Welcome back to Story Cauldron, and The Boy Who Can Taste Color. This is Chapter 3, where we get a better glimpse into why Holden has problems with his stepbrother Travis.
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“Sophie, I need to speak with you right now.”
After their encounter with Travis and Nick, Holden and Jenny had raided the kitchen for snacks—making a bag of popcorn and grabbing a couple of tangelos and bottled sodas—and headed to the attic room. Holden had brought his laptop and was showing her some of his wintertime videos when he heard the deep voice at the bottom of the stairs.
He froze. “Hi, Dad. Uh, what’s going on?”
Jenny hit pause on the screen.
There were heavy steps on the stairs. Fred Bennett almost never came up here, so this couldn’t be good. Holden licked his lips.
His stepfather reached the top and waved an envelope. “This just came.” He seemed to just then see Jenny, who was staring at him, and jerked his head in acknowledgment. “Let’s go to my office.” Then without waiting for Holden to respond, he charged back down the stairs, leaving Holden to follow in his angry wake.
“That didn’t sound good,” she whispered.
He shook his head, his lips flat and tight. This was not the perfect day he had imagined. Taking a deep breath, he got to his feet. “I guess I’ll go see what he wants. Maybe you can stay here and keep watching?”
“Okay,” she said. She sounded worried, and as he went downstairs, he cheered himself with the realization that she’d be there when he got back.
When Holden entered the office, his stepdad closed the door behind them and leaned against the desk, waving the envelope again. “Explain why you needed to park against a fire hydrant—and then why you ignored the ticket.”
Holden blinked. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” he said honestly.
Fred thrust the envelope out. “The court date is in two weeks. I don’t think I can go with you, so you’ll have to talk to your mother.”
Holden pulled out the paper inside and scanned the details. It had happened back in October, on a street he wasn’t familiar with. Suddenly he felt a lead weight sink into his stomach, and his whole body started trembling. “Um, let me double-check the date.” He pulled out his phone and scanned the calendar. He was bad about putting most stuff there but he did list his exams, and at that moment he was glad he’d done so. “Look, that was the weekend before midterms. I was in my room all weekend studying—I was so scared about my history test that I didn’t go anywhere all weekend.” He scrunched up his face. “Didn’t Travis come home that weekend for a game?” Even three years later, Travis still went to their high-school football games against their big rival. ‘Lions Forever’ rah rah rah.
As soon as the words left his mouth, though, he wished he could pull them back.
“Really, Sophie? Why are you always trying to blame him?” He pointed at the letter Holden now held. “It’s your car and plate.”
Again with the name. Holden clenched his teeth. Even though he knew he couldn’t save himself, words poured out anyway. “Maybe Travis took my car.”
“That’s the best you can come up with? Why would Travis be driving your Jeep? He has his own car.”
Well, that’s a good question, Holden thought to himself. Why does Travis do half the things he does? “I’m just saying, I couldn’t have gotten this ticket. I didn’t go anywhere.”
Fred crossed his arms and in a gravelly voice, asked, “What is our number one rule around here?”
Holden closed his eyes. Here it comes. “We take responsibility for our own actions,” he recited in a practiced monotone.
“Exactly. So you really want to argue that your brother—who has a perfectly good car of his own—would have driven six hours from college, and then turned around and taken your car—which, I should point out, isn’t nearly as nice—to the game with his friends? That seems highly unlikely.”
Not if you really knew your son, Holden thought to himself. As he considered the options, there were plenty to choose from. Maybe he was out of gas. Maybe he needed a bigger car for his friends. Maybe he just felt like it. But he said none of that. “I guess,” was all he could muster.
“Right. So for the ticket, I’m taking this month’s allowance, and for the summons, I’m going to tell George that you’re going to be shoveling the sidewalks for the next month as well.”
George was their groundskeeper and handled all of the snow removal. Given how large the property was, if it snowed again it wouldn’t be a small undertaking. He wanted to protest, but he’d lived under Fred Bennett’s roof for ten years now, and he knew that trying to get out of the punishment, or attempting to seek justice for an infraction he hadn’t committed, would just make the punishment worse. “Yes sir,” he said, though he was only going through the motions. He wondered where Travis had gone with his car now, and why he had felt the need to swap out. He could confront him tomorrow—or maybe tonight, after dinner—but to what end? He’d been down this road plenty of times before.
The real number one rule was: Travis always breaks it and Holden always gets the blame.
Holden flopped into the empty beanbag chair and gave Jenny an abbreviated version of what had happened. “It’s sort of how things go around here.”
“Why didn’t you just tell him you were home studying?”
“I did. He didn’t listen.” He spread his arms out in the chair and cast his eyes to the ceiling.
“That’s not fair,” she argued. “You need to get Travis to tell him the truth.”
“That’s not how Travis operates.”
“Still, you shouldn’t be punished for something you didn’t do. Surely you can prove you’re innocent.”
Holden snorted, a laugh without amusement. “I know your mom’s a lawyer, but you have to understand that there’s not always justice around here. People get blamed for things they didn’t do—and there’s no appeal. My stepdad is judge, jury, and executioner.”
“Oh, come on, there has to be something you can do. You shouldn’t give up so easily!”
“None of this is easy.” He pushed himself up and walked to the dormer window, where he watched the blowing snow swirl in the tree branches.
When he was seven, he and his mom had moved into the Bennett household. He hadn’t forgotten how Travis had carried the box of toys with his Nintendo DS to the car, but had dropped it in the parking lot. And the game console had never worked again. When he took it to his parents, Fred told him he needed to take care of his toys—that things wouldn’t get replaced if he was careless. Holden had protested, saying he hadn’t been the one to break it, but Travis had denied everything, and Holden, rather than Travis, was cast as the liar. Ever since that day, his stepbrother had learned that the easiest way to get out of trouble was to blame it all on Holden, and Fred would always take his side. Meanwhile, Holden had quickly learned that there wasn’t much point in fighting it.
Usually, though, he just sucked it up and let the situation pass. This time, however, it was so much worse having an audience. Here he was, trying to impress Jenny, but now he felt like a powerless fool. Humiliation and anxiety bubbled up inside him until he thought he might break down in tears. “I need to clear my head,” he blurted, and then raced out of the attic and down the main stairs, through the kitchen, and onto the patio. The chill filled his lungs as he raised his face to the setting sun. He wanted to scream but thought better of it. Instead, he scrubbed his eyes with the palm of his hands, willing away the tears that had started to flow without permission. Then he made his way past the gardens to the fountain that would feed a waterfall in the summer, stomping his feet in the light snow—snow that he realized he’d have to shovel come morning.
Why did he let Travis manipulate every situation? He had asked himself the question before, had even promised himself that next time things would be different. But then something would happen and the whole cycle would start again.
As he stood there, the wind clawed through his hoodie and his cheeks were stinging, but he put the cold out of his mind. He pulled his phone from his jeans pocket and started a video. Remembering how the phone had shut down in the cold the last time, he held it close to his chest, using his palms to keep it warm. He was able to keep his phone alive long enough to follow the spinning snow as the wind whipped it off the fountain. Turning in circles, his body mimicked the tumble and sway of the tiny grains of ice. The whiteness was sweet, like cotton candy, and that had a soothing effect. He dove into the video, seeing the world through a separate lens, making his own reality. Travis couldn’t hurt him here, or his stepfather. He was safe when all he had to worry about was catching the snow on video.
He heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow. “I’ll be back inside in a bit,” he said, expecting Tonya to tell him to return to the house.
“Here.” It was Jenny, and she held out his coat. She had taken the time to put hers on as well, and immediately he felt better seeing the bright blue that evoked the taste of vanilla on his tongue. It was a popular color for clothes, and he wondered if other people liked the color for the same reason he did.
Jenny didn’t say anything about what had just happened. Instead, she shoved her hands in her pockets and turned to look around the yard. “It’s even prettier out here than it was from the window.”
He stopped the video and wriggled his arms into the coat. While he didn’t want to admit it, he was cold, and now he could stay outside longer. With Jenny. “Yeah. I like it better out here. The house is just a looming hulk, but here, if you know where to go, you can pretend the house no longer exists at all.”
“Is that what you want?” she asked.
“Sometimes. We moved here when I was in first grade, and it seemed like a castle then.”
She smirked. “It does to me now, to be honest.”
“Yeah. That’s how Fred Bennett likes it. He thinks he’s some lord on the outs with Henry VIII, and this is his private getaway, where he can hold the evil king accountable—but too far away to be touched.”
“He’s a big history buff, I guess?”
“You have no idea. You know, he’d be halfway cool if he wasn’t a hardass all the time—and if he didn’t constantly take Travis’s side. It just gets old.”
“It seems like it,” Jenny said, giving him the support he hadn’t realized he craved. “At least you’ve got Tonya on your side.”
They were standing close together under the pine trees that filled in the corners of the property. His forest, he used to think. When things got too much to bear, he’d come out here and hide from everyone. And it was always Tonya who would fetch him and bring him back inside, and make it better with a cup of hot cocoa. “I guess.”
She pulled her hand out of her pocket and reached for his, an ember against an ice cube. He bit back a smile as he soaked up her warmth. Her touch was like a tether, holding him down, grounding him. Jenny was the best thing that had happened in his life for as long as he could remember. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said, barely a whisper.
She squeezed his hand. “Me too.”
They followed the path through the trees. Neither said anything, but they kept holding hands. Holden didn’t even mind that it made it impossible to capture any more video. He was content just being with her. That was such a foreign sensation—he didn’t usually feel comfortable around other people. But Jenny was different. Magical, maybe. And he didn’t want this moment to end. He imagined the two of them were under the dome of a giant snow globe, where no one else could intrude and hurt either of them.
The path opened up onto the far patio with a giant brick fireplace. This was where his parents sometimes entertained, with a big fire and drinks, and sometimes even with a band off to one side. But in the winter it looked abandoned, almost like the ruins of a cabin with only one wall still standing.
“This is really cool,” Jenny said. “Do you ever light fires out here?”
“Yeah, all the time, especially in the spring and fall.” It was always nice to stare into the flames as the weather started getting cooler and leaves tumbled from the trees. The last fire had been just before Thanksgiving, but then they got their first snow and it was closed up. There was wood in the house, though, and all of the tools and firestarters were in a small compartment built into the hearth. “Maybe when the snow melts we can get a fire going.”
“That would be awesome. We can make s’mores.”
He smiled. He’d like that.
But then a new voice broke the spell. “Holden, you and your friend need to get ready for dinner,” Tonya called out.
Holden clenched his teeth. “I guess it’s time to feed you to the lions.”
In Chapter 4 we’ll go to dinner with the Bennetts, where Travis will divulge a big secret. His news—and the aftermath—are enough that Holden is willing to drive miles in the snow to ask the favor faeries for a very big favor. So stay tuned for next week—and if you haven’t joined my paid list, you’ll want to do so now so you don’t miss anything!
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