Welcome back to Story Cauldron, where I’m sharing Chapter 2 of my new novel, The Boy Who Can Taste Color. If you missed it, last week I shared the opening chapter. You can catch up by clicking the button below.
It started with a phone call.
“Hey Holden, it’s Jenny. I was wondering if I could ask a big favor.”
“Sure.” Be cool, he told himself, as he started pacing the length of his room. Since they had connected at the winter dance two months ago, they chatted all the time, but a phone call was new. “What’s up?”
“You know how it got really cold last night?”
“Yup.” Holden had wandered outside to record the results of pouring and spraying water on such a cold night. Unfortunately, his phone shut down almost immediately in the freezing weather, so it had been a short-lived experience. “It got all the way down to 10° below zero.”
“Yeah, that’s what they said on the news.” She was talking fast, and her pitch was higher than usual. “It’s awful, Holden. One of our pipes froze and now there’s water everywhere in the kitchen and dining room, and it’s a huge mess. My parents are freaking out.”
Holden made a face, though she couldn’t see it. “Wow, that really sucks.” He tried to imagine it happening in his house. Was it a slow leak or like an explosion of water, he wondered. “How do you fix that?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to have a plumber come out and take a look at it, but they’re all super busy, and my dad said it’s going to be a while before we have running water. Then they’ll have to have someone come out and redo the floors.”
“Whoa, really? So you won’t be able to take a shower or anything?”
“Nope, and we can’t even flush the toilets. Anyway, my mom asked if there was anyone I could stay with while they work on it. Skye’s in Europe for the rest of the winter break, and Kiara’s house is too small, so she thought maybe I could ask you. But I know it’s a lot to ask and we haven’t known each other all that long, so if it’s a big deal I totally understand.”
Wait. Jenny wanted to come over to his house? She was asking to stay… at his house? “Um…” How did he answer this? “Maybe?” He panicked. He didn’t mean maybe; he meant yes. His stepbrother Travis always had houseguests, though, so why couldn’t he? School didn’t start for another week and a half anyway. “I mean, sure. It’ll be fun.”
“Wow, thanks.” She sounded relieved. “My mom can drop me off in a little while, if that’s okay.”
“Of course.” As soon as they hung up, he texted her his address, then shoved his phone in his pocket before running downstairs, his shaggy black mutt, Chewie, following at his heels.
Sitting at the table in the kitchen, Tonya was making her weekly shopping list. “What’s going on?” she asked as the two of them ran into the room. Years ago Tonya had been his nanny, but when Holden started his first year of high school, she had been promoted to household manager. With Fred Bennett always off on business trips, and Holden’s mother, Claire, attending her various social events, Tonya was also a stand-in parent.
The words tumbled out of his mouth. “Jenny’s house flooded and she wondered if she could stay here for a few days.”
“Slow down.” Tonya leaned back in her chair and scrutinized him. “This is the girl you’ve been talking about for ages?”
Holden gripped the back of the chair in front of him, wringing the wood like a towel. “Yeah. We’ve been hanging out. Her parents said it would be better if she wasn’t home while their water’s turned off and I told her it was okay for her to stay here.”
“Today?” Tonya scrunched up her face. “You know your dad’s coming back this afternoon, and expects us all to have dinner together.”
Oh right, he thought to himself. Crap. “I forgot.”
“It’s on the calendar, Holden.”
“I know,” he said, and bit his lip. “But it’s an emergency—her pipes froze. And… I kinda already told her it would be okay.”
She shook her head as she wrote something on her pad and then put the cap on the pen. “All right. Looks like we’ll have another one for dinner.”
Holden let out a squeal of excitement. “You sure? Mom and Dad won’t mind?”
Tonya nodded and scooped up the list as she stood. “It’ll be fine. I’ll check the guest bedroom to make sure everything’s ready to go before I head out.” She ruffled his hair like she did when he was a kid. “She’s welcome to stay as long as she needs to.”
He grinned, his hands still gripping the back o the chair.
“Are you just going to stand there?” Tonya crossed her arms. “Go on and get cleaned up so you can welcome her properly!”
He ran back to his room and flung himself onto his bed, screaming into his pillow. It was like a dream come true. Jenny was so fun to hang out with, and had such a pretty laugh, and most of all, she didn’t think he was weird or creepy. And she was going to be here in a little while!
Minding Tonya’s words, he rushed through a shower, scrubbing every inch and washing his hair twice. When he was drying his dark hair he spied the hair putty sitting on Travis’s shelf, and used a bit to style his bangs. Then he stared at his stepbrother’s cologne on the sink, something he had never dared touch before. The green bottle seemed like it would smell like custard and caramel. When he opened it, the actual scent was citrusy, but it seemed nice, even for Travis. Mostly, though, it just smelled like a guy would smell. He tipped a drop onto his fingertip and ran it along his collarbone. Then he went into his room, where he fished out a blue chest binder from his bottom drawer and wriggled himself into it, followed by a clean pair of jeans and a hoodie.
As he sat to put on his shoes, he glanced at himself in the mirror on the door. A work in progress, Tonya would say. And while the person staring back wasn’t exactly the boy he felt like he was inside, maybe he was getting there.
He had barely finished tying his shoes when he heard the doorbell, and Chewie bolted from the bed and ran downstairs.
“Your house is amazing.”
Jenny wheeled her suitcase inside as Tonya went out to talk to her mom.
“This is just the entryway,” Holden laughed, happiness flooding through him as he grabbed her suitcase. Mimicking his emotions, Chewie bounced and spun around. “Don’t mind him, he loves company.”
“Aww, what a cute dog.” Jenny leaned over to scratch him behind the ears, which made him wag his tail at breakneck speed.
“Looks like everything is all set,” Tonya said, stepping back inside and shutting the door. “Jenny, I told your mother you’re welcome to stay until things go back to normal at your house.” She reached for Chewie’s collar. “It’s good to meet you. Holden doesn’t bring his friends over much, so it’s nice to meet his friends.”
Holden shuffled his feet, suddenly feeling awkward. He didn’t bring people over because he never had anyone to invite. Not wanting to continue that conversation, he started pulling Jenny’s suitcase towards the steps. “Let’s get this stuff upstairs.”
When they reached the second floor, Jenny said, “Tonya seems really nice.”
“She is, which around here is saying something.”
Jenny’s eyes scanned the artwork in the hallway. “Surely it isn’t that bad?”
He shrugged. “Here’s your room.”
She blinked rapidly as she walked inside. “Wow, it’s really nice,” she said, putting her backpack on the bed. “Where’s yours?”
He pointed with his thumb. “Right across the hall. I share a bathroom with Travis, but you’ll have your own, which is good because he’s a slob.” He sighed.
“Sounds like the holidays have been rough.” She ran her hand over the striped duvet and sat down.
Holden shrugged. “I guess.” He shifted his weight between his feet. What should he do now? Jenny must have sensed his unease, because she waved her hand for him to sit beside him. He was too nervous to do that, so he choose the chair under the window instead.
“Your brother still lives here?” she asked. “Isn’t he in college?”
“Stepbrother,” Holden said. “He’s from my stepdad’s first marriage, but his mom died. And yeah, he’ll be going back to college in a week. Thankfully.”
“You haven’t really told me anything about him,” Jenny said. “Do you guys not get along?”
Holden shook his head. “Not really. He’s the golden boy who gets away with murder around here.”
He shrugged. “You know, I’m just the freak.”
“Don’t say that! You’re not a freak.” Jenny was frowning. But then she asked, cautiously, “do your parents know about the dress code thing?”
At the end of the semester, Elliot Prep had agreed to let Holden wear the boy’s school uniform. “Oh yeah, that. I haven’t told them. I didn’t even tell Tonya.” She made a face as if she was pitying him, which he hated. Why had things gone that direction? This was supposed to be fun. “I’m not worried though. I’ll just change when I get to school.”
“I’m sorry things are so tough for you. I don’t understand why parents have to make this stuff so hard.” She stood up and walked over to the window next to him and cleared away the condensation with her hand. “Your backyard is great. Is that a pool?”
Thank you for changing the subject, he thought. “Yup, and a hot tub. They’re covered until summer. There’s also a fire pit and tennis courts.”
“Wow, and that’s all yours? That’s amazing. And with the snow, it seems really pretty out there.” She turned around. “You want to show me around the rest of the house?”
The suggestion surprised him. To him, it was just a big, boring house. “You really want to see it?”
“Are you kidding? This is probably the fanciest house I’ve ever been in. Come on, I want to see everything!”
“Hey Runt, who’s this?”
Holden was just about done with the tour. He had shown Jenny his room, as well as where Travis’s room was (so she knew which one to avoid), the office his parents used, the formal dining room, the kitchen, and the family room. Her favorite was the attic room with its tall dormer windows and giant beanbag chairs. He admitted it was his favorite too, and that he had spent a lot of time up there to avoid dealing with Travis and his friends over the years.
They were on the final leg of his tour, and all that was left was to show her the game room and home theater at the end of a long glass breezeway.
That’s where they came upon Travis and his friend Nick playing video games on a pair of flat-screen TVs. When Holden saw them, he froze. Travis was bad enough, but Nick was a nightmare. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were home. C’mon Jenny, let’s go back to the kitchen. We’ll come back later.”
“No, wait, hold up.” Travis paused his game and pulled off his headset, and then he hopped up from the chair. “Is this a—” he paused for dramatic effect, “—friend of yours?”
“Screw you, Travis,” Holden grumbled, and tried to shepherd Jenny back the way they came.
Travis, however, blocked the way. “Hello, mystery girl. Since my brother refuses to introduce us, do you happen to have a name?”
“Like you care,” Jenny said. Holden liked how she stood her ground and found himself wishing he was better at dealing with guys like Travis himself.
Travis was undeterred. “No, seriously.” He scooped his blond hair through his fingers in that infuriating way of his, and circled her as if to size her up. “I do, actually. It’s just hard to believe you’re not a figment of his imagination.” He held out his hand. “I’m Travis.”
“Yeah, I caught that.” She sounded reluctant to play his games, which only endeared her to Holden even more. “I’m Jenny.”
“Come on, let’s go back,” Holden suggested.
“Do you mind?” Travis shot back. “Jenny and I are having a conversation.” Then he nodded towards the screen. “Do you play?”
She leaned over to get a better look. “Grand Theft Auto? Yeah, I play sometimes.”
Nick pulled off his headphones. “Wait, Trav, who’s the girl?” he asked, having missed the previous conversation. “She with you or the twerp here?”
“I think she’s Holden’s girlfriend.”
“Sophie’s gay? Dude, you didn’t tell me that.”
Travis wandered over to the fridge behind the bar and grabbed a couple of beers. Looping the bottles between his fingers, he grabbed a bag of chips from a cabinet with his free hand and wandered back. “I told you, he goes by Holden now,” he said, and handed a bottle to Nick.
Holden could feel his cheeks heat up from everything that had poured out of the guy’s mouth. Travis was bad, but Nick had no filter whatsoever. “Look, she’s my friend, but she’s not my girlfriend.” He and Jenny weren’t dating—at least not yet, though he could dream—and Travis’s characterization of their friendship made him wince. A quick glance at her and he saw her roll her eyes at the other two, which gave him a little boost. It was nice to not have to face them alone for once. “She’s staying here for a while because a pipe broke at her house. So don’t be a jerk, okay?”
Travis snorted. “Oooh, you’re having a sleepover? How cute. Nick, you should crash here tonight and we can get out the Ouija board and summon the Ghost of Christmas Past or something.”
“Hell no,” Nick replied, and took a swig of the beer Travis handed him. “Didn’t you hear? There’s a party down at Derek’s house. You’re coming, aren’t you?”
That made Travis whistle. “Man, you know that’s going to be good. But for now, let’s see what Holden’s friend is made of. Jenny, why don’t you come sit with me and show me some of your driving skills?”
“Maybe later,” she said, in a tone that suggested ‘later’ would never come.
Travis clutched his chest. “Aw, don’t be like that. I know Holden’s told you all about me, but I promise I’ll be good. I don’t bite—hard.”
“Clever.” Again she rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll manage without us,” she said, giving him a broad, fake smile that she dropped just as fast. Then she headed out to the hallway.
Holden scooted out right behind her. “Sorry about that,” he said as soon as he closed the doors to the game room. They were back in the breezeway, where the sun was so bright coming through the floor-to-ceiling windows that he had to shield his eyes to see her. “He’s really a pain in the ass most of the time and he says a lot of stupid stuff. It’s probably best just to ignore him.”
She made a face. “Don’t worry. He reeks of frat boy. I know not to take anything he says too seriously.”
“That sums him up better than you can even imagine.”
They had turned to walk back to the kitchen when Travis’s voice suddenly soared over them.
“You guys going to be at dinner later?” he called out as he hung on the door frame.
Holden sighed heavily and turned around on his toe. “I already told you she’s staying here, so yeah, of course we are.”
“You know Dad’s coming back, right?” His tone was no longer teasing. “And we’re having a big family dinner at the house?”
“Yeah, so? Tonya said Jenny is welcome to join us.” Holden turned to her. “It’s a family thing, but it’s no big deal.” He looked at Travis. “Dad’s not bringing any of his friends tonight, is he?”
“How should I know? I just asked because it’s just important that you’re there.”
“Why?” Holden was immediately suspicious.
“Oh, you’ll see. Just be there. You too, Holden’s not-girlfriend.” He laughed at his own joke and then shuffled back to his chair, leaving the door ajar.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
Holden looked to the ceiling. Was Travis planning to humiliate him again? In front of Jenny? “It’s impossible to say. All I know is that we need to be prepared for something bad to happen. With Travis, it’s always a good plan.”
I hope you’re enjoying this free preview of The Boy Who Can Taste Color. Stay tuned… next week is Chapter 3 and the final chapter that I’ll be sharing with all subscribers.
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