Brandon Swenson was 7 years old when he started noticing bruises all over his body. And he had been feeling so tired.
His parents wondered if someone was bullying him at school.
When his pediatrician ran blood tests, he sent them straight to St. Louis Children's Hospital. His white blood cell count was dangerously low. Within hours, doctors started Brandon on chemotherapy.
His parents were told their son had leukemia and would need 2 1/2 years of treatment.
"To go from everything's fine ... to 2 1/2 years of chemo. We were like, 'What?'" recalled his father, Chris Swenson, of Lake Saint Louis, Missouri.
The news spread quickly, particularly among members of Brandon's hockey club, the St. Peters Spirit.
When Kim Dannegger, whose son also played with the St. Peters Spirit, heard about Brandon, she remembers thinking how sad it was. Her son, Jack, was active and healthy, and had perfect attendance the year before in second grade.
A few months later, Jack got a cough. A low-grade fever followed. His mother worried he might be coming down with strep throat.
She took him to the pediatrician, who saw Jack's swollen belly and slightly jaundiced skin and sent them straight to the emergency room.
She had called her husband, who was on a business trip in Kansas City, to come home early. When the doctors reviewed Jack's blood tests, they told her she needed to get her husband on the phone immediately.
"Jack has leukemia," the pediatric oncologist said.
"I don't remember anything after that," Dannegger said.
Jack figured it had to be something bad, because he could hear his father crying on the phone from across the room.
Both Brandon and Jack were given a promising prognosis. A full recovery was likely, but the next 2 1/2 years of treatment would be brutal. And so it began: days, weeks and months in and out of hospitals. Intense chemotherapy, surgeries and painful procedures.
Sometimes, even very brave children surprise us with how they handle adversity.
Brandon's father says he never once heard his son complain. Before Brandon had a central IV line, or port, put in his chest, the nurses had to stick him repeatedly for blood samples. One night, he had to have his blood drawn nearly a dozen times, his father remembered.
"They'd wake him up, and they'd have two people (ready) to hold him down," he said. But they never needed to restrain him. Brandon would put his arm out each time. "By the eighth, ninth and 10th time, he'd wince, but he'd put his arm out," his father said.
Still an avid hockey fan, Brandon kept his sticks with him in the hospital room. He named his IV stand Chris Mason after his favorite goalie, and put a bearded face on it. He wrote in an online journal that he wanted to persuade the nurses to let him put a Blues jersey over the stand.
Jack went through 10 rounds of cranial radiation and faced 111 straight weeks of chemo. Two of the friends he made during his treatment died.
"But they don't have what I have, right?" he asked his mother. She reassured him that he would get better. She kept her own fears buried.
"That first month, all you can do is get on your knees," she said.
The boys began responding to treatments, and when hockey season started, they wanted to play again. The ports that delivered the medicines to their bodies each week were protected behind chest pads. They would show up to practices after chemo, and the coaches would tell them to skate to the bench if they got too tired. But they rarely did.
It was a chance to play.
This year, they both ended up on the same team. When the coach's wife, who is also the team manager, found out Brandon, now 9, and Jack, 10, were finishing up 2 1/2 years of chemo, she wanted the club to recognize the battle they had been fighting off the ice. Parents and friends pledged that for each goal scored this season, money would go to Friends of Kids With Cancer. They wore orange, the color that symbolizes leukemia, and kicked off fundraising with orange balloons. Other teams heard about the boys and asked to contribute.
The week after Brandon's last chemo treatment, and just before Jack's last one, their young teammates staged a surprise before practice. When the boys skated into the rink, they were greeted by a semicircle of about 70 young hockey players down on one knee.
In youth hockey, when a player gets hurt, the others players on the ice take a knee in a show of support. When the injured player returns, they tap the ice with their sticks.
Brandon and Jack seemed confused by the sight: rows of children, all their regular laces replaced with orange ones, banging orange-taped hockey sticks on the ice.
The boys skated to their team bench, and their fathers walked onto the ice and led them to the center of the rink.
Every parent in the stands stood to cheer.