Sam stood in front of the three-way mirror in her spare room, her eyes roaming down her slender frame. She had changed outfits three times since getting up at four o’clock that morning. After a hot shower, a quick facial to make certain her pores were clean and her face fresh, she blew her hair dry then straightened it. Unable to decide if she should pull it off her face, or wear it in a braid, she re-washed it, blew it dry again and used her curling brush to add just the right amount of bounce to the natural blonde locks.
She applied her makeup with a steady hand and spent the next two hours in her closet trying to decide on what to wear. It wasn’t that she was lacking in outfits, in fact she had enough to fill all three closets in her three-bedroom house, it was just that she had to look beautiful, professional, and comfortable. Not only did she have a long airplane ride to endure, but she had to look wholesome for her family. Wearing stiletto heels and a bodycon dress would not be appreciated by her father, or comfortable for the long trip.
Finally, she decided on a pair of Valentino black pants with lace accents, a white satin blouse and a pair of Tony Burch leather boots. She fussed again with her hair, opting into leaving it loose down her back, tucking only the front bangs behind her ears. With a simple pair of diamond studs in her earlobes, she looked perfect for her trip home and any paparazzi who may be lurking about the airport.
Sam finished packing her makeup and hair supplies, then took the insulated leather jacket she’d brought to California with her ten-years ago, out of the hall closet. She was ready to go when the doorbell rang through the silence, startling a quick gasp from her.
“You look beautiful,” Ed told her when she opened the door and allowed him to enter.
“I just hope it’s good enough for my folks,” she answered, picking up her black clutch bag from the table near the entrance. “They’d flip if I showed up in Kansas looking like a blonde Kardashian.”
“This town has enough Kardashians,” Ed assured her as she set the alarm and locked the front door before walking to the car. “Fortunately, you’re drop dead gorgeous and every man in Hollywood wants to be with you, so it doesn’t really matter how dressed up or down you are. They’ll love you either way.”
Sam blushed as her manager took her luggage and stowed it in the back of his Cadillac SUV before opening the passenger door for her.
“I have to admit, I’m a little nervous,” Sam told the man as he sat down in the seat behind the wheel. “I haven’t been home in a long while, and I’m not sure how to act. Everyone knows me, knows who I was before I left for California, but going back now seems a bit…surreal. Am I Samantha Benson, movie star, or Henry and Edna Benson’s girl, Sam?”
“You are who you are, honey,” Ed assured her as he pulled down the long drive to the street that led to the freeway. “That’s what makes you unique. You’re honest, simple, and beautiful. That’s what the public sees and that’s what the people love.”
“I just hope I can live up to that image when I see my family,” she sighed, then looked out the side window to the cars who passed by as they started their own day.
First class was definitely much nicer than coach, and one that Sam was happy to experience. She sipped on her white wine slowly as she watched Swartski’s newest movie on the small screen in front of her. She sighed as she considered the direction her career had taken her over the past ten years and where it was heading now.
Her face was on nearly every magazine in the supermarket, and her name was on everyone’s tongue as the gossips discussed the new releases, including Border Zone, which she had finished a few months ago with Todd. It had been that fateful movie that brought them together, and left her with this overwhelming sense of nostalgia, grief, and regret.
If things had been different, she would be going back to the farm to discuss wedding plans. As it was, she was going back in an attempt to put the past behind her and sort out her emotions. Back to where it had all started, before she was anything more than the Benson’s youngest child.
A cold tingle of fear seeped beneath the layer of apprehension, as memories drifted up from the deepest part of her subconscious. Her throat felt very dry, and she nearly choked on her drink. The image of blood-red eyes and snarling fangs came into focus, and she could feel her pulse quicken. It was that single memory that made her reaction to the horror scenes she had done in the past, that much more believable. All she had to do was remember how it felt to stare into that devil’s eyes.
Strange, even twenty years later, she could see the shadowed image of the demon dog as if she were looking at it for the first time. That memory haunted her to this day and had made it easy for her to turn down multiple invitations to go home.
Fortunately, she’d been able to pay for her parents to have some pretty extravagant trips to places they’d only dreamt of, as an excuse not to go back to the farm. This time, however, there was no escaping the event. She had used every reason she could think of and ran out of holidays to pay for. With the Halloween Harvest and Maze being put on at her father’s farm, she had no more excuses to fall back on.
With a resilient sigh, Sam set her drink down on the arm of the seat and closed her eyes. This was supposed to be a happy trip for her. She was supposed to be going home with Todd to start preparations for their future. Once that fell through, her mother insisted she come home to recover the breakup and refused to accept no for an answer. She even threatened to send Alex to California to pick her up.
Sam had already planned the trip, bought new clothes and new luggage, and had even turned down a script – though not a very good one – just to go. Now, she was stuck. She felt like she was taking more emotional baggage home than she had packed. She was eager to relax for a few weeks, visit her old friends, then go home where she could jog along the beach and pretend her life was perfect. It was the kind of world she had built for herself, though she wondered if it was really what she wanted now.
Sam waved to her father who stood by the luggage carrousel. The plane trip had been long and drawn out, but well worth the privacy she needed to collect her thoughts. Even though she signed more than fifty autographs, she was able to relax and focus on the events the next few weeks would bring.
Henry Benson was a middle-aged man with thick white hair, a neatly trimmed matching beard and mustache, and broad shoulders. Hard labor and daily chores kept the man in peak physical condition, exactly as his wife liked it. He was a handsome man and turned more than the occasional woman’s eye, though he rarely noticed the attention. Henry was a devoted, loving husband and father, and nothing would change his mind on either aspect.
Wearing an insulated jean jacket with a fleece collar and a pair of faded blue Levi’s, Henry looked comfortable and relax, much more than his daughter was feeling. She was dreading the idea of telling her family the reason behind her breakup and fearful of the fuss they would make or the people they would tell. She had decided to mimic the news report her manager was going to release. It wasn’t exactly a lie – just a less than honest answer.
“How was your trip, Twitter-bug?” Daddy asked, his smile was honest and cheerful, and his arms were tight and comforting as he wrapped his youngest daughter in his embrace.
“It was good,” she answered with a soft chuckle over the use of the nickname he had labeled her with when she was barely two years old. A name she’d picked up because she wouldn’t stop talking once she learned how.
“Do you have much luggage?” her father asked her as they stood beside the turntable to wait her expensive suitcases.
“Just three bags and my makeup case. I didn’t think I needed as much here as I would in Cancun.”
She smiled as he chuckled, remembering the last trip they took when she arranged for the family to meet her for the final days of filming on her last movie. That trip left her with six suitcases, two trunks, and an entire assortment of hat boxes.
“Mama is so excited to have you home,” Daddy told her as he closed the door to his new pickup and started the engine. “She’s been baking all your favorite dishes for the past week, just so she’s got enough. You’d think she was expecting the Queen of Sheba the way she’s been flittering around town.”
Sam laughed, feeling the familiar jitters of excitement overtake her. She really was happy to be home, and quickly tried to forget about her altered plans or the threat of a legendary beast.
“She’s going to make me fat. I have a strict diet and I can’t eat like I once did.”
“You know she’s going to argue that you’re all skin and bones, but I don’t think a few extra calories is going to hurt.”
“A few of Mama’s chocolate walnut cookies and those calories are going to make my butt as big as old Mazey.”
Sam smiled as her father chuckled, thinking of the black and white family cow. It was the one sentiment of her sister’s that she always fell back on, whenever she imagined eating a few extra bites of dessert or substituting her normal salad for pasta.
“I heard the news this morning that you and Todd decided to go your separate ways,” Daddy told her, glancing across the seat to his daughter as they pulled onto highway 281. “It was a simple answer though I doubt the story behind it is as innocent. Care to discuss it?”
“Todd and I discovered we weren’t…compatible,” she told him, blushing when she realized just how incompatible they were.
“Your mama is convinced he was cheating on you. She thinks all Hollywood couples are doomed for divorce. Don’t be surprised if she tells you about a son of one of her friends, though I think secretly she’s hoping you get together with that Travis Butt-kiss. She was so excited when you did that movie with him a couple of years ago. She’s had a thing for him since he first showed up on her soap opera. She thought he was such a cute kid back then, and now she practically drools over his pirate movies.”
“It’s Travis Bloomquist, Daddy,” Sam laughed, “and she’s got a point. If there had been pirates like Travis back in the day, I know of a lot of maidens who would have surrendered to the oceans for him.”
“Just don’t make yourself one of them,” Daddy told her with a fatherly look of concern on his smiling face. “You’re just getting out of one bad hookup. You don’t need another one this soon.”
“I have no plans of getting hooked up with Travis, no matter how much Mama would love it. Besides, I think he’s married.”
“Wife number six, according to your mother.”
“And I’m not going to be number seven. I promise. Anyway, he’s just a friend and there’s nothing romantic between us.”
Sam paused for a moment, feeling more comfortable talking with her father than her mother. They had always been very close, despite Jenny’s insistence that she had him wrapped around her little finger.
“The town is planning a big celebration and party for you, for Saturday,” he told her as they continued driving. “The mayor is even giving you the key to the city.”
“Daddy, I really don’t want any of that,” Sam said with a deep sigh. “I wanted to visit with you guys, not be mobbed by autograph hounds. I need a few days away from the chaos and I need time to think.”
“Think about what?” Daddy frowned as he looked to the woman next to him. “Is something going on you need to talk to us about?”
“Like what?” It was Sam’s turn to frown.
“You didn’t really go into any details about your breakup with Todd. Are you in trouble?”
“No Daddy,” Sam smiled. “I’m not pregnant. We broke up because…well…let’s say it was for personal reasons.”
“Did he try to harm you? If he did, I’ll put him in his place right quick.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Sam chuckled. “Todd is gay.”
Daddy looked at the woman with wide eyes, then quickly turned his attention back to his driving as the truck began to drift off the side of the road.
“Did you know about this when you took his ring?”
“No, I didn’t. He didn’t tell me until after the film was finished and we’d made our engagement public. He was still willing to go through with our plans because he knew it would be good for our careers, but I refused. It’s one thing to play make believe with a script, I didn’t want to do it in real life.”
“That’s my girl,” Daddy said with a reassuring nod. “I didn’t raise a liar and I’ll be danged if I’ll support one.”
“Do you think you can stop the mayor from making a fuss?” Sam asked a few moments later. “I really don’t want it and I don’t want to answer any stupid questions about my private life right now.”
“You can’t blame the town for wanting to celebrate your success,” Daddy told her. “Everyone’s real proud of you and all that you’ve accomplished.”
Her father drew a deep sigh then offered her a half grin. There was something reassuring and genuine in the way he looked at her and she felt like a little girl again.
“I will talk with your uncle. If I can’t bully my little brother into backing down, then what’s the sense in being the brother of the mayor anyway?”
“Thanks, Daddy,” Sam smiled. “Now, I just have to get Mama to back off.”
“I’ll be behind you when you tell her you’re not up for any fuss and hoopla,” her father assured her, then chuckled as he looked across the seat. “That way I can be the first one out the door when she blows her top.”
Henry pulled his pickup off the road and drove the five hundred yards to the century old farmhouse that had once belonged to his father. He shut off the engine and climbed out of the driver’s side, patting the shepherd dog on the top of the head as he came bounding up to him. The sound of children calling their hellos could be heard from the upstairs windows as Sam opened the passenger door and stepped out. The one thing about being in a family with three older siblings, she had plenty of nieces and nephews to share the love.
Sam helped her father with the luggage and had just stepped up on the wooden porch when the screen door swung open and her mother stepped out, wiping her hands on her homemade apron. Her long grey hair was pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck, and her old coveralls was unbuttoned on the left, allowing the strap to dangle across her clean white tee-shirt.
“Look at you,” her mother said, pulling her into a bone crushing hug. “You’re as skinny as a beanpole. What have you been eating? Carrot sticks?”
“Among other things,” Sam told her, returning her hug with one arm while the other held tight to her case of cosmetics.
“Well, you’re home now and you’ll be eating real food. Now, go in and get unpacked. The family will be over at six for supper, and I have potato soup on the stove for dinner.”
“Mama, I can’t eat potatoes,” Sam argued as she followed her mother into the house. “They have starch and they’re too fattening.”
“I have never put starch in a single thing I make,” Mama said with a frown as she turned on her daughter.
“The starch is in the potatoes naturally. You don’t…”
“Then if it’s natural, there’s no reason not to eat them. They came from our garden. You can’t get much more natural – or organistic, as they call it in California – then that.”
“I’d just go with it, if I was you,” Daddy whispered behind his daughter. “Try and eat around the really fattening stuff then go out back and walk it off.”
“I’ll have to jog for a week to work off one bowl.”
Sam smiled as her father laughed, listening to her mother grumble about the differences in city grown vegetables and those grown in their own garden.
She walked up the old stairs to her bedroom and pushed the door open ahead of her father, allowing him to step inside. The room looked just like it had when she was a kid, complete with her posters of her favorite boy bands, only now one wall was decorated with pictures of herself and the movies she had been in.
“Your mother has made a Wall of Fame for you,” Daddy chuckled. “She has another one in the living room, complete with newspaper clippings and a couple of movie posters from the drive-in.”
“I’m glad she’s proud of what I’ve done,” Sam said with a wide grin. “I just hope she isn’t disappointed with the new script I’ve been given.”
“What do you mean?”
Henry set her bags on the end of her double bed, then turned and frowned a fatherly-look at his daughter.
“I was offered a part in a Mat Swartski film,” Sam began, fighting the color from stealing into her cheeks. “His movies are known for their action and suspense, as well as their…R ratings.”
“You’re not going to be naked, are you?” her father asked, his frown deepening across his aging face.
“I’ll use a body double, if possible,” Sam told him, praying her manager would be able to talk the famous director into the substitute. “But I know she’s going to wig out if I take it.”
“With good cause. Your last film was bad enough. She still insists she saw your breast in that love scene. I couldn’t even open my eyes to watch. If you have to take your clothes off completely…well…I’ll have to wear sunglasses.”
“Daddy, that’s just how movies are now days. I’m lucky Mat Swartski even wants me with all the other actresses trying out for his films. He’s the hottest director in Hollywood.”
“I’ve seen a lot of other movies without nudity,” Daddy grumbled as he turned around and headed out of the room. “I never saw a single show with John Wayne where he took his clothes off.”
“He would have if he had been in a Mat Swartski production,” Sam said behind his back after he left the room, closing the door behind him.
Sam drew a deep breath as she set her makeup bag on the bed, then sat down beside it. She knew it would be hard for her parents to accept her being offered this role, but it could mean the start of a whole new avenue in her career. Despite the movies she had done so far, and the commercials she had to her credit, she knew having Mat Swartski’s name behind hers would seal any deal she would want. She would no longer have to audition for films, they would be offered to her without hesitation.
Listening to the sound of the children in the attic playroom above her, she smiled as she remembered how many hours of fun she had up there, playing with her dolls or with her siblings. Winter days in Kansas were never as harsh as they could have been, when you have a cozy attic full of toys and games.
She drew a deep breath and stood up. She was going to be here for several weeks, which meant plenty of time to argue with her parents about her new movie. She may as well get comfortable and ready for some very long, tension filled nights.
Unpacking her bags was never as easy as packing them. She wasn’t certain what to hang up, what to put in her drawers, and what to leave out. She couldn’t leave her makeup sitting out for her nieces to play in, and she couldn’t put it in the shared bathroom for the second floor. She learned years ago, leaving something in the room, even with its double sinks her father had installed when she was twelve, meant it was available for all to use. With several hundred dollars’ worth of expensive and exclusive cosmetics, she wasn’t about to leave them available for little fingers.
Siding this important bag under her bed, she quickly hung up her dresses and silk blouses, then folded her jeans and tucked them away in her drawer. The aroma of homemade bread drifted up from the main floor and for a moment, all Sam could do was close her eyes as memories of some very happy times wrapped around her.
Her mother was like a lot of farmers’ wives. She baked from sunup to sundown, and the home always smelled delicious. Pastries and breads were the staple of every country home, and one that always made Sam think of the farm, even when she was in France, walking past a bakery.
Suddenly, a jolt gripped Sam’s stomach as she heard the chickens outside her window begin clucking. Images of a black beast with red eyes flashed in front of her as she turned toward the sound. The bark of her father’s shepherd mingled in among the chickens and she could hear her mother’s voice above the squawking.
“Ranger, get away from those hens,” Mama hollered out from the back porch. “I’ve told you a hundred times to leave those chickens alone. You’re going to scare them, and they won’t lay eggs for a week. Now come on, go back out with Daddy.”
Sam drew a deep breath and walked to her window. She looked down at the ground, seeing the brown and black dog turn and run out toward the barn. She had stopped looking out her window at night, after that fateful event so long ago. She used to sit on the old bench and stare at the stars, wondering what the rest of the world was doing, but after seeing that dog, she would never go near it again. She slept with her window and curtains closed, no matter how hot it was.
Sighing heavily, Sam turned and walked back to the bed. She opened her purse and pulled out her phone, checking the multitude of messages from fellow actors, friends, and reporters she had befriended, all asking her about the news article her publicist had released. She knew she would eventually have to answer questions about the breakup from reporters and the curious gossips, but she’d never considered what those who knew her would say.
Sam read through more than a dozen texts. It was strange how many of her friends seemed to be supporting her. She even had a few tell her it wasn’t a surprise she wised up. Apparently, she was the only one blindsided by Todd’s good looks and charms.
The sound of growling echoed among the daily hum of machinery, family noises and life outside her window. For a moment her heart skipped, and she felt a sickening sensation in the pit of her stomach. She recognized the sound as that of Ranger as he helped her father bring in the cows, but she couldn’t fight the images that drifted back to the surface of her mind. The ugly ratty body of that beast, it’s menacing growl, and those eyes…it was a nightmare she had tried to forget for years.
Slipping her phone into her back pocket, she stowed her purse in the small table next to the bed, then left the room. The laughter of children echoed from the upper floor, but Sam wasn’t in the mood to see them right now. Her heart was still skipping and a part of her was beginning to dread her decision to come home. She blamed her inability to return to the old farm on her career, but she secretly knew it was that horrible night that had frightened her and kept her away.
When she was seventeen, Sam earned a scholarship to UCLA, and she immediately jumped on it. While she was there, working on her degree in sports medicine, she started modeling as a means to earn extra money and help her folks out. She knew it was hard for them to pay for her to be away from home, but the longer she stayed here, the more she feared every shadow that crossed her path.
Once she began modeling, her new career seemed to escalate. She found Ed Reynolds, who was recommended to her by another model she had made friends with, and with his insistence, she started making commercials. She continued to work on her degree while trying to fit role calls among her exams. Once her school was over and she had an undergraduate degree behind her, she began concentrating on her new career, despite her parents’ insistence she come back to Kansas and set up practice. She would do anything she could to keep away from the farm.
At first, the commercials were slim and nothing glamorous, but they were enough to pay the rent and gave her an excuse to remain in California. They were short spots, a few seconds to a minute or even two. Some cat food ads, a few dish soap and laundry soap spots, then a five series deal for a cellphone company. Within a few months she had a series of dog food commercials, nineteen in all, with more money than she had ever seen in her life.
It was those commercials that helped her land her first roles on three television sitcoms, two minor roles for a homicide show, then an actual movie where she was the supporting actress to the supporting actress. After that, she started auditioning for anything that promised more than a hundred-dollar photo shoot. It didn’t take long before she was in a role as the supporting actress, then her own film. Six films later, and she was Mat Swartski’s choice for his new movie.
Sam heard the front screen close as she walked down the stairs, and the deep tone of Bobby call out to his mother. Bobby had moved back home after he graduated college, putting his math degree to use and opened a bookkeeping office in Great Bend. He married his high school sweetheart a year later and eleven months after that, they welcomed their first son into the family. That was ten years ago, and they had four children, a new house and car, and enough noise and chaos to keep their grandmother active.
“Don’t you know better than to slam doors?” Sam asked as she stepped off the stairs, greeting her brother with a warm smile.
“Welcome home, Squirrel,” the man said, returning her smile as he wrapped his arms around her, picking her up and swinging her around once. “I was beginning to wonder if you forgot how to get here with all your jetting around the world, and all.”
“I will always remember Kansas,” Sam smiled, turning and hugging Linda who followed close behind her husband.
“How was your trip?” she asked, smiling at her famous sister-in-law.
“Completely uneventful, which was a welcoming change,” Sam told her.
“I heard you’re going to be in that new movie with that big-name director,” Bobby said, wrapping an arm around his wife and another around his sister as they walked down the hallway.
“Mat Swartski,” Sam answered, thinking she would have to get the man’s name tattooed so everyone in Kansas remembered who he was. “I haven’t agreed to anything yet, and I still have to audition. I’m up against a lot of competition and I’m not sure if I really want to do a sci-fi movie. I really like the romantic comedies.”
“You know Mama’s not going to be happy about it,” Linda said with a soft voice. “Mat Swartski movies have a lot of nude scenes.”
“I know, but like I said, I haven’t agreed to anything yet. At any rate, I’ll probably be too fat to audition if Mama has her way and keeps her promise to fatten me up. I’ll have to spend a month of Sundays working off just one of her meals.”
“Don’t all Hollywood starlets just have a plastic surgeon liposuction it out?” Bobby asked with an amused grin.
“Not for this girl,” Sam chuckled. “I like the old-fashioned way of exercising and dieting.”
“About time you got here,” Mama said, coming around the corner when she heard adult voices. “Bobby, go out and help Daddy with the pork while the girls help me set the table.” She turned a scolding expression to her daughter as she continued rambling on. “You missed dinner, so I expect you to eat up with supper. Daddy butchered a hog and we’re having porkchops and fried ham.”
“Welcome home,” Linda said with a sympathetic smile.
“When did you say you were leaving?” Bobby asked with a sideways grin.
“Not soon enough,” Sam grumbled softly so her mother couldn’t hear them. “I didn’t bring clothes big enough to go around the ass Mama’s cooking is going to give me.”
The three chuckled as they walked into the kitchen and began obeying the older woman’s orders. Being home definitely made Samantha realize she wasn’t a famous movie star anymore. Just another one of the kids in a family filled with love and laughter.