Xander had just blown past a sign for Ivory River on the side of the highway when the engine on his truck started to emit a menacing screech. Not having much experience with cars at all, mechanical problems were one of Xander’s worst nightmares. He could barely change his own oil, for chrissakes.
Fear compelled him to hit the brakes. He pulled over onto the shoulder in a panic. The tall trees lining either side of the road shrouded both Xander and his truck in shadow while the warm red glow of the setting sun lay at his back.
Xander popped the hood and stared down miserably at the mess of intricate machinery that lay before him. He had a sneaking suspicion just from the sound that something was wrong with the transmission, but if that was truly the case, he didn’t have a clue how to fix it. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, feeling exhaustion starting to set in. Guess he was walking those two miles to Ivory River, then.
Xander stuffed all the essentials into his backpack, sifting through the disorganized mess in the truck bed that was a telltale sign to anyone who caught a glimpse that he’d been living out of his car for longer than was considered socially acceptable. It had taken him two weeks to get from New York to central Texas: a trip that under other circumstances should have taken a quarter of the time. But Xander wasn’t in any hurry.
He wasn’t in a rush as he ambled down the side of the backwoods farm-to-market road either, with not a single car passing him as he trudged through the eclectic mix of dirt and gravel. He scanned the trees for any sign of civilization and found nothing.
Then, sooner than he’d expected, Xander suddenly spotted the dim lights of a gas station up ahead, and he quickened his pace. Surely, he hadn’t already walked a whole two miles? The sun was low on the horizon in the west, but still just barely visible if he glanced over his shoulder. The flickering overhead fluorescents illuminating the rural gas station were the only beacons on the path ahead.
As Xander made his approach, he could see the vague outlines of other buildings further down the road, but all seemed uncharacteristically dark for so early in the evening. From this distance, not even a single car was visible out on the street where the highway morphed into a small-town avenue. Xander began to feel uneasy as he drew closer to the gas station, starting to worry now that the whole place was actually just a ghost town despite the lights, and that he’d find himself stranded there with his broken-down truck for the night.
He stretched his hand out for the handle on the door of the adjacent convenience store without much hope for what he might find inside. The door opened with a jingle to reveal a dark head of hair propped up against the front counter. Xander breathed out a sigh of relief and stepped inside.
Behind what he presumed was the cashier, Xander could see a laptop wedged between the chewing gum display and a locked glass case filled with cigarettes. He couldn’t tell what exactly was playing, but the two people on screen were locked in a passionate kiss that didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Xander coughed, trying to get the cashier’s attention before the scene transitioned into something more embarrassing for the both of them. When the woman didn’t respond, Xander rapped his knuckles against the counter, sending the girl spinning around in her chair with a graceless curse as she ripped her headphones out of the computer. Xander grimaced as the couple’s loud moans suddenly permeated the empty convenience store.
“It’s not porn!” the woman said immediately, before Xander even had a chance to open his mouth. “It won an Oscar!”
Xander just gaped at her.
“Um, anyway, if you’re on another pump you’re gonna have to switch to two,” she added quickly, trying to gloss over the awkwardness of their situation with little luck as she hastily closed out of the tab that was blasting symphonic music over the sound of breathy moans. Xander didn’t dare glance up to see what was happening on screen. “And we only take cash, so. Sorry. Card reader’s all out of whack.”
“No—” Xander said before pausing to gather his thoughts. He took a large step back from the counter before continuing. “No, I mean, I’m not here for gas; my car broke down a couple miles outside of Ivory River and I’m just trying to find someone who can take a look at it.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at him in confusion. “Outside the river?” she questioned.
“Isn’t that…the sign said it was two miles to Ivory River,” Xander replied uncertainly, now wondering in the face of this woman’s scrutiny that he had somehow gotten it wrong.
She laughed, which was less than comforting. “Oh, no, that’s not the name of the town,” she said. “There’s a trail at the other end of Main Street that leads you to a historical marker overlooking the falls. So you’re less than a mile from here if you broke down near the sign.”
Xander felt himself go a bit pink at being corrected so thoroughly, but he was grateful he hadn’t had to walk quite as far as he’d expected. “Yeah, so um, can you help me out, maybe?” He crossed his arms over his chest self-consciously. He knew what this looked like, and he knew how he sounded, asking for help with his broken-down car from some woman working by herself at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He fully expected her to say no, accuse him of being a serial killer trying to bait her out, and then threaten to call the police.
Instead she grabbed a flashlight from under the counter without so much as hesitating, and then hopped up and over to stand in front of Xander, her free hand outstretched for him to take. “I’m Clare, by the way,” she said, giving his hand a vigorous shake.
“Xander,” he replied.
“Cool, cool. Well, my car’s out back, so just follow me.”
He was careful to trail several feet behind her, wishing he’d put on his jacket even though it was far too warm out for that. He felt oddly vulnerable in just his grease-stained white shirt and ripped jeans, his knuckles torn up and bruised from a bar fight he’d gotten into in Colorado three days ago.
Xander was surprised Clare didn’t seem more intimidated by him. He fit the visual profile of a drifter to a tee. He was practically a serial killer waiting to happen. And he was fairly certain he didn’t smell too nice either, between the heat inside the truck cab and the lack of showering out on the road.
As promised, there was a small sedan parked behind the building that looked that it might have at one point been painted white, but the thing was so weathered and rusted that Xander couldn’t even hazard a guess as to the make or model. Clare got in on the passenger side before Xander had a chance to. He stopped to watch as she clambered over the center console and folded herself into the driver’s seat. She rolled down the driver’s side window and gazed up at him with a bashful smile.
“The handle snapped off,” she said by way of explanation as the engine started up with a coughing sputter.
Xander carefully squeezed into the miniscule amount of space afforded him on the passenger side, thankful he didn’t have to climb over the middle like Clare had, and closed the door. The entire car rattled with the force of the bare metal plates roughly clanging into each other. Xander winced. He couldn’t help but wonder how this piece of junk was still running, while his truck—barely five years old at this point—had given up less than halfway across the country.
“So, I’m guessing you aren’t from around here,” Clare said conversationally as they slowly pulled out of the lot and onto the main road. She kept tapping the fingernails on her right hand against the side of the steering wheel. It was distracting. “Where are you headed?”
“San Antonio. For now, I guess.”
Clare made a face Xander couldn’t hope to interpret. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for it, to be honest. You look Austin-bound, if anything.”
Xander gave her a questioning look in the brief second that her eyes met his, but she turned back to the road without addressing it.
“So what’s the town called?” Xander asked when she didn’t elaborate further.
Clare huffed out a little laugh. “It’s German,” she explained. “Spelled like ‘junker’, but whatever you do, don’t call it that in front of anyone over the age of forty unless you’re looking for a fight.”
Xander wondered if she had noticed his knuckles and had made her own assumptions about the type of guy he was. He worried at his lower lip with the tip of his tongue. “I’m not exactly planning on staying any longer than I have to,” he remarked bluntly. They were nearing the spot where he’d left his truck now, if he had to guess. “I just want to get my truck fixed and get back on the road.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Clare replied absently, having clearly forgotten what he’d just told her. “Sorry, we just don’t exactly have a lot of tourists coming through. Got a little overexcited.” She was still tapping her fingers frantically against the wheel. Xander didn’t think she sounded excited at all; he could feel the anxiety billowing off of her in waves. “Is that your car?” she asked a few seconds later, finally ripping her hand away from the steering wheel to gesture out into the dark.
The red paint of his truck reflected the dim glow from her headlights back at them. Xander nodded. “Yeah. That’s it.”
Clare angled sharply to the left and coasted up the shoulder until her sedan was practically bumper to bumper with Xander’s truck. She left the engine running, took off her seatbelt, and gave Xander a meaningful look. He scrambled to open his door and nearly slammed his head into the roof of the vehicle twice while trying to extract himself.
Clare, who had ostensibly more practice at it, almost made the action look graceful as she used the frame of the door to pull herself out. Xander handed her his keys once she had two feet planted firmly on the ground and watched from afar as she sauntered over to his truck, the gravel crunching loudly under her scuffed leather boots in the still summer air.
She climbed in and started the engine. Xander could hear the squeal from where he was standing as she tested her foot on the accelerator. Apparently satisfied with the results of her examination, the headlights flicked back off again and the engine went silent.
Clare hopped out and walked around to lift the hood. She wedged her bulky flashlight into the crook of her neck, and Xander wondered how she wasn’t blind when the bright LED beam suddenly illuminated the innards of his truck like she was wielding the power of the sun itself.
She didn’t ask for his help once as she dug around under the hood, and Xander didn’t offer it. He was content to let her work uninterrupted.
A few minutes later, the flashlight clicked off. Xander heard Clare emit a loud sigh before she trudged over to him, the sudden transition to darkness making it damn near impossible to see.
“The good news is that your car isn’t gonna blow up anytime soon,” she told him. “The bad news is that the only way you’re getting to San Antonio is if you drive it in first gear the whole way there, and even then, there’s no guarantee it won’t break down completely on you.”
“So you can’t fix it,” Xander surmised with a grimace.
“Me? Hell no. But there’s a mechanic in town. He might be able to patch it up, or he might not, but that’s really your only option right now.”
Xander squeezed his eyes shut, drawing in a few deep breaths through his nose. He barely had enough money left for gas. There was no fucking way he was going to be able to afford to pay some small-town mechanic who probably charged through the nose just to get by in between the occasional job.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Can you please take me to the shop then, so I can talk to this mechanic?”
“Um,” Clare replied hesitantly, now tapping her fingers against her left bicep in lieu of a steering wheel to fidget with. “Well, everyone’s actually over at the ranch right now for the summer festival, so….” She eyed him up and down, clearly trying to assess whether she could get away with bringing along a total stranger to this party, or whatever it was. “Screw it,” she said with a sigh. “I wasn’t even supposed to leave the gas station at all, technically, so it’s not like I can get in any more trouble than I already have.”
“Sorry,” Xander said automatically, though it wasn’t like he’d had any idea she was endangering her employment by helping him.
“It’s fine,” Clare replied easily. She climbed back into the sedan without another word.
Xander watched through the scratched and dusty window as they rumbled down Junker’s Main Street, taking in the antique shop fronts that looked like they’d been pulled straight out of a spaghetti western. Between that and the utter lack of any sign of life, the place certainly looked the part of a stereotypical Texan ghost town, only the electric streetlights and the odd payphone here and there to dispel the illusion.
Before long they were driving beyond the small slice of civilization and back into the wilderness. Xander could see the vague suggestions of houses through the trees, but not nearly enough to get an actual sense of how many people belonged to the town. And then after a short while, there was nothing at all to see but blackness.
A few minutes and several turns later, a lit-up sign on a dirt drive appeared seemingly from nowhere, proudly proclaiming that they had arrived at the Twist Ranch.
The narrow path leading up the hill was lined with dogwood, an entire lane’s worth wrapped in fairy lights. At the very end, Xander could see a large house with clean contemporary lines that seemed vastly at odds with the simplistic square buildings on Main Street. It looked almost as if someone had plucked a modern ranch home out of an architectural design magazine and had plopped it down right in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.
Up near the house there was a large flat clearing, where Xander could see a smattering of cars parked as neatly as could be expected with no pavement markings in the dirt as a guide. Xander waited patiently, without saying a word, as Clare made a nine-point turn so she could squeeze her little sedan between a rusted old pickup and a large tree.
After carefully extricating himself from the car once more, and waiting for Clare to do the same, Xander followed her through the scattered vehicles up to the front door, which was surrounded by a wreath of the same fairy lights that had been used to decorate the tree-lined drive. There was a kitschy banner hanging over the threshold that had ‘WELCOME’ painted across it in large rainbow letters.
Xander hunched his shoulders down as Clare pushed open the door, trying futilely to appear smaller than he really was as a large throng of people crowded into the foyer were revealed, all juggling food and drink in their hands as they stood around chatting to each other.
Xander did his best to stick close to Clare as she weaved expertly through the crowd, all smiles and friendly waves even while each person they passed stared curiously at Xander, who suddenly felt like the new kid on the lacrosse team again, too quiet and gentle-natured for his peers to effectively tolerate.
Once they emerged from the foyer, the layout of the house remained fairly open, with a staircase to one side and a sprawling great room on the other. The kitchen was separated from the living area by a breakfast bar, and Xander could see a frazzled middle-aged woman filling enormous kegs of lemon water standing behind it, while simultaneously trying to maintain conversations with each of the people standing around waiting on her.
Clare seemed to spot the woman at the same time as Xander and made a beeline for her, still slipping through the mass of partygoers with relative ease. The woman’s pinched face brightened considerably as they approached, and she—unlike the rest—didn’t seem fazed in the slightest by Xander’s presence.
“I thought you were working tonight,” the woman said mildly once they were within earshot—which was practically standing on top of each other with the amount of noise surrounding them.
“Hey to you too,” Clare said, leaning forward to give the woman a hug. “There was a slight hiccup. I’m sure Adam will understand, right?”
The older woman rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him. What happened? Who’s your friend?”
Xander shifted uncomfortable and offered her his hand. “I’m Xander. Clare’s just helping me out.”
The woman nodded and shook his hand politely. “I’m Anne. Nice to meet you.”
Clare laughed. “You won’t catch anyone in town calling her anything but Mama Twist though,” she explained to Xander. “Except for Mitch, who is actually the person we’re looking for.” She looked hopefully at Mama Twist, who sighed as she began wiping up a spill from around the bottom of one of the kegs.
“Car trouble?” she guessed. Clare nodded. “Well, you’ll have to wait, unfortunately. He went out riding with Harry and some of the kids. They should be back soon. Do y’all want a drink while you wait?”
Xander accepted graciously and followed Clare to the back of the kitchen, where they stood with their backs to the cupboards, quietly sipping their glasses of water. Xander had to consciously keep from making a face at the slight tang that accompanied every swallow. He hated flavored water.
He could tell that he was still attracting curious looks from the partygoers around them, and found himself wishing he had a jacket he could hide in. Everyone there with the exception of Clare looked like your average god-fearing Texan, and Xander stuck out like a sore thumb in his skinny-fit jeans and too-tight t-shirt. He scanned the bearded faces and the sea of blue denim surrounding him. He was starting to understand why Clare had pegged him for an urban hipster earlier.
“I don’t really have any money,” Xander blurted out suddenly.
Clare was slow to react. “What?” she said, taking another sip of her water. “Oh, you mean for the car? Mitch is a good guy, he won’t charge you for the labor if it’s that desperate.”
At this point, labor wasn’t what Xander was worried about.
They stood there for a few more minutes, and then the front door opened and in flooded a gaggle of elementary school-aged children, closely followed by two men who couldn’t have looked more different.
The first—bearded, scruffy—was wearing a baseball cap and had a kid sitting on his shoulders who was clinging onto the visor like reins. The man ducked down to avoid bashing the kid’s head on the doorframe as they walked in, and then leaned down so his companion— just as tall but unremarkable except for his long hair, dressed in a baggy gray hoodie—could help him the kid get down to join the others.
Xander watched as Mama Twist waved them over, but only the man in the baseball cap headed toward the kitchen.
“What’s up?” he asked, his eyes flickering over to Xander for the briefest of seconds before meeting Mama Twist’s.
“Can you have a look at a car in the morning?” she asked, getting straight to the point. “Clare’s friend here—Xander, right?—needs some help.”
“Sure,” the man replied. Mitch, Xander thought, if he was remembering correctly. “Where’d you leave it?” he asked, turning to address Xander.
“Uh, out on the main road,” Xander told him, hoping that was okay with him. Xander couldn’t get a read on the man’s impression of him so far in the slightest. “But I don’t have, like, a motel room or anything….”
He could see Clare out of the corner of his eye making some sort of meaningful gesture toward Mama Twist, who merely nodded in response.
“We have a guest house out back,” Mama Twist interjected. “You’re welcome to stay there until we get things figured out.”
“Are you sure that’s okay?” he asked hesitantly. “I mean, you don’t know me at all.”
“Southern hospitality and all that,” she replied easily. “Mitch, please be a dear and go save your wife from Adam before she breaks something over his head.”
Mitch straightened his cap and did an immediate one-eighty, heading straight through the crowd into the living room where a slender brunette was very clearly just tolerating the giant of a man swaying next to her with an entire bottle of wine clutched in his right hand.
“Clare, if you can get back to the gas station soon, there’s a chance Adam will be too drunk to even remember anyone telling him you were here,” Mama Twist said measuredly. “I’ll just have Gemma show Xander to the guest house.” She made a shooing motion and Clare hurried away with an apologetic shrug as she passed Xander. “Just give me a second,” Mama Twist told him as she pulled out a newer-looking smartphone and pecking at the screen with her index finger.
Less than a minute later a girl with cropped platinum-blonde hair walked up to them. There was a telltale hitch in her step that told Xander she’d had plenty to drink, but not so much that she couldn’t function so long as she remained focused on the task at hand. Her eyes positively lit up when she noticed Xander, and she raked her eyes unapologetically over his body as she drew closer.
“We taking in strays now, Mama?” she asked.
Xander assumed the question was supposed to be a joke, but he was so caught off guard by the girl’s open appraisal of him that he didn’t even think to laugh along.
“Gemma, Xander; Xander, Gemma,” Mama Twist said instead of answering. “Gemma is my only daughter,” she told Xander meaningfully.
“I hate when you say that,” Gemma said with a pout.
Mama Twist snorted. “Then blame your brother for not being another girl. Now show the poor boy to the guest house, and try not to get lost on the way there, okay sweetie?”
Gemma rolled her eyes, but beckoned for Xander to follow her without any further protest. He tightened his grip on the backpack slung over his shoulder and traced her footsteps through the crowd, careful not to bump into anyone as they moved through the packed space.
They cut through the living room, back into the foyer, and past the staircase, down a darkened hallway that led to a sitting room walled off by a large glass door. Gemma unlocked it and slid it open in one fluid movement, waiting for Xander to pass before she went through. The door closed with a loud thud behind them, and Xander jumped.
“So,” Gemma said, her voice cutting through the low hum of natural ambiance surrounding them. “On the run, car trouble, or faking your death?”
She raised an eyebrow as Xander turned to face her. “Drifters usually fall into one of those categories. You look a little too much like a frat boy to be the first or the last though, so I’m guessing car trouble?”
Xander smiled weakly. “You guessed it.”
“That’s a shame,” she said before suddenly skipping ahead of him.
Xander took a straight course through the grass behind her as she zigged and zagged along the flagstone path that meandered from the main house to the smaller building located in the rear. From the looks of the exterior, the guest house alone was probably twice the size of the apartment he’d shared with Tori in New York
“Why’s that?” Xander asked, letting his curiosity get the better of him as they walked up the porch steps side by side.
Gemma unlocked the door and flicked on the lights with a drunken giggle. “Well, because guys with car trouble never stay for very long. You got a phone?”
Xander stared at her in open confusion for a moment before pulling out the battered remains of his phone from his back pocket. Gemma snatched it out of his hand before he could say anything at all and began typing her number into his list of contacts.
“You’re cute,” she told him as she sidled even closer to slip the phone back into his pocket. “I hope you stick around.”
Gemma spun around with a playful smile and skipped back down the path toward the main house, leaving Xander still standing there, shell-shocked, in the doorway.
The guest house consisted of nothing more than a small living room, a kitchenette, and a single bedroom with an attached bath. It was still more luxurious than any place Xander had lived in his adult life.
He spent nearly twenty minutes searching through all the cabinets and drawers, wondering if he was allowed to help himself to the shampoo and toothpaste stashed under the sink in the bathroom before deciding the Twists, with all their unexpected hospitality, didn’t seem like that type of nouveau-riche.
Xander wasn’t sure how long he spent in the shower, but it was later than he expected when he finally emerged. He could feel tendrils of exhaustion creeping under his skin, making his movements slow and sluggish as he prepared to sleep.
He dithered in front of the mirror for a few minutes after brushing his teeth, wondering if he should shave to alleviate the rogueish scruff that had grown in without his usual maintenance over the last few weeks. In the end, he decided it wasn’t worth the effort to deal with the inevitable process of growing it out again once he was back on the road.
The bed was gloriously soft. Xander sunk into the middle with a contented sigh.
There was a TV hanging on the wall opposite that matched the one in the living room in make and size, but this one had a noticeable crack running along the left side. There was a post-it note stuck to the center with a large frowny face drawn in marker.
Xander couldn’t help but wonder what the story behind it was, though he knew he’d likely never find out.
That was the last thought Xander remembered having before he suddenly opened his eyes to find the sun streaming in through cracks in the shutters. Someone was knocking on the front door.
Xander stumbled out of the bedroom and over to the door. He let out a quiet hiss as the morning light flooded the entryway, temporarily blinding him.
“Hey man,” Mitch said in monotone, giving Xander a little wave. “Did you sleep in your clothes? Anne would have lent you some pajamas if she’d known.”
“What?” Xander rasped. “Uh, I—what?”
Mitch approximated a smile and clapped Xander on the shoulder. “Sorry, didn’t realize you were still asleep. Need a minute?”
“Yeah. I mean, no, I’m fine,” Xander replied, his tongue feeling like it was lead in his mouth. Who could have predicted he’d feel this awful after finally getting to sleep in a bed for the first time since leaving New York? “Um, most of my shit—I mean, my clothes and stuff are still in my truck, so.”
“Gotcha.” Mitch nodded in understanding. “Well, you want some breakfast before we head over and take a look? We always try to eat together before going our separate ways, so you might as well join us since you’re here.”
Put that way, Xander didn’t really feel like he had much of a choice, so he just nodded and tried to flatten his hair down the best he could as they walked back to the main house. In the light of day, the ranch home looked even larger, and Xander could finally make out the stables and corrals for the horses Mama Twist had mentioned last night on the other end of a large open field.
Again, Xander wondered what a place like this was doing in some backwater Texas town. Nothing about it seemed to fit in with the rest of Junker at all.
Mitch flung open the back door, assaulting Xander with the smell of cooking bacon before they even stepped foot inside. His mouth watered automatically, and he realized he’d hardly even eaten fast food over the last week. Mostly he’d stuck to protein bars and chips, stuff he could pick up from gas stations and snack on while driving.
Not that he’d been in any kind of hurry. Xander had headed east first, straight out of New York along the border to Chicago. The city hadn’t really felt right to him, too similar in some ways to the place he’d left, so he’d driven southwest instead, visiting Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, before deciding to turn around and head east to San Antonio instead.
Stopping in El Paso had been a mistake; he’d visited once with his mother and the memories left a sour taste in his mouth. But this part of Texas was nothing like the city he’d left behind on the Texas-Mexico border. The lack of any evidence of civilization as he’d driven down the sun-bleached asphalt, through endless miles of overgrown trees, had made Xander feel like he was on an alien planet.
But now, standing inside the spotless kitchen at the Twist Ranch, with Mama Twist behind the stove cooking pancakes and fried eggs and bacon, Xander suddenly felt achingly nostalgic for something he’d never had.
Xander wasn’t expecting the eclectic mix of strange faces at the dining room table when they walked in. Mitch gestured for Xander to take a seat on the very end next to him. Xander smiled tightly at one of the few people he recognized from the night before as he sat down: Gemma, directly opposite him. She returned it, and then looked away, giving Xander the opportunity to let his eyes drift across the table to take the rest of them in.
There was a girl seated next to Gemma, her hair a more natural shade of golden blonde, cut short and shaggy just below her chin. She was glaring down at her empty plate as if it had just done something to offend her. On the girl’s other side was the guy Xander remembered seeing with Mitch, and there was an uncanny similarity in their faces. Xander wondered if the two were siblings, twins maybe. They looked around the same age, but it was hard to tell.
Xander’s eyes lingered long enough on the guy to take in the fact that his hair was long enough to pull back into a knot on the back of his head, and that he, too, looked perturbed by something Xander wasn’t aware of. He moved on quickly after that, not wanting to be caught staring.
On his own side of the table, Xander could see Mitch’s wife, but on her other side were two men Xander was fairly certain he hadn’t seen last night at the party.
No one but Gemma had bothered to acknowledge Xander’s presence after he’d come in, and he remained silent, wanting to keep it that way.
A few minutes later, Mama Twist finally walked in from the kitchen with a heaping platter filled with pancakes and set it down in the middle of the long table with a warm smile. “Glad you could join us, Xander,” she said before quickly going through introductions.
The man at the head of the table was her husband, Robin, or Papa Twist. The man next to him was a bit older, by the looks of his graying hair, and was introduced simply as ‘Des’, with no clarification on his relation to the Twists. The girl next to Gemma was called Cara, again with no explanation for how she fit into things; Mitch’s wife was named Sarah; and the younger guy at the other end of the table, who still had yet to look up at Xander once during the introductions, was Harry, Anne’s youngest.
Xander was a bit confused by that. He remembered clearly Anne introducing Gemma as her only daughter, which meant the girl who looked nearly identical to Harry couldn’t also hold that title. And how did Mitch and Des figure into things? It bothered Xander that he would probably never know the answers.
Xander responded stiffly with the expected ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘how do you do’s, and then faded into the background once more as Mama Twist announced that everyone was free to help themselves. It was chaos from the get-go. Xander waited until everyone around him had filled their plates before starting in on his own.
Xander was careful to serve himself conservatively, but when he glanced up toward the head of the table, he was startled to see Des glaring at him like Xander had just stolen his share.
Xander glanced down automatically, and then looked up again to see if any of the others had noticed. They hadn’t, and all seemed to be solely focused on eating. Xander was a little surprised by that. He’d expected them to say grace, do something stereotypically Christian, but everyone around him seemed content to eat their breakfast without ceremony.
Xander’s mouth was full of bacon when Papa Twist asked him what he was doing in Junker. He swallowed quickly, nearly choking as he struggled to answer. “Just car trouble. I was on my way to San Antonio.”
“You have family in San Antonio?” Papa Twist’s tone was soft, curious rather than accusatory, but Xander still felt like he was being subjected to an interrogation.
“No,” he replied slowly. “Just doing the whole road trip, self-discovery thing. I guess.”
Papa Twist nodded but didn’t seem terribly impressed. “We’ve seen our fair share of travelers searching for meaning out on the open road. I hope you find it.”
“I suppose you’d need a working vehicle for that, though, right?” Sarah chimed in suddenly, surprising Xander with her loud laugh. “Let him eat, Robin. You can ask him anything you want once Mitch has the damn truck in the shop.”
“Language,” Mama Twist scolded, but she didn’t look too upset by it.
Mitch turned to his wife. “Kiddos still asleep?” he asked. She nodded accommodatingly and continued eating. “Give ‘em a kiss for me, then. I’ll be back before dinner. Xander, you ready to go?”
Xander was easily hungry enough for seconds, but he nodded and set his fork down neatly next to his empty plate before getting up and following Mitch back out of the house. Mitch’s truck, Xander noticed, was the same make as his own, just slightly older, but the fact that they drove the same vehicle at least, inspired some hope.
His good mood soured when they reached his own truck, still parked on the side of the highway, and Mitch assessed the damage.
“You don’t look like you have good news,” Xander ventured.
Mitch scratched at the back of his neck and grimaced. “Yeah, your transmission’s toast, I think. I can still take it apart at the shop and give it another look, but more than likely, you’ll need a replacement before this thing’s fit for a long haul.”
And that was quite possibly the worst news Xander could have received. He was suddenly all-too conscious of how light the wallet in his back pocket really was. He’d emptied the contents of his bank account before leaving the city, and had been living off that cash, and whatever he could scrounge up along the way, ever since.
The plan had been to look for work in San Antonio once he got there, something to pad things out till he could reach…wherever he was going. This hadn’t been a variable he’d anticipated.
“I don’t really have any money,” Xander confessed.
Mitch sighed through gritted teeth, a shrill whistling sound. “Look, I’ll do what I can but when it comes to parts, I don’t really have the cash to front that sort of thing out of the goodness of my heart, you understand?”
“Yeah, no, I get it.”
“Isn’t there someone you can call? Borrow a few hundred bucks from?”
Xander thought about his remaining connections in New York. Or more accurately, the only connections he’d really ever had. His brother would probably loan him money if he asked, but he didn’t want to ask for his help if he had any other choice. Not after everything Max had already done for him over the last decade, favors he’d never had the opportunity to properly return.
“Is there any way I could work in exchange for the fix?” Xander asked. It seemed like the only other viable solution.
Mitch considered it for a moment. “I’m not exactly bursting at the seams with clients, man. I’m lucky half the people here are generous enough to come to me when they need an oil change instead of just doing it themselves, you know? But Des—” He stopped, and Xander curled his fingers into his palms, bracing himself for whatever was coming next. “Des could probably use another set of hands. You know your way around power tools?”
Xander nodded. “I helped my aunt and uncle renovate their house when I was a teenager.”
“Great,” Mitch said. “Des is kinda uptight when it comes to strangers, but Anne can talk him into it. I’ll let him know what the cost of the repairs ends up being, and we can figure out who’s paying who once that’s settled. Sound okay?”
Privately, Xander thought working with Des, who had done nothing but scowl at him throughout the entirety of breakfast, sounded fucking awful, but he didn’t have a lot of options left. “Yeah, sure thing. So…how are we getting the truck back to the shop?”
Mitch tossed his keys back to him. Xander barely managed to catch them before they hit the ground.
“You’re gonna drive it,” Mitch said. “Really, really, really slow.”
Xander was careful to follow Mitch’s instructions to the letter, meaning it took them a good ten minutes to drive less than a mile. Xander parked the truck inside Mitch’s shop, a tiny little garage that looked like it had been cobbled together with scrap aluminum and cracked cement, and then got out with a frustrated sigh, slamming the door shut behind him. His duffel was digging into the meat of his shoulder, weighed down with all of the essential belongings he could possibly fit inside without breaking open the zipper.
“Wait here a minute,” Mitch told him, phone already pressed to his ear. “I’m calling Des right now.” He weaved expertly through the maze of boxes and stray parts littering every inch of available space between the roll-up entrance and the door marked ‘OFFICE’ in faded sticker-lettering. Xander watched him slip inside and then sat down on a plastic fold-up chair against the wall to wait.
A few minutes passed and then Mitch re-emerged, looking a bit more frazzled than he had when he’d gone in. “Des agreed to let you work for him,” he said, exhaling loudly. “He’s not thrilled about it, but I can’t really say that’s much of a departure from normal.” Upon seeing the look on Xander’s face, he quickly added, “It’s a good deal. You might as well just bite the bullet. Your truck’s still pretty solid; I can’t imagine you’d want to just ditch it.”
Xander hadn’t even considered that possibility. He wasn’t in dire enough straits to even entertain the notion of hitchhiking to San Antonio, but then he remembered what Gemma had said about the types of drifters that usually passed through town.
Sure, he was running, but the destination wasn’t all that important. He could spare a week or two in Junker if it meant he’d have his car up and running again by the end of his stay.
“Okay,” he agreed. “When does he want me to start?”
“Tomorrow,” Mitch replied. “He said he’ll come get you in the morning after breakfast.”
“Get me from where?” Xander asked hesitantly.
“The ranch,” Mitch said, as if it were obvious.
“Oh.” All this time, the thought of continuing to stay in the Twist’s guest house hadn’t even crossed Xander’s mind.
“You don’t have to worry about paying them,” Mitch hurried to reassure him. “Anne and Robin are good people, they’ll let you stay as long as you need.”
“Oh, okay.” Xander wasn’t sure how he felt about that, really, but then again, he didn’t really have much of a say in the matter.
“I’ll call Cara to come pick you up,” Mitch told him, apparently satisfied that their business had been resolved for the day.
Xander was somewhat relieved to not have to deal with Gemma, who had been far too flirtatious for comfort last night, or Harry, who had made it a sticking point to ignore Xander this morning, but he wasn’t sure what to expect from Cara, and that made him just as nervous. Luckily, he was only afforded a few minutes to dwell on his anxiety before a newer-looking Jeep pulled up outside.
Cara honked once and rolled down the passenger window to peer out at him. “I don’t bite,” she called out, beckoning him toward the car.
Xander wasn’t so sure, but he shuffled over to her anyway, climbing into the car with just a second’s hesitation. She picked up on his apprehension immediately.
“I guess Gemma must have rolled out the welcome mat for you at the festival last night, huh,” she remarked with a smile.
Xander just nodded.
“Well, if it’s any comfort, she’s not usually like that. She’s the golden child. I’m the one you really have to worry about.”
Xander nearly choked on his own spit. “I thought Anne—sorry, I thought Mama Twist only had one daughter,” he replied, trying to deflect.
“She does,” Cara replied with a little laugh. They were almost back to the house now already, by Xander’s reckoning. He couldn’t understand how people could live in a town so small without all wanting to kill each other. “We’re half-siblings.”
Xander supposed that was why she looked so much like Harry then, though he wasn’t sure if that meant Harry was Cara’s full-blooded brother or Gemma’s. Mama Twist’s statements had seemed to imply the latter, though his resemblance to Cara suggested otherwise. Xander didn’t ask, hoping to endure the rest of the journey in silence.
Cara didn’t share his plans. “On the off-chance she does proposition you again, though, you should know that I’m the better choice,” she told him shamelessly, with a challenging stare.
Xander floundered for a response. “I mean…I’m not exactly looking for a girlfriend. I’m just passing through.” The excuse sounded flimsy even to his own ears.
Cara didn’t look convinced. “Mitch already told me you’re gonna be working for Dad while he does your repairs,” she informed him.
“Dad?” Xander asked, confused.
“Des,” she clarified.
That only exacerbated Xander’s bewilderment. “Wait, so your dad eats breakfast every morning with his ex and her husband?” He blurted the question out without thinking, only realizing after the fact how rude it sounded. “Um, sorry. That was—”
“It’s the South, sweetheart,” Cara said patronizingly as they pulled up in front of the Twist Ranch again. “We take care of our own.”
Xander guessed that there wasn’t much use in burning bridges when you lived in a town with less than two hundred people, but he managed to keep that thought to himself as he climbed out of the car. “Thanks for the ride,” he mumbled, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“Any time,” Cara replied with a wink, causing Xander to blush from the roots of his hair all the way down to his fingertips.
They parted ways there at the back of the house, and Xander trudged through the grass to get back to the guest house, which appeared to be just as he left it. He couldn’t help but turn to look through the windows as Cara slowly sauntered over to the sliding glass door, only to realize that Harry was standing there on the other side, waiting for her.
And then Harry’s eyes flicked up to meet Xander’s, and Xander went stumbling backwards, tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away from the window, even redder now that he’d been caught staring at them like a peeping tom.
Xander rushed into the bedroom like he expected Harry to be hot on his heels, and threw the door shut behind him with a loud slam, breathing heavily. It wasn’t like him to get flustered so easily, but it wasn’t every day that Xander found himself faced with the attentions of not just one, but two pretty girls, and for the first time in a long time, he was actually single. There was, objectively speaking, nothing stopping him on taking either Gemma or Cara up on their offers.
Xander put it out of his mind for the moment and turned his attention to his backpack instead after setting his duffel down on the foot of the bed. He pulled his laptop out and plugged it in before consulting the little slip of paper taped to the dresser directly under the TV that had the Wi-Fi password typed out for him. The level of preparation made Xander wonder if the Twists entertained guests often. He hoped he hadn’t displaced somebody, like Des, or Mitch and his wife, but the place didn’t exactly seem lived in so much as ready to be lived in.
Once he was connected to the internet, Xander pulled up his email, checking for any updates from Max and deleting everything from Tori in the process without even bothering to open them. After finishing the process, he exited out of the tab and opened Netflix instead, intending to stream something off of his brother’s account, but to his surprise, the login didn’t work.
Xander wondered if that meant Max had changed the password on him, or perhaps had just canceled the service entirely. He kind of hoped it was the latter. Xander hadn’t thought that Max would believe anything Tori said, but he hadn’t stayed long enough to really explain himself either, so there was no telling just what had happened in his absence.
Xander sighed and closed his laptop, getting back up again to grab the TV remote from the dresser this time and peeling the sticky note from off of the cracked screen. It worked well enough despite the slight tear in the picture, and it didn’t take Xander long to find the on-demand section of the Twist’s cable service.
He settled on an older action movie, something he’d seen once in theaters but not again since, and laid back against the pillows, allowing himself to get comfortable until finally, he dozed off about halfway through the film.
When Xander woke up, there was someone standing above him next to the bed, and he nearly rolled off entirely in shock.
“Shit, I’m sorry!” a familiar voice exclaimed, and Xander blinked up at the silhouette until it coalesced into something solid.
“Clare?” he croaked. “What are you doing in here?”
“Well, you left the door unlocked,” she said matter-of-factly.
Xander just stared in disbelief.
“I guess that’s all well and fine,” she continued, apparently oblivious to how weird all of this was, “if you’re expecting one of the Styles kids to drop by for a booty call or something.”
“Styles?” Xander questioned, still not quite sure he was actually awake after all.
“They kept Des’s last name,” Clare explained. “It’s kind of…a thing,” she said vaguely.
Xander crooked an eyebrow, but she didn’t elaborate further. “Do Gemma and Cara make passes at every adult male who sets foot in town?” Xander wondered, hoping the question didn’t come off as offensive. He wasn’t being judgmental so much as curious.
“Only the cute ones,” Clare snarked. “But seriously, you should probably keep your distance if you want to stay on Des’s good side.”
“Des has a good side?”
Clare didn’t laugh. “Seriously,” she reiterated. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Xander sighed. “Noted.”
If someone had told Xander when he first arrived in Junker that a week later he would be making out with Cara in a half-built bathroom in a house he was supposed to be helping her father build, he would have laughed in their face. But things changed fast, and Xander was a different man to the one who had left New York with barely more than the clothes on his back.
And it had been a long time since Xander had touched anyone and wanted it. And Cara was…simple. Uncomplicated. As long as no one found out, that is.
Xander was happy enough to kiss her and dry hump against the newly installed sink, but once her hand strayed below the belt, he grabbed her wrist and pulled back. “We should stop,” he breathed. “We shouldn’t even be doing this while I’m working.”
“You’re no fun,” Cara pouted, but she backed up a few feet and quickly adjusted her hair and clothing in an effort to make it look like she hadn’t just been halfway to fucking Xander in an unfinished bathroom. “Good?” she asked.
Xander stepped forward to fix her cross necklace, the one all three siblings wore in variable metals around their necks. Cara’s was silver. “Better,” he pronounced. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Anytime,” she replied with a smirk, the words loaded with barely disguised innuendo. “See you around?”
Xander almost had a heart attack when Des walked in just seconds after Cara had left. He stared at Xander suspiciously but said nothing for a long while, finally grumbling a brusque, “Get back to work,” before disappearing back into the other side of the house again.
Xander spent the rest of the afternoon toiling in tense silence at Des’s side, but the man said nothing to indicate he had any reason to believe Xander was fooling around with his daughter right under his nose.
Des drove them back to the ranch without saying a word at the end of the day, as he always did, and Xander ate dinner with the Twists before he retired to the guest house, studiously avoiding meeting Cara or Gemma’s eyes throughout the course of the meal and looking up only to answer Anne’s questions about his day of work.
Xander had sort of expected Gemma to lose interest in him once he’d begun fooling around with Cara, but it had somehow only made things worse, like the sisters were in competition over his attention or something. Under other circumstances, he might have been flattered by that, but so far it was only adding to his unnecessarily convoluted entanglement with the Twist clan.
Midway through dinner, Xander felt his phone buzz gently against his thigh. He glanced up to make sure no one was watching him and then carefully pulled it out to read it under the table, swallowing a sigh when he saw that Gemma was the sender.
Leave your door unlocked tonight?
He’d kissed her once. Once. But it had apparently been enough to convince her that he was perfectly willing to fool around with her and Cara simultaneously, and Xander really didn’t need that kind of drama in his life on top of everything else.
Xander tucked his phone back into his pocket discreetly, leaving the message unanswered for now. He wasn’t sure what to do about Gemma. Maybe it was best that he did leave the door unlocked, if only so he could set things straight between them, to keep this from happening again. Xander wasn’t sure how much longer he’d be in Junker, but playing these games with Gemma and Cara both was starting to take its toll.
He finally settled on that course of action when he returned to the guest house later that evening, after helping Anne clean up the dining room and kitchen, and then settled in on the couch in the sitting area with some TV to wait for Gemma to show.
Xander didn’t end up having to wait long. His ears perked up when he heard the doorknob slowly turning, and he spun around on the couch to watch as the door opened to reveal Gemma—with Cara waltzing in right behind her.
Cara closed the door casually while Xander stared at the two of them in blatant confusion. “Um, what the hell is going on?” he blurted out when Gemma skipped over to him and knelt down on the couch cushion beside him. Xander nearly gave himself whiplash when Cara suddenly leaned down on his other side to press her lips to his throat.
Xander jumped up off the couch in a flash, staring at the two girls with a mixture of bewilderment and alarm. He could feel his fight-or-flight impulse firing off in the back of his brain, and Xander was tempted to just haul ass out of there without explaining a damn thing. Hitchhiking to San Antonio had never seemed so tempting.
“I am not doing this,” Xander said evenly, making a concentrated effort to stay perfectly calm.
“Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport,” Cara whined.
Xander whirled on her. “Are you fucking serious, Cara?” he hissed. “What made you think this was a good idea?”
Out of the corner he could see Gemma’s face starting to crumble. He knew now that she was the oldest of the three siblings, but it hadn’t taken Xander long to realize she was also much more emotional than Cara, which was most of the reason why he’d chosen to fool around with the younger girl instead. He didn’t get off on breaking girl’s hearts. Gemma needed someone who could give her everything. And that wasn’t Xander.
Cara sighed loudly. “We’ll see you at breakfast, I guess,” she remarked, pulling Gemma up off the couch and heading for the door, thankfully without Xander having to ask first.
“Yeah,” he replied dumbly, still feeling a bit gob smacked as he stared after them. He flinched when the door shut with a dull thud, and it was a nearly a minute before he collected his senses enough to lock the door before returning to the TV in the main room so he could try to forget what had just happened.
Xander wasn’t expecting the knock at his door that came just a few minutes later. He got up with an exasperated sigh, already running through his head what he was going to have to say to either Gemma or Cara, or god forbid, both, to make it absolutely clear that he wasn’t interested.
But it wasn’t Gemma or Cara at the door. It was Harry.
Harry, who burst into the guest house with fire in his eyes as soon as Xander opened the door, forcing Xander backwards in an effort to accommodate the sudden intrusion into his person space.
“Are you seriously fucking both of my sisters?” Harry demanded. He didn’t stop until he had Xander backed into the counter bordering the kitchenette and there was nowhere else for them to go.
“What? No! I mean, me and Cara fooled around a couple times but it’s not like—”
Xander didn’t have a chance to finish explaining before Harry’s fist came swinging toward his face. Xander ducked it just in time and then quickly moved out of the way before Harry could recover and try to hit him again. He had plenty of experience wrestling with drunk friends or dealing with the occasional asshole in a bar, but he didn’t often come up against someone in a fight who was stone-cold sober, so Xander decided to resort to dirtier tactics to make sure he had the upper hand.
He launched himself into Harry before Harry had a chance to throw another punch, throwing one hand around his waist and reaching up with the other to grab Harry’s hair, thrown up into a loose ponytail. Xander used his own momentum and his now solid grip on Harry to send both of them hurtling to the floor, quickly pinning Harry’s shoulders down with his knees as the younger boy struggled to catch his breath.
“Get off of me!” Harry gasped, turning bright red as he wiggled under Xander like a beached fish.
Xander tightened his grip on Harry’s hair and pulled hard, causing Harry to jolt underneath him with a sharp inhale before going completely silent, his eyes wide with some unidentifiable emotion.
“Look, I get it, okay?” Xander said, speaking to Harry as if they were having a perfectly pleasant conversation over the dinner table and not halfway to one of them ending up in a full nelson. “I may not have sisters, but I know exactly what this looks like, so really, I get it, I’d want to deck me, too.”
“Then—what the fuck?” Harry gasped, breathing out a little whine when Xander accidentally tugged on his hair again.
“Cara and Gemma are both old enough to make their own decisions,” Xander continued calmly, suddenly hyperconscious of the fact that his crotch was nearly in Harry’s face. “They don’t need baby brother storming in here to defend their honor. And I would really, really appreciate it if we could just forget this ever happened, okay? Because I don’t need your dad reneging on his promise to let me work for him in exchange for getting my truck fixed. Trust me, I want to be gone just as much as you want me gone.”
Harry had calmed down a bit by the end of Xander’s tirade, his eyes glazed over almost like he was in a trance as he stared up from at Xander from between his thighs. It took him another few seconds to register that he was still pinned under Xander, and his face hardened again.
“And I would appreciate it if you got the fuck off me,” Harry growled with all the intimidation factor of an angry lap dog. He shoved uselessly at Xander until the older man untangled his hand from Harry’s hair and finally rolled off.
“You won’t tell your mom about this, right?” Xander asked uncertainly.
“So long as you stay the fuck away from my family,” Harry retorted as he picked himself up off the floor, his long ungainly limbs nearly betraying him as he used the back of the couch for leverage to pull himself to his feet. Harry stormed out of the guest house without waiting for Xander’s response, letting the door hang open behind him and giving Xander a virtually unobstructed view of Harry as he walked back to the main house.
From the back, in a flowy peasant blouse with his long hair hanging half-out of his ponytail from Xander’s grip on it during the fight, Xander could almost believe that Harry was yet another Styles daughter, and he felt a pang of…something at the realization.
Xander knew he didn’t want to examine that if he could help it, so he went to close the door, intending to go back inside and watch more TV until he fell asleep, but then he spotted the trail leading out into the woods and stopped. Maybe a walk would do him some good.
Xander took just enough time to pull on his boots before heading out, leaving the light on in the kitchen in hopes that he’d be able to see it if he got turned around in the trees. He’d hoped the summer air would help clear his head, calm him down a bit after his scuffle with Harry, but instead Xander just found himself dwelling on what an idiot he’d been.
He’d nearly jeopardized everything the Twists had been willing to give him out of the kindness of their own hearts, because of sex of all things. Sex he hadn’t even technically had.
Xander was so caught up in his own thoughts as he wandered down the trail that he didn’t even notice the noise at first, until he was so close that he could make out distinct words, seemingly spoken by a ghostly voice out in the trees. He froze, listening hard but unable to tell what was being said. It didn’t sound like English, he decided, feeling the hair on his arms prickling as goose bumps slowly spread across his skin.
It wasn’t like Xander to be so easily spooked, but he was in the middle of Bumfuck, Texas after all, and he was out alone in the woods. He wasn’t about to chance stumbling onto some kind of unholy pagan ritual out there when he could easily turn around and head straight back to the guest house instead.
So he did. And Xander wasn’t at all ashamed to admit that he’d bolted back in a full sprint, locking the door behind him and checking it twice just to make sure nothing was getting in. It took him a few more hours after that of cooking shows to come down from the adrenaline rush, but the physical toll of construction was enough that Xander fell into a dreamless sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Xander’s alarm was only set for weekdays, so he slept in the next morning, awoken only when the sound of frantic knocking filtered through his consciousness. It took him a minute to realize what was happening and another to make it into a pair of pants, stumbling to get them pulled up around his hips as he hopped over to the front door.
Mitch was on the other side, looking so uncharacteristically panicked that Xander felt his heart rate instantly rise in response, even though he didn’t yet know the reason for it.
“What’s wrong?” Xander asked dumbly, aware that he still wasn’t exactly presentable by any stretch of the imagination, and hoping that whatever it was, he’d have enough time to actually put some real clothes on before he had to go gallivanting off somewhere.
“It’s Michael,” Mitch said. He looked like he didn’t know what to do with his hands, and he kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, like he was ready to run at the slightest sound. “We can’t find him.”
Michael, Xander had learned, was Mitch and Sarah’s son, a charming little boy who was fascinated by Xander and loved riding horses with his sister and Harry in the afternoons after school.
“How long has been gone?” Xander asked, suppressing a yawn. It didn’t feel appropriate.
“All morning. We’ve looked everywhere in the house. He’s not with you, is he?”
Xander shook his head. “I haven’t seen him since dinner.” He looked past Mitch, toward the main house, where he could see figures moving out near the tree-line.
“I’ll help you guys look,” Xander told him. “Just give me a second to put some shoes on.”
When he made it outside, everyone Xander had seen earlier scouring the edge of the forest was out of sight. Mitch lingered long enough to give Xander a vague direction, and then disappeared into the trees as well, leaving Xander to his own devices.
Xander started down the trail he’d taken the night before, cutting straight through the forest down to the edge of the river, which had been too dark to make out the night before, and then cutting through the trees about ten yards downstream back up to the rear of the guest house.
He repeated the process for what must have been close to an hour before spotting a bright flash of pink through the leaves, down by the shore. Xander rushed over, hoping to find Michael, but instead coming up on a familiar head of brunette curls bent down in the bushes.
Harry’s shoulders were heaving underneath his cotton-candy sweater, and Xander could tell from the muffled sounds emerging from Harry’s mouth that he was vomiting.
“Are you okay?” Xander asked. He reached forward to touch Harry’s shoulder, to comfort him, but hesitated just before his fingers made contact.
Harry turned just enough for Xander to make out tear-tracks streaking down his cheeks. “Can you get my mom?” he quietly, choking a little on the last word. “I need you to get my mom.”
Harry’s eyes flicked over to the shoreline, and Xander followed them automatically, pausing on the dark shape lying half-in the water. For a moment, Xander forgot how to breathe.
“Don’t move,” Xander told Harry, swallowing heavily, though he really didn’t think there was much danger of that in Harry’s condition.
Reception was dogshit out in the woods where the Twists resided, which meant the only way Xander could track down Anne, or someone else with some sort of actual authority, was by running along the tree-line outside the main house and yelling at the top of his lungs, hoping someone would hear it.
Robin, Harry’s step-father, was the first to emerge. Xander decided it was good enough.
“Did you find him?” Robin asked hopefully.
Xander wasn’t sure how to answer. “Harry did,” he finally settled on. He swallowed spasmodically, his mouth bone-dry. “He needs you—I’ll show you where.” It didn’t feel fair to lead Robin to Harry and Michael without warning him first, but Xander couldn’t seem to form the right words on his tongue. He wasn’t even sure what the right words were. How do you tell someone something like that?
Robin had an airhorn in his hand that he blew just after Xander started to lead him back into the trees, blowing it again in increments as they walked to signal to the others that they’d found something and should regroup.
They ran into Mitch and Clare first, and when Xander said nothing in response to Mitch echoing Robin’s question, he could tell that the three of them were starting to realize what they were about to find.
It didn’t lessen the blow when they finally reached the river, which was just as Xander had left it: Harry, crouched in the bushes, and Michael, lying face down in the water.
Xander turned away as Mitch ran forward towards the boy, Robin following right behind to make sure Mitch didn’t touch him, but not seeing Mitch’s reaction didn’t erase the guttural wail that erupted from the man’s throat at the sight of his son, lying there dead in front of him.
Xander blinked furiously as he stared at Harry instead, trying to ignore the trickle of search-party volunteers and police that were slowly starting to trickle in as Robin continued to blow his airhorn without pausing, until finally the sheriff showed and started to clear the area.
“Who was first on the scene?” Xander heard him asking Robin. When Xander looked up, he wasn’t really surprised to find the sheriff’s shrewd eyes focused on him. He’d figured, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he’d be the first suspect in all this.
But Xander was surprised when Harry suddenly spoke up. “Me,” he said, a bit too loudly. “I’m the one who found him.” He still looked like he might throw up again, but he managed to slowly climb to his feet, swaying a bit as he stood.
The sheriff nodded, lips pursed. “All right, well let’s clear the area, get everyone back to the house. We can start taking statements there.”
Robin, Mitch, and Harry were all asked to stay while the others received their instructions to leave and regroup at the ranch. Xander was already walking into the trees again when he was suddenly overcome by the urge to look back, his eyes homing in on Harry instantly. The look on the younger man’s face was haunting. Xander knew he’d never forget it.