Read an Excerpt
The "What If" Guy
By Brooke Moss, Tracy March, Caroline Phipps
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Brooke Moss
All rights reserved.
Thirteen years later
"Well, if it isn't Little Miss Big City herself. You got yourself a flat tire, dontcha?"
I cringed. I hated when people pointed out the obvious. Unfortunately, on this particular road, in this particular county, blatant observations tended to be even more antagonizing.
At least they were to me.
My bitter thoughts matched my mood as I stood on the side of the road. Looking up from my cell phone, which didn't have coverage clear out here in rural eastern Washington, I almost smiled. Despite my predicament, I appreciated the striking contrast between the sharp, azure sky and the rolling, golden wheat fields.
"Well, do ya?" Ray Fisk leaned his head out the window of his dented Chevy truck to get a better look at my flat. Never one to miss a spectacle, his wife, Ramona, slid across the seat toward Ray and craned her neck.
I nodded and forced myself to smile, sweat drizzling down my back. My slacks and sweater had been appropriate for the cool, blustery, October morning in Seattle. Not so appropriate for standing in the unseasonably warm breeze on the side of the two-lane highway that led into Fairfield, Washington.
"It's flat, alright," I said.
Ray squinted at me in the late afternoon sun. "Seems you blew a tire."
Again, with the obvious.
"I thought I could limp all the way to town, but apparently not." I frowned at my deflated tire. "I tried calling my dad, but ..."
I stared at Ray meaningfully. No doubt, the Fisks were still the town's gossips and knew why I couldn't reach my dad.
Ray nodded and smiled, his teeth tobacco-stain yellow. "It's five o'clock. Cheese fries and dollar beers at Smartie's."
I grimaced. "Right."
Why would the return of his daughter after fourteen years keep Billy Cole home when there were flat beer and frozen Ore Ida fries covered in Velveeta waiting? Forget the fact that he'd just been released from the hospital this morning. He should have been at home, resting. But my father wasn't known for his good judgment.
I looked in my open car window and asked my son, "You all right in there?"
Elliott's horn-rimmed glasses had slid down his nose, and his expertly tousled hair drooped in the heat. "How long are we going to sit here?"
Twelve-year-olds had no patience. Elliott was no exception. Especially when the batteries in his Nintendo DS had long since died, and he could no longer text his friends because we were out in the hinterlands.
"Working on it." I faced the Fisks. "Do you mind helping me change the tire? I can't even lift my spare."
Ray raised his baseball cap and smoothed his salt-and-pepper hair. "Well, I hurt my back at the grain elevators a few years ago, remember?"
"She doesn't remember, dear." Ramona touched his arm. "She left town, and not many folks have heard from her since."
Ramona was right. I'd left my hometown of Fairfield, Washington, two months after graduating from high school, where my class had consisted of a whopping forty-six students. I'd gone off to art school in Seattle — three-hundred-and-thirty-three-point-six miles away from Fairfield, not that I'd ever counted.
And no, I hadn't kept in touch. Not until recently, when I'd answered my phone and heard Smartie Guire's raspy voice on the line. Smartie had found my cell number in my dad's wallet. He said that my father had taken a spill in the garage behind the house where I'd grown up. Apparently, he'd lain on the floor for twenty-two hours before his neighbor had come over to see why her cats wouldn't stop scratching at the garage door. My father had spent a couple of days in the hospital and been discharged today.
Smartie had figured it was finally time I knew about my dad's declining health. And since I was the only child of my parents' dysfunctional union, taking care of him was my responsibility.
I admit that I'd put off my reunion with my father for far too long. During the fourteen years since I'd left Fairfield, Elliott and I had come back once, for Christmas. After that, I'd sent the occasional holiday card, and made a brief phone call each year around Father's Day. It had been a long time, yet here I was, almost back in Fairfield, Washington. Population: five hundred. Yes, I said five hundred.
"People always wondered where you'd gotten off to — why you didn't stick around," Ramona said.
My initial instinct was to remind her that living under the small-town microscope as the daughter of the town drunk hadn't enticed me to stay, but that was a moot point. I gave her a tight-lipped, fake smile. "I'm back, now."
"Ya know," Ramona said, leaning across her husband, "Ray was pinned by Jensen's rig and hasn't been able to lift a box in years. And don't you think for a second that lug nut mechanic, Tom Jensen, gave two hoots about it. No siree, he couldn't have cared less. In fact, he told people he thought Ray was milkin' it for sympathy's sake. Anybody who knows Ray knows what a pile of hooey that is. So I stopped sellin' Tom smokes at the store, on accounta he ran his mouth so much. Plus, he shouldn't be smokin', anyway. His dad died of lung cancer, and for Pete's sake, his mother is on oxygen now, too."
"Good lord, woman." Ray pulled a crumpled package of Camel non-filters out of the front pocket of his T-shirt. He lit a cigarette, then glanced at me sideways through the smoke plume. "What she's trying to say is, I can't change the tire for you because I'm in traction at night. Plus, my tire iron's been missing since Dwight borrowed it. Damn fool couldn't return something if his life depended on it. But we can give you two a ride into town."
That's just great. I thanked the Fisks and pulled our suitcases out of my car.
"Hey, look alive," I said to Elliott. "We're catching a ride into town. Grab your bag, and we'll come back for the rest tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? Can't Grandpa bring us tonight?"
The familiar shame and embarrassment caused by my father crept in. Well, son, Grandpa can't bring us back tonight because by the time we get to Fairfield, he'll be half-crocked and probably on the verge of getting his butt kicked for vomiting on someone's shoes. Again.
"He's busy," I said. "He'll help us tomorrow. He works better in the mornings, anyway."
Elliott scowled at me. "Whatever."
I returned the scowl and gestured at the back seat.
Elliott dragged his bag to the back of the Fisks' pickup.
"Hello, there," Ramona said to him.
"Hey," he mumbled.
Baggage stowed, we stood next to the truck. "Elliott, this is Ray and Ramona Fisk."
Ray spat through his open window onto the pavement. "Where's your dad, young fella?"
My stomach leapt into my throat. "It's just Elliott and me," I said quickly. The Fisks exchanged a knowing glance. I narrowed my eyes.
"Well, you sure don't look like your mom," Ray said.
I ignored Ray's inappropriate remark, even though he was right. Elliott had his father's eyes and dark, unruly hair. I had fairer skin, with a smattering of freckles, and defiant, red hair that was hovering above my head in the static-electricity-charged air.
My son blinked at me with wide eyes.
"The Fisks own the store." I said.
"Which one?" Elliott asked.
"The only one in town, son." Ramona snorted and jerked her thumb at the back seat. "Get in."
"Your chariot, sir." I opened the squeaky door of the pickup, trying to provoke a smile from Elliott.
"There's only one store?" he whispered, panic-stricken.
"Count your blessings," I muttered, hoisting myself in behind Elliott. "It's not fishing season, so they won't be selling night crawlers in the cheese cooler."
* * *
The Fisks dropped us off at Smartie's, conveniently located directly across the street from Fisk's Fine Foods. No doubt, Ramona would watch the goings-on through the front windows of the store.
I stood on the sidewalk amid our suitcases, pulse racing, my country upbringing coming back to me in flashes. The scraped knees when I'd wrecked my bike outside of the post office. My first kiss outside of the little library. Evening walks to Smartie's to pick up my father because he'd been too drunk to drive home.
The main street looked exactly how I remembered it. A few cars were parked along the road, which was old and patched with mismatched squares of pavement, rolling down a slight hill to railroad tracks that trains hadn't traversed in twenty-plus years. The brick buildings appeared tired and worn beneath layers of dull paint and hastily caulked cracks. Several of them had collected a thick coating of dirt on their windows from the passing grain trucks and now rotted like forgotten dog houses in a back yard. The air was still and silent.
Elliott looked around warily. "Where's Grandpa?"
I gazed at my son. In just a day, he had gone from the energy and excitement of Seattle to a town where every business — except Smartie's — closed at five o'clock. Elliott looked lost standing there, silhouetted by the setting sun.
I ruffled his hair and tipped my head toward the seedy-looking bar we stood in front of, bright neon beer signs shining in the windows. "He's in there, buddy."
Elliott raised an eyebrow. "The bar?"
My son had seen me drink an occasional glass of wine, but I made sure he never saw anyone drunk. I tried hard to protect him from all of the ugliness I'd seen growing up.
I glared across the street at Ramona, who'd made pretty quick time of getting into Fisk's and situating herself near the window to watch the show. "You wait here. I'll go get Grandpa."
"I can't come in?" He looked around and gnawed his lip.
I would never have left him standing alone on the sidewalk outside a bar in downtown Seattle at dusk. But this wasn't Seattle. In the five minutes we'd been standing here, not a single car had passed, and the only sound was the frogs croaking in the creek that trickled through the park nearby.
I pressed a kiss to his head. "Sorry, El."
"I went into bars all the time back home," he grumbled.
"Those were called bar and grills, hon."
He hung his head.
"And this is home for now."
Elliott enunciated his words, slowly and concisely. "This isn't my home."
I winced. This puny little farming community was like no home he'd ever known. Elliott had grown up surrounded by galleries and music halls. But I'd fallen victim to the economy eight months ago, and lost my job at the posh art gallery I'd managed in downtown Seattle. We'd lost almost everything during my unsuccessful search for employment, including our cute loft-style apartment, most of my nicer belongings, and ultimately, Elliott's position in the private fine arts school I'd worked overtime to send him to. For the past three years, he'd played cello in the school orchestra. He wore hats and ties and black Converse tennis shoes. I'd brought him to the land of Wranglers, boots, and flannel.
"This is temporary, honey," I said. "We just need to make the best of it until Grandpa is back on his feet." And we're back on ours.
I ducked inside Smartie's.
I bristled. The crackly voice sounded like a chainsaw on idle, just as it had over the phone. I didn't have to know Stanley "Smartie" Guire to deduce that he'd done some hard living for the past forty years.
I hadn't been referred to as "Auto" in a long time, and the nickname didn't conjure fond memories. I'd been given the name Autumn Ann Cole because I was born on a crisp Halloween night. My father had wanted to name me Martha, after his mother, but he'd missed my birth. He had passed out from over-celebrating Halloween with his friends and hadn't been able to drive my mother to the hospital. Eight years later, my mom had left and never come back. My father had promptly shortened my name to Auto, even though it infuriated me.
"Hello," I said. I had spent many a night walking down the hill in the dark to fetch my father — so often that Smartie had stopped nagging me about minors not being allowed in his fine establishment long before I'd hit fifteen. You acquire certain rights and privileges when you're the town drunk's daughter.
Smartie's was filled with farmers, still dirty from spending their day in the fields, and the men who worked at the grain elevators, equally filthy and tired-looking. They sat, sucking on dark beer bottles, vacantly watching football on the tiny television propped between liquor bottles on the counter behind the bar.
"Good to have you home." Smartie pointed to the corner of the bar, near the wall of small, brightly lit pull-tab gambling machines that distributed small, instant lottery tickets that the patrons at Smartie's enjoyed so much.
My dad sat slumped, his head resting on the bar among a scattered pile of discarded pull-tabs, a half-empty beer mug, and an ashtray containing a lit cigarette burning precariously close to his thinning, reddish-blond hair. I thought he was asleep, but then realized he was mouthing the words to the country song playing on the jukebox. He wore a grayed shirt, untucked, and had at least a couple of days' dirt under his fingernails. His face appeared ashen beneath his whiskers.
The air escaped my lungs. I barely recognized my own father.
Smartie shook his head. "Won't work. You gotta shake him."
I nodded, my face heating with a mixture of shame and gratitude. "Thanks." I pushed on my father's bony shoulder and shouted, "Wake up."
His bloodshot eyes popped open. "Whaught?"
"Hi, Dad." I tried to smile. "We're here. Elliott is waiting outside."
"Auto?" He sat up, a pull-tab stuck to his temple.
I plucked it off. "Did you forget?"
Smartie appeared before us, rubbing the counter with a dirty towel. "He didn't forget. He was in here celebrating your arrival."
I glared at Smartie. "Shouldn't he be at home? What did the doctors say?"
He shrugged, a hint of sympathy in his eyes. "Got no idea. When I got to the hospital this morning, he was waiting out front."
I sighed. "Thanks for picking him up."
I took my dad's arm — tanned deep bronze from working outside every day. Beneath my grip, his skin stretched over his bones, little muscle mass left. "Let's go home, Dad."
"S'Elliott here, tshoo?" My dad slid his stick-figure frame off the bar stool.
Good lord, he's gotten thin. I held on to his arm, steadying him.
When I was a kid, people had feared Billy Cole. He'd been six-foot-three and had cut slits up the sleeves of his shirts to make room for his muscular arms. But forty years of hard drinking had changed him. His chest no longer filled out the front of his shirt, but was concave down to his small, protruding belly. His face and neck had turned red, his nose swollen and lumpy, just like my grandfather's.
An unexpected wave of sadness washed over me. He no longer looked like the father I remembered. I found myself wishing that Elliott and I had come to see him more often, that I had made an effort to reconnect. Or, more accurately, to connect for the first time. I didn't recognize my father, and I didn't know him. And I wasn't sure we had much time left with him.
I gestured to the door. "Elliott's waiting outside."
"Elliott," he crowed, as I led him to the door. "Whereyouat, kid?"
Outside, Elliott stared at us, wide-eyed. "H-hey, Grandpa, what's up?"
My father looked nothing like the picture I'd kept on our mantel for years. In that picture, a robust version of my dad beamed, a fly-fishing rod in one hand, a rainbow trout in the other. The man standing in front of Elliott was haggard, dirty, and swaying back and forth. Even outside of the bar, my father smelled acidic.
"Is thish the kid?" My father's voice echoed between the buildings.
"Elliott, why don't you grab the suitcases? Dad, I need your keys." I cast a dirty look at Ramona, who still watched us from the window of Fisk's, now with a phone pressed to her ear.
I could barely understand his slurred speech. "I need to get you home, Dad. Didn't the doctor tell you to stay in bed?"
He waved his leathery hand. "Damndoctorsareidiots."
I pinched the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache settling in. "Elliott is starving, I'm extremely tired, and you need to go sleep this off." I nudged him toward his worn out Datsun, parked nearby.
"Whadthehelliswrongwishyourcar?" He dug into the pocket of his jeans and retrieved his keys.
Excerpted from The "What If" Guy by Brooke Moss, Tracy March, Caroline Phipps. Copyright © 2013 Brooke Moss. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.