Roland West, Loner

 

Chapter 1

Heart racing, fourteen-year-old Roland West leaped down the staircase and sailed over the last few steps. His bare feet landed with a thud and a squeak on the hardwood floor. His gaze snapped to the end of the long hallway as his older brother Jarret zipped around the corner away from him.

 

“Give it back,” Roland shouted, tearing down the hall after him. Did he have to hide everything to keep a shred of privacy around here?

 

Footsteps sounded behind Roland. Keefe, Jarret’s twin brother, coming up the hall. He wouldn’t pose a threat unless Jarret gave him a command. If Jarret ordered it, Keefe did it.

 

At the end of the hallway, Roland skidded into the great room, a spacious chamber of shadows and formal furnishings whose sole light came from glowing dark red drapes. Back on track, Roland flung open the double doors and swept the family room with his gaze.

 

Light streamed through open windows on either side of the entertainment center, animating the suit of armor in the corner and the antique shields and weapons on the walls. A two-sided fireplace stood between the great room and family room, separating the formal decor from the edgy, medieval design.

 

Jarret stood on the far side of the family room, behind the couch that divided two seating arrangements. His gaze connected with Roland’s as he flipped open the sketchbook. “What don’t you want me to see?”

 

“None of your business. Give it back.” Roland raced to one end of the couch, but Jarret darted to the other. Roland changed directions. Jarret did, too.

 

Frustration clouding his judgment, Roland stepped up onto a couch cushion—onto cool, gray leather fabric—grabbed the back of the couch and bounded over it and the sofa table behind it. His foot brushed an antique terracotta pot but didn’t knock it over.

 

Thank you, Lord.

 

Standing a few feet from Jarret now, Roland hesitated to reach for the book. Did he want to get physical? Jarret, two years older than Roland, always won.

 

Jarret, eyes glued to the first page of Roland’s sketchbook, scooted back between a vintage iron end table and an overstuffed chair.

 

Roland stepped toward him.

 

Jarret glanced at Keefe and coolly said, “Stop him,” as he turned a page.

 

Roland’s jaw tensed. Words would accomplish nothing. Only force would get him his sketchbook back. He lunged.

 

Keefe grabbed Roland from behind, snake arms wrapping around his chest, pinning his elbows to his sides.

 

Roland squirmed for a moment against Keefe’s lean but muscled arms then gave up.

 

Jarret’s brown eyes gleamed with amusement. “What’s this? You draw these?” He showed Roland a charcoal sketch of a turret and battlements. “This our house?” Jarret flipped the page.

 

Heat slid up Roland’s neck. A bit larger than an executive house, their house did resemble a castle, complete with battlements and two turrets. But no, those sketches were not of their house.

 

Apparently satisfied that Keefe had Roland restrained, Jarret sat on the arm of the overstuffed chair. He slouched as he studied Roland’s artwork.

 

“Oh, I see what this is.” A grin slithered across his face. He glanced up. “You’ve been drawing Mama’s little doll house? Cute. You plan on buying some dolls to go with it?”

 

“It’s not a doll house.” Roland twisted, struggling to free himself, but Keefe tightened his grip. “It’s a miniature castle, a very detailed and old one. It’s an antique.”

 

Knowing Mama’s love for castles and fairytales, Papa had given her the miniature castle soon after they married. He bought it from an antique dealer in California. Roland shared Papa’s love for antiques and Mama’s appreciation of all things medieval.

 

“So, this is what you’ve been doing all alone in your room,” Jarret said, “playing with a dollhouse?”

 

“I’m not playing with it. I’m repairing it. Those drawings help me plan.” When Papa had bought the castle, it had no windows and doors, only marks that showed it once had them. Mama didn’t much care; she liked to see the furniture and decorations inside, but Roland wanted to make it as realistic as possible.

 

“Why repair it when you can buy a new one and save yourself the hassle?”

 

Roland jerked his arm though he knew it would only make Keefe hold him tighter. “You can’t buy a new one. It’s an antique. Old things have value.”

 

“Old things suck up time and money from nerds like you. Leave them in the past.” Jarret whipped the sketchbook to another overstuffed armchair and glanced at Keefe.

 

Keefe, ever vigilant, picked up Jarret’s signal and released Roland’s arms.

 

Roland dove for his book.

 

“Do your friends at school know you play with dollhouses?” Jarret, still sitting on the arm of the chair, stuffed his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans.

 

Roland clenched his teeth. Friends? School? Dollhouse? There was too much wrong with that question, but a reply would keep the banter going. He flipped through his sketchbook, smoothing pages though nothing appeared damaged.

 

“I could tell them.”

 

Roland flopped down into the soft armchair and ran a hand through his hair. “Why would you do that? Kids already say stupid things about me.”

 

Jarret grinned. “So I heard. Don’t you talk to anyone? Anyone at all?”

 

Keefe sat on the oval coffee table in the middle of the room, under a beam of light that turned the flyaway strands of his long, curly hair into a black halo. Both he and Jarret tied their hair back when they went out, but today neither had.

 

“Why do they think you’re a mute?” Keefe sounded sincere. He always sounded sincere. Keefe was a lamb and Jarret a wolf.

 

“Well, they don’t now. I talk in class. Sometimes. When I have to. That was just the first day. Something happened in one class, and somehow it spread all around. It was because I-I didn’t have a homeroom.” His stomach turned thinking about it. School had only begun. How would he ever make it through a whole year?

 

“So?” Jarret cocked a brow, giving the harsh and haughty look that distinguished him from his identical twin.

 

Roland folded his arms across his chest, tucking the book away. “So, I had to go from one classroom to the next, asking every ninth-grade teacher if I was in his or her homeroom.”

 

“So, kids must’ve heard you talk.” Jarret gave a little headshake. “Why do they think you’re mute?”

 

“Well, I was in, like, the last ninth-grade classroom.” He could still see Mrs. Franklin, a grandmotherly sort with glasses and short gray hair, hunched over a notebook at her desk in the far corner of the room. As soon as he shuffled across the front of the classroom to her, she held up a finger, indicating for him to wait. He stood on the opposite side of her desk for what felt like ten minutes. She hadn’t bothered to look up, but he had the attention of every kid in the room. “My mouth went dry. The words wouldn’t come out.”

 

Jarret busted up laughing and fell over the armrest, sliding into the chair. Keefe turned away, snickering, too.

 

Roland’s hands curled into fists. “I’m not the only one they spread rumors about. I’ve heard things about our family. Don’t you care?”

 

Jarret straightened up and thrust out his chin, an arrogant look flashing across his face. “I decide who I am. And I’ll tell the kids at school what to believe about me . . .” He snatched the pillow from behind him. “. . . and my family.” He whipped the pillow at Roland.

 

Roland flung his arm up and blocked his face with the sketchbook.

 

The pillow ricocheted off the book, slammed into an orb-shaped glass lamp on the sofa table, and landed on the floor.

 

Keefe jumped up from the coffee table and flung an arm out. He didn’t prevent the glass lamp from falling, but he changed the speed and trajectory so that it landed safely on its side on the carpet.

 

Roland glared at Jarret, suspecting he meant to break it and stir up trouble. “Well, I hate River Run High, and I don’t want to talk about me or our family. I wish we had our tutor back.”

 

“Not me.” Jarret picked up a carved, wooden elephant from the end table beside him. He glanced at Keefe. “Homeschooling was too much like work.”

 

Keefe shrugged. “Seems to take forever to get things done at River Run. And they’re teaching stuff we’ve already learned.”

 

“So.” Jarret tossed the elephant from one hand to the other. “It’s easy. Nothing wrong with that.”

 

“I’d rather go on trips with Papa,” Roland said, revealing more of himself than he typically did to his brothers, “and take my school books with me. I mean, if Mr. Barsanti can’t tutor us anymore, I don’t really need him. I just need the course work.”

 

“You’re cracked.” Jarret whipped the elephant at Roland, apparently aiming for his head.

 

Sucking in a breath, Roland dropped his sketchbook and snatched the projectile from the air. The impact stung his hand. He huffed and stuffed the elephant between his thigh and the arm of the chair.

 

Jarret smirked at Keefe and whined, “I just need the course work.” His gaze slid back to Roland. “Papa don’t go nowhere fun. Just goes to dark, smelly caves and mud pits.”

 

“Well, I like it. There’s a lot to learn. And it’s interesting.”

 

“Archaeology is only interesting in the movies, not the way Papa does it. He makes it as boring as mucking out a stable.” Jarret leaned back, one arm falling over the armrest, one hand bumping the medieval pewter goblet on the end table.

 

“He still takes us on trips,” Keefe said, always trying to placate but without any force behind his words or actions. “We just go one at a time, now. You’ve got a trip coming up, don’t you, Roland?”

 

“Yeah. Next week. I’m counting the days.”

 

“You’re such a suck-up, or as Papa might say, a bootlicker. You’ve always been one, first with Mama, now with Papa.” Jarret lifted the goblet and peered inside it. “I might’ve had fun on those trips when I was, like, four, but I’m too old for that crap. Borrrring. You can take my turn. I’ll take River Run High.”

 

Papa’s cowboy boots scuffed in the hallway on the opposite side of the double doors, a faint sound that made each of them shut his mouth.

 

Jarret’s gaze swiveled to the double doors and back to Roland. “Stop being a mute and make some friends.” He jumped up, tossed the goblet to Roland, and motioned for Keefe to follow.

 

“What’s up?” Keefe said, his voice low.

 

“Papa told us to help Mr. Digby in the stables, remember? I ain’t doing that.”

 

The two of them scooted down the hallway in the opposite direction and disappeared around the corner. The hallway wrapped around the house. They would probably go back upstairs and play video games until forced to do otherwise.

 

“There you are.” Papa clomped into the family room and stopped behind the couch. His gaze dropped to the lamp on the floor then bounced to the pillow—also on the floor—the elephant next to Roland and the goblet in his hand. Papa’s eyes narrowed. “We need to have a talk.”

 

“I . . . but I . . .”

 

“My study. Now"

 

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