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Alex Bishop was heading toward drunk at 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday, and he didn't give a damn. The blond bartender didn't seem to give a damn either. She brought him another Scotch and pushed it toward him with a wink. Her hand lingered on the glass. "You sure about the burger? We're pretty famous for them around here."
"No, but thanks." He didn't return the wink. She was pretty, and there was something in her smile that told him she wouldn't mind a midday fuck against a wall with a man whose name she didn't know, but Alex might be hitting this bar a lot in the next few days. When two people were looking for nameless sex, neither wanted to hang out with a bar between them for days afterward.
She moved away and he stared into the tumbler of cheap Scotch until the whole world turned amber and bright, then he downed it without a wince. Number three or four, he couldn't remember, and he didn't feel even a twinge of shame when he pushed up from the stool and had to steady himself against the bar. He'd done this on purpose, after all. Drunk was the best possible state of mind on his first day home in sixteen years.
He'd hit the road in Idaho before dawn, hoping to beat an afternoon storm rolling in over the Tetons, but he'd skipped coffee, rejecting any more alertness than was required to simply drive. He didn't want to notice the landscape. Didn't want to deal with memories triggered by his first taste of central Wyoming since he'd turned eighteen and made himself disappear.
But his willpower wasn't as strong as his memory, and the emotions had hit like a sledgehammer when he'd made town. Hence the Scotch. The actual people he'd come to see could wait.
Alex threw a generous amount of cash on the bar and walked past the lunch patrons in a carefully straight line. They glanced up from their plates as he passed, but then looked quickly away. He wasn't the type of guy that people started conversations with. If he put out the right vibes, they avoided him altogether.
But Jackson still greeted him when he opened the door of the motel bar.
The sunlight blasted his weary eyes before he had a chance to slip on shades. Jackson didn't give a shit that he was drunk, and it didn't give a shit that he didn't want to be there. It still threw itself at him, the same old town, hardly changed at all during his long escape. After all, that was its shtick. Old West charm. Historical buildings. Though the no-tell motel he'd chosen at the edge of town was less historical than just old.
He'd picked the place on purpose, eschewing cheer or comfort. He wanted temporary. He wanted an excuse not to unpack so he'd know every single moment he was here that he could grab his bag and ride away in a minute flat.
His lug-soled boots crunched against the gravel lot of the motel, and he remembered now that he'd stayed here once before. But that walk had been at night, in the snow, the moon shining brightly enough to highlight the gorgeous cleavage of the college girl he'd hooked up with at a spring-break house party. It had been her motel room, shared with three other girls, and he'd been thrilled to add to the crowded conditions for a night.
He'd partied a lot back then. Any excuse not to be home with his mom and brother. But he hadn't been this drunk in a good long while, and there were no spring-break flings awaiting him this time around.
There was only duty and misplaced obligation.
Fucking information age. A generation ago he could have vanished for good. But these days, one job in the wrong place and somebody had recognized him and volunteered family news that he didn't want.
Like the news that his dad was dead.
Of course, his dad had been dead for twenty-five years. Funny that it was still news.
He actually laughed at that thought, and an older woman getting bags from the trunk of her car shot him a glare of suspicion. He would've offered to help, but not only did he look menacing with his buzzed head and three days' growth of beard, he smelled like hard liquor and hostility, so he walked on.
He'd barely glanced at the room when he'd checked in an hour before, but it looked clean enough as he shucked his leather jacket and toed off his boots. A bed. An ugly bedspread. A dresser that had seen better days. At least it had a nice flat-screen TV. He traveled a lot for his job, and when he was holed up in some remote frontier town for a month, that was really his only requirement in a motel. A nice TV.
When he'd had an apartment for a couple of years, that had been all he'd added to the charm, too. Andrea had tried to bring some nice touches, but it had never become a home. For either of them.
Alex shrugged out of his T-shirt and tossed it on a chair, then headed for the shower. He'd scrub up, sleep off the Scotch for an hour or two, and then he'd finally do what he'd come here to do. He'd go see his family.
He didn't even know why he'd called his brother after sixteen years away. It'd been nearly two months since Alex had picked up that phone, and he still had no real idea of his motivation. Connection or reconciliation or even gloating over their father's corpse
All of those together or maybe none of them. But he'd called. And it had been a bad idea.
The first call had gone fine. Shane had sounded relieved and even downright happy to hear from Alex, and Alex couldn't deny the way his heart had twisted at hearing his older brother's voice. They'd caught up a little, and Alex had finally heard the whole story about their dad, and that had been that. He'd promised to come by Jackson the next time he was near, but he hadn't meant it.
He'd decided by then that he was only being sentimental. His mentor had died the year before, and Oz had been the closest thing Alex had to family. Closer than Alex's actual family. But he wasn't going to let that loss change his mind about returning to Jackson. He'd learned early on to let thingsand peoplego, and he'd let his brother go a long time ago.
Then, a week later, Shane had called, and Alex had realized it wasn't going to go as smooth and easy as he'd hoped. "I'd like you to come back to Jackson for a couple of days," Shane had said.
Alex had shut him down cold, but Shane wasn't a kid anymore either, and he'd talked for thirty minutes straight. Somehow Alex had found himself saying he'd try, and then he'd straight-up promised that he'd come.
"Fuck," he said, stepping into the spray of hot water with a growl. A goddamn memorial service for a man who'd been dead twenty-five years. A way for his mom and brother to hold on to the man a little longer.
Sure, Shane had apologized. He'd sworn that things had changed. Even their mother was getting better, he'd claimed. In fact, this service would help her close the door on her obsession forever. This was the end of it, for everyone.
That was the only reason Alex had come. To end this. And if Shane was for real, maybe they could talk a couple of times a year. Meet up for a drink once a decade. And when someone asked if he had any family, Alex wouldn't have to say no.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to work out the tension that the Scotch and steam weren't touching, but they stayed as tight as ever. Six hours strangling the grips of his Triumph T140 couldn't be shrugged off that quickly, not when he was heading straight toward the source of his stress.
He scrubbed some soap across his head, cleaning the week's worth of hair and thinking he'd shave it again when he got settled somewhere else, then he soaped up his face and decided he couldn't be bothered shaving that either. Let his appearance match his mood. He didn't owe anyone more than that.
He was out of the shower in two minutes flat, but an hour later, he was still lying sleepless on the bed. The ceiling stared blankly at him, the white, textured anonymity of a thousand other places. He was used to the sight. Every once in a while he lucked into a place with faux-wood paneling and he could at least count the seams, but not today. He couldn't even summon the will to jerk off.
His buzz was already fading and he knew he wouldn't sleep, so Alex got up, dressed and headed out to grab a burger. After that, there was nothing to do but drive to his mother's house and see if anything had really changed.
He didn't know he'd been hopeful. He would've denied it if anyone had asked. But the disappointment rolled over him in a cold, deep wave.
Things weren't better. Nothing had changed.
Actually, that was a lie. His mother had gotten older. Thirty years older, despite that it had only been sixteen. She was only sixty-five, but she was shrinking in on herself and had gone totally gray.
"Alex!" she said brightly, stretching up to give him a tight hug. "I missed you so much. But I knew you'd come back to us."
Yes. Of course she'd thought he'd be back. She'd always "known" that about his father, too. Lucky for Alex, she wasn't batting zero anymore. At least he hadn't been dead this whole time, even if his dad had.
He patted her awkwardly on the back.
She'd always been affectionate, and he'd always felt ungracious about it, but he knew why now. Her affection was too desperate, too overwhelming, as if she could will you to return her intensity. She'd been that way about her pain, too. She wanted you to share it or it wasn't real enough.
Alex let her go and stood straight to force her arms off.
When she'd opened the door he'd gotten a glimpse inside her house, and his first impression was confirmed when she let him in. The place was tiny, but it had looked only a little run-down from the curb. But inside? Inside it was packed with papers and smelled stale. If she wasn't obsessed with Alex's dad now, she was obsessed with something else.
Alex stepped reluctantly inside. He was going to kill his brother.
"Oh, honey," his mother gushed. "There's so much left to do. Your father deserves this honor so much and I want it to be perfect. We need to discuss your eulogy and what"
"Eulogy?" he snapped.
"Of course, Shane will speak first since he's the oldest, and then you'll speak. I'll be the last to go. I have so much to"
"You've got to be kidding."
She didn't seem to register his tone. She turned and moved in a stiff, awkward gait toward the far side of the little living room, then started digging through a pile of papers. "I've only gotten half of it written, and I still need to put together the program. I'd hoped to have that done last week."
Alex blew out a long breath. He'd been tricked. His mom hadn't gotten over her husband's disappearance at all. Oh, she'd had to accept that the man was dead, since Shane had found their father's remains himself, but that clearly hadn't stopped the madness.
What exactly did his mom think Alex had to say about the man? From what I remember, he was a decent father, but I must've been wrong since he got himself killed while running off with some floozy.
Alex watched his mother read frantically over the papers in her hand, her lips moving. He recognized that bright-eyed fever. It had taken up half his childhood.
He didn't even turn around when the door opened behind him. "You said she was better," he said flatly.
Despite his anger, he didn't resist when Shane spun him around and grabbed him in a hug. In fact, Alex didn't even resist hugging him back. Shit. Shane had taken care of him all those times when their mom had shut herself in her room for days. Shane might've tricked him, but the man was still his big brother.
Though Alex might actually be the bigger one now. That was a little disorienting. Shane had always seemed huge to Alex.
"Jesus," Shane said, pulling back to hold Alex at arm's length. "What the hell happened to your hair? And your baby face?"
"The hair's still there somewhere. But I lost the baby face a long time ago."
"I guess so." Shane slapped his shoulder. Hard. "Christ. Look at you."
"Look at you," Alex said. "You look good." He did. Shane had grown a couple of inches himself, and he'd gotten a lot stronger, but there wasn't any gray in his hair yet, and the lines around his eyes seemed to be from smiling. He'd always been the charming one.
Still. "This isn't what you said it was, Shane."
Shane's eyes drifted past his shoulder and his smile faded. He lowered his voice. "She was getting better. I don't know what's going on."
"This is better?"
"No. Two months ago she seemed more stable
I mean it," he insisted when Alex shot him a disgusted look. "She's been seeing a psychiatrist for a while. She apparently has something called borderline personality disorder. It makes her
extreme. I don't know. The doctor thought this ceremony would be a good idea since Mom wasn't exactly stable when we interred Dad's remains last year. Closure and all that."
"Closure. For her? Or you?"
Shane shot him a hard look, but didn't take the bait. "For her. She's starting to accept that he's been dead this whole time and was never coming back."
"Yeah. Guess I had that pegged." The old anger was pushing through now, forcing his blood pressure up until Alex could feel his heart banging.
"As for me, I've spent the past sixteen years more worried about you than Dad."
"Yeah, well.I was doing fine until you dragged me back into this." Alex tipped his head toward their mother, who seemed oblivious to the quiet tension.
"She was better" Shane started again, but Alex cut him off.