Back to You
Journalist Alex Buchanan has come home to the remote British Columbia town he grew up in, but only because his estranged father is dying. For Alex, the homecoming holds a mix of memories, mostly bad. The only bright spot is reconnecting with Benji Morning, the childhood friend he never truly forgot. As boys, the strength of their bond had frightened Alex. But now that he’s confident in his bisexuality, he’s drawn back to quiet, soft-spoken Ben.
Ben isn’t the same boy Alex left behind, though. His life has been overshadowed by the disappearance of his sister two decades earlier, and now a new break in the case threatens to undo the peace he’s worked so hard to attain.
As Alex struggles to repair the relationship with his father before it’s too late, he finds himself caught up in a twenty-year-old mystery, a story he never expected, and a shocking truth that could affect his and Ben’s future together.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Like any good writer, I’ve gone over my childhood in my mind so many times, searching for what went wrong, why Dad hadn’t fought harder to keep us all together instead of letting Mom bundle us off to Seattle. It was like he’d wanted us to go, couldn’t wait to be rid of us. Had he been depressed? Was it the alcohol? Was it me?
After a while, I forced myself not to care. It was better not to dwell on everything we’d left behind.
—From “My Father’s Son” by Alex Buchanan
There are people in your life who stick with you forever.
You might forget them for a while or push them to the back of your mind, but they are written on your skin like a tattoo, etched in your bones, in your blood, your very breath. They hold on and never let go. So much a part of you that you don’t even know they’re there.
Benji Morning was that person for me. It was why, twenty years after I’d last seen him, I was driving east along Highway 16, awash in recollections of that long, hot, bucolic summer of 1996 that had ended in such turmoil, instead of heading for the hospital. It was the summer I first felt those then-uncomfortable feelings that would define the rest of my life, the summer Benji’s sister ran away, the summer my once-happy family finally fell apart for good.
Twenty years apart is a long time. I don’t mean to give the impression that those years have been shit, or that I’ve been pining for the awkward, redheaded boy I once knew. There’s nothing shorter than a thirteen-year-old boy’s attention span, and by the beginning of ninety-seven, I was settled in a new school in Seattle, with a new group of friends to entertain me, girls to chase, and memories of our life in the wilds of British Columbia, of Benji in particular, fading faster than a pair of newly purchased blue jeans in the washer.
Life goes on, whether we want it to or not.
These were the thoughts flitting through my mind as I headed further into the Bulkley Valley in my rented Ford Explorer, the majestic Hudson Bay Mountain in my rearview mirror. It was only the first week of November, but the peaks were snowcapped and ready for ski season to begin. I wished I could blame my strange mood on the jet lag, on the altitude, on the fact it had taken me eighteen hours and four planes—each one successively smaller—to get here from New York, but I couldn’t. I’d been on edge since my sister, Janet, had called four days ago to say Dad was in the hospital, dying, and could I please come because he wanted to see me.
I’d like to say I booked the first flight to BC, but I didn’t. Dad certainly hadn’t wanted to see me at any point in the intervening years. We talked once or twice a year on the phone—brief, impersonal conversations—but I hadn’t seen him since shortly before I’d started grad school more than a decade ago. As far as I was concerned, he’d abdicated all parental responsibility the moment he let us go without a fight, and to be honest I was happy with that arrangement.
No, it wasn’t Dad, or even Janet, who’d brought me here. The truth was a little less flattering. In the end, it had been Brad, my editor, who had convinced me that it would be good for my career to chronicle my reunion for the Journal, the magazine that employed me.
But the minute I landed in Smithers this morning and got behind the wheel of my rental, it was my childhood friend Benji Morning who’d consumed my thoughts. Rather than calling Janet and going immediately to the hospital to see my dad, I turned in the other direction. Toward the place I’d once called home.
It was a compulsion I couldn’t ignore.
Truthfully, I hadn’t thought of Benji in years. I hadn’t let myself. I’d been far too busy growing up, having fun, working my ass off to build a name for myself as a journalist. And being away from him, from the intense connection we’d shared as kids, was easier.
Now everything was coming back, as if it all had happened only yesterday, and spawning this jittery, gaping hole in the pit of my stomach. The sensation only grew stronger the closer I got to Alton. I couldn’t explain it.
I needed to know where Benji was. What he’d done with his life. And if he was still in the area, I wanted to see my old friend again. If he would still speak to me, that was.
I should have stayed in touch. I should have swallowed my pride, reached out, and begged forgiveness for ignoring him so long.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda, as my ex-wife was fond of saying, usually with an exasperated roll of her eyes.
In hindsight, I suppose I could have Googled him, or found him on Facebook like any other long-lost friend, but I was already in motion, driving the extra hour east purely by instinct, as if Benji were my true north and I the needle on a compass.
Finding him was a long shot—it had been twenty years since Mom, Janet, and I had left BC, and the Mornings could have moved away—but folks in these parts never tended to go far, and my gut instincts, the ones that had served me well in my career, were too strong to ignore.
An early-winter mist hung low in the sky, stretching across the valley and only emphasizing my feeling of isolation as I drove. The Trans-Canada Highway unwound before me, not really a highway at all, but a two-lane, lonely blacktop carved out of the endless forests that pressed in on both sides. Most of the old growth is gone now, and what remains is tall and spindly, but make no mistake—this is pure wilderness; as dangerous as it is breathtaking. There are stretches, like this one, where it’s possible to drive for hours with no sign of civilization, and the vast emptiness was a little unnerving to my suburban senses. As a kid, the woods, the lakes, the abandoned logging camps and mines that dotted the region had been the best sort of amusement park, but I’d been gone a long time—replaced the towering lodgepole pines and Engelmann spruce with skyscrapers.
The rhythmic swoosh of the windshield wipers as they battled the falling mist was a comforting balm to my nerves. On my right, a weather-beaten billboard, nestled against the encroaching forest, made my skin crawl with gooseflesh as I passed: Hitchhiking—Is it worth the risk?
I shivered and turned the heater up another notch, mentally cataloguing my impressions for later. Brad would appreciate the local color when I filed my story.
With each passing mile, the memories grew thicker, swarming around me like gnats I couldn’t swat away. The burning sensation in my chest increased, and I reached for the roll of antacids I’d bought at the airport—definitely shouldn’t have had that last glass of airport wine at the stopover in Vancouver.
Finally, another sign leapt into view: Welcome to Alton. Pop. 3,200
Unlike the larger, regional center of Smithers, with its quaint chalet-style architecture and overpriced gastropubs for the ski crowd, Alton was a blue-collar resource town. It was nestled squarely between the two princes—Prince Rupert to the west, and Prince George to the east—in the midst of a bounty of natural resources. In its heyday, residents had flocked to work at the Hummingbird or Europa Mines, or at one of the many sawmills in the area.
My heart kicked as I saw the low, green slope of Mount Roddick to the north and the needle of its familiar radio transmission tower. I was close. That rocky terrain and thick woods had been my backyard, my playground, and Benji my fellow explorer.
A few minutes later, on the outskirts of town, I turned off the highway and onto a rural side road, surprising myself by remembering the way. A quarter mile after that, I made another left onto North Star Lane, and the pavement became oiled gravel that crunched beneath the tires. Back in 1996, there had been only two houses on this short, dead-end street—ours and the Mornings’. Benji and I had had the run of the place, zipping back and forth to each other’s house, playing one-on-one shinny in the street without having to worry about cars interrupting our game. The story was that some long-ago developer had bought the whole parcel, intending to build an exclusive enclave, only he’d gone bust after the first two slipshod houses.
Now as I slowed to avoid kicking up gravel, I saw someone had built an ugly chalet-style A-frame on the once empty lot at the end. My haze of nostalgia evaporated at the unwelcome reminder that not everything would be the same as I’d left it.
Fortunately, there was no need to wonder if the Mornings were still around. Their name was on the mailbox, spelled out in those black and gold, peel-and-stick letters you could buy for $1.99 in any hardware store. With a hitch in my chest, I turned into the long gravel drive.
The yellow clapboard ranch was just as I remembered. Sure, the siding was faded, the paint peeling in places, and the sloping front lawn more overgrown than I recalled, but considering it had been twenty years, surprisingly little had changed.
There were two vehicles in the driveway. I parked the Explorer behind a well-used silver GMC Jimmy 4X4 and a newer blue Jeep, and walked the rest of the way up the drive to the house. The crisp air was heavy with the scent of snow. I zipped up my jacket and wished I had brought warmer clothing. Then again, I wouldn’t be here long.
The large two-car garage nestled behind the low house snagged my attention. Benji’s dad had built it as his workshop in the year before he’d died, back before we had moved to the street. At some point since I’d been gone, windows and a door had been added to the second story, as well as a deck that was accessed by an exterior staircase. A neatly stacked cord of chopped wood wrapped one side of the garage, and the sweet smell of smoke in the air brought a lump of homesickness to my throat.
Reaching the front door of the house, I rang the doorbell and waited, my palms sweaty enough that despite the chill, I had to wipe them on my jeans.
Before too long, the inner door opened, and a suspicious face peered out. The stale odor of cigarette smoke wafted through the screen door.
I tried to hide my surprise. Angela Morning was about the same age as my mother, but she looked a decade older now. I might never have recognized her if it weren’t for the button she wore pinned to her cardigan. The button was printed with a photo, and it was the familiar young woman’s face smiling back at me that made my breath catch.
“Yes?” Mrs. Morning prompted.
I started out of my trance. “Mrs. Morning? Hi, I doubt you remember me but—”
“Oh, finally. I knew you’d come,” she growled with the gravelly voice of a long-time smoker.
“Come in.” She unlocked the screen door and stepped back so I could enter. “Are you from Dateline?”
“No, The New York Journal actually, but—”
“I haven’t heard of that one.”
“We’re small, but reputable.” Out of habit, I produced one of the business cards I always kept handy. “But Mrs. Morning . . .” The words crumbled to dust in my mouth as I trailed after her into the front room. It was like walking into the past. Same low-pile beige carpet, same blue velveteen overstuffed sofa. I almost expected twelve-year-old Benji to run out and greet me. But rather than instilling a sense of nostalgia, the hair on the back of my neck rose in unease.
My attention flew to the long wall between living and dining room, which was filled with photographs—more than I remembered. Two or three were of Benji as a kid, and my eyes lingered on them for a moment, and there hung Mr. and Mrs. Morning’s old wedding portrait, the only photo I’d ever seen of the late Samson Morning. But most of them were of Ben’s sister, Misty. Misty as a smiling child. Misty as a teenager, posing for the camera in that sweet yet sultry way I remembered—her nubile body beckoning you in, while her eyes, those cold, hard eyes, said you could look but never touch. Misty in her graduation cap and gown ready to take on the world.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Mrs. Morning murmured at my shoulder.
“She is.” And so young. Far younger looking than I remembered. It was a shock to recall that she’d only been seventeen when I last saw her. I’d known that of course, as she’d been Janet’s best friend, but she’d always seemed so much older, more mature. Misty Morning had lived up to every bit of her attention-grabbing name. In life—at least to my thirteen-year-old self—she’d been the pinnacle of femininity; an object of both lust and terror. Long legs, sweet tits. Big strawberry-blonde hair. And here she was, preserved in her youth forever.
There was no other way to describe it: this was a shrine.
“Everyone said I was being overconcerned back then. That I was wasting their time. But I knew. A mother always knows.”
“I’m sorry, what—” As I turned, my eyes landed on the stack of “Missing” flyers on the coffee table—similar to the ones I’d helped hand out in town in the weeks after Misty ran away—and put it all together. “She never came home,” I croaked, aghast. Twenty years later, Mrs. Morning was still looking for her runaway daughter.
Now things made sense. As a writer, I’d encountered my fair share of tragedies, but I’d never felt anything as strong as what I felt now in Mrs. Morning’s living room. The sadness was as thick and palpable as the cigarette smoke that hung in the air. I was afraid to breathe it in.
“We’re holding a rally this weekend. Hoping to generate new tips and pressure the police into action,” Angela said. “Let me give you a button.” She rummaged in a box next to the flyers and then thrust a button similar to the one she wore into my hands. “Your timing is great. Maybe you can work the rally into your piece.”
Piece? “Mrs. Morning, I think there’s been—”
“Please, call me Angela. Let me put the kettle on for some tea.”
“No, Mrs. M—” But she was gone before I could tell her that I’d only come in search of Benji. I strode toward the kitchen, intending to correct the misunderstanding, but halted when I saw the newspapers scattered across the dining room table. They were in the process of being clipped and carefully glued into a scrapbook, and the headline of the nearest one read, Missing girl’s case reopened.
“All this time you never heard from her?” I exclaimed. “How is that possible?”
“You didn’t know?” Mrs. Morning asked from the archway. She had lit a cigarette and now blew a trail of smoke from the corner of her mouth. “Didn’t they fill you in? I always said Misty was no runaway. Two fishermen found her car near MacFarlane Lake a little over a week ago.”
MacFarlane Lake? That was only fifty miles east of here, in the center of the valley. The whole area was a maze of lakes and swampland.
The memory of Misty’s white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme seeped into my brain, coalescing like a slow-developing Polaroid. Calling it a shit-bucket would have been generous. I’d lost count of the number of times my dad had been over here, replacing parts and mending hoses just to keep it running. But Misty had driven it like it was a Jag and she a princess too good for the rest of us. I guess in this neck of the woods she had been.
“I bought that car for her so she wouldn’t have to hitchhike. So she’d be safe, not like those other girls.” Her voice cracked. Immediately I thought of the billboard along the highway, and a shiver raced up my spine. “Twenty years and all this time, she’s been so close.”
My heart broke at the pain in her voice. “Mrs. Morning, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” A thunderous guilt wrenched my gut. If I’d stayed in touch, I would have known.
“My baby’s still out there somewhere. She needs me. But ever since they found her car, the police won’t tell us a thing.”
The journalist in me kicked in. “So there was no sign of her?”
“They sent divers into the lake, brought out the dogs to search the swamp, but nothing turned up.” She stubbed her cigarette into an already overflowing ashtray on the table. “When will you start?”
“The interview. Will your crew be arriving soon? The rally’s on Saturday. It would make a good opener to your segment, wouldn’t it? We’re going to start here at the RCMP detachment and then form a convoy along 16 to Prince George. I’ve got at least a dozen cars signed up.”
For the first time since I’d arrived, fire had leapt into her eyes. Shit. She thought I was here for the story. She had no clue who I was. “Mrs. Morning—Angela—I’m not with a network . . .”
“Oh, right. A New York paper, wasn’t it?”
It’s me. Alex Colville. I used to sit at this very pine table and do homework with Benji. But the words didn’t make it past my lips.
The name on my card was Alex Buchanan, Buchanan being my stepfather’s surname. If she hadn’t already recognized me, there was little chance she’d tie me to Alex Colville, her son’s best friend. I’d worked hard to shed my nerdy fat-boy image. Plus, she’d put in twelve-hour shifts at the mill and hadn’t been home much. When she had been, she’d always seemed too preoccupied to notice us.
Angela Morning shrugged. “I was hoping for television, but I guess you’ll have to do.” She withdrew a crumpled pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her cardigan, saw it was empty, and sighed.
“No, I’m not really here to—”
The kettle’s shriek cut me off, and Mrs. Morning left me in the dining room with a promise to be right back.
Now what? All I wanted was to know how I could reach Benji, but the longer I stayed without revealing myself, the more awkward this became. Unless . . . unless I could somehow find out about him without tipping her off. A new worry arced through my mind. What if Benji hated me? I’d promised to write and never had. What if he never wanted to see me again? I’d come here on instinct, without thinking this meeting through.
“I won’t forget about you, I promise,” I’d said. Had I known then it was a lie? The first of many I’d told over the years. And right now, the one I regretted the most.
Somewhere in the recesses of the house, a door slammed.
“Angela? Whose car is that in the driveway?” demanded an angry voice. “It’s blocking me in.”
My stomach hollowed. Surely it couldn’t be.
“It’s a reporter,” Mrs. Morning boasted. “You said they wouldn’t come, but they did. He’s going to do a story on Misty.”
“The hell he is.” The voice was closer.
I spun around just as the man behind the voice stormed in from the kitchen.
That mop of auburn curls. The scar bisecting the left eyebrow from where I’d caught him with my hockey stick. Those arresting blue eyes.
Like I said—indelible.
It’s the second-to-last week of August, and Benji and I are tired and sunburned from a day breaking trails down Mount Raw-dick. My bike is caked with mud, the backs of my legs are covered in mosquito bites, and Benji’s arms are scratched from the brush. But we’re happy. Soon we’ll be back at school and enduring another year of torment, but for a little while longer we’re free. We stop to catch our breath and share the last of our water from his canteen.
Benji’s eyes sparkle with excitement as they meet mine, and there’s that pinch in my chest again. The one that’s been popping up a lot this summer.
He tugs the brim of his straw hat lower, and another piece tears away in his hand. It’s falling apart, and never sits right on his head, but it used to belong to his dad, so he wears it all the time even though he gets made fun of. Sometimes I think he’s brave. Other times I think he wouldn’t get picked on so much if he didn’t act so weird.
Up ahead through the tall grass, we can see the highway, which means we’re not far from home. I can’t wait to duck under the hose and cool off, but I also dread going back. With any luck, Dad’ll be passed out on the lounger in the backyard when Mom gets home, otherwise the fighting will start. Her and Dad. Her and Janet. It seems like everybody’s mad at someone lately. Janet’s been grounded all summer—she had to miss the Spring Formal—and it’s turned her into a real super-bitch.
“Want to stop at the river for a swim before we go home?” Benji asks. It’s like he’s read my mind and knows what’s waiting for me, knows that I’ll do just about anything to stay away a bit longer.
We’re almost to the highway when we hear the throaty rumble of a motor and then the sunlight flashes on the windshield as the white car streaks past us.
“Hey, isn’t that Misty’s car?” I ask.
“I’d like for you to leave.”
Benji’s voice, soft but firm, slammed me back to the present. My heart was racing. My mind a jumble of half-formed thoughts:
He hasn’t changed—
Oh God, I still feel it.
“Please,” he added politely, regarding me with a wary tilt to his head and suspicion in those once-trusting eyes. His wild red hair had been tamed a bit and darkened to a rich auburn over the years, but hints of ginger still shot through his close beard. I would have known him anywhere. “We have nothing to say to you.”
“I do,” Angela insisted.
He swung around to face her. “Angela. You know it’s not going to make a difference.”
My temporary paralysis lifted, and the bubble of happiness that had been rising in my chest collapsed. Benji hadn’t recognized me either. And why should he? It had been a long time. The glasses were gone thanks to laser vision correction in my twenties, and long hours in the gym kept my sturdy build in check. Even my hair had darkened from its youthful blond to an ordinary brown that I kept cut short.
It’s me, I wanted to cry.
Had he forgotten me?
Heat surged into my face and neck. I needed to say something, but there was a huge lump in my throat. Now that I was here, that he was here, the past and the present were colliding, overlapping like a superimposed photograph, and I was totally unbalanced.
I’d left it too long. They were both watching me. Panic thundered in my chest—I had to get out of here. “You’re right,” I said. “I should go.”
Benji’s narrow shoulders relaxed. He never had liked conflict. “Thank you.”
A little cry escaped Angela. “But you came all this way . . .”
I was already moving toward the door. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Morning. I can’t help you.”
Without looking back, I fled the house and practically ran back to my car.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” I punctuated each curse with the slap of my palm on the steering wheel. Well, that had blown up in my face spectacularly. What had happened in there? One minute with Benji and I’d literally fallen to pieces. I held my hands out in front of me and stared at them incredulously. They were trembling.
For a second, I’d felt thirteen again: running out of that house, mouth dry, heart hammering, because my best friend had just kissed me and spun my life into chaos. With time, I’d convinced myself it hadn’t been that big a deal, but clearly I’d been wrong, based on my reaction now. Benji. He still felt like home to me, in a way no one ever had. It was a feeling that had scared me twenty years ago, scared me so much I’d cut him out of my life. Now it was back.
Acid surged in my esophagus, and I popped the last of my antacids, which barely dampened the flames clawing their way up from my gut.
A door slammed, and I looked up. Benji had emerged from the house, clad in a khaki anorak jacket. He moved gracefully, long legs eating up the ground as he headed toward the Jimmy parked in front of me, and my heart sped up. He scowled when he saw my Explorer.
I wanted to go to him. To walk into his arms, hug him, to put the past behind us and feel once again that connection we’d had. That warm satisfaction of knowing that there was someone in this world who got me. I’d never felt that with anybody but Benji: not with my ex-wife, not with any of my lovers over the years, male or female.
I got out of my car, gripping the doorframe for support.
“Was there something you wanted?” he asked. His tone was mostly curious, but there was a hint of trepidation underneath.
“I—I’m sorry about Misty.”
“Are you? Why?”
“Why?” I repeated, taken aback by his callousness.
“She’s nothing to you. I get that you’re doing your job here, but dredging this up is a waste of time.”
“But doesn’t your mom deserve to have some closure? To know the truth about what happened to her daughter?”
Beneath his beard, his jaw tensed. I could see it even from where I stood. He narrowed the gap between us, and I took an involuntary step back. “What she deserves, what we all deserve, is to move on with our lives. It’s been twenty years. Misty is gone.”
It was his tone—flat, dull, lifeless—that made me flinch. Coming from the sensitive boy I remembered, the effect was chilling. “That’s an awfully cold thing to say about your sister.”
Ben had always had this intense way of staring at people. As a kid his eyes had been too large and deep for his face, making him seem goggle-eyed, like he was constantly surprised. It could be disconcerting at times. More than once it had made me think he could see into my soul.
Now his mature features fit perfectly, but oddly, he wouldn’t hold my gaze. “Look around you,” he said, nodding toward Mount Roddick. “It took this long for her car to be found. We’re surrounded by wilderness. By lakes and swamps and rivers. If she’s out there, do you really believe there’s anything left to find?”
“So you think she’s dead. Not that she just ditched the car and doesn’t want to be found.”
“You don’t know my sister. She wouldn’t quietly fade away. Of course she’s dead. If not here, then in some random city. Angela knows that too, so how is indulging this . . . this obsession going to help? You’re not the first reporter to come here, you know. You stir things up, get your back-page story, and leave. And I’m left holding it all together.” His eyes flicked to me, then away again, and I had the sense he was on the verge of tears.
“Now, do you mind?” he snapped. “I’m going to be late for my class.” He whirled around and stalked back to his car. The engine roared to life, and the taillights glowered like angry eyes as he put the car in reverse.
I backed down the driveway, the Jimmy riding my front bumper so closely that I was afraid to stop and check out my old house across the street. As I swung around, I glimpsed brown siding through the foliage screening the property and noted the mailbox at the end of the drive, but then Benji was there, impatient, leaving me no choice but to continue back the way I’d come. He followed me down North Star Lane, to Highway 16, where we turned in opposite directions.
With a heavy heart, I watched him disappear over the horizon in my rearview mirror, the same way as I had once before.
* * * * * * *
I drove back to Smithers in a daze.
When I came upon another hand-painted billboard, this one with big black letters warning, Girls, don’t hitchhike and beneath it, three photographs and the word Missing, I sucked in a breath and accelerated as if I could outrun the malevolent presence that had suddenly gripped me. What the hell? Had those signs always been there? I couldn’t recall. Then again, teenaged boys feel invincible, don’t they? And they’re notoriously self-absorbed.
By the time I checked myself into the efficiency unit I’d booked at the Summit View Motor Inn on the outskirts of town, jet lag was catching up to me. Janet hadn’t offered up her place, and I hadn’t asked even though it sure would have been cheaper. Never close, we were essentially strangers these days, and I had no desire to spend more time together than we needed to. Besides, this way if things got too overwhelming, I could escape.
With fishing and hunting seasons winding down, and the ski season yet to begin, I had lucked out and was able to book the cheapest place within easy distance to the hospital. Still, it was costing me $89 a night. For a room that looked as though it hadn’t been updated since before I was born. At least it was clean, with free internet and a kitchenette with a small fridge and a microwave. Attached to the motel office was a Chinese restaurant and a liquor store. What else could a man want?
I texted Janet to let her know I’d arrived, and she told me she’d meet me at the hospital as soon as her shift at the Toyota dealership in town ended. I could have gone without her, but frankly, I needed the buffer. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.
So with a few hours to kill, I took a long shower and lay down for a short nap. My mind whirled with flashes of Ben and Misty, and my dad as I’d last seen him, and I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but the hum of cars buzzing along the highway outside my room lulled me, and I was out almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
When I opened my eyes again, the room was getting dark. I’d slept nearly the whole afternoon, and now I had to scramble to meet Janet on time.
The Bulkley Valley District Hospital in Smithers was the only hospital for the region. It was small, and compared to the overcrowded, noisy hospitals of New York, eerily quiet. At only three stories tall, I doubted I could have gotten lost in it if I tried, but the smiling senior citizen volunteering at the Information Desk gave me directions to Dad’s room before I finished saying his name. “You must be Janet’s brother,” she clucked. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
And this was exactly what I disliked about small towns.
My stomach tightened as I navigated the warren of hallways. What would I say? What would he? We hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, since the summer before I started my journalism degree at UBC. That had been a tense weekend, both of us drowning in silence, not knowing how to talk to each other.
Nothing had really changed.
The door to room 204 stood open. I took a deep breath and entered before I chickened out.
Jesusfuckingchrist. I clapped a hand over my mouth.
There had to be a mistake. The receptionist had sent me to the wrong room. I wasn’t even sure this yellow-skinned thing in the bed was a man, let alone my dad. Still, as my initial shock wore off, I ventured a step closer.
The man in front of me was a husk, dried out and emptied. I’d never seen a person so hollowed, and yet his belly swelled beneath the blanket—like one of those famine victims in the Save the Children commercials. Bile rose in the back of my throat.
His closed eyes were sunken in their sockets, the eyeballs rolling beneath translucent skin as though he were battling nightmarish creatures in his sleep. His fingers tugged restlessly at the bed linens, and every few seconds, his lips, cracked and shrunken, would twitch.
I held my breath.
Suddenly I couldn’t bear the thought of those eyes flying open. I fled. And collided with Janet in the hallway. My hands instinctively flew to her shoulders. “Janet!” I quickly released her.
“Sandy. You’re here.”
I gritted my teeth at the old nickname. It was a diminutive of Alexander and a holdover from Dad’s Scottish heritage, but no one ever knew that. I’d been ribbed mercilessly as a kid. Janet was the only one who still persisted in using it, probably because she knew it irked me.
We didn’t hug but stood there awkwardly as she glanced over my shoulder. “Not a pretty sight, is he? I wanted to be here to warn you.”
“That’s not— That can’t be him.”
Janet’s cheeks and nose were pink—from the cold, I assumed. Then I smelled mouthwash on her breath and knew she’d been drinking. She always hid it well, but when you’ve grown up with an alcoholic, the tricks become easy to spot. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas in Seattle four years ago with Mom and Dan. Rockwellian it had not been, and the day after Christmas, we’d scattered without looking back, like cockroaches scuttling for darkness.
She fidgeted now under my scrutiny. “It’s him. No surprise you don’t recognize him. When’s the last time you bothered to visit? Oh, right, never.”
“It’s a two-way street, Janet.”
“Yeah, ’cause he could afford to fly to New York. Sandy, you’re the one who cut us out of your life.”
I winced. This had to be a record for us. Five minutes in each other’s company and we were already fighting over who the bad guy was. This was an old pattern. Janet defending Dad, me defending Mom. We rehashed it anytime we got together—hence the miserable Christmas in Seattle. “Do we have to do this? I didn’t come all this way to bicker.”
She thrust her hands into the pockets of a fleecy jacket with the Toyota logo embroidered on the left breast and pursed her lips. Janet was almost five years older than me, and the age gap was big enough that we’d had very little to do with each other growing up. For a woman not yet forty, she hadn’t aged well. Silver streaked her straight brown hair, which she had pulled back into an unflattering ponytail. Next to Misty, Janet had always seemed homely, and that wasn’t just a brother talking. She’d inherited Dad’s strong features, and while on him they worked—my mother claimed she had fallen for his rakish good looks—on poor Janet they didn’t.
“Jesus.” I scrubbed a hand across my face and turned back toward Dad’s room. “How did this happen?”
She scowled. “How do you think it happened? It’s cirrhosis of the liver.”
“Cirrhosis.” I winced, feeling shitty for not even asking about Dad’s illness when she’d called. That was an alcoholic’s disease I knew, but never had I imagined it looked like this. It was almost enough to put me off drinking for the rest of my life. “I didn’t know it was this bad . . .”
Jerry Colville had always been what people politely referred to as a social drinker, but about the time he got laid off, his pattern changed, got serious, and he crossed the threshold into full-blown alcoholic. I never knew if the booze killed my parents’ marriage, or if their troubles had fed the booze. Either way, his problem appeared to only have gotten worse. “The last time we spoke, he sounded good. He was talking about a part-time job delivering the weekly flyers.”
Janet curled her lip. “He lost that job months ago, along with his driver’s license.” She shook her head. “God, it must have been at least seven months now.”
I frowned. I thought I’d talked to him on Father’s Day, as usual, but maybe my memory was playing tricks. “Why is he . . . like that?” I waved my hand in Dad’s direction.
“Bloated? It’s fluid buildup in his abdomen. His liver is failing,” she murmured. We were both speaking in hushed tones, as though he might hear us.
“Can’t they do something? A transplant?”
She shook her head. “It’s too late. He was diagnosed three years ago. They told him he needed to get sober. He kept drinking.”
“And you let him?”
“I didn’t know about it, Sandy.” She wiped at her eyes with the back of her sleeve and then rummaged in her pocket for a ratty tissue to blow her nose.
I wished I could be more like Janet. All I felt was a detached sort of sympathy. He was, in a sense, a stranger to me.
I remembered us as being a happy, normal family for much of my childhood—of course I’d been only a kid, and everything had seemed simpler then, but we’d had good times. There had been Christmases and birthdays, and the occasional family fishing or camping trips. Benji would often accompany us, as my mom had felt sorry for him being on his own so much.
I was a little hazy on when things changed. I supposed it all started around ninety-two when the mine closed. Dad had worked at the Europa Silver Mine, southwest of Alton, servicing equipment, which meant that he’d board the company bus and be gone for a week at a time.
After the layoffs, the drinking had gone from one can of beer with dinner, to three. Plus the ones during the day when we were at school. Dad had caught some occasional handyman jobs, but they hadn’t been enough, and Mom had had to start working as a secretary for the township. She’d become the sole breadwinner. The camping trips had stopped, replaced by tense silences and then shouting behind closed doors. Then came our expulsion to my grandmother’s in Seattle and the divorce.
Daniel Buchanan, the guy my mom married a year after we landed in Seattle, was the one who’d been a true father to me. It was Dan who’d been there for those tumultuous teenaged years, who’d called me on my shit when I’d acted out, who’d taught me to drive a stick shift, and bought me my first pack of condoms, who’d beamed with pride at my graduations. It was his name I’d proudly taken.
“Have you talked to Mom lately?” Janet asked.
“Yeah. I let her know I was coming here.”
“She didn’t want to come.”
“I know. You can’t really blame her though. They’ve been divorced for nearly twenty years.”
Dad mumbled something in his sleep, too low to make out. His head tossed on the pillow, long, greasy gray strands splaying out like tentacles. I took a cautious step back into the room, leaving Janet lingering in the doorway. “How long has he been like this?” I asked.
“He collapsed a week ago. The doctors said there was nothing more they could do.” She gestured to the equipment surrounding the bed. “This is just palliative.”
“You said he wanted to see me. Is he even conscious?”
“Sometimes he’s lucid. Sometimes he rambles nonsense. His liver can’t filter toxins anymore, and they’re slowly making their way into his brain. Most of the time he sleeps. They keep him sedated a lot. For the pain.” She hugged herself.
A female nurse in purple scrubs stopped outside the door and greeted Janet. I pegged her for early thirties, the youngest person I’d seen in the hospital so far, and pretty in a girl-next-door way. “Thought you’d be here,” she said with an easy smile. “Jerry was very agitated today. We had to up his dose of morphine. I don’t think he’ll be up to talking anytime soon.”
“That’s fine. This is my brother, Sandy.”
“Alex,” I corrected.
The nurse—Katy, her name tag read—gave me an assessing stare that made me wonder what Janet had told her about me. “Nice to meet you,” she finally said. “I’m sorry about the circumstances.”
“Do we know how much longer he has?” I asked.
Janet snorted. “Why? You got someplace better to be? I’m so sorry we’re inconveniencing you. I forgot how self-centered you are. All you ever think about is yourself.”
“I’m trying to be practical, Jan.” I’d left my return flight open-ended, but I didn’t want to drag this out if I didn’t have to.
Katy glanced back and forth between us. “A week? Maybe less,” she informed me. “Dr. Pleasanton was by this morning. We can’t drain any more fluid—his liver’s expanded so much we can’t get to it. I’m afraid there’s not much else that can be done at this point but make him comfortable.” She laid a gentle hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze. Her eyes searched mine, and a pleasant tingle rocketed to my groin. “I’ll be around if you need me.”
I watched her leave the room and when I turned back, Janet shot me a withering glare.
“What?” I asked innocently.
A whimper from the bed drew my attention. “Can’t . . .” Dad’s voice was too weak to make out what he was saying. More mumbling. “. . .find her.”
“What is it, Dad?” Janet called. “Do you want some ice chips?”
“That’s not what he’s saying.” I leaned down to hear him better.
“Didn’t mean to . . .” Dad whispered, his stale breath blowing in my face. “Misty.”
The temperature in the room must have plummeted a dozen degrees because gooseflesh prickled my arms. I shivered. Misty. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Janet appeared at my elbow.
“He said ‘Misty.’”
“No. Her name. Misty Morning.”
Janet paled. “Are you sure? You must have heard wrong. Why would he say that?”
“I don’t know.” Dad had grown quiet again, falling back into his restless sleep. Had I really heard the name? Or were the Mornings just on my mind today? “You remember her, don’t you?”
Beside me, Janet stiffened. “Of course. She was my best friend.”
“Did you know they found her car? Out near MacFarlane Lake. Isn’t that near where we used to camp?”
“I heard.” A section of limp hair had escaped its ponytail, and when Janet tucked it behind her ear, I saw that her nails were short and ragged; the cuticles scabbed from repeated biting.
“I always thought she’d run away,” I said. “I mean Benji and I saw her that day.” We’d been the last to see her, in fact. “But now . . .”
“Maybe Dad knows about the car too.” Janet’s forehead creased. “Or overheard it somewhere.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“More than likely he was rambling. He doesn’t know what he’s saying half the time. I wouldn’t dwell on it.” She straightened the sheets Dad had knocked loose and tucked them tightly under his arms. “You got a place to stay?”
“I’m at the Summit View.”
She nodded, clearly relieved. “Good. Good. I’ve only got a one-bedroom, otherwise I would have . . .”
“It’s okay, Janet. I wouldn’t want to impose on you and Bruce anyway.”
Her breath hitched. “Bruce and I got divorced. Last spring.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know.” There was a lot I didn’t know, apparently.
I lowered my voice and turned my back to the bed. “Should we be making arrangements or something?”
“It’s already taken care of. He’ll be cremated. There won’t be a service.”
I sent up a silent prayer of relief. Being here was one thing, but I hadn’t looked forward to arranging the details of after. Janet would know better than me what his final wishes were.
“But can I . . . can I ask you to do something?” Janet asked, worrying her lower lip.
What else was there? “What is it?”
“Could you start packing up his place? Phil’s been a doll about letting me run over here on my breaks, but I can’t get any more time off. And I’m not—” Her voice broke. “I don’t think I can do it.”
Thanks a lot, Janet. I swallowed hard. At least it would keep me busy. “Yeah. Sure.”
I gave Dad one final, uncertain look.
What had I got myself into?