THE SOUND of Aaron McCoy losing the last thread of his sanity was a lot like the noise made by someone hitting the Escape key over and over, slowly building up speed as their desperation grew.
“No. No, shit, nonono, this is not happening—” Compound the tapping on the keyboard with quiet disbelief that quickly turned into full-throated despair, and it was quite a way for his sanity to go.
“Fuck you, you piece of shit, don’t do this to me!”
YOU HAVE LOGGED OUT.
“No I didn’t, you logged me out, you son of a bitch.” He smacked the side of the ancient monitor and resisted the urge to grab the tire iron from the back of his Prius and go full-on Office Space on it. “Fuck.” Two hours of entering case notes, right in the middle of what felt like his fiftieth page of documentation, and the system booted him. Because of course it did.
Aaron pulled his glasses off and set them on his desk, then leaned back in his chair and scrubbed his hands over his face. The office was quiet except for the hum of his computer, mocking him in binary from two feet away. The lights were low, the door was locked. He was the only person there, which was good. Nobody else needed to see him defeated by the fucking TFACTS software.
Okay. Fine. He had to start over with this case, but he could do that, he had time. Technically, Aaron had fifteen days to update his case files, and he’d only finished with this one on Friday. It was Sunday. But he knew, he just knew, that the minute he let himself think about drawing things out a little more, that was when he’d fall behind, thanks to circumstances he couldn’t control. Shit like his computer deciding to fuck with him, for example. In thirteen days, this would be a real problem. At the moment, it was just an inconvenience.
“Some damn inconvenience.” His head hurt. His hands hurt, fingertips sore from two solid hours of work. But if he didn’t get the case files done right then, he wouldn’t have time to make his family visits tomorrow. He couldn’t put those off—they’d been scheduled for weeks, and it was hard enough to get people to comply with them without changing the dates and times he’d be meeting them.
“M’kay. Right.” He let his hands slide down to his lap and stared balefully at the screen. YOU HAVE LOGGED OUT. “I’m logging back in, motherfucker, and you’re going to swallow all the words I cram down your throat if it’s the last thing you ever do.” He sighed, leaned forward, and reached for his glasses. He might have lost the battle, but the war was just starting.
The sudden clamor of the Beastie Boys was enough to make Aaron jump out of his chair. That was Tyler’s ringtone.
He grabbed for his phone, knocking his glasses to the floor while he was at it. “Damn it.”
“Nice to chat with you too.”
“That was a general ‘damn it,’ not one specific to you,” Aaron said. He didn’t dare move his chair while he felt around for the glasses. The way his evening was going, he’d roll right over them. “What’s up?”
“It’s pub quiz night.”
“And you said you’d meet me there. Remember? We were gonna be the Fool-Hardy Boys.”
“Oh.” Right, he had said that. “I’m sorry. I’m still at work.”
“Um.” It was still crazy to Aaron how Tyler could pack a dictionary’s worth of Tennessee drawl into a single syllable. “You know it’s Sunday, right? The day of rest? The not-as-good-as-Saturday-but-still-better-than-Monday day of the week?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So, why are you at work?”
Aaron stopped looking for his glasses and rubbed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. Damn, but he had a headache. “Case notes.”
“Uh-huh. For cases that ain’t due for another two weeks.”
“I don’t want to get behind.”
“You never get behind. You’re always ahead, that’s why nobody at your work wants to invite you to their barbecues on the weekend. You get that, right? Last thing they wanna do is ask what you’ve been up to and get their own work ethic smacked down.”
“My team likes me,” Aaron objected.
“Sure they do. You make their lives easier, but that don’t mean they want it rubbed in their faces. Case in point: you missin’ quiz night with your own family so you can argue with your computer instead.”
“How did you know I was arguing with my computer?”
“Figured that was who the ‘damn it’ was for.” Tyler paused, then said, “I’m right, aren’t I? I’m right!”
Aaron could actually hear the grin spread across his face. “Nope.”
“Yes I am. Don’t lie.”
“I wasn’t swearing at the computer.”
“You were swearin’ because of it.”
“No, I knocked my glasses on the floor.”
Tyler scoffed. “Yeah, I don’t believe that for a second. Look—”
“I can leave now.” He might as well. The longer he went without reengaging with his enemy, the harder it became to force himself to do it. “The pub is just fifteen minutes away, I can get there fast.”
“Aaron, hold up—”
“No, I’m serious. I can make it before it’s over.”
“It’s already over,” Tyler said, more gently than Aaron probably deserved. “The quiz started at seven―it’s nine now.”
Holy shit, when had it gotten so late? “Why didn’t you call me earlier?”
Aaron checked his phone. Sure enough, one missed call from Tyler. He must have been in the bathroom. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
Tyler always said that when Aaron was a douche, and as grateful as he was for the forgiveness, the fact that he kept needing it was entirely his fault. “No, it’s not. I’m a shitty person.”
“Eh, you’re not so bad. ’Cept when you play Call of Duty, but I’m kind of counting on that to make me feel better.” If they’d been in the same room, Tyler would have just nudged Aaron with his elbow. “I’m cashing in on your guilt. Come over to the house and play video games with me.”
Aaron chuckled. “I swear, you’re still fifteen.”
“Don’t be ageist, man. Video games are for everyone. And hey, I’ve got beer.”
“Video games and beer,” Aaron deadpanned. “Wow, that’s a fantastic evening in, no wonder you’ve got to beat the ladies off with a stick.”
“The guys tend to like it, though.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Aaron wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever get used to the sheer ease with which Tyler referenced his bisexuality. It wasn’t that Aaron had a problem with it; he was gay and out since he’d come to Tennessee. To be out, though, he’d had to leave Kansas first. It wasn’t like there’d been anyone there to care, but the group homes were enough trouble without his sexuality being thrown into the mix.
Tyler had come out when he was sixteen, a year after Aaron had come to live with him and his parents when he began college. Arranging for him to stay with the Howards had been the greatest thing that Child Protective Services had done for Aaron before he’d left Leavenworth. The Howards were kind, warm people that made Aaron feel welcome, and their only kid left at home, Tyler, had latched on to Aaron like a leech. Ten years later, he still hadn’t let go.
Tyler informed his mother he was bisexual one morning by mentioning, very casually, that he was going to skip Homecoming because “Gina dumped me because I’d rather spend time with her brother than her, and Carl doesn’t want to go to the dance, so we’re gonna hang out here instead, okay?”
Diana, his mother, had sighed. “Honey, you aren’t datin’ Gina’s brother just to make her mad, are you?”
“No!” Tyler had replied, affronted. “I’m datin’ him because he’s hot! And Gina didn’t really want to date me anyway. She just wanted to say she was dating me. At least Carl likes me.”
“Mmkay, then. Bring him on by, but you’re sleepin’ in different beds.”
And that had been that. Aaron had felt light-headed when he’d left the breakfast table, glancing back over his shoulder just to make sure that Tyler wasn’t going to get hit as soon as he was out of the room. Nope. Diana just poured herself another cup of coffee. His father Theo had been just the same when he found out.
“So are you comin’ over or not?”
Aaron snapped back to the present. “Yeah. I’m coming.”
“Good! See you soon.”
Aaron pocketed his phone, retrieved his glasses, and shut his computer down with a baleful “Screw you” as he stood. It was going to be a late night after all, but at least he’d be able to enjoy it after this. He turned out the light on his desk, grabbed his jacket, and locked the door to the cubicle bay as he headed for his car. It was almost summer, and he didn’t really need to bundle up, but he never felt as warm as it seemed like everyone else did down there.
Tyler lived twenty minutes out from Tipton Hollow, on a county road lined with red maple and blackjack oak trees. The house was a big one, two stories with five bedrooms that had housed various children and foster children over the years.
Diana and Theo had retired to North Carolina last year to be closer to their largest crop of grandchildren, and Tyler had managed to get together the money for a down payment on his family home. He was renovating it, but in true Tyler fashion, only when he felt like it.
Aaron parked next to Tyler’s gratuitously large, souped-up 4Runner, a ridiculous car for someone who worked at home.
“But that’s the whole point!” Tyler had said when Aaron pointed it out. “I’m not gonna be usin’ it all that much so my carbon footprint won’t be much different than yours, but if any of my friends needs a guy with a truck, now I can help out. Win-win.”
“Your reasoning skills are truly bizarre,” Aaron had said. Tyler had thrown a potato chip at his head.
Inside, the house was a weird hodge-podge of Tyler’s comfort-minded sense of style and his parents’ aggressively Southern sensibilities. The walls were covered with floral designs, pink roses and baby’s breath displayed in indelible wallpaper bouquets every few feet. The ceilings had crown molding at the edges, the oak cabinet against the wall still held the 12-piece set of china dishes that the Howards had received for their wedding, and Aaron automatically hung his jacket on the coatrack set up by the door.
The things Tyler had focused on first were the items he used the most: he’d exchanged the sitting room love seat for a long leather couch, replaced the vacuum-tube television for a sleek, enormous flat-screen TV that filled half the wall, and installed an ergonomic workstation for himself that filled Aaron with envy. Tyler’s office chair was possibly the most comfortable thing Aaron had ever sat on, and it had a massage feature as well. Tyler could get a fucking massage while he teleworked. Bastard.
Right then, though, Tyler wasn’t working; he was sitting in front of his television, his shoulders twitching along with his hands as he played Call of Duty. All that space, and he’d folded himself up into one corner of it, legs crossed, face intent as he tried to shoot his way out of trouble. It didn’t help that his cat was currently occupying his lap, and from the look of things Tyler hadn’t tried to move her. Smart man. Evil Cat was evil.
Aaron flopped down onto the couch and kicked his feet up onto the coffee table with a sigh. “Man, fuck this day.”
“You say that about every day,” Tyler noted, glancing over at him with a smile.
“I mean it about this one, though,” Aaron insisted. “This day can die in a fire. This day can get strung up on the rack and broken in two for all the shit it’s put me through.”
Tyler’s glance was more lingering this time. “It’s gotta be bad if you’re gettin’ medieval on its ass. What happened? Apart from working on a Sunday like a damn fool?”
“Nothing.” Aaron shut his eyes, then yelped as Tyler whacked his controller against Aaron’s knee. “Ow! Fucker!”
“Why do you lie to me? And when you do, why do you do it so damn badly?” Tyler asked. “You don’t come here and tell me everything is shit and then not tell me why. All it does is make me curious, and you know how I am when I’m curious.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure you won’t throw a cherry bomb down my toilet just to see what happens when it explodes.”
Tyler was already snickering. “Oh, yeah. That was so funny.”
“The school didn’t think it was so funny. Your mom didn’t think it was funny.”
“You did,” he insisted.
“No, I didn’t.” Actually, it had been terrifying at the time, before he’d known how awesome Diana and Theo were. Instead of a beating, Tyler had gotten a lecture that had left him in tears.
“Well, I thought it was funny. Clue would have thought it was funny, right, baby?” He let go of his controller to pet his tabby’s head. The cat nipped at his finger.
“That looks like dissent to me.”
“You just don’t speak the language of the kitty cat.” Tyler petted her again. Clue stretched, splaying her six-toed feet wide, then jumped out of Tyler’s lap and sauntered over to her food bowl.
“Why didn’t you rename her when you adopted her?” Aaron asked.
“Because then I wouldn’t have gotten a clue, are you payin’ attention, man? And don’t try to change the subject, I know all your tells. Why did your day suck so bad?”
Aaron sighed. “Len left today.”
Tyler frowned. “You ain’t dated Len for almost six months. What’s the problem with him finally leavin’ for Nashville?”
“He asked me to go with him.”
Tyler’s jaw dropped, and his eyes opened so wide Aaron was afraid they’d fall out. Tyler was cute in a too-much-personality-to-be-contained way, lanky and blond and perpetually scruffy. He did big expressions well, and shock was especially funny on him.
“No, six months ago.”
“What the hell did you tell him?”
Aaron raised an eyebrow. “No, obviously. Since I’m still here.”
“Son of a bitch.”
Now it was Aaron’s turn to frown. “I know you guys weren’t friends or anything, but you were singing a different tune six months ago when I broke up with him.”
“That’s before I knew he tried to lure you to Nashville! Never mind givin’ the guy a chance, screw him if he wanted to get you to leave. He can go enjoy his cold bed in the big city and be thankful for it.”
Aaron laughed. “Wow, you’re getting proper Southern vengeful about this! I don’t know why, but it’s hilarious. Keep going.”
“Nah, I’m done.” Tyler stared at the TV, then shook his head. “Actually, nope, I’m not. But I want another beer before I go on a tear. You want one?”
“Sure.” Aaron still—astonishingly—had a room there. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d crashed at Tyler’s after drinking a few too many beers, and he was more than ready for one. He had a spare suit in the closet, he’d be fine.
Tyler bounded off the couch and over to the kitchen. Aaron shut his eyes and listened to the open-shut of the fridge, the soft hiss of the caps coming off, and the slap of Tyler’s bare feet on hardwood as he returned with a—
“Jesus Christ!” Aaron jackknifed upright and almost fell off the couch as the icy glass of the bottle pressed against the side of his neck. “Ty, you fucker!”
“What? You looked hot! I was just tryin’ to be nice and cool you off!” Tyler laughed and backed away from the couch, dodging Aaron’s kick but leaving himself open for a smack to the face from a throw pillow. He stumbled and Aaron pounced, taking him out at the knees and sending him sprawling back onto the floor. “No, wait, don’t spill the beer!”
Aaron paused. “That’s fair.” He took the bottles and set them both on the coffee table, then resumed asserting his dominance through pillow warfare. Aaron had never been comfortable with roughhousing, not even with his actual brother. It was too much like being hit for real. Pillows, though, gave him enough distance that he could handle it without freaking out. The few times he’d gone still and silent when Tyler had tried to tussle with him the first year he was there had been noticeable enough for Tyler to change his ways.
“You—ow—shit, c’mon, I just—ow!” Tyler groped for the couch, but Aaron had his weight just right, and unless he wanted to tip over the coffee table, there was no easy way out. “At least let me get the other pillow!”
“Should have thought of that before you started the fight,” Aaron crowed. “Say you won’t do that shit again.”
“Our beer is gettin’ warm!”
Aaron sighed and pushed up onto his feet. “You always know how to get out of trouble.”
“Yeah, that’s what you learn when you’re the youngest of five by ten years. Magic menopause baby!”
He grinned and held out his hand, and Aaron hoisted him to his feet. “Thanks.” He handed over one of the bottles, then held his own out. “Here. To Len, whatever the fuck he gets up to in Nashville, and to you not bein’ an idiot and going with him.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “You know, there’s Child Protective Services in Nashville too. I could have transferred.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Because Nashville could never be your home, not like here. You’re never gonna move, Aaron. You found a place and you dug in deep, and Len should have known better than to even ask.” Tyler said it like it was simple fact, and not the sort of insight he’d pulled out of his ass.
Aaron opened his mouth to argue, to say that actually, he could move any time he wanted to. He’d done it before. He could do it again. He could. He could.
Yeah, but he probably wouldn’t. Tipton Hollow was a tiny place compared to Memphis or Nashville, kept alive by manufacturing jobs and plenty of retail options. It was close to a few different colleges, near enough the Georgia border that people could commute if they needed to, and set in mountain country, which drew tourists in the fall. After ten years, it really was home.
It helped that Tyler was still around. His four older siblings were long gone and so were his folks, but the feeling of family still remained. Aaron wasn’t so spoiled for family that he could afford to distance himself from the only person he had left.
“Yeah, that’s the face.”
Aaron glanced over at Tyler, who looked casually smug. “What face?”
“You’re appreciatin’ me. I can tell by the way you lose that little frown line between your eyes.”
“I don’t have a frown line.”
“Oh, you do.” Tyler reached out and pressed the pad of his thumb against the bridge of Aaron’s nose. “Right here. When you’re bein’ serious, which is way too often, it wrinkles. When you’re happy, it goes away.”
Aaron batted Tyler’s hand away and had a sip of his beer. “And you think you’re the cause of that? I’m just happy to finally be drinking.”
“Sure. Tell yourself that. But lemme beat your ass at Call of Duty while you work it out, okay?”
Aaron’s phone rang before he could inform Tyler that, in fact, Aaron was going to send him packing. He pulled it out and checked the caller and felt his stomach sink. Robert J. Tipton Memorial Hospital.
“This is Aaron McCoy,” he said as he answered, already setting his beer down.
“Hey, Aaron, it’s Whit.”
“Hey, what’s up?” He headed for the door, Tyler trailing with a confused expression. Whit, he mouthed as he stepped back into his shoes.
“Sorry to bother you on the weekend, but I’ve got a kid here who has you listed as his emergency contact.”
Aaron was already running through his mental case list. “What’s his name?”
“His ID says Thomas Ingram.”
“Aw, Tommy.” Shit. “Is he okay?”
“He’s unconscious right now,” Whit said grimly. “He staggered into the ER and almost fell onto the front desk. He was out before I could get him to answer any questions. All his vitals are stable, though, so hopefully he’ll be awake by the time you get here.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“I’ll leave a note at the nurse’s desk to let you back.” Whit hung up and Aaron turned to Tyler with a sigh.
“So… I’ve got to go.”
“I figured. Is Whitney okay?”
“He’d kick your ass if he heard you call him Whitney.”
Tyler shrugged. “He kicks my ass anyway in the gym. Besides, it’s a compliment! Most badass girl I ever met was a Whitney―she knocked Mark Stone clean out when he grabbed her tits in gym class sophomore year.”
“Sounds like he deserved it.” Aaron opened the door and shivered. When had it gotten chilly? He struggled into his jacket.
“Oh, he totally did. And Whitney’s no worse than his real name, preppy East Coast bastard.”
“He prefers Whit.”
“I know.” Tyler grinned. “That’s why I call him Whitney.”
Aaron shook his head. “How are you so damn big and so adolescent at the same time?”
“Good genes. You want company for this?”
“Nah, I’ve got it.”
“Okay, well… I’ll drink your beer for you.”
“Thanks,” Aaron said sarcastically, but he let Tyler pull him into a hug that warmed him better than his jacket ever could. This, this was why he hadn’t left with Len, why he wasn’t going to leave Tipton Hollow. Nobody had ever offered him affection for free before, not without wanting something in return. Aaron couldn’t risk losing it, not when he knew he’d never find it again. Lightning never struck twice.
“Call me tomorrow, ’kay? Just to let me know everything’s okay?” Tyler asked as he finally pulled back.
“I will.” Even though odds were, things weren’t going to be okay. Not with one of his former kids out cold in the ER.
Aaron could make it to the hospital in twenty-five minutes if he pushed it.