And Monday morning she was back at school. Back to teen gossip, and this time she was the centre of it all.

"Sam, is it true that you didn't go to the beauty parlour after all?"

"Last seen making a pass at those ISO Racing drivers, from what I heard."

"Did you know, her new boyfriend broke her dad's arm?"

Sam had been determined to ignore them, but this last was too much. "For your information, ladies, I don't have a boyfriend and my stepdad's arm is just fine. And yes, I had a great two weeks at ISO Racing, thank you for asking."

Carrie stared. "You mean...you weren't at the beauty parlour? Sam, tell all! What have you been doing? And were they cute?"

"Fixing cars. Race cars." She might as well go for broke at this point. They couldn't think worse of her than they already did. "I've applied for a job there. I have an interview Thursday."

Carrie's jaw dropped just a little further. The other two weren't so polite.

"You? A job at ISO? Who're you screwing, Sam?"

Oh, for one-tenth of Jason's skill, to smash Michelle's perfect teeth down her tanned neck... Sam settled for one single finger and walked away, hearing their laughter ringing in her ears. And footsteps, running to catch up.

"Sam! Sam, wait! Are you in trouble? Please, tell me. I want to help."

If you wanted to help, you should have talked me into getting help years ago instead of covering for me when I couldn't read the board. Sam didn't say it. Carrie was a very old friend. Carrie was one of the very few people who would support her no matter what she did, provided it was what she wanted to do. Which was, of course, why Carrie had helped her deceive the teachers instead of forcing her to go get the help she actually needed. Couldn't have it both ways.

"I don't need help." She considered Carrie's stricken face, and realised that it wasn't true. "Actually, I do. I really do have an interview Thursday. Can you come help me pick out an outfit after school?"


She might have been better off without Carrie, she considered as she straightened her jacket nervously in front of the mirror. Three weeks ago she'd probably have gone with Carrie's idea of the most revealing outfit she thought she could get away with in an entirely unforgettable colour. Instead, she'd contemplated Ed's face if she wore something like that, multiplied it by three even more senior men in suits, and gone for discreet black. Carrie had, it was fair, persuaded her into a bright yellow shirt rather than the white she'd been looking at ("You'll look like a penguin!") but they hadn't parted on the best of terms.

They could make up later. Carrie was, after all, going to college. Sam needed this job. Needed it badly enough to have grovelled for a lift to someone she'd barely have called a friend even before she'd apparently completely lost her mind. She'd been the talk of the senior class this week, and, she suspected, of the staffroom and the other classes as well. Biggest rumour was pregnancy. Rumour didn't appear to have considered how she'd even know this soon...then again, rumour at this school rarely showed much common sense.

Still, she saw no need to encourage it. She'd packed her new clothes in her bag and she'd made sure she had plenty of time to change once she got there. It might not be perfect interview etiquette, but they knew she was coming straight from school. And it was a darn sight better than starting a whole new set of rumours based on Sam Mitchell being seen wearing something sensible. So she'd left school with Miranda, band geek extraordinaire, dressed exactly as she had been all day, head held high and pretending not to see the people so carefully not watching her. Carrie was among them, hands to her mouth, with a smile of encouragement - but not prepared to come over and say anything, not amid that much notoriety.

So she'd put up with Miranda's squawky flute music on the radio, managed not to get annoyed at the nervousness of her driving, and been grateful for the lack of questions. Miranda had at least wished her luck, which was more than anyone else had including her parents. She still hadn't faced what she would do if she got the job.

Got the job? Sam pinched herself mentally, took a last look at her face to check for disasters, and headed out of the cloakroom.

Ten minutes and twenty glances at her watch later, the door to the meeting room finally opened. The young man who came out was tall, good-looking, and considerably older than her. College graduate, she deduced unhappily. Confidence in every step, and moneyed education in his voice as he turned and politely thanked his interviewers before leaving. He even gave her a friendly smile, which she just barely managed to return.

Maybe he's overqualified, she told herself. Maybe he's an arrogant git. Maybe he tried to tell Ed how to tune an engine.

"Samantha Mitchell?" That was Ed at the meeting room door. She almost didn't recognise him dressed in a suit, and with his hair combed and his face completely devoid of oil blotches. But his eyes were encouraging despite the formality, and the corners of his mouth were twitching as he said her full name.

She managed a nod - and then laughed at herself, a nervous giggle. Like he didn't know who she was.

"This way, please."

There were four of them behind the table, all men. Five once Ed joined them. One of them she recognised as someone she'd seen around when she'd been working here, always in a suit. Someone had told her he was the administrative head of the group. The other three were men of the same type. Suits. People who'd be looking at her qualifications, not her aspirations. People who would want another man in the job. People who, even now, were more interested in reading through the papers on their desk than looking at her.

She wanted to run. Or possibly throw up. Or both. Her brain couldn't decide which to do first, and while she was still thinking about it, her body took the opportunity to sit down, thankfully on the chair and not the floor.

And then Ed turned to his fellow interviewers and calmly said, "Guys, this is Sam. She's going to be our new apprentice - and the answer to how we get the Equal Opportunities folks off our backs."

After that, it went a whole lot better than she could ever have hoped.


"Sam, are you sure about this?" her mother asked for the twentieth time.

"I'm sure." Sam plastered a reassuring smile on her face and turned to face her. "Mom, I'm only going to be five miles away. And you know how Steve is. I don't want to have to fight with him every night when I come home, and you hate it too. I know you do."

Her mother's lips twitched. "I'll keep your room for you, just as it is. You can come home whenever you want."

"I sure hope so," Sam laughed. "Wait till you see the trailer! If I took all this I wouldn't be able to turn round.

"And living in a trailer park..."

She sighed. "Mom, I thought that too. It's not like that. Now, can I still drive us there?"

Her mother's smile was desperately nervous, and she was definitely hiding her feelings. "Oh, sure, Sam. Now, why don't you finish your packing and I'll go fix us something to eat."

This will be the last meal I eat here at home. After this I'll be a visitor. Once she'd thought that, Sam had no appetite at all, not even for her favourite toasted cheese sandwich with tomatoes on the side. Suddenly five miles away seemed the end of the earth. What had she been thinking? What was she even going to eat tonight? Tomorrow morning? She pushed her plate away.

"Nervous, love?" her mother asked.

"Just excited. I'll go put my cases in the car -"

"No, wait. I'll help you." But her mother's tone was wrong, and Sam tried hard not to panic. Surely they weren't going to try to stop her going? Not now? Even if she wasn't eighteen for another three weeks?

"Mom, what's going on?"

Her mother glanced out of the window again.

"I'm going! You're not going to stop me!"

And her mother's shoulders dropped in visible relief. "Of course not, love. Come on. I'll take your other case."

Too confused to even try to figure out what was going on, Sam headed for the front door, and then down the path. At the gate, however, she froze. Steve should have been at work. Instead, there he was, leaning against a parked car, clearly waiting for her. She would have run if she hadn't been carrying the case. Instead, she stopped and gulped. What did he have in mind? And if this was one last attempt to impose his will on her, why hadn't he come inside to do it in private?

"So you really want to go, kid?" he asked.

She couldn't speak. She just nodded.

"Your mother and I figured you'll be needing this, then. You reckon some of those fancy race drivers can teach you?"

This time she stared in bewilderment. Teach her what?

Steve must have noticed, because he laughed, pushed himself up, and Sam finally registered that what he'd been leaning against wasn't his usual beat-up pickup, but instead was an almost equally beat-up medium sized whitish car with a brave attempt at a red stripe down the side.

"It's not pretty, but it'll keep you safe better than one of them minicar things. Friend of a friend took a look at it, says the engine's better than the outside. Any case, you're supposed to be learning to fix them."

Sam finally found her voice. "It's for me?"

"Of course it's for you, love," her mother told her. "As soon as you've passed your test, we want you to be able to come back and live at home again. Much better than a trailer, and it's only a few miles."

Of course... Sam just smiled. "Thanks, mom. Thanks, Steve. I'll take good care of it. I...can I drive it now? But then you can't get home again."

"Steve's going to follow in the truck," her mother told her. "I'll come with you. Let's go see this trailer."

.

She hadn't expected approval - and was hoping not to have to face an attempt to get her to come straight home again when they arrived at the trailer. In company, it looked smaller than it had before. More battered. Sam could see the horror on her mother's face, and it took everything she had to stay cheerful.

"It's nicer inside!" she said brightly. "Come on, Mom. Let me show you the bathroom...and the kitchen...and the bedroom. It's cute. And, like you said, I can always change my mind when I've passed my test and can drive to work."

"That shouldn't be long," her mother said, a distinct air of thankfulness in her voice. "You drive very well, I thought."

Sam had thought the complete opposite. She hadn't stalled the car or hit anything, but that was the best that could be said for their journey here. She hoped somebody would give her some lessons. Paying for the trailer, even though Jeff had agreed to let her pay in instalments, would take every spare penny she would be earning. She hadn't told anyone that this was anything other than a casual arrangement. Steve would have a blue fit if he knew she was buying a home on a trailer park - she was quite sure her parents had only given in because they'd decided that if they let her try it she'd give up the idea in short order, and she'd carefully not corrected their assumption that she was borrowing the trailer short term. She was sure they were wrong.

Maybe Jason would have some spare time to teach her to drive? Then again, the speed he drove on the track was quite terrifying and she'd never seen him drive on the road. Maybe Carl - he seemed calmer, and kind. Even Ed. Thinking about it, she wasn't at all sure she wanted to learn to drive from a driver. Not that sort of driver. And what would a real driver think of a battered white Ford which wasn't even stick shift?

About what her mother thought of the trailer, she suspected.

"It's very small," she said finally, after Sam had shown her everything with her best 'isn't this wonderful' smile firmly in place. "Are you sure you want to stay here? You could carry on taking the bus until you have your permit."

"I'm sure, Mom. They want me showing up on time now I'm an employee, not a work experience kid. I'll be fine."

Her mother's response was forestalled by Steve opening the door, suitcases on the ground alongside him. "Small, isn't it?" he commented, swinging them easily into the trailer, where, to be fair, they did take up most of the floorspace. "Are you sure you -"

"Yes!" Sam hissed, and observed the two adults exchanging meaningful glances as he promptly stopped arguing. Yup, that was the 'we'll let her make her own mistakes' look, she was sure of it.

More than that. Her mother promptly stood up, making what Sam thought was a song and dance of getting out of the bench seat alongside the table. "We'd best be off, then. No room for us to help you in here. Anything you need, if you want to sleep in your own bed, call us, love. We're here for you."

"Thanks, Mom," she managed to say diplomatically, reaching across the cases to give her a hug. "Don't worry - I'll be fine. And like you said, it's real close."

Glad as she was to see the door close behind them, and hear the rattle of Steve's pickup fade into the distance, there was still a lump in her throat as she turned to start unpacking. She'd always assumed that when she left home it would be to live with someone; if not a boyfriend then a shared house of some sort. Lots of friends around. Fun and laughter, and, well, something like an extension of school. This wasn't like that. Nobody else, not until she showed up for work tomorrow morning and had to face the terrors of paperwork.

Not to mention the sheer practicalities of the situation. She'd never considered where you stored two large cases in a trailer, and the answer was that there wasn't anywhere. Underneath it seemed neither safe nor suitable, so the only place was in the car. And then there were all the things she promptly discovered she hadn't brought, not because she'd forgotten them, but because she'd never thought of them in the first place. Silly things, like coathangers. Jeff had either taken his with him or, possibly more likely, hadn't used them. She might be going to be a mechanic, but she was still female. She started a list of 'things to pick up next time I'm home' - and at the end of it, felt better. Now she had a reason to go back and visit, without it looking as if she had changed her mind. Coathangers and a trash can. And, having written the list, she rapidly added a couple of the magnets from her noticeboard to it, to stick lists like this one to the fridge.

Then she was done, and was just considering shopping (her mother had given her a box of basic foodstuffs, but none of it was very interesting or would make much of a meal by itself) when there was a tap at the door.

"Hello?" she called, not moving to open it. She was, after all, a young female on her own now, as Steve had drilled into her over and over again every night for the last week.

The Australian accent was unmistakable. "Thought I'd say hi and welcome. Carl told me you were starting tomorrow. And is that Ford yours?"

A month ago her reaction would have been 'is it a Ford?' Now, Sam grinned as she opened the door to see Jason standing there with two steaming mugs. "Yup, all mine. And I didn't choose it, so don't laugh."

"Who did? Steve? Does it even have an engine?"

"Hey!" she protested. "He's not that bad. And I think he asked a friend of his to look it over."

"Nah, I'm teasing. Not a bad model. Can I take a look?"

"What, while holding two mugs?"

Jason did a faked double-take, looking down at what was in his hands, and passed her one. "It's decaf; live with it. Welcome to your new life. You made the right choice. Now, that engine?"

Sam laughed, picked the keys from the shelf over the kitchen unit, and passed them over. "Sure. On one condition. Someone needs to teach me to drive it."

"You don't have a permit?"

"Not yet."

He raised his eyebrows. "And you're nearly eighteen. We can fix that. In fact, drink up and we'll do it now."

"Now?"

Jason gestured expansively, narrowly missing pouring coffee on himself. "Sun's shining, sky's blue, nice quiet private road where you can do ten miles an hour and nobody will hoot at you, and I promise not to yell...can you think of anything better to do with your time?"

And suddenly pasta with tinned sauce because she hadn't had time to go shopping seemed like the best dinner in the world.