Read an Excerpt
"I hate you! I hate this place. I want to go home."
"I know. Just do it."
Jordan Price threw down the rake, scattering the leaves he'd just gathered. His father chose not to point out that he'd just guaranteed himself more time spent in the task he loathed.
"I'm never going to be such a jerk to my kids."
Wyatt Blake smothered a sigh, but managed to keep his tone reasonable; he remembered thinking much worse thoughts about his own father. And at younger than thirteen, too.
So that's how you want you and Jordan to be? Like you and your father?
He fought down his gut reaction and spoke calmly.
"If you don't learn to finish what you start, your kids won't listen to you anyway. If you can even find a woman who'd have them with a man who doesn't keep his word."
Yeah, right. You're such an expert on keeping promises.
"I don't know why Mom married you anyway."
"It's a mystery. Finish."
The grumbling continued, with a couple of words muttered under the boy's breath that Wyatt decided not to hear. He had enough on his plate at the moment, trying to keep the kid out of serious trouble, without expending energy on his language. If he didn't straighten around soon, a few obscenities would be the least of his problems.
Later, when after another battle Jordan had gone to bed, Wyatt went through his nightly ritual at the computer that sat in the corner of the den. Jordan wasn't allowed to have it in his room, another bone of contention. But tonight something disrupted the usual process; a message alert window popped up. One he had hoped he'd never see.
He went still. Maybe it was a mistake, a computer glitch. They were prone to that, one-time, inexplicable weirdness.
For a long moment he did nothing, postponing the inevitable. A measure of how far he'd come, he supposed, that he didn't dive in instantly.
Finally, knowing he had no choice, he began the digging process that would take him to the program buried deep within the computer's file structure. There was no convenient icon for this one, no listing on the menus, no easy way to get there. And once he was there, the encryption was so deep it would take him five minutes to work his way through all the levels.
Assuming he could remember the damned process, let alone the multiple passwords.
In the end it took him six minutes and change. But at last the screen opened. The message was short. Far too short to have the effect it did.
Old acquaintance asking for you. Afraid I gave him wrong directions, but maybe he'll find you anyway. Was a friendly when you knew him, but keep your eyes open.
He stared at the unsigned message. He didn't need a signature, there was only one person who knew how to contact him this way. Who knew how to contact him at all. When he'd left that world he'd literally cashed out, cutting all ties. The man who'd sent him this email had spent a great deal of time convincing him to agree to this one thin thread of connection.
The message was innocuous enough on the surface, but he knew better. It was a warning as surely as if it were a fire alarm.
He'd spent most of his adult life knowing his past could catch up with him someday. That past held too many grim memories for him to relish the idea, but that didn't change the possibility. He'd always looked upon it as a cost of doing business, his business at least.
But now there was Jordan, and that changed everything.
Knowing there was nothing more to be gained by staring at this unexpected jab from the past, he quickly typed one word that would serve as both acknowledgment and thanks, and sent it. Then he deleted the message, reset the encryption and exited. The small but sophisticated program would erase its own tracks as it went, and go back into hiding.
He had a little time, thanks to the misdirection, but he'd have to redouble his watchfulness. In the meantime, with that ability to compartmentalize that had worked so well for him back in those days, he returned to his original task.
When the social networking site was loaded, Wyatt called up the usual page and without a qualm entered the password Jordan didn't know he knew. Then he hit the next link in the process.
My father has to be the most boring guy on the planet.
The first post since he'd last checked glowed at him.
Wyatt didn't wince, even inwardly, at the damningat least in a thirteen-year-old's viewindictment. In fact, he felt a certain satisfaction. Boredom, he'd often thought, was highly underrated.
He went on reading, scrolling through the entries from where he'd left off last week. Jordan, of course, had no idea he knew the page existed. The boy had never asked if he could do it, had just set it up on his own shortly after they'd moved in. Perhaps he'd known if he'd asked the answer would be no. Better to beg forgiveness later and all that.
And that thought did make him wince. Hadn't he lived by that credo himself, often enough?
And now Wyatt was glad he'd done it, and was using it against him. At least, that's what Jordan would think. He went back to reading. He noticed the new friends added, made a note of a meet-up Jordan had been invited to next Saturday night. Invited several times by several people Wyatt already had been wary of after checking their respective pages. He didn't like the sound of it, so he'd have to make sure his son was otherwise occupied.
He kept reading, and reached the final post.
I hate him. I wish he was dead and my mom was still alive.
The last entry sat there, unchanging, undeniable. He blinked. Closed the browser. Shut down the computer. Got up from the desk. Walked up the stairs. Opened the first door on the right.
Jordan lay curled up on his side, like his mother had said he used to sleep when he'd been much, much smaller. The room was a mess, clothes strewn about, belongings scattered. But he was there, and for the moment, safe. Wyatt went on down the hall to his own room.
Mechanically he went through the rituals of getting ready for sleep, as if that would help it come, or that it would be restful when it did. He knew what would happen. He would lie down, resisting the urge to draw up in a fetal curl himself. And then it would begin, the nightly parade of images and memories. And if he was really exhausted, the idea would occur to him that all the people around the world who had damned him were getting their wish.
He turned out the bedside light. His head hit the pillow.
He closed his eyes, wondering if this would be one of the nights he regretted going to sleep. In the silence of the house, broken only by the occasional creak or snap as it contracted in the rapidly chilling night air, the latest in the long string of confrontations played back in his head. He thought of all the things he'd done, all the places he'd been, all the situations he'd faced, all the times when he'd been written off as dead or likely to be.
He'd survived them all.
But he wasn't at all sure he was going to survive a thirteen-year-old boy.
I hate him. I wish he was dead and my mom was still alive. "So do I," he whispered into the darkness.* * *
Kai Reynolds heard the guitar riff signal from the front door of Play On as she got to the last line of the vendor form. She'd rigged the system to rotate through a series of recorded bits daily. This week it was the classics. Yesterday had been a few seconds of Stevie Ray, today was The Edge on her fave, that sweet Fender Strat, tomorrow would be the simplest and oldest, that classic single chord from George Harrison's Rickenbacker 12-string that opened "A Hard Day's Night."
Next week it would be some Wylde, Rivers Cuomo and Mustaine balanced by a variety pack of Atkins and Robert Johnson leavened with a bit of Urban.
She took three seconds to finish checking the order against her inventory of guitar strings, then looked up. She quickly spotted who had come in, one who didn't often have to ask because he usually knew, even from the three- to five-second clips, who was playing. For a kid his age, Jordan Price had a good ear.
An idea struck her, that she should add in some people he might not know. Ry Cooder, maybe, or Derek Trucks. And to bolster the feminine side, some of Raitt's sweet slide and Batten's two-handed tapping.
"Hey, Kai," Jordan said, his face lighting up when he saw her behind the counter.
"Jordy," she acknowledged with a return smile. The boy had told her some time ago, rather shyly, that he allowed no one else to use that nickname. She knew he had a bit of a crush on her, so she'd gently told him that someday he'd meet another girl he didn't mind it from, and then he'd know she was the one.
"The Edge, right? The Stratocaster?"
"Right in one," she said, her smile becoming a grin.
"You oughta put you in there."
Her smile became a grin at the words he said at least two or three days a week when he came in after school. "Nah. I'm not in their league."
"But that riff you did on Crash, that was killer."
"I borrowed it from Knopfler."
"But yours sounded completely different."
"That was the Gibson, not me," she said, as if they hadn't had this conversation before. "What did you do, run all the way?"
The boy walked from the middle school that was about a mile away. Then, when he was done, he walked back to school, usually in haste, before his father got there to pick him up. She thought it odd, since she was closer to where the boy lived than the school was, but Jordy said his father insisted because he didn't trust him.
"Should he?" she'd asked.
"Sure," Jordy had answered, his expression grim. "Where am I gonna go in this town?"
There had been a wealth of disdain in his voice, but Kai had let it pass.
"Nah, it's just hot out today," he said now.
"Enjoy it. Fall's hovering." The boy made a face. "Maybe we'll get snow this winter."
His expression changed slightly, looking the tiniest bit intrigued, as she'd guessed a kid who'd grown up in Southern California might at the idea.
"That would be cool," he said, then smiled at his own unintentional pun.
"So how's life today?"
"Sucks," Jordy said, his smile fading.
"Still not getting along with your dad, huh?"
"He's an as" Jordy broke off what had obviously been going to be a crude bodily assessment.
"Good save," Kai said, acknowledging the effort. "Your mom probably didn't like you swearing."
"Only reason I stopped," Jordy muttered, looking away. Kai guessed he was tearing up and didn't want her to see.
"If we can't cry for the ones we've loved and lost, then what good are we?" she asked softly.
He looked up at her then, and she indeed saw the gleam of moisture in his eyes. Those green eyes, she thought, were going to knock that girl he'd meet someday right on her backside.
"You understand, because you lost someone, too."
The boy not only had a good ear, he was perceptive.
She didn't talk about him, ever. But this was a kid in pain, worse today than she'd ever seen it, and she sensed he needed to know he wasn't alone. And she suspected he already knew how Christopher Hudson had died; the info was out there, on the Net, and easy enough to find.
"Yes. And I loved him very much," she finally said. "But it wasn't like your mother, who didn't want to leave you. He did it to himself."
Jordy's eyes widened. "He killed himself?"
No outside source would have said that, she knew. They all said it was accidental. She didn't look at it that way. But then, she'd been in the middle of it.
"Slowly. Years of drugs."
"Oh." Jordy was silent for a moment before he said, in a small voice, "How long ago?"
She hesitated again. Was he wondering how long it took to feel life was worth living again?
"A long time ago." Six years ago was almost half his lifetime, so she figured that was accurate. "And," she added quietly, "yesterday."
She saw his brows furrow, then clear as he nodded slowly in understanding.
"So you haven't forgotten?"
Panic edged his voice. Ah, she thought. So that was it. "No. And I never will. And you won't either, Jordy. I promise you."
"But sometimes I can't remember what she sounded like."
Interesting, she thought, that it was sound and not image that he was worried about.
"But do you remember how you felt when she talked to you, told you how much she loved you?"
The boy colored slightly, but nodded again.
"Then you remember the important part. And you always will."
It was a few minutes before the boy got around to asking if he could have the sound room and the slightly battered but well-loved Strat she often let people use. Jordan was just starting out, and it was a bit too much for his hands. She had a small acoustic in back she thought he'd do better with, but he thought acoustics were boring and wasn't interested. Yet.
Now there was something to add to the door rotation, she thought. Some of her personal favorite acoustic bits, six- and twelve-string, Steve Davison and Jaquie Gipson first on the list, Kaki too, and John Butler and his custom eleven strings. Nobody could listen to them and still think acoustics were boring.
But in the meantime, the boy wanted the solace that laboriously plinking out chords until his fingers were sore brought him.
"No," she said to his request, startling him; she'd never declined him before. But at her gesture he followed her into the former storage room she'd had converted into a soundproof room with a small recording system set up. Nothing fancy, but enough for accurate and fairly full playback. The conversion had cost her, but it had paid for itself by the third year; not many aspiring players could resist the temptation of purchasing the instrument they liked best once they'd heard the sound played back for them. There was something about the process that was an incredible selling tool.
Jordy followed her into the room, knowing to dodge the corner of the keyboard in the slightly cramped space before she even flipped the lights on. She walked across to the rack where she'd put the Gibson SG when she'd finished last night; the mood had been upon her and she'd indulged in a rare these days midnight jam, playing riff after riff until her own out-of-practice fingers were sore.
She picked up the gleaming blue guitar and held it out to the boy.
"Try this one."
The boy's eyes widened and she heard him smother a gulping breath. "BeeGee?"
She grinned at his use of her old nickname for the guitar, B for the color, and G for Gibson. A name she'd come up with before it had been pointed out to her that she'd inadvertently chosen the name of her mother's favorite group, back in the day. It had taken her a while to get over the humiliation of that, but the name had stuck.
And the gesture had the result she'd wanted; the boy completely forgot the pain he'd been mired in. For the moment, he would be all right.
She closed the door behind her, thinking it might be better if she couldn't hear what sounds his untrained fingers might coax out of her baby. The neck was small enough, but it tended to be a bit head-heavy and might give him trouble. Maybe it would teach him that form had a big role in function; right now he was too taken with looks and flash to absorb that.
When she got back into the store she found Mrs. Ogilvie waiting, a new book of piano music in her hands. Marilyn was desperate to get her youngest daughter seriously interested, although Kai knew Jessica couldn't care less. At sixteen, her life was full of other things. But her mother kept trying, and Kai wondered if at some point, despite the steady stream of money, she should try and explain that some people just didn't have the desire or the talent.
Maybe I should suggest she take lessons herself, Kai thought. Then at least somebody would get some use out of all these books.
"I saw Wyatt's boy come in," Marilyn said as she rang up the sale.
"He comes in almost every day," Kai said. Marilyn glanced around questioningly. "He's in the sound room," Kai explained. "Practicing."
Marilyn sniffed audibly. "At least he will practice. Is he taking lessons?"
"He'd like to, but his father won't let him. I guess he's pretty strict."
"Now that's hard to believe," Marilyn said with a laugh.
Marilyn would have likely known Jordy's dad, Kai realized; she'd lived here for most of her life. She, having only been here four years, knew nothing about him outside of Jordy's litany of complaints.
All he does is work and hassle me, the boy had told her once.
She remembered smiling at the typical complaint, one she'd made about her own father before she'd grown up enough to appreciate the love behind both actions.
"You remember him?" Kai asked, curious to see if there was another viewpoint on the man, curious enough to endure Marilyn's rather scattered conversational style. "From before, I mean?"
"Wyatt Blake? Anybody who lived in Deer Creek then remembers Wyatt. Smart, restless, and reckless. When he left town at seventeen, nobody was surprised. We all felt bad for Tim and Claire though. Tim was strict, but Wyatt needed that, reckless as he was."
This hardly fit with Jordy's description, Kai thought. But people changed. Or maybe that was why he was strict with Jordy, because it was all he knew.
"They were good to that boy," Marilyn added, "worked hard to give him a good life, and he still couldn't wait to get out of here. They almost never heard from him. Then when it's too late for them, he shows up back here, a widower with a young son, and won't even talk about it. Why, I tried to tell him how sorry I was, and he wouldn't have any of it."
"Maybe he didn't want any pity or sympathy."
"But he was downright rude about it. Claire would never have stood for that."
"Seems like he learned from them after all, though," Kai said. "Jordy says he works hard."
And boring work, Jordy had added, as if it were a crime.
"Yes," Marilyn said.
"And he did come back home."
Marilyn brightened at that. "Yes. Yes, he did. Not a word out of him about where he's been or what he's been doing for more than twenty years, but he did come home. Moved himself and the boy back into their old house."
As the woman later went on her way, Kai wondered yet again why people had kids at all. Seemed to just be asking for pain and tears.