Culture shock was not the right phrase to describe what I felt as I drove the U-Haul toward the small town in Nebraska I was going to be calling home. Beatrice, Nebraska was nothing like Boston, which was why I had chosen to flee there.
I already missed the ocean, the tall buildings, and the hustle and bustle of life in general. Nebraska was flat. Flat as a pancake for as far as my eye could see as we headed down the highway. I was going to miss the city and my old life, but this move? Well, my life depended on it. My life and the life of my little girl riding in my SUV behind me, driven by my best friend, Kevin.
I looked in the side mirror, making sure they were still there. I had a feeling I was going to be looking over my shoulder a lot for a good long while. They were looking for me. I knew it. So I was running for my life. One stupid, stupid mistake had cost me everything a year ago, sending me into a downward spiral.
They say you know when you hit bottom. I knew the moment I slammed face-first into the bottom of the abyss. I had a choice to make. Give in and face the consequences or run and try to put the ugliness behind me. I was going with the run option, which had brought me to this point in my life. A place I never imagined I would be.
Beatrice was a small town in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the country, and it was where I was going to hide out. No one would think to look for me here.
I only knew of it because my grandmother used to talk about it all the time. When I had pulled it up in a Google search last week, the thought of living in a town with a population of twelve-thousand people did not excite me.
It didn’t matter what I liked. I had to do this. I had to get the hell out of Boston and leave no trace of my whereabouts behind. Kevin was the only one who knew where I was going. I trusted him to keep my secret.
The female voice that had been guiding me down the freeway and through the many small towns in several states spoke up once again.
“Shit,” I muttered as the Google Maps voice informed me there was no satellite available and, therefore, the directions I had hoped to follow were nonexistent. I was on my own.
Reaching over, I grabbed the paperwork for the rental I had secured a couple of days ago. I checked the address and referred to my phone map, swerving to the right with my inattention, earning a honk from Kevin behind me.
It wasn’t long before I found the house I had paid the rent for six months on—under a fake name, of course. It was a boring home built in the nineteen-eighties. There was nothing that made it stand out. It was average, which had been my goal as I looked for somewhere to hide out. It was a three-bedroom, two-bath home that was actually bigger than what I needed for me and Abby, but it was the type of house I needed, and the price was where I needed it to be.
I backed the moving truck into the driveway, hoping to make the unloading a little easier. Kevin parked my black Tahoe against the curb.
“This is, uh, quaint,” he said with a smirk as he came around the front of the vehicle. “You, in the suburbs. I don’t think I would have ever imagined this day.”
“You think it will work?” he asked.
I shrugged a shoulder and opened the back door, quickly unfastening Abby from her booster chair and lifting her out.
“This is our new house!” I told her, fake excitement in my voice as we turned to look at the faded blue ranch-style home. The front yard wasn’t fenced, but the backyard was perfect, with a nice tall wooden fence that would provide a good place for my little four-year-old to play.
“Let’s check it out,” Kevin said, his long muscular legs eating up the distance between the street and the front door of the house as he crossed the lush green lawn.
I dug around in a flowerpot positioned near the doorway, found the hidden key, and unlocked the door. “Here goes nothing,” I muttered.
Pushing open the door, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t bad. The three of us stepped into the large carpeted living room before moving into the dining room that had an archway that led to the kitchen that was a little dated, though not terrible. My apartment back in Boston had been modern with lots of windows. This place felt more like coming home after spending a day working on a farm.
We checked out the kitchen before heading down the hall to see the three bedrooms. The master had an attached bathroom at the end of the hall. Abby claimed the bedroom with the window facing the backyard that was closest to the master. I liked being close to her—just in case they found me and I had to grab my baby and run.
“Let’s get that truck unloaded,” Kevin said before walking back out of the house.
I unloaded a box of Abby’s toys first, giving her something to stay occupied with while Kevin and I hauled in the furniture and boxes. I hadn’t taken everything I owned. I didn’t have time to do a thorough packing job. I packed what I needed and got the hell out of the city, leaving everything else behind in my apartment. It had to look like I vanished.
“I hate moving,” I complained, flopping down on my older brown-leather couch. Kevin already sat on the opposite end.
“Me too, which is why I never do it,” Kevin retorted. “You sure you want to do it this way? You could go to the cops.”
I scoffed. “Oh, I’m sure that would work out great for me. I’d be dead before the week was out.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “This place is certainly off the radar. I don’t think anyone is going to find you here.”
“I hope not. If they do, we both know it isn’t going to end well for me or Abby.”
“I’m sorry, man. I wish there was another way around this. I’m sure the cops could put you in witness protection if you testified.”
“Witness protection is a joke. I want to get lost my own way under my own terms. I can do a hell of a lot better job protecting my little girl than any Fed could.”
“You’re probably right.”
We both sat back, relaxing after a grueling couple of hours unloading the truck. Thankfully, it was early spring and the weather was cool. I was not looking forward to the summers out here on the prairie, with high humidity levels making life miserable. But it was a small price to pay for being alive.
“Let’s go drop that truck off,” I said, after a few minutes. “It’s like a damn flashing light sitting out there. I don’t know how hard these guys are going to be looking for me.”
Kevin nodded. “We’ll drop off the truck and get some food. I’m starving.”
I stood, stretching my back, knowing I was going to be stiff from the hours of driving followed by the rushed unloading. Heading down the hall to get Abby, I stood in the doorway and watched her playing with her dollhouse, content as could be. She had no inkling of the danger we had been in, and I wanted to keep it that way. She had already lost too much in her short four years on this planet. I couldn’t let her lose me or ever be hurt again. I hated how much I’d made her suffer already.
“Let’s go get a Happy Meal,” I told her.
She looked up, and those baby blue eyes that matched my own lit up. “And ice cream? You promised ice cream.”
I laughed and nodded. “I did.”
She left her toys and walked toward me. I picked her up, smoothing her long brown hair back from her face. Her hair and facial features resembled her mother so much, it was often like looking at a younger version of Cara, my wife. If only Cara were alive to see how pretty our little girl had become and how damn smart she was. Her death was on me—a cross I would carry for the rest of my days.
I carried Abby outside, buckling her in the backseat while Kevin drove my vehicle again. After dropping off the truck, I took over the driving, finding the only McDonald’s in town and ordering enough food to feed ten people. Kevin and I didn’t get the luxury of splurging on burgers and fries all that often. As MMA fighters, myself in the heavyweight class and Kevin in the light heavyweight, we usually packed in the protein and left the greasy stuff alone. With the way things were now, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to fight again. It would be a sure way to lead the guys who wanted me dead right to my door.
We took Abby’s ice cream to go, with the promise that she wouldn’t dribble any on the leather seats of my new rig. Everything was new and different. I was completely remaking myself. Colton Jones no longer existed. He’d died right alongside the man murdered in cold blood that night. It was the only way I could keep my daughter safe.
When we arrived at the house, there was now a silver four-door Toyota Camry parked in the driveway of the house next door. Kevin and I both stared at it as if it were a venomous snake.
“People live here,” he mumbled. “Look at the plates. Nebraska. It’s a local. Relax.”
Nodding, I took a deep breath. “You’re right.”
I stared at the houses on the quiet dead-end road. There was only mine and three others. The house next to mine with the Camry looked to be much older, and I was guessing it was built in the twenties. It was cute, and I imagined a sweet old lady living there. That would be a good neighbor to have.
I glanced around the area, pegging the house across the road as a family home, judging by the minivan outside. The house farther down, I couldn’t even begin to guess about, based on the overgrown yard and lack of care in general.
Rushing Abby into the house, I locked the door behind us, as if that would stop the men who were after me. Nothing would stop them, which was why I had to pick up and move a thousand miles away from my home.
I quickly made up Abby’s bed with her usual sheets and blankets, wanting to keep it familiar for her.
“Good night, bug,” I whispered, flipping on her nightlight and closing the door behind me.
I grabbed cold beers for me and Kevin out of the fridge, and I took a seat at the small dining table where he was surfing the web using his phone.
“Anything?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t see any news of the murder. Maybe the cops haven’t found the dead guy. You may be off the hook.”
I let out a long sigh. “I hope so. How in the hell did I manage to get myself caught up in all this shit?”
Kevin chuckled. “You’ve always had a knack for being in the wrong place at the worst time.”
“I really stepped in it this time.”
“Just lay low. Maybe it’ll all blow over and you can come back home in a while. You ditched your cell, your truck, and anything else tied to you.”
“I don’t know if I ever want to go back. Maybe it’s time I started over and just leave all that behind. There’s nothing for me there but bad memories and a lot of trouble. This could be my chance to start fresh with a clean slate. I don’t have to think about my past or what I’ve done.”
Kevin nodded before taking a long drink from his beer. “You can’t run from it all. Some of that baggage you’re carrying around is stuck with you until you figure out how to get rid of the guilt.”
Somewhere in the memory vault of my mind, old memories stirred to life. I quickly shut that door and locked it tight. I didn’t want to think about the trail of death I had left in my wake. I couldn’t.
I had to focus on the now and keeping Abby safe.