In paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon
In paperback from CreateSpace
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In paperback from Powells
No one ever talks about what it’s like to be left behind. James McManis knows that one in spades. Not knowing quite why, he’s felt abandoned all his life. And when his wife dies in childbirth, his son is all he has left to hang onto. But the harder James holds on over the years, the more Chuck slips through his fingers, and one day, in the aftermath of a horrific earthquake, the boy vanishes altogether. It’s when James discovers what happened to the son he tried so hard to protect that his whole world is turned upside down, and possibility opens out wider than he ever expected.
The boy took off at first light. James heard the racket as the damned motorcycle roared off down the street before the beam from the streetlight through his window had even shut off for the day. He rolled over onto his back between the sheets and wearily rubbed his eyes. He’d strictly forbidden Chuck to leave the house today. As far as James was concerned, his son was grounded until doomsday. Or until James managed to talk the board of regents into letting him back into college again, whichever came first. After the phone calls he’d made yesterday, he suspected doomsday would win that particular race.
The boy was taking his grandfather’s death hard. But so had James, and he wasn’t ruining his life over it. Not as hard as when James had lost his mother five years ago, but he’d always had the closest bond with her, from the day they’d met, or so she’d told him. Five years old he’d been, and didn’t remember a time before that, before she’d loved him. He wished he didn’t remember a time after she was gone.
He sighed and threw back the covers, sat up, and put his head in his hands and his feet on the cold floor. He supposed it didn’t matter where the boy had gone. He wouldn’t be gone long. Where else would he go? James ought to know, but he’d been busy, and he and Chuck had been like ships in the night since he’d gone off to college. Since long before he went off to college. Well, now James had to get him back there, once he came home.
If his son was to have a successful career and take over the business one day, he had to at least get his degree first.
* * *
James had showered, dressed for the office, and was halfway through breakfast when the phone rang. The housekeeper was clattering around in the kitchen, and she wouldn’t answer it when he was in the house, anyway, so out he went to the hall to pick it up.
James sighed. He’d had more than enough of his father’s lawyer yesterday at the reading of the will to last him a good long time. “Pritchard. What can I do for you this morning?”
“I’m glad you changed your mind.”
A niggling dread ran through him, but no, Pritchard wouldn’t go against his wishes. And he’d made those clear. “About what?”
“Chuck came by to pick up the paperwork for the ashes. And the money for the trip. The boy said–”
The niggle churned into full-blown anger. He took a deep breath, let it out on a whoosh when it didn’t do anything to calm him. “Dammit, you should have called me.”
“I didn’t see any need to.” The idiot sounded downright smug. “The will was clear.”
“He’s my child. You had no right to go against my wishes on this.”
“He’s nearly twenty-one, James.” The man treated him as if he was twenty. Just because that’s how old James had been when they’d first met was no excuse. Besides, he’d been carrying a 3.8 grade point average and a job at the time. Acting like the adult he was. Unlike Chuck.
“Twenty going on twelve. He’s got work to do here. He doesn’t need to be taking off for parts unknown on a fool’s errand.”
“Yellowstone is hardly parts unknown.”
“That’s not the point. The boy–”
“He’s not a boy. And he’s grieving. You saw it. Give him a few days to go to the park to say good-bye. You can shove him back into college when he gets home.” Pritchard paused. “You could use the time apart, too.”
James bit his tongue, even though it went against every instinct he had. No point in letting loose at the man. He was only doing his job. Going over a parent’s head on the orders of a dead man. Call it what it is. Right then, no matter how much James had loved his adoptive father, he wanted him back to smack him in the head.
“Look. The park’s where he grew up–”
“He grew up here,” James said flatly.
“All right, the park’s where he spent a good chunk of his childhood. It’s where he spent time with his grandparents. Let him go say good-bye to them there. Is it really any skin off your nose if he skips town for a few days?”
No, it wasn’t. Except for the principle of the thing. You’re the one who left him with them until he was old enough to go to school, and sent him up there every summer afterwards. If you didn’t want him to care for them more than he does for you, you should have spent more time with him.
“It’s none of your business whether I go after him or not.”
“But you won’t.”
James sighed. “Why do you care?”
Pritchard didn’t answer his question, just made the niceties and hung up.
James went back to his now-cold breakfast, but it had lost its appeal. He ate anyway, and refilled his coffee, and went through the rest of his normal morning routine, paying so little attention that he was a bit surprised an hour later to find himself sitting in his high-rise office with its view of the front range of the Rockies through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
That was where mountains should be, he’d always thought. Close enough to be beautiful, far enough away to be safe. It was one of the things he’d loved about Denver from the day he’d arrived here for college, forty-seven years ago. He’d been eighteen, out to set the world on fire. And he supposed he had accomplished it in his own way, to judge by this office, the thriving accounting business, the house just off Broadway, the Lincoln, the season tickets to the opera and the symphony. His client list was full of movers and shakers, his attendance in demand at charitable events. The only thing lacking was his graceful wife on his arm, but Catherine could not be replaced.
All of which was a far cry from the government-issue ranger family quarters cabin at Old Faithful where he’d grown up, or the log cabin in West Yellowstone, not much bigger or in better repair, where his parents had retired. He’d been able to help them by then, but they wouldn’t take the kind of help he’d wanted to give.
Nor did Chuck. All the boy wanted, James thought, was to go backwards. Back to the place James had clawed up out of. For him. In spite of everything James had done to teach him better.
James sighed at his tidy, and full, to-do file. He didn’t have time to go haring off to that godforsaken place. Time enough to try again when the boy came back. And he would come back. He had nowhere else to go.
The intercom buzzed. In the meantime, he had work to do.
* * *
He tried not to think about Chuck all day, and mostly succeeded. Tried not to let his anger at how things had gone badly loose, although that was a harder battle. Neither his employees nor the clients he saw that day deserved to be treated poorly, and they deserved his full attention as well.
But shoving his personal problems to the back of his mind all day proved wearing. Out of practice, James supposed, as he locked up his office and headed for home. It had been some time since he’d had to work at it so hard. A long time since he’d been glad for the workday to end, too. He liked his work. To spend his days creating order out of chaos, working with numbers that always responded with the same answers when you asked the same questions. Reliable, that’s what they were, and James respected reliability. So did the clients he worked with. They depended on him to make those numbers work for them, and to be acceptable to the government as well as their bottom lines, and that’s what he did.
Too bad the boy had to be a throwback to chaos. He should have arrived at the park by now. If he hadn’t wrecked that damned motorcycle on the way.
* * *
The house was quiet when he got home. Empty. Mrs. May was gone for the day, leaving his supper in the oven for him instead of waiting till he got home before she left. He grimaced. That was clear commentary on the shouting match she’d not have been able to help overhearing yesterday. She was inordinately fond of the boy and took his side in everything, not that her vote counted. It was one reason he’d kept her on for the last fifteen years.
Supper could wait a few more minutes. One thing he knew from yesterday’s meeting with Pritchard was the arrangements for where Chuck would be staying for the three nights his father’s will had provided for. The desk clerk at the Old Faithful Inn was pleasant and informative. James hung up the phone, relieved to know that his worst nightmare hadn’t come true that day, that he wouldn’t be scouring the roads between Denver and northwest Wyoming for a mangled motorcycle alongside the road with a dead body flung into the underbrush nearby.
That motorcycle was Chuck’s pride and joy, and the only thing the boy had worked for with his own hands and brain, money earned from summer jobs and work after school as soon as he could drive. James had been so proud to see him ambitious about anything he hadn’t had the heart to fight him for something more sensible. Safer. His mistake. It had given the boy a sense of independence he wasn’t mature enough for yet.
Catherine would have approved of it. But Catherine wasn’t here. And hadn’t been here since she’d died giving birth. All the labor she’d gone through, labor that had killed her. But she still would have approved.
Normally he would have enjoyed the peace and quiet. He hadn’t had much of it at home with a teenager in the house for the last few years. It was hard to keep from thinking about what the boy was doing that evening, though. Scattering ashes. The thought was repugnant. What was wrong with a nice plot at Cherry Hills? A place he could have gone to pay his respects and leave flowers at his parents’ graves? The way he’d always done for Catherine. He’d be damned if he was going to traipse off up there to pay his respects.
He ate, although the meal was a bit dried out by the time he got to it. He left his dishes in the sink for Mrs. May in the morning, poured himself a drink, and settled down in his easy chair for the evening. Tried to read, discovered he couldn’t concentrate, poured himself a second and turned on the television, realized after half an hour that he had no idea what he’d been watching but that his glass was empty again.
Resisted pouring himself a third, and instead listened to the clock in the hall chiming hour after hour, till it was a decent time to go to bed. He was grieving, too, in his own way, he realized after a while, realizing that his thoughts had gone to his parents, and his memories. He’d taken it out on the boy, perhaps. Blaming him for something that wasn’t his fault.
Let Chuck get his grief out of his system in his own way while he did the same. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t resolve their differences when he got back. He had to let the boy grow up sometime.
At last it was late enough to go to bed. He set his highball glass in the sink next to his supper dishes, and went upstairs.
* * *
He woke early again, when he heard the sound of a motorcycle on the street through the open window. It took his muzzy brain a moment to realize it couldn’t be Chuck so soon, but by then he couldn’t get back to sleep. He heard the milkman’s bottles rattle as they landed on the back step, the newspaper thud on the front porch. When Mrs. May’s car pulled into the driveway just as his alarm clock went off, he swung himself out of bed and began another day.
The newspaper was sitting next to his plate when he came down for breakfast.
“QUAKE JOLTS WESTERN STATES HEBGEN DAM OPEN, VACATIONERS HURT” And beside that, “TEMBLOR CRUMPLES MOUNTAINS IN DEATH, DESTRUCTION SWEEP” And, last and worst of all, below both of them, “YELLOWSTONE PARK SCENE OF FEAR, CONFUSION Single Thought: ‘Let’s Get Out'” The headlines, in heavy black ink, and their articles, taking up the entire front page of the Rocky Mountain Post, stopped his breath. He didn’t even realize he’d fallen into his chair until the dishes rattled from the force of it.
He stared at the paper, unable to touch it, unable to read any further as the words below the headlines blurred. He blinked, forcing himself to focus. The Hebgen Dam, right. His grandfather had taken him fishing at Hebgen Lake on occasion when he was a boy. It was just west of the park, less than an hour away as the raven flew from where his son was, right that moment.
He took a deep breath. “Mrs. May?” He was amazed at how calm his voice sounded, right that moment. He felt like he was standing in the middle of that earthquake himself, as if it were jolting him from the inside out.
She stuck her head through the door from the kitchen. “Yes, sir?”
“Did you see this?”
God, she was cold. And he’d thought she loved the boy. “Please call the office for me. Tell Sally I’ve had an emergency and will be out of town for a few days. She’ll need to reschedule my appointments through Thursday- no, through the rest of the week.”
No, she wasn’t cold. The relief on her face was palpable, even to him. So was the rare approval in her eyes.
“Yes, sir.” She strode across the dining room towards the hall, then stopped in the doorway. “You bring him home. Safe.”
James nodded, grabbed the paper, and strode to the car.
* * *
He was halfway to Laramie before it dawned on him that he probably should have changed his clothing, and perhaps packed a suitcase, before he left. The suit and dress shoes he was wearing was not what he’d call appropriate for a rescue mission into an disaster zone, even though his jacket and tie were now in the back seat and his shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Well, he wasn’t about to stop now. He’d manage. He and the boy would be on their way home this time tomorrow, anyway. He’d pick up a toothbrush somewhere, and hang the rest of it.
The radio was full of news of the quake. It had been felt as far away as Spokane and Salt Lake City. The Hebgen dam had ruptured, then no, it hadn’t. People were being rescued by helicopter from a landslide caused by the quake outside the park. The death toll was still rising. There’d been a second landslide, this one in the park, and the phone lines were down. The town of West Yellowstone had been all but destroyed. The town of Ennis was being evacuated because of flood fears. The roads were closed into the park, nobody allowed to enter or leave. Well, they’d see about trying to keep him out. The Gallatin County sheriff asked people to stay away from the Madison Canyon area. That was all right, he wasn’t going there. The park superintendent came on the air and asked people to stay away from the park as well.. Sorry, Mr. Garrison, I can’t. My son’s in there.
The Lincoln ate up the miles. The only stops he made were for gas and, once, to grab something to eat when he realized he hadn’t put anything in his stomach since the night before. He wrapped the wretched hamburger, purchased from a greasy spoon in Lander, in a paper napkin, and ate it one-handed as he drove on.
The radio faded in and out, giving him too much time to worry before he could tune to another station from the next town, and the next, and the next. The last one came out of Jackson Hole late in the afternoon, and lasted until the Tetons blocked the signal, not far, at last, from Yellowstone’s south entrance.
There was a steady stream of cars coming out, but not as many as he would have expected. He supposed most of the tourists were already gone and these were just the stragglers. He reached the gate only to find a line going in, too. So much for asking people to stay out. He wondered if they were all on missions like his own, or if they were just ghoulish curiosity seekers, but if there’d have been room to get by he’d have been five miles down the road by the time he finally reached the entrance kiosk.
“Good evening, sir. Welcome to Yellowstone. You should know that due to the earthquake, some of the roads are closed.”
James fumbled with his wallet. “Can I get to Old Faithful?” He shoved the entrance fee at the ranger, who took it.
“Yes, but the West Entrance–”
“Thanks. I’m not here on vacation. My son is here.”
“I’m sure he’s fine, sir. As soon as the phone lines are back up they’ll be letting people call through–”
He wouldn’t have stopped in the first place if he’d had a choice. James put his foot on the gas and roared off into the deepening shadows. No, he won’t be fine, he thought, but only because I’m going to ground him forever after I find him myself.
* * *
He’d never have known anything happened to look at the place so far, even if he was still a couple of hours from Old Faithful. But the park looked just as it had the last time he’d seen it, the last time he’d brought Chuck to stay with his grandparents here for the summer, five years ago. Miles and miles of monotonous endless forest, every lodgepole pine straight as a toothpick and indistinguishable from the others. The road was the same, too, no buckles, no cracks. He was going faster than was safe, but one of the reasons he’d bought a Lincoln was for its handling. He didn’t see a single animal, which was just as well. Probably all scared back into the woods where they belonged.
Lake Yellowstone, enormous and ringed with jagged mountains, gleamed in the fading light behind him as he made the last turn toward Old Faithful and began the climb over the Continental Divide. He had to slow down now, to navigate the twists and turns. The Lincoln growled as he wrenched the wheel back and forth.
He had made the two crossings of the divide and was on the downward slope when he saw the first crack in the pavement in the beam from the headlights he’d just turned on. Not much to look at, a long, narrow split that caused the outer edge of the asphalt to tilt slightly. If that was the kind of damage all the panic was about–
The next crack was a bit wider, and ran diagonally off the road into the forest, its path marked with trees tilted at crazy angles. He shrugged the sight off as the car bounced over it and several more like it and kept going.
Even when he came around the last corner and saw the buildings at Old Faithful, it didn’t seem that awful. A number of emergency vehicles were scattered about, but no one seemed to be doing anything. People were wandering around. Some were even seated at the benches at Old Faithful, for all the world as if it was a perfectly normal evening.
James let out a deep breath and swung the car into a surprisingly empty parking space in front of the inn. But he’d no more than opened the door when a man in uniform — not a ranger — walked up.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t park here. We need to keep this area clear for emergency vehicles.”
“I’m just here to pick someone up. I’ll be back and gone before you know it.”
“I’m sorry, sir–”
But James was out and past him before the man could finish whatever he had to say.
The tremor hit when he was halfway up the stone steps to the porte cochere in front of the inn. He grabbed the metal pipe railing, but the shaking was over almost before it started. Well, and that wasn’t so bad, either. What a fuss. He headed on up, but when he reached the door, it was blocked by another man in uniform.
“I’m sorry, sir, but no one may enter the building. It’s too dangerous.”
Dangerous? Nothing even seemed to be damaged. “I’m looking for my son.”
“The building has been evacuated. No one is in there.”
James waited. When the man did not continue, he could not keep the exasperation out of his voice. “Where were they evacuated to?”
“Excuse us.” The door swung open, and several more men strode out, their clothing covered with dust, hard hats on their heads. Their boots muddy. Muddy? “Get out of the way. Another rock just fell from the fireplace.”
James caught a glimpse of the interior of the massive lobby, stones scattered helter skelter across the now deeply gouged wooden floor, dust still settling in great clouds, water running across the floor. Water? The man James had been trying to pry information out of grabbed James by the arm and pulled him back. James shook the hand off and turned on the man.
“Where were the people staying here evacuated to, dammit!”
“Most of them went to the lodge.”
“Thank you,” James flung over his shoulder.
“Sir, you still need to move your car–”
* * *
The people milling about were not acting like tourists, James realized as he strode the few hundred yards down the road to the lodge, his eyes scanning them fruitlessly for the boy. They weren’t admiring the scenery or wasting their time waiting for Old Faithful to go off. He guessed they were the ones stupid enough to hang around instead of getting the hell out of Dodge after the place blew up on them last night. Even at this hour after dark they didn’t seem to have the sense to go indoors.
Although he supposed indoors probably didn’t seem all that safe to them right now. That glimpse of the damage he’d seen inside the inn would have made him dubious about going indoors in this place if he had the time to think about it or care.
The lodge looked the same as ever, and there weren’t any emergency vehicles in front of it. People, none of them Chuck — dammit, where is he? — coming and going as if everything were perfectly normal. Until he went inside.
Controlled pandemonium was what it looked like. Crowds milling, no blond bespectacled kids sticking up above the rest. The place looked like a disaster shelter, and, indeed, a table with a Red Cross sign was set up in a corner of the big room, next to the closed photographic shop. It looked completely incongruous, but perhaps they knew where people were.
James strode over and caught the attention of one of the three men behind the table.
“May I help you?” He looked and sounded like a clerk. It was oddly comforting.
James shook the misplaced feeling off. “I’m looking for my son.”
The man pulled a box of file folders closer to him. “What is his last name?”
The man selected a folder labeled with a big black M, pulled a sheet with a list of names out of it, and scanned them. “We don’t have anyone by that name listed.”
That had to be a mistake. “He was staying at the Inn. Arrived last night.”
“I’m sorry, sir. No one by that name has registered.”
His irritation was beginning to feel just a bit like panic. “His first name is Chuck.”
“It’s all by last name, sir. He’s not on the list.”
James took a deep breath. “What does that mean?”
“It means that he did not do as the park service and the Red Cross asked everyone who was here during the quake to do.”
Of course not. “Which was?”
“To come give us his name and tell us what he was going to do, whether he was leaving or staying, and where he could be contacted.” The man paused, obviously taking in whatever James looked like by that point. James didn’t want to think about that. Or care. It was just like the boy. God knew where he’d gone by now. “For just this purpose.”
“That is the purpose of the registration process.”
“Yes, I know.” It wasn’t the man’s fault Chuck was so irresponsible. James managed to calm his voice. “Thank you. I’m sorry.”
“What is your name, sir?”
“What? Oh. James McManis. M-C-M–” The man waved him to stop, and James did, feeling a bit foolish.
“Where will you be, sir? In case your son does show up?”
“Looking for him.”
“Where should we tell him to go?”
James snorted. “Chain him to the table.”
The man looked sympathetic. “I’ll do my best.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep checking back.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea.”
James turned away and sighed. Now what? It was closing in on 10 pm, and his plan hadn’t gone anywhere past finding Chuck and locking him in the car for the trip back to Denver.
He hadn’t the first clue where to look next.
In paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon
In paperback from CreateSpace
As an ebook in many formats from Smashwords
In paperback and for the Nook from Barnes and Noble
In paperback from Powells