CHAPTER ONE – TO GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE WE GO
Aidan Walsh let his head thump back against the passenger seat’s headrest. He and his little sister, Sarah, were waiting for their mother Anna to pay for gas. Hopefully, the quarter tank he’d pumped into the SUV would be enough to get them to their grandfather’s place, because that was the last of their cash. Aidan sighed and ran a hand through his short, messy bronze-colored hair. With the luck the Walsh family had been having lately, they’d run out of fuel halfway up the mountain and would have to push the SUV the rest of the way.
“Aidey?” Sarah called from the back seat.
He turned around to look at her. She was completely surrounded by their belongings. Luckily, she was tiny or she wouldn’t have fit in the small slot left between two suitcases. Aidan, too, was slight, but not a weakling, he reminded himself. He wished he were bigger, but it wasn’t to be. Even though he was going to be eighteen in a week, he doubted he was going to grow much more. It was no use looking at his parents’ height and hoping that maybe he’d have a late growth spurt. He was adopted. A foundling,’as his mother often described him. He’d snorted when she’d told him the first time and then asked her whether sometimes she wished he were a lostling.
"Never," she had said. "Never. You were my gift. For you, I had the strength I needed to leave a very bad place."
Only now they were headed back to that very bad place, because they had run out of options when they’d run out of money.
“Aidey?” Sarah repeated, her lower lip threatening to stick out if he didn’t speak to her right that instant.
“What?” he asked.
“Why’s Momma taking so long?”
“She’s asking for directions to Grandfather Patrick’s. We can’t afford to get lost,” he answered her and thumped his head back against the headrest.
"Call him Grandfather Patrick. Not Grandpa. Not Pat. Grandfather Patrick. He’s particular and I don’t want him to have an excuse to be cruel to you," Anna had explained when they’d begun this road trip.
“Why can’t we afford to get lost?” Sarah asked, her little head popping up between the two front seats. Her mouth puckered in frustration as she stared at the door of the service station. “Does it cost a lot?”
Aidan shut his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. She was only seven. He tried to remember what it was like to be a kid that age. Problem was, even though he was only seventeen, he felt seventy. But he was pretty sure that at eight Sarah wouldn’t understand that they were broke, that their father hadn’t paid a dime of child support in over a year, that Anna’s measly salary at the diner hadn’t paid enough to cover their rent and food, and finally, that living with their grandfather was their only option other than homelessness even if he was as nasty and cold as Anna said he was.
No, Sarah wouldn’t understand any of that, so he merely said, “Because Mom wants to get us there as quick as she can. Aren’t you sick of being in the car, Bed Bug?”
She giggled at his pet name for her then bobbed her head in agreement. “I want to be outside. It’s so hot in here.”
Aidan agreed. The air in the SUV felt about ten degrees warmer than the already broiling air outside even with all the windows rolled down. The air conditioner was on the fritz. Not that we could use it even if it did work. Can’t afford to burn a half-gallon more gas, Aidan thought, exhaustion from worrying about money weighing down his shoulders. He was so sick of being poor.
Aidan shifted in the seat. His skin made a sucking noise as he detached it from the vinyl. He grimaced at the pattern the upholstery left on his pale forearm. He hated the heat. What he wouldn’t do for cool darkness at that moment. Just to torture himself, Aidan imagined slipping into a pool of chilly water with a ghost-white moon hanging high and pregnant above his head. He envisioned how the water would feel as he dove in: like liquid silk against his overheated skin, pebbling his nipples, and caressing his flanks …
The muted ting of the bell over the gas station’s door startled Aidan out of his daydream. He shifted in his seat and adjusted himself in his suddenly too tight jeans. You know you’ve had enough of the heat if the thought of swimming in cold water gets you hard, Aidan thought with a laugh.
He turned his head in time to see Anna exit the station. Her blonde hair was drawn up into a messy ponytail with most of it straggling down around her face. Another large chunk slid out and plastered itself to her neck as she nodded her head to whatever the gas station attendant said. With a too-bright smile, she began to walk briskly towards their car. The attendant’s beady black eyes watched her leave. When he caught sight of Aidan, his large mouth turned down at the corners and he began to wipe his hands vigorously as if washing himself of their presence. As those black eyes met his, Aidan’s arousal disappeared.
When Anna slipped inside and shut the door, Aidan said, “I thought small towns were supposed to be friendly. Then again, this one is called Devil’s Ridge.”
“They are friendly,” she answered as she pulled her sunglasses off the top of her head and slipped them over her eyes.
“Really? Then why does he look like he can’t wait for us to be gone?” Aidan asked as he gestured towards the attendant whose frown had grown even more pronounced as he continued to stare a hole through Aidan.
Their mother didn’t even look before she said, “I’m sure you’re just imagining things, hon. You’ve got to give this place a chance. We all do.”
“I don’t think he likes us, Momma,” Sarah said. She pulled back from beneath the front seats so that she was completely hidden by their suitcases and a box of Aidan’s books.
“They’re just a bit suspicious of strangers. But you watch, once people get to know us, it’ll be great,” Anna said firmly. She tried to smile bravely at Sarah in the rearview mirror, but her smile quickly died when Sarah just stared back at her with wide, disbelieving blue eyes. Anna’s shoulders slumped. “It’s not us he dislikes, sweet pea. It’s just –”
“Does Grandfather Patrick have that bad of a reputation?” Aidan asked, a quirked smile on his lips.
“People like my father,” she said as she thrust the key into the ignition.
“They just don’t know him very well, right?” Aidan asked.
She gave him a smile and ruffled his hair. “It’ll be okay. I know things have been tough, but that’s all behind us now.”
Aidan was quiet for a long time before he finally nodded in an agreement he didn’t really feel.