Carson Vance lifted a bale of twine-tied newspaper to his shoulder and heaved it onto the burn pile. It displaced a plume of fresh snow that winked and sparkled in the morning sun before settling again just as he tossed a second bale on top of it.
He dusted off his gloves and shoved both hands deep in his pockets, heading back toward his father’s house. The thermometer outside the kitchen window read five degrees, and he’d been carrying bundles of newspapers and magazines from the carport since before the sun came up. Long enough that his thighs and ass had gone numb.
Best get inside before he froze something off he might need one day.
He left his boots on the cold porch and shouldered the door into the kitchen open as gently as he could. Dad had been up late. He didn’t want to wake him. But when he padded into the room, there was Martin, bent over a Sudoku book, the last cup of coffee steaming away on the table.
Carson started a second pot. The hand that reached out to press the button fascinated him. So rough already, after eight days’ hard work and cold. Two of his fingers were cracked, the pads seamed with grime even though he washed them with Lava soap.
He’d been getting soft.
The songbird clock on the wall ticked over nine o’clock with a warble. Outside, his parents’ feeders sat empty. The birds were in South America. They, at least, knew better than to winter in Potter Falls, New York.
“You want toast?” he asked.
“What did you eat?”
His father glanced at him from over the rim of his mug. “Little Debbies.”
When Carson’s lip curled, his father chuckled. Score one for the old man.
He’d set the whole thing up beautifully, stage-managing a decline so precipitous, Julie had been forced to send an e-mail. Your father’s going feral. He needs looking after, and I’m not up to it.
Carson had suggested a housekeeper.
He needs you, she’d said. Just you.
Two days out from breaking ground on a new embassy building in the Netherlands, he hadn’t been able to travel right away, but he promised to come as soon as he could.
A week later, he got another call. The old man had slipped on the icy front porch and banged up his leg, and the hospital social worker echoed Julie’s opinion. Lengthy recovery for a man his age . . . I think he’d benefit . . . No family in town capable . . .
Carson came home.
It was so much worse than Julie had said.
The house looked like a badger was living in it. Random junk spilled over every available surface, and his childhood bedroom housed a floor-to-ceiling assortment of discarded furniture and old copies of Life magazine. Dad kept the thermostat too low, survived on convenience-store food, and smelled stale.
Less than six months since Carson’s mother had died, and Martin Vance had turned himself into a shambling, grumbling, Sudoku-obsessed cry for help.
“Just about got the front room cleared out,” Carson said. He opened the bread bag and grabbed two pieces of bread to slot into the toaster. “I’m going to tackle the spare room next.”
Work, don’t think.
That was the motto.
No glancing at his backpack where it leaned beside the front door. No speculating about when he’d be released from small-town bondage and allowed to return to the real world again. Speculation got him nowhere, and there was so much to do.
“What do you mean, you’re going to tackle it?” Martin asked.
“I’m going to clean it out.”
“You’re not touching my collectibles.”
“In the spare room. That stuff is worth money. I’m going to sell it on eBay.”
“You haven’t got anything worth a dime up there.” You don’t have an Internet connection, either. Or the first fucking clue how eBay works.
What’s your game here, old man?
Because his father was definitely up to something. At first, Carson had been so shocked by the rapidity of the downward slide, he hadn’t noticed the incongruities. Like the fact that there was dirt ground into the living-room carpet, but the bathroom still sparkled, and so did the interior of the microwave.
Like the way he’d heard Dad whistling as he got dressed two mornings in a row.
Like how when he wasn’t watching, the random, strewn-about junk started rearranging itself into more orderly piles. As if somebody couldn’t keep himself from tidying it up.
Carson knew a bluff when he saw one. He’d played enough poker with his father as a kid. It was the only thing they knew how to do together without arguing.
“All that furniture’s going to appreciate in value,” Martin said.
“All that furniture’s trash, and it’s going to the dump.”
“Over my dead body.”
Carson had never much liked poker—all that speculating about what the opponent was going to do, figuring out bets and odds when he just wanted to act and be done with it. But what could he do but play the game? Even if he cleaned up the house, forced his father to eat vegetables and shower and take his vitamins, there was a damn good possibility that once he finished and left, he would get called back six weeks or six months from now to effect another rescue.
If he folded now, laid down his cards, and walked out of the house . . . well, then he was an asshole.
He didn’t want to be an asshole. He just didn’t want to be here. And his father knew it.
Stymied, Carson wiped his hand over his mouth and muttered, “Jesus Christ.”
“Keep taking the Lord’s name in vain, and you won’t have a roof over your head.”
“I barely have a roof over my head now, Dad. I’m sleeping on the goddamn couch.”
He raised his hands in a gesture of peacemaking.
His father made a gravelly noise in his throat and took another sip of coffee, setting the mug back onto the table with a defiant thump that matched the pure stubbornness in his eyes.
The toast popped.
There was no point to the argument. It was just a symptom of a problem that wasn’t ever going away—he and his father couldn’t find any ease with each other. Mom had made their relationship work, and without her around, they fell into the same old ruts and wore them deeper.
Part of him wanted to confront his father with the truth. You brought me back here on purpose because you want me to move home. I’m not going to do that. We don’t even like each other. I know you’re lonely, and I’m sorry you’re depressed, but I can’t help you. You have to get on with it.
But Martin Vance wasn’t the kind of guy you said that to. He was a stiff, principled man who’d been a curmudgeon even before he got old. If Carson said those words, he and his father would have it out, then they’d never speak to each other again.
He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The second hand swept around the bird clock. He slathered margarine on his toast and set to eating it.
Martin worked out a possibility in the margin of his puzzle book. He dropped the pen and looked out the window with an abstracted expression. “I’m sure Julie’s got a room at the inn.”
The statement hung in the air, suspended. Its subtext swelled and filled the space between them.
I’ll see your ten and raise you fifty.
“She’s fixed the place up real nice,” Martin added.
He sounded so casual, so damned neutral, the hair on the back of Carson’s neck stood up.
Overplaying his hand.
Martin wanted this—wanted him to go stay at Julie’s bed-and-breakfast so badly that he’d filled the upstairs bedroom with crap and refused to let Carson remove it.
Carson shoved the last corner of toast in his mouth and closed his eyes as a wave of unwelcome emotion crashed through him. Anger and unwillingness blended together in a kind of needy desperation that he remembered from adolescence, when it had beat in his bones every day he didn’t manage to get out of Potter Falls.
He took a deep breath and dismissed the feeling. Unimportant. Irrelevant.
A bed was a bed, and he needed one. It didn’t matter what his father hoped would happen after that.
Julie Long hadn’t been enough to keep him here sixteen years ago. She sure as hell couldn’t keep him now.
Intrigued? Room at the Inn is out November 5 as part of the Naughty & Nice anthology, which also includes stories by Molly O’Keefe and Stefanie Sloane. Stefanie has an excerpt from her story here!