Imagine being a 12-year-old boy who is sold by his parents to a rich, older man. This is the intriguing beginning of the story of Lucci Grimley, the boy; Damien Gotham, the wealthy owner of Gotham Pharmaceuticals who buys the child for his own sick benefits; and Prin, the student/athlete who is working for Gotham. While mowing Gotham's lawn, Prin discovers Lucci after hearing him singing in a maze located on the premises. Lucci estimates it's been eight years since he came to live with his new "Father" where he has been subjected to rigid rules, unable to have contact with others, and probable sexual abuse. He is mesmerized by Prin and Prin is concerned about his own fascination with Lucci. The chapter leaves you hanging onto the story line and wanting to read more from this tense, fascinating beginning, for what happens to Lucci as he awaits punishment for escaping outside? This introduction is a case study in detail, dialogue, and is mesmerizing in its own right.
Eight years ago
“What do y’mean I gotta go with him, Ma? I ain’t goin’ nowhere with that crazy old coot!” I hop over a big mud puddle to get to the steps. When I land hard and the bottom step don’t splinter into kindling, I turn around and glare at her.
“You’ll do as I say, that’s what you gonna do!” Ma won’t look at me in my eyes, and that scares me worse than anything else. “Now get your ass in that car.”
Since I got a castle moat ‘tween me and the grown-ups, I stay put.
Dad don’t have no problem lookin’ at me. “The deal’s done, Lucci. There’s no goin’ back from here.” He’s real serious, and maybe sorta sad, which scares me bad, too. He says it again. “This here’s a done deal.”
I stop glaring at my folks and check out the geezer—he’s smiling. And he’s laughing kinda sneaky, like the Grimley family is some kind of lame joke. “There ain’t nothin’ funny here, y’old goat, so shuddup!” I yell. Lucky for him he shuts his trap tight, even though I woulda loved to slug him. I wish my voice was low and rough—like the way my Dad’s voice sounds from so much smoking—but it ain’t. I’m twelve years old for fuck’s sake, but even when I try to sound mean, it comes out like a little girl shrieking. “The dude’s a perv, Ma! I seen the way he looks at me when he drives by our trailer. And you seen it too—you said so yourself!”
The old guy rubs his long, creepy beard like he’s had enough. “I’ll take it from here, Charlotte,” he tells her in a way that makes it seem like Ma’s a little kid. He nods at my dad, and then again at our trailer. “Please take your wife inside, Jake.”
Dad’s eyes shift back and forth from me to Mr. Gotham, like he’s nervous.
And I know for sure Dad ain’t pleased with what’s goin’ down when he pulls on his hair so hard he ends up with a whole pile of golden strands in his hand. “Damien, give us a few minutes in private to tell the kid goodbye.”
“No. Finish it right here, in front of me. And let’s not draw this out, hmm?” The geezer looks down at his shiny gold watch and makes this nasty, throat-clearing sound. I wanna barf. “You have one minute.”
Dad sighs real loud, steps right into the puddle in front of our rickety front steps, and sticks a palm on my shoulder. Ma just watches him. She don’t take one step toward me, her own boy. “Look at it this way, Looch: Gotham is family—yer Mama says he’s her cousin, ten times removed or some shit like that—and he’s gonna give you all the shit we can’t. Call of Duty video games and LeBron sneakers and a BMX bike, you know? You gonna live like a prince ‘cause he’s got the cash of a king.”
I ain’t buyin’ what Dad’s trying to sell me. “No, sir! You ain’t doin’ this for me—I know Gotham gave you and Ma that car in our driveway.” I jab my finger in the direction of the new red Mustang, parked at an angle with the top down, “and I even heard her tellin’ Aunt Shelly on the phone that some random guy from town paid you off real good so’s he could get a hold of me!” I point my elbow in Ma’s direction and scowl.
Old man Gotham makes a move toward me, so’s I jump off the rickety front steps—right over the moat—and run toward the trashcans that got blowed into the middle of our front yard last Tuesday.
But Ma’s quick, and she’s on top of me in half a split second. She grabs me by my hair and pissed-off words shoot outta her mouth, even though she’s gritting her teeth and her lips ain’t moving hardly at all. “Don’t you screw this up for me, Lucci! You hear? You best shut your trap and get in his car, then maybe he’ll treat you right.”
Ma’s lookin’ at me now—them dark eyes are burning a hole in my forehead. I can hear what she’s thinking: boy, you walkin’ a fine line here.
“Jesus, Char, way to be a total bitch to the kid.” Dad pulls us apart, tearing Ma’s claw from off my head, leaving her with a handful of my golden hair. He pushes her back, but he does it gentle ‘cause Ma owns Dad’s heart, and all three of us know it. “Looch, it probably seems like me and your Ma are sellin’ you off to the guy who lives across town for the price of a fancy car and a pile of cash. But it ain’t like that. We’re just doin’ what’s right for you. Ya see?”
Sure, I see real good. I been bought and paid for, and that’s all she wrote.
I turn around and take a good look at our ancient gray trailer, and I wonder if I’ll ever see the inside of it again. Two crappy suitcases, filled with everything I got to my name, with my skateboard leaning between ‘em, are planted on the dirt driveway beside the old maple tree.
My cat, Ringo, knows how to push open the front screen door, and he pops outta the trailer to find out what’s up with all the yellin’. When he sees me in the yard, he bolts my way, and rubs his nose on my bare feet, making wet streaks on my dirty skin, just like he always does. Ringo ain’t got a clue I been bought and paid for and I’m on my way out.
When I lean down to pick him up, my stupid eyes start to sting.
I ain’t gonna cry.
Ma ain’t gonna cry for sure—she’s losing me for fuck-knows-how-long and she’s gazing at her new sports car, wearing a shit-eatin’ grin. I think Ma’s... glad. Dad’s face is red and his eyes are puffy, but he’ll do whatever Ma says. ‘Cause that’s how it goes.
“Can I at least take Ringo with me?” I look at Ma and Dad, who shrug like they couldn’t give a shit, and finally at Mr. Gotham. “Can I?”
Mr. Gotham takes a few steps toward his long silver sedan with the big-ass, snarling-cat hood ornament. Every time the creep drove real slow past our trailer this summer, so’s he could gawk at me, I thought about ripping that metal cat off the front of his car and wearing it on a thick silver chain around my neck. “Put the animal down, young man, and go sit in the back seat of my car.” Ringo leaps from my arms and runs across the muddy grass. He’s leavin’ me behind, just like everybody else. Then the old dude says the words that seal the deal. “My son won’t be needing anything in those suitcases. Feel free to donate his belongings to charity, if they’ll accept them.”
I’ve got precisely forty-five minutes to mow the oversized grounds of the Tower Estate. Judging from how puny I feel sitting on my John Deere mower, surrounded by more slopes and valleys of shaggy green than I can count on both hands, it won’t be enough time to make so much as a dent. I can’t even see the house from the gated end of the driveway where my truck and trailer are parked.
I’m seriously overbooked. Something’s got to give.
However, I’ve got no one to blame but myself. Not only am I hungry for the thrill of victory, which mandates that I score more points than any other player on the Gavinsdale College Men’s Soccer Team, I also want academic glory—my goal is to graduate at the top of the class of the Gotham Business School. I haven’t worked this hard for this long for nothing.
I’ve almost reached the end of this life chapter. Only a few more months of college are left to prove my academic and athletic prowess, which is fine with me because being perfect is frigging exhausting. Almost twenty-three, I’m more than ready to see what comes next in life. What complicates things is that I feel the need for a big wad of cash stretching my back pocket at all times. Cash gives me confidence. I got sick of being called “trailer trash” by the time I hit the eighth grade, so, despite my obligations to school, I’ve held a job since I was fourteen.
“Prince William wants it all.” That’s what my friend, Gil O’Reilly, says about my insatiable appetite for success, and thus my frenzied schedule, but really I’m more of a pauper. I don’t come from much.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and send off a text to the Accelerated Corporate Finance study group. Academic glory is going to have to suffer in the name of keeping my word.
In other words, I said I’d mow the freaking lawn, and so now I’m going to freaking mow it.
Prin: Study group is looking like a no-can-do for me tonight. Hate to bail at the last minute, but this estate’s lawn isn’t gonna mow itself.
Advanced Business students are dependable as hell. Within thirty seconds I get a reply.
Bethany: I’ll make a study guide for you from what we work on tonight, Prin. I’ll email it after study group. No Worries. :)
Prin: Thanks, Bets.
Bethany Campbell isn’t just acting out of sheer reliability, or the goodness of her heart. She’s scouting around for an A-list date to the Fall Ball. And who better than the captain of the soccer team? Which brings to mind the one thing I have no time in my life for—a girlfriend. I look at it this way: I’m never gonna end up with some random girl I hook up with in college, and there have been more than a few. All easily forgotten—the sex wasn’t good enough to justify the subsequent awkwardness when it became obvious that I had no further interest in the chase. So what’s the point in starting anything? A girlfriend would be excess baggage at this point in my life. I steer clear.
I sigh out loud even though nobody’s around to hear it, and climb on my John Deere mower, knowing I should never have taken on a property to maintain in the fall when I have school and soccer. But I don’t start mowing; I just sit here, letting the wind blow through the damp shorts and t-shirt I wore to practice.
What was I thinking when I said, “No problem, Mr. Gotham, I can do your fall cleanup”? As it is, I don’t have enough time to eat, play sports, study, and sleep before I have to get up and do it all again. But how do you say no to the Damien Gotham, the guy the business school at your college is named for? The same Damien Gotham who is, you hope, going to give you an interview for your first job that doesn’t involve cutting grass at his company Gotham Pharmaceuticals? Short answer: you don’t.
So I literally sped here from soccer practice. In theory, this allowed me one hour for landscaping before I had to be at study group. And since I know now that is not happening, I let myself slow down.
Three minutes. I indulge myself with three minutes of kicking back on my mower, letting the wind ruffle up my hair. I deserve it. And three minutes, unless you’re chomping at the bit to get back on the soccer field, flies by very quickly.
Time to take a deep breath and get your mind on mowing because this ginormous lawn isn’t going anywhere, Prin, and neither are you.
I don’t even bother to plan my course of attack. I just turn on the ignition and aimlessly start to mow.
Fortunately, it’s a nice night. And lucky for me, the property has been reasonably well maintained. I think Mr. Gotham said that the guy he had taking care of the property for the past ten years retired several weeks ago. He did a pretty decent job. All of the shrubs, bushes, and fruit trees are neatly trimmed.
I glance at a series of shrubs to the left, all clipped with squared-off edges.
Is that a frigging shrubbery maze?
Who the hell has a maze on their property, in this day and age? Maybe in the movies you see these things, but not in real life, and surely not in Gavinsdale.
I stop the mower and pull a bottle of water from the cup holder. As I suck the water down, I glance to the left at the seemingly endless maze, and think, if you’re rich enough, you can have whatever you want. And I fully intend to know about meaningless luxury from firsthand experience, someday soon.
But back to the here and now—daydreaming isn’t gonna get me any closer to my goals. I stick the bottle in the holder and get back to doing what I came here for. I mow all around the edges of the maze and find myself surprised at how big it is. When I reach the corner farthest into the property, I can finally see the house in the distance.
House ... did I just call this stone monstrosity a house?
I’m mowing the grounds of a fucking castle, or my name isn’t William James Prinzing.
The mansion is built of rustic stone in multiple shades of gray. It stretches out along a grassy ridge far enough to suggest that the building holds at least half a dozen bedrooms, several living rooms, kitchens and dining rooms for staff and residents, and more. The doors look like those on ancient castles I’ve seen in European history books, painted wood and curved at the top, and heavy-duty. No breaking in; no escaping out. And there’s a triple chimney in the center and a single chimney at each end, proving its age. Yeah, the home is stunning. It’s by far the most extravagant property I’ve ever worked on—and it screams old money! I’m cool with this, but there’s something so cold about this mansion. It doesn’t seem welcoming, which is the very opposite of what my home is.
I shiver as the early fall breeze slices through my thin t-shirt.
It’s time to get back to work—tonight isn’t growing any warmer and I left my sweatshirt in the truck. But before I restart the mower, I hear the strangest sound coming from just inside the outer wall of the maze. The only way I can describe it, is like the whistling of wind ... but it’s somehow human.
“Doesitcomefromskies... fromtheskiesabove...” What I’m hearing isn’t a sound that comes from nature—it’s a boy singing.
“Lovelovelovelove... whereiswhereiswhereislove...” The voice is hollow and raspy and impossibly high-pitched, and it’s singing lyrics to a tune I’m pretty sure I’ve heard before, but is somehow twisted. The sound brings out goosebumps on my arms and chest, where the chilly breeze didn’t.
This eerie song has caught my attention. It’s a waste of time for me to sit here on my mower straining to hear more of this haunted melody, when I have a mountain of Corporate Finance notes to study, not to mention acres of grass to mow, but I don’t turn on the engine. I sit still and listen.
And then there’s silence. I don’t think my presence has surprised him, though. The singer must know I’m here. Mowing grass on a John Deere ride-on is hardly stealthy.
“Hey! You, in there! Come out from the maze and let me see you!” I demand, as if I have the right.
Again, the singing stops. All I can hear is the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees.
Maybe he doesn’t know how to get out of the maze. “Hey, kid—are you lost in the maze? Do you need help getting out?” I ask in a loud voice. I just mowed the entire perimeter of this maze, and I’m pretty sure that the exit is behind me about twenty feet. I hop off the mower and step to the edge of the maze. “Follow my voice, dude... I can lead you to the exit.”
Soft laughter, like a child’s, comes from within the shrubbery.
I quickly realize that this guy isn’t lost at all, and I’m embarrassed. “You think that’s funny?”
“Sweethellosweethello... meantforonlyonlyonlyme...” The light, airy voice is moving away from where I stand, toward the exit to the maze. I don’t follow even though I want to. “Whoishewhoiswhoiswhoishe...”
I can hardly hear the words anymore. Again his voice is like a distant whistling.
And then the song is gone. Just silence and wind ... and then a vision of long blond hair, silky but a mess, flying behind him as he runs. I catch a fleeting glimpse of him ... and I want to see more. He’s not a child, at all. He’s a man like me, but he’s nothing like me. From behind him I can see that he’s wearing snug khaki pants and an oversized white shirt, not tucked in, and billowing in the breeze. And the guy’s barefoot. I can hardly hear his footsteps as he runs.
“Come back! Get your ass back here and talk to me!” I shout, but he keeps running in the direction of the mansion. I could catch him if I chased him—I’m an athlete and I’m fast. But instead, I follow him only with my eyes. When he reaches the humongous door, he places two delicate hands on the wood and glances back. He studies me as if he’s never before seen a goddamned landscaper. Meanwhile, I study his face for signs of fear. After all, he ran away from me like a scared rabbit. And even though the guy’s far from me now, I can see that his eyes aren’t like any I’ve ever seen before—they’re wide and dark and pretty, more like you’d see on a girl than a guy. But it’s the expression in them that’s so unique. Frightened, but still curious—like the deer I see feeding on the piles of apples Mom leaves in the back yard. And he’s pale, as if he’s never before seen the light of day.
Which is fucked up, but I can’t look away.
After we stare at each other for a full fifteen seconds, he turns quickly, tossing his hair, and tucks in his shirt, allowing me to catch a glimpse of a waist that seems way too narrow. And then he opens the giant door and slips inside.
He is awaiting me in the entryway, somehow appearing to be comfortable in the antique ladder-back chair. This is indeed a horrid surprise.
“You were outside, Lucas.” Father must certainly have spies hidden throughout the property, watching me constantly and revealing my every movement. “You left the house without my permission.”
“You were asleep, Father. I did not wish to disturb you to ask for permission to explore the maze.” I push all of my breath into my voice in an effort to sound like my heart is light and free of guilt. From the way he scowls, I believe my effort has failed.
“There is no room for excuses, son. You broke a rule by leaving the building without my consent. There will be a consequence.” He smiles as if in an attempt to comfort me, and I can see long straight teeth hidden in his bushy beard. “We will take care of your punishment tonight. After we dine.”
I don’t try to fight the shiver of dread. I allow it to swallow my body and raise tiny bumps on my skin. “Of course, Father.”
The man stands. Every time he rises to his full height I am newly impressed by how large he is. And how small I feel. But I do not meet his eyes, as I do not want to break another rule. “Very well, Lucas. I must attend to some imperative business in the conference room. I suggest you proceed to your suite and busy yourself with music. It is far more constructive than playing like a child in the outdoors.”
“Shall I practice my flute, sir?”
“No. I would prefer that you spend the afternoon vocalizing. I will come upstairs to listen to your progress on ‘February Song’ in due time.” He clears his throat in a manner I find repulsive, but I do not flinch as I once did. “I will not knock before entering.”
I know precisely what his words suggest: when Father bursts into my room, it will be in my best interest if I am singing. Not daydreaming. Or doodling. Or longing for days gone by. I must be actively singing. “Yes, sir. May I be excused?”
“There is one more small issue, Lucas. I do not care to see your feet bare, especially not soiled like a child stricken with rural poverty, until I remove your shoes myself as I prepare you for bed.”
He then nods and gestures with his hand—I have been dismissed. After silently sighing my relief, I walk slowly down the length of the hallway—for Father’s benefit, displaying my composure—and past the servants’ stairs. I am not permitted to set foot on this staircase. It is a rule.
Once I am certain that my footsteps are beyond his hearing, I scramble to the grand staircase by the day room. This is only a small infraction, as Father says that on occasion young men must run. However, I am not allowed to hop over steps when ascending the stairs, as it may cause me to fall. And I honestly would not consider it, as when I was caught doing so last year, Father tied my feet together with a silk tie—every day for two weeks. During this time, I could separate my legs only far enough to take very small forward steps. It was impossible to use the stairs without sitting down, which I found to be humiliating in front of the household staff. Using the facilities was equally challenging. I learned my lesson quickly about the importance of making use of every stair.
I throw open the door, wishing it could be to the entrance of my own small castle within this enormous one. A place where I could stretch out on the cool wood floor and remember all that I have been forbidden to think of. Because I can still vaguely remember the days ... when I fought.
Unless he is testing my obedience, Father will not arrive in my suite to listen to me sing for at least an hour, and likely much longer. Still, I do not recline on the floor as I sometimes wish to do, because this would constitute an infraction. Instead, I stretch out on the huge canopied bed, but only after pulling back the thick velvet comforter to comply with Father’s guidelines.
I glance at the grandfather clock that ticks audibly in its place against the far wall, and noting the time, allow myself three minutes to recall the days when I fought every last one of Gotham’s touches... and the entirety of his instruction. A long time ago—eight years, I’d estimate—I fought when Gotham punished me for infractions to what I then considered to be bizarre and abundant rules, and when he prepared me for bed. I fought when he balanced my diet and enforced my exercise and improved my education.
I fought when he told me what I could think and what I could not think.
I fought especially hard when he insisted that I call him Father because I thought I already had a father.
A movement in the hallway startles me to such an extent that I leap to my feet and arrange my comforter as properly as I can under duress, and reach for my slippers. Once my feet are no longer bare, I relax a measure, but I do not breathe a sigh of relief until I am standing before my music stand, the sound of scales ringing out in the still air.
As I sing, the face of a young man I was never supposed to see appears in my mind. Dark curly hair, tan skin from time spent beneath the sun, light eyes that flash ... and a body that is strong and athletic. I was interested. I wanted to study the muscles that shaped his forearms and those that carved his legs. And he was calling for me.
But I ran. I ran because I know the rules.