Saddled

an excerpt



Chapter One

John stared at the spot on the back of his mother's head where the whorls of her hair parted and the scalp showed. She would be horrified if she knew that her gray curls had thinned so much, but age did that. Age stole so much more. But right now all John could focus on was that one spot. If he let himself think about any of the larger issues, he was going to lose it. And he couldn't afford to.

"We'll get you into the program," Fawn said. She was showing her age, too. Her colored hair showed the gray roots. "This is good news, Mom. We'll get you up and running. You'll be back to terrorizing the neighborhood in no time."

John swallowed as his mother offered a wan smile and patted Fawn's hand. Beverly Michaud had always tried to comfort her children, even when she didn't know how. His mother struggled to find the right words now. "I know you'll do your best, dear. Could you go and find someone to get me some Sprite?"

"Yeah. Absolutely." Fawn leapt up and nearly dashed out of the room. John closed his eyes. Fawn might be a middle-aged mother of five, but she would always be his baby sister. It hurt to see her struggle so much with their mother's cancer diagnosis.

"She has a good heart," Beverly said.

John abandoned the hospital window with the view of the parking lot and moved to the visitor chair Fawn had abandoned. He smiled warmly. "She does. You and Dad raised her right."

"I'm not scared of dying." Beverly raised her chin. She might be frail, but she still had the core of steel John had always admired.

"I know. We just don't want you to die for a long time."

"I'm sixty seven. I don't think either of us gets to make that call. The good Lord will take me or not, and I don't want any of you feeling like you have a say in it." She punctuated her words by poking a finger in John's direction.

"Yes, ma'am," John said. When she got that tone in her voice, there wasn't another answer possible. Logan managed to face off against their mother, but John never had. Logan insisted that was because John was the first born and more interested in listening to his parents than forging his own path in life. John thought it was more likely that Kevin and Logan were so busy trying to prove they weren't chips off the old Michaud block, that John and Fawn couldn't afford to rebel too much. The family might have imploded.

Beverly sighed.

"We are going to get you into the experimental treatment program." John refused to believe there was any other option.

"I don't want any of you going into debt for some program that might not even work."

"It could give you decades of life, Mom."

"If I have to spend them watching my children struggle under debt, that's not worth it. Where are you guys going to come up with two hundred thousand dollars? And you know full well that the money is only a guarantee for the first year. If I respond well to the treatment, but not well enough to be cured within a year, you have to come up with more money. Your father and I taught you to recognize a scam when you saw it. This smells like a scam."

"Gene therapy is the best way to target this cancer."

"If it were the best way, then insurance would pay for it."

"I know you're not serious about that."

Beverly looked away, her gaze skittering about the room without settling anywhere. "I don't want you going into debt."

"Logan and I can carry the costs."

"You can?" His mother's doubt cut John to the core. "Your father was a fisherman for fifty years. Don't tell me you have that kind of money sitting around. I'm not stupid. I know what it costs to keep a boat running."

"I have thirty thousand dollars in the bank, and I can raise more." John stuffed his feelings into a deep corner of his brain because he didn't have time to freak out about what he might have to do--and none of it would involve catching fish. "Logan will have to cover me for a little while."

"Do you think it's okay if your brother goes into debt?"

"He has the money," John said.

"That's why Logan gets so upset. You can't turn to him for everything. I can't turn to him for everything. He works hard for his money and living in California is very expensive. I don't want you asking your brother to foot this bill." Beverly crossed her arms, a model of outrage.

"I planned to split it with him."

"Where are you going to get the other seventy thousand dollars? If you even suggest that you would sell your boat, you had better start unthinking that, mister."

"Mom, I'm not doing that much fishing anymore. Ever since I got hurt, I spend more time carrying rich people around on fancy tours than I do bringing in nets. I can make more money." When she looked unconvinced, he continued. "I haven't done more tours because these people I take around the islands are arrogant, but it's easy work, and I can work with the tourist agency to book more trips. After growing up with Logan, I have experience with arrogance."

"Don't talk that way about your brother."

John barely avoided rolling his eyes. When Logan was in another state, she was quick to defend him. But if they were in the same state, she would be equally quick to make veiled comments about homosexuality in the Bible. His mother was a grand old dame, but she wasn't exactly free of the prejudices of her generation.

"Logan and I will work it out," John said.

"Work what out?" Fawn walked in the room with a tall glass of Sprite.

"The money," John said. "I'll give him a call and tell him what the doctor said."

Fawn chewed on her lower lip. "Should I come with you?" Despite her age, she looked about five when she did that.

"No. I got this. You and Mom sit and gossip." John suspected he would be the center of it. They were always trying to fix him up, ever since his marriage had failed, but now that John sold his body to pay the mortgage on his house and boat, it felt dishonest to be in a relationship with someone. He couldn't offer monogamy, and he wasn't interested in a relationship that wasn't exclusive.

John escaped the room as quickly as it was politely possible. He wasn't as experienced at juggling family anymore. After his father's heart attack, they'd all been in one state for the first time as adults, and it had been one chaotic circus. The stress had brought out all their worst sides. Their mother had made veiled insults about Logan's sexuality, and Kevin had gleefully jumped on that train. Then John and Logan had ganged up on Kevin, calling him a loser. John was fairly sure that he had channeled his father at some point during that argument.

Logan and Fawn had a dozen stupid arguments over exactly nothing or stupid shit like how to load the damn dishwasher. It was like they were back to being teenagers and Logan was resentful that Fawn got to do all the girly stuff that their father had forbidden him from doing. When Albert Michaud had found his youngest son wearing Fawn's tiara and tutu, the world had nearly ended. Logan had never forgiven their parents for trying to humiliate him into being manlier, but John could see both sides. His parents had been desperately afraid that Logan would suffer, and so they wanted him to hide.

Somehow people thought small towns were paragons of virtue and love where everyone came together and supported one another. In John's experience they were cesspools of gossip and backstabbing where any sort of stepping out of the box was met with quick retribution, hazing, and lifelong humiliation. John didn't blame his parents for being uncomfortable with Logan's gayness.

John found a quiet corner where two couches were shoved in next to an elevator. After pulling out his phone, he mentally braced himself and dialed Logan's number.

Logan answered with a quick, "Oh, God, who's dead?"

Shock slowed John's reply, but his temper frayed. "Why would you assume someone was dead?"

"Because it takes a death in the family for you to call me."

John shot to his feet. "That's not true."

"Really?" Logan let the silence drag on.

"I called you at Christmas."

The huff was audible, even through John's questionable phone speaker. "Fine, it takes a death or a major religious holiday that I don't celebrate anymore to get you to call me. Did someone die?"

John went for quick and blunt. "Mom has cancer."

Silence answered him. After long minutes, John heard a door slam shut. "Okay, I'm alone. What did you say?"

John repeated himself. "Mom has cancer."

"How bad?" Logan's voice trembled. John had to ruthlessly suppress his own emotions because he couldn't afford to let his control slip.

"Not good. She didn't want us to call you until we had something specific. She had exploratory surgery three days ago, and we got the tests today. They say that the cancer has spread too far for traditional surgery."

"What does that mean?" Logan's voice grew shrill.

"The conventional treatment would be chemotherapy and radiation. Insurance will cover that, but they're giving mom a thirty percent chance of beating this. Her doctor said there is a new gene therapy. The DNA test on the cancer apparently shows that it could respond well." John stopped to gather his thoughts. He was so angry it was hard for him to explain the next part without screaming or breaking something.

"But?" Logan prompted him.

A group of laughing women came out of the elevator when it opened, and John turned his back on them. "But the treatment is in Boston, and it's an experimental therapy that insurance won't pay for. The hospital is willing to waive their profit, but even with that discount and part of the treatment being paid for by research donations, getting her into the program will cost two hundred thousand."

"Holy fuck." Logan breathed the words as if they were a prayer.

"There's nothing holy about it, but I do feel like I'm being fucked over."

There was a brief silence. "It must be bad if you're cursing."

"We need to make this work. I don't have half up front, but I can pay for half if you pick up the other half."

Again, Logan didn't answer immediately. "I don't want to sound like the asshole in the family but where exactly are Kevin and Fawn in this plan of yours?"

"Fawn has five kids, and her husband is a bit of an asshole. He's not going to let her give us much money." John thought that was bullshit because he had never played that financial game with his ex-wife. Sadly, he'd played other immature and borderline emotionally abusive games, but the fact that she earned less money didn't mean she had less control over their money.

"And Kevin?" Logan's voice had a sharpness to it now.

"What you want me to say?" John snapped.

"I want you to say you have a magical cure for being a lazy asshole who never pays his bills and always shit talks everyone else."

"Well if I developed that cure, I might use it on more than one person in the family," John shot back. "This is Mom, so can you please stop playing pissing games with Kevin over our mother's--" John sucked back the word grave, and that turned into a half-sob.

"Shit." Logan sighed. "You're right. I'm an asshole. How much can you scrape up right now?"

Talking about money was an emotionally safer place for John. "If I clean out my savings account, I can come up with thirty thousand"

"That's got to be your entire retirement account. You can't do that."

"I can pick up more work. In fact, if you cover the other one seventy, I can pay you back seventy thousand within a year. One way or another you'll have your money. I'm good for my word."

"How the fuck are you going to get seventy thousand dollars?"

"I'm doing better than I did when I was fishing. I fixed the boat up, and I've been taking jobs doing day trips for rich people who want to sightsee. I ferry them around the islands and let them drink wine and eat brie cheese on my deck. I'll do a few more."

"You're going to do seventy thousand dollars' worth of brie cheese tours?"

"I don't care if I have to sell the boat, you'll get your money. Now will you cover the one seventy or not?" John snapped. He knew Logan was more worried about John impoverishing himself than he was about how much he would have to pay, but John was not willing to discuss finances with his baby brother--not when he had dinosaur-sized skeletons in his closet.

"You know I will," Logan quickly assured him. "What sort of paperwork do we have to sign? Where do we send the money?"

"Are you coming out here?"

"Is Kevin there?" Logan asked suspiciously.

"None of us have heard from him in four months. I don't even know where he is, so as of right now he's not here and nobody is planning on inviting him." At least John assumed that. For some reason, Kevin and Fawn were still fairly friendly. Fawn's husband loathed Kevin, but that might have something to do with the fact that Fawn was the only one who would still loan Kevin money and expect to ever see it again. John wasn't sure if that showed an abundance of hope or stupidity.

"I'll be on the first plane I can book," Logan promised. "But, you are only going to pay me back sixty thousand of this. And you and I need to have an agreement right now. Each of us is going to nag our cheap siblings for the other ten thousand dollars. If we carry this cost, at the very least we can take it out of their hides in guilt."

"You're assuming they're going to feel guilty," John said dryly. Fawn would, but John doubted that's who Logan was aiming at with this manipulation.

"They may pretend they don't, but they will. I tell you what, you nag Fawn and I'll harass Kevin. If I get something in writing, I might even get him on one of those judge shows so someone else can call him a shithead." Logan sounded entirely too gleeful about that. Sometimes John suspected that being born less than one year apart had set Kevin and Logan up to be eternal enemies. They were anti-twins.

"Just keep in mind this is about Mom," John said firmly.

Logan sighed. "I will. But brother pinky vow me right now. We cover the cost, but we either get ten thousand in money or in guilt out of the other two. Deal?"

John recognized that tone. Sometimes Logan had a real ability to channel Beverly Michaud. When their mother set her heels in, not even their father had a chance in hell. Since John wasn't a masochist and he had no desire to set himself up for pain without getting paid for it, he agreed. "Fine. We make them pay in money or guilt. But not in front of Mom."

"Oh, hell, no. Never," Logan agreed. "If you need anything, you call. I'll leave my phone on until I'm on the plane."

John nodded before realizing Logan couldn't see it. "Okay."

After a pause, Logan asked softly, "Are you okay?"

John closed his eyes. "Don't ask me now. We can talk when you get here, but don't ask me that now."

"I can do that. Take care, buttface."

John laughed at the old nickname. "Whatever, farthead." The knot in his stomach loosened, but nothing would make him feel better until he knew his family was safe. And whatever price John had to pay for that--it would be worth it.