Chapter 1—It Was a Cold and Stormy Morning

 

THIS MISERABLE winter morning was so damned cold. No, that didn’t do it justice. As if the cold alone were not enough, the previous evening the wind had started to blow, howling like a wounded animal thrashing in pain and looking to strike out in retribution. It felt like someone had opened a direct pipeline from the North Pole and all the air from the coldest place on earth rushed forth to attack him. It was easily one of the most brutal and bone-chilling days of the year. In the darkness of the predawn hour, few people were crazy enough to be outside.

Brandon shivered, feeling the wind slice through him. It rattled his bones as he stood at the end of his father’s driveway on this frigid morning. He had walked the quarter mile from the house by leaning into the blast of arctic air to push himself forward, pausing occasionally when he made no progress against the frigid wind, then making mad dashes between gusts.

As he waited in the driveway, Brandon could not conceive of anything more brutal than the wind, which was everywhere—pushing through branches, around parked cars, against houses and barns, seeking out cracks to force its way in. Despite wearing several layers of clothing, he could not win against it. As it moved, it picked up thousands of frozen flakes of snow and ice and threw them at him, like ten thousand small knives stabbing at his body made hypersensitive by the icy weather.

The tree branches swayed, creaking and groaning. After the freezing temperatures all week, Brandon assumed the branches were frozen. He wondered if they would shatter like an icicle. As if reading his thoughts, a branch snapped, broke off, and fell to the ground somewhere to his right.

If he’d ever needed a reminder of how much he hated winter, this morning was the best one anyone could possibly need. Temperatures had hovered around ten degrees for several days, but had dropped overnight as the wind blew in. He couldn’t feel his face, even with a scarf wrapped around his head so that only his eyes were left uncovered.

As he’d walked past the two cars parked next to the house, he’d looked longingly at them, wishing that, like all his friends, like teenagers everywhere for that matter, he were allowed to learn to drive and get a driver’s license. But his dad wouldn’t let him—one more reason for his overwhelming unhappiness this morning.

Where the fuck was Joel? If he didn’t hurry up, Brandon was going to be nothing but a shriveled Popsicle. Usually Brandon’s dad drove him to practice, but he was out of town—thank God—so Brandon had to catch a ride with someone else who was up at such an ungodly hour. That gave him only one choice. Joel.

Joel wasn’t a bad guy; he was actually decent. Except he was never on time for anything. Joel had agreed to drive Brandon but had warned him that he’d probably be late and rushing, and he wouldn’t have time to drive up the driveway. So Brandon had been outside waiting for nearly ten minutes already, with still no sign of a vehicle.

Brandon hugged himself tightly to preserve what little warmth he had left as he waited, cursing his ride. Joel was late, and Brandon was partially frozen. He was half tempted to bag the whole thing, run back to the house, and crawl under the bedcovers, just burrow in until spring. But as appealing as that idea was, he knew it was only a fleeting fantasy. If he ever did that, his dad would string him up and beat him like a piñata.

The wind zeroed in on the exposed parts of his body. About ten minutes earlier, his eyes had started to tear up from the cold, and now those tears froze on his face. Finally a set of headlights appeared in the distance—about fucking time. He watched the car go up and down the hilly areas as it twisted around on the back-country road, then eventually pull up beside him. The car had barely stopped before he had his hand out trying to open the door, but it wouldn’t open. What fresh hell was this?

Brandon heard a click, and the door opened when he pulled on it again. He jumped inside, hauling his backpack with him, before slamming the door closed.

Inside the car wasn’t exactly toasty warm, but the heater was blasting away and had managed to take the chill out of the air. The cold was only surpassed by the music blaring from the speakers, assaulting his ears.

“Dude!” Joel shouted above the music. “How’s it hanging?”

Brandon was silent for a moment while he waited for feeling to return to his face. When he had enough sensation back to his lips to speak, he answered. “It’s not hanging. It fled south for warmer temperatures. I got a postcard that said, ‘Having a great time, wish you were here.’”

Joel laughed uproariously. The guy was entirely too energetic for such an early and horribly uncomfortable hour. Brandon did not understand how Joel or anyone could be upbeat while Brandon was feeling so miserable.

“I thought you’d forgotten about me,” Brandon said as he fumbled with numb hands trying to find and fasten his seat belt. With Joel’s aggressive driving, the seat belt was definitely a necessity.

“No, I wouldn’t do that, dude. Got delayed a couple of minutes getting out the house this morning. My damned sister was hogging the bathroom. You remember Laura, don’t you?” Without waiting for an answer, Joel just continued. “It sucks only having one bathroom. Usually no one else is up this early, but for some reason she was in there and she would not haul her ass, no matter how much I pounded on the door. I think she’d been out drinking with friends last night and was puking her guts out.

“It really pissed off my old man, let me tell you,” he said with renewed laughter, presumably for having found a way to anger his father. “I finally gave up and took a whiz outside before I got into the car. It’s usually not a problem doing that outdoors, but this morning I nearly froze my dick off. You want to feel cold, well, let me tell you, try hauling out your dick in this cold and this fucking wind. And I swear that when I peed, it froze before it hit the ground.”

Brandon could not imagine such a world—not the world of peeing outside—he’d done that lots of times. What Brandon could not imagine was laughing about upsetting his father. In their household, his father demanded things his way and tolerated no questions to his authority. There was no discussion, no debate, and no negotiation.

“Where’s your old man?” Joel asked as he took a corner too quickly, sliding on the slick street but quickly correcting.

“He’s in Florida. He gets together with some old college buddies, and they play golf for a week every winter.”

“And he didn’t take you? Why the fuck not?” Joel demanded, sounding outraged that Brandon’s father had left him behind while he had gone away on a warm vacation.

“Well, let’s see,” Brandon said. “One, there is no way in hell my dad would let me miss swimming practice. Two, my dad would never spend the money for me to go with him. He’s the cheapest SOB around. And three, he never takes me when he goes away.”

“That sucks,” Joel said. “But your dad has money. Everybody knows that. He’s got more money than just about everybody else around here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Brandon said. “Except for the cold, I’m glad to have him gone.” He was beginning to thaw a little bit as the warmth of the car cocooned him, wrapping him in its comfort.

“Why do they insist on having us practice so fucking early when we’re on winter break? That’s what I’d like to know,” Joel asked him, as if Brandon had any more of a clue than Joel did.

“Maybe the staff want to get it over with so they can lock up and go home and have most of their day off to themselves,” Brandon offered.

“Whatever it is, it sucks. I wanted to sleep in. We’re on fucking break,” Joel complained. “What you got doing the rest of the day?”

“Nothing. Just going back home. My dad left a list of chores for me to finish before he gets back on Saturday, so I’ll work on them, probably read some, maybe watch something stupid on TV, stuff like that.”

“Want to go to the city with me?” Joel said casually.

The idea of doing stuff like other teens, of going off to the city with Joel, was overwhelming. What Brandon wouldn’t give to be able to be with guys his own age, with no agenda, no demands, no expectations, to just be, to have fun—but that wasn’t possible.

“Can’t,” Brandon said. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, keep quiet, but he couldn’t stop himself. “I really wish I could.”

“Why not?” Joel asked.

“My dad will be calling the house after practice to check up on me. He calls every morning, afternoon, and evening to make sure I’m there and that he knows where I am and what I’m doing.”

“Oh, please tell me you’re kidding,” Joel said, a look of absolute horror on his face.

“Nope,” Brandon said. “He calls. He expects me there to answer the phone. He monitors me all the time, especially when he’s out of town.”

“Can’t he call your cell?” Joel asked.

“I don’t have one” was Brandon’s simple answer. “He won’t spend the money to buy one. He says the monthly service plans cost too much and that I don’t need one.”

“He’s got enough money to fly himself to Florida for a week of golf every winter, not to mention the other trips he takes—all without you, I’ll add—but he doesn’t have the money to buy you a cell phone? That’s nuts, man. That’s seriously fucked-up. Everybody’s got a phone. Hell, even my grandma has a cell phone, and she texts everybody all the time on it too. Did you lose the right to it as some kind of punishment?”

“Nope. I’ve never had one. My dad won’t allow it. He said it would only distract me from training.”

“That’s such bullshit,” Joel said.

“Yeah, well, you try to tell him that,” Brandon said in frustration at his impossible situation. He wasn’t about to go up against the beast that was his father, but if anyone else wanted to, they could have at it.

“So basically, while he’s off living the good life in a five-star resort in the warmer weather, eating great food, drinking expensive wines, and shit like that, you’re gonna be a prisoner in your own home for this entire week-long break from school?”

Brandon didn’t like to think of it that way, but that was basically what it amounted to—he was a prisoner, with few rights and lots of expectations. He remained silent, not wanting to start that conversation because it wouldn’t do any good.

“Yeah” was all he finally said, barely in a whisper. Then a moment later he softly added four other words. “Welcome to my life.”

Joel was by his very nature a fast driver. Since theirs was the only car on the road at that very early hour, Joel was moving faster than the road conditions dictated. At the current temperature, no treatment applied to the road surfaces could deal with the ice.

“Slow down a little, would you please?” Brandon asked, concerned about how they were sliding all over the place.

“I know what I’m doing. I’ve been driving on this shit all my life.”

“Dude, you’re seventeen, so you’ve been doing it legally for one year.”

“I’ve been behind the wheel of cars since I was twelve years old, long before I had my license. I’ve been driving for more than five years already, so I know what I’m doing.”

“I wouldn’t call that ‘all my life,’ so slow down, please. If I die on this trip to the pool, my dad will personally kill you.”

“And what if I die too?” Joel argued with a smile.

“He will hunt you down and haunt you for all eternity for taking his ticket to the big time away from him.”

Brandon guessed that image did the trick, because Joel slowed to a more reasonable speed for the current conditions. Had they both not lived so far from the school, they would have had a much easier trip to the morning training, but they were back in the hills, eight miles from what passed for civilization.

“We’re gonna be late,” Joel told him with a resigned shake of his head.

“Better late than dead,” Brandon shot back. “And we wouldn’t have been late if you hadn’t been delayed leaving this morning.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. I nearly froze my dick off as it was to get over to pick you up.”

“And your dick and I appreciate you rescuing us from the cold,” Brandon volunteered.

Two minutes later Joel parked his car beside the only other car at the school pool. With his hand on the key prepared to turn off the ignition, he looked at Brandon and asked, “Ready?”

“Hell no,” Brandon said loudly and with no hesitation. “I’m only now getting feeling back into some parts of my body.”

“It’s gotta be done, dude. Here goes. Three, two, one, go!” Joel turned off the car, yanked out his key, threw his door open, and jumped out of the warmth.

Brandon followed a couple of seconds behind him. They made a mad dash, quickly covering the fifty yards between them and the pool building’s entrance.