Three years ago…
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You never know dear how much I love you. Please don’t take… please don’t take my sunshine away.
Don’t stop singing now, Momma. Not now. I’m sorry I left. I just wanted to live a little. I’m not scared like you are. I need you to sing. Please sing for me. Don’t do this. Don’t go to him. He wasn’t real. Don’t you see? He was never real. He died sixteen years ago.
I should have told someone about you. This is all my fault. You needed help and I didn’t get you any. Maybe I was scared after all… scared that they would take you away.
“Della, sweetie, give me your hands. I need to clean them off. Look at me, Della. Come back to me. She’s gone but you’re gonna be okay. We need to clean you up. They’ve taken her body and it’s time to leave this house, for good. No coming back. Please, Della, look at me. Say something.”
I blinked away the memories and stared up at Braden, my best friend. She was cleaning the blood from my hands with a wet washcloth and tears were streaming down her face. I should get up and go clean this all off myself but I couldn’t. I needed her to do it for me.
I always knew that one day this would happen. Maybe not the exact way it was happening. I hadn’t ever imagined my mom dead. Most days when I let my daydreams turn to this moment, I’d feel guilty. It wouldn’t stop me from thinking about it, though. The guilt wasn’t enough to keep me from imagining my freedom.
I had always thought someone would realize my mother wasn’t all there. They would figure out that I wasn’t some strange child who wanted to stay inside all day and refused to come out into the real world. I wanted them to… but then I didn’t. Because getting my freedom would mean losing my mom. As crazy as I knew she was, she needed me. I couldn’t let them take her away. She had just been so scared… of everything.
Four months ago
When Braden had given me her old car and told me to get out and see the world, neither of us had thought about the fact that I didn’t know how to fill it up with gas. I had only had my driver’s license for three months. And I’d only actually had a car to drive for five hours. Pumping gas had not been something I needed to know until now.
I reached into my purse and pulled out my phone. I’d call Braden and see if she could talk me through this. She was on her honeymoon and I hated to interrupt her though. When she’d shoved her keys into my hand earlier today and told me that she wanted me to “Go explore. Find your life, Della.” I’d been so caught up in the awesomeness of her gesture that I didn’t think to ask anything else. I’d simply hugged her and watched as she ran off with her new husband, Kent Fredrick, and crawled into the back of a limo.
The fact I couldn’t pump gas had never crossed my mind. Until now. My tank was so empty I’d coasted into this small service station in some beach town in the middle of nowhere. Laughing at myself I listened as Braden’s voice said, “I’m not available. If you want to reach me I suggest you hang up and text me.” Her voicemail. She was probably on a plane. I was going to have to figure this one out all on my own.
I stepped out of the small faded red Honda Civic. Luckily I’d pulled up to the gas tank on the correct side. There was the little door I knew the nozzle went in. I had seen Braden do this before. I could do this. Maybe.
My first problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to open this little magical door. It was there. I could see it but it had no handle. I stared at it a moment then glanced around to see if there was anyone near me who didn’t look scary. I needed some help. It had taken two solid years of counseling to get me to speak to strangers. Now I did it often. Braden really had more to do with that than the psychologist I’d been forced to see weekly. She’d pushed me out into the world and taught me how to live.
I had the quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” by Franklin D. Roosevelt, taped to my bathroom mirror. I read it daily or at least I had been, for the past three years. I silently quoted that in my head and my body relaxed. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t my mother. I was Della Sloane and I was on a road trip to find myself.
“You okay? Need some help?” A deep smooth drawl startled me and I jerked my head around to see a guy smiling at me from the other side of the gas pump. His dark brown eyes appeared to twinkle with laughter as he stared back at me. I didn’t have much experience with guys but I did have some. Enough to know that even when they were gorgeous, like this one, it didn’t make them a good person. I had lost my virginity to a smooth talking southern boy with a smile that made panties drop all over the place. It had been the worst experience of my life. But this one might be helpful. He wasn’t offering sex. He was offering to help me. At least I thought he was.
“I can’t… I, um… See, I’ve never...” God, I couldn’t even say it. How did a nineteen–year-old girl explain that she didn’t know how to pump gas? Laughter slowly bubbled up in my chest and I covered my mouth. He was going to think I was insane. I swallowed my laughter the best I could and smiled up at him. “I don’t know how to pump gas.”
The guy’s elegant dark eyebrows shot up and he studied me a moment. I guess he was trying to decide if this was true or not. If he only knew. There was so much I didn’t have a clue about. Braden had been trying to educate me in the ways of the world but she was married now and it was time I figured things out without her as my crutch.