Stronghold - Chapter 1



Judson

The steam rising from the coffee in front of me swirls up to fill my senses with its delicious promise of caffeinated goodness.

It's still too hot to drink, and I remember my first class at culinary school, where I learned how to brew the perfect coffee.

The class was filled with bleary-eyed students who'd been out the night before and dying to drink the coffee, but instead, we were asked to stare at it, slow down…focus.

Despite the sleep deprivation, it was one of the most valuable lessons I learned. One I try to channel every time the ghosts of the past come chasing. Every time I missed home.

Well, I am home now.

Outside, the rising sun teasing beyond the tree line tells me that, despite the familiarity, I'm not where I'm supposed to be. The fresh layer of snow covering the backyard confirms the same. After all, this is Vermont.

Mud season is around the corner, but for now, the pristine white is still king.

I take a sip of the coffee, allowing the bitterness to reach my tastebuds before making its way down to settle in my stomach.

If I don't look outside the window, maybe I can pretend that the temperatures aren't subzero and that, at six-thirty in the morning, it's still too early for the sun to rise.

"Morning, honey. What are you doing up so early?" my mom asks, stepping into the kitchen wearing the same terrycloth bathrobe that I swear she's worn for the last twenty years. And it smells the same too. Lavender, honey, and home.

I put my arms around her waist when she comes closer and kisses the top of my head. How is it possible that it feels like I've never left, but at the same time, even in the house I grew up in, I'm an alien transported from a different world?

How can I miss this but also wish I wasn't here?

"Hey, Mom. Couldn't sleep. I'm used to being up early, and I guess I'm over the jet lag now." I get up and grab a clean cup from the cabinet to pour fresh coffee for her while she goes into the pantry, coming back with a bag of flour and a packet of dry yeast.

"I was about to get the bread started, but do you want me to whip you up a batch of pancakes?" she asks.

"You know I won't say no to your pancakes, Mom." Even though I probably should because it's been too cold to go out for a run, and I can feel the weight piling back on every time I walk past the kitchen and smell whatever my mom is cooking.

My mom has always loved to cook for us, a passion I know I got from her, but the looks I've gotten from my dad and brother tell me she's dialed it up a hundred notches since I came home. Not that anyone will complain. My mom's cooking is the best.

"Righty-o, I'll get started on the pancakes, and you can get started on the bread," she orders, returning to the pantry.

"Oh my, how things have changed around here," I tease. "In the old days, you'd never have let me in the kitchen before I was washed, dressed, and ready for school."

"You're twenty-eight. I trust that you do all those things without needing to be told. Besides, I don't have a Cordon Bleu-trained chef at home for nothing." She's full of pride, but to me, it's like a rock weighing me down.

I give her a smile that I don't feel. At this moment, my Cordon Bleu training isn't worth the paper my certificate is printed on.

There's no point thinking about things I can't change, so I focus on what I can do instead. And that's a mean white loaf.

We work in silence. The rest of the house is still asleep but won't be for long. My dad will be up soon. He likes working late into the night, so he rarely gets up earlier than the time he needs to get ready and grab a coffee to go before he heads off.

On the other hand, my little brother may need a cattle prod to get him out of bed. I remind myself that Luke isn't so little anymore. He was five when I left and, despite the regular video calls, it was still a shock to hug a tall, pimply younger version of me when I came back a week ago.

The only difference between us is that when I was fifteen, I definitely did not have the slim frame with long limbs that seem to have graced my sports-inclined younger brother's genetic makeup.

I put the dough in a bowl to rise and cover it with plastic wrap just as mom places a plate with a stack of pancakes on the table, along with a fresh pot of coffee.

"They smell divine, Mom." I grab two plates from the cabinet as she brings our empty coffee cups from the counter to the table.

My stomach rumbles. I'm used to grabbing a piece of fruit on my way to the gym or before a run first thing in the morning, but my lack of exercise in the last week, together with a change in my eating routine, is definitely giving my body ideas I don't want it to have.

I place two pancakes on my plate and dig in.

"Is that it?" Mom asks.

"What do you mean?"

"You used to stack them in piles of at least four with a generous serving of butter and maple syrup."

I look down at my plate of dry pancakes and back at her. She looks...disappointed?

"No, never mind," she says. "You're a grown man now. You've outgrown your childhood habits, right? I'm sure people in Paris are all sophisticated and proper, and you're used to—"

"Mom."

She places her hand on top of mine and squeezes it. "I'm really happy you're home, Judson."

I nod and smile because I don't have the guts to say anything else.

Every day since I arrived I've waited for the moment either of my parents asks how long I'm staying, what am I really doing here, and the absolute worst, what happened?

Dad rushes into the kitchen with the energy of a man thirty years younger and kisses my mom while grabbing her ass.

I look away, trying my best to keep my pancakes inside my stomach. I'd forgotten how in love and open about it my parents still are.

That's how it is, right? When you find the person you're meant to be with for the rest of your life.

I drink the last of my coffee, wondering how the list of topics I don't want to think about keeps getting longer and longer in my head.

"Morning, Judson." He squeezes my shoulder before filling his to-go coffee cup and leaving again.

"I'm going to wake up your brother. If you hear screaming, it's all perfectly normal. No need to call the neighbors or police," Mom says as she leaves me to check on my beautifully risen dough.

True enough, there are knocks on doors, grunts, and doors opening and shutting before the sound of the longest shower in the history of showers. I definitely do not miss being a teenager.

By the time Luke comes down, my bread is out of the oven and cooling on the countertop. The kitchen smells just like a home should in the morning.

My stupid brain brings back the last good memory I have with Pierre. Him walking into the kitchen of our Paris apartment, wearing nothing but a pair of black boxer shorts. The elastic band low on his hips perfectly showcasing his toned abs, his morning wood at half-mast but ready to go at a moment's notice, as it always was.

The memory is swiftly followed by a less pleasant one. I snap out of it quickly, but my mom's worried expression as she looks at me tells me I've been caught.

"Why don't you go out for a walk, sweetheart? Get some fresh air, maybe see your friends. Have you caught up with—?"

"No." I interrupt sharply and then feel like a dick for it. "Sorry, Mom. I didn't mean…I’m just not up for seeing anyone."

She leans against the kitchen sink and crosses her arms. There it is, her signature move.

"Let's put it this way, you either get your butt outside and work that mopey look off your face, or you can kiss goodbye all of your favorite dinners. God knows Luke has his own ideas on what I should feed you all."

"Damn right. Since you got here, we've been eating like it's Sunday every day. I'm not complaining, but Coach Allen will bench me if I can't jump hoops," he says, but it doesn't stop him from stuffing his face with at least a quarter of the bread loaf. Where the fuck does he put all his food?

"Fine, I'll go outside," I say, resigned to my sentence of death by frostbite. At least if I'm dead and in heaven, I can have all of my favorite mom-made food without needing to worry about the carb-to-protein ratio.

The first thing I do when I get to my room is check my phone. No messages or missed calls from Pierre.

Paris is six hours ahead, and I left a week ago. Even considering how much time he spends at the restaurant, I don't believe for one moment he hasn't had the time to contact our lawyer.

I send him a reminder email and put the phone down again to find something warm to wear.

One benefit of all the weight I lost after I left home is that I don't have to search too deep into my old closet to find a Vermont winter-proof coat that fits me.

I still feel like I'm knocked sideways as soon as I step outside. I'm definitely not acclimatized to Vermont winters anymore. I wrap my scarf tighter around my face and steel myself before I walk down the porch steps and onto the fresh snow, following the literal footprints my dad and Luke left behind earlier.

"Judson, honey?" my mom calls from the door. "If you make it all the way to Church Street, would you get us a box of crullers from The Maple Factory? It's Thursday."

I don't know why it being Thursday matters, but I don't question it. I also haven't thought of where my walk is going to take me, but Burlington isn't that big a place, so I know whatever route I take, I'll be close enough to Church Street that I can swing past.

The longer I walk, the more familiar I am with the feel of the snow crunching beneath my feet. Pierre goes skiing every year. It's the one vacation he has without me because it reminds me too much of home. Correction, the one vacation he had without me.

Now I wonder if he wasn’t exactly on his own when he was up in the French Alps.

Damn my fucking brain.

I don't know what's next in my life. If I still have a career worth saving or a chance of still doing what I was born to do, but thinking about the past doesn't do anyone any good.

Okay, new plan. Well, only plan. I need to pick myself up and move on.

Church Street has changed since I was last here. There are more stores and restaurants than I remember, and even under these ridiculous freezing conditions, there are still so many people around.

I slow my pace, taking everything in. It doesn't feel as cold now that I've been walking. Or maybe I've just lost all my toes and fingers to frostbite and haven’t realized it yet.

Either way, I channel my old teacher and just…appreciate. It's not like I have anywhere better to be or anything better to do.

The recent snowfall covers the brick street, so I'm careful where I place my feet. The last thing I need is to slip or trip over something and, as my friend Spencer says in his very British accent, fall arse over tit to the ground.

The large building that once housed the hostel on Church Street is boarded up. The windows of the upper floors are covered in black soot. There must have been a fire.

The Maple Factory seems to have a line of people spilling outside onto the street. Next door, there's a large brick building with a neon sign that says Vino and Veritas.

As I get closer, to avoid The Maple Factory line, I notice that Vino and Veritas are, in fact, two businesses. On one side, there's a bookstore, and on the other, there seems to be a bar.

My little gay heart jumps for joy at the sight of the rainbow flags in the windows. Burlington has always been a welcoming place for the LGBT community, but I can't recall having such an open space available for socializing.

The line is going strong at The Maple Factory, and I notice an intriguing book display of The Foodie's Guide to Vermont in the bookstore window, so I decide to wait out the line in the warmth.

As I go in through the shared entrance, I see a Help Wanted sign in the closed bar door. I snap a quick photo before going inside the bookstore.

Twenty minutes later, I leave the bookstore very impressed with their selection of cookbooks and with a copy of The Foodie's Guide to Vermont in my hand.

I join the much smaller line to The Maple Factory just as my phone dings with a message.

Monsieur Pascal advised the paperwork could take a minimum of thirty days to complete. Are you sure you want to do this? It's not too late.


Out on Aug 12

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