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Chapter 1 BlazeStranded

Running away meant standing still.
Don Gallagher waited beside a road. It extended straight in both directions. Good for hitchhiking. Drivers had time to evaluate his appearance, work up a nerve, and pull over.
A van appeared. Don stuck out his thumb. From behind the steering wheel a woman gazed ahead like a mannequin. Her intention was apparent. No eye contact, no ride.
The van sped by. Don turned away from a gust of wind drafting behind it.
Across the pavement stood a pole. Upon it was nailed an artificial owl. It guarded a cornfield against varmints. To create an illusion of authenticity, the owl’s head rotated whenever a breeze kicked up. It mattered little. This early in spring, few stalks remained from last year’s harvest.
Don scratched together a handful of clay from the shoulder of the road. He fashioned the gumminess into a ball. Stepping into a windup, he threw the clayball at the owl.
His throw flew wide.
All morning he had been trying to nail that target. Each attempt had failed. His backpack was the reason. It was enormous, a ‘shoulder-mounted cargo system for manly loads,’ to quote the jokester he had obtained it from on Craigslist. The shoulder straps crimped the throwing motion of his arm.
He’d keep the pack on. Wearing it projected confidence. Not wearing it somehow appeared lazy and shiftless.
Hitchhiking relied upon first impressions. Don’s haircut was fresh. His jacket and jeans were clean. A smooth-faced complexion rounded off a respectable teenage appearance.
Yet nobody was pulling over.
A sports wagon came into view. One man sat inside. Don’s hitchhiking arm raised higher than before. So did his expectations. A man traveling solo was more apt to pick up a stranger.
The gap narrowed between himself and the car. Still no eye contact. Don shuffled backwards. The driver might respond to a hitchhiker walking rather than loafing.
The driver’s forward gaze remained steady. Don fought back a frown. Another mannequin was blowing him off. His arm lowered before the car drove by.
He scrunched together a ball of clay. Not hitting the owl was pathetic even with a backpack on. But target practice came with an upside. Time didn’t drag as much. Traffic was sporadic along this road in Gilmer County, Georgia. Minutes passed before cars showed up.
Should he walk for a spell? A change of scenery would give him something different to look at. Yeah right, more dead corn stalks. Plus the road would turn curvy. There’d be less face time for drivers to size him up. Better to stay put on this straightaway.
A horn blared. Don spun around. The sports wagon idled farther down the road. Brake lights glowed.
A ride!
One last chance to hit the owl. He hurled the clayball. Another wild throw.
Tires squealed. The wagon accelerated. Don waved both arms but the car kept going. By tossing the clayball he had spooked the driver.
That no good owl!
Don crossed the road and strode into the cornfield. He yanked off an ear of Indian corn. He flung the ear. It grazed the owl. Round and round twirled the owl’s head. Finally it stopped. The owl eyed Don as though communicating disapproval at being set upon.
Don turned away. Nailing the owl had been a half-cocked reaction. Part of him regretted his behavior. He wasn’t prone to rashness. Another part of him approved. Call it superstition or call it whatever, hitting that owl might improve his chances of obtaining a ride.
He walked back across the pavement. A canteen raised to his lips. Lemon Kool-Aid flowed into his mouth. He wasn’t the least bit thirsty. Drinking helped to pass the time.
Yesterday he had received lots of rides—three hundred miles worth. An impressive start for a first-time hitchhiker.
Today he had gotten squat.
His boots weren’t helping. They had shone when he left home. Now the leather appeared filthy from a mucky, clay-lined roadside. Could the expression, ‘You can judge a person by his shoes,’ apply to a hitchhiker with cars passing by at fifty miles per hour?
He glanced up the road. Not a car in sight, just a ribbon of pavement edged with orange-red clay.
On his boot crawled an ant. It must have climbed on board while in the cornfield. A fateful decision. The ant would have panicked when the boot rose up and down, crossing from one side of the road to the other.
Unlike Don, at least the ant had obtained a ride.
Don shook his boot. The ant fell off and landed on a sludge of clay. Antennas jiggled on the ant. Its legs, stuck in muck, did not move.
The situation was almost laughable. Two hitchhikers—an insect and himself—were stranded together beside a road north of Atlanta.

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