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** Mind of Madness takes place 15 years before the Phoenix Club series. Cole changed his name when he left his hometown and his past behind.

On that cold October afternoon, five days before Halloween and his thirteenth birthday, Ezra Finch stood silently on the frozen grass of the cemetery lawn. The bitter air chilled his face and numbed his nose. Even his warm jacket wasn’t enough to keep the cold entirely at bay. Inside his winter boots and thick socks, his toes began to numb—just the tips. But if he stood out there much longer, the numbness would spread through his feet.

Ezra couldn’t leave, though. Because he wasn’t there for himself, but for his best friend Henry Pruett. He wasn’t allowed to stand next to Henry and hold his hand and comfort him, but just being there was enough. Henry’s eyes told him it was enough. So, Ezra remained… face and body numbing from the cold. It didn’t matter. The more he stared at Henry, the less he felt the effects of the bitter air. The other boy was cold, too… not just on the outside. He was burying his mom today. His chill burrowed much deeper.


Ezra shifted his focus to Daniel Pruett—standing tall beside his thirteen-year-old son, eyes forward, face strained but, otherwise, displaying little emotion. Ezra didn’t interpret the lack of emotion as a lack of feeling on the man’s part. Henry’s dad left much to be desired, no question about that, but he had loved his wife. He felt the loss as deeply as his son. Henry just showed it more openly as tears rolled down his face, flushed from the chilly air. Henry had been close to his mom, much closer than he’d ever been to his dad. Ezra worried about Henry’s home life now that it was just him and his dad. Daniel Pruett could be a stern man, though he’d never abused his son. But Henry had confessed once to Ezra that he thought his dad didn’t like him very much.

With Henry’s mom gone, Ezra hoped his friend was wrong. Daniel Pruett had no cause to dislike Henry. He didn’t know his son liked boys. Henry feared he suspected it, though. Hence, his dad’s dislike of Ezra. He hadn’t straight-out said Henry couldn’t hang out with Ezra, but he didn’t hide his disapproval whenever Ezra came to their house.


Does he suspect we love each other? The two boys had never acted like more than friends in front of the man, but maybe he sensed it. They hadn’t even talked to one another about being more than friends… but they were, Ezra felt it deep in his heart. Ezra wasn’t sure if Henry’s mom had known. Henry hadn’t told her, but she was in tune with her son and quite observant. If she had known, she’d shown no disapproval of her own.


As the funeral came to an end, Daniel Pruett mumbled responses to those offering him condolences and ushered Henry to their car. The boy climbed in the front passenger seat and stared out the side window at his mother’s grave… and at Ezra. Even from a distance, Ezra felt his need to have Ezra close. His father would not comfort him.


“I’ll be there,” Ezra whispered, knowing his friend couldn’t hear him. But Henry didn’t need to hear him—he knew Ezra would come to him in his hour of despair.


• • •


Ezra crept around the large barn and halted. The side of the house facing him had no windows, which made it easier to sneak over to the house without being seen. He didn’t always have to sneak. Sometimes he walked to the door and knocked. Henry’s dad never refused to let him see Henry, but the way he looked at Ezra let him know the man didn’t want him there.


That was when Henry’s mom was still alive. She liked Ezra. With her gone, maybe his dad wouldn’t let Ezra visit Henry anymore.

This wasn’t the day to test it. Daniel Pruett had just buried his wife… just became a single father raising his son alone. Ezra’s presence wouldn’t improve the man’s mood. But it would improve Henry’s mood. So, Ezra sneaked.


Hurrying across the open space between the two buildings, Ezra slipped around behind the house. He stopped just shy of the large living room window. He had to pass by the window to get to Henry’s bedroom. Most of the time, the living room curtains were closed, so it was easy to sneak by without being seen. But today, they were wide open.


Ezra peeked in. He could see through into part of the kitchen where Daniel Pruett paced the floor, a beer in his hand. He swiped his arm across his eyes and guzzled from the bottle. He seemed restless… agitated. Understandable, considering what he’d been through that day. Ezra stepped back when the man abruptly set down his beer and walked into the living room.


“Henry!” Mr. Pruett bellowed, an odd rasp in his voice.


Henry appeared at the entrance to the living room and stopped. He stared at his dad anxiously.


Mr. Pruett cleared his throat and swiped at his eyes again. “I’m going out.” He sniffed. “I’ll be back later. You just…” He waved his hand. “… stay here… stay in the house.”


Henry nodded and whispered, “Okay, dad.” He didn’t ask the man where he was going, and his dad didn’t say.


Daniel Pruett grabbed the car keys and his jacket and left the house. Henry disappeared back inside his bedroom. Ezra hurried down to Henry’s window and tapped on the glass. Henry opened the window and Ezra climbed inside. Neither boy said anything until they heard Daniel Pruett’s car drive away down the long winding gravel road.


As soon as he was gone, Henry threw his arms around Ezra’s neck and burst into tears. Ezra held him tightly as his friend shook with sobs.


“I-I miss her so much,” Henry cried against his shoulder. “I don’t… I don’t want to be here with just my dad.”


Ezra hugged him harder. “I’m here. I’ll always be here. I promise. It won’t be just you and him.”


Henry trembled and sagged against Ezra, his breath hitching as his sobs subsided. “He… he’s acting weird,” Henry whispered. “Like… scary weird.”


Loosening his arms, Ezra stepped back. “What do you mean?”


The boys sat on the bed and Ezra held Henry’s hand as his friend tried to explain his father’s behavior.


“When we got home from the…” Henry hung his head, tears trickling down his damp face. “He started acting strange.”

“Strange how?”


Henry stared at the floor, not just holding Ezra’s hand, but clutching it as if he was afraid Ezra might jump up and run away. “He… he was walking around the house like… like he was mad or something. And he kept… talking to himself.”


“What did he say?” Ezra whispered, a weird feeling in his stomach.


“I-I’m not sure. He was mumbling mostly. But I think…” Henry let out a shaky breath. “I think he was talking… to my mom. He said something like this was all her fault, she shouldn’t have left him because now… he couldn’t stop himself.”


Ezra frowned. “Couldn’t stop himself? What does that mean?”


“I don’t know,” Henry whispered. “But… but the way he said it…” He swallowed. “It scared me. It’s like he changed when we got home today and… and he doesn’t even seem like my dad.”


Ezra wrapped his arm around Henry and pulled him closer. “He’s probably just upset because of your mom. People act weird sometimes when they lose someone. I’m sure he’ll start acting normal again soon.”


Henry sniffed and laid his head on Ezra’s shoulder. “How long can you stay?”


“As long as you want me to.”


“Do your foster parents know you’re here?”


Ezra shrugged. “I didn’t tell them I was coming here. They don’t care what I do as long as I don’t bother them. You know they only took me in because of the money.” He shrugged again. “That’s cool. At least I get to do whatever I want. As long as they keep me, I get to live close to you.”


Henry nestled closer to Ezra. “Sometimes I get scared they’ll send you back and I’ll never see you again.”


“That won’t happen.” Ezra kissed his hair. “If they sent me back, I’d just run away and come here. I’ll never leave you, Henry. I…” His heart thumped wildly against his ribs. “I… love you.”


Henry raised his head. “You… you do?”


“Yeah.” Ezra swallowed, breath shaky. “Do you… love me?”


Henry nodded and whispered, “Yeah… I do.”


Relief flooded Ezra and he smiled. “Have you ever kissed anyone?”


“No. Have you?”


“No.” Ezra hesitated. “Do you want to… kiss me?”


Henry trembled. “Yes.”


The boys stared at each other for a nervous moment then slowly touched lips. They drew back briefly then kissed again, a little deeper this time. Henry wrapped his arms around Ezra and buried his face in his neck, tremors running through them both.

“I wish we could be boyfriends,” Henry whispered shakily.


“Why can’t we?”


“Because of my dad.”


Ezra smiled against his hair. “We don’t have to tell him.”


Lifting his head, a light came back into Henry’s eyes, a light that had gone out the day his mother died. “We don’t?”


Ezra laughed softly and kissed him. “Nope.”


A shaky breath escaped Henry and he hugged Ezra. “You always make me feel better,” he said thickly. “Especially, today.” He held him tighter. “Thank you.”


Ezra glanced toward the window. The sun was going down.


“Do you have to go soon?” Henry asked.


“I can stay for a while. I don’t care if it’s dark when I go home. I’ve walked through the woods at night before, it doesn’t scare me.”


“Can you stay till I fall asleep?” Henry leaned against him. “I don’t want to be here by myself.”


“I’ll stay.” Ezra combed his fingers through Henry’s hair. Henry was a few months older than Ezra, but today he seemed much younger and more fragile. Grief did that to a person.


The two boys laid down on the bed, arms wrapped around one another. Henry snuggled into Ezra’s embrace and closed his eyes, tears seeping from beneath his lashes. Ezra touched his lips to his friend’s head and blinked as warm tears filled his eyes. Henry was hurting from the loss of his mom and it broke Ezra’s heart that he could do nothing to take away the pain.


• • •


The sound of the car woke Ezra from his slumber. He blinked and rubbed his sleepy eyes. For a moment, he forgot where he was until Henry shifted on the bed beside him. The other boy didn’t wake up. The bedroom was dark and pale moonlight spilled weakly through the window.


Ezra sat forward, careful not to disturb Henry. His heart pounded as the car came up the dirt drive. He crawled off the bed and looked out the window, gasping when the headlights splashed across the glass. He jumped back, then stepped forward again. If he waited until he heard the front door open, then he could slip out the window and Mr. Pruett would never know he’d been there.


 The car didn’t pull up to the front of the house, but instead, rolled toward the barn, driving around behind the large structure and out of sight. That’s weird, Ezra thought. Why would Henry’s dad park out behind the barn? Ezra couldn’t leave until the man came back to the house, because Ezra had to go by the barn to get home and he didn’t want Mr. Pruett to see him. Even though he knew the man wouldn’t physically hurt him, Ezra was still a little afraid of him. If he knew Ezra had been there with Henry, then Henry might get in trouble.


Ezra waited for Mr. Pruett to return to the house.


And waited.


It seemed like forever before the car started up again and pulled out from behind the barn. When Daniel Pruett entered the house minutes later, Ezra slipped out the bedroom window, quietly closed it behind him, and ran for the barn. He hurried past the huge building and into the woods, following the path home by heart.

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