All Wheel Drive (A Bluewater Bay novel)
This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.
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Healey Holly is battered, depressed, and looking to go to ground in his childhood home. He wants to rent the garage apartment, but it’s Diego Luz’s place now, and the last thing Diego wants is to share it.
Diego is recovering too—from the accident that put him in a wheelchair and the death of his mother shortly after. The garage apartment is where he’s keeping his mother’s things, and as long as they’re up those stairs and he’s down on the ground, there’s no way he can deal with his loss. And that’s just how he likes it.
Healey believes in science. Diego believes in luck. It will take a blend of both, and some prayer thrown in besides, for these two to learn that it’s the journey and the destination that matters.
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The man at the door was a mess.
Diego’s first look through the peephole showed a sort of monster silhouette—a weirdly shaped humanoid dragging a wheeled duffel bag.
In the porch light’s acrid yellow glow, the very shape of him set off a boogeyman, stranger-danger skin-crawl. Ruthlessly, he suppressed any instinct for self-preservation and opened the door wide, but his visitor was just an ordinary man with a mass of healing facial wounds, one arm in a cast, and the haunted look of a recent combat veteran. Diego didn’t recognize him, but there was nothing to be scared of. Whatever had happened to him was potentially frightening, but he was only a guy.
“Can I help you?”
“I hope so. I called about the room over the garage?”
“And I told you when you called: I’m not renting it out. I need it for storage. How did you even know—”
“I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind. I grew up around here. I remember the family that used to live here, and I feel like—” The man stopped. Gathered himself. “I need a room for a little while, and if you’re only using it for storage . . .”
Sorrow limned what few features Diego could guess at behind the bandages, healing abrasions, and the shiny pink newness of burns. Dude had shaved his hair on the sides but the top was long, the result being a man-bun swirl of wavy brown hair that looked greasy. How was this guy even keeping himself clean? Despair, and something infinitely worse hung around him like a toxic cloud. Hopelessness.
Diego recognized the man’s helpless anxiety and anguish all too well.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Irritated, Diego eyed him sourly. “I take it you ain’t filling out a rental application?”
“Sure. I’ll fill one out.” It was hard to watch a smile crack those dry, scabbed lips, but it was a nice smile. A friendly smile. Dude wasn’t using it very often, obviously. “I’m thinking of taking up fiction writing as a career anyway.”
“You make it so hard to say no.”
Diego started to close the door, but that soft cast shot out, and Diego didn’t have it in him right then to add injury to . . . injury.
“You want to try and convince me some more?” Diego asked sarcastically. “You want to add you’re also a known terrorist carrying small pox?”
“Two thousand cash a month. Six months tops. It’s a room with a toilet, a sink, and a shower, right?”
“How do you know that? How’d you even get my number?”
Dude’s eyes widened. Then narrowed. “Never mind how I know. My Uber driver left me, and I’ll have to walk all the way to the nearest motel. Where is that, anyway?”
“Three thousand,” Diego countered, “and you move whatever shit’s up there down to the garage.”
“Done.” The dude frowned. “Wait. What’s up there?”
Diego shrugged. “Stuff from my mother’s place, probably. I told the company that moved me to put whatever wasn’t marked for immediate use up there. And since I can’t exactly fly up there to take a look around”—he thumped the wheels of his chair—“I don’t give a shit. Haven’t missed a thing, so whatever’s up there can’t be too important. You move it, hand me thirty Benjamins, and we’re good.”
Was that relief on his face? Diego didn’t smile back. “Trial basis. For a month.”
“Too much drinking, drugging, loud sex? Not fine. Loud parties? Not fine. No one better bother me, leave trash around, or even look at me askance. No redneck music. In fact, give me your number.” He took out his phone, opened the contacts, and let his new tenant type it in. “I control all of the music around here, or you can leave right now. I can’t walk up those stairs but I can light the place on fire from below and rebuild. If you piss me off, I’ll shoot you and tell the police you frightened my permanently-seated ass, and we’ll see who they blame.”
“Askance? Is that a thing now?”
Oh, there it was again. That elusive spark of humor. “It’s always been a thing.”
“I’ll be sure not to do it.”
“All right, then. I’ll get you a key.”
“No need.” Dude reached gingerly into the pocket of his leather jacket. He pulled out a fat wad of cash and a Costco card. “That lock’s always been a piece of shit.”
Diego took the cash, counted it out. “This is only two grand.”
“I’ll get you the rest tomorrow. I’m good for it.”
Diego nodded, wheeled backward, and gave the door a shove to shut it. It banged in the dude’s face, but that was partly the wind. Dude couldn’t blame him for the wind, could he?
So. Now he had a tenant for a bit.
He could have said no.
He could have said hell no.
As soon as the dude got a look at his room, he’d probably come back down. If he caused any trouble, Diego could give back the money and boot his ass. If John Smith gave him any attitude, Diego could call the cops. But that would be a lot of bother to go through, when spending the night in a dank-ass garage apartment with no bed, no food, and a single hanging overhead lightbulb was punishment enough.
A quick look at the time told Diego he’d better call it a night. While he went through the motions getting ready for bed, the part of his brain that remembered the haunted look in his new tenant’s eyes—the part of him that recognized and responded to and acknowledged the unfairness of things and the failure of good people to alleviate human suffering in the long run—listened with half an ear for the sound of boxes being shuffled around.
The man couldn’t move things in his condition. He’d have to ask for help, at which point Diego planned to drive him to the nearest bed-and-waffle-buffet motel. Such a thing would probably cost less than the three grand he’d promised Diego anyway, and sure as fuck nobody’d be feeding him here.
Diego definitely did not think about dust or spiders or other critters. He was not imagining a room he’d never even been in but could visualize from realtor’s photos—wood-paneled walls and vinyl flooring in sickly, faded shades of brown and orange and yellow. But he’d never wanted a tenant. He hadn’t sent anyone but the movers up there after he’d come to Bluewater Bay. Hadn’t cleaned the place. Hadn’t advertised it.
It was almost a public service letting the dude get his fill of it. Returning home after a traumatic event might seem like a good thing to a guy like that. There was a lot to be said for nostalgia. But an old childhood hangout wasn’t the place for someone so physically banged-up, and he’d soon realize it.
What he needed was his family. Friends. Tribe. What he was looking for was safety. Diego could tell him that safety was an illusion, but it looked like he’d already gotten the news.
Even as he grew sleepy, Diego kept an ear tuned for unusual noises.
John Smith’d be back if he couldn’t get the door open. He’d knock if sleeping on the floor beat to hell like that was as fucked up as it sounded.
Diego drifted off to sleep wishing he was the type of guy to treat a man’s pride like it wasn’t as important as his body.
Images of playing in the front yard, of water balloons and grilling burgers and infinitely happier times, scrolled through Healey’s exhaustion like a thick fog. He climbed the stairs too slowly, dragging his duffel up each step with a bang. His body felt leaden. Gravity was deliberately fucking with him. Even his heart felt hollow.
Nash isn’t here, he reminded himself.
No one is here.
What you’re looking for doesn’t exist anymore.
Maybe it never did.
Still, he turned the key in the lock. His key turned silently, the same key he’d used since they’d had the official apartment dedication before he left for school. When the wooden door opened, it connected with a box, sending cardboard scudding over dusty floors.
Healey flicked on the single overhead light. Closing the door behind him, he shivered. He got out his pen knife and pried away the baseboard where Nash’s bed used to be.
Nash’s secret stash contained an unopened fifth of Jack and a picture of the two of them, standing in front of their bikes. On the back it said, When you’re riding lead, don’t spit.
Good man. It was just like Nash to leave a present for the next guy.
“Bubba.” He toasted his brother because it was only proper while he surveyed Nash’s old bachelor pad.
The liquid burned his chapped lips and scorched his throat going down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before capping it, then turned to look at the rest of the place. Except for the Jack, Nash was no longer here. Healey didn’t know what he thought he’d find. A scent maybe. Or a feeling that spoke of being home. Of being in the last place of intersection between himself and his identical twin.
Until high school, he and Nash had always wanted the same things. Their lives, their hobbies intertwined. But Nash was physically restless, and Healey excelled in school. Nash got a garage apartment and an export auto repair shop, and Healey got a full ride to Stanford.
As far as Healey knew, neither of them regretted their choices. Except now, when Healey regretted everything.
But . . . regret.
Regret was as worthless as wishes. And all the prayers Healey tried went unanswered.
Seeing the new owner explained why the house sold as fast as it did. Diego Luz needed the ramps and wider doorways and lower counters they’d installed for Shelby.
But Shelby was in Spain and no part of the house belonged to them anymore.
New owner though. He was hot. And not just because he was fit. His muscle shirt wasn’t too douche-y; neither were his faded, soft-as-fuck-looking denim jeans. Black Vans. His arms were ripped. New owner was very fine, and he probably knew it, not that it mattered.
A brief stab of guilt, followed by sadness, rocked him. He missed Ford—his best friend. His first serious lover.
He glanced at his messages to torture himself some more.
Email message from Ford. Subject line: Urgent legal matters
We had some good times, right? I loved you. I really did. But you know it can’t work with someone like me. You know that.
You’re going to be named in the lawsuit. The dudes from the accident will name everyone as co-defendants: the school, my doctors, you, my parents, and everyone in my fucking life.
Our lawyers say that’s normal and you shouldn’t worry. My dad has offered to hire a lawyer for you, but I think you should find your own attorney as soon as possible. My dad’s lawyers will throw you under the bus if they can. It’s not personal with them. It’s never personal.
I set this in motion and I cannot stop it. Do whatever you have to do. Sorry.
You don’t know how sorry.
He and Ford’d had some good times. And so very, very many bad ones.
Most of which, if he were honest, had been entirely Ford’s fault.
In freshman year, when they’d met, Ford had seemed perfect. Work hard. Play harder. Nothing was off the table when it came to having fun, as long as they advanced to the next level at school. His occasional bouts of moodiness seemed related to the amount they drank—Healey was his number one partner in crime.
After a few months of this, they decided they weren’t doing themselves any favors, so Ford agreed to cut back. But as days, weeks, a whole quarter passed where Ford could barely get out of bed, Healey got worried. Ford’s family grew alarmed during the holidays, because his behavior at home had changed so drastically, and then Healey’d gotten the awful call: A suicide attempt. A hospitalization. Trial and error with medications. Fine tuning.
After that, Ford’s friends jumped on his “team.” Healey answered to Ford’s doctors, his family. He’d carried Ford’s banner through senior year, been part of Ford’s day-to-day support system ever since. He’d laughed with Ford. Cried with him. Held him through nights when Ford had given up hope.
They’d stumbled past the finish line together—Healey graduating with a PhD, Ford with an MBA. Along the way, Healey’d gotten so caught up in being part of the two of them, he’d lost his sense of self.
He’d lost his instinct for survival.
Healey and Ford’s last great adventure—a quick road trip to Vegas to blow off steam after graduation—had almost cost them their lives.
He shouldn’t be here.
He should be in school where he thrived.
Back in time.
Back to the beginning.
So much had happened that his brain—the one thing he could normally rely on when life hurt—couldn’t even process it.
The room was a tangle of boxes and photographic equipment. What looked like wrapped canvases. He peeked, because he couldn’t help himself. Colorful, abstract wooden sculptures, shrouded in old, paint-stained printed sheets, leaned against the wall like sarcophagi. It was an interesting mix of things.
After managing to foot-push a few boxes of junk out of the way, Nash laid his duffel bag down like a pillow and fell into an exhausted, slightly loopy slumber.
The scrape of the old aluminum slider—the door from the kitchen to the patio out back—woke Healey. How weird. He could still identify the origin of every sound in the old house.
He listened, rising quietly, straining to see out the window. Low cloud cover obscured the stars and moon, made haloes of the streetlights. There was the sound of wheels on the wooden ramp from the patio to the garden, and then the grinding gears of an automatic garage door opening in the space beneath. A car started up.
What time was it?
Still fully dressed, Healey had to tease his phone out of his pants pocket to look at it.
Who the hell gets up at 3 a.m.?
Healey let his head fall back against his duffel and tried to close his eyes, but it was no use. Unless he was willing to have another sip or two off his old friend Jack, he wasn’t going back to sleep. Stacks of boxes loomed over him like a miniature skyline. He could have gone anywhere. Yet here he was, contemplating cleaning out someone else’s garage apartment.
And for what? Nash wasn’t here. None of them were. He could feel sorry for himself just as easily in a five-star hotel. This was not his best idea ever.
He stood, shoulders and legs painfully stiff. Arm throbbing. Face itching and sore. Ow. Coffee would help. And there were people he could call in town without it getting back to his pop.
Oh, man. Pop.
After a decade of loneliness, Pop had found a second loving relationship. Healey was dodging the happy couple, just as he’d dodged Nash and Spencer and Shelby. Everyone he loved was happy for the first time in—maybe ever. They finally had what they deserved, and Healey wasn’t about to let what happened to him destroy that.
He didn’t bother trying to clean up. Hadn’t thought hygiene through at all. He could use wipes to wash, was able to clean up after using the toilet, and he could manage brushing his teeth, but with an arm in a cast, he wasn’t going to smell so good if he didn’t come up with a better plan than “flop at Nash’s old place.”
He picked up a newspaper on the way to the local quick mart, where he bought the largest coffee they had and a bag of snack cakes and donuts. He got energy drinks and enough sugary junk to guarantee a cleaning frenzy and then a crash of epic proportions. He had plenty of Jack left. He could take a nice long nap.
But . . .
When he got back to the apartment, he prepared his tongue for the chocolatey deliciousness of a red velvet Little Debbie Snack Cake, and all it did was remind him of Ford.
Fearless Ford, who was always up for whatever prank their friends dreamed up.
And Funny Ford, who reduced everyone’s stress during finals week by dressing as the Easter Bunny and sitting on a tennis ball machine, blasting rainbow-colored tennis balls out of his ass.
And Freaky Ford, who’d been Healey’s first serious boyfriend. The man who’d rocked his world.
But then there was Feckless Ford, who started fights he couldn’t hope to win and got his friends’ asses pounded when they had to jump in to rescue him.
Frightening Ford, whose moods could swing wildly due to BPD.
And, finally, Nearly Fatal Ford, who almost got both of them killed outright, first in a high-speed car chase, and then a road rage incident.
I almost got killed.
Healey needed time.
Like Pop, he was a gentle person.
A tinkerer by nature, Healey was an engineer, a Rube Goldberg machine innovator, an absentminded ivory tower dweller.
Before the accident, he’d had a light heart and an optimistic future—nothing but possibilities. He’d wanted to get to know strangers. To help people. But now, since his near-death experience, he wondered.
Had he failed to value what he had?
Had benevolent fate turned on him?
He’d been given a glimpse into the abyss, all right, and he’d shrunk from it like the coward he knew himself to be.
So now he killed time.
He killed it and killed it and killed it, waiting with dread for whatever came next. When the hour was decent—and still reeking just a bit of Jack and unwashed sick person—he dialed the other number in Bluewater Bay he still knew by heart.
That old-lady voice, Boston proper, crisp, concise, fell on him like a woolen blanket.
“It’s 6 a.m. Which one of you miscreants thinks the ass crack of dawn is a good time to call? A woman my age could die from the shock of an early-morning phone call.”
“Don’t call me until you’re an actuary.”
Before she could hang up, he said, “Wait, Fearless Leader.”
“Healey?” She let out a gasp followed by a half sob.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Of course she’d heard all about his brush with notoriety and disaster and morbid celebrity. Stanford Students in Frightening Freeway Fracas. He held the phone away from his ear while she wept. Waited until the snappy yanking of tissues from a box could be heard in the background along with a cat.
“I’m sorry.” She blew her nose fiercely. “Oh my God. You must think I’m such a ghoul. But I heard your voice and I don’t know. I saw footage of the accident on television.”
“I’m not sure I really believed that until right now.”
He glanced around his box-strewn squat. “I’m in Bluewater Bay.”
“You are? Where?” For once someone seemed as surprised as he was by the fact.
“I’m renting Nash’s garage apartment from the new owner.” The tape on the nearest box was yellow. The handwriting faded. Spring 1980.
“Aren’t you injured? Is anyone staying with you?”
“That’s why I’m calling, I guess. There are things I didn’t figure on, and I need help.”
“You remember my house?”
“Of course.” After years of Academic Decathlon and Science Olympiad and Robotics, he knew where to find Ms. Underhill. “I know your house, the lake house, and all your favorite sweet shops. I can find you.”
“You come over right now.”
He’d figured she’d say that. Well, he’d hoped. In all the years he’d known her, he’d never doubted her love of her students.
“Thanks, Ms. U.”
“You have earned the right to call me Clara, Dr. Holly. You’re my peer. Academically, you’re—”
“Don’t call me Dr. Holly.”
He hadn’t had the title long enough to answer to it. “Dr. Holly . . . Are you Healey Holly? Can you hear me? Do you remember what happened? Do you know where you are?”
He closed his eyes. “Still too weird.”
“All right.” Her calm acceptance of his anger shamed him.
Now he was snapping at old women. Great. “I’m sorry.”
“No need for any apologies between old friends.”
Warmth filled him.
“Come on over and let me get a look at you.”
“What’s left of me.” Bitter. Bitter.
She sucked in a breath.
“No. I mean—” He kicked one of Diego Luz’s mother’s boxes. It rattled like glass, and he cursed. “I feel—”
He didn’t know.
“What was that? Glass breaking?” She always worried about silly things.
“Stubbed my toe kicking a box.” He peeled a flap back and discovered it was full of camera equipment. Lights. Reflectors. Old stuff. Well-used. “I have to move some things out of Nash’s place, but—”
“You’re coming over right now. I’ll see you when you get here.”
“Thanks, Ms. U—”
“Nah, ah, ah.” He could practically hear her long bony finger wagging.
“What did I tell you about showing your work?”
“Call me Clara.”
“Clara,” he relented after a put-upon sigh. “Open windows, I suspect I need a shower.”
He hung up.
He’d seen a television show once where a guy cut off his cast because it bugged him. Healey’s arm was still in a soft cast. He could just—
“Don’t think,” he told himself, because even he could see it wasn’t going to make anything better. “Just for today, let someone wiser think for you.”
And there was no one better for that than Clara Underhill, retired mathematics teacher, Science Olympiad coach, and often-less-than-benevolent dictator. He picked up his keys and phone, and left Nash’s place.
Diego drove up in a red Outlander while he was coming down the stairs. Instead of leaving, Healey waited and watched while Diego transferred himself to his wheelchair. He’d watched Shelby do the same a thousand times. She hadn’t been old enough to drive when he’d left for college, but she always insisted on doing things for herself. She’d learned to transfer herself into their old Volvo and any other car she rode in by grade school.
Diego caught him watching. “Wanna get out your phone and film it?”
Healey put Diego’s harsh tone down to the strain of using his upper body to pull the chair across his lap. Even a titanium sports wheelchair gets heavy.
“I wanted to say hello. Introduce myself in the daylight. I’m . . . um, Healey.”
Using a piece of cloth to protect his paint job, Diego let the wheelchair’s base slide to the ground and turned to get the wheels. “Fine. Then you’re done.”
Healey hesitated. “Did I do something especially offensive here?”
“You mean besides not taking no for an answer?”
Healey admitted he wasn’t easy to say no to. When you had a stubborn, volatile twin, you learned not to let anyone get in your way.
Maybe that was one of those good news/bad news things.
Healey dug in. “Three grand to squat in a room you aren’t even using doesn’t sound like it’d exactly be a hardship for you.”
“I hear you loud and clear, Mr. My Money Talks And My Bullshit Don’t Stink.” Diego continued assembling his wheelchair. He said the words like he was Mr. Chill and Healey was some rude redneck he needed to school. “When a guy comes along who thinks they can buy and sell people like me . . . it’s always because they’d sell their own mothers for a buck.”
“People like you?” Healey gasped. “I’m not—”
“You want to rent my place? I tell you no. You give me a fake name like we’re doing some gangster shit. You figure it’s about money. You think, ‘What else could it possibly be about?’ You ask yourself, ‘What else could this man possibly want besides money?’”
Heat entirely unrelated to global warming suffused Healey’s face because Diego’s words felt uncomfortably true.
“Dude.” Diego glared at him. “If you don’t know the answer to that question, this is no longer about me.”
Red-faced, Healey toed the ground. Good. Presumptuous asshole.
“Why say yes, then?” Mr. Innocent Blue Eyes looked wounded.
“I’m not stupid.” Diego shrugged. “Some dude comes along and offers you a fat wad of cash? You take it.”
He turned his face away, even though he had yet to maneuver himself into his chair.
Healey snickered. “That was a damn good exit line. Too bad you’re still stuck here putting your wheelchair together.”
“Fuck. You.” Oh, now it was on. Diego gave him his full attention. Or at least, the attention of two of his fingers.
One on each hand.
Healey said, “I apologize. You are right and I was wrong. I handled this really poorly.”
“Yes. You did.” Diego returned his gaze, eyes narrowed.
“What I didn’t say is . . . I grew up in this house. It seemed—”
“Christ.” Diego let his head fall against the headrest. That’s why the dude looks so goddamn familiar. “You’re Nash’s brother.”
Diego’d even met Nash when Spencer Kepler had been in town, shooting Wolf’s Landing. Why hadn’t he seen the resemblance? Everyone knew Nash was an identical twin. Diego defended his lack of observation because the resemblance was largely hidden—the dude was a scruffy mess, and instead of a buzz cut, slightly longer-on-the-top style like Nash’s, this guy wore his sides shaved and the top long and silky. Past his shoulders.
Now that Diego put the whole story together, he understood. Healey had been in an accident that turned into a high-profile media event—rich, smart, white kids wreck their car and make a scene. Who’d a thunk it? Now that Healey knew he wasn’t immortal, he’d run home to lick his wounds.
But . . . maybe that wasn’t fair. Back when Diego got out of the hospital, he’d have chewed off his foot to avoid the knowing looks, the shock, and the helpless pity he saw in other people’s eyes.
Healey asked, “You know Nash?”
“We’re acquainted. I’m with the Wolf’s Landing production crew.” Diego transferred his body to his chair, shut the car door behind him, and locked up with a lazy squeeze of the keys. “You should have said this used to be your house.”
Healey flushed at the suggestion.
Diego muttered, “Right. ’Cause we wouldn’t want the truth to get in the way of whatever you’re up to.”
“For the record”—Healey’s voice was quiet—“I know there are more important things than money.”
“Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. The point is, you act like you think I don’t know that.”
“Fair enough.” Healey stepped forward. “Can we start again? I’d sit or lean or squat so we’re eye to eye, but you’ve gotta take a rain check because I’m busted to shit right now.”
He moved stiffly. Painfully. Diego winced for him. “You don’t belong in that upstairs room. There’s no furniture. Did you sleep on the floor?”
Faint pink washed over Healey’s cheeks. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“You can’t clean yourself. You can’t feed yourself.”
“I can feed myself,” he said with quiet resentment.
“From grocery store to food preparation to dining? Or from drive-thru to mouth?”
Eyes cast down, Healey shook his head. “I see your point, but I’ve got a handle on it.”
Diego knew enough about traumatic life changes to spot the inertia and brittle irritability, for example, that result from depression. He could spot his own cycles and get himself out of a bad patch without help, most of the time.
Healey Holly hadn’t learned any of that yet. Evidence stood before him, defiant and determined to be independent despite the fact it wasn’t in his best interest. Battered but upright. Bewildered and unhappy and lost.
Diego knew exactly what Healey was feeling.
Empathy could be such a bitch.
“Look, you need to find another place to stay. Find people to help you. I can see why you’d ditch your family—” he put his hands up before Healey could argue “—and don’t give me shit about how that’s not what you’re doing, because you can’t bullshit an OG bullshitter like me.”
“I literally can’t go to my family.” Healey glanced at the sky as if he were looking for answers written there. “Everyone has some glorious new happy thing. Everyone is—”
“No disrespect, but that’s not my problem.” Diego backed away. “Think this through. Here is not where you need to be. I can’t even get up there if you call for help.”
Right. You won’t because you’re a stubborn ass.
“And that’s the other reason. I don’t carry insurance against your stoic bullshit. If you won’t ask for help because you’d rather die, then that makes you two times more of a problem.” Diego jerked his chair around sharply. “I changed my mind. Get the fuck out of my place.”
“I’ll be out by this afternoon.” Healey nodded solemnly before turning to go. “Thanks.”
Seconds passed where the only sound was Healey’s heavy footfalls on the sidewalk.
“Nah, man. Shit.” Still conflicted, Diego called after him. “Don’t be like that.”
Healey turned around. “I’m really sorry. I’ve been told I’m inclined to forget other people have needs. I’m on it.”
At a renewed pace, Healey took off.
Diego didn’t bother calling him back. Dude had a right to sulk for a while when he lost his balance. Everybody knew that.
You could have handled that better.
If there is one, next time I’ll be more . . . hospitable.
Inside his house, Diego heated up a delivery service meal. He ate it at the table using Mami’s everyday china and antique silver, chasing his mother’s often-repeated admonition to eat like a civilized human being. The house was too quiet. Too large. It’d seemed perfect when he’d bought it.
He’d needed a crib he didn’t have to modify too much and bingo, there it was.
An old place. Dated, but the price had been right. What he hadn’t noticed until he’d moved in were the thousand tiny reminders that the place had been some family’s home for decades. Marks on the floor from the daughter’s wheelchair. Pen and pencil growth charts on the walls inside the pantry. Handprints in a newer pour of concrete. Trim chewed on by pets. Inexperienced-driver dings on the mailbox post.
By the looks of things, a lively bunch had once thrived in his house, and now one of its own had returned, but as far as Diego could tell, there was nothing in Bluewater Bay for Healey to come home to.
He took his second beer to the couch to watch the tail end of a soccer game, and while he was there, he got a call from his stepdad. Muting the TV and putting his phone on speaker, he answered.
“Hey, I caught you.” Genuine pleasure backlit Cecil Luz’s words. “Got a minute to talk? How are things?”
“Of course. Same old here. What’s new there?”
“Your cousin Yesenia got into Berkeley!”
“I heard.” Diego tugged a pillow beneath his head to get comfortable. “Tell her congrats for me.”
The Luz family was massive. Diego received messages marked #FamiliaLuzNoticias from every stepsibling, distant cousin, aunt, godparent, no-longer-married-but-still-friends, or lived-next-door-once acquaintance, all grafted onto the Luz family tree by Cecil Luz.
Like the LA street gangs he preached against, lawyer Cecil Luz fostered a family culture of fierce loyalty and love.
Also like LA’s notorious gangs, traffic into the Luz family only went one way.
The family motto wasn’t “blood in, blood out,” but you’d have to do something awful dicey for Cecil Luz to take you off the Feliz Navi-Dad(!) newsletter mailing list.
After delivering all the latest happenings, he added, “Dr. Ortiz called me over the weekend.”
Cecil was calling his mother’s friend Rachel “Dr. Ortiz” now. Cecil was sure being cagey about his relationship with her. Like Diego didn’t know they had a thing.
She’d left a message, although he’d never gotten back to her.
Apparently she wasn’t afraid to go up the chain of command.
“Did she say what she wanted?”
“She wants you to start on the documentary you promised to make.” Cecil chided gently. Documentary.
More like a looping bio to play in the background when they show Mom’s work.
“I’ll have to go through all her things. I haven’t even started on the script for the video.”
“What about sending the materials for the book? Rachel’s waiting. If you don’t want Rachel to edit your mother’s memoirs—”
“It’s not that easy.” Diego wished it was that easy. Why did people keep forgetting this was his mother they were talking about.
“It is . . . It can be. Your mother’s papers—”
“Belong to me,” Diego reminded him. “The papers, the photographs. The digital recordings. It all belongs to me.”
Diego could almost see his stepdad. Taking off his glasses. Rubbing the bridge of his nose. Tired eyes, warm, long-suffering expression on his face, Cecil never lost the hint of a smile, even when life handed him nothing but trouble. He was one of the few truly decent people Diego had ever met.
One of the best men he knew.
“I’ll be disappointed if you choose to keep her legacy to yourself, especially now that—”
“I’m not selfish,” snapped Diego, artlessly.
“I never said you were. I said I’d be disappointed if you can’t share her with all the other people who might also come to love her if they can get to know her.”
No fair. No fair. “I’ll think about it.”
“We’re not trying to take anything away from you, son. All we want is for you to think about what Gabbi would have wanted.”
“Look, I was just about to put some cookies in the oven so—” Diego transferred himself to his chair to make his lie into a belated reality.
“Okay, sorry I caught you in the middle.”
“No. It’s no problem, I—”
“I’ll catch you later this week.”
“Sure.” Great. Now shit was going to get awkward between them, and he couldn’t bear that. “I’ll think about what you said, Cecil, honest. The movers put mom’s things up in the garage apartment, so I can’t even get to them.”
“I can fly up there anytime, son. I can help bring things down—”
“Nah, I got a guy who wants to rent the room, so I told him to put Mom’s things in the garage. I can leave the car out while I go through it all.”
“That’d be terrific, Diego.” Please God, don’t let Cecil get emotional. “Thank you.”
“But I’ll get to it when I can get to it, okay? No promises, no deadlines.”
“Terrific, terrific. That means so much to us, I can’t tell you.” His stepfather’s optimism was contagious as hell. Unfortunately, Diego’d been inoculated against it by his mother’s pragmatism before Cecil came along. “That’s great. Thank you. I’ll let Rachel know you’re working on it.”
“Sure.” Diego hated himself for the twinge of anger that rippled through him when his stepfather said Rachel’s given name. His jealousy was ridiculous.
He was ridiculous.
His mother had been dead for two years. Plus, he was pretty sure Cecil, Rachel, and his mother had all been lovers—sometimes as a threesome, and sometimes like Noah’s two-by-twos in varying combinations.
Diego had plausible deniability.
He’d never asked.
He’d never looked closely at room assignments in hotels.
For reasons of his own, he’d left them to it, and everyone had breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“Say hello for me. Tell Rachel I’ll call her.”
“Thanks, Diego.” Perhaps he’d conveyed more than he thought, because Cecil went on. “You’re a good man.”
“Talk to you later.”
Cecil seemed satisfied with that. “Save a cookie for me.”
“Bwahaha, they’re all mine.” After disconnecting the call, he made his way to the kitchen.
Thanks to somebody’s kid’s fundraiser, he had a freezer full of premeasured cookie dough pucks, boxed by the dozen and labeled neatly. He pulled out a few of each—oatmeal, chocolate chip, and white chocolate macadamia nut—laid them out on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet, and preheated the oven.
While he waited, he got another beer.
His mother watched him from the refrigerator—or rather, he and his mother stared out at him from an old photograph, as if his past was judging his present.
He’d been about three when his mom’d set the camera down on the hood of a car, hauled him up, and pointed so he’d know where to look.
She was pretty, with dark hair over one shoulder in a long braid, but she’d always played down her looks. She’d worn men’s work pants and a loose chambray shirt. Now he understood that—hiding her youthful body was safer because they’d been without meaningful protection.
In another photo, he was a big-eyed, raw-boned kid, happily sitting in a truck bed with his arm around a one-eyed dog. He didn’t remember much about the dog. He’d never had a pet of his own until his mother married Cecil.
Those early years had been extra tough. He’d been passed from hand to hand, sometimes quite literally, while his mother worked, scraped by, and studied to get her degree. Art was her escape. The friends she made in her guerrilla art days were lifelong. They were all waiting for him to get off the pot. To assemble her memoirs, to show her work in galleries again. Even to make a documentary of her life, because if he didn’t do it, who would?
Who could do it right, besides him?
He studied the pictures . . .
Sometimes they’d had a roof over their heads, sometimes a tent. She’d been a single mother, a pretty girl with no privilege and little protection, and she’d kept her head down. Life had been hardscrabble as hell. She’d had more patience than anyone he knew. More drive. More resilience. More balls.
They’d moved frequently, his mom taking whatever work she could find. They’d trusted no one person with all their secrets at once, like the characters in the wizard books he’d loved.
If later she’d made the most of her pluck and her luck, marrying a well-heeled lawyer, giving dinner parties, cajoling her friends into supporting her charities and terrifying cater-waiters, she’d earned the right.
Along the way, he’d lost the mother who’d been such a child when he was born that they’d grown up together. He’d lost his fiercest ally. His protector. His best friend.
No. That wasn’t fair.
She’d widened the circle, brought others in. And she’d never left it.
Over time, he and his mother had lost the intimacy they’d shared as outsiders living on the fringes of society, always afraid people would take advantage.
Now, he’d lost his ability to see himself apart from his beginnings. He was always an outsider.
He was doubly, triply so, since his accident.
The first dozen cookies inspired him to bake a second for the people from his photography club. That in turn inspired him to bake a batch for the guy upstairs—a sort of apology for being terse. Especially since it looked like he wouldn’t have to use force to get the dude to leave.
Once the cookies were finished, he set up the coffee maker and headed for bed.
Maybe it was thinking about his mom that started the what-if game, because despite his best intentions, his brain took off on its old favorite pastime.
While his mother lived, the game had been about possibilities. What if I were fearless. What would I do? What if I were the smartest person in the world? What would I know?
They’d played when they had nothing.
Or maybe they’d played because they had nothing.
The only rule was that the hypothetical had to be intangible, which made it more fun anyway. No point in asking what he’d do with a million bucks. Everyone knows what they’d do with a million bucks.
But if Diego ever had to pick between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon, he knew exactly why he’d pick the Falcon, despite the fact that there’s no question the Enterprise was a better ship.
Sometimes you went with your gut.
Now, as he engaged in the what-if game in the privacy of his room, the subject of his scrutiny was his unasked-for tenant.
Healey was good-looking and—by all accounts—brilliant. Healey was vulnerable. Until he got back on his feet, he was way off-limits, despite the loneliness Diego read in his eyes and the absolutely magnificent ass he’d checked out while Healey walked away.
Healey had to be off-limits.
But man . . . the what-if game.
What if I’d met Healey Holly in some other circumstances? What if he was just some guy who worked on the set?
What if he came on to me?
What if, what if, what if . . .
Healey rang the doorbell. The endless clang of Westminster Chimes was loud enough to be heard through the open kitchen window.
A light breeze cooled the sweat on his upper lip.
Chronic pain management was new to him. He didn’t always get the drug combinations exactly right. Therefore, when Clara Underhill opened the door, he was wiping his damp brow with an embarrassed wince.
“You are gray.” His mentor’s usual expression—regal indifference—faltered. For a brief second, he saw the fear, the wounded dignity, the considerable anger she couldn’t hide. She ushered him inside.
At four feet eleven and three-fifths inches, Clara’s diminutive, apple doll exterior hid an infinite ego, a keen mind, and a really, really sick sense of humor.
To preserve the illusion of normalcy, he spoke first. He waved his cast hand at her. “No masturbation jokes?”
“You awful boy.” She led him to the living room, where she’d laid out the fixings for coffee and tea. “It’s wonderful to see you, even if you’re being a juvenile ass. How are you, really?”
“I’m fine.” He made sure his smile matched his words, but the carnage was there for anyone to see.
“Sit,” she said. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”
Ms. Underhill’s home was a study in natural fibers and shades of beige. She had a tabletop fountain that burbled merrily, turning a waterwheel, crystals, and a cheerful statue of the Buddha, who grinned from a place of honor amidst lush plants in a slanted grid of midafternoon sunlight.
For a mathematician, she had a surprising number of objects he’d consider superstitious. But Clara’s place was still as warm and welcoming as he remembered it. The simplicity of visiting relaxed him.
He let his guard drop.
Before he knew what was happening, he’d started crying, tears only, dripping down his cheeks in two tracks to his shirt. His jeans.
She put her arms around him, and it only made things worse. He turned his face away like a dog who isn’t interested in playing, one who hopes if he ignores you, you’ll just move along.
“Oh.” Her dismay was palpable, but he could do nothing to save the situation. “Oh, honey.”
Eventually she let go, but pulled up a hard-backed chair to stay quietly by his side. Where her hug was overwhelming, her presence meant a lot to him. Eventually, he let her take his hand good hand between hers.
Like Goldilocks, he discovered that careful contact was exactly right.
“Th-thanks.” His voice was too hoarse to talk after he’d cried himself out. “Didn’t expect that to happen.”
She let go of him to pour coffee, adding sugar and cream. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” Just the thought made him flinch.
Would she pry? Or was that relief on her face? Either way, she smiled wanly.
“Then tell me about your family? They sold the house and auto shop, didn’t they?”
“I don’t know if the shop sold yet.” As if he hadn’t lost all emotional control, he took a cup of coffee from her. He filled her in on Nash, Shelby, and Ace, who would be livid once they found out he’d left the medical facility against medical advice, and who—possibly—had no clue he’d returned to Bluewater Bay.
“. . . Dad and Fjóla are awesome, but they want to drop what they’re doing and hover until I’m back to normal, and that’s the last thing any of us needs.”
“Call them.” Her sharp green eyes drilled holes in him. Her voice stayed gentle.
“I’ll call them.” He nodded slowly. He was so tired. She was right. He should call them.
She smiled. “Do it now.”
He had his phone out before he realized he was acting like a muppet. “You still have that mind-control thing, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Because then you’d have to kill me.”
She smiled serenely.
His father answered on the fourth ring.
“About time you called me.” Pop’s angry voice was firmly in place.
“Because you make it so rewarding.”
A sigh. “Good to hear your voice, Heals.”
So saying, Healey’s world went click and the ground beneath his feet got pieced back together like it was made of Lego bricks. What was it about fathers, anyway? The minute he heard his pop’s voice growling at him from—where were they now? New Guinea?—his heart settled happily in his chest. Bland music played in the background wherever he was.
“You left the hospital,” his pop grumbled. “Nash is furious.”
He deserved that. “I know.”
“You left before Fjóla and I could even get on a plane. No one knew where you went. Do you know how that made me feel? Especially when I spoke to Ford’s parents? I had to tell them I didn’t know how to find you.”
Pop’s tone softened. “The arraignment went without a hitch, Heals. Ford got bail.”
“I know.” Did his father think he’d run away from everyone’s questions? “I’ve been interviewed too, Pop. I told the police everything.”
An audible hesitation on his pop’s part told Healey to brace himself.
“You should call his folks. They need to hear the whole story from you.”
“No way.” He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t. “No way.”
Pop paused a long time. Only the background music told Healey they still had a connection. “Is it because when you remember it, you relive it?”
“No.” He didn’t have to relieve that last evening with Ford to want to put it out of his mind. The accident had been terrifying, but Ford’s behavior . . .
In retrospect, it was Healey’s graduation that’d changed everything. Things hadn’t been working between Healey and Ford for a while, but they’d agreed that stress was playing a negative role, and once Healey defended, they could kick back and enjoy things.
But while Ford had agreed with Healey’s assessment, and they’d both said all the right things, Healey’d still felt uneasy. They’d been fighting a lot. Healey wanted to take a little time out after graduation. He wanted to be with his family and travel. Maybe even do some volunteer work for one of the many environmental groups he supported.
Ford had a vice presidency in his father’s corporation to look forward to. He didn’t have to decide what to do next. His parents were going to gift him with an expense account, a condo in the correct zip code, and a company car.
That last night, all their problems—all the ways they weren’t compatible—erupted into a massive take-no-prisoners fight. They’d spent hours hashing things out. In the end, they’d agreed to end things amicably, with respect.
Healey’d felt a tingle of caution. Ford’s behavior had—at times—been unpredictable, but as far as Healey knew, he’d been faithfully taking his meds.
Ford was angry, but he’d agreed.
Ford had been quiet, but not . . . upset. Not then, anyway.
He’d suggested they take a Vegas trip—one last mad adventure together.
Ford had acted in control. Amiable. Relaxed. Charming. Healey’d gone along, ignoring his instincts—he’d hesitated to call Ford’s family for help—and things went sour. The rest was history, now.
“You were there.” Pop ignored his protests. “Ford says he doesn’t remember. You’re the only one who can answer Ford’s family’s questions.”
Ford’s parents loved Healey, and he loved them. They’d expect him to back up anything Ford told the police about their accident.
But they were the ones building a narrative based on a lie.
“What I remember will ruin everything for Ford.”
“How can that be?”
On some level, Healey knew what he ought to do. He ought to step up and tell the whole truth about the accident.
But how could he face either set of parents with the truth?
How could he tell them he’d ignored those crucial, crucial signs?
“Where are you?” his father asked.
Where? I’m home. And it’s not working. “I’m in Bluewater Bay, Pop.”
“Why? When you could go anywhere in the world?”
“It’s home, I guess. Even now. I wanted—” Throat burning, he closed his eyes, unable to finish the sentence.
When was he going to get a handle on all this crying?
His pop took pity on him. “I’m so sorry, Heals. Me and Fjóla are wrapping things up here. We’ll be home before you know it.”
“No way, Pop. Don’t. This obviously isn’t home anymore. Let me get past the broken bones. Once the arm heals—”
“You need more than medical attention, son. Did you even find a place to stay during the tourist swarm?”
“I’m at Clara Underhill’s right now.” If his dad understood him to mean he was staying with Clara, the only result was the discomfort that came with a mild half-truth.
On the other hand, Clara glared at him because she wasn’t a half-truth kind of person and never had been. He muted his phone to argue with her, then paused. He couldn’t stay in Nash’s old place.
He needed a bed, a bathtub, and some goddamn help. He needed physical therapy, and despite his distaste for talking over his problems, he probably needed emotional support too. His dad, Clara, even the dude who’d bought his dad’s place could see it.
Why was he fighting this?
He couldn’t do this—couldn’t come back from the breakup, losing Ford, nearly dying himself—on his own.
Again, he felt his face crumple. He had no control over crying anymore. No shame. When emotions grew too much for him, tears simply gathered and fell.
“Oh, Healey. I’m so sorry, son.” Pop’s words dropped like summer rain on a graveside service.
Clara put her hand on his shoulder, and gently, she pried the phone from his hands. “Hello, Ace. I’ve arranged for Healey to stay at the Burnt Toast B&B for a while. Derrick is expecting him.”
They spoke awhile longer, and then she left to give him some privacy while he finished up with his pop. Or rather, his father tried to reassure him, while Fjóla broke in every so often with loving platitudes.
Oh, how fervently he wished a hole would open up—the hell mouth they’d all postulated spawned Clara Underhill—to swallow him.