Knox Brannigan filled a pint glass with a local craft brew and wondered when the night before the new year had turned so damn lonely. Behind the long, scarred bar at The Wake, a popular watering hole in Santa Monica, California, he worked on the next drink order and watched over the raucous crowd of merrymakers packing the place with uncharacteristic detachment. The afternoon shift had decorated the walls and ceiling with sparkly banners and shiny streamers and other festive paraphernalia. At the center of each table sat a pile of silly hats and cardboard-and-tissue paper horns.
The patrons were decked out as well, the eclectic mix–from surfers and bikers to stockbrokers and systems analysts–displaying their best beach casual. Though December 31, some of the men wore shorts and all the women were wrapped in bright and skimpy dresses. It had hit 75 degrees on the sand earlier that afternoon and he even saw a sunburn or two.
But the happy people in happy clothes didn’t alleviate his personal gloom.
Co-owner Esteban Meza bustled up with a box of fresh booze from the storeroom and started restocking the mirror-backed glass shelves. “Crazy busy tonight, yeah?”
“Yeah.” A half-deflated silver helium balloon declaring a limp “YOLO!” in bright red letters drifted past Knox, looking as dispirited as he was beginning to feel. He batted it away before grabbing up a bottle of chardonnay and a clean goblet. What the hell was wrong with him?
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Eban asked, echoing Knox’s inner voice. “You’re grimacing. Mr. Party doesn’t grimace on his favorite holiday.”
“Come on, smile.” Eban leaned close to talk over the noise and ticked off on his fingers. “There’s excellent hooch, revelers in the mood to celebrate and spend, not to mention all those kisses coming your way at midnight.”
“Excellent hooch is a contradiction in terms,” Knox replied absently, distracted by the unpleasant realization that kisses from a variety of pretty ladies didn’t spark in him a single flash of interest. “Hooch means inferior alcohol, often homemade.”
Eban stared. “Since when did Mr. Party become Mr. English Class?”
Hearing his own words, Knox shook himself. Good God. He sounded like the hundred-year-old dragon of an admin his dad had assigned to Knox during those miserable months he’d attempted working for Colin Brannigan, media mogul.
Would Mrs. Dole have retired now that Colin had passed four months ago? Knox made a mental note to check on the curmudgeon. Sue him, but he had a secret soft spot for the mean old bat. Every birthday he sent her a box of her favorite candy along with one of the alliterative insults they’d so often traded. Even now he could hear her cackle “slothful scoundrel” in his inner ear.
“There’s that the cheery expression I want to see,” Eban said now. “Recalling happy New Year’s past?”
Knox forced his lips to keep smiling. “There was that time I crashed my three oldest brothers’ party. It was the first time I saw bare breasts. It was my first taste of tequila. And for the very first time, I kissed a girl–French style.”
Eban hooted appreciatively. “Any chance we’re going to get any Brannigans to this party?”
“Nah. Here, Connie.” He pushed a rum-and-coke toward the barmaid and watched her set it on her tray and then wade into the throng of customers. “Gabe and Hunter are cozied up with their new honeys. I assume Luke and Lizzie are ushering in midnight with her teenage niece, Kaitlyn. I don’t know what the other three are doing exactly.” His poor mother Kathleen, determined to have a daughter, had ended up with seven sons instead–and then died from a car accident when her youngest boy was only four. Knox took a moment to wish his baby brother well. Finn, a naval aviator younger than him by two years, was currently flying fast planes over somewhere dangerous.
The YOLO! balloon drifted by again, its elevation another inch lower and Knox ignored it while reaching for a bottle of Bushmills 21, the single malt whiskey that had been his father’s favorite. He poured himself a half-shot and tossed it back.
Swallowing, he noticed Eban scrutinizing him again. “What?”
“Are you thinking about your dad?”
Instead of answering his friend’s question, Knox glanced at one of the big screen TVs across the room to check on the countdown clock. “If we’re going to serve that champagne, you better get it out of the back cooler.”
“It’s natural to feel something, you know,” Eban said, not moving a muscle.
But that was the thing! Knox had been numb since his Aunt Claire had phoned him to say that Colin Brannigan had died of a rare and fast-moving cancer and he hadn’t wanted anyone to know until he was gone and his body cremated.
Knox thought he’d accepted that his father had died as he’d lived–on his own terms. He and three of his brothers had toasted the old man shortly afterward and Knox had noted his siblings’ anger and sadness over being kept in the dark about the illness, though he’d shrugged it off. It is what it is, he’d told them then.
But sometime since–maybe the recent holidays were to blame–Knox had found himself dragged down by a dark mood that he couldn’t shake. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, he noted the frown on his face and remembered Colin shouting on the day of their last blow-up that had precipitated Knox walking away from his job. You never take anything seriously! his father had declared.
Knox met his own eyes in the glass, noting the flat expression in their darkness. “Satisfied now, Dad?” he murmured.
But he didn’t have more time to brood about brooding as the action in the bar heated up, the revelers wanting their drinks refreshed before the ball dropped. When it did, the crowd went crazy as they kissed their neighbors and guzzled their beverages and finally danced to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ instrumental rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” that someone queued up on the state-of-the-art jukebox. That segued into a version Prince had recorded live and while guitars wailed, Knox turned away from the crowd to wipe down the counter behind him.
The female voice made him stiffen. Despite Eban’s promise, not one pair of lips had met Knox’s at midnight or any of the minutes following. He’d deliberately stayed behind the bar to keep it that way. But now…
“Are you going to ignore an old friend?”
“Of course not.” He turned to find Nina Ford, an ex he hadn’t seen in months and months. Running his gaze over her, he noted she was still brunette, still built, and…
“You’re engaged?” he asked, staring at the rock on the fourth finger of her left hand. Hard to miss, because she was displaying it for him like a jewelry model.
“Don’t look so surprised!”
“I’m not. Not in the least.” It was why they’d broken up after all. She’d wanted to deepen their relationship, take it to a new level, while he’d liked it fun and games, thank you very much. You never take anything seriously!
Shrugging off that last thought, he stepped closer and grabbed her hand, giving it a quick squeeze. “Congratulations.”
“That’s for the groom-to-be,” she corrected, putting on a prim expression. “I’m supposed to get best wishes.”
“Then you shall have them,” Knox said, smiling. The woman wore happiness like a new coat. It looked good on her. Great. “And a drink on the house. Is the fortunate fiancé around? I’ll buy him one too.”
“Thanks. A draft beer for Don. You know what I like.”
“I make a mean Lemon Drop. One’s coming right up.”
Her smile made identical cute dimples pop on her cheeks, then her expression sobered. “Knox. I’m so sorry about your dad.”
“Thanks. I got your card. That was nice of you.” He passed her the Lemon Drop and went to work on the beer. “Not that I was surprised, you were always nice.”
“But not the right nice.”
“Not the right man,” Knox amended, pointing to himself.
“You once told me you’d never been in love,” Nina said, and sipped from her drink.
“Not even when I was nine, the age you said you were when you had that big crush on your swimming coach.”
“Ah, Jericho,” she said, sending her eyes heavenward. “He was dreamy.”
Knox laughed and slid the beer her way, noting the exchange had lightened his mood. “Bring your guy over. Let me give my congratulations in person.”
Nina’s Don appeared properly dazzled by his fiancée and Knox chatted with the pair between filling drink orders. But soon they were gone and the revelry wound down. After the last customers left, Knox sent the staff home including Eban, offering to handle the final closing tasks on his own. “I have my own set of keys.”
“We each have a set,” Eban said, “thanks to you.” He slapped Knox on the back. “I can’t thank you enough for another great year, partner.”
“Silent partner,” Knox reminded him.
“We’re still keeping it secret even though your dad–”
“Go home, Eban,” Knox interrupted, unwilling to continue that conversation.
After a moment, the other man waved in acknowledgment and exited through the rear door.
In the new quiet, Knox noted he felt just as alone as he had when surrounded by a boisterous crowd.
His hand went to his pocket where he found the key that would bring him to some legacy he’d been left by his father. His Aunt Claire had delivered it to him the night he’d met with his brothers in the bar. During the months that followed, worrying the piece of metal had become a habit–as had deliberately postponing a visit to the address that accompanied it.
Something ghostly brushed his arm and he started, only to see the stupid YOLO! balloon drift past him again, then finally surrender to gravity and fall to the confetti-and-ribbon strewn floor. Still clutching the key, he stared at it.
What the hell is wrong with me?
And what am I going to do about it?
On New Year’s Day, despite a spare few hours of sleep, Knox joined the dawn patrol–what surfers called their sojourns in the water at sunrise. He drove north past Ventura and stopped south of Santa Barbara, at a famous spot known around the world. Surfers were never alone at Rincon, even if the waves were onshore slop or the water smooth as glass. Today the swells were so-so and the sheer number of surfers enough to get him out after a shorter-than-usual session.
Still, he felt invigorated by the cold water, the strenuous activity, and even doing the rock dance–what was required to get into and out of the ocean on that stretch of coastline. It worked up an appetite too, so he stopped his Jeep at his favorite nearby taco stand to get the best start to the morning a man could ask for, a California burrito.
In the parking lot, with the sun streaming through his windshield and his driver’s side window open to catch the ocean air, he munched on the huge flour tortilla filled with carne asada, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, and crispy French fries. The combined flavors on his tongue took him back to happy times–kicking back after a day on the sand, taking a break from a long ride on his motorcycle, at the 19th hole with his buddies following one of their crazy Worst Ball golf games.
Where was that carefree, fun-loving side of himself?
A knock on the roof had him looking over and up. “Steamer,” he said, grinning. “Steamer,” after the infamous surfing location in Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane, and the name everyone called this guy with his bleached dreds and the shell-and-leather cord necklace. The only other things he wore was a wetsuit and a pair of flip flops that looked to have been nibbled by fish around the edges.
“’Sup?” Steamer said. “Haven’t seen you around.”
“Yeah,” Knox agreed. “But I had a hankering.” He lifted the burrito.
“It’ll cure just about anything,” Steamer said. “I’m thinking of carne asada fries myself.”
“Those’ll do it too.” Knox knew he was still smiling and was damn glad about it. “You take care.”
“Will do.” The surfer turned toward the taco stand, then turned back. “Hey, man,” he said. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
And like that, Knox’s dreary mood was back.
It hung over him like a dark cloud through his drive home, his shower, and up until he saw a familiar name on his cell phone screen.
He snatched up the device. “Max!” Fourth oldest Brannigan, former Navy SEAL, current protector of military contractors.
“How the hell are you, dude?” Knox added the “dude” because his brother always seemed to expect some surf lingo from him.
“Getting along,” Max said.
“Still in a war zone?”
Not surprising, his brother ignored the last questions. He always held the details of his work situation close to his–bulletproof–vest. “I had a moment to call. You doing okay?”
Knox could hedge too. “What makes you ask?”
“Just a feeling. Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“You’re the one who ignores the Brannigan email chain.”
“We have a Brannigan email chain?” Max asked. “Are we also taking lessons in how to braid each other’s hair?”
Knox had to laugh, and did that feel good. “You gotta admit you’ve been more out of touch than usual.”
“Yeah.” His brother’s sigh sounded weary. “Been dealing with some shit.”
“Been dealing,” Max said shortly, and it was clear that was all he would say.
Knox released his own sigh. If a Brannigan wasn’t going to talk, he wasn’t going to talk.
“I heard you’ve been moping around,” his brother continued.
“Who said that?” Knox demanded. “I’ve never moped a day in my life!”
“Exactly. So what’s the deal? Aunt Claire told me she met a nice woman in her art class she thought you’d like and you wouldn’t even take the number.”
“Dude. You called from the other side of the world to tell me you think I should use Aunt Claire’s matchmaking services?”
“I’m calling from the other side of the world, dude, because you’re our ladies-man, our bro who keeps the smiles coming, the Brannigan who’s a fun junkie rather than the adrenaline kind. Not taking a pretty woman’s number just doesn’t sound like you.”
Knox hesitated, then realized his free hand had slid into his pocket to find that infernal key once again. “I don’t much feel like me,” he finally admitted. His fingers clamped around the metal. “I’m stuck in a not-me rut.”
“I heard from Luke too,” Max said. “You haven’t yet looked into the legacy Dad left you?”
“It’s a key. And not one to a summer camp like Luke received. The address that came with it is a storage unit. I looked it up.” And what would Colin Brannigan have stored there for his second-youngest son? He was sure he’d been as much a cypher to his father as the man had been to him. Or maybe not… You never take anything seriously!
“It’s probably a clown suit,” he muttered.
“Or maybe that live bunny you always begged for at Easter every year,” Max said. “What if he left it there without four months’ worth of food and water?”
Surely he wouldn’t have bequeathed Knox a live gift– “Screw you, Max,” he said, as the other man’s snicker traveled through the phone.
“Come on, admit I had you going for a second.”
Knox shook his head, then withdrew the key from his pocket. It lay flat in his palm and he stared at it, wondering if the innocuous item was to blame for weighing him down. “Actually,” he said slowly, “you do have me going.” Was today really the day?
Yeah, he decided. It was action. Perhaps a way out of the rut. He’d been carrying the damn key around for weeks and weeks and it was time to put it to use. After all, it was a new year.
“What are you meaning to do, Knox?”
“Open the next email I send, would you? It will tell you exactly what dear old Dad left behind for me.”
Thirty minutes later, at a twenty-four-hour, air-conditioned storage facility located not far from his bungalow in Santa Monica, Knox blinked at the first sight of his legacy then let out a startled laugh.
While the bulk of Colin Brannigan’s estate was to be distributed in five years, he’d left each of his sons something “personal.” Brother Gabe had been given the family ranch, Luke the summer resort where Colin had met their mother. Hunter had been handed down a treasure map, of all things. But who knew their dad owned a motorcycle?
Colin was a luxury cars and limousines kind of man. For kicks he might take a cruise on his yacht or a jaunt on his private jet with like-minded people of wealth and–purported–worth. Not in a million years could Knox picture his dad in boots and leathers, messing up his precisely styled haircut with a motorcycle helmet.
And this wasn’t just any motorcycle. This pristine specimen was none other than a 1953 Indian Chief, one of only 600 produced, if Knox’s memory served. He reached out a hand to caress the supple black leather seat.
“What the hell, Dad?” Knox would bet his last dollar that it was original from its chrome handlebars to its swooping rear fender. “Where did you find this bad-ass ride? And what did you mean by giving it to me?”
Though neither his father’s ghost nor the storage unit walls answered, the very existence of the bike pointed in a single direction.
The open road.
Maybe there Knox would drop this persistent gloom and find his pleasure-seeking, live-for-the-moment, fun-and-games-and-grins-all-around true self again.