out a yellow pill and swallowed it.

“A little vitamin R,” he said. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

He threw the baggie back into the front seat. Ross grabbed it and put it into his pocket.

They waited. Amber glanced at the dashboard clock: 7:44. Just a few more minutes. She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, wiped away the sweat on her forehead, chewed on her lip. She couldn’t believe they were about to do this. Rob a bank. Like something out of a movie. She never actually thought things would reach this point; she figured a minor detail would fall through and they’d have to back out at the last minute. But here they were. Only moments away.

“Let’s get ready,” Shane said.

He grabbed a backpack resting next to him and pulled out three Star Wars masks—cheap plastic Halloween masks, the kind available from countless Web sites and novelty shops. He handed Yoda to Amber. Chewbacca to Ross. Kept Darth Vader for himself.

They put on their masks. The Yoda mask was hot and the eyeholes partially obstructed Amber’s vision. Smelled, too—a musty, plasticky smell that hung in her nostrils. She turned and looked at Ross in his Chewbacca mask. His eyes were jumping around in the mask’s eyeholes, going crazy, the same jittery gaze he always got whenever he was wired on Ritalin. But past that look, she could see the fear in his eyes. The nervous fear.

The look said everything. They’d been through a lot together. But nothing like this.

Shane pulled three black handguns from the backpack and handed them out.

“Should open any minute now,” Shane said, staring out at the bank. “Only one thing left to say.”

He chuckled dryly.

“May the force be with us.”

 

The microwave beeped and Karen Mayo grabbed two bowls of instant oatmeal from inside. She carried the bowls over to the kitchen table and placed one at her seat, the other in front of her son. Joshua sat at the table, eyes glued to his smartphone, wearing pajama pants and the same faded blue men’s golf conference champs T-shirt he wore to bed most every night.

 

“You know the rule,” she said. “No phones at the table.”

“I know. Just a second.”

Karen took her seat. Joshua’s eyes remained locked on his phone screen.

“So what’d you do while I was out last night?” she asked. “Anything exciting?”

“Not really.”

“Just a regular boring old night?”

He glanced up at her. Back down at his phone.

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

She already knew something had happened last night; she just didn’t know what. She wanted to give Joshua the chance to come clean and be up front with her. But if he wasn’t going to say anything . . .

“Actually, while you’re on your phone, maybe you can do me a favor,” she said. “Google ‘How to fix a cracked car windshield’ for me, will you?”

He looked up at her, his blue eyes wide with alarm.

“What?”

“Your car,” Karen said. “I saw it this morning when I was in the garage. The cracked windshield, the broken grill. What in the world did you do to it last night?”

He lowered his eyes. Stared at his bowl of oatmeal. Busted. And he knew it.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Doesn’t answer my question. What happened, Joshua?”

He fidgeted in his seat. His eyes skittered around the room.

“Well?”

“Aaron came over to play some Madden,” he said. “He was—”

“Madden? What is that?”

“Football. On PS4.”

“PS4?”

“PlayStation 4. It’s a video game. He scored a touchdown to beat me and was rubbing it in, joking around. I started chasing him around the house. He ran into the garage and tripped, knocked over that big shelf thing.”

“Is he all right? Injured?”

“He’s fine. But the shelf fell onto my car and slammed against the windshield.”

She gave one of her long sighs, the type she reserved for Joshua anytime he did something that would end up costing her money. It was a reaction they were both familiar with by now. She couldn’t even count the number of times he and his friends had broken something in her house while horsing around; they were like little Tasmanian Devils when they got together. Over the years, they’d shattered windows, put a gaping hole in a trampoline, left countless scuff marks and spills throughout the house. The basketball hoop she bought Joshua for his birthday last summer hadn’t even lasted two weeks before one of his friends jumped off a chair to slam dunk the ball and snapped the rim right off.

Now she could add his car grill and windshield to that list.

“This is wonderful,” she said. “You’ll look great, driving around in a car that looks like it was in a demolition derby.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said. “It was a dumb mistake.”

“You got the dumb part right.”

“I feel bad. I do. I promise, I’ll pay for it all myself.”

“With what money?

“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.”

“I just wish you would be more responsible,” she said. “I’m not angry, I’m—”

“Disappointed. I know. I really am sorry, Mom.”

She decided not to press the issue. What was the point? All that would accomplish was starting the day out on a bad note, maybe even a minor argument. She didn’t need that. Neither of them did.

Fifteen minutes later, Karen backed out of their driveway and drove through a winding labyrinth of gravel roads, passing empty, frozen farmland and the occasional house until she arrived at the turn-on for I-380. She eased onto the interstate and drove toward Cedar Rapids, six miles away.

In the passenger seat, Joshua was bundled up in a thick black winter coat, looking (of course) at his phone. She told him she didn’t want him driving his car until that crack was fixed—she was probably being overcautious, but it looked unsafe.

“I forgot to ask you,” Karen said. “Did you see that photo I posted to Facebook yesterday? The one for Throwback Thursday?”

“Yeah,” Joshua said, not looking up from his phone. “Pretty funny.”

She smiled. “I thought you’d like that one.”

Every Thursday, she scoured her photo albums to find an old picture of Joshua to post to Facebook for Throwback Thursday. She had endless options to choose from; as he was growing up, few milestones in his life passed without her documenting them with a roll or two of film. She had album after album full of photos of him at various sporting events, photos commemorating a variety of firsts (his first haircut, the first time he lost a tooth, his first days of school), photos of him posing with a spread of the toys he received for Christmases and birthdays over the years—action figures and Legos when he was younger, golf clubs and balls and tees when he got older.

Yesterday, she’d posted a photo from Halloween a decade ago. She was dressed in an oversized foam hot dog costume with only her face visible. Joshua was right next to her, eight years old, dressed as a small ketchup bottle. “Here’s two doggone cuties!” was the caption she’d added to the post.

“Okay, so it was a little corny, but that’s what moms are for, right?” she said. “Oh, and I’ve got a good one lined up for next week, too. I found all the photos from your sixth birthday party. The one we had at Chuck E. Cheese.”

Joshua cracked a small smile but kept his eyes on his phone. As she continued driving, Karen stole quick glances out of the corner of her eyes at him. Something about him seemed . . . not quite right. As they drove down the interstate, she finally realized what it was.

“Your coat,” she said. “Why are you wearing that old coat?”

He looked up from his phone. “What?”

“Why aren’t you wearing your new coat?” she asked. “The one I got you for Christmas?”

“I don’t know. Just felt like wearing this one.”

She shook her head. No use in even trying to make sense of that. He’d begged for a new coat for Christmas—the latest design from some fancy foreign company whose name she couldn’t even pronounce, a big puffy thing with fake animal fur lining the hood. Looked like a coat designed for an Arctic explorer or something. She’d practically flipped when he told her the coat’s four-hundred-dollar cost, but she saved up and bought him one for Christmas anyway.

And now, barely two months later, he’d gone back to the old coat.

She drove on down the interstate, slowly approaching Cedar Rapids, where she worked and Joshua attended school.

“I’ve got a good feeling about today,” she said. “I think today might be the day.”

“For what?”

“The day you find out if you got into Clemson. They said they’d get back to you by the end of the month, right? That’s only a few days away. Wouldn’t that be something? We’ve been waiting long enough.”

No response. She glanced over at Joshua. His phone was gone; now he was blankly staring straight ahead, his thin body slouched in the seat, blond hair combed over his forehead. He looked so gloomy. Off in his own little world. He was about as alert as a zombie most mornings, but there seemed to be something more to it today, something sad and mechanical.

“You there?” she said, snapping her fingers. “What’s going on with you? You’re so out of it this morning.”

He glanced toward her. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

It was more than tiredness, she was sure. Probably had something to do with being eighteen years old and getting a ride to school from Mom. Or maybe it was girl problems. Last week, his girlfriend had broken up with him, and he’d been moping around the house since then. No way she was touching that subject; he’d already been very clear that discussing the breakup with his mother was the last thing in the world he was interested in. She suppressed a chuckle, recalling the look of horror that crossed his face a few days ago when she asked him if he wanted her advice on how to move on after the breakup.

The car was mostly silent for the rest of the drive. Twenty minutes after leaving their house in the country, she pulled into the parking lot of Jefferson High School.

“Have a good day,” she said as Joshua exited the car.

“Yeah. You, too.”

“Hey. Perk up, J-Bird.”

He smiled. But like everything about him this morning, something seemed just a little off.

 

Head hanging, Joshua Mayo walked up to the entrance to Jefferson High School. He was surrounded by students bundled up in winter coats and hats, backpacks slung over their shoulders. Some in groups, some by themselves.

 

Inside, he went into the first men’s bathroom he saw. It was empty, thank God. He locked himself in a stall and leaned his forehead against the door, closing his eyes.

He was exhausted; sleep had been impossible. All evening, the grisly, gruesome details of everything that had happened last night replayed in his mind, repeated endlessly, over and over again. He couldn’t believe that he’d killed a man; it was such an incredible, harrowing thought.

This morning, he’d checked on his phone every local Web site he could think of, looking for any sort of news about a body being discovered, but there’d been nothing. It wasn’t so surprising. The accident took place deep in the country. Out on a worn, little-traveled gravel path that cut through a wooded region named Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area. A massive twenty-square-mile stretch of forested land full of trees and lakes and not much else. The only reason people went out by the wildlife management area this time of year was to hunt or camp . . . but hunting season had ended months ago and it was far too cold to camp right now.

He guessed it would be days, maybe even a week or longer, before someone ventured far out enough to discover the body.

Eventually it would happen, though. And once the body was found, there’d be a police investigation. What would happen then? He truly didn’t know. They’d cleaned up the scene and searched to make sure they didn’t leave anything behind that could link them to the crime, but there was no way to be certain they’d found everything. The moment had been so frantic. He knew the police wouldn’t need much. If they found a piece of fabric, a fingerprint, even something as minor as a footprint, they might be able to connect him to the dead body. And that would be it. His life would be over.

Joshua exited the stall and walked over to the sink. Washed his hands, splashed some water on his face. Before exiting the bathroom, he grabbed his phone from his pocket. Brought up the text exchange from last night. He typed out a message.

Rough morning. Couldn’t sleep last night.

He waited a minute. The response appeared:

Me neither. Just remember, we did the right thing. It sounds horrible, but the guy was dead. No way to save him. Calling the police would’ve only gotten us in deep, deep trouble. We didn’t have a choice.

Joshua stared at the phone. No matter how many times he heard that justification—the guy was already dead; going to the police wouldn’t have saved him—it didn’t make him feel any better about what had happened and the decision they’d made.

He typed: It’s just tough to handle. Really tough.

I feel awful, too. Just hang in there. Try to act normal. We’ll talk when I’m free. Later today.

Joshua texted: K.

He put his phone in his pocket and walked to the cafeteria. The room was packed with students sitting at tables, waiting for the school day to begin. Warbling, excited chatter was everywhere. He found his friends Freddy and Aaron at a table in the middle of the room and sat down beside them.

“Just in time,” Aaron said. He was skinny with long, shaggy dark hair and an easy, full smile. “I was about to tell Freddy about this weekend. I’m going on a college visit. Visiting my older brother at Luther. It’s gonna be wild.”

He started talking about a kegger his brother was going to throw Saturday night, but Joshua could barely pay attention. He looked around the cafeteria, at the groups of students sitting and chatting with friends. Smiling faces and laughter everywhere, gossiping, talking about plans for the weekend. He wondered if he’d ever be able to forget about last night and feel that carefree again.

“My brother was telling me about this one girl,” Aaron went on. “Monica. Total babe. Said he’s gonna set me up with her.”

He pulled his phone from his pocket.

“I found her on Instagram. Check it out.”

He opened her profile and turned the screen toward them. He quickly scrolled through photos of a cute blond girl in various poses: dressed up for a night out, walking a dog, studying in the library.

“You’re telling me your brother is setting you up with this girl?” Freddy said.

“Yeah.”

“And you think you actually have a chance with her?”

“Yeah.”

“Dude, this is a college chick. She’s, like, way out of your league.”

“My brother says I’m her type.”

Freddy laughed. “Her type, sure. Twenty bucks says nothing happens with her.”

“You’re on.”

Freddy and Aaron shook on their bet and continued talking. Joshua silently sat there, still thinking about last night. In bed, he’d come up with a story to explain the car damage, the story about Aaron knocking the shelving unit onto the windshield. Wasn’t the best explanation, and there’d been something in his mom’s reaction that told him she didn’t quite believe him, but he hoped the story would hold up.

“What about your weekend, J?” Aaron asked. “You gonna meet up with Ashley?”

“No,” Joshua said. “I told you. It’s over.”

Last week, when his girlfriend had broken up with him, it had been a hot topic of discussion between Freddy and Aaron, whether the breakup would be permanent or not.

“I still think you’re gonna get back with her,” Freddy said.

“I bet he won’t,” Aaron said.

“Twenty bucks?”

“You’re on.” They shook. Freddy turned to Joshua. “You’re totally getting back with her. Just admit it.”

Joshua tried to smile, but all he could force through was an uncomfortable wince.

 

CHAPTER THREE

“It’s game time,” Shane said.

Staring at the bank entrance from half a block away, Amber watched as an skinny old man in a gray security guard’s uniform appeared behind the bank’s glass entrance doors. Even with the Yoda mask partially obstructing her vision, she could see him pull a set of keys from his pocket, fit one into the door’s keyhole, and unlock the door. He walked back to the bank floor.

“Open for business,” Shane said. “Let’s go.”

Amber floored the accelerator for the half block to the bank and haphazardly pulled into one of the vacant stalls by the entrance. They barged out of the car and stormed inside—guns drawn, clad in black—Darth leading, Chewbacca right behind him, Yoda bringing up the rear.

Inside, the bank layout was exactly like the photos Shane had taken earlier in the week, the photos he’d had them study constantly over the past few days. An open, spacious lobby with marble floors. A small standing desk for a security guard right inside the entrance. A waiting area and a counter with three teller windows off to the side. In the far back were a few doors leading to offices and the safe.

Per the plan, Ross went straight to the counter and Shane ran to the rear, their guns in the air. Amber went to the security guard standing by the entrance, the old-timer they’d seen unlock the door moments ago. He was a frail old guy in a gray uniform, a badge that didn’t mean shit pinned to his chest.

“On the ground,” she yelled, pointing her gun. “Down! Now!”

She lowered her voice to sound hard and edgy, like a seasoned pro, but it sounded ridiculous to her. Almost comical.

The security guard stared at her, unmoving. She wondered if he could tell, just from the sound of her voice and the way she held the gun, that he was dealing with a rank amateur who was probably more terrified than he was.

“I said down, Pops! Don’t make me have to use this.”

The security guard remained frozen. Just as Amber started to seriously worry—God, am I actually going to have to shoot him?—the security guard hit the ground as if his legs had stopped working.

Amber focused on the back of his head, her breath hot and heavy in the mask, that same musty scent every time she inhaled. Behind her, she could hear pure chaos.

A scream.

A yell.

Ross’s voice: “Hands in the air!”

Someone crying.

Jumbled commotion.

Shane’s voice: “Nobody fucking move.”

He barked the words, commanding and authoritative. Just from the sound of his voice, anyone could’ve determined that the brutish man in the Darth Vader mask was the one in charge. The ringleader.

Amber kept the gun pointed at the motionless geezer on the ground and snuck a quick glance behind her. Saw Ross in his Yoda mask, standing in front of the counter, moving his gun between three tellers. Two women, one man—dressed in nice button-up shirts and dress pants, all with their hands in the air, looks of openmouthed astonishment on their faces.

Ross threw a backpack on the counter, directly in front of one of the clerks. “Empty the drawers,” he said. “No dye packs, no tracers.”

The clerk lowered his hands and began shoveling stacks and assorted bills from his money drawer into the backpack.

In the rear of the bank, Shane walked a few feet behind two men in suits, his gun pointed at their backs. They disappeared through a thick black door.

Amber’s eyes went back to the guard. He was still on the ground, facedown, hands splayed out from his body.

“Please, p-please don’t hurt me,” the guard said in a low voice. “I have a wife. And grandchildren.”

“Shut up and you’ll see them again,” she said. Again, her lowered, toughened voice sounded absurd to her. An empty threat.

Seconds that felt like hours passed. She focused on the guard, her heartbeat rocking against her chest. Her face was drenched under the musty mask, sweat dripping into her eyes.

Ross’s voice yelled out: “Coming your way!”

A backpack slid over on the ground and stopped a few feet from her. A moment later, Shane appeared from the back, holding another backpack in one hand, still pointing his gun at the two suited men in front of him. Shane slid it over to Amber and it came to a stop near the one Ross had sent over.

Two backpacks now.

Shane led the men in suits behind the counter, next to the clerks. He looked at his wristwatch, then pointed at Amber. He made a circular motion with his index finger.

It was time. She leaned down so her face was only inches from the back of the security guard’s head. “Count to one hundred; then you can move,” she said. “Don’t try to be a hero.”

She stuck her gun in the waistband of her pants and hurried over to the two bags on the ground. She grabbed one in each hand and ran past the entrance, back outside. On the town square, there was still no sign of activity; nothing had changed in the minutes they’d been inside.

She sprinted to the car and sat down in the front seat. Ripped off the Yoda mask and tossed it and the backpacks of money into the backseat. Fired up the engine.

Panting like she’d just run a marathon, she focused on the bank entrance. She brushed some strands of blond hair from her eyes.

She waited.

Waited some more.

And then the bank door flew open. Chewbacca stormed out, sprinting toward the car with Ross’s long, lean movements. A few steps behind him, Darth Vader followed, Shane rumbling along.

Amber tensed up. Almost time.

Ross reached the car first. He threw open the passenger door and jumped inside, slamming the door shut behind him. A moment later, Darth reached the rear door. He pulled on the handle. The door didn’t open. He started frantically yanking on the handle, but the door stayed shut.

“It’s locked!” Shane screamed, pounding his fist on the window. “Unlock the fucking door!”

“Go,” Ross said to Amber. “Floor it!”

Amber slammed her foot on the accelerator and the car sped out of the parking stall, leaving Shane behind. Looking in the rearview mirror, Amber watched Shane chase them for half a block, then give up. He stood in the middle of the road, staring at them from behind the Darth Vader mask, watching the car disappear. Perhaps he was just now realizing what had happened: he’d been double-crossed. Screwed out of the money.

Amber whipped the wheel to the left and the Camry took a turn without slowing. The tires screeched, cutting through the tranquil morning. She flew through an intersection. They sped past silent homes and empty streets.

Next to her, Ross tore off his Chewbacca mask. The ponytail he’d tied his hair in before the robbery had come undone and his long hair flowed like the mane of a wild animal.

“We did it!” he yelled. “Can’t believe it, we did it!”

“Not over yet,” Amber said. “We need to get out of here first.”

“Then, book it, babe. Let’s roll.”

Amber sped through the sleepy town and took a left turn. Straight for a few blocks. After a minute, she passed a sign that read: thanks for visiting hastings, nebraska. Modest houses with small front yards immediately gave way to flat, frozen farmland.

They motored down a two-lane highway, Hastings disappearing behind them.

 

After dropping off Joshua, Karen drove back across the city. Took Eighth Avenue SW over the Cedar River and arrived at Mercy Hospital, the biggest hospital in Cedar Rapids. After changing into scrubs, the day-shift nurses met the night shift for handoff. Then Karen’s day began.

 

Fifty million places to be. Always on her feet. Medication to administer. Reports to write. Check-ins to update physicians. As a nurse in the intensive care unit, her entire morning was spent jumping between the patients under her care, making assessments and adjustments to their treatment to keep them stable and hopefully move them closer to recovering from major surgery. One heart attack patient was diabetic and she stopped by his room consistently to monitor his insulin levels. Another patient had spiked a fever—could mean a new infection—so she took a few samples to send to the lab.

When her break came in the midmorning, she went to the small room that served as their floor’s kitchen / break room. A few of her coworkers sat at the table in the middle of the room. She poured a cup of coffee and sat down next to Carmella, a cute Hispanic girl with smooth olive skin and curly brown hair. She was in her mid-twenties, the youngest nurse on their floor, though she looked barely older than a teenager. Her green scrubs hung off her petite body like a tent.

“Just the person we wanted to see,” Carmella said to her. “Tell us all about it. Right now.”

“Tell you about what?” Karen said.

“Your date. We want to hear all about last night’s date.”

“That’s right, your date,” Peg said. She was a rail-thin nurse, a lifer who’d been a nurse for decades. “Was he cute?”

“In good shape?”

“What kind of car did he drive?”

“What about his butt? Nice butt?”

“Tell us all about the dinner, the conversation—”

“And don’t leave out the part about the hot, steamy lovemaking,” Carmella said.

“Oh, we definitely want to hear about that.”

The ladies at the table began laughing. Karen couldn’t hold back a smile. “There was nothing of the sort,” she said.

“Details, baby—give us the details,” Carmella said.

Her date. The reason she hadn’t been home last night. Joshua hadn’t asked her about the date this morning, and she’d held on to a glimmer of hope that her coworkers would forget to ask about it, too.

No such luck.

So she rehashed everything about the date. She’d been exchanging messages with him on one of the dating sites she was a member of, and they decided to finally meet up at a bar last night. Her date had arrived ten minutes late; she’d sat at a table alone while waiting for him, surrounded by young, beautiful drunk people who all looked like high school students to her, like they should be classmates of Joshua’s, not out drinking at a bar. Once her date finally showed up, he spent more time watching the basketball game on the TV than talking with her. The few times they did talk, it was clear from the look on his face that he was having difficulty hearing what she was saying. An unremarkable evening, just like every other date she’d been on recently.

It had barely been a month since she’d decided to start dating again. For years, she’d simply had no time to date. Between raising Joshua by herself, going back to college for her nursing degree once he got older, and attending his golf meets and other functions when he reached high school, she barely had a moment to breathe, let alone start a relationship. Joshua’s life was her life; there wasn’t time for anything else.

But she knew that there’d soon be a huge void when Joshua left for college. It was something she could still hardly fathom, that in roughly six months she’d be in the house by herself, without him. And so came her New Year’s resolution, made barely more than a month ago: start dating. Really try to find someone.

When she’d told her coworkers about her plans, the news had gone off like a bomb. All of her coworkers except for Carmella were married, and they’d thrown themselves into the task of finding her a man. Scouring online dating sites. E-mailing choices to her. Telling her about someone from church or a former coworker who’d be perfect for her.

“Long story short,” Karen said, finishing up her recap, “I don’t think there’ll be a second date.”

Carmella started talking about a doctor down on the third floor she wanted to set her up with. Karen politely nodded but barely paid attention. She’d heard it all before.

“What about this weekend, lovergirl?” Peg asked. “How many hot dates do you have lined up for this weekend?”

“None,” Karen said. “I have the weekend off and I’ll be relaxing. A nice, quiet weekend with nothing going on. Exactly what I need.”

 

A bell rang, classroom doors flew open, and students swarmed into the hallways. Joshua worked his way through the mob. The day was barely half over and, already, it had been grueling. He didn’t know how he was going to make it through a few more hours.

 

When he got to his locker, it took three tries to enter his combination correctly. He grabbed his phone off a shelf and quickly checked the same local news sites he’d checked after every class so far.

No report of a body being found out by Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area.

Nothing about a missing person.

Joshua set his phone back in his locker. He closed his eyes, clenched and unclenched his hands. He’d hoped that the school day would provide a distraction, but it hadn’t. That same nervous, uneasy feeling had eaten away at him all day, just as it had every moment since last night.

Right as he was about to close his locker, his phone chimed with a new message. He tensed up and grabbed it. The message onscreen was from the number he’d texted earlier:

You there?

Joshua typed out: Yeah. Here.

How you doing?

Not good.

Me, either. Just know, we’re in this together. You and me. You’re not alone.

I know. It’s still tough. Can’t stop thinking about everything that happened.

A bell rang, signaling one minute until next period began.

Gotta go, Joshua typed.

Me, too. I love you. Never forget that. I love you more than anything in the world.

K. Love you, too.

Stay strong. Talk soon.

Joshua set his phone in his locker and shut the door.

The rest of the school day was just as difficult as the morning. Every class dragged by. Every hour was a struggle. After school, Joshua went to an indoor driving range across town with a few golf teammates. Around twenty golfers were lined up, spaced out a few feet apart, swinging mechanically, the boys’ team in a row on one half, the girls on the other. At the far end of the row his ex-girlfriend, Ashley, swung away, wearing a polo and a pair of khakis, her brunette hair pulled into a tight ponytail.

The only sound in the cavernous room was the smack of golf clubs and the occasional mumbled chatter.

Joshua set a ball down, adjusted his grip on the club, and swung. The ball soared for a bit and sharply hooked to the right before it was caught in the netting set up at the edge of the room. He set another ball down and hit it. Another shank.

“Gotta stop thinking about Ashley, man,” Aaron said from the tee box next to him.

“I’m not.”

“Sure you are. Better not get back with her. I’ll be pissed if you cost me twenty bucks.”

Aaron laughed. Joshua didn’t react. He continued to hit drive after drive, most of them shanks. Twenty minutes in, the feeling suddenly hit him: a discomfort in his stomach, a feeling like he was totally overwhelmed. He ran out to the bathroom in the hallway. Once he was alone in a stall, he was certain he’d start vomiting. Or crying. But nothing happened. He stood in the bathroom, alone, staring down at the toilet.

He returned to the driving range and continued hitting golf balls, his swing steady as a pendulum. The entire time, all he could think of was the body out in Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area. The body that was slowly rotting away.

The body that was out there because of him.

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