They were just finishing dinner when they heard a screech of tires, followed by several taps of a car horn. The dog began to bark, and Garth's mom flinched and looked up from her plate. She glanced toward the window that opened onto the side street, then gave Garth the worried expression he'd grown so used to over the past year and a half. Relax, he wanted to tell her, it's nothing. They lived in the middle of Richmond, surrounded by other houses. Since when was the sound of a car horn a reason to flinch?
The furrow in her brow deepened at the sound of footsteps on the front porch, and she nearly dropped her fork when they heard the knock, same pattern as the horn.
"Who in the world could it be at this hour?" she asked, peering at the clock on the wall.
"I'll get it." Garth got up from the table and crossed through the living room, focusing on the tall, lanky shadow on the other side of the door's beveled glass. He shushed Hutch, who was circling his feet like a shark, and called out, "Who is it?"
"Santa Claus!" a voice said.
Garth looked back at his mom, then turned to the door again.
"Captain America! Come on, it's me! Open up!"
The voice sounded jovial and vaguely familiar. He undid the chain and the deadbolt, and eased the door open.
"Hey, hey, hey! Look at you, short stuff!"
At fifteen, Garth barely reached five feet two. He was aching for the growth spurt that seemed to have taken over all the other guys his age, and he hated being called "short stuff." He hated "shorty" and "shrimp" and "little bit," and he usually lashed out at anyone who used such nicknames. But he said nothing now. He stood frozen, amazed.
Standing before him—or so it seemed in that first, arresting moment—was his dad's ghost.
In general, Garth tried not to dwell on the accident. When he caught his mind drifting toward it, he would force himself, instead, to concentrate on his dad before the event, on the man Jerry Rudd had been. He made mental lists of attributes:
Corny joke teller.
Sailing nut. That last one was how his dad had described himself, anyway. He'd loved sailing more than anything else and he'd dreamed of one day building his own boat "completely out of wood, like they did it in the old days—right down to the pegs that hold it together."
He'd never gotten the chance.
Garth didn't share his dad's passion for sailing, but he'd inherited—possibly by sheer will—his love of ships. In Garth's case, these were miniatures, usually made of plastic because the wooden models were so expensive. His room was filled with them. They were lined up along his windowsill and dominated his bookcase. The largest—a handsome, highly detailed Batavia—spanned the top of his dresser.
Most days, the ships made him feel connected to his dad, but the nights were a different matter entirely.
His recurring nightmare, he'd decided, was like being strapped into a movie seat in the front row of the scariest horror film imaginable. He was forced to watch, over and over again, his dad and his dad's friend, Mr. Holt, try to outrun the sudden storm on the Chesapeake Bay. The sailboat was a twelve-foot Sunfish. Mr. Holt was manning the tiller; Garth's dad was working the line for the sail. Always, in the nightmare, they were enjoying themselves at first. Even as the dark sky rained down on them, they joked about man versus nature. Then things turned serious—fast. They had to shout through the wind and the rain to hear each other. They tried one maneuver, then another, but nothing worked. There was a moment too awful for Garth to wrap his brain around wherein both men realized that, all jokes aside, they were up against a force they couldn't possibly beat.
And then it happened. In one version, the mast snapped off. In another (like last night's), the boat just turned sideways, sail and all, throwing his dad and Mr. Holt into the water. Either way, the ending was the same: they tried to cling to the sinking hull; they fought to survive. But eventually the stormy bay filled their lungs.
Just another nightmare, Garth always told himself as he tried to fall back to sleep. Get it out of your head. But there was no getting it out completely, because although he hadn't witnessed it, the accident was very real. His dad had been dead for over a year and a half. His body—along with Mr. Holt's—had been recovered in a search-and-rescue mission following the storm, and their funerals had been held one day apart.
Nothing had been the same since then. Regardless of whether or not he dwelled on the event, or how many ships he built, life had become one steady, uphill climb.
The ghost—dressed in faded jeans, scuffed-up sneakers, and a yellow T-shirt that bore a cartoon dragon eating ice cream—wasn't a ghost, of course. But it took Garth a moment to realize this.
"You're Uncle Mike," he said, still holding on to the door.
His uncle grinned and held his hands out like a showman. "And you're Nephew Garth. Is there a door prize?"
No beard, Garth thought. That's what's different. When he had his beard, it was hard to even tell they were twins.
Not that he'd seen the guy too often; his dad and his uncle hadn't been very close. Four, maybe five times over the years, Uncle Mike had shown up out of the blue for a visit. And he'd come to the funeral, of course—arriving at the last minute, having driven from some other state.
"Well," Uncle Mike said, chuckling, "are you going to invite me in, or should I just . . . get lost?"In Mike We Trust. Copyright © by P. Ryan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from In Mike We Trust by Patrick Ryan, P. E. Ryan, P E Ryan
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.