The Refiner’s Fire

Excerpt from Chapter Four — Secrets and Lies — | Part Two of The Castlewood Saga |Draft One of this manuscript is finished and I am currently in the editing stages and working on Draft Two!!! Just a sneak preview of something coming soon 🙂

Friday, September 27, 2013
1:30 pm
Castlewood High School
Castlewood PA

         Lisa leaned against her locker, waiting for Mason to meet her. Their schedules managed to align in such a way that they shared a Chemistry class. Grateful for her brother’s presence in a class which was not her strong suit, Lisa enjoyed their walk across the high school each afternoon. Prior to Chemistry, Mason had a study hall with some of his fellow Seniors and Lisa hoped Courtney had shown up. She wanted to talk to her in person but hearing second-hand from Mason would have to suffice. Court still avoided the gang, now spending all of her time with Jared Prentice and the Bryant twins. To crown it all, Colton and Diane Vaughn joined the group and their growing popularity swelled its ranks. Lisa’s face fell as she watched the sea of students pushing against one another, each person fighting to make it to class on time. The Vaughns had only attended Castlewood High for a week but they had already stolen the show. It was if two gangs jockeyed for power, without the violence but with all the same fervour and hatred. The Untouchables and Kingdom Vaughn. The peasants and the rich kids. The saints and the sinners. Sadness welled in Lisa’s heart. She knew the whispered slander floating through the hallways and she knew the list of names went on and on.

She recognized Mason’s brown beanie, brown leather jacket, and trademark Timberlands and waved as he swaggered her way. Her brother always walked with a bit of a sway but it had intensified since the Vaughns arrived. Only a week since their arrival and they had already begun to bring out the worst in everyone.

Mason headed her way, noticing his sister appeared tired and worn. His eyebrows dipped low and a frown settled over his features. If Colton had so much as looked her direction today…. He paused when he reached her, hoping his eyes conveyed the concern in his heart. “Hey. You okay?”

“I guess.” Lisa sent him half a smile and led the way as they merged with the crush of students. “How was study hall? Was Court there?”

Mason shrugged. “Yeah. She was there.” He really was in no mood to pursue this line of inquiry with his sister. Courtney had chosen her own path and he wished Lisa and the rest of the gang would just let her go.

“Did you talk to her?” Lisa pushed harder, refusing to allow her brother to win.

He made a face at her. “Of course not, Sunshine. She was sitting with Colton and Jared so of course I didn’t talk to her. Vickie, Gavin, and Jimmy tried but Jonas and I knew better so we stayed put.” Mason chuckled. “Plus the rest of the Seniors were having a water-bottle-chugging contest which was way more interesting.” Gesturing with his hands, he relayed the incident. “Kyle Sanders was on his third one when that kid, what’s his name? Oh yeah, Brian something. Brian pulled a fast one and downed his in like two gulps and started on his fourth bottle. We all thought Emily Jenkins was gonna get it ‘cause she chugged her first two like lightning but she kept saying she got water-logged or something after the second bottle. But Jonas surprised everyone and drank five whole water bottles in fifteen minutes!” Mason’s eyes grew wide as he glanced over at Lisa. “Five! Can you believe it? The guy’s gonna be running to the bathroom for the rest of the day.” He doubled over with laughter, hardly noticing Lisa’s irritation.

“Really, Mason?” Nudging him in the ribs, Lisa struggled to figure out why her brother could be so heartless and uncaring at times. He had so many good qualities but lately, his darker side kept rearing its ugly head more and more. “Watching people make fools of themselves was higher on your priority list than checking up on a friend?”

Mason rolled his eyes. “Oh please, she’s not a friend. School’s rough anyway so I needed a few laughs. Stop making a big deal out of it, Lisa. Let her go and just move on. Don’t waste your time.” He shoved both hands into his jeans’ pockets, his mood returning.

His sister’s mouth nearly dropped open in disbelief. Pausing mid-step, she gripped his arm and pulled him around to face her, ignoring the angry protests from those who now had to maneuver around them. “What has gotten into you? You’re acting like one of them.”

Lisa didn’t need to elaborate on whom “them” was; Mason knew. He shook his head slowly, his eyes narrowed. “Don’t go there, sis. Just don’t. I don’t have time for people who waste mine. Apparently we weren’t good enough for Courtney and she dropped us as soon as something better came along. I don’t have time for that, Lisa, okay?” He crossed his arms over his chest and spread his feet apart. “I don’t have time for lies and betrayal.”

Growling with annoyance, Lisa marched off as quickly as her short legs would carry her. “Nobody’s lied to anyone. Court’s hurting and she just won’t tell us why and I, for one, am determined to find out why. Also, you should try patience some time ‘cause you could use the practice.” Even as the words left her mouth, the blonde-haired girl felt a twinge in her conscience. You shouldn’t have said that, Lisa, however true it might be. With a sigh, she turned to face her brother as he strode behind her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it like that.”

Mason’s face softened as he drew alongside her and they walked together once more. “It’s fine. Hey, I’m not trying to be a pain. What she’s doing just really ticks me off.” His sister’s kindness and ability to forgive never ceased to baffle him. Perhaps it was because forgiveness wasn’t his strong suit or perhaps because Lisa’s sunny disposition sometimes seemed too good to be true. Whatever the reason, Mason secretly felt less-than-adequate in his sister’s presence and the more he tried to smother the emotion, the less it went away.

“I know it’s bothering you, bro, I get that. It’s bothering me too but you can’t treat her like that. I mean talk about her like she’s the enemy or something. It’s not about sides.” Sadness filtered through Lisa’s blue eyes and her voice quieted as she noticed Colton, Jared, and Courtney headed their way. “There’s enough of that going on at the moment as it is.” Feeling Mason tense beside her, Lisa knew he had seen the others as well. “Hey,” she whispered. “Get a grip, okay? We’re just gonna keep walking right on by. I really want to talk to Court but I don’t think you can handle it right now so we’re just gonna keep walking.” She desperately prayed that God would keep Mason’s anger at bay and prevent Colton from flirting with her or in any other way making the situation more uncomfortable than it already was.

A path cleared as the tall, muscular, strikingly-good-looking young man swaggered down the hallway, his minions in tow. And it was then that Lisa knew God had chosen not to answer her prayer in the affirmative and to instead give herself and Mason the opportunity to reflect His light. She heaved a deep sigh. Okay, Lord. I see what You’re doing. Please give me courage.

Colton’s black leather jacket hung open, revealing his black T-shirt underneath. Black designer jeans and a black snapback rounded out his outfit. The dark colour’s overwhelming nature only served to highlight his green eyes and add to his rather thug-like appearance. He relished the awe-struck looks the other students sent his way as they quickly shifted, allowing him space to walk by. Nothing like this had ever happened in California when they lived outside of Hollywood. He and Diane were on the bottom of the totem pole there but here, in Castlewood, the tables had finally turned and they’d risen to the top. The rulers of Kingdom Vaughn. It felt good, really good.

He caught Lisa’s eye and winked broadly, not caring that her perpetually irate brother hovered close by. Colton smirked with pleasure. The little fireball needed to take a chill pill. But if he was this angry now, he was going to be raging mad later because Colton Vaughn was just getting started.

As Colton stopped in front of her, his annoyingly attractive smirk plastered on his lips, Lisa struggled to keep her emotions under control. She wished for a spark of Chloe’s fire, just a little flame of wit and bravery but she felt so small and ill-equipped. All she had to offer was kindness and right now, it didn’t seem like very much at all. Firming her shoulders, she tried to make herself larger and stared up at Colton’s green eyes. You’re not going to wilt! Come on. Fear nothing and rise.

Lisa forced a smile across her lips and tried to prevent her voice from coming out in an undignified squeak. “Hey Colton. How’s your day going?”

Moving closer, Colton touched her lightly on the arm. “Lot better now that I’ve run into you, beautiful.” Oh how it delighted him to see her squirm! Red tinged the tips of her ears and suffused her face. Her rectangular-rimmed glasses made her look cute, there was no denying that but her discomfort brought him real pleasure. All the girls in the ridiculously-named Untouchables’ group seemed to have never received attention from a guy before and their confusion every time he flirted with them never failed to crack him up.

Unsure how to respond, Lisa turned her attention to Courtney and waved awkwardly. “Hey Court. I feel like we haven’t spoken in forever! How are things?” Noticing something different about the girl’s appearance, Lisa gestured to Courtney’s face. “Hey. You cut your hair. It looks really nice.” God, I feel like I’m fishing for things to say! Please help me to not come across as fake ‘cause I’m trying to be nice but this is all just so weird. Interacting with her definitely isn’t the same as it used to be. She smiled warmly at the taller girl, waiting for a response.

Courtney stepped closer to Jared Prentice and away from Lisa and Mason. She fingered the ends of her chin-length brown hair as her eyes flitted between Lisa’s eyes and the tile hallway beneath her feet. “Hey, yeah, thanks,” she mumbled.

Nudging her glasses higher on her nose with one hand, Lisa clutched her books tightly with the other. What was going on? One-word answers stumped Lisa, especially when coming from someone like Courtney. Normally, Court would gush about how nice the lady at the hair salon was and how she wanted a pedicure when her next paycheck came in. She was the most girly-girl out of all the females in the gang. Nail polish, make-up, glitter, jewelry, and clothes all spiked her enthusiasm.

“Where’ve you been, Courtney, huh?” Mason’s voice was hard and jolted Lisa out of her thoughts. He stood with his feet apart and arms crossed over his chest, a scowl twisting his features. “What’s happened to you?”

Jared Prentice shifted so his body was in front of Courtney and held out his hands. “Whoa, Newcastle. Lay off the interrogation, kay? None of your business.”

“I didn’t ask you to defend her, Prentice,” Mason snarled, his eyes burning. “This is between her and us so move.”

Enjoying the confrontation with every inch of his being, Colton bent his head slightly and whispered in Lisa’s ear. “What’s with your brother, beautiful? What’s he got to prove? What do any of you have to prove? You’re all like sensitive jumpy cats.”

“Keep out of it,” Lisa muttered fiercely, surprised at her sudden fire. Mason’s behaviour embarrassed her and that was the only time she got angry; when she was embarrassed. Plus, she had specifically asked him to keep his cool and he was determined to stubbornly make a fool of himself and of the rest of the gang by default.

Colton chuckled and his husky voice grated against Lisa’s eardrums. “Oh so you do have a raging spirit underneath all that kindness garbage. Just like your brother.”

Her face flushed down to her neck and she felt herself shaking ever so slightly. It wasn’t until Colton showed up, bringing his irritating, arrogant personality with him that she began to notice how easily she angered given certain circumstances. More often than not, she controlled her emotions but lately, her grip had begun to slip and yes, she found herself acting like Mason inwardly though she would never admit it outwardly.

Forcing herself not to respond, Lisa focused on keeping Mason’s temper in check. She moved back half a step, leaning against him. Since his feet were planted, he didn’t lose his balance and instead shifted to accommodate her weight. Feeling his physical presence cleared Lisa’s head and she took another deep breath. Okay, Sunshine. You can do this. Just keep everyone civil and end the conversation as quickly as possible.

Jared Prentice lowered his hands but refused to back down. “I ain’t moving, Newcastle.”

Lisa reached to nudge her glasses higher on the bridge of her nose in an automatic gesture even though they hadn’t fallen down. “Cool, Jared. We’re on our way to Chem anyway. Bye Court. If you wanna talk, you know where to find us.” Her blue eyes took on a pleading light and she held out a hand as if reaching for her friend, not caring that they weren’t alone. “Please. We want to help.”

Courtney shook her head, the ends of her hair brushing her chin. “It’s okay, Lisa. Have a nice rest of your day.”

As the group walked on down the hallway, Colton nodded to Mason and Lisa. “Catchya later, losers, and loosen up, Mason. Seriously man.” He laughed and sauntered out of sight as the sea of students closed in behind him.

The muscles in Mason’s jaw jumped and he hiked his backpack higher on his shoulders. “Are you still confused about why I didn’t talk to her in study hall?” He barely looked at his sister as they continued their journey across the building. He knew he needed to work on keeping his mouth shut but people just had a way of worming underneath his skin and refusing to budge. Perhaps after seeing Courtney in action, Lisa would now understand his earlier sentiments.

Clutching the Chemistry book to her chest, Lisa stared at the tile. “I was never confused,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t understand why you acted the way you did but I wasn’t confused. I know who you are, Mason, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still shock me some times.”

Lisa’s words sent arrows of chagrin into his soul. He’d let her down…again. For some stupid reason, his behaviour never measured up to her standards. He’d take a bullet for his little sister and he’d definitely sock a guy for her too but something was missing in their relationship. Something he could not pin down. Remaining silent for the rest of the trek to their class, Mason allowed myriads of thoughts to swirl through his brain. Everything he said always seemed to come out wrong. Not wrong as in not what he intended because he very much intended to establish his footing with Colton and the rest. But wrong in the sense that hurting Lisa was not anywhere on his list of projected outcomes. Growing up as the only two kids in the Newcastle home had cemented a deep bond between them and Mason didn’t want to lose what they had built. If only he could learn to forgive like she did.

He scratched the back of his neck and allowed Lisa to enter the classroom first. Forgiveness seemed like a good idea but it went against everything in him. He’d work on it eventually…just not right now.

~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~

Sunday, September 29, 2013
2:00 am
Castlewood High School
Castlewood PA

         Colton sat inside his swanky car, relishing the darkness in the school parking lot. Nighttime sent shivers up and down his spine. It was like the blackness mirrored his temperament and soul. Dramatic perhaps, but painfully accurate. Cold began to seep in through the Ferrari’s doors as the chill Autumn air sent a soft breeze across the town. His eyelids fluttered shut and he reclined his seat as far as it would go. The colour black just spoke to him, like met him on a deep soul-level. Black Ferrari, black wardrobe, black hair, black accents and décor in his section of the mansion’s second floor. It was a trademark, a way to announce himself without having to ever say a word. Making a name for himself back in California was next to if not impossible and honestly, it hadn’t really crossed his mind until Paris Visconti and her loser friends had decided to make his life a living hell.

A frown slipped over his almost-unnaturally-handsome features. As if his family situation wasn’t difficult enough. Neither of his parents really showed any interest in him as a human being and preferred the hands-off approach to parenting. At first, Colton used Xavier and Sandra’s laissez-faire attitude as a badge of honour, bragging about it to what friends he had. As the years passed, however, he started to wish the man and woman who birthed him would also treat him with respect and….care. After the abuse and betrayal at the hands of Paris Visconti, he and Diane grew closer than ever. His younger sister irritated him much of the time but he had her back when it mattered most and they both knew it. These days, he was hardly on speaking terms with either of his parents despite the fact that all four Vaughns lived in the same house. In a way, he was thankful for the palatial home since it afforded privacy galore. He practically had the whole second floor to himself since Diane spent most of her time in her enormous room and its adjoining living room suite.

The loneliness was real, though. Colton hooked his iPhone into the auxiliary port and twisted the dial, hoping Zack Hemsey’s “Don’t Get in My Way” would drown out his brain. Erecting walls proved the best way to deal with his emotional trauma and he didn’t plan on stopping his self-destructive habit any time soon.

So if you want to push, Imma shove / If you want to spar, we can do it no gloves / And if you’re gonna run at me, you better do it hard / ‘Cause I fear no fall, no brawl, no scars.

          Colton’s face hardened as his eyes remained shut. The song lyrics raked against his soul like a poker raking coals in a fire. They stoked the bitterness and anger he kept bottled up inside, feeding the pain and the arrogant egotistical façade he had erected to cope with it all. The Untouchables could resist him all they wanted, they could try to keep up that irritating pristine image of perfection but in the end he would break them all. Especially Mason Newcastle. He challenged him silently and verbally and Colton had had enough. Here he was King.

A man with a grudge and a case / A man with intent on his face / And if a man walks into place / Let it be known that I won’t hesitate.

          A bit dramatic but he’d earned that right after everything he’d been through. His trademark smirk spread across his face, the one that curved his lips upwards and had all the Castlewood High girls falling at his feet…all except for the Untouchables. Colton clenched his hand into a fist. Olivia, Chloe, Michelle, Vickie, and Lisa. They were stubborn but he liked a challenge.

The quiet hum of a car engine pushed through the smouldering fog of his dark thoughts. Jared Prentice had finally arrived and the night’s work could begin.

Colton unplugged his phone, stuffed it in his jeans’ pocket, and exited his Ferrari. The outside chill washed over his body and he welcomed it. The cold sent shock-waves of adrenaline through his veins and made him come alive.

He nodded to Jared as his dark-haired friend emerged from his car, cigarette in hand. “You ready, Prentice?”

“You betcha.” Dropping his cigarette, Jared crushed the paper cylinder beneath his feet. “Where are we starting first?”

Colton twisted the snapback backwards on his head and the two young men strode towards the school’s front entrance. “The office. I want all the info on them we can get and then we’ll move on to the vandalism bit. You’ve got the computer password?”

“Yup. That and the flashlight.” Jared laughed. “Perks to having your mom working in the office.”

As they reached the front door, Colton pulled a paperclip from his snapback and uncoiled it. Kneeling before the keyhole, he inserted the instrument and wiggled it around, listening intently. Upon hearing the desired click, he pushed the door open.

Jared whistled, following close behind. “Ten seconds flat. Nice going, bro.”

Colton shrugged. “I’ve had lots of practice.” He gestured to the ceiling as they walked in and let the door swing shut behind them. “No cameras? I can’t believe this place. Your security around here is ridiculous. No alarm system and no cameras. Every thief’s dream come to life.”

“Sad, I know.” Jared flicked on the flashlight and found himself whispering due to the darkness. It just seemed natural to whisper instead of to speak at normal volume. “Nothing’s ever happened in Castlewood and no one expects anything ever will.”

Colton snorted. “Naïve way of thinking but it makes my job easier.” He rubbed his hands together and cracked his knuckles. “Man, I wanted to make waves in this town but I didn’t know you guys would practically hand me the keys to the kingdom. It’s like you’re asking for trouble.” He paused at the school office and performed the same trick on the door-lock as he did in the front. “Pass me the flash light while you get into the computer. I’ll rummage through the filing cabinets.”

Jared obliged and powered on the computer. “So class schedules, birthdates, addresses, phone numbers, locker combinations? You know, I could probably ask Courtney about all this. Easier.”

“Not the right time.” Colton swiveled the flash light beam around the room until it landed on the metal cabinets sitting next to the copier. “I’ll use her relationship with them later when it comes to their weaknesses. Right now, I’m starting off slow.” He pulled open a drawer with one hand while angling the flash light beam with the other.

They worked in silence for several minutes; Jared pecking around on the computer while Colton made his way through the filing cabinet. Moonlight slanted between the blinds bathing their faces in odd patterns. The overwhelming quiet wrapped around Colton like an old friend as he discovered that the silence did not bother him. His thoughts generally ate away at his soul and he craved music to shut off his brain but at the moment, his purpose was clear and all other distressing and self-effacing thoughts fled his brain.

Setting the flash light upright on the nearby copy machine with one hand, Colton powered the copier on with the other. Duplicating the files erased any evidence of his night-time visit since he would take the duplicates with him and leave the originals in their folders. Colton unconsciously worked the muscles in his jaw as he perused the cabinet files. The Untouchables were easy to find but he wasn’t learning anything interesting about them. No dark secrets, just allergies and addresses. He chuckled. Allergies were good; not interesting but good.

Hearing his friend’s laugh, Jared glanced up from the computer, moonlight slanting across his face like a luminous scar. “Find anything?”

“Allergies.” Colton kept his back to Jared and flipped through the Newcastle’s folder. “Mason’s got an Epi pen. Bee stings’ll send him into kingdom come. Blondie’s perfect except for her vision and even then it’s not like she’s blind without her glasses so nothing good there.” He tapped a finger against his chin. “But Mason, though. We’ll have to find some bees, Prentice, and get ‘em in his locker or something.” His lips curled into a smirk. “Would love to see the idiot freak out with fear the minute he saw them. Yeah, we’ll have to put a camera in there too in case we miss the action.”

Jared focused on the screen, browsing through documents as he searched for locker combinations. “You don’t play around, Vaughn. Cameras too?”

“No half-measures.” Colton shrugged as he moved on to the Astaires’ folder. “Why stop when you can go all the way? You find anything yet?”

“Bingo!” Pumping a fist in the air, Jared pushed off the floor with his feet, sending the swivel chair into a spin. “Locker combinations at last! Way better than asking Court. There’s a rush that comes with breaking and entering and I’m liking it.”

“Oh come off it, Prentice.” Colton frowned in response to Jared’s exuberance. The guy was acting like he’d never done this before, like “being bad” was some sort of club into which he’d just been initiated. “Being bad” had nothing to do with it. Colton had something to prove and this was the way he was going to do it; that was all. You did what you had to do to get what you wanted; that was the mistake he and Diane had made in California. They hadn’t understood the real world. Paris Visconti woke them up faster than either of them would have liked but the betrayal taught them a lesson Colton would never forget. The world was lousy and in order to survive, you had to be lousy too. It was the law of life and “being bad” didn’t factor in one bit.

With a shrug, Jared pulled himself back to the office desk. “Chill, dude.” He highlighted the combination list with his cursor and allowed the icon to hover for a minute. “Want me to copy and paste into a new document and print?”

“Do it.” Colton kept his eyes on the Astaires’ file. Nothing interesting there either. The family was wealthy and Colton was almost jealous. Almost. They didn’t make it into his family’s tier by a long-shot. He doubted any of the guys could afford a Ferrari. Then again, neither could he but that wasn’t common knowledge. A frown twisted his handsome features for what seemed like the tenth time that night. He was behind on his monthly payments and the bank was on the edge of impounding his swanky ride. But again, none of this was common knowledge and he intended to keep it that way.

He paged through the remaining Untouchable files, his frown deepening. Nothing. He didn’t know what exactly he expected to find but everything he saw proved un-helpful. None of the jerks had kryptonite of any kind save Mason. Perhaps they really were perfect. Without thinking, he crushed Vickie Diamond’s file in his fist. He’d find something. He had to find something. No one was perfect. No one was immune from troubles. They all had a weak spot. He just had to find it.

Colton chuckled as the truth suddenly hit him like a lightning bolt. “Each other,” he whispered.

“What?” Jared moved to the printer as the locker combinations began to spill from the machine. “You say something?”

Turning, Colton locked eyes with Jared, moonlight bathing his face. “Their weak spot is each other.” He snapped his fingers. “Why didn’t I see it before? The thing that makes them strong and untouchable is also the thing that makes them weak and vulnerable. I’ll rip them apart from the inside and that’s where Courtney will come in handy. Her knowledge of their ins and outs will be all the information I need and then I just have to give it all a little push.” He could hardly contain his delight and tapped the flashlight erratically against the copier. “This is gonna be so much better than I had hoped.”

“Whoa, that’s deep, man.” Jared collected the sheets of paper, half-wondering what madness he had managed to rope himself into. When Colton had mentioned messing with the Untouchables, Jared pictured things like putting bees in Mason’s locker and spray-painting their cars, not doing serious damage by pulling relationships apart at the seams. Expressing his misgivings to Colton wasn’t an option since he was kind of trying to impress the new guy and show him that he was “bad” enough to run with the big boys.

Jared stacked the papers together and powered off the printer. “As long as Court doesn’t get hurt, I’m all in. The Untouchables have hurt her enough already. Here’s your first bit of useful info: Vickie and Court are best friends. Well, they were. Something happened and I’m still getting Court to open up to me about it but you saw how Mason acted in the hallway Friday. Interrogated her like she was on the witness stand for a murder. That ain’t friendship.”

Colton smiled, a slow smile that held danger in every curve of his lips. “We’ll start there. Vickie and Courtney. The first ship to go down.”

~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~