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Chapter Three
A Long-Term Sustainable Relationship

"We spend our years as a tale that is told."
~ Psalm 90:9 ~

By early evening, the temperatures were coming down in its slow march toward nighttime. The day had lasted long enough, and Ethan welcomed the few degrees of relief. He had needed it. He had to cool off and forget the entire day ever happened, for his visit at the airport sat heavy on his mind. Especially that visit to Aiden's workshop. Not wanting to think about it, Ethan turned his thoughts back to the slowly fading heat. The onset of evening had lured him outside, and into one of the splashy wicker chairs arranged on the flagstone patio just outside of the great room. Though the wicker furniture was all loops and fancy weaving, the cheesiness didn't get in the way of it being a comfortable place to park and drink his iced tea. The patio's biggest drawback was the bleak view of the cement block wall that ran the edge of the Campbells' backyard; big and bulky, the wall looked out of place next to its adobe neighbor.

Taking in a deep breath of air, Ethan leaned back in the over-large rattan chair and found himself staring at the wall. He supposed all those blocks served a purpose. Boundaries were there for a reason, to keep people from wandering in where they were unwelcome. Too bad some people ignored their own walls, and smiled their invitations despite their unwillingness to have you come over and be friendly.

He had only tried to be friendly, after all, and it wasn't as though he'd been the first to smile. She hadn't even been all that attractive. He wondered that he'd even bothered to notice her, let alone return her interest.

Jo Mack wasn't worth all this thought-- she wasn't, and yet she bugged him to no end.

It made no sense.

Sitting there, alone with his glass of Earl Grey iced tea, Ethan realized that it did.

It had been the rejection. He hadn't liked being brushed off in public for everyone to see. The rejection had stung. Like a bee stinger buried deep in the skin, it couldn't easily be ignored, and if it could, he didn't want to shed it just yet-- not when self-pity felt so good.

She hadn't spat in his face, she hadn't called him names, but the more he thought about it the more it bothered him.

Ethan realized he was stewing, but he didn't care. Maybe someone should create an iOS app where a person could rate their experience with random acquaintances. Jo Mack? Ethan would rate her as sizzling hot one moment, and icy tundra the next. She was a tall mixed metaphor with sharp blue eyes and a warm smile. And she had ignored him. His pride had taken a regular beating that day. First Aiden, and then Jo from the municipal airport.

Ethan sighed. At least he knew where the wall was, the boundary of where he was welcome, and where he was not. She was off limits. He got it. He could live with that, even if the message stung like crazy.

That block fence running the edge of the Campbells' backyard sure was ugly, though. Picking up his iced tea, Ethan downed half of it in large thirsty gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grateful for the rush of cold that eased the heat.

The patio door sounded, and Ethan turned in his chair to see Cassie stepping outside.

"So this is where you went." Cassie sank into a matching rattan chair with a small sigh. Her pale green sleeveless top, and blue jeans rolled up to the knee, gave her a carefree look that suited her well. Cassie was too often wound up, and tense, always anxious about one thing or another. Today, it seemed she had finally started to relax. "You should've come with us to the movie," she smiled. "Even though it was a little sappy in places, I think you would've liked it."

Ethan swatted at a fly, and missed. Though he didn't want to know more about the movie, she kept talking.

"The whole thing was based on a bestselling novel about a stockbroker who found he only had a week to live. Frantic to finally live his life, he went around doing all the things that he wished he had done already."

Ethan didn't care, but he played along. "What happened to him?"

"He died," Cassie said simply, "but he died happy."

"Sounds like a real page-turner." Ethan slapped away another fly, then noticed his sister was staring at him. "What?" he asked.

"It's nothing much. I was just thinking that you seem different, somehow." Cassie crossed her ankles and looked thoughtful. "We haven't been keeping in touch very well, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that we've changed in some way. I just wish the changes were for the better."

"According to Grandpa," Ethan said with a smirk, "change is all a part of God's master plan."

Cassie sighed. "Is something bothering you? Ever since you got back from the airport, you've been taking jabs at people left and right. I know you tend to be on the morose side-- you've always been that way-- but it feels like you've gotten worse since this afternoon."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Ethan groaned when she looked at him with disbelief. "Fine-- call it what you want. If you don't like the mood I'm in, then go inside."

"What happened?" She leaned forward in her wicker chair. "Grandpa said he took you to the airport and showed you his planes. The Ethan I know would have loved that."

Ethan said nothing.

"Didn't you enjoy it? When you were a teenager, I remember a time when all you talked about were airplanes. I know you and Grandpa have never gotten along too well, but at least you share that interest."

"Like you said-- people change." Ethan swatted a fly from his face and grimaced. "I hate these bugs, but it sure beats getting puked on at the amusement park."

"Hey." Cassie's voice rose several notches higher. "That vomit-inducer was not my fault. I warned you guys. You got that puke fair and square."

Ethan smiled when she dropped back in her chair and looked ready to change the subject. "So," he reached for the usual opener, "how's life been treating you?" When she looked at him with caution, Ethan put up his hands in full surrender. "I'm not trying to tease. I just want to know how my little sister is doing, that's all. We haven't had a chance to catch up yet, and unless there's another family vacation this year that I don't know about, now's my chance to ask."

"You know how to email, or pick up a phone more often. You've had plenty of chances to ask how I've been."

"Well, now I have the time to listen." He shrugged. "So how are you? Come on, I'm supposed to show brotherly concern and you're supposed to trim off all the ugly stuff and tell me everything's just fine."

"Then you don't really want to know how I've been."

"Seriously, Cass. I want to know. Give me the whole messy story of how your life is falling apart at the seams, and then I'll tell you if your life stinks worse than mine."

Cassie sighed, and Ethan laughed.

"I mean it." Ethan straightened his face without cracking a smile. "How have you been?"

"Congratulations, you look very sincere." Cassie laughed, but she seemed more relaxed this time. Ethan had hopes she really would give him the trimmed-down version minus the ugly things that would only have him angry with whatever boyfriend she was currently seeing. "I'm fine-- I guess." She sighed, and Ethan could feel it coming. "I suppose by now you know that Miles left me."

Ethan stopped short of asking who Miles was, and shrugged.

"Matty didn't tell you?" Cassie looked a bit regretful for having opened her mouth. "I asked Matty to not advertise it in front of everyone, and I guess he kept his word. Not that Matty keeping his word should be a surprise." Ethan chose to say nothing, and it coaxed Cassie to talk. "Miles and I had an argument-- worse than our usual-- and it escalated into a full-pitch screaming battle until Miles dumped my things off the balcony and said we were over." Cassie closed her eyes. "I still can't believe it happened. I really felt that I'd met my match, that we'd get married and start having a family."

Ethan frowned. "I don't believe I ever met the guy."

"That's because I never introduced him to any of my family."

"Why not?"

"I don't know." Cassie shrugged and looked hesitant to say. "I guess I didn't want to let Matty down. He knows I'm not like him, that we don't see eye-to-eye on religion, but still-- he's Matty. I didn't want to disappoint him, especially with a man like Miles."

"Why?" Ethan asked. "Who was he?"

Cassie looked sorry she'd said anything at all, and tried to ignore the question.

"Who was he, Cass?"

She shook her head. "It's not a big deal. Before we met, he broke into my apartment, but later, after we were friends, he confessed to the whole thing and tried to give me back all the things that he hadn't sold yet."

"Wait. Let me get this straight." Ethan set down his iced tea and looked at his sister. "You dated someone who broke into your apartment?"

"I didn't know it was him."

Ethan shook his head. "How did you two meet? At the police station?"

"No, I told you, he confessed to me later, after we were seeing each other. He said he didn't want to have any secrets from me."

"That was big of him."

"You see?" Cassie groaned. "I knew you'd act this way. This is why I didn't want you to know."

"How did you two meet?" Ethan pressed.

"It was at the grocery store," she shrugged. "He kept looking my way, one thing led to another, and several days later we were talking about living together. Don't look at me like that. He was sorry, he promised never to do it again."

"Oh, Cass." Ethan sighed. "When did you guys start living together? Was it before or after you found out he was a burglar?"

"After. I kind of knew he was into something shady, but I didn't know he had been the one to rob me until after he had moved in with me. You're not going to tell the Campbells, are you? Matty said there was no need to tell them."

"Hold on." Ethan rubbed his head. All this was making his brain ache. "I thought you said Miles threw your stuff out?"

She nodded.

"But you just said he had moved in with you."

"I know. It wasn't a big deal-- my landlord kicked him out for me."


"Stop, okay? Whatever it is you're thinking, just stop and keep it to yourself. You can't tell me anything that I don't already know."

Ethan shook his head. "And Aiden thinks my life is messed up."

Cassie gave Ethan a hard stare, and Ethan shut his mouth.

"Before I shut up completely, maybe you should leave Nevada, and move to Las Cruces. If you lived closer to Matty and Beth, they'd be able to look after you, and then things like this wouldn't happen."

"I don't need Matty, or Beth, or anyone else to take care of me. I'm doing just fine on my own."

His heart in his throat, Ethan looked at his sister. He wanted to be dead certain that she understood his fear. "Don't become Mom, Cass."

"I thought you were shutting up?"

Hands in surrender, Ethan backed off. He picked up the iced tea, and frowned when he saw the fly swimming between the ice cubes.

"What about you?" Cassie asked. "Are you seeing anyone?"

Ethan laughed. "After the conversation we just had, my life pales in comparison. Remind me to never come to you with relationship problems." He saw the hurt look in Cassie's face, and let it drop. "I prefer to keep my love life to myself. If I ever find someone that I'm serious about, you'll be among the first I tell."

"There must be something wrong with us," Cassie worried.

"Speak for yourself." Ethan fished the fly out with his finger. "There's not a thing wrong with me."

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting old. I'm going to turn twenty-eight this year, and you're what-- thirty-two?"

"If you're old," Ethan laughed, "then I must be geriatric, and doddering, and don't even know it. We are not old, Cassie. We're in the prime of our lives."

"How many relationships have you had? You don't have to answer, but for myself, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe I'm jinxed. That maybe I have some anti-relationship gene somewhere in my DNA that dooms me to be by myself for the rest of my life. At the rate I'm going, I'll never get married."

"And that's a bad thing?" Ethan fought back his annoyance. "You aren't a failure, and neither am I."

"Then why do I feel like one?" Cassie leaned forward, and looked at him in earnest. "How many of your friends are not only married, but already have kids?"

"I don't know. A few, I guess."

"Of all my friends-- all but two of them are married, and if they don't already have children, then they're at least trying for a baby. Except for Louise. Louise and Jeremy made the decision to not have kids, but they're the exception."

"I have no idea who Louise is, but not everyone gets married."

"Don't you get it?" Cassie sighed. "I feel like everyone has someone, but me."

"Being alone isn't a crime. I don't have someone," Ethan shrugged, "and you don't see me crying into my iced tea."

"But don't you feel like you're missing out on something?"

"Not really." Ethan didn't think there was much to consider. "There's too much that comes with 'the big I do,' for it to be a good option. If you marry, you can't split up if you get sick to death of the sight of each other, and if there's divorce, misery jumps to a whole new level. I've seen too many romances ruined by marriage. It's just not a good idea. But that's not to say," Ethan said with a nod in Cassie's direction, "that I think you should shack up with the first thing that has a pulse. Really, Cass. I can't say that I've been a role model or anything, but the guy who robbed you?"

"I didn't know it was him, okay? How could I? I wasn't home when he broke in."

Ethan nodded, and moved on. "I think even Matty would tell you that a successful relationship isn't the be-all and end-all of life. So what if you never find someone? Do you pay your taxes? Have you run anyone over? Then what's the big deal?"

"Matty has already talked to me about that, and now," she grimaced, "so have you. When you're an old man though, and have no one to change your bedpan, just remember I told you so."

The sliding door sounded, and Ethan held back a retort as Matty stepped around the wicker furniture, and studied the sky.

"Sure has been a hot day, hasn't it?" Matty glanced back at them, but Cassie must have caught his attention, for he nodded to her. "Why are you crying?" he asked.

"She's crying?" Ethan checked his sister, only to see tears in her eyes.

With a groan, Cassie rubbed her face with both hands. "I told Ethan about Miles."

Matty looked at Ethan, and Ethan shrugged.

"I didn't say anything. Much. Look, she was the one who brought up Miles. I was just sitting here, minding my own business, when she came out and started talking."

"You asked how life has been treating me," Cassie reminded.

"And you answered. Not my fault." Ethan got to his feet, and turned to his big brother. "How do you want to handle it? Do you want to be the one to beat up Miles, or do I get that honor?"

"No one's going to beat up anyone," Matty sighed, "although I'll admit the thought had crossed my mind." He stared at the backyard wall. "No matter how many times I come to Cielo Grande to visit Aiden and Shannon, I never get used to that ugly fence."

"We're leaving Miles alone?" Ethan asked.

"Yes, you are-- you both are." Cassie got to her feet. "I defended my own honor, so thanks, but no thanks." She gave them a solid, no-nonsense look that had Ethan backing down. She meant business. With a satisfied nod, and still wiping her eyes, Cassie went inside.

Ethan looked back at the wall. "You should tell your in-laws to paint it, or cover it with bushes, or something."

Matty grunted. "Aiden said one of his crew made quite an impression on you, today."

"And you wonder why I never tell you anything about my personal life." Ethan rattled what was left of his ice in the half empty glass. "Before you ask, or lecture, or whatever it was you were about to do-- nothing happened. I didn't even ask her for her number. So you can tell Aiden he has nothing to worry about."

"Aiden knew her grandfather, and he doesn't want to see her get hurt."

"Tell him message received." Ethan started to go in; he paused, and looked at Matty. "I didn't know about the situation with Cassie and Miles. If I had, I would've told you what was going on."

"I know," Matty smiled, "but I appreciate hearing you say it, anyway."

Ethan went inside before the conversation delved into his own life. While their family could sometimes be a nuisance, it was good to know they still had each other's backs.

That night, Ethan struggled to fall asleep. His mind couldn't rest, for he was thinking things he hadn't thought about in a long, long time. They weren't comforting thoughts, and they made him wish that he'd stayed home in San Francisco. Back there, he'd been all complacent and content and happy, and he was still happy; only now he had to fight harder against his thoughts to find that same quiet space where he could rest and assume that everything would turn out all right. Cassie's remark about being jinxed by her DNA hit closer to home than Ethan had cared to admit. After all, their mom and dads hadn't been in any danger of winning parent of the year awards. Though he and Cassie shared the same mother, but different fathers, it could hardly matter for both fathers had been worthless excuses for human flesh. If their parents were anything to go by, then he, Matty, Cassie, Ryan, and even Dylan, were doomed from the start, for all of their fathers had come from different levels of the same hell.

The sins of their parents could be overcome, though. Matty had proven that, and so had Ethan, with his golden career and equally golden bank account. Cassie just needed to man-up, or woman-up, and do what he and Matty had already done. They had proven that they were better than their parents, and it was time for her to do the same.

As for bombing out in the relationship department, Ethan admitted he could do better. Deep down he knew he couldn't live the rest of his life the way he had up to this point. He could only go through so many women before becoming self-conscious about it, as though it wasn't just chance, or bad luck, but something wrong with himself that was to blame. He didn't want to get married, but a long sustainable relationship did appeal to him. He was eager to prove himself successful where his father had failed, and his father had failed in a major way when it came to romantic relationships. Dad had killed one of his drugged-up girlfriends, but since none of their other dads had killed, it meant the bar had been set a little higher than first-degree murder. To feel truly vindicated, Ethan needed more than a lack of criminal homicide to show he had a successful life.

If he wanted to prove in all areas that he was better than good old Dad, then Ethan needed to get serious about his personal relationships.

He needed to luck out in bed, as well as in love, and that was a rarer than rare combination. Finding a woman that he could put up with for more than six months at a time wouldn't be easy. He had a short attention span; his interest never lasted long enough to know what a relationship beyond the six-month marker even looked like. He knew that whatever form and composition it took, it wouldn't involve marriage, for he wasn't Matty. But that was fine. He and Matty were different, and always would be.

Now that Ethan gave it some real thought, maybe figuring out the what's and when's of startup number nine shouldn't be his first priority. Maybe there was something bigger he had to do first.

Since their parents hadn't set the bar very high, it should be easy to vault over. Just because he hadn't so far, didn't mean it wasn't possible, for Matty had done it. So their parents had failed miserably at relationships. So their kids had come from a DNA cesspool that would make any sane person vomit. If Ethan could be the envy of his friends in San Francisco, then he could do this long-term relationship thing and come out a winner. He just had to work at it.

Cassie had made him feel like a loser, and now Ethan was feeling better for all his introspection and thought. This would be his next project.

All he needed to do was to find someone. Simple, right? Fighting back laughter, Ethan rolled over to try and get some sleep. He would face it all tomorrow.

* * * *

The next day did not get off to a promising start.

Try as Jo might, some days there was just no pulling out of that bad-luck tailspin, and slamming nose-first into the ground.

Today had been a good example of a running disaster. It had started with Jo twisting her ankle on her way into work. The twist wasn't bad, just enough to give her a noticeable limp. She lived close to the airport, so in a way, she had lucked out by not having far to walk. When she arrived at the shop though, Jack had taken one look at her limp, and put her to work at the office computer to research and find an historically accurate color for the wheel wells of their F8F Bearcat. It needed to be done, it wasn't a bogus task created just to keep her busy. But still. She wanted to be actually doing something.

As Jo struggled with the minute historical details of Bearcat wheel wells, Paul had stepped into the office and very pointedly asked who had broken the quarter-inch drill bits in the orange tool cabinet. Like she knew. It was beyond ridiculous. What was she? The quarter-inch drill bit fairy? In a huff, Paul had snapped at her to be more careful next time.

Next time? She hadn't even touched the lousy drill bits, and he was blaming her?

The scream of a tailspin had already been filling her ears, when the office computer crashed, wiping out all of Jo's hard-earned research and leaving her more than a little ticked off. With her head between her hands, and her ankle complaining despite the ibuprofen Jack had given her, Jo figured the disaster was almost complete. All she needed now was for someone to tell her that she was fired because she wasn't getting anything done.

The ground was closing in on her when Jack came into the office and told her for the second time to go home.

"But I need to work," Jo insisted. "You gave me a job to do--"

"If you don't want to get that ankle looked at, then fine," Jack folded his arms and looked tough, "but I want you to go home. Someone will pick you up tomorrow, and then you can go back to researching the wheel wells. While I can't tell you what to do when you get home, when you're here, you're going to stay off that ankle as much as possible."

"It isn't that bad-- it really isn't."

"Happy to hear it. You're still doing office work until I see you moving without a limp."

"But the computer--"

"I'll get someone in to fix it. It'll be here, waiting for you tomorrow morning." The phone rang, and Jack moved to answer it while Jo despaired about the entire situation.

It wasn't noon yet, she hadn't even put in a half-day's worth of work, and she was being sent home. She got up while Jack talked to a potential customer, (she recognized a sales pitch when she heard one), and started for the door. Jack called after her.

"Paul has the van waiting for you outside," Jack informed her. "He'll take you home."

It wasn't necessary, it really wasn't, but Jo went outside to see the very same van she had been sleeping in, waiting for her in front of the hangar. She opened the passenger door, and found Paul sitting behind the wheel with the air conditioner turned as high as it could go.

He said nothing as she climbed in, and shut the door.

"Thanks for the ride," Jo said, trying to find something that might smooth his ruffled feathers. When he made no response, she knew he wasn't over the broken drill bits yet. Fine. She didn't feel like convincing him of anything, let alone the truth, so when Paul kept quiet, she did the same. She would have been better off calling in sick that morning, but at least now Jack knew she wasn't goldbricking.

It took only a few minutes for Paul to reach her apartment. He pulled to the curb, and said nothing as she opened the door.

"Sorry you had a rough day," he said finally.

Jo looked at him in surprise.

"I had one, too--" Paul held up his hands in self-defense-- "but I apologize, all the same."

"I didn't break those drill bits."

Paul nodded. "They were ruined weeks ago. Jack set me straight."

"You could have told me that when I got into the van."

Paul gave a lackluster smile. "Better late than never, I guess." His whole down-in-the-dumps attitude reminded Jo of something that Jack had said the day before, about Paul fighting with an ex-wife over child visitation rights. It explained a lot.

As Jo got out, she thought of inviting him inside for lunch, but decided against it, for pity wasn't always a safe emotion to act upon.

"See you tomorrow?" Paul asked, and she smiled, and nodded.

As the van pulled away, Jo wondered if she shouldn't have smiled. Men sometimes took things like that personally, but it couldn't be helped. They were coworkers, and she would have to smile sooner or later.

She might as well start now.

* * * *

It was nearing noon when Ethan realized that he'd made a mistake. He never should've gotten out of bed-- he could see that now. His day had gone downhill the moment the words "indoor miniature golf" had been uttered. Outdoor mini-golf was at least bearable, but this? The building was so tacky, Ethan had been mildly surprised when the golf balls hadn't stuck in place on the artificial neon-bright turf.

Despite the obvious shortfalls, Ethan thought he had endured enough of that morning's game to be able to say, if asked, that he had enjoyed himself. More or less. He had gotten a hole-in-one on the windmill course, but the walls that slid up and down had been no fun at all. He hadn't been able to get down the timing, and putt at just the right moment to get past those stupid sliding walls. Ethan had given up before the round was over, and now sat waiting for the others to hurry up and finish so they could all eat lunch.

Since Aiden couldn't do much standing, Ethan and Aiden sat together, making Ethan's vacation complete.

As Ethan fought the urge to check his iPhone, the thought occurred to him to start looking for that long-term sustainable relationship that he'd given so much thought to, yesterday. He needed to get started, for the sooner he found a suitable partner-in-life, the sooner he could get back to working out startup number nine. Not that he was likely to find her playing indoor miniature golf.

Since Ethan had never been able to make any of his previous relationships last, he had more than a sneaking hunch that this wouldn't be simple. But then, he had never really worked at it until now. His chances had to go up merely by the fact that he was giving it his full attention.

He glanced around the room, and tried to look inconspicuous as he took note of the few women there. Excluding his family, they looked to be too old and not at all attractive. If the rest of Cielo Grande looked anything like this room, then he would have to wait until he got back to San Francisco where his choices would be infinitely better. He wouldn't have bothered to look at all, if he hadn't already been waiting for lunch. Finding a worthwhile single woman in Cielo Grande would be about as likely as finding dandelions on the moon.

The thought flicked through him that he might try the local municipal airport. Ethan nervously ran his hands through his hair and wondered if he dared. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of his last experience, and next time, the crew might actually notice when she gave him the cold shoulder. Public humiliation was not what Ethan had in mind.

He didn't know. He would have to think about it.

When the others had finished their round of miniature golf, they ordered meat-filled burritos, and cheese-covered nachos, and headed for the eating area where grown adults sat at picnic tables painted over with neon stripes and bright polka dots. Man. Ethan was glad his friends couldn't see him as he chomped away on animal flesh while surrounded by lame outdoor lawn art that had been made indoor friendly.

"Having fun?" Beth asked him, as juice spilled from her burrito.

Unable to think of even a suitable mock reply, Ethan smiled and kept eating.

"I guess you don't like golf," Ryan said, looking at Ethan over the discarded wrappers and soda drinks scattered on the table. "Next time, we should try something that you want to do."

"I like golf." Ethan frowned as he thought that statement over. "I know I haven't gotten out to the Presidio Golf Course in months, but I enjoy a good round now and then."

Ryan eyed him suspiciously. "Then what you're saying is that this wasn't a good round."

It took self-control not to smirk. Ethan shrugged. "Let's just say I'm not used to windmills and smiling palm trees when I'm teeing off."

"You're not a golf snob, are you?" When Ethan didn't reply, Ryan shook his head, and chomped off the pointy end of a nacho. "This is what happens when you don't hang out with family often enough. Going with Dad and Mom into public places teaches you humility, big time."

"You can say that again," Dylan grinned.

"It's true," Ryan said in earnest. "When you're out in public with them, they hug you like you're still five years old. And it takes them forever to realize that you're old enough to not have to keep tabs of your every move. Driving you nuts is a part of their job description," Ryan shrugged, "it's what they do best. But you know how parents are."

"Actually, I don't." Ethan took a drink from his soda cup before returning his attention to the burrito. "I'm not saying Matty didn't ask those same questions, and be a serious pain at times, but my parents never really cared what I did, or who I saw. My mom was your mom too, only you were so young, you didn't get the full effect that Matty, Cassie, and I did." Ethan picked out some of the meat from his burrito. "I can't tell you how many times we went to bed hungry because there was no food in the house. I'd cry myself to sleep thinking that this is it, that this time, we were going to die. That young, I didn't know how many days it took before a person starved to death, but laying in that bed with my stomach gnawing on nothing, I felt like tomorrow was never coming. It's hard to have hope when your parents forget you, you know?" Ethan looked at Ryan, and saw the lack of understanding in Ryan's face.

Matty kept quiet, but Ethan knew his older brother hadn't forgotten what it had been like to grow up with drug-addicted parents.

"I don't know how much you remember," Ethan pushed on, "but when things got better, it was because of Matty. When we no longer went to bed hungry, it was because of him. When I was about to get a beating from one of mom's boyfriends, Matty was the one who stood between me and the pounding blows. Cassie can tell you the same." Ethan looked at his younger brothers. "You guys have it so good, and you don't even realize it."

When Ryan looked at him with serious eyes, Ethan knew he'd come down on his brother a little hard.

Trying to lighten the mood, Ethan got up to order a vanilla milkshake. "I feel like dessert," he said, trying to keep his voice upbeat. "Want me to get you anything?" When no one spoke up, Ethan went to order that milkshake.

He hated it when he got this way, for when he did, people usually kept clear of him. He couldn't blame them. He'd stay away from himself, if he could.

As Ethan waited in line to place his order, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Matty standing behind him.

"I thought I'd split some chocolate chip cookies with Beth," Matty said, as though he just happened to be waiting like everyone else. Matty paused, and lowered his voice. "Years ago, I asked Ryan how much he remembers. You'd be surprised-- his memories don't go back any further than Beth. He hardly remembers Mom at all."

"Wish I could say the same."

After Ethan had bought his milkshake, he headed back to the table deep in thought. He wondered if he would ever be able to forget the way Ryan had.

As Ethan resumed his seat, he noticed his family's quiet looks, as though they were unsure if he was all right or not. When Ethan cracked a joke, the tension at the table faded away and it seemed everyone was happy that the trip down Memory Lane was over. Everyone was smiling as Aiden leaned in toward Ethan, and started to spout scripture passages that Ethan ignored. Ethan didn't understand the man, he didn't know why Aiden had chosen that moment to get all hopeful and encouraging, but then, Aiden was a force of nature; Aiden wasn't to be understood, he simply was.

If Aiden wanted to encourage him, then so be it. All the hopeful Bible-talk in the world changed nothing.

A half-hour later, Ethan walked with his family out to the vehicles waiting in the heat. He despised going over old times because it usually came with a price. He'd run as far and as hard as he could to get away from those memories, and reliving them was like swallowing back vomit.

It left him feeling raw, stirred up inside, and angry.

When they reached home, Ethan excused himself, and went out to his car. He didn't want to be anywhere near his family, for whenever he slipped into one of his black moods, he was bad company. Cassie would probably say that he was being morose, but Ethan didn't care.

He only knew what he felt.

He went to the store, and soon found what he was looking for in the beverage aisle. He didn't absolutely need it, but he did want it-- a small but vital distinction that he had come to appreciate over the years. It was the difference between an addiction and someone seeking a distraction, and right now, he wanted to be distracted. He picked up a few other things that experience told him he would need, and then got back into his car to drive around until he could find the right place. Someplace that wouldn't ask questions, or look too hard at his shopping bags. Spotting a shabby motel on the edge of town, Ethan stopped, and checked in while the anger tugged at his insides.

He found his room, went inside, and slapped the door shut behind him.

By the time Ethan pushed his eyelids open, he was pretty sure it was the next day, for the cheap clock on the night-table said AM, when he was as certain as he could be that he'd passed out very much in the PM. He blinked against the light filtering through the flimsy closed motel curtains and bit back a curse. If he so much as uttered a sound, Ethan knew his head would explode all over the already stained bed sheets where he had crashed the PM before. Moving in slow motion to keep the room from spinning, Ethan got to his feet, and dragged his sad carcass into the bathroom.

He used the toilet, then hauled himself to the sink to look in the mirror and grumble at the unfairness of hangovers. Man, he looked even worse than he felt, and he hadn't thought that was humanly possible. He stared at the puffy, bloodshot eyes and made a face. He'd live. Though at the moment, sudden death sounded good to him, for his head pounded louder than a heavy metal rock band on ill-gotten drugs.

It wasn't fair. He'd hardly done anything to get such vicious payback. All he'd downed was a smallish bottle of scotch, and not very great scotch, at that. From the way his head felt, you would have thought he'd drained all of Arizona of hard liquor.

Life played dirty, it didn't go by any rules Ethan recognized. In a better world than this one, a man could drink all he wanted and not have to pay for it the next day. He twisted the faucet handle to cold, splashed water on his face and scrubbed some life back into his skin. He looked like some sallow-faced skid row bum who'd just emerged from a night of binge drinking in a dark alley somewhere. Although, if Ethan was going to be brutally honest about it, his one-person party had started much earlier. It had kicked off late yesterday afternoon, after a fun-filled morning of miniature golf.

Ethan grimaced.

No wonder he'd felt the need to loosen up. Three full days in this sunbaked, who-cares-of-a-town would drive anyone crazy, let alone someone used to something better.

Ethan turtle-walked back to the bedroom to search the grocery bags for the all-important vodka. He opened the bottle, took a shot of the liquid fire, and then sank onto the bed to let the vodka do its job. When his hands had stopped shaking, and the pain had been pushed back to something livable, Ethan went to take the longest and hottest shower of his life. He hated the way he'd had to crash in this hole-in-the-wall they called a motel, just to finally get a drink. It made him feel dirty, like he had something to hide. He didn't. He'd only come here because he hadn't felt like getting yelled at by his family.

Living alone had its advantages.

He took one last swig of vodka-- just a small one to make him feel human-- before putting on the clean shirt and cargo pants he'd bought at the store the day before. He'd needed the fresh change, for yesterday's clothes stank like a distillery. He applied the eye drops he'd bought, he brushed his teeth, then popped spearmint gum into his mouth to mask his breath. Wanting to curse himself soundly and yet lacking the courage to actually go through with it, Ethan set about gathering his things into the store's crumpled bags. Breakfast would have to wait, for his stomach was too unsettled to keep food down. He slid on his sunglasses, picked up the bags with all his trash and yesterday's clothes, and then took a deep breath. On the few occasions in the past when he'd partied hard, then had someplace important to go the next morning, he'd learned to camouflage the telltale signs of what had happened the night before. Though it wasn't sure-fire, it was better than nothing.

If someone recognized the signs, and asked who had killed him last night, Ethan would just smile and say he wasn't used to partying as hard as everyone else. It gave him a veneer of innocence while being able to state the brutal truth. Or at least some of the truth.

Looking about the room, Ethan remembered to check his phone. It was a sure thing that there would be messages, urgent ones from people who hadn't known which hole he'd slipped into. Ethan went to tug the phone from his pocket, and cursed softly when he found his pocket empty. He didn't remembering putting the phone anyplace special. The one thing about hangovers that he hated with a vengeance, besides the pain and the nausea-- so it was really three things that he hated-- were the blackouts. The times he couldn't remember if he'd done anything stupid the night before. Besides getting plastered.

It took a good fifteen minutes for Ethan to find his smartphone shoved up against the wall, under the bed. How it got there, he had no idea, and he probably didn't want to know. At least he'd been by himself at the moment he'd reached stupid.

He groaned as he straightened and the room moved around him, for all that bending down had sharpened the pain in his head. He wanted to self-medicate one last time with the vodka, but restrained himself. Blood-alcohol-concentration-wise, he was as sober as a judge and he wanted to stay that way. If he got pulled over, he had nothing to fear, for he'd slept off the scotch and was most likely under the point zero eight limit by now.

A quick check of his iPhone showed several missed calls from Matty, from yesterday, and whoa, even from this morning. Ethan ignored the voicemail and texts. He had to get out of there.

None too soon, he was speeding down Interstate 10 with the AC on full blast. He had no idea where he was going, only that he didn't want to go home-- not yet. As he passed a green and white sign pointing the way to Phoenix, Ethan made up his mind. He wasn't known for rash decisions, but today he wanted to feel like the million bucks that he was. He had yet to really savor his success, for he'd been too busy worrying about startup number nine to break loose and have fun.

If he wanted a good time, then it was high time he got started.

Over two hours later, Ethan circled the high-end convertible with the glossy red finish and brown and black leather seats. The slope of the hood and the horse on the grille said it all. He was buying a Ferrari. The sales representative was in the office, getting all the necessary paperwork together and probably pinching himself black and blue that he'd made the sale so easily. Ethan didn't care. Though he'd never really dreamed of getting an ultra-high-end convertible, now that he could, he didn't see why he shouldn't. Yes, it would be a chunk of change, but it wasn't as though he was retiring in the near future; besides, he could afford it so many times over, it felt stupid to analyze it too hard.

Pulling out his phone, Ethan called Matty's number. It answered on the first ring.

"Where are you?" Matty spat out without even a cursory hi-how-are-you.

"I'm in Phoenix." Ethan smiled at the high-gloss reflection looking back at him from the convertible's hood. "Does Ryan want my old four-door sedan?"


"I'm getting rid of my old car, and I need to know if Ryan wants it for school. If he does, I'll have it delivered to Cielo Grande."

"What?" Matty asked again, as if he hadn't been able to hear right the first time.

"The salesperson offered to have my old car delivered home," Ethan explained, "so if Ryan wants it, I need to know. Ryan can have it free and clear," Ethan added, wondering if that was what had Matty pausing for so long.

"Where have you been?" Matty asked. "We've been worried sick about you."

"I just needed to get away-- it's no big deal."

"Without telling us? We didn't know what in the world to think."

"Hold your horses. I'm coming back." Ethan looked over the rich interior and told himself he wasn't dreaming. "About my car--"

"Forget the car." Matty blew out a patient breath that had Ethan shaking his head.

His brother needed to relax. He wasn't some irresponsible teenager who needed a stand-in parent. He was over thirty, he could do as he wanted.

"Tell you what, I'm just going to assume Ryan wants my old sedan." Ethan nodded to the salesperson as he came from the office with paperwork in hand. "Ryan's car will be delivered sometime today, okay?"

"Are you all right?" Matty asked.

"I don't have time for a million questions. I'll be back later. I promise."

"Your voice sounds off again--"

"Matty. I'm fine. Be on the lookout for Ryan's car. Aside from that, I'll see you later." Ethan punched off, and went to sign those papers. For once in his life he was doing something on pure impulse. Okay, so maybe this wasn't the first time, but it certainly wasn't a habit. Matty had made it sound like the end of the world had finally come. Last time Ethan had checked, the world was still spinning, so what did Matty have to complain about?

Having a large supply of cash and a highly motivated salesperson did wonders. Before noon, or close enough to it, Ethan drove his fully insured convertible off the dealership lot. There were no payments to make-- he owned it free and clear. If the salesman had noticed Ethan's still-bloodshot eyes, the guy had kept it to himself.

Feeling better than he had all morning, Ethan revved the twin turbocharged V8 engine, and felt his head throb from what was left of that morning's hangover. On the Richter scale of pain, ten being the highest, it registered a solid eight. Since he only used vodka in cases of dire emergency, he pointed his shiny red toy in the direction of the nearest grocery store. He needed something stronger than the aspirin he'd bought the day before.

People stopped to stare as Ethan pulled into the store's parking lot. Ignoring the curious looks as he got out of the high performance car, Ethan went to a nearby dumpster and tossed in his trash, including the bag hiding the still-full vodka bottle. He no longer needed it.

He had survived the worst the morning had to offer, and was ready to face life again.

The store's air conditioning felt good as Ethan snagged a container of extra-strength painkiller, and a cold bottle of water. Then he headed for the deli. Now that his stomach felt like it was no longer trying to strangle him, Ethan bought some ready-made sandwiches jammed with fresh veggies and large meaty mushrooms chopped into slices. He needed to get his system back on track, for he'd eaten enough animal byproducts in the last few days to make any self-respecting vegan gag.

Though the heat was insane, Ethan went outside to move his car to the heaviest shade he could find. Then he sat back with the top down to eat his lunch and enjoy the large purchase he'd just made.

A hot breeze fanned Ethan's cheek as he ate the sandwiches and dropped crumbs onto the creamy brown leather of his seat. This was one sweet ride. He had yet to push the engine and see how much punishment it could take, but for now, he was too busy relaxing to care how it handled. After spending so much money, he felt relief that he'd finally made a big decision without getting an ulcer before making the leap. He'd finally let go a little and was now enjoying himself for the first real time since he'd sold his startup.

Ethan smiled.

Now that he had pulled himself together, and was once more feeling in control of his life, he could turn his thoughts back to the small airport in Cielo Grande.

It was time to put this car to good use.

"Verily I say unto you... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When [Christ's] disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible."
~ Matthew 19:23-26 ~

end of chapter
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