Synopsis: Cold Ghost

Joel was just a regular ol’ park ranger, minding his own business when Yukihiro burst through a window and into his life. Now, he’s trapped in a web of deceit and danger that goes beyond ‘hilarious misunderstanding’ and driven straight to ‘mortal peril’. Will Joel survive the adventure? Will Yukihiro ever explain what it’s all about? Or will everyone just be eaten alive by bears?

Previous Chapter: Prologue

Index

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: fake star

Chapter 1: Hot Gossip

 

“Joel… boy, is that you? What are you doing out here?”

 

Joel glanced back over his shoulder, and smiled. He’d been standing outside, watching the night sky for a while, gathering his thoughts before he went into the house. The house had always been a bit busy for him at this time of year: there were a lot screaming cousins and gossiping aunts and uncles, and the usual insignificant rivalries that flared up. Even though he’d driven through the beginnings of heavy winter snow to get there, Joel still hesitated outside. He liked the cold calm.

 

“Hi there Gramps, I’m just having a think.”

 

“Surprised your brain can work in this confounded cold. Crying out loud boy, get your arse in this house, think of my poor cold bones,” Grandpa Moss grumbled, slamming the front door open, propping it with his walking stick. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

 

Joel shook his head and rummaged in the backseat of his beat-up old pickup truck to fish out his duffel bag. Hoisting it onto his shoulder, he trundled up the drive way and took the weight of the door from his grandfather, letting the old man shuffle inside the family abode.

 

“Took your time getting here, boy… Did you get lost on the way here, or were you just enjoying your mountain hermitage too damn much?”Grandpa Moss harrumphed, rubbing his hands together in an exaggerated manner and glaring up at Joel.

 

Closing the door as quietly as he could behind him, Joel knew that his grandfather was examining him for any signs of malnutrition, in case he was wasting away in his “mountain hermitage”. “Mountain hermitage” was the codeword for his current place of employment – he worked with the National Parks of Canada Services as a park warden, and lived and worked in the largest National Park in Ontario. Joel was one of the taller men in his family, with scruffy hair that seemed to swing between dark blond and light brown, currently sporting some semi-fashionable stubble – though not out of a fashionable choice – and dark blues eyes. There was some meat and muscle to him, but it had come from hard work and an outdoorsy life, not slaving away in a corporate gym. At least that’s how he hoped how he looked like to the city boys – it’d be way too weird and creepy for his grandfather to think like that. From the look on his Grandpa Moss’ face, it seemed like he had decided: “Hmm, pushing presentable for a family occasion but probably healthy and not wilting away.”

 

“Sorry about that Gramps. They think that they’re going to have to close off some of the mountain roads. The weather is looking like it’ll getting pretty bad real quick, so traffic was slow going for a long time. And cell reception is terrible, so I couldn’t call ahead to let Mom and Dad know. You didn’t have to wait up though,” Joel said.

 

“I know I didn’t. But I’m a kind and generous soul, and little Mikey was anxious to see you again. Apparently he can’t wait ‘til morning to see your ugly mug and tell you all about college,” Grandpa Moss announced – his voice had a hint of put on weariness, but his eyes were twinkling. “I’m oft told that this college place is full of exciting business. And heaven forefend the boy be left unsupervised.”

 

Of course – Mikey, Michael, the littlest of their little familial unit and his younger brother, had only just escaped to college earlier in the summer: he wanted to major in marine biology. He’d travelled across to Vancouver for it, and it was probably the first time the baby of the family had been away from home and their parents for so long without an adult present. The concept of Mikey as an adult was always going to be a debatable one for their mother, even if and when he settled down to have kids of his own. Bloody hell, but there was a frightening concept indeed.

 

“Where’s the little rug rat hiding? In the kitchen?” Joel joked, shaking his head. Grandpa Moss nodded, before darting in to give his grandson a manly pat on the shoulder.

 

“I left you boys a kettle of tea. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to retire to my chambers for the evening, and I don’t want to be woken before noon. I’m on holiday don’t you know?”

 

“Sure thing Gramps, I’ll see you for lunch then. Have a good sleep,” Joel laughed.

 

Grandpa Moss had a strange sense of humour, but he was fairly indulgent and understanding with his grandchildren and he had a strong belief in healthy eating. ‘Healthy eating’ of course, was Grandpa Moss’ way of saying ‘eating to the point of bursting’.

 

Dumping the old duffel bag down by the door, Joel padded through the living room to the kitchen and dining area. The walls were painted in a warm red, and the sofas were looking scuffed across the arms; lots of battered cushions. The pictures that sat up on the mantelpiece had been sitting there for a while, a little faded but dusted. It was obvious that the house had been very active at one point, but had gotten quieter and there was less life moving through it than there had been.

 

Mikey was sitting at the kitchen island, perched on a tall stool. He nursed a steaming cup, probably of coffee, judging by the bitter scent that pervaded the kitchen and dining area. He must not have gone for Grandpa Moss’ kettle of tea then. Mikey was skinnier than his older brother, with greyer eyes and a cheekier smile. As Joel approached he grinned, and stepped up to give him a hug.

 

“Chris’ sakes, it’s good to see you man. It’s been ages, you ain’t been back home since…”

 

“Since before last Christmas, I know kid, I know. Sorry about that, they needed me over the holiday period, I couldn’t get away,” Joel said. “Mark let me slip off this time though.”

 

“It’s just nice to have you back. It’s been pretty boring down here. I’ve been going stir crazy…”

 

There was a moment’s hesitation there as Mikey trailed off. Joel stepped back and then eased himself onto a second stool, and Mikey resumed his place. Rather than go back to slurping from the cup noisily, as he used to during the customary family questionings that they had both been subjected to as younger men during the holiday period, Mikey was sipping from the mug. In fact, he was barely drinking from it at all.

 

When did Mikey even start liking coffee anyway? Was this something he’d picked up from college, writing all-nighter papers and doing studying sessions? Given how they’d often joked that Mikey probably would have hibernated if he could, it was odd to see him up when he didn’t have to be.

 

“What’s actually going on Michael?” Joel asked quietly, without much preamble.

 

Ah-ha, he winced! And then he put the cup down, trying to smile calmly. The use of his full name had obviously thrown him though. It was only in times of grave peril, or whenever he’d been a pain in the ass, that he was ever referred to by his full name by Joel, or their brothers, or their parents.

 

“Nothing man, jeez, can’t we just hang out?” Mikey laughed nervously, fiddling with the cup on the counter top.

 

“It’s been a five hour drive, and granted I’ve not seen you in freaking ages, you don’t normally wait up so late when I’m driving back home. Either something happened at college – with a girl, or class – or…”

 

Mikey tried not to gulp or bring his coffee back up his nose. He looked a little bit panicked.

 

“Mom told you about what happened at the end of the summer, and she sent you in to check up on me. Because of course, being males together, we would grunt, scratch ourselves and only ever cry at sporting events, so you could gauge for her how well I’m doing,” Joel said, actually feeling smug for himself that he had managed to figure it out so quickly. Normally, he wouldn’t have figured it out until twelve hours later – Mom was a sneaky lady.

 

Mikey groaned. “Give me a break, according to her, you weren’t speaking to anyone for ages afterwards and she had to get updates out of Mark. What gave me away?”

 

Joel jerked his head towards the mug and sighed: “The java, you smell like you drank a whole pot of the stuff. And she shouldn’t have put you up to this, I’m doing absolutely fine. I just needed some time to cool off, I don’t need fussing over.”

 

At that point, Mikey’s expression became a mixture of grimness and smugness, the expression that all younger siblings have when the tattle-tell on another family member.

 

“Oh yeah? Cos Mark told her that you and Nathan had a shouting match on the phone, and then another one outside of the park ranger office. He told her about him driving all the way into the freaking country to get your attention.”

 

Joel face-palmed himself and sighed. He should have known that Mark would be his unwitting Judas in all of this. Mark, his boss, knew his flora and fauna well, but human beings were something completely different. This probably explained why he liked being head park warden and living in the middle of nowhere; Joel’s main reason was because he just liked it quieter. Mark would never have been able to get past the matronly charm and inquisition skills of Joel’s mother.

 

“Oh for fuck’s sake… Please tell me she’s not spoken to him. I can cope with her harassing Mark, or at least Mark seems to be able to cope with her asking him questions since he’s said fuck all about it since it went down… But please tell me she’s not tried to get hold of him, because that’s just going to be…”

 

Mikey shook his head. “Mom likes to interfere, but she wouldn’t go that far… Plus, it’s not like she has his number anyhow. She can’t exactly call up the police and ask for him by name either.”

 

To be fair, Joel’s family had been amazingly calm when he came out to them in his late teens, and he knew how lucky he was for that. There weren’t a lot of families who said “That’s nice dear, we’re glad for you. We’ve kind of already known for a while now though. So would you be a darling, and please pass the brussel sprouts?”

 

The irrational part of his mind had been convinced that that was going to be his last Thanksgiving in his parents’ house ever. All of the calmness and support had really given him a large boost in his self-confidence

 

But the flip side of all this loving acceptance and openness meant that his parents had an open interest in the details of his personal life. It meant that his love life got the same amount of scrutiny as all of his brothers’ relationships with their girlfriends; his partners were invited to family dinners and subjected to the same embarrassing questions about their prospects and how they had met Joel, and it had always drove him up the wall. Joel loved his parents deeply, but he was intensely private and he physically cringed every time his mother asked “So do you think you’ll get invited back to Graham’s / David’s / Nathan’s apartment for some ‘coffee’?”

 

No, it did NOT make it any better that his brothers received the exact same embarrassing questions about their dates, apart from the fact he was not alone in his suffering. He knew he was just being petulant, but the estrangement could set him up for a bit of well-deserved privacy at this point.

 

“Give thanks for the small mercies, eh? So she made you stay up to check up on me and get my reaction?”

 

“Don’t get mad at me, man. I just want a peaceful life, y’know?”

 

Joel rubbed at his temple. His mother had just had to do this, eh? Plus, the break-up hadn’t been that bad. She was over reacting completely. It hadn’t been good either, but who the hell had a good break up anyway? If Nathan hadn’t been such a self righteous, overly opinionated pain in the ass who had to win every little disagreement, there was a small possibility that the whole thing might not have gone crashing down in flames.

 

It was a very, very small possibility, but it was still a possibility none the less. Alright, alright, so demonising his ex and being a defensive idiot who shut people out wasn’t helping anyone either, apart from his ego; but neither was he a little kid, someone who needed a hug and a lollipop every time he fell and grazed his knee. He was twenty seven; he didn’t need his hand held.  All he had really needed was some damn space away from everything, from all the things that had made it all so complicated.

 

He’d confess that he hadn’t been calling home as much since the break up. He could admit that he had kind of been throwing himself into his work, but hey, there was no point in dwelling in the past as far as he was concerned. This of course begged the question as to why he had come back home to Toronto at all this holiday, where there was the tiny possibility that he would run into his dreaded ex, but the blame lay squarely at the feet of Mark on that count. Mark had unusually insisted he take Christmas off. Insistence barely covered it actually: “You’ll take the damn time off, I want some peace and quiet around here,” had been his exact words if Joel remembered it correctly.

 

Only now that Mikey mentioned their mother’s meddling did it make some sense on reflection. Joel wondered when his life had begun to become so filled with drama. Why he couldn’t have just gotten all of that over and done with between the ages of fourteen and seventeen like everyone else did? Why had he had been such a calm, mature adolescent only to get all of the crazy histrionics dumped on him in his mid twenties?

 

“I’m getting too old for this stuff… Sorry Mike. I don’t mean to snap out at you. I’m fine, really. Things hadn’t been working for a while anyway. Guess I made it worse by not thinking and walking away from the argument,” Joel said, trying to give his brother a conciliatory smile. It wasn’t the kid’s fault. “Enough of this crap. Lemme hear about college?”

 

He knew it was an evasion, and Mikey probably knew it was an evasion too. There were probably things that could have done with talking. But it wasn’t worth the drama, and he didn’t exactly want to drop his own private problems on his younger brother’s shoulders.

 

Mikey just twiddled with his cup and shook his head, laughing nervously. So there were going to be more evasions then.

 

“Nah man, it’s cool. Drive must have been pretty long and all…”

 

Mikey trailed off and began to stare at his mug again. So something had happened at college. Joel had fucked that one up.

“You sure kiddo?”

Mikey shrugged: “It’s cool man, it can wait until you’re more awake and stuff.”

Joel just nodded and fiddled with his own cup. He’d screwed this one up a bit, but Mikey wouldn’t talk until he was ready. And with the greater part of their extended family hanging about, it wasn’t likely that they would get a chance to discuss whatever was ACTUALLY bugging Mikey again, leading to more awkwardness than usual. It looked like they were all set up for the average winter holiday.

 

Previous Chapter: Prologue                     Index                                  Next Chapter: Chapter 2: fake star


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