Book One of The Diamond City Trilogy
Part I: Fall From Grace
Fresco swallowed a mouthful of fresh-baked cookie as his best friend burst through the kitchen door. Justin was early for once. The Lighting's star linebacker drew a big breath, expanding his substantial chest as he savored the aroma.
"Who's the best mom ever?"
Fran Conte giggled. Fresco's mother dished hot treats onto a plate with a bright pink spatula. He snagged another as his friend engulfed her in a massive hug, lifting her from the ground. Justin planted a big one on her flushed cheek.
"Justin Collins, you put me down this instant!" Fran giggled even as she threatened him with her oven mitts.
He winked at her, but did as she asked. Fran's left hand, still sheathed in puffy protection, went instinctively to her short, brown hair.
Like anything could mess it up, Fresco thought. His mother always appeared neat and tidy, petite, compact and flawless, if ordinary, in dress. She totally radiated 'mom' vibes.
Justin took terrible advantage of her.
"But, Mrs. Conte," he said as he flashed her his most charming smile. "You know I can't resist you."
"My cookies, you mean." She tapped his wide T-shirted chest with her spatula. She peered up the height he had on her over the rim of her round glasses, hazel eyes sparkling. He was an easy six foot two where she barely called it at five one. "I'm on to you, Justin."
Fresco grinned around his cookie, enjoying the exchange. Justin tossed back his dark brown hair and clutched one hand to his chest in mock horror.
"Mrs. C! Your cookies mean nothing to me!"
Fresco laughed. "You been sneaking into drama class while I wasn't looking?"
Justin rolled his eyes at his friend before smiling angelically at Fran. Fresco, blond to his friend's dark, had the innocent smile down pat, but Justin raised it to an art form. His deep brown eyes shone with sincerity, handsome face full of charm. Fresco tried not to laugh again. Justin was a natural.
"Oh, here." Fran dumped a cookie into his waiting hands. "You'll be into them in the car anyway, the pair of you, so you might as well have one now." Justin stuffed the whole thing in his mouth as Fran turned and slapped Fresco's fingers with her spatula when he tried to take a third. "At least pretend they are going to make it as far as the door."
Fresco dodged the dancing utensil and grabbed another cookie, devouring it in one bite, brilliant blue eyes full of humor.
"'Kay," he mumbled around it.
Fran rolled her eyes as Justin snuck another.
"Enough, you two!" She chased the both of them away from the island in the center of the bright and cheery kitchen. "Let me finish or you'll be leaving without them."
Fresco bent his lean body to the side, dodging her wrath. He made the stairs, laughing around his cookie. Justin, with twenty pounds on his friend, thundered up behind him, stuffing down his own. He followed Fresco to his room and leaned against the doorjamb.
"Your mom's cool," he said.
Fresco rolled his eyes. "She's right. You just want cookies."
Justin's grin was no longer innocent, more devil than angel when parents weren't around. "Maybe." His eyes went to Fresco's desk, flashing nasty. "Done your homework yet?" His voice melted honey.
Fresco groaned at the sight of his unfinished math questions. Playing football was the most important part of his life, and there was no way he was missing it because he hadn't done his algebra.
"Don't tell and I won't," he said. Justin smiled a devil's smile.
"Show me up on the field and I might."
Fresco made a rude gesture. Justin was a real jerk sometimes. Fresco wouldn't put it past him to screw him over. And his father's rules were pretty strict around homework and football. School came first.
The scent of cookies reached Fresco's room. He wondered how many of the delicious morsels his mom was lovingly placing in plastic containers would make it to the game. Justin always drove and still managed to down half a box himself before they even got to the field. Still, Fran kept making them, called them good luck. They had to be fresh baked, nothing cold or packaged for her boys. Fresco grinned to himself, knowing the team would be all over him as soon as he hit the locker room. Fran Conte's cookies were legendary.
Seeing Justin's eyes were still on his homework, he flipped shut the cover on his tattered red binder, a disaster already despite the fact school only started six weeks before. He ignored the knowing smirk on his friend's face and grabbed his denim jacket.
Fresco loved living in California, where the days stayed nice pretty much all year round, but late November brought cooler weather after the sun went down, and he didn't want to catch a chill. He expected to be run ragged in a few short hours on the football field. Keeping warm after the game was important to tired muscles.
Like the rest of his team and his very enthusiastic coach, Fresco took football more seriously than anything else in his life.
Justin had drifted away. Fresco stepped out into the hall, looking toward the back stairs, but didn't see him. He glanced further down the hall and watched, too late, as his friend walked into Daniel's room.
Heart in his throat, it took him a moment to react. When he did, Fresco's panic rose even as his feet dragged him without his consent to the open door.
Justin stood in the middle of the room, looking around with curiosity. After the initial shock wore off, Fresco took a hesitant step inside himself. He hadn't set foot in it for two years, not since Daniel left. He frowned in the sunlight streaming through the half-open curtains. Small dust motes hung in the hot, heavy air of the room echoing with their footsteps.
Daniel's room was empty except for a smallish cardboard box, spun off to one side. The top was open and a trophy poked out. It was this very thing that caught Justin's attention, too. He lifted it free and blew on it, thumb running over the front plate to remove the last of the dust. He glanced at Fresco.
"Huh," he said. "Didn't know Daniel got MVP."
Fresco couldn't move, could barely breathe. The air in the room choked him, pressed on his chest, trying to drive him to his knees. He managed a nod.
Perhaps there would have been more if they hadn't been interrupted.
"What are you boys doing in here?" Raymond Conte's voice cut deep, sharp with anger. Justin dropped the trophy and plastered on his most innocent and respectful expression.
"Hello, Mr. Conte." He inched away from the box.
Ray's face struggled against fury behind his heavy glasses.
"Thought you had a game."
"Yes, sir," Justin said with false cheer, taking a step to the door, moving out of the oppression of the room. "We were just leaving. Right, Fres?"
He listened to Justin go, the big football jock brushing past Fresco's father, his heavy footsteps thumping over the thin Berber carpet in the hall and at a pounding jog down the wooden stairs. Fresco remained frozen, eyes locked on the discarded trophy.
He heard his father move, the soft shuffle of sock feet on hardwood, saw Ray drift past him and approach the box. His father hovered over the remnants of his oldest son while Fresco, lost in his own pain and cycle of grief torn raw by the emptiness of the room, watched.
Finally, Ray sighed, a deep and heavy breath, before turning to Fresco. He was lit from behind by the sunlight. Fresco couldn't see his expression, only a dark, slim figure, faceless, unreal.
"You'd best be going, then."
Fresco managed to jerk his head in a nod. He staggered backward as though his father's words released him, unsure later how he managed to stumble into the hall.
He stood there, trying to catch his breath around the pounding of his heart. He seemed unable to shake the past in spite of the time gone by. Daniel's room, the room he remembered, was as long gone as the brother he adored.
While he fought himself and the memories threatening, he heard the door swing softly shut behind him.