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